The adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan/05
Chapter V: Hajji Baba becomes a robber in his own defence, and invades his native city
I had now been above a year in the hands of the Turcomans, during which I had acquired the entire confidence of my master. He consulted me upon all his own affairs, as well as those of his community, and as he considered that I might now be depended upon, he determined to permit me to accompany him in a predatory excursion into Persia,—a permission, which, in hopes of a good opportunity to escape, I had frequently entreated of him to grant. Hitherto I had never been allowed to stray beyond the encampment and its surrounding pastures, and as I was totally ignorant of the roads through the great salt desert which separated us from Persia, I knew that it would be in vain for me to attempt flight, as many before me had done, and had invariably perished or returned to their masters, who treated them with more rigour than before. I therefore rejoiced that I now had an opportunity of observing the country we were about to cross, and determined with myself that if I could not get away during this expedition, nothing should hinder my attempting it on my return. The Turcomans generally make their principal excursions in the spring, when they find pasturage for their horses in the highlands, and fresh corn in the plains, and because they then are almost certain of meeting caravans to plunder on their march. This season being now near at hand, Aslan called together the chiefs of his tribe, the heads of tens and the heads of hundreds, and all those who were skilled in plunder, and proposed a plan to them of an incursion into the very heart of Persia. Their object was to reach Ispahan itself, to enter the city in the night, when all was quiet, and to sack the caravanserai, to which the richest merchants were known to resort. Our guide through the great salt desert was to be my master in person, whose experience and local knowledge were greater than that of any of his contemporaries; and he proposed to the council that as no one amongst them, except myself, knew the streets and bazaars of Ispahan, I should lead the way, when once we had entered the city. This was opposed by several, who said that it was imprudent to trust a stranger and a native of the very place they intended to attack, who would be likely to run off the moment he could do so with safety. At length, after much discussion, it was agreed that I should be their guide in Ispahan; that two men should ride close on each side of me, and in case I showed the least symptom of treachery in my movements, kill me on the spot. This being settled, the Turcomans put their horses in training, and one was appointed for my use, which had the reputation of having twice borne away the flag at their races. I was equipped as a Turcoman, with a large sheep-skin cap on my head, a sheep-skin coat, a sword, a bow and arrows, and a heavy spear, the head of which was taken off or put on as the occasion might require. I had a bag of corn tied behind on my horse, besides ropes to tether him with when we made a halt,—and for my own food I carried several flaps of bread, and half a dozen of hard eggs, trusting to the chapter of accidents, and to my own endurance of hunger, for further sustenance. I had already made a very tolerable apprenticeship to a hard life since I had first been taken, by sleeping on the ground with the first thing that I could seize for a pillow, and thus I looked upon the want of a bed as no privation. My companions were equally hardy, and in point of bodily fatigue, perhaps, we were a match for any nation in the world.
I took previous care to unbury the fifty ducats, which I tied very carefully in my girdle, and I promised my former master, who from fretting had worn himself down to a skeleton, that if ever I had an opportunity, I would do all in my power to make his friends ransom him. 'Ah,' said be, 'no one will ever ransom me. As for my son, he will be happy to get my property; and as for my wife, she will be happy to get another husband: so no hope is left. There is only one favour I beg of you, which is, to inquire what is the price of lamb-skins at Constantinople.'
Here I had another struggle with my conscience on the subject of the ducats. Should I restore them? Would it not be more advantageous, even to my master, that I should keep them? My ability to take advantage of this opportunity to escape might depend upon my having a little money in my purse—and what chance had he of being relieved but through my interference? All things considered, I let them remain in my girdle.
The astrologer having fixed upon a lucky hour for our departure, we, mounted at nightfall. Our party consisted of Aslan Sultan, who was appointed chief of the expedition, and of twenty men, myself included. Our companions were composed of the principal men of the different encampments in our neighbourhood, and were all, more or less, accomplished cavaliers. They were mounted upon excellent horses, the speed and bottom of which are so justly celebrated throughout Asia; and as we rode along in the moonlight, completely armed, I was persuaded that we looked as desperate a gang of ruffians as ever took the field. For my part, I felt that nature had never intended me for a warrior, and although I thought that I could keep up appearances as well as most men in my predicament, and indeed I believe did act my part so perfectly, as to make both my master and his companions believe that they had got a very Rustam in me, yet I dreaded the time when I should be put to the trial.
