The adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan/34
Chapter XXXIV — Employed in his official capacity, Hajji Baba gives a specimen of Persian despotism
The Shah moved slowly towards Sultanieh, and at length, after fourteen days' march, when a fortunate hour had been selected for his arrival, he took possession of the summer palace, which has of late days been erected there for his residence. Situated on a hill, not far from the remains of the ancient city, it commands a view of the whole plain, which now, to an immense extent, was covered with the white tents of the camp. It was a magnificent sight, and I felt all the importance of the nasakchi rising in my breast, as I contrasted my present situation with my wretched and forlorn condition when an inmate in the tents of the Turcomans. 'In short, I am somebody now,' said I to myself; 'formerly I was one of the beaten, now I am one of the beaters. I should just do for an example of the active and passive participle, with which my old master, the mollah at Ispahan, used to puzzle me, when endeavouring to instil a little Arabic into my mind. Please Heaven that my good dispositions towards my fellow-creatures may soon have an opportunity of being displayed.'
Scarcely I had made these reflections, when Shîr Ali came up to me, and said, 'Our fortune has taken a flight upwards: you are to accompany me, and Inshallah! please Allah! we shall make clean work of it. You must know, that the provisions for the king's camp are supplied, in great measure, by the surrounding villages. It seems that the village of Kadj Sawar, situated between this and Hamadan, has not sent its quota, upon a pretext that one of the princes, with his suite, not long ago, on a hunting excursion, had there settled himself for several days, and eaten the inhabitants out of house and home. I am ordered to proceed thither, to investigate the business, and to conduct the ked khoda (the head man), with the elders of the village, before our chief. Since you are my friend, I have received permission to take you with me, although the other nasakchies complain that they have lost their turn. You must be ready to join me after the evening prayer, for I intend to be there to-morrow morning.'
I was overjoyed to find myself so soon brought into action; and, although I did not know precisely the plan of operations which Shîr Ali would adopt, yet I had wit enough to perceive that a great field was open to the ingenuity of fellows like us, who are always guided by the state of the weather. 'Our star will be an evil one, indeed,' said I, 'if that destructive prince has left us nothing to glean. Some poet once said "no melon is so bad but hath its rind, and although a tyrant may pluck out a beard by the roots, yet still the chin is left upon which it grew."' With these thoughts in my head I went to my horse, which, with the other nasakchies' horses, was picketed near our tents, and prepared him for the journey. Casting off his head and heel ropes, I could not help comparing him to myself. 'Now,' said I, 'beast! you are free to kick and plunge, and do what mischief you can'; and so, thought I, is the Persian when absolved from the fear of his master.
Shîr Ali and I quitted the camp at sunset, accompanied by a lad, seated on the top of a loaded mule, that carried our beds; and the coverings, ropes, etc. for our horses. Since I had become a soldier, I also had attached the title of Beg to my name; and, to add to my importance in this expedition, I borrowed a silver chain for my horse's head, and a handsome silver mounted pistol for my girdle, from one of my comrades, and promised to bring him a soghat, or present, in case the harvest proved abundant.
We travelled all night, and, having slept for two hours at a village on the road, reached Kadj Sawar just as the women were driving the cattle from their stables, and the men smoking their pipes, previously to going to their work in the field. As soon as we were perceived making for the village, it was evident that a great stir was produced. The women ceased from their cries, and hid their faces, and the men arose from their seats. I wish my reader could have seen the air and countenance which Shîr Ali Beg put on as we approached. He swelled himself out at least into the size of the chief executioner himself, and with a tone of authority, which sufficiently indicated who and what he was, inquired for the chief of the village. A plain man, with a grey beard, humble mien, and still humbler clothing, stepped forward, and said, 'Peace be with you, Aga! I am he; I am your servant. May your footsteps be fortunate, and your shadow never be less!' And then saying, 'Bismillah! in the name of God!' we were helped off our horses with all due respect. One held the horse's head, another the stirrup, whilst a third put his hand under the arm-pit, and thus we alighted, giving ourselves as much weight as we could, and making up our backs like men of consequence. A small carpet was spread at the door of ked khoda's house, to which we had been conducted, followed by almost all the male population of the village, and there we seated ourselves until a room within was prepared. The ked khoda himself pulled off our boots, and otherwise performed all the acts of politeness and attention which are shown to guests on their arrival. Shîr Ali having received this with the dignity of one who thought it his due, and having let off several long whiffs from his pipe, said, with great emphasis, to our host, 'You, that are the ked khoda of Kadj Sawar, know, that I am come on the part of Shah—on the part of the Shah, again I say—that I am come to know why this village has not sent its quota of provisions for the use of the royal camp at Sultanieh, according to the order issued in the firman two months ago, signified to you by the governor of Hamadan? Give me an answer, and make your face white if you can.'
