Hajji Baba of Ispahan/08
Chapter VIII: Hajji Baba escapes from the Turcomans—The meaning of 'falling from the frying-pan into the fire' illustrated
As soon as the poet had finished his narrative, I assured him that I would do everything in my power to serve him; but I recommended patience to him for the present, as I had not yet devised the means of procuring my own liberty, and foresaw great difficulties in saving him at the same time. It would be impossible to evade the watchfulness of our masters, as long as we were in the open desert: their horses were as good as mine, and they were much better acquainted with the country than I was. To run away from them under these circumstances would be madness; therefore it was only left us to watch my opportunity that might be given us of escape.
We had reached the limits of the Salt Desert, and were about crossing the high road that leads from Tehran to Meshed, about twenty parasangs to the east of Damgan, when Aslan Sultan made a halt, and proposed that we should remain concealed for a day in the broken ground that borders the road, in the hopes that fortune might throw us in the way of a passing caravan, which it was his intention that we should pillage. At the very dawn of the following clay, a spy, who had been stationed on an adjacent hill, came in great haste to report that he saw clouds of dust rising in the direction of Damgan, and approaching towards us, on the road leading to Meshed.
Immediately we were all upon the alert. The Turcomans left their prisoners, bound hand and foot, on the spot where we had rested, with the intention of returning to take them up as soon as we should have rifled the caravan, and, fully equipped, we sallied forth with great caution, determined on blood and plunder.
Aslan himself proceeded before the rest, in order to reconnoitre; and calling me to him, said, 'Now, Hajji, here is an opportunity for distinguishing yourself. You shall accompany me; and you will observe the precautions I use previous to showing our whole body, which it may be necessary for you to know, in order that you may be able to conduct such an enterprise yourself on some future occasion. I take you with me, in case I should be obliged to use an interpreter; for frequently in these caravans, there is not a person who understands our language. We will approach as near as we can, perhaps have a parley with the conductor, and if we cannot make terms with him, we will fall on with our whole party.'
As the travellers approached, I perceived that Aslan Sultan became uneasy. 'This is no caravan, I fear,' said he; 'they march in too compact a body: besides, I hear no bells; the dust is too great in one spot. I see spears!—it is an immense cavalcade—five led horses!—this is no game for us.'
In fact, as they approached, it was easy to discover that it was no caravan, but some great personage, the governor of a province at least, who was travelling, attended by a numerous escort of horsemen and servants, and with all the pomp and glitter usual on such occasions.
My heart leaped within me when I saw this, for here was an excellent opportunity for escape. Could I approach near enough to be taken prisoner by them, without exciting any previous suspicion in my master, I should be safe; and although I might be ill-treated at first, still I trusted to my eloquence to make my story believed. Accordingly, I said to my companion, 'Let us approach nearer'; and, without waiting for his permission, I excited my horse onwards. He immediately followed, with an intention of stopping me; but we had no sooner cleared the small elevated ground behind which we had posted ourselves, than we came in full view of the whole party, and were scarcely a bow-shot from them. As soon as we were discovered, some six or seven of their best horsemen were detached from the rest of the body, and, at the fullest speed of their horses, came towards us. We turned about to fly: as much as Aslan urged on his steed, so much did I restrain mine; and by this maneuver I was very soon overtaken and seized. To be knocked off my horse, disarmed, plundered of my fifty ducats, my razors and all my other effects, was but the business of a few seconds; and although I assured my new masters that I was in no intention to leave them, still they persisted in tying my arms behind me, with my own shawl, which they took from round my waist for that purpose. Thus pinioned, and receiving blows every now and then, because I did not move fast enough, I was dragged before their chief, who had made a halt, surrounded by his attendants.
From the sort of attentions which he received, and the low inclinations of the body that were made before him, I imagined that he must be a royal personage, and I was soon informed as much, when I came near; for several blows on the head were given me, as hints to make me prostrate myself before a shahzadeh, or prince. A large circle being made, he ordered me to be released, and, as soon as I felt myself free, at one bound I disengaged myself from those near me, and seizing upon the skirt of his cloak, as he was seated on his horse, exclaimed, 'Penah be shahzadeh! protection from the prince.' One of the guards rushed forward to punish my audacity; but the prince would not allow the sacred custom to be infringed, and promised me his protection. Ordering his servants not to molest me, he, at the same time, commanded me to relate how I came to be placed in the predicament in which I now stood.
Falling on my knees, and kissing the ground, I related my story in as concise a manner as possible; and, to corroborate all that I had said, added, that if he would order his horsemen to attack the party of Turcomans, who still were close at hand, they might release the king's poet, with two other Persians, who were prisoners in their hands, and they would fully confirm all that I had asserted.
I had no sooner said this than the horsemen, who had pursued Aslan Sultan, returned, with looks of great dismay, swearing by Ali and by the head of the king, that an immense body of Turcomans, at least 1,000 strong, were marching down upon us, and that the prince must prepare to fight. In vain I explained to them that they were only twenty in number—no body would believe me; I was treated as a spy and a liar, and every one said that if the Turcomans did attack, they would put me to death on the spot. The party then proceeded onwards at a good pace, looking about in all directions for the expected enemy, and betraying all those symptoms of apprehension which the very name of Turcoman excites throughout the whole of Persia.
