The adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan/14
Chapter XIV: Of the man he meets, and the consequences of the encounter
I left Semnan with a light heart—my sprain was cured—I was young and handsome—twenty tomauns, my savings at Meshed, clinked in my purse—I had acquired some experience in the world; and I determined, as soon as I reached Tehran, to quit the garb of a dervish, to dress myself well from head to foot, and to endeavour to push my fortunes in some higher walk in life.
About a day's journey from Tehran, as I was walking onward, chanting, with all my throat, a song on the loves of Leilah and Majnoun, I was overtaken by a courier, who entered into conversation with me, and invited me to partake of some victuals which he had brought with him. The heat of the day being overpowering, I willingly accepted his invitation. We settled ourselves on the borders of a rivulet, near a cornfield, whilst the courier took off his horse's bridle, and permitted it to feed on the new wheat. He then groped up, from the deep folds of his riding trousers, a pocket handkerchief, in which were wrapped several lumps of cold boiled rice, and three or four flaps of bread, which he spread before us, and then added some sour curds, which he poured from a small bag that hung at his saddle-bow. From the same trousers, which contained his shoes, a provision of tobacco, a drinking cup, and many other useful articles, he drew half a dozen raw onions, which he added to the feast; and we ate with such appetite, that very soon we were reduced to the melancholy dessert of sucking our fingers. We washed the whole down with some water from the rivulet, and only then (such had been our voracity) we thought of questioning each other concerning the object of our respective journeys. From my dress, he perceived me to be a dervish, and my story was soon told: as for himself, he was a courier belonging to the Governor of Asterabad, and, to my joy and surprise, was carrying the happy intelligence of the release of my former companion, Asker Khan, the Shah's poet, from his captivity among the Turcomans. I did not let the courier know how much I was interested in his errand, for experience had taught me how wise it was, in the affairs of life to keep one's own counsel; and, therefore, I pretended ignorance of even the existence of such a person.
My companion informed me that the poet had managed to reach Asterabad in safety, and that, being destitute of everything, he, in the meanwhile, had been dispatched to give intelligence of his situation to his family. He showed me the letters with which he was entrusted, which he drew forth from his breast, wrapped up in a handkerchief; and being a very inquisitive fellow, though unable to read, he was happy to find in me one who might give him some account of their contents. The first which I inspected was a memorial from the poet to the king of kings, in which he set forth, in language the most poetic, all the miseries and tortures which he had endured since he had been thrown into the hands of the Turcomans: that the hunger, the thirst, and the barbarous treatment which he had experienced, were nothing, when compared with the privation of the all-gracious and refulgent presence of that pearl of royalty, that gem of magnificence, the quintessence of all earthly perfection, the great king of kings! that as the vilest reptile that crawls is permitted to enjoy the warmth of the glorious sun, so he, the meanest of the king's subjects, hoped once more to bask in the sunshine of the royal countenance; and, finally, he humbly prayed, that his long absence might not deprive him of the shadow of the throne; that he might aspire to reoccupy his former post near his majesty's person, and once again be permitted to vie with the nightingale, and sing of the charms and perfections of his lovely rose.
The next letter was addressed to the prime vizier, in which that notorious minister, decrepit in person, and nefarious in conduct, was called a planet among the stars, and the sheet anchor of the state, and in which the poet sues for his protection. There was nearly a similar one to his former enemy, the lord high treasurer. I then inspected the letters addressed to his family, of which one was to his wife, another to his son's tutor, and a third to his steward. To his wife, he talked of the interior arrangements of his anderûn; hoped that she had been economical in her dress, that she had kept the female slaves in good order, and desired her immediately to set herself and them about making clothes for him, as he was destitute of everything.
To the tutor, he enjoined great attention to his son's manners; hoped that he had been taught all the best forms of cant and compliment; that he never omitted to say his prayers; that he was by this time able to sit a horse, to perform the spear exercise, and to fire a gun on the full gallop.
To his steward, he gave some general instructions concerning the administration of his affairs—enjoined great economy; that he should daily go and stand before the prime vizier; praise him to the skies; and make all sorts of professions, on his part, to his excellency; that he should keep a good watch upon his women and slaves; that his wife should not go too often to the bath; that when she and her slaves went abroad to take the air, he should accompany them. He hoped that no intriguing old women, particularly Jewesses, had been admitted into his harem; and that the walls, which surrounded the women's apartments, had always been kept in good repair, in order to prevent gadding on the housetop with the neighbours. He ordered that his black slave, Johur, was now no longer to be allowed free access into the anderûn; and if ever seen to be familiar with any of the female slaves, he and they were to be whipped: finally, he desired the steward to give the courier a handsome reward, for being the bearer of such good news to his family.
I folded up the letters again; those which had been sealed, I again sealed, and returned to the courier. He seemed to reckon a great deal upon the reward that he was to get for bringing the first intelligence of the poet's safety, and told me that, fearing some other might get the start of him, he had travelled day and night; and added, that the horse, which he now bestrode, belonged to a peasant, from whom he had taken it forcibly on the road, having left his own, which was knocked up, to be brought on after him.
After we had conversed a little more, he seemed entirely overpowered by fatigue, and fell into a profound sleep. As he lay extended on the grass, I looked upon him, and I began to reflect how easy it would be to forestall him. I knew the whole of the poet's history;—in fact, I was in some measure identified with it. I began to think that I had a right to the first relation of it. Then as to the horse, it was as much mine as his; particularly since the peasant, with his own, must now be close at hand: so without more ceremony, I unfolded the handkerchief, which still lay in his lap, and taking out the letter to the steward, I mounted the horse: I applied the stirrups to his sides; I galloped off; and in a very short time had left the sleeper far behind me, and had made considerable progress on the road to the capital.
As I rode along, I considered what was now my best line of conduct, and in what manner I should best introduce myself to the poet's family, so as to make my story good, and secure for myself the reward which had been destined for the courier. I calculated that I should have at least a good day's start of him; for when he awoke, he probably would be obliged to walk some distance before he got another horse, should he not regain his own, which was very doubtful; and appearing on foot as he did, it would be a hundred to one if anybody would believe his story, and he, most probably, would now be refused the loan of a beast to carry him on. I resolved, therefore immediately upon reaching Tehran, to sell the horse, and its accoutrements, for what they would fetch; I would then exchange my dervish's dress for the common dress of the country; and making myself up as one come from off a long journey, present myself at the gate of the poet's house, and there make the best story I could, which would be a sufficiently easy matter, considering how well I was acquainted with every circumstance relating to him.
- A Persian letter is folded up like a lady's thread paper, and fastened in the middle by a slip of adhesive paper, which is moistened with the tongue, and then stamped with the seal of the writer. Thus, letters are frequently opened and closed without detection.
- The stirrup, which is a sort of iron shovel, sharp at the edge, in Persia as well as in Turkey, is used by way of spur.