The ked khoda answered, 'Yes, by my eyes! what I have said before I will say now. All these men present' (pointing to his fellow villagers) 'know it to be the truth; and if I lie, may I become stone blind! Arz mi kunum, I beg leave to state, O nasakchi! that you, by the blessing of God, you, in fine, are a man—you are a wise, a clever, and a sharp-sighted man—you are also a Mussulman, and you fear God. I shall not say more than the truth, nor less; I shall explain what has happened, and then leave you to decide.'
'Well, well, say on,' said Shîr Ali; 'I am the king's servant: whatever the Shah will decide, that you must look to.'
'You are the master,' replied the ked khoda; 'but pray give ear to my tale. About three months ago, when the wheat was nearly a gez high, and lambs were bleating all over the country, a servant belonging to the Prince Kharab Cûli Mirza announced to us that his master would take up his quarters in the village the next day, in order to hunt in the surrounding country, which abounds in antelopes, wild asses, partridges, bustards, and game of all descriptions. He ordered the best houses to be in readiness for him and his suite, turned out their inhabitants, and made demands for provisions of all sorts. As soon as this intelligence was known, alarm was spread throughout the village, and seeing that nothing was to be done with the prince's servant, either by bribe or persuasion, to evade the disaster, we determined to abandon our houses and take to the mountains until the evil day bad gone by. Had you seen the state of these peasants, when forced to abandon everything they had in the world, your heart would have turned upside down, and your liver would have become water.'
'What do you mean?' exclaimed Shîr Ali: 'the Shah's villages are left desolate, and I am to pity the fugitives? No, they would have all been put to death had the Shah known it.'
'For pity's sake,' continued the old villager, hear the end of my story, and allow yourself to be softened. We loaded our cattle at nightfall with everything we could carry away, and took to the mountains, where we settled in a dell, close to a stream of running water. There only remained behind three sick old women and the village cats.'
'Do you hear that, Hajji?' said my companion, addressing himself to me: 'they carried away everything valuable, and left the bare walls, and their old women to the prince. Well,' said he to the ked khoda, 'proceed.'
'We sent spies from time to time,' continued the old man, 'to bring intelligence of what was doing, and took up our abode among the rocks and cliffs of the mountains. About noon the next day the party appeared, and when they discovered that we had fled, their rage and disappointment were great. The servants of the prince went from house to house, and drove in the doors with violence. The only object which at all restrained them was one of the old women, who having acquired sufficient strength to rise from her bed, attacked them with such reproaches, that none was bold enough to face her. The prince sent for provisions from a neighbouring town, and took up his abode in my house. Wherever they found corn, they seized upon it; they burnt our implements of husbandry for firewood, and when they were expended had recourse to doors and windows, and even to the beams and rafters of our houses. Their horses were picketed in the new wheat, and they even cut down a great extent of it to carry away. In short, we are entirely ruined; we have neither money, clothes, cattle, houses, nor provisions; and, except in God and you,' addressing himself to Shîr Ali and me, 'we have no other refuge.'
Upon this Shîr Ali Beg jumped up from his seat, took the old man vigorously by the beard, and said, 'Are not you ashamed, old man, with these grey hairs, to utter such lies? But a moment ago you told us that you had carried into the mountains all that was most valuable, and now pretend that you are ruined. This can never be! We have not travelled all this way to eat your dirt. If you think that we have brought our beards to market to be laughed at, you are mistaken. You don't yet know Shîr Ali: we are men who sleep with one eye open and the other shut; no fox steals from its hole without our knowledge: if you think yourself a cat, we are the fathers of cats. Your beard must be a great deal longer, you must have seen much more country, before you can expect to take us in.'
'No, God forgive me!' said the ked khoda: 'if I have thought to deceive you. Who am I, that I should dare to think so? We are the Shah's rayats, (peasantry); whatever we have is his; but we have been stripped, we have been skinned; go, see with your own eyes—look at our fields—look into our store-rooms—we have neither corn abroad nor corn at home.'
'Well,' said Shîr Ali, 'skinned or unskinned, with corn or without it, we have only one course to pursue, and one word to say—the Shah's orders must be executed. Either you deliver in kind or in money your prescribed quota of provisions, or you and your elders must proceed with us to Sultanieh, where you will be consigned over to the proper authorities.'
After these words, much whispering and consultation took place between the ked khoda and the village elders, who, having huddled themselves into a corner, left us wrapt up in our own dignity, smoking our pipes, with apparently the greatest indifference.
At length the result of their conference was made known, and they changed their order of attack; for the chief of the village now undertook to soften me, and another old man Shîr Ali Beg. The former approached me with every manifestation of great friendship, and began, as usual, by flattery. According to him, I was the most perfect of God's creatures. He then swore that I had excited feelings of love both in his breast, and in that of all the villagers, and that I alone was the person to extricate them from their difficulties. As long as this lasted, I merely kept a steady countenance, and made play with my pipe; but when he had a little more entered into particulars, and talked of what we were likely to get, I must own that I became considerably more interested. He said that they had consulted upon what was to be done; and were unanimous, that to send what they had not was impossible, and therefore out of the question; but perhaps if something could be offered to us to protect their interests, they were ready to satisfy us on that head.
