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

Chapter xxxvi

Although by trade an executioner, he shows a feeling heart — He meets with a young man and woman in distress.

The Shah was at this time engaged in a war with the Moscovites, who had established themselves in Georgia, and were threatening the frontier provinces of Persia situated between the rivers Kûr and Arras. The governor of Erivan, known by the title of serdar or general, and one of the Shah’s most favourite officers, had long ago opened the campaign by desultory attacks upon the advanced posts of the enemy, and by laying waste the villages and country in the track they were likely to keep in advancing towards Persia. An army, under the command of the heir apparent and governor of the great province of Aderbijân, had also been collected near Tabrîz; and it was intended that he should immediately proceed to the seat of war, in order if possible to drive the enemy back to Teflis, and, according to the language of the court, carry its arms even to the walls of Moscow.

Intelligence was daily expected at the royal camp of Sultanieh, from the serdar, concerning an attack which he had announced it his intention to make upon the Russian post of Gavmishlû; and orders were issued for giving a suitable reception to the heads of the enemy, which it is always the etiquette to send upon announcing a victory, for such no doubt was expected to be the result of the attack. A chapper, or courier, was at length seen riding towards the camp in great haste. He was the conductor of five horse-loads of heads, ’tis true, and they were heaped up with great pomp and parade before the principal entrance of the royal tents; but it became evident that something had taken place which required a reinforcement; for on the very next morning our chief, Namerd Khan, was appointed to the command of a body of ten thousand cavalry, which were ordered to march immediately to the banks of the Arras.

The min bashies, the heads of thousands; the yûz bashies, the heads of hundreds, the on bashies, the heads of tens; and all the officers commanding the troops, were seen hurrying over the camp in various directions, attending upon their khans, and receiving their orders. The tent of Namerd Khan was filled with the chiefs of the expedition, to whom he distributed his directions, giving them the order of march, and allotting to each division its station in halting at the villages on the route. My duty was to precede the troops by a day, accompanied by a detachment of nasakchies, to make arrangements for billeting the men in the villages. This was a duty requiring activity and exertion; but at the same time accompanied by great advantages, which, had I chosen to avail myself of, might have increased the weight of my purse. However, the recent example of Shîr Ali Beg was too strong before my eyes not to repress any desire I might have of levying contributions, so I determined for the present to keep my hands pure, and to quench the flame of covetousness by the waters of prudence.

I set off with my detachment, and reached Erivan several days before the troops could arrive. We here found the serdar, who, after his attack upon Gavmishlû, had retreated, to wait the reinforcement of the cavalry under our chief. The army under the prince royal had proceeded to another part of the frontier, with the intention of attacking the fortress of Ganja, of which the enemy had recently acquired possession, and unable to spare any of his troops, the serdar had solicited assistance from the Shah.

As soon as Namerd Khan and the serdar had met and consulted, it was determined that spies should immediately be sent forwards in order to ascertain the position, and the movements of the Russians; and I was fixed upon to head a detachment of twenty men on the part of the chief executioner, whilst a similar number was sent by the serdar, who at the same time were to be our guides through such parts of the country as were unknown to me.

We assembled at the close of day, and began our march just as the muezzins called the evening prayer. Proceeding at once to the village of Ashtarek, we passed Etchmiazin, the seat of the Armenian patriarch, on our left. It was scarcely dawn of day when we reached the bridge of Ashtarek, still obscured by the deepest shade, owing to the very high and rocky banks of the river, forming, as it were, two abrupt walls on either side. The village itself, situated on the brink of these banks, was just sufficiently lighted up to be distinguished from the rocks among which it was built; whilst the ruins of a large structure, of heavy architecture, rose conspicuous on the darkest side, and gave a character of solemnity and grandeur to the whole scenery. This, my companions informed me, was the remains of the many Armenian churches so frequently seen in this part of Persia. The river dashed along through its dark bed, and we could perceive the foam of its waters as we began to cross the bridge. The rattle of our horses’ hoofs over its pavement had alarmed the village dogs, whose bark we could just distinguish; the shrill crow of a cock was also heard, and most of our eyes were directed towards the houses, when one of our men, stopping his horse, exclaimed, ‘Ya, Ali! (oh, Ali!) what is that?’ pointing with his hand to the church: ‘do not you see, there, something white?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said another, ‘I see it: it’s a ghôl! without doubt it’s a ghôl! This is the true hour: it is in search of a corpse. I dare say it is devouring one now.’

