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

Chapter xli

He describes an expedition against the Russians, and does ample justice to the cowardice of his chief.

My chief and the serdar having acquired all the information which Yûsûf and I could give them upon the force and position of the Muscovites, it was determined that an attack should immediately be made, and the army was ordered to march upon Hamamlû.

Everything was soon in motion; the artillery began its tedious and difficult march through the mountains; the infantry made their way in the best manner they could, and the cavalry were seen in unconnected groups all over the plain. I must not omit to say, that before the march began I received a visit from the Armenian. He was no longer, in appearance, the rude mountaineer with his rough sheepskin cap, his short Georgian tunic, his sandalled feet, his long knife hung over his knee, and his gun slung obliquely across his body; but he was now attired in a long vest of crimson velvet, trimmed with gold lace and gold buttons; a beautiful Cashmerian shawl was tied gracefully round his waist; his small cap, of Bokhara lamb-skin, was duly indented at the top, and the two long curls behind his ears were combed out with all proper care. He had now more the appearance of a woman than a man, so much were his fine limbs hid by his robes; and as he approached me, he could not help blushing and looking awkward at the metamorphosis. He thanked me with expressions that indicated much gratitude, and assured me, that so far from having expected this result to his interview with the serdar, he had, in fact, made up his mind to the loss of both his wife and life, and therefore had spoken with the boldness of one determined to die. ‘But,’ said he, ‘notwithstanding this great change in my fortunes, this new existence of mine will never do. I cannot endure the degradation of being a mere idle appendage to the state of the serdar; and be not angry if, ere long, I decline the honour of his service. I will submit to everything as long as my wife is not in a place of safety; but when once I have secured that, then adieu. Better live a swineherd in the Georgian mountains, naked and houseless, than in all these silks and velvets, a despised hanger on, be it even in the most luxurious court of Persia.’

I could not help applauding such sentiments, although I should have been happy had he made any one else his confidant, conscious that if he did run away I should in some measure be made answerable for him.

In the meanwhile the army proceeded on its march. As we passed Ashtarek, Yûsûf got permission to take possession of Mariam, who, now transformed into the wife of one who had the reputation of being in the good graces of the serdar, travelled with great respectability and consideration on horseback, and formed one among the numerous camp-followers that are always attached to a Persian army. The camp was pitched between Gavmishlû and Aberan, where all that was not necessary for the expedition was ordered to remain until its return. It was settled that the serdar and the chief executioner, each accompanied by their own men, with two pieces of artillery, should form the expedition, and towards the close of the evening it set off.

As we approached the scene of action, the serdar became impatient of delay, and, like every Persian who despises the utility of infantry, expressed his wish to push on with the cavalry. I will not say as much for the impatience of my chief. He continued his boastings to the last, ’tis true, and endeavoured to make every one believe that he had only to appear, and the enemy would instantly be seized with a panic; but at length he ceded to the serdar’s wishes of bringing on the rear-guard, whilst the latter pushed on to Hamamlû with the main body of the cavalry. I, of course, remained behind, to act under the orders of my chief. The serdar intended to reach Hamamlû before break of day in order to surprise the gates, and deviated from the road to ford the Pembaki river. We continued our march straight for that place, and were to appear as the day dawned, to give a retreat to the serdar, in case he should be beaten back.

The morning had just broke when we reached the banks of the river. The chief executioner was surrounded by a body of about five hundred cavalry, and the infantry was coming up as well as it could. We were about fording the river, when of a sudden we were accosted by a voice on the other side, which shouting out two or three strange words in a language unknown to us, explained their meaning by a musket shot. This stopped our career, and called the attention of our chief, who came up, looking paler than death.

‘What’s the news?’ exclaimed he, in a voice far below its usual pitch:—‘what are we doing? — where are we going? — Hajji Baba,’ accosting me, ‘was it you that fired?’

‘No,’ said I, catching rather more of his apprehension than was convenient; ‘no, I did not fire. Perhaps there are ghôls here among the Muscovites, as well as at Ashtarek among the Armenians.’

In another minute more barbarous cries were heard, and another shot was fired, and by this time day had sufficiently advanced to show two men, on the other bank, whom we discovered to be Russian soldiers. As soon as our chief saw the extent of the danger, and the foe opposed to us, his countenance cleared up, and he instantly put on the face of the greatest resolution and vigour. ‘Go, seize, strike, kill!’ he exclaimed, almost in one breath, to those around him:—‘Go, bring me the heads of yonder two fellows.’

