Preparatory to the full comprehension of the duties of my office, the mollah Nadân requested me to introduce myself to the mûties, and gain from them sufficient information to enable me to make a register, in which I should insert their ages, appearance and beauty, tempers, and general qualifications as wives. This I should carry about me, in order to be able to exhibit it to any stranger who might fall in my way.
I first went to the bazaar, and furnished myself with a priest’s cloak, with a coat that buttons across the breast, and a long piece of white muslin, which I twisted round my head. Thus accoutred, in the full dress of my new character, I proceeded to the women’s house, and found a ready admission, for they had been apprised of my intended visit.
I found them all three seated in a mean and wretched apartment, smoking. Their veils were loosely thrown over their heads, which, upon my appearance, by a habit common to all our women, they drew tight over their faces, merely keeping one eye free.
‘Peace be unto you, khanums!’ said I (for I knew how an appearance of great respect conciliates)—‘I am come, on the part of the mollah Nadân, to make you a tender of my humble services; and perhaps, as you know the object of my visit, you will not object to lay your veils on one side.’
‘May you abide in peace,’ said they, ‘mollah!’ and then gave me to understand, by many flattering speeches, that I was welcome, and that they hoped my presence would bring them good luck.
Two of them immediately unveiled, and discovered faces which had long bade adieu to their lilies and roses; and upon which, notwithstanding the help of the surmeh round the eyelids, the blue stars on the forehead and chin, and the rouge on the cheeks, I could, in broad characters, make out a long catalogue of wrinkles. The third lady carefully continued to keep herself veiled.
I did not hesitate to make an exclamation of surprise, as soon as the two charmers had opened their battery of smiles upon me. ‘Praises to Allah! Mashallah!‘ said I, ‘this is a sight worthy of Ferhad himself. Do not look too intensely upon me, for fear that I consume. What eyes! what noses! what lips! Have pity upon me, and cease looking. But why,’ said I, ‘does this khanum’—(pointing to the unveiled one)—‘why does she hold me so long in suspense? Perhaps she thinks me unworthy of contemplating her charms; and she thinks right, for I am only a poor mollah, whilst doubtless even the sun, in all its majesty, is not entitled to such privilege.’
‘Why do you make this naz (coyness ),’ said her companions to her; ‘you now he must be able to give an account of us, or else the curse of single life will be our fate, and we shall remain the scorn and reproach of womankind.’
‘Be it so,’ said the third woman; ‘the cat must come from under the blanket’; and, in a sort of pet, she drew off her veil, and, to my great astonishment, exhibited to my view the well-known features of the wife of the Shah’s physician, my former master.
‘By all that is most sacred! by the beard of the blessed Prophet!’ said I, ‘how is this? Are the Gins at work, that they should have brought this about?’
‘Yes, Hajji,’ said she, very composedly, ‘fate is a wonderful thing. But you, you who killed my husband, how came you to be a mollah?’
‘Is your husband dead, then,’ said I, ‘that you talk to me thus? Why do you throw words away in this unguarded manner? What have I to do with your husband’s death? He was once my master, and I grieve for his loss. But you might as well say that I killed the martyr Hossein (blessings on his memory!) as that I killed the hakîm. Tell me what has happened; for I am walking round and round in the labyrinth of ignorance.’
‘Why do you pretend ignorance,’ said she with her usual scream, when you must know that it was on your account that the Shah sent Zeenab out of this world — that her death led to the doctor having his beard plucked — that having his beard plucked brought on his disgrace — and his disgrace death? Therefore you are the cause of all the mischief.’
‘What ashes are you heaping upon my head, O khanum?’ said I with great vehemence; ‘why am I to be told that I am the death of a man, when I was a hundred parasangs off at the time? You might as well say, if your husband had died of a surfeit, that the labourer who had planted the rice was the cause of his death.’
We continued to argue for some time, when the other women, fearing that their interests would be neglected, interposed, and put me in mind that we had business to transact; for they were anxious that their charms should no longer lie barren and neglected. The khanum, too, who only talked for talking’s sake, and who, to my knowledge, had cherished a more than common hatred for her husband, seemed anxious that I should forget her former more flourishing situation, and requested me to proceed to business.
Still, to carry on the farce of respect, I began first with the doctor’s widow, and requested to know some of the particulars of her history; in order, when I came to describe her to some impatient bridegroom, I might be able to do so in the best manner for her interests.
‘You know as well as I,’ said she, ‘that I once enjoyed the favour of that rose in the paradise of sweets, the King of Kings; that I was the first beauty in his harem, and the terror of all my rivals. But who can withstand the decrees of destiny? A new woman arrived, who was provided with a more powerful spell than I could possess for securing the Shah’s love, and she destroyed my power. She feared my charms so much, that she would not rest until I was expelled; and then, for my misfortune, the Shah made a present of me to his chief physician. Oh, I shall never forget the pangs of my mind, when I was transferred from the glories and delights of the royal palace to the arms of the doctor, and to a residence among physic and gallipots! I will not repeat all the history of Zeenab. When the hakîm died, I endeavoured to revive the Shah’s good feelings towards me; but the avenues to his ear were closed; and from one stage of misery to another I, who once could lead the viceregent of Allah by the beard, am reduced to seek a husband in the highway.’
Upon this she began to cry and bemoan her cruel destiny; but I in some measure pacified her, by the assurance that I would do all in my power to procure for her a suitable mate.
‘You see,’ said she, ‘that I am still handsome, and that the career of my youth is yet to run. Look at my eyes: have they lost their brightness? Admire my eyebrows. Where will you meet with a pair that are so completely thrown into one? Then see my waist, it is not a span round.’
She went on in full enumeration of her most minute perfections, upon which I gazed with all my eyes, as she desired; but, instead of youth and beauty, I could make nothing better of her than an old fat and bloated hag, upon whom I longed to revenge myself, for her former ill-treatment to the unfortunate Zeenab.
The other two ladies then gave me a sketch of their lives. One was the widow of a silversmith, who had been blown from a mortar for purloining some gold, which he had received to make a pair of candlesticks for the king; and the other had turned mûti in her own defence, having been abandoned by her husband, who had fled from the wrath of the Shah, and sought refuge among the Russians.
They also endeavoured to persuade me that they were young and handsome, to which I agreed with as good a grace as I was able; and, having made the necessary notes in my register, I promised to exert myself to the best for their advantage. ‘Recollect,’ said one, ‘that I am only eighteen.’ ‘Don’t forget,’ said another, ‘that I am still a child.’ ‘Always keep in mind my two eyebrows that look like one,’ roared out the hakîm’s widow.
‘Upon my eyes be it,’ exclaimed I, as I left the room; and then I consoled myself for the sight of such a trio of frights, by giving vent to a peal of anathemas and laughter.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58