The Shaving of Shagpat (1909)/The Talking Hawk

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The Shaving of Shagpat  (1909)  by George Meredith
The Talking Hawk


Now, when he awoke he found himself alone in that place, the moon shining over the low meadows and flower-cups fair with night-dew. Odours of night-flowers were abroad, filling the cool air with deliciousness, and he heard in the gardens below songs of the bulbul: it was like a dream to his soul, and he lay somewhile contemplating the rich loveliness of the scene, that showed no moving thing. Then rose he and bethought him of the words of Noorna, and of the City of Oolb, and the phial of the waters of Paravid in his vest; and he drew it forth, and dropped a drop of it on the rock where he had reclined. A deep harmony seemed suddenly to awake inside the rock, and to his interrogation as to the direction of Oolb, he heard, 'The path of the shadows of the moon.'

Thereupon he advanced to a prominent part of the rocks above the meadows, and beheld the shadows of the moon thrown forward into dimness across a waste of sand. And he stepped downward to the level of sand, and went the way of the shadows till it was dawn. Then dropped he a drop of the waters of the phial on a spike of lavender, and there was a voice said to him in reply to what he questioned, 'The path of the shadows of the sun.'

The shadows of the sun were thrown forward across the same waste of sand, and he turned and pursued his way, resting at noon beneath a date-tree, and refreshing himself at a clear spring beside it. Surely he was joyful as he went, and elated with high prospects, singing:

Sun and moon with their bright fingers
Point the hero's path;
If in his great work he lingers,
Well may they be wroth.

Now, the extent of the duration of his travel was four days and an equal number of nights; and it was on the fifth morn that he entered the gates of a city by the sea, even at that hour when the inhabitants were rising from sleep: fair was the sea beyond it, and the harbour was crowded with vessels, ships stored with merchandise—silks, dates, diamonds, Damascus steel, huge bales piled on the decks for the land of Roum and other lands. Shibli Bagarag thought, 'There's scarce a doubt but that one of those sails will set for Oolb shortly. Wullahy! if I knew which, I'd board her and win a berth in her.' Presently he thought, 'I'll go to the public fountain and question it with the speech-winning waters.' Thereupon he passed down the streets of the city and came to an open space, where stood the fountain, and sprinkled it with Paravid; and the fountain spake, saying, 'Where men are, question not dumb things.'

Cried he, 'Faileth Paravid in its power? Have I done aught to baffle myself?'

Then he thought, ''Twere nevertheless well to do as the fountain directeth, and question men while I see them.' And he walked about among the people, and came to the quays of the harbour where the ships lay close in, many of them an easy leap from shore, and considered whom to address. So, as he loitered about the quays, meditating on the means at the disposal of the All-Wise, and marking the vessels wistfully, behold, there advanced to him one at a quick pace, in the garb of a sailor. He observed Shibli Bagarag attentively a moment, and exclaimed as it were in the plenitude of respect and with the manner of one that is abashed, 'Surely, thou art Shibli Bagarag, the nephew of the barber, him we watch for.'

So Shibli Bagarag marvelled at this recognition, and answered, 'Am I then already famous to that extent?'

And he that accosted him said, ''Tis certain the trumpet was blown before thy steps, and there is not a man in this city but knoweth of thy destination to the City of Oolb, and that thou art upon the track of great things, one chosen to bring about imminent changes.'

Then said Shibli Bagarag, 'For this I praise Noorna bin Noorka, daughter of Feshnavat, Vizier of the King that ruleth in the city of Shagpat! She saw me, that I was marked for greatness. Wullahy, the eagle knoweth me from afar, and proclaimeth me; the antelope of the hills scenteth the coming of one not as other men, and telleth his tidings; the wind of the desert shapeth its gust to a meaning, so that the stranger may wot Shibli Bagarag is at hand!'

He puffed his chest, and straightened his legs like the cock, and was as a man upon whom the Sultan has bestowed a dress of honour, even as the plumed peacock. Then the other said:

'Know that I am captain of yonder vessel, that stands farthest out from the harbour with her sails slackened; and she is laden with figs and fruits which I exchange for silks, spices, and other merchandise, with the people of Oolb. Now, what says the poet?—

"Delay in thine undertaking
Is disaster of thy own making";

and he says also:

"Greatness is solely for them that succeed;
'Tis a rotten applause that gives earlier meed."'

Therefore it is advisable for thee to follow me on board without loss of time, and we will sail this very night for the City of Oolb.'

