The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xxxiii

He accompanies the Shah to his camp, and gets some insight into his profession.

At length the day of departure for Sultanieh was fixed by the astrologers. The Shah left his palace just half an hour before sunrise, on the 21st Rebbi el evel,68 and travelled without drawing bridle, until he reached his palace of Sulimanieh, which is situated on the banks of the Caraj, at a distance of nine parasangs from Tehran. The different corps composing the army to be collected at Sultanieh were ordered to meet there at a given time, whilst the Shah’s escort was to consist only of his body guard, his camel artillery, and a heavy squadron of cavalry. The great officers of the court, with the viziers, and those employed in the public offices, departed at about the same time, and thus the city was bereft, almost in one day, of nearly two-thirds of its population. Everything and everybody were in motion; and a stranger would have thought that all the inhabitants, like bees hiving, by one common consent had broken up housekeeping, and were about to settle in some other place. Strings of mules and camels, laden with beds, carpets, cooking utensils, tents, horse furniture and provisions of all sorts, were soon making their way through each avenue, raising an impenetrable dust, whilst their conductors mingled their cries with the various toned bells which decked their beasts.

On the morning of departure, I was stationed at the Casbîn gate to keep order, and to prevent any impediment to the Shah’s passage. The peasants bringing provisions to the city, who are in waiting every day previously to opening the gates, were ordered to take another direction. The road was watered by all the sakas of the town, and every precaution taken to make the royal exit as propitious as possible. In particular, no old woman was permitted to be seen, lest the Shah might cast a look upon her, and thus get a stroke of the evil eye.

I found within myself an energy and a vigour in driving the people about, that I never thought appertained to my character; for I recollected well, when one of the mob, how entirely I abominated every man in office. I made use of my stick so freely upon the heads and backs of the crowd, that my brother executioners quite stared, and wondered what demon they had got amongst them. I was anxious to establish a reputation for courage, which I expected would in time promote me to a higher situation.

At length the procession began to move forwards. A detachment of camel artillery had proceeded on the evening before to receive the Shah when he should alight at Sulimanieh; and now was heard the salute which announced his leaving the palace at Tehran. All was hushed into anxiety and expectation. The chief executioner himself, mounted upon a superb charger, galloped through the streets in haste; and horsemen were seen running to and fro, all intent upon the one object of preparing the road. First came the heralds; then the led horses, magnificently caparisoned in jewellery, shawls, and cloth of gold; after them the running footmen; then the Shah in person; the princes succeeded, followed by the viziers; and last of all an immense body of cavalry.

When it is mentioned that every man of any consequence was accompanied by his train of attendants, most of whom had also their trains; and when the sum total of mirzas, of servants, of pipe-bearers, of cooks and scullions, of carpet-spreaders, of running-footmen, of grooms and horses, of mule drivers and camel drivers, and of ten thousand other camp followers is reckoned up, the imagination may perhaps conceive what was the crowd which passed before me in succession, as I stood at the Casbîn gate. When the Shah approached, his long beard floating to his girdle, with all the terrors of despotism concentrated in his person, I could not help feeling an odd sort of sensation about my neck; and I made my lowest prostration to that power, which by a single nod might have ordered my head to take leave of my shoulders, even before I could make an objection.

The whole procession having cleared the city gates, I lingered behind to smoke with the guards who are there stationed; and at that time the women of one of the viziers who were permitted to accompany him to camp passing by, brought Zeenab once again to my recollection. I sighed profoundly, when I reflected on the probable miserable fate which awaited her. She had been sent (so I heard from Nûr Jehan the day before our departure) to a small summer-house belonging to the Shah, situated at the foot of the high mountains which surround Tehran, where, with many other of the bazigers, she was to receive her education of dancing, music, and tumbling. The Shah had ordered that she was to be mistress of these accomplishments previously to his return in the autumn; when she would be honoured by the permission of exhibiting before him. As I rode away, I could not help turning my head towards the spot where she was now confined, and which I could just discern a speck at the foot of the mountain. Perhaps at any other time I should have left every duty to endeavour to obtain a glimpse of her; but I was called up to head the procession again, and to be in readiness at Sulimanieh when the king should alight from his horse.

The day’s march, and the attendance at my post being at an end, I proceeded to the quarters of the chief executioner, where I found a small tent prepared for me and five other nasakchies, who were destined to be my companions for the remainder of the journey. I had already made their acquaintance in the city; but now we were brought into closer contact, for our tent was not more than six ghez69 long and four broad, and we were thus thrown almost one upon the other. I, as the junior, fared of course the worst; but I determined to put the best face possible upon any present inconveniences, anticipating many future advantages, which a certain confidence in my own pretty self whispered to me I should not fail to secure.

