Pulling out the handkerchief from my breast, still wet with the blood of the unfortunate Zeenab, I contemplated it with feelings of the most bitter anguish; then spreading it before me on her grave, I went through a ceremony to which I had long been unaccustomed — I said my prayers. Refreshed by this act, and strengthened in my resolutions of leaving Tehran, I tore myself away, and stept valiantly onwards towards Ispahan.
Having reached Kinaragird, without seeing the trace of a caravan, and feeling myself sufficiently strong to proceed on my journey, I pushed on for the caravanserai of the sultan’s reservoir, where I intended to halt for the night.
As I came in sight of the building, at some distance in the desert, I saw a man putting himself into strange attitudes, playing antics by himself, and apparently addressing himself to something on the ground. I approached him, and found that he was talking with great animation to his cap, which was thrown some yards before him. Going still nearer to him, I discovered a face that was familiar to me.
‘Who can it be?’ said I to myself: ‘it must be one of my old friends, the dervishes of Meshed.’
In fact, it proved to be the Kessehgou, the story-teller, who was practising a new story by himself, making his cap act audience. As soon as he saw, he recognized me, and came up to embrace me with seeming rapture.
‘Ahi, Hajji,’ said he, ‘peace be with you! Where have you been these many years? Your place has long been empty. My eyes are refreshed by the sight of you.’ Then he repeated himself in the same strain several times over, until we at length got upon more rational subjects.
He related his adventures since we had last met; which consisted in the detail of long and painful journeys, and of the various methods which his ingenuity had suggested to him of gaining his bread. He was now on his return from Constantinople, from whence he had walked, and had it in contemplation to make his way in the same manner to Delhi, after having passed a summer at Ispahan, whither he was now proceeding.
Although little inclined to talk, in the melancholy mood in which my mind had been plunged, still I could not refrain in some measure from catching the exuberance of spirits with which my companion seemed to overflow, and I also gave him an account of myself since the day I left Meshed with Dervish Sefer, when I had just recovered from the bastinado on the soles of my feet.
As I proceeded in my narrative, showing him how, step by step, I had advanced in station and dignity, it was amusing to see with what increased reverence he treated me. At length, when I came to my promotion to the rank of sub-lieutenant to the chief executioner, I verily believe that he would have prostrated himself before me, with such extreme respect had experience taught him to treat gentlemen of that profession. But when he heard the sequel of my story; how for a woman I had abandoned my high situation and all the prospects of advancement which it held out to me; I perceived the low estimation to which I fell in his opinion. He exclaimed that I was not worthy of the kalaât (the dress of distinction), which fortune had cut out, fashioned, and invested me with. ‘So, because the Shah thinks it fitting to destroy a faithless slave,’ said he, ‘in whose guilt you have at most only half the share, you think it necessary to abandon the excellent station in life to which you had reached, and to begin again the drudgery of an existence lower and more uncertain than even the one which I enjoy. Well’ (making a pause), ‘there is no accounting for the different roads which men take in their search after happiness: some keep the high road; some take short cuts; others strike out new paths for themselves; and others again permit themselves to be led on without asking the road: but I never yet heard of one, but yourself, who, having every road and every path thrown open to him, preferred losing his way, with the risk of never again finding it.’ And then he finished by quoting a reflection of the poet Ferdûsi, applicable to the uncertainty of a soldier’s life, by way of consoling me for the vicissitudes of mine, saying, ’Gahi pûsht ber zeen, gahi zeen ber pûsht (sometimes a saddle bears the weight of his back, and sometimes his back the weight of a saddle).’
Whilst we were conversing, a caravan appeared on the road from Ispahan, and making straight for the caravanserai, took up its abode there for the night.
‘Come,’ said the dervish, who was a merry sociable fellow, ‘come, forget your sorrows for the present; we will pass an agreeable evening, notwithstanding we are in the midst of this dreary and thirsty desert. Let us get together the travellers, the merchants, and the mule-drivers who compose the caravan, and after we have well supped and smoked I will relate to you a story that has recently happened at Stamboul, and which I am sure cannot yet have been imported into Persia.’
Most willingly did I accede to his proposal; for I was happy to drive melancholy from my thoughts at any rate, and we strolled into the building together.