I was surprised to observe the dexterity with which our chief led us through the thick forests that clothe the mountains which border the plains of Kipchâk. The dangers of the precipices and the steep ascents were something quite appalling to a young traveller like me; but my companions rode over everything with the greatest unconcern, confident in the sure-footedness of their horses. Having once ascended the mountains, we entered upon the arid plains of Persia, and here my master's knowledge of the country was again conspicuous. He knew every summit the moment it appeared, with the same certainty as an experienced Frank sailor recognizes a distant headland at sea. But he showed his sagacity most in drawing his inferences from the tracks and footsteps of animals. He could tell what sort of travellers they belonged to, whence coming, whither going, whether enemy or friend, whether laden or unladen, and what their probable numbers, with the greatest precision.
We travelled with much precaution as long as we were in the inhabited parts of the country, lying by during the day, and making all expedition at night. Our stock of provender and provisions was renewed at the last encampment of the wandering tribes which we visited before we reached the great salt desert, and when we entered it, we urged our horses on with as much haste as we knew their strength was likely to support. At length, after travelling about 120 parasangs, we found ourselves in the environs of Ispahan. The moment for reaping the fruit of our fatigue, and for trying my courage, was now at hand, and my heart quite misgave me when I heard of the plan of attack which my companions proposed.
Their scheme was to enter the city through one of the unguarded avenues, which were well known to me, and at midnight to make straight for the Royal Caravanserai, where we were sure to find a great many merchants, who at this season of the year collect there with ready money to make their purchases. We were at once to carry off all the cash we could find, then to seize and gag each a merchant if we were able, that before the city could be alarmed, we might be on the road to our encampment again. I found the plan so hazardous, and so little likely to succeed, that I gave it as my opinion that we ought not to attempt it; but my master, putting on his most determined look, said to me, 'Hajji! open your eyes—this is no child's play!—I swear by the beard of the Prophet, that if you do not behave well, I'll burn your father. We have succeeded before, and why should we not be as successful now? He then ordered me to ride near him, and placed another ruffian at my side, and both vowed, if I flinched, that they would immediately run me through the body. We then took the lead, and, from my knowledge of Ispahan, I easily picked my way through the ruins which surround it, and then entered into the inhabited streets, which were at that time of night entirely forsaken. When near the scene of action, we stopped under the arches of one of the ruined houses, which are so frequently to be met with even in the most inhabited parts of the city, and dismounting from our horses, picketed them to the ground with pegs and heelropes, and left them under the care of two of our men. By way of precaution we appointed a rendezvous in a lonely dell about five parasangs from Ispahan, to which it was determined we should retreat as circumstances might require. Once on foot, we proceeded without noise in a body, avoiding as much as we could the bazaars, where I knew that the officers of the police kept watch, and by lanes reached the gate of the caravanserai. Here was a place, every square inch of which I knew by heart, namely, my father's shaving shop. Being aware that the gate of the caravanserai would be locked, I made the party halt there, and, taking up a stone, knocked, and called out to the doorkeeper by name: 'Ali Mohammed,' said I, 'open, open: the caravan is arrived.'
Between asleep and awake, without showing the least symptom of opening, 'What caravan?' said he.
'The caravan from Bagdad.'
'From Bagdad? why that arrived yesterday. Do you laugh at my beard?'
Seeing myself entrapped, I was obliged to have recourse to my own name, and said, 'Why, a caravan to be sure with Hajji Baba, Kerbelai Hassan the barber's son, who went away with Osman Aga, the Bagdad merchant. I bring the news, and expect the present.'
'What, Hajji?' said the porter, 'he who used to shave my head so well? His place has long been empty. You are welcome.'
Upon which he began to unbolt the heavy gates of the entrance porch, which, as they creaked on their hinges, discovered a little old man in his drawers with an iron lamp in his hand, which shed enough light to show us that the place was full of merchants and their effects.
