The adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan/40

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Chapter XL: Hajji Baba gives an account of his proceedings to his superiors, and shows himself a friend to the distressed[edit]

The monastery of Etchmiazin, so called in the Armenian tongue, or Utch Klisseh, or the Three Churches, by the Turks and Persians, is situated in a large and well-cultivated plain, watered by the Araxes, and several smaller streams. It stands at the foot of the high mountain of Agri Dagh, which the Christians, and in particular the Armenians, hold in great veneration, because (so Yûsûf informed me) upon its conspicuous snow-capt summit the ark of Noah rested. The monastery and church, celebrated throughout Asia for the riches which they contain, are enclosed within high walls, and secured by strong and massive gates. It is here that the head of the Armenian church constantly resides, together with a large retinue of bishops, priests, and deacons, who form the stock which provides clergy for most of the Armenian churches in Asia. The title by which he is known in Persia is khalifeh or caliph, a designation which, comprising the head of the civil as well as the religious government, the Mussulmans used formerly to bestow on the sovereigns who held their sway at Bagdad and elsewhere. By the Christians he is generally known by the name of patriarch, and his church is an object of pilgrimage for the Armenians, who flock there at particular seasons in great numbers from different parts of the world.

Hither we bent our steps. We discovered the united camps of the serdar and the chief executioner, spreading their white tents in an irregular figure all round the monastery; and before we had reached its walls, we heard that the two chiefs had taken up their abode within it, and were the guests of the caliph.

'We'll burn the fathers of these giaours' (infidels), said the young delikhan, as he rode up to me in great joy at this intelligence; 'and will make up for the fatigues we have undergone, by drinking abundantly of their wine.'

'Are you a Mussulman,' said I, 'and talk of drinking wine? You yourself will become a giaour.'

'Oh, as for that,' answered he, 'the serdar drinks wine like any Christian, and I do not see why I should not.'

As we approached the monastery, I called Yûsûf to me, and told him to be in readiness whenever he should be called for, and be prepared to confirm any oath that I might think it necessary to take for his interests. He was particularly enjoined, when he came to talk of the services he had rendered, to deviate from the truth as much as he chose, to set forth every sort of danger he had or had not incurred, and in particular to score up an account of sums expended, all for the use and advantage of the serdar and of the Shah's government. 'I hope at that rate,' said I to him, 'your accounts may be balanced by having your wife restored to you; for which, after considerable difficulty, you may agree to give a receipt in full of all demands.'

Thus agreed, we passed through the heavy archway which leads into the first court of the monastery. This we found encumbered by the equipages and servants of the serdar and the chief executioner. Here and there were strings of horses picketed by ropes and pegs, with their grooms established in different corners among their saddles and horse furniture; and a corner was taken up by a set of mules, distinguished by the eternal jingle of their bells, and the no less eternal wranglings of their drivers.

In the second yard were the horses of the chief servants, who themselves inhabited small rooms that surrounded two sides of the court.

We alighted at the first court, and I immediately inquired for the quarters of my master, the chief executioner. It was noon, and I was informed he was then with the serdar, before whom, in all the boots, dust, and dirt of my travelling dress, I was immediately conducted.

They seemed to have entirely taken possession of the Armenian sanctuary, and to have dispossessed the caliph of his place and authority; for they had taken up their abode in his very rooms, whilst the poor priests were skulking about with humble and downcast looks, as if fearful and ashamed of being the lawful inhabitants of their own possessions. The favourite horses of both the Persian chiefs were picketed close to the very walls of the church, more care being taken of their comforts than of the convenience of the Armenians.

My reader is already acquainted with the person and character of the chief executioner; and, before I proceed further, I must also make him acquainted with the serdar. A man of a more sinister aspect was never seen. His eyes, which, in the common expression of his countenance, were like opaque bits of glass, glared terribly whenever he became animated, and almost started out of their old shrivelled sockets; and when this happened, it was always remarked that a corresponding smile broke out upon his mouth, which made the Shah's poet say, that Hassan Khan's face was like Agri dagh, the mountain near which he lived. When clouded at the top, and the sun shone in the plain, a storm was sure to ensue. Time had worn two deep wrinkles down his cheeks, which were not hid by a scanty beard, notwithstanding all the pains he took to make it thick; and the same enemy having despoiled him of all his teeth save one, which projected from his mouth, had produced deep cavities, that made the shaggy hairs, thinly spread over them, look like burnt stubble on the slopes of a valley. Altogether, it was difficult to say whether the goat or the tiger was most predominant; but this is most certain, that never was the human form so nearly allied to that of the brute as in this instance. His character corresponded to his looks; for no law, human or divine, ever stood in the way of his sensuality; and when his passions were roused, he put no bounds to his violence and cruelty. But with all this, he had several qualities, which attached his followers to him. He was liberal and enterprising. He had much quickness and penetration, and acted so politically towards the Shah and his government, that he was always treated with the greatest confidence and consideration. He lived in princely magnificence; was remarkable for his hospitality, and making no mystery of his irregularity as a Mussulman, was frank and open in his demeanour, affable to his inferiors, and the very best companion to those who shared in his debaucheries. No bolder drinker of wine existed in Persia, except perhaps his present companion, the executioner, who, as long as he could indulge without incurring the Shah's displeasure, had ratified an eternal treaty of alliance between his mouth and every skin of wine that came within his reach.