My own horse had been taken from me, and I was permitted to ride upon a baggage mule, where I had time to ponder over my wretched fate and miserable prospects. Without a farthing in my pocket, without a friend, I saw nothing before me but starvation. I had not yet become a sufficiently good Mussulman to receive comfort from predestination, and I absolutely sobbed aloud at my own folly, for having voluntarily been the cause of my present misery. That fond partiality for my own countrymen, which used to predominate so powerfully in my breast when I was a prisoner, entirely forsook me here, and I cursed them aloud.
'You call yourselves Mussulmans!' said I to those around me: 'you have not the feelings of dogs. Dogs did I say? You are worse than Christian dogs—the Turcomans are men compared to you.'
Then when I found that this sort of language only produced laughter in my auditors, I tried what entreaty would do. 'For the love of Imam Hossein, for the sake of the Prophet, by the souls of your children, why do you treat a stranger thus? Am I not a Mussulman like yourselves? What have I done that I should be made to devour this grief? I sought refuge amongst you as friends, and I am thrust away as an enemy.'
For all this I got no consolation, excepting from an old muleteer, by name Ali Katir, who had just lighted his kalian, or water pipe, and giving it to me to smoke, said, 'My son, everything in this world is in the hand of God.' Pointing to the mule upon which he rode, he added, 'If God has made this animal white, can Ali Katir make it black? It one day gets a feed of corn; on the next it browses upon a thistle. Can we contend with fate? Smoke your pipe now and be happy, and be thankful that it is no worse with you. Hafiz says, "Every moment of pleasure that you enjoy, account it gain—who can say what will be the event of any thing?"'
This speech of the muleteer soothed me a little, and as he found that I was as well versed in Hafiz as he, and not backward in permitting myself to be comforted, he treated me with much kindness, and made me a partaker of his mess during the remainder of the journey. He informed me that the prince, into whose hands I had fallen, was the Shah's fifth son, who had lately been installed in the government of the province of Khorassan, and was now on his road to Meshed, the seat of his jurisdiction. He was escorted by a greater number of attendants than ordinary, on account of the alarming state of the Turcoman frontier, and it was said that he had instructions to commence very active operations against that people, as many of whose heads as possible he was invited to send to Tehran, to be piled up before the gate of the royal palace; and you may account yourself very fortunate,' added the muleteer, 'that yours was not taken off your shoulders. Had you happened to be fair, with little eyes, and without much hair, instead of being a dark man, as you are, you certainly would have been put to death, and your head have been pickled, and made to pass for that of a Turcoman.'
When we had reached our resting-place at night, which was a lonely caravanserai half in ruins, situated on the skirts of the desert, I determined to endeavour to procure admittance to the prince, and to make an effort to regain my fifty ducats, and my horse and arms, which I made no scruple in claiming as my own, notwithstanding a certain little voice within me, which told me that another had almost as much right to them as I had. I accordingly watched an opportunity, just before the evening prayer, of presenting myself to him. He was seated on a carpet that had been spread on the terrace of the caravanserai, reposing himself on his cushion, and before his attendants had time to beat me off, I exclaimed, 'Arzi darum, I have a petition to make.' Upon which he ordered me to approach, and asked me what I wanted? I complained of the treatment I had received from his servants who had first seized me—related how they had robbed me of my fifty ducats; and then entreated that my horse and arms might be restored to me. He inquired of those surrounding him who the men were that I complained of, and when their names were mentioned, he sent his chief tent-pitcher to conduct them to him. As soon as they appeared, for they were two, I recognized the aggressors, and affirmed them to be such to the prince.
'Sons of dogs,' said he to them, 'where is the money you stole from this man?'
'We took nothing,' they immediately exclaimed.
'We shall soon see that,' answered he. 'Call the ferashes,' said he to one of his officers, 'and let them beat the rogues on the soles of their feet till they produce the fifty ducats.'
They were immediately seized, and when their feet were in the air, strongly tied in the noose, and after receiving a few blows, they confessed that they had taken the money, and produced it. It was forthwith carried to the prince, who deliberately counted it over, and, putting it under the cushion upon which he was reclining, released the culprits, and said in a loud voice to me, 'You are dismissed.' I stood with my mouth wide open, hoping to see the money handed over to me, when his master of the ceremonies took me by the shoulders and pushed me away. I exclaimed, 'And my money, where is it?'
'What does he say?' said the prince: 'give him the shoe if he speaks again.'
When the master of the ceremonies, taking off his high green slipper, struck me over the mouth with the heel of it, shod with iron, saying, 'Do you speak to a king's son thus? Go in peace, and keep your eyes open, or you'll have your ears cut off'; and so I was pushed and dragged violently away.
I returned in utter despair to my muleteer, who appeared not in the least surprised at what had happened and said, 'What could you expect more? After all, is he not a prince? When once he or any man in power gets possession of a thing, do you think that they will ever restore it? You might as well expect a mule to give up a mouthful of fresh grass, when once it has got it within its mouth, as a prince to give up money that has once been in his hands.'
- Seizing the skirt of a man in authority, or the heel ropes of his horses in the stable, are as great protection to a culprit in Persia as the precincts of a church are in Roman Catholic countries.
- It is no uncommon circumstance in Persia to find men of the lowest estate well versed in their poets. The Persians are eminently a poetical people.