Now, Shibli Bagarag was ruled by the words of the captain albeit he desired to stay awhile and receive the homage of the people of that city. So he followed him into a boat that was by, and the twain were rowed by sailors to the ship. Then, when they were aboard the captain set sail, and they were soon in the hollows of deep waters. There was a berth in the ship set apart for Shibli Bagarag, and one for the captain. Shibli Bagarag, when he entered his berth, beheld at the head of his couch a hawk; its eyes red as rubies, its beak sharp as the curve of a scimitar. So he called out to the captain, and the captain came to him; but when he saw the hawk, he plucked his turban from his head, and dashed it at the hawk, and afterward ran to it, trying to catch it; and the hawk flitted from corner to corner of the berth, he after it with open arms. Then he took a sword, but the hawk flew past him, and fixed on the back part of his head, tearing up his hair by the talons, and pecking over his forehead at his eyes. And Shibli Bagarag heard the hawk scream the name 'Karaz,' and he looked closely at the Captain of the vessel, and knew him for the Genie Karaz. Then trembled he with exceeding terror, cursing his credulities, for he saw himself in the hands of the Genie, and nothing but this hawk friendly to him on the fearful waters. When the hawk had torn up a certain hair, the Genie stiffened, and glowed like copper in the furnace, the whole length of him; and he descended heavily through the bottom of the ship, and sank into the waters beneath, which hissed and smoked as at a bar of heated iron. Then Shibli Bagarag gave thanks to the Prophet, and praised the hawk, but the hawk darted out of the cabin, and he followed it on deck, and, lo! the vessel was in flames, and the hawk in a circle of the flames; and the flames soared with it, and left it no outlet. Now, as Shibli Bagarag watched the hawk, the flames stretched out towards him and took hold of his vestments. So he delayed not to commend his soul to the All-merciful, and bore witness to his faith, and plunged into the sea headlong. When he rose, the ship had vanished, and all was darkness where it had been; so he buffeted with the billows, thinking his last hour had come, and there was no help for him in this world; and the spray shaken from the billows blinded him, the great walls of water crumbled over him; strength failed him, and his memory ceased to picture images of the old time—his heart to beat with ambition; and to keep the weight of his head above the surface was becoming a thing worth the ransom of kings. As he was sinking and turning his eyes upward, he heard a flutter as of fledgling's wings, and the two red ruby eyes of the hawk were visible above him, like steady fires in the gloom. And the hawk perched on him, and buried itself among the wet hairs of his head, and presently taking the Identical in its beak, the hawk lifted him half out of water, and bore him a distance, and dropped him. This the hawk did many times, and at the last, Shibli Bagarag felt land beneath him, and could wade through the surges to the shore. He gave thanks to the Supreme Disposer, kneeling prostrate on the shore, and fell into a sleep deep in peacefulness as a fathomless well, unruffled by a breath.

Now, when it was dawn Shibli Bagarag awoke and looked inland, and saw plainly the minarets of a city shining in the first beams, and the front of yellow mountains, and people moving about the walls and on the towers and among the pastures round the city; so he made toward them, and inquired of them the name of their city. And they stared at him, crying, 'What! know'st thou not the City of Oolb? the hawk on thy shoulder could tell thee that much.' He looked and saw that the hawk was on his shoulder; and its left wing was scorched, the plumage blackened. So he said to the hawk, 'Is it profitable, O preserving bird, to ask of thee questions?'

The hawk shook its wings and closed an eye.

So he said, 'Do I well in entering this city?'

The hawk shook its wings again and closed an eye.

So he said, 'To what house shall I direct my steps in this strange city for the attainment of the purpose I have?'

The hawk flew, and soared, and alighted on the topmost of the towers of Oolb. So when it returned he said, 'O bird! rare bird! my counsellor! it is an indication, this alighting on the highest tower, that thou advisest me to go straight to the palace of the King?'

The hawk flapped its wings and winked both eyes; so Shibli Bagarag took forth the phial from his breast, remembering the virtues of the waters of the Well of Paravid, and touched his lips with them, that he might be endowed with flowing speech before the King of Oolb. As he did this the phial was open, and the hawk leaned to it and dipped its beak into the water; and he entered the city and passed through the long streets towards the palace of the King, and craved audience of him as one that had a thing marvellous to tell. So the King commanded that Shibli Bagarag should be brought before him, for he was a lover of marvels. As he went into the presence of the King, Shibli Bagarag listened to the hawk, for the hawk spake his language, and it said, 'Proclaim to the King a new wonder—"the talking hawk."'

So when he had bent his body to the King, he proclaimed the new wonder; and the King seemed not to observe the hawk, and said, 'From what city art thou?'

He answered, 'Native, O King, to Shiraz; newly from the City of Shagpat.'

And the King asked, 'How is it with that hairy wonder?'

He answered, 'The dark forest flourisheth about him.'

And the King said, 'That is well! We of the City of Oolb take our fashions from them of the City of Shagpat, and it is but yesterday that I bastinadoed a barber that strayed among us.'

Shibli Bagarag sighed when he heard the King, and thought to himself, 'How unfortunate is the race of barbers, once honourable and in esteem! Surely it will not be otherwise till Shagpat is shaved!' And the King called out to him for the cause of his sighing; so he said, 'I sigh, O King of the age, considering how like may be the case of the barber bastinadoed but yesterday, in his worth and value, to that of Roomdroom, the reader of planets, that was a barber.'

And he related the story of Roomdroom for the edification of the King and the exaltation of barbercraft, delivering himself neatly and winningly and pointedly, so that the story should apply, which was its merit and its origin.[1]

  1. The story mentioned is not found here, but may be read in the first edition:

    (Wikisource contributor note)