It was before these two worshipful personages that I was introduced, followed by two or three of my principal attendants. I stood at the end of the compartment until I was spoken to.

'You are welcome,' said the chief executioner. 'Hajji, by my soul, tell me, how many Russians have you killed? have you brought a head—let me see?'

Here the serdar took him up, and said, 'What have you done? What Russians are on the frontier? and when shall we get at them?'

To all of which I answered, after making the usual prefatory speech, 'Yes, Agas, I have done all that was in my power to do. It was a lucky hour when we set off, for everything that you wish to know I can explain; and it is evident that the destinies of the serdar and of my master are much on the rise, since so insignificant a slave as I can be of use to them.'

'Good luck is no bad thing, that's true,' said the serdar, 'but we trust a great deal to our swords, too,'—rolling his eyes about at the same time, and smiling in the face of the chief executioner.

'Yes, yes,' said his companion, 'swords and gunpowder, spears and pistols—those are our astrologers. It will always be a fortunate hour that will bring me within slice of an infidel's neck. As for me, I am a kizzel bash (a red head), and pretend to nothing else. A good horse, a sharp sword, a spear in my hand, and a large maidan (an open space) before me, with plenty of Muscovites in it: that is all I want.'

'And what do you say to good wine too?' said the serdar. 'I think that is as good a thing as any you have mentioned. We'll have the caliph in, and make him give Hajji a cup of his best. But tell us first,' addressing himself to me, 'what have you seen and done? where are the Russians posted? how many of them are there? have they any guns? who commands them? where are their Cossacks? have you heard anything of the Georgians? where is the Russian commander-in-chief? what are the Lesgî about? where is the renegade Ismael Khan?—Come, tell us all: and you, Mirza,' addressing himself to his scribe, 'write down all he says.'

Upon this I drew myself up, and, putting on a face of wisdom, I made the following speech:—

'By the soul of the serdar! by the salt of the chief executioner! the Muscovites are nothing. In comparison to the Persians, they are mere dogs. I, who have seen with my own eyes, can tell you, that one Persian, with a spear in his hand, would kill ten of those miserable, beardless creatures.'

'Ah, you male lion!' exclaimed my master, apparently delighted with what I said, 'I always knew that you would be something. Leave an Ispahani alone: he will always show his good sense.'

'They are but few Muscovites on the frontier. Five, six, seven, or eight hundred,—perhaps a thousand or two thousand—but certainly not more than three. They have some ten, twenty, or thirty guns; and as for the Cossacks, pûtch and, they are nothing. It is very inconvenient that they are to be found everywhere when least wanted, with those thick spears of theirs, which look more like the goad of an ox than a warlike weapon, and they kill, 'tis true; but then, they are mounted upon yabous (jades), which can never come up to our horses, worth thirty, forty, fifty tomauns each, and which are out of sight before they can even get theirs into a gallop.'

'Why do you waste your breath upon the Cossacks and their horses?' said the chief executioner; 'you might as well talk of monkeys mounted upon bears. Who commands the infidels?'

'They call him the deli mayor, or the mad major; and the reason why he is called so, is because he never will run away. Stories without number are related of him. Among others, that he has got the pocket Koran of his excellency the serdar in his possession, which he shows to every one as a great trophy.'

'Aye, that's true,' exclaimed the serdar. 'These bankrupt dogs surprised me last year, when encamped not five parasangs hence, and I had only time to save myself, in my shirt and trousers, on the back of an unsaddled horse. Of course, they pillaged my tent, and among other things stole my Koran. But I'll be even with them. I have shown them what I can do at Gavmishlû, and we still have much more to perform upon their fathers' graves. How many guns, did you say, they had?'

'Four or five, or six,' said I.

'I wrote down twenty or thirty just now,' remarked the Mirza, who was writing at the edge of the carpet,—'which of the two is right?'

'Why do you tell us lies?' exclaimed the serdar, his eyes becoming more animated as he spoke. 'If we find that any part of what you say be false, by the head of Ali! you will soon discover that our beards are not to be laughed at with impunity.'

'In truth, then,' said I, 'this intelligence is not of my own acquiring. The greatness of the serdar's, and my Aga's good fortune, consists in my having fallen upon a means of getting the most perfect information through a young Armenian, who risked his life for us, upon my making him promise of recompense in the name of the serdar.'