'All this is very well,' said I, 'but I am not the only person to be considered. We here are only two, but recollect that our chief must be also satisfied, and if you do not begin by him, your labour and expense will be in vain: and I can tell you, if you grease his palm, you must measure your roghun (grease) by the maun, and not by the miscal.'
'Whatever we possess,' said the ked khoda, 'we will give; but of late taxation has been so heavy, that, excepting our wives and children, we have in fact nothing to offer.'
'I tell you what, friend,' said I, 'unless you have money, ready downright cash, to give, any other offer is useless: with money in your hand, you may buy the Shah's crown from his head; but without it, I can only promise you a harvest of bastinadoes.'
'Ah!' said the ked khoda, 'money, money! where are we to procure money? Our women, when they get a piece, bore a hole through it, and hang it about their necks by way of ornament; and if we, after a life of hard toil, can scrape up some fifty tomauns, we bury them in the earth, and they give us more anxiety than if we possessed the mountain of light.' Then approaching to put his mouth to my ear, he whispered with great earnestness, 'You are a Mussulman, in fine, and no ass. You do not conceive that we will go into the lion's mouth if it can be avoided; tell me (pointing to my companion) how much will he be contented with? Can I offer him five tomauns, and a pair of crimson shalwars (trowsers)?'
'What do I know,' said I, 'what will satisfy him? All I can say is, that he possesses not a grain of commiseration: make the tomauns ten, and the trowsers a coat, and I will endeavour to make him accept them.'
'Oh, that is too much,' said the old man; 'our whole village is not worth that sum. Satisfy him with the five and the trowsers, and our gratitude will be shown, by a present for yourself that will astonish you.'
Upon this our conference broke off, and I was as anxious to hear what had taken up my companion, as he was impatient to learn the result of my whisperings with the ked khoda. Comparing notes, we found that both the old villagers had been endeavouring to ascertain what might be our respective prices. I assured Shîr Ali that I had given him out for the veriest crucible in Persia, saying, that he could digest more gold than an ostrich could iron, and was withal so proud, that he rejected units as totally unworthy of notice, and never took less than tens.
'Well said,' answered Shîr Ali; 'and I told my old negotiator, that unless you were handsomely paid, you were equal to any violence, notwithstanding your silence and quiet looks.'
At length, after some delay, the whole party came forward again, headed by the ked khoda, who, bringing an ostensible present of apples, pears, a pot of honey, and some new cheese, begged my companion to accept it, in terms usually made on such occasions. When it had been spread before us, in an undertone of voice the ked khoda made his offer of five tomauns and the trousers, and talked of his misery and that of his village in a manner which would have melted any breast but that of Shîr Ali.
We agreed at once to reject the present, and ordered it to be taken from before us. This produced considerable dismay among the poor people, and they walked off with their trays of fruit, etc., on their heads, with slow and sorrowful steps.
In about half an hour they appeared again, the ked khoda having previously ascertained that if he came with the ten tomauns and a coat, the present would be accepted. When we had eaten thereof, Shîr Ali Beg having pocketed his gold and secured his coat, I began to look for that something for myself which was to astonish me: nothing, however, was produced, notwithstanding certain significant winks and blinks with which the ked khoda ever and anon kept me in play.
'Where is it?' said I to him at last, quite out of patience. 'What is it? how much?'
'It is coming,' said he; 'have a little patience; it is not yet quite prepared.'
At length, after some waiting, with great parade, the pair of trowsers, which had been rejected by Shîr Ali, were placed before me on a tray, and offered for my acceptance, accompanied by a profusion of fine words.
'What news is this?' exclaimed I: 'do you know, ye men without shame!' addressing myself to those who stood before me, 'that I am an executioner,—one who can burn your fathers, and can give you more grief to devour than you have ever yet experienced? What mean ye by bringing me this pair of frouzy shalwars? That which has passed through many generations of your ignoble ancestors, do ye now pretend to put off upon me? Fools indeed you must be, to suppose that I will espouse your interests, and set forth your grievances, merely for the sake of this dirty rag! Away with it, or you will see what a nasakchi can do!'
Upon this they were about complying with my orders, when Shîr Ali Beg stopped them, and said, 'Let me look at the trousers. Ah,' said he, holding them up at the same time between his eyes and the sun, and examining them with all the care of an old clothes broker, 'they will do; they have no defect: be it so, they are my property, and many thanks for them. May your family prosper!'
Every one looked astonished; no one dared make an objection; and thus I, who had been anticipating such great advantages, lost even the miserable perquisite which I might have had, and only gained sufficient experience to know another time how to deal with my countrymen, and, moreover, how to trust one who called himself my friend.
- A maun is seven pounds and a half; a miscal, twenty-four grains.
- The Shah's great diamond, which he wears in one of his armlets, is called the koh nur, or the mountain of light.