Persian Letters/Letter 67
Ibben to Usbek, at Paris
Three vessels have arrived here without bringing any news from you. Are you ill, or does it amuse you to make me uneasy?
If you do not love me in a country where you are quite unfettered, how will it be in the middle of Persia, and in the bosom of your family? But perhaps I am wrong: you are charming enough to find friends everywhere; the heart is a native of all lands: what should hinder a generous nature from forming attachments? I confess, I respect old friendships; but I am quite pleased to make new ones everywhere.
In whatever country I have been, I have lived as if I were to spend the rest of my days there: I have had the same strong liking for virtuous people, the same pity, or should I say the same love, for the wretched and the same esteem for those whom prosperity has not blinded. That is my character, Usbek: wherever I find men, I choose friends.
There is here a Guebre1 who I believe, after you, holds the chief place in my heart: he is the very soul of honour. Special reasons have obliged him to retire to this town, where, with his beloved wife, he lives peacefully on the earnings of an honest trade. A generous temper has distinguished him all his life; and although he prefers obscurity, there is more of true heroism in him than in many of the greatest monarchs.
I have often spoken to him of you, and I show him all your letters. I note that this gives him great pleasure, and I perceive already that you have a friend, who is unknown to you.
Here you will find his principal adventures. Although he was very reluctant to write them, he can refuse nothing to my friendship, and I confide them to yours.
THE HISTORY OF APHERIDON AND ASTARTE.
I was born among the Guebres, whose religion is perhaps the oldest in the world. My misfortunes began, when, at the age of six, love dawned in me before reason, and I could not live without my sister. My eyes were always fixed on her, and if she left me for a moment, she found me, on returning, bathed in tears: each new day added not more to my age than to my love. My father, astonished at such strength of feeling, was quite willing that we should be married, according to the ancient custom of the Guebres, introduced by Cambyses2; but fear of the Mohammedans, under whose yoke we lived, prevented our people from thinking of those holy alliances, which our religion orders rather than permits, and which are such innocent reflections of a union already formed by nature.
My father, seeing how dangerous it would be to follow my inclination, which was also his, determined to extinguish a flame, believed by him to be newly lit, but which was already at its height. Under pretext of a voyage, he took me away, leaving my sister in the hands of a relative; for my mother had been dead for two years. I cannot describe the misery of that separation: I embraced my sister, she all bathed in tears, but I, dry-eyed; for grief had made me callous. We arrived at Tiflis; my father, having entrusted my education to one of our relatives, left me, and returned home.
Some time after, I learned that, through the influence of one of his friends, he had placed my sister in the harem of the king to wait upon a sultana. Had I been told of her death, I could not have been more overcome; for, apart from the fact that I could never hope to see her again, her entrance into the harem had made her a Mohammedan, and according to the superstition of that religion she could only regard me with horror. Nevertheless, unable to live longer at Tiflis, tired of myself and of life, I returned to Ispahan. My first words to my father were acrimonious; I reproached him with having placed his daughter in a place which could not be entered without a change in religion. “You have drawn upon your family,” said I to him, “the anger of God and of the Sun which lights you: you have done more wrong than if you had polluted the elements, inasmuch as you have polluted the soul of your daughter, which is not less pure: I shall die of grief and of love; and may my death be the only calamity which God will make you suffer!” With these words I went away; and for two years I spent my life staring at the walls of the harem, and wondering in which part of it my sister might be, in danger every day of having my throat cut by the eunuchs, who walk their rounds about that dread place.
At last my father died; and the sultana whom my sister served, seeing that she grew in beauty every day, became jealous, and married her to a eunuch who was passionately in love with her. In this way my sister left the seraglio, and occupied with her eunuch a house in Ispahan.
It was three months before I was able to get speech of her, the eunuch, the most jealous of men, always putting me off with various excuses. But at last I was admitted to his harem, where I had to talk to my sister through lattice. She was so closely wrapped in robes and veils that the eyes of a lynx could not have discovered anything, and I could recognise her only by the sound of her voice. My emotion was overpowering when I found myself so close to her, and yet so far away. I restrained myself, however, for I was watched. As for her, she seemed to shed a few tears. Her husband offered some kind of halting apology; but I treated him like the least of his slaves. He was very much annoyed when he heard me speak to my sister in a tongue unknown to him. It was ancient Persian I used, the language of our religion. “What, my sister!” cried I, “is it true that you have renounced the worship of your fathers? I know that, in entering a harem, you must perforce profess Mohammedanism; but, tell me, did your heart agree with your lips in renouncing the religion which permits me to love you? And for whom have you renounced that religion which should be so dear to us? For a wretch still branded with the marks of slavery; who, if he were a man, would be the basest of his kind.” “Brother,” said she, “this man of whom you speak is my husband; it is my duty to honour him, all unworthy as he may appear to you; and it is I who would be the basest of women, if . . .” “Ah! My sister,” said I, “you are a Guebre: this man is not, and can never be, your husband. Had you kept the faith like your fathers, you would regard him only as a monster.” “Alas!” said she, “how far removed from me that religion seems now! I had hardly learned its precepts when I was obliged to forget them. You hear that this language which I speak to you is no longer familiar to me, and that I have the greatest difficulty in expressing myself. But remember that I cherish always the exquisite memory of our childhood; that since then I have known only the mockery of happiness; that not a day has passed in which I have not thought of you; that you have had a greater share in my marriage than you imagine, for it was the hope of seeing you again that won my consent to it. But this day, which has cost me so much, will cost me more yet! I see you beside yourself with passion, and my husband quivers with rage and jealousy. I will never see you more; I speak to you without a doubt for the last time in my life; and if that be so, my brother, I know it will not be a long one.” She melted at these words; and finding herself unable to continue the conversation, she left me, the most disconsolate of men.
