Having equipped myself as a merchant, for I had long since determined to abandon the character of a priest, considering how ill I had succeeded in it, I sought out the conductor of a caravan, which was on its road to Kermanshah, and bargained with him for the hire of a mule. He had a spare one, that had run unloaded from Tehran, and which he let me have for a trifle; and as I had no baggage but what I carried on my back, my beast and I agreed very well together.
We reached our destination on the seventh day, and here I was obliged to look out for a fresh conveyance. I was informed that none was likely to offer under a month, because, owing to the Cûrdish robbers, who infested the frontier, no caravan ventured on the road unless its numbers were considerable, and it would take some time to collect them; but I was told that a caravan of pilgrims and dead bodies had set off for Kerbelah only the day before, and that, with a little exertion, I might easily overtake them before they had reached the dangerous passes.
Constantly apprehensive of being discovered and detained, I did not hesitate upon the course to adopt, and forthwith set off on foot. My money was safely deposited in my girdle; and without any other baggage than a good staff in my hand, I left Kermanshah, and proceeded on my road.
On the evening of the third day, when nearly exhausted with fatigue, my eyes were cheered by the sight of fires at a distance, the smoke of which curled up over the brow of a hill; and approaching them, I discovered cattle spread over the plain grazing, and thus was not mistaken in supposing that the caravan was nigh at hand. As I advanced towards the baggage, which was piled up in a hollow square, and where I knew that I should find the conductor, I observed a small white tent, pitched at some little distance, which indicated that pilgrims of consequence were of the party; and, moreover, that women were amongst them, for a takhteravan (a litter) and a kejaweh (panniers) were seen near the tent.
I gave myself out for a pilgrim, and found the conductor very ready to furnish me with a mule for my conveyance. I was anxious to pass unnoticed, considering the predicament in which I stood; but still the conscious dignity which the ninety-five pieces of gold in my girdle gave me made it difficult for me to restrain that vanity of display so common to all my countrymen.
Among the baggage, at a small distance from the square in which I was seated, were several long and narrow packages sewn up in thick felts, which were spread in pairs upon the ground, apparently having been unloaded there from the backs of camels. I inquired what they might be, for the sight of them was new to me, and was informed that they contained dead bodies bound to Kerbelah.
‘It is evident you are a stranger,’ said the conductor, who appeared to be as loquacious and mother-witted as those of his profession generally are, ‘or otherwise you would have been better informed. We are carrying rare things to Kerbelah!’
‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I am a stranger; I come from afar, and am like one decended from the mountains. In God’s name, what are you carrying to Kerbelah?’
‘What!’ answered he, ‘have you heard nothing of the extraordinary death of the mollah bashi of Tehran; how he died in the bath; and how his ghost was seen on horseback, and then in his harem; and how it afterwards ran off with one of the chief executioner’s best horses? Where have you been living all this while?’ added he, shaking both his hands before him as he spoke, and shrugging up his shoulders.
Alarmed at what he had said, I pretended ignorance; and requested him to satisfy my curiosity concerning the story in question, which he did in a manner that, but for my being so deeply implicated in it, would have afforded me much amusement.
‘You must know then,’ said the muleteer, ‘that what I am about to relate is true, because I was on the spot in person, at the time it happened.
‘The chief priest having gone to the bath at the close of day, just after the evening prayer, returned to his house surrounded by his servants, and retired to bed for the night in the khelwet of his women’s apartments.
‘You need not be told that most of the public baths in Persia are open to the women the first thing in the morning, to a certain hour in the day, and are then appropriated to the men. The wife of the mollah bashi, attended by her servants and slaves, the morning after her husband had bathed, at the earliest sound of the cow horn, proceeded to the same bath, and she and her suite were the first party who entered it on that day. Out of respect to their mistress, none of her attendants ventured to get into the reservoir of hot water before her. The cupola of the bath was but very dimly lighted by the dawn; and the chief priest’s wife was almost in utter darkness when she entered the water. Guess at her horror, when scarcely having proceeded two steps, her extended hand fell upon a large mass of floating flesh.
‘Her first impulse was to utter an amazing shriek; her second to tumble headlong out as if she had been pursued, and straight to faint away.
‘The consternation which she produced amongst her women may easily be conceived. One after the other, with the lamp in their hand, they looked in, shrieked, and then ran back, not one among them having yet discovered what was the object of their terror.
‘At length the old duenna taking courage, looked boldly into the reservoir, and to her surprise she there found a dead man. More screams and cries ensued, which having brought the chief priest’s wife to her senses, caused her to join the inspecting party. Little could be recognized of a floating corpse inflated with water, presenting various odd surfaces to the eye, and giving but little clue to discovery. At length the head and face appeared to view; and, as soon as the old duenna had applied her lamp to it, one and all cried out, “O Ali! it is the mollah bashi; it is the mollah bashi!”
‘The wife again fell into a trance; the slaves made their cries; in short, there was that stir amongst them, that one would have thought they had heard the “blast of consternation from the trumpets of the resurrection.”