Immediately several men dashed into the river, with drawn swords, whilst the two soldiers withdrew to a small rising ground, and, placing themselves in a convenient position, began a regular, though alternate, discharge of their muskets upon their assailants, with a steadiness that surprised us. They killed two men, which caused the remainder to retreat back to our commander, and no one else seemed at all anxious to follow their example. In vain he swore, entreated, pushed, and offered money for their heads: not one of his men would advance. At length, he said, with a most magnanimous shout, ‘I myself will go; here, make way! will no body follow me?’ Then, stopping, and addressing himself to me, he said, ‘Hajji! my soul, my friend, won’t you go and cut those men’s heads off? I’ll give you everything you can ask.’ Then, putting his hand round my neck, he said, ‘Go, go; I am sure you can cut their heads off.’

We were parleying in this manner, when a shot from one of the Russians hit the chief executioner’s stirrup, which awoke his fears to such a degree, that he immediately fell to uttering the most violent oaths. Calling away his troops, and retreating himself at a quick pace, he exclaimed, ‘Curses be on their beards! Curse their fathers, mothers, their ancestry, and posterity! Whoever fought after this fashion? Killing, killing, as if we were so many hogs. See, see, what animals they are! They will not run away, do all you can to them. They are worse than brutes:— brutes have feeling — they have none. O Allah, Allah, if there was no dying in the case, how the Persians would fight!’

By this time we had proceeded some distance, and then halted. Our chief, expecting to find the Russians back to back under every bush, did not know what course to pursue, when the decision was soon made for us by the appearance of the serdar, who, followed by his cavalry, was seen retreating in all haste from before the enemy. It was evident that his enterprise had entirely failed, and nothing was left for the whole army but to return whence it came.

I will not attempt to draw a picture of the miserable aspect of the serdar’s troops; they all looked harassed and worn down by fatigue, and seemed so little disposed to rally, that one and all, as if by tacit consent, proceeded straight on their course homewards without once looking back. But as much as they were depressed in spirits, in the same degree were raised those of our commander. He so talked of his prowess, of the wound he had received, and of his intended feats, that at length, seizing a spear, he put his horse at the full gallop, and overtaking his own cook, who was making the best of his way to his pots and pans, darted it at him, in the exuberance of his valour, and actually pierced him in the back through his shawl girdle.

Thus ended an expedition which the serdar expected would have given him a great harvest of glory and of Muscovites’ heads; and which, the chief executioner flattered himself, would afford him exultation and boasting for the remainder of his life. But, notwithstanding its total failure, till, he had ingenuity enough to discover matter for self-congratulation.

Surrounded by a circle of his adherents, amongst whom I was one, he was in the midst of a peal of boasting, when a message came from the serdar, requesting that Hajji Baba might be sent to him. I returned with the messenger, and the first words which the serdar said, upon my appearing before him, were, ‘Where is Yûsûf? Where is his wife?’

It immediately occurred to me that they had escaped; and putting on one of my most innocent looks, I denied having the least knowledge of their movements.

The serdar then began to roll his eyeballs about, and to twist up his mouth into various shapes. Passion burst from him in the grossest and most violent expressions; he vowed vengeance upon him, his race, his village, and upon everything and everybody in the least connected with him; and whilst he expressed a total disbelief of am my protestations of ignorance, he gave me to understand, that if I was found to have been in the smallest degree an accessory to his escape, he would use all his influence to sweep my vile person from the face of the earth.

I afterwards heard that he had sent a party of men to Gavmishlû, to seize and bring before him Yûsûf’s parents and kindred, with everything that belonged to them; to take possession of their property, and to burn and destroy whatever they could not bring away: but the sagacious and active youth had foreseen this, and had taken his measures with such prudence and promptitude, that he had completely baffled the tyrant. He, his wife, his wife’s relations, his own parents and family, with all their effects (leaving only their tilled ground behind them), had concerted one common plan of migration into the Russian territory. It had fully succeeded, as I afterwards heard, for they were received with great kindness, both by the government and by their own sect; lands were allotted, and every help afforded them for the re-establishment of their losses.

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