One of our party immediately seized upon him, and then we all rushed in and fell to work. Expert in these sort of attacks, my companions knew exactly where to go for plunder, and they soon took possession of all the gold and silver that was to be found; but their first object was to secure two or three of the richest merchants, whose ransom might be a further source of wealth to them. Ere the alarm had been spread, they had seized upon three, who from their sleeping upon fine beds, covered with shawl quilts, and reposing upon embroidered cushions, they expected would prove a good prize. These they bound hand and foot after their fashion, and forcing them away, placed them upon their best horses behind riders, who immediately retreated from the scene of action to the rendezvous.
From my knowledge of the caravanserai itself, and of the rooms which the richest merchants generally occupied, I knew where cash was to be found, and I entered one room as softly as I could (the very room which my first master had occupied), and seizing upon the small box in which the merchants generally keep their money, I made off with it. To my joy, I found it contained a heavy bag, which I thrust into my bosom, and carried it about with me as well as I could; although, on account of the darkness, I could not ascertain of what metal it was.
By the time we had nearly finished our operations the city had been alarmed. Almost all the people within the caravanserai, such as servants, grooms, and mule-drivers, at the first alarm had retreated to the roof; the neighbouring inhabitants then came in flocks, not knowing exactly what to do: then came the police magistrate and his officers, who also got on the roof of the caravanserai, but who only increased the uproar by their cries, exclaiming, 'Strike, seize, kill!' without in fact doing anything to repulse the enemy. Some few shots were fired at random; but, owing to the darkness and the general confusion, we managed to steal away without any serious accident. During the fray I was frequently tempted to leave the desperate gang to which I belonged, and hide myself in some corner until they were gone; but I argued thus with myself: If I should succeed in getting away, still my dress would discover me, and before I could explain who I really was, I should certainly fall a sacrifice to the fury of the populace, the effects of which more than once I had had occasion to witness. My father's shop was before me; the happy days I had passed in that very caravanserai were in my recollection, and I was in the act of deliberating within myself what I should do, when I felt myself roughly seized by the arm, and the first thing which I recognized on turning round was the grim face of Aslan Sultan, who threatened to kill me on the spot, if I did not render myself worthy of the confidence he had placed in me. In order to show him my prowess, I fastened upon a Persian who had just rushed by us, and, throwing him down, I exclaimed that, if he did not quietly submit to be taken prisoner and to follow me, I would put him to death. He began to make the usual lamentations, 'For the sake of Iman Hossein, by the soul of your father, by the beard of Omar, I conjure you to leave me!' and immediately I recognized a voice that could belong to no one but my own father. By a gleam from a lantern, I discovered his well-known face. It was evident, that hearing the commotion, he had left his bed to secure the property in his shop, which altogether did not consist of more than half-a-dozen of towels, a case of razors, soap, and a carpet. The moment I recognized him, I let go his beard, of which I had got a fast hold, and, owing to that habit of respect which we Persians show to our parents, would have kissed his hand and stood before him; but my life was in danger if I appeared to flinch, so I continued to struggle with him, and in order to show myself in earnest, pretending to beat him, I administered my blows to a mule's pack-saddle that was close to where he lay. This while I heard my father muttering to himself, 'Ah, if Hajji was here, he would not permit me to be served in this way!' which had such an effect upon me, that I immediately let him go, and exclaimed in Turkish to the surrounding Turcomans: 'He won't do for us; he's only a barber.' So without more ceremony I quitted the scene of action, mounted my horse, and retreated in full gallop through the city.
- The races that take place among the Turcomans and the Persians are intended to try the bottom, rather than the actual speed of their horses.
- The bread here alluded to is baked on small and convex iron plates, and when prepared is about the thickness of brown paper.
- Rustam is the fabulous hero of Persian history, so much celebrated in the Shah Nameh as a paragon of strength and courage. His duel with Asfendiar, which lasted two whole days, is the theme of Persian romance.
- A parasang is equivalent to about three and a half geographical miles.
- A full-equipped horseman in the East generally carries with him an iron peg, to which is affixed a rope terminated by a noose, with which he pickets his horse wherever he may alight. The rope is buttoned to the fore-leg, whilst the peg is driven into the ground with a stone.