Here we found men from different parts of Persia, unloading their beasts and putting their effects in order, settling themselves in the different open rooms which look upon the square of the caravanserai. A dervish, and a story-teller too, was a great acquisition, after the fatigue and dullness of a journey across the Salt Desert; and when we had made a hearty meal he collected them on the square platform in the middle of the court, making them sit round, whilst he took his station in the midst. He then related his promised story.
I endeavoured to pay every attention to it; but I found that my mind so constantly strayed from the narrative to the scenes I had lately witnessed, that it became impossible for me to retain what he said. I remarked, however, that he interested his audience in the highest degree; for when plunged in one of my deepest reveries I was frequently roused by the laughter and applause which the dervish excited. I promised myself on some future occasion to make him relate it over again, and in the meanwhile continued to give myself up wholly to my feelings. Much did I envy the apparent light-heartedness that pervaded my companions and which at intervals made the vaulted rooms of the building resound with shouts of merriment. I longed for the time when I should again be like them, and enjoy the blessings of existence without care; but grief, like every other passion, must have its course, and, as the spring which gushes with violence from the rock, by degrees dwindles into a rivulet; so it must be let to pass off gradually until it becomes a moderate feeling, and at length is lost in the vortex of the world.
Day had closed by the time that the dervish had finished his story. The blue vault of heaven was completely furnished with bright twinkling stars, which seemed to have acquired a fresh brilliancy after the storms of the preceding night; and the moon was preparing to add her soft lustre to the scene, when a horseman, fully equipped, entered the porch that leads into the caravanserai.
The principal persons of the caravan had still kept their stations on the platform, quietly smoking their pipes and discussing the merits of the tale they had just heard; the servants had dispersed to spread their masters’ beds; and the muleteers had retired for the night to nestle in among their mules and their baggage: I, destitute of everything, had made up my mind to pass my night on the bare ground with a stone for my pillow; but when I looked at the horseman, as he emerged from the darkness of the porch into the light, my ideas took another turn.
I recognized in him one of the nasakchies, who under my orders had witnessed the death of the wretched Zeenab; and I very soon guessed what the object of his journey might be, when I heard him ask if the caravan was coming from or going to Tehran; and whether they had seen a person whom, by the description he gave, I instantly recognized to be myself.
My friend the dervish immediately divined how the matter stood; and deeply versed in every stratagem of deceit, without hesitation took upon himself to answer for the whole company.
He said that all were going to the capital, with the exception of himself and his friend, who, both dervishes, were just arrived from Constantinople; but that he had met one answering to the person he had described, one who seemed oppressed with care and worn with grief, wandering about in a sort of chance manner through the wilds of the desert. He added many more particulars which corresponded so entirely to my appearance and history that the horseman could not doubt for a moment but that this was the person he was in search of, and rode off in great haste according to the directions of the dervish, who, as may be imagined, purposely led him wrong.
When he had been gone some time the dervish took me on one side, and said, ‘If you want to secure yourself from this man, you must instantly depart; for when he finds his search fruitless, and is tired of wandering about the desert, he will certainly return here, and then what can hinder your being discovered?’
‘I will do anything rather than be discovered by him,’ said I: ‘he is evidently sent to seize me. I can expect no mercy from such a ruffian, particularly as I have not enough money to offer him, for I know his price. Where can I go?’
The dervish reflected a while, and said, ‘You must go to Kom: you will reach it before morning, and as soon as you arrive there, lose not a moment in getting within the precincts of the sanctuary of the tomb of Fatimeh. You will then, and not till then, be safe, even from the Shah’s power. Should you be caught without its walls, there is no hope for you. You will be seized; and then may Allah take you into his holy keeping!’
‘But when I am there,’ said I, ‘what shall I do? how shall I live?’
‘Leave that to me,’ said the dervish; ‘I shall soon overtake you, and as I know the place and many of the people in it, Inshallah, please God, you will not fare so ill as you may imagine. I myself was once obliged to do the same thing, for having been the means of procuring poison for one of the Shah’s women, who used it to destroy a rival. Orders were sent to seize me, and I managed to reach the bust (the refuge seat) at Shahabdul Azîm just five minutes before the executioner who was to have apprehended me. I never fared better in my life: for I did nothing; I was supported by the charity of those who came to say their prayers at the shrine of the saint: and the women, who constantly travelled thus far to pray and take their pleasure, always contrived to comfort me in my confinement. The only evil you have to fear is an order from the Shah, that no one on pain of death shall give you food: if so, you will be starved into a surrender, and then the Prophet be your protector! But your case is not one of sufficient consequence to make you fear this. The Shah cannot care so much for one slave, when he has a hundred others to fill her place. After all, men do not die so easily as we Persians imagine. Recollect what the Sheikh says, “Clouds and wind, the moon, the sun, the firmament (and he might have added dervishes), all are busied, that thou, O man, mayest obtain thy bread: only eat it not in neglect."’