In addition to the chief executioner’s naib, there was also a sub-lieutenant, who must have a place in my narrative, because, in fact, it was through him that I ultimately became noticed by the higher powers. His name was Shîr Ali, in rank a Beg, and a Shirazi by birth. Although natives of the two rival cities of Persia, yet without any particular previous cause, and by a combination of those nothings which give rise to most friendships, we became inseparable companions. He had given me a piece of watermelon one hot day when I was thirsty; I had lighted his pipe for him on another occasion: he had bled me with his penknife when I had overloaded my stomach with too much rice; and I had cured his horse of the colic by administering an injection of tobacco-water: in short, one thing led on to another, until a very close intimacy was established between us. He was three years older than I, tall, handsome, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, with the prettiest oval beard possible, just long enough to fringe round his chin, and with two large curls, twisting beautifully behind his ear, like a vine curling over the garden wall.

He had been long enough in the service to acquire all the tricks of his profession; for when we came to converse upon the subject, it was surprising what a vast field for the exercise of genius he threw open to my view.

He said, ‘Do not suppose that the salary which the Shah gives his servants is a matter of much consideration with them: no, the value of their places depends upon the range of extortion which circumstances may afford, and upon their ingenuity in taking advantage of it. As, for instance, take our chief: his salary is 1,000 tomauns per annum, which may or may not be regularly paid; that signifies little to him. He spends at least five or six times that sum; and how is he to get it, if it flows not from the contributions of those who come under his cognizance? A khan has incurred the Shah’s displeasure; he is to be beaten and fined: the chief executioner beats and mulcts in the inverse proportion of the present which the sufferer makes him. A rebel’s eyes are to be put out; it depends upon what he receives, whether the punishment is done rudely with a dagger, or neatly with a penknife. He is sent on an expedition at the head of an army; wherever he goes presents are sent him from the towns and villages on his road to induce him not to quarter his troops upon them; and he uses his discretion, according to the value of what he receives, in choosing his halting stations. Most of those in high offices, even the viziers, make him annual gifts, in case the day of the Shah’s displeasure should come, And then they would hope to be dealt with gently by him. In short, wherever a stick is to be brandished, wherever punishment is to be inflicted, there the chief executioner levies his dues; and they descend in a gradual measure from him to the lowest of his officers. Before I was a naib, and when I was called upon to lay the bastinado on some wretched culprit, many is the time that my compassion has been moved by a direct appeal to my purse; and then, instead of beating the sufferer’s feet, I struck the felek upon which they rested. It was but last year that the principal secretary of state incurred the wrath of the Shah. He was ordered to receive the bastinado, and, by way of distinction, a small carpet was spread for him to lie upon: I and another were the operators, whilst two more held the felek. When we were taking the shawl and cap from his head, his girdle and outer coat (which became our lawful perquisites), he whispered to us, low enough not to be heard by the Shah (for this was all done in his presence), “By the mothers that bore you, do not eat me much! I’ll give you each ten tomauns if you will not strike me.” His heels were tripped up, his feet placed in the noose, whilst his back reposed on the carpet; and then we set to work. For our own sakes, we were obliged to start fair, and we laid on until he roared sufficiently; and then, having ably made him increase his offer until he had bid up to any price we wished, we gradually ceased beating his feet, and only broke our sticks over the felek. Much ingenuity was displayed on both sides, in order that the Shah might not discover that there was any understanding between us. His bidding was interwoven with his groans, something after this manner:—”Ahi amân! amân! For pity’s sake, by the soul of the Prophet! twelve tomauns. — By the love of your fathers and mothers! fifteen tomauns. — By the king’s beard! twenty tomauns. — By all the Imâms! by all the prophets! thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, hundred, thousand — anything you want.” When it was over, we soon found that his generosity had diminished quite as rapidly as it had before increased, and we were satisfied to receive what he first offered to us, which he was obliged to give, fearing if a similar misfortune again overtook him, we should then show him no mercy.’

Shîr Ali, holding this sort of language, gave me such an insight into the advantages of my situation that I could dream of nothing but bastinadoing, and getting money. I went about all day flourishing a stick over my head, practising upon any object that had the least resemblance to human feet, and to such perfection did I bring my hand, that I verily believe I could have hit each toe separately, had I been so ordered. The first impulse of my nature was not cruelty, that I knew: I was neither fierce nor brave, that I also knew: I therefore marvelled greatly how of a sudden I had become such an unsainted lion.70 The fact is, the example of others always had the strongest influence over my mind and actions; and I now lived in such an atmosphere of violence and cruelty, I heard of nothing but of slitting noses, cutting off ears, putting out eyes, blowing up in mortars, chopping men in two, and baking them in ovens, that, in truth, I am persuaded, with a proper example before me, I could almost have impaled my own father.

68 [ The third month in the Arabic calendar.]

69 [ A ghez is not quite a yard.]

70 [ Shir bi pir— a lion without a saint, is a favourite Persian epithet, when applied to a desperado, a fellow without compassion.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58