I also could see that something was there, but it was impossible to make it out.

We halted upon the bridge, looking up with all our eyes, every one being satisfied that it was a supernatural being. One called upon Ali, another upon Hossein, and a third invoked the Prophet and the twelve Imâms. None seemed inclined to approach it, but every one suggested some new mode of exorcism. ‘Untie the string of your trousers,’ said an old Irâki, ‘that’s the way we treat our ghôls, in the desert near Ispahan, and they depart instantly.’

‘What good will that do?’ answered a delikhan (a hare-brained youth); ‘I’d rather keep the beast out than let it in.’

In short, what with joking, and what with serious talk, the morning broke sufficiently to convince us that the apparition must have been an illusion of our senses, for nothing now was to be seen. However, having passed the bridge, the said delikhan, shivering in his stirrups, and anxious to gallop his horse, exclaimed, ‘I’ll go and find the ghôl,’ drove his horse up a steep bank, and made towards the ruined church. We saw him return very speedily, with intelligence, that what we had taken for a ghôl was a woman, whose white veil had attracted our notice, and that she, with a man, were apparently hiding themselves among the deep shades of the broken walls.

Full of anxiety for what might throw a light upon the object of my duty, I lost no time in proceeding to the ruin, in order to ascertain why these people hid themselves so mysteriously, and ordering five men to follow me, I made the rest halt near the bridge.

We saw no one until turning the sharp angle of a wall we found, seated under an arch, the objects of our search. A woman, apparently sick, was extended on the ground, whilst a man, leaning over, supported her head, in an attitude of the greatest solicitude. Enough of daylight now shone upon them to discover that they were both young. The woman’s face, partially hid by her veil, notwithstanding its deadly paleness, was surprisingly beautiful; and the youth was the finest specimen of strength, activity, and manliness that I had ever seen. He was dressed in the costume of Georgia, a long knife hung over his thigh, and a gun rested against the wall. Her veil, which was of the purest white, was here and there stained with blood, and torn in several places. Although I had been living amongst men inured to scenes of misery, utter strangers to feelings of pity or commiseration, yet in this instance I and my companions could not fail being much interested at what we saw, and paused with a sort of respect for the grief of these apparently unfriended strangers, before we ventured to break the silence of our meeting.

‘What are you doing here?’ said I. ‘If you are strangers, and travellers, why do you not go into the village?’

‘If you have the feelings of a man,’ said the youth, ‘give me help, for the love of God! Should you be sent to seize us by the serdar, still help me to save this poor creature who is dying. I have no resistance to offer; but pray save her.’

‘Who are you?’ said I. ‘The serdar has given us no orders concerning you. Where do you come from? Whither going?’

‘Our story is long and melancholy,’ said the young man: ‘if you will help me to convey this poor suffering girl where she may be taken care of, I will relate everything that has happened to us. She may recover with good and kind usage: she is wounded, but I trust not mortally, and with quiet may recover. Thanks to Heaven, you are not one of the serdar’s officers! I entreat you to befriend me, and my lamentable tale may perhaps induce you to take us under your protection.’

This appeal to my feelings was unnecessary: the countenance and appearance of the youth had excited great interest in my breast, and I immediately lent myself to his wishes, telling him that we would, without delay, convey his sick friend to the village, and then, having heard his story, settle what to do for him.

She had to this moment said nothing, but gathered her veil round her with great precaution, now and then uttering low groans, which indicated pain, and venting the apparent misery of her mind by suppressed sighs. I ordered one of my followers to dismount from his horse; we placed her upon it, and immediately proceeded to the village, where, having inspected the interior of several houses, I pitched upon that which afforded the best accommodation, and whose owner appeared obliging and humane; there we deposited her, giving directions that she should be nursed with the greatest care. An old woman of the village, who had the reputation of skill in curing wounds and bruises, was sent for, and she undertook her cure. I learnt from the youth that he and his companion were Armenians; and as the inhabitants of Ashtarek were of the same persuasion, they very soon understood each other, and the poor sufferer felt that she could not have fallen into better hands.

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