'A recompense in my name!' exclaimed the serdar: 'who is this Armenian?—and what Armenian was ever worthy of a recompense?'

Upon this I related the whole of Yûsûf's history, from the beginning to the end. In pleading his cause in this public manner, I hoped that the serdar would feel it impossible to resist the justice of the demand which I made upon him, and that my young protégé would at once be released from his fears and apprehensions of the chief's resentment, and restored to the undisputed possession of his wife.

When I had done speaking, nothing was said, but here and there Allah! Allah! il Allah! (there is but one God!) in suppressed exclamations from the lips of the Mohammedans present; whilst the serdar, having rolled his eyes about, and twitched his mouth into various odd shapes, at length mumbled out, 'the Armenian has performed wonders'; and then called aloud to his servants to bring his kaliân or pipe.

Having smoked two or three long whiffs, he said, 'Where is this Armenian? Order the caliph also to come before us.'

Upon which Yûsûf was ushered in, with the shoves and thrusts by which a poor man of his nation is generally introduced before a Persian grandee; and he stood in face of the assembly as fine a specimen of manly beauty as was ever seen, evidently creating much sensation upon all present by the intrepidity of his appearance. The serdar, in particular, fixed his eyes upon him with looks of approbation; and turning round to the executioner in chief, made signs, well known among Persians, of his great admiration.

The caliph, a heavy, coarse man, of a rosy and jovial appearance, dressed in the black hood peculiar to the Armenian clergy, appeared soon after, followed by two or three of his priests. Having stood for a short time before the serdar and his companion, he was invited to sit, which he did, going through all the ceremonial of complimentary phrases, and covering the feet and hands in a manner usual on such occasions.

The serdar then, addressing himself to the caliph, said, 'It is plain that we Mussulmans are become less than dogs in the land of Irân. The Armenians now break into our harems, steal our wives and slaves from before our faces, and invite men to defile our fathers' graves. What news is this, O caliph? Is this Allah's work or yours?'

The caliph, attacked in this unexpected manner, looked very much alarmed, and the dew broke out upon his ample and porous forehead. Experience had taught him that these sorts of attacks were generally the forerunners of some heavy fine, and he already put himself in a posture of defence to resist it.

'What language is this?' said he in answer. 'We, whose dogs are we, who should dare even to think upon the evil of which your highness speaks? We are the Shah's subjects:—You are our protector, and the Armenians sit in peace under your shade. What manner of man is this who has brought these ashes upon our heads?'

'That is he,' answered the serdar, pointing to Yûsûf. 'Say, fellow, have you stolen my slave or not?'

'If I am guilty,' said the youth, 'of having taken aught from any man, save my own, here am I, ready to answer for myself with my life. She who threw herself out of your windows into my arms was my wife before she was your slave. We are both the Shah's rayats, and it is best known to yourself if you can enslave them or no. We are Armenians, 'tis true, but we have the feelings of men. It is well known to all Persia, that our illustrious Shah has never forced the harem of even the meanest of his subjects; and, secure in that feeling, how could I ever suppose, most noble serdar, that we should not receive the same protection under your government? You were certainly deceived when told that she was a Georgian prisoner; and had you known that she was the wife of your peasantry, you never would have made her your property.'

The caliph, frightened at the language of the youth, stopped him, by loud and angry exclamations; but the serdar, apparently struck by language so unusual to his ears, instead of appearing angry, on the contrary, looked delighted (if the looks of such a countenance could ever express delight); and, staring with astonished eyes upon the youth, seemed to forget even the reason of his having been brought before him. Of a sudden, as if dispelling his former indignation, he stopped all further discussion by saying to him, 'Enough, enough; go, take your wife, and say no more; and, since you have rendered us a service at Hamamlû, you shall remain my servant, and wait upon my person. Go, my head valet will instruct you in your duties; and when attired in clothes suited to your situation, you will return again to our presence. Go, and recollect that my condescension towards you depends upon your future conduct.' Upon this Yûsûf, in the fullness of his heart, ran up to him with great apparent gratitude, fell upon his knees, and kissed the hem of his garment, not knowing what to say, or what countenance to keep upon such unlooked-for good fortune.

Every one present seemed astonished: the chief executioner gave a shrug, and indulged in a deep yawn; the caliph, as if he had been disencumbered of a heavy weight, stretched his limbs, and the huge drops that were before glittering on his brow now disappeared, and his face again expanded into good humour. All congratulated the serdar upon his humanity and benevolence, and compared him to the celebrated Noushirwan. Barikallah and Mashallah was repeated and echoed from mouth to mouth, and the story of his magnanimity was spread abroad, and formed the talk of the whole camp. I will not pretend to explain what were the serdar's real sentiments; but those who well knew the man were agreed that he could be actuated by no generous motive.