Three or four days afterwards I asked to see my sister. The brutish eunuch would have been very glad to prevent me; but, besides the fact that husbands of that kind have not so much power over their wives as others, he loved my sister so frantically, that he could refuse her nothing. I saw her again in the same place, veiled as before, and accompanied by two slaves, and was compelled to resort to our own language. “My sister,” said I, “how is it that I cannot see you except in these horrible circumstances? The walls which keep you imprisoned, these bolts and gratings, these miserable guards who watch you, drive me mad. How have you lost the sweet freedom in which your ancestors rejoiced? Your mother, who was so chaste, gave to her husband, as the sole pledge of her virtue, that virtue itself: they lived happy in each other, and in their mutual confidence; and the simplicity of their manners was to them a thousand times more precious than the false splendor which you seem to enjoy in this sumptuous house. In losing your religion, you have lost your liberty, your happiness, and that precious equality which is the honour of your sex. But there is something much worse behind; and that is, the thing which you are – not the wife, for that you cannot be, but the slave of a slave, who has been degraded from humanity!” “Ah, my brother!” said she, “have respect for my husband, for the religion which I have embraced: according to that religion, I cannot listen, I cannot speak, to you without sin.” “What, my sister!” said I, trembling with emotion, “then you believe that religion, you think it true!” “Ah!” said she, “how much better it would be for me if it were not true! I have made too great a sacrifice for it, not to believe in it; and if my doubts. . . .” At these words she became silent. “Yes, my sister, your doubts! They are well founded, whatever they may be. What can you expect from a religion which makes you miserable in this world, and leaves you no hope for the next? Remember that our religion is the most ancient in the world; that it has always flourished in Persia, and that it originated with the Persian empire, the beginnings of which are beyond human ken; that it is only chance that has introduced Mohammedanism here; that that sect has been established, not by the power of persuasion, but by conquest. If our native princes had not been weak, you would have beheld the worship of these ancient Magi3 reigning still. Transport yourself into those remote ages: everything will speak to you of Magism, and nothing of the Mohammedan sect which, many thousands of years after, was not even in its infancy.” “But,” said she, “although my religion may be more modern than yours, it is at least purer, since it adores but one God; while you still worship the sun, the stars, fire, and even the elements.” “I perceive, my sister, that you have learned among the Mussulmans to slander our holy religion. We adore neither the stars nor the elements; and our fathers did not adore them: they never built temples to them, nor offered sacrifices in their honour: they yielded only such inferior reverence as is due to the works and manifestations of the Deity. But, my sister, in the name of God who is our light, accept this sacred volume which I have brought you: it is the book of our lawgiver, Zoroaster: read it without prejudice, and receive into your heart the light which will shine upon you: remember your fathers, who for so long a time honoured the sun in the holy city of Balk;4 and, finally, do not forget me, whose hopes of peace, of fortune, and of life, depend upon your conversion.” Transported by my feelings, I went away, and left her to decide alone the most momentous event of my life.