‘I am not the man,’ said I, ‘who will forget your kindness. Perhaps my fortune may again be on the rise, and then I will put my beard into your hand. You know Hajji Baba of old, and that he is not one of those who “exposes his virtues on the palm of his hand, and hides his vices under his armpit.” What I was at Meshed, the same I am now: the seller of adulterated smoke and the deputy lieutenant to the chief executioner, are one and the same.’
‘Well, then, go,’ said the dervish, as he embraced me, ‘and God be with you! Take care of the ghôls and gins as you cross the Salt Desert; and again, I repeat, may Allah, peace, and safety attend you!’
As the day broke I could distinguish the gilt cupola of the tomb at a considerable distance before me; and this beacon of my security inspired me with fresh vigour in my solitary march over the dreary waste. I had scarcely reached the outskirts of the town of Kom before I perceived the horseman at some distance behind, making the best of his way in search of me; and therefore I looked neither right nor left until the massive chain that hangs across the principal gateway of the sanctuary was placed between myself and my pursuer. I then exclaimed, ’Ilhamd’illah! Praises to Allah! O Mahomed! O Ali!’ and kissing the threshold of the tomb I said my prayers with all the fervency of one who having escaped a tempest has got safe into port.
I had scarcely time to look about me before I perceived the nasakchi coming towards me. He accosted me with a cold salutation of peace, and then said, ‘that he had a royal order to conduct me into the Shah’s presence wherever I might be found.’
I told him that, with all reverence for his firman, it was my intention to avail myself of the acknowledged privilege of every true believer, to seek refuge at the shrine of the saint, and that, of course, he could not violate it by dragging me from it. ‘Besides, this is the favourite saint of the King of Kings,’ said I, ‘and he respects this shrine more than any other.’
‘What shall I do then, Hajji?’ said he. ‘You know this is not written in the order. If I go back without you, perhaps the Shah may cut off my ears instead of yours.’
‘Inshallah! please God,’ said I.
‘Please God, do you say?’ said he in a fury: ‘am I come all this way that men should call me ass? I am not a man if I do not make you return with me.’ And forthwith we began to wrangle to such a degree that several of the priests, attached to the endowment, came from their rooms to inquire into the cause of the disturbance.
‘Here is one,’ exclaimed I, ‘who presumes to violate the sanctuary. I have taken refuge in it, and he talks of forcing me away! You, that are men of God,’ addressing myself to the mollahs, ‘speak, and say whether you will allow this?’
They all took my part. ‘This is unheard of,’ said they, ‘in Persia. If you dare to take one from the bust, you will not only have the vengeance of the saint on your head, but the whole corps of the Ullemah will be upon you; and be you protected by the King of Kings, or the king of demons, nothing can screen you from their fury.’
The nasakchi remained quite uncertain what to do, and at length, softening his tone, he endeavoured to make a virtue of necessity, and began to negotiate with me upon what he might get if he went away without further molesting me. I did not deny the right he had of being paid for his trouble, for it is precisely what I should have expected myself had I been in his place; but I made him recollect how little I was able to requite him; for he knew as well as I all the circumstances of my flight, and that I had brought nothing away with me from Tehran.
He suggested that I might give him what effects I had left behind me; to which I did not in the least agree, but recommended him to go whence he came, and to leave the afflicted to their miseries.
The fact is, as I afterwards found out, the rogue had already taken possession of my property, which consisted of clothes, trunks, bedding, horse-furniture, pipes, etc., having himself been the cause of denouncing me to the Shah. He had watched the effect which the murderous death of the unhappy Cûrd had produced upon me, and immediately had laid his plan for my destruction, and for stepping into my situation.
Finding that he could not exert the power which had been vested in him, and that his firman was so much waste paper, as long as I continued to hold fast to my refuge-place, he thought it best to return to Tehran; but in so doing he delivered his powers into the hands of the governor of the town, with strict injunctions to keep watch over my actions, and in case I stirred from the sanctuary, to seize and send me a prisoner to the seat of government.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12