‘But amidst all the wailing, which by this time had attracted every woman in the building, one of the slaves cried out, “But it cannot be our Aga, for I saw him return from the bath, I made his bed, and I am sure he was soon asleep. It is impossible he can be in bed and asleep, and in the bath, drowned, at one and the same time. It must be somebody else.”
‘This observation threw them all into greater consternation than ever, because they immediately felt that what the slave had seen must have been her master’s ghost. “See,” said the wife — who had again come to life — pointing to the face of the corpse, “I am sure this was my husband; there is the scratch I gave him but yesterday.” “And there,” said one of her servants, “that is the place in his beard from which you plucked a handful of hairs.”
‘These tender recollections threw the poor widow into a violent flood of tears, which were only stopped by her slaves assuring her that the mollah bashi was still alive. “How else could he have taken the lamp from my hand?” said the slave —“how could he have shut the door? how dismissed me? how snored?” So persuaded was she of the truth of what she said, that she forthwith dressed herself, and volunteered to go to her master’s bed-room, where no doubt she would find him asleep.
‘“But if he is there,” said one of the women, “then what can this be?” (pointing to the corpse.)
‘“Why, this must be his ghost,” said another; “for surely no man can possess two bodies — one in which he lives, and the other by way of a change.”
‘“No,” said a third in a waggish tone, “that would be quite new. He might then make the same use of them as he would of a town and country house.”
‘All this time (many additional bathers having poured in) whilst those who were indifferent were speculating after this fashion, the chief priest’s women were uttering loud and piercing shrieks, particularly when the slave returned and informed them that no mollah bashi had she found, and that he had left no trace behind except the print of his body in the bed.
‘The story had now got abroad, the bath was surrounded by a crowd, who pressed to gain admittance; and ere the women had had time to dress themselves, the place was full of men. Such a scene of confusion as then ensued had never before been witnessed in a public bath at Tehran. What with the wailing and lamentations of the women of the chief priest — what with the noise and cries of those who inveighed against the intrusion of the men — the clamour was excessive.
‘At length the friends and relations of the deceased appeared, and, with them, the washers of the dead, who immediately bore the corpse to the place of ablution, where it was embalmed, and prepared for its journey to Kerbelah, for thither it was judged expedient to send it for burial.
‘His widow at once avowed her intention of accompanying the body; and my mules,’ added my informant, ‘were hired on the occasion. The tent you see yonder is occupied by her and her slaves; and there,’ pointing to the packages, ‘lies the carcass of her husband. The accompanying dead bodies are the remains of those who, both at Tehran and on our road hither, died about the time that this event took place, and are now sent to Kerbelah to be buried in the suite and under the protection of one who at the day of resurrection, it is hoped, may lend them a helping hand into paradise.’
Here the conductor stopped, whilst I, who had been struck by the latter part of his speech, became almost mute from fear. I felt that having endeavoured to escape danger, I had fallen into its very mouth. Were I to be recognized by the chief priest’s servants, some of whom I had known intimately, their knowledge of my person would lead to my discovery.
‘But what happened after the corpse was carried out of the bath?’ said I, anxious to know whether the clothes which I had left in one of its corners had been noticed.
‘By the head of Ali!’ said the man, ‘I do not very well recollect. This I know, that many stories were in circulation; and every person had a different one. Some said that the chief priest, after being drowned, was seen in his anderûn and went to bed. Others that he appeared the next morning at the chief executioner’s, and rode away with one of his best horses. The chief executioner himself shows a note of his, sealed with his seal, giving him permission to drink wine. In short, so many and so contradictory were the reports, that no one knew what to believe. All were puzzled to find out how he managed to get alive out of the bath (for that is attested by his servants, and by the master of the bath), and still remain in the reservoir. Difficulties continued to increase as fast as people argued, until a discovery took place which threw a marvellous light upon the subject. Some clothes were found in a dark corner of the bath. They were torn and in bad case; but without much difficulty they were known to have belonged to one Hajji Baba, a drivelling priest, and an attendant upon that famous breeder of disturbance, the mollah Nadân, the open and avowed enemy of the head of the law. Then everybody exclaimed, “Hajji Baba is the murderer! without doubt he is the murderer of the holy man, he must pay the price of blood!” and all the city was in full search for Hajji Baba. Many said, that Nadân was the culprit; in short, messengers have been sent all over the country to seize them both, and carry them dead or alive to Tehran. I only wish that my fate may be sufficiently on the ascent, to throw either of them into my hands; such a prize would be worth my whole mule-hire to Kerbelah.’
I leave every one to guess my feelings upon hearing this language; I who was never famous for facing difficulties with courage, and who would always rather as a preliminary to safety make use of the swiftness of my heels, in preference to adopting any other measure. But here to retreat was more dangerous than to proceed; for in a very short time I should be in the territory of another government, until when I promised faithfully to wrap myself up in the folds of my own counsel; and to continue my road with all the wariness of one who is surrounded by imminent danger.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53