I returned to her in two days. I did not speak; I waited in silence the sentence of life or death. “You are loved, my brother,” she said, “and by a Guebre. I have resisted long; but, ye Gods! what difficulties love can overcome! A load had fallen from me! I am no longer afraid that I may love you too much; there is no limit to my passion now that excess itself is lawful. Ah! how sweetly that thought chimes with my happy heart! But you, who have found a way to break the chains which my soul had forged for itself, when will you break those which fetter my hands? From this moment I give myself to you: show by the speed with which you take me how dear the gift is. My brother, when I shall embrace you for the first time, I think I shall die in your arms.” I can never fully express the joy which I felt at these words; I believed myself, and actually saw myself, in one instant, the happiest of men: I beheld almost fulfilled all the desires which I had formed in my twenty-five years of life, and the disappearance of all misery which had made it so hard. But, when I had grown somewhat accustomed to these delightful thoughts, I perceived that I was not so near my happiness, as I had on the first blush imagined, although I had overcome the chief obstacle in my path. It would be necessary to evade the watchfulness of her guards; I dared not confide to any one the secret of my life; I had only my sister, and she had only me: if my attempt failed, I ran the risk of being impaled; but no torture seemed so cruel as to be without her. We arranged that she should send to me for a time-piece which her father had left her; and that I should put inside it a file to cut the lattice of the window which opened on the street, and a knotted rope by which to descend; that thereafter I should cease to visit her, but should wait every night under her window until she could execute her design. I passed fifteen entire nights without seeing any one, because she had not found a favourable opportunity. At length, on the sixteenth, I heard the rasping of the file: from time to time the work was interrupted, and in the intervals my dread was inexpressible. After an hour’s labour, I saw her fasten the rope; she let herself go, and slid into my arms. All danger was forgotten, and for a long time we stood there motionless. Then I led her out of the city to a spot where I had a horse all ready: I lifted her to the croup behind me, and fled with all imaginable speed from a neighbourhood which might have been so disastrous to us. We arrived before morning at the house of a Guebre, in a lonely place to which he had retired, living frugally on the produce of his own labour. We did not think it wise to stay with him, and by his advice we entered a dense forest, where we lodged in the hollow of an old oak, until the rumour of our flight had died away. We lived together in this out-of-the-way abode, unseen of any, telling our love over and over again to each other, and waiting until the ceremony of marriage, prescribed by our religion, could be performed by a Guebre priest. “My sister,” said I, “how holy is that union! Nature has joined us, and our holy law will join us in another bond.” At last a priest came to quiet the impatience of our love. In the house of the peasant he performed all the ceremonies of marriage; he blessed us, and wished us a thousand times the vigour of Gustaspes, and the holiness of Hohoraspes. Soon after we left Persia, where we were not safe, and retired into Georgia. We lived there a year, and every day increased the pleasure we found in each other’s company. But when my money was nearly done, fearing misery for my sister, not for myself, I left her to seek help from our relatives. Never was a parting more tender. My journey, however, was not only useless, but disastrous. For, having found all our goods confiscated, and my relatives almost powerless to aid me, I brought away with me no more money than sufficed for my return. But imagine my despair! My sister was not to be found. Some days before my arrival the Tartars had invaded the city where she was, and finding her beautiful, had seized her, and sold her to some Jews who were bound for Turkey, leaving me only a little daughter born some months before. I followed these Jews, and overtook them three leagues off. In vain I besought them with tears, they persisted in demanding thirty tomans5, and would not bate a single coin.
Having gone to everybody, and having begged the aid of both the Christian and the Turkish priests, I applied to an Armenian merchant: to him I sold my daughter and myself for thirty-five tomans. I went to the Jews, gave them their thirty tomans, and carried the other five to my sister, whom I had not yet seen. “You are free,” said I, “my sister; and I can embrace you. Here are five tomans I have brought; I am sorry that they would not buy me for more.” “What!” cried she, “you have sold yourself?” “Yes,” replied I. “Ah! wretched man, what have you done? Was I not miserable enough, that should make me more so? Your freedom was my comfort; your bondage will bring me to the grave. Ah! my brother, how cruel your love is! And my daughter? I do not see her!” “I have sold her too,” said I. We both burst into tears, and were unable to utter a single word. At last I had to return to my master. My sister was with him almost as soon as I. She threw herself at his feet saying, “I beg from you slavery as others as for freedom: take me, you can sell me for a greater sum than my husband.” Then there took place a struggle which drew tears from my master’s eyes. “Unhappy man!” said she, “did you think that I would accept my liberty at the cost of yours? Master, you behold two unfortunates who will die if you separate them. I give myself to you; pay me: perhaps that money and my services will some day obtain from you what I dare not ask. It is for your own interest not to separate us: remember his life depends on me.” The Armenian, a humane man, was touched by our woes: “Serve me, both of you, with fidelity and zeal, and I promise you that in a year I will give you your freedom. I see that neither of you deserve the wretchedness of your lot. If, when you become free, your happiness is as great as your merit, and fortune smiles upon you, I am certain that you will repay me that which I shall lose.” We both embraced his knees, and attended him on his journey. We comforted each other in our servile tasks; and I was delighted when I could do the work which fell to my sister’s share.
The end of the year arrived; our master kept his word and set us free. We returned to Tiflis. There I found an old friend of my father’s, who practised successfully as a physician in that city. He lent me some money, with which I traded. Some business called me shortly after to Smyrna, where I established myself. I have lived there for six years in the enjoyment of the most amiable and agreeable society in the world. Unity reigns in my family, and I would not change my lot for that of all the kings of the earth. I have been fortunate enough to meet again the Armenian merchant, to whom I owe all; and I have been able to render him some important services.
Smyrna, the 27th of the second moon of Gemmadi, 1714.