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Three Persian Miniatures
By H. G. DWIGHT
Author of "Stamboul Nights," "Like Michael," etc.
With my own eyes I saw in the desert That the deliberate man outstripped him who had hurried on.
The wind-footed steed is broken down in
While the camel-driver jogs on with his beast to the end of the journey.
-SADI: "The Flower-Garden."
NE of my study windows, catching all the sun of the south, faces a narrow, tilted country of gardens, darkly walled by a semicircle of mountains. One of my bedroom windows gives me a glimpse of sparser gardens and the claycolored town and the plain that dips and rises delicately against the north. But both rooms look east, into the desert.
It is the kind of desert that the Persians call biaban, not the vaster and more desolate lut. Beyond our own, however, no garden wall ventures into it. Neither house nor poplar breaks the simplicity of its flowing lines. The empty land droops away toward the left, intercepted only by the Musalla, that barren bluff which archæologists like to fancy the site of seven-walled Ecbatana. Not quite opposite my windows a smaller hill,
bare and pointed like a cone, pricks the horizon. Beyond it lies an invisible hollow, the farther edge of which marks the limit of my visible world.
Of the sights to be seen from the four sides of our house this view offers least. Yet because it is mine I like it, and because it is so open and solitary, and because the faithful Persian sun rarely disappoints me there of his morning miracle, and because at night stars hang there of a brilliancy I have never seen, and so low that I can watch them from my bed. And I am new enough from the West never to forget that those windows look into Asia. Beyond that uneven rim of the east lies Kum. Beyond Kum is the lut, that great desert which has small reason to be less renowned than Gobi and the Sahara. Beyond the lut are Afghanistan, and Kashmir, and Tibet.
In the morning the sun looks strange to me, because he is fresh from Tibet and Kashmir and Afghanistan. At night the stars make me wonder what other watchers see them what riders of camels, what prowlers of the dark, what sitters by red embers. How many times have I made in imagination that journey eastward from my window, across
wastes of salt and sand and poisoned water, through forests and glaciers that prop the sky, into valleys the wildest and most secret of the earth, that journey which no man of the West could make alone or undisguised and come alive into the uplands of China. And if he did, no man of all he met could understand the reason of his coming. They have no curiosity about us, the lands we live in, the things we live for. Why have we so continuing a curiosity about them? Is it that in those distant and silent places we would not once hear a factory whistle or see a railroad track? Is it the lure of their jealous seclusion? Of their cloudy antiquity? Is it a simple astonishment that men can be content with so little, find the sight of the sun enough, and the sound of known voices? Who knows but there might be in it some vague ancestral stirring of nostalgia or a secret question of our own unrest? What if, after all, they of the East see the end from the beginning, and live a life more intense than we? But even there whistles begin to sound. Nearer and nearer creep the rails that thread the ends of the world. And what then? I could never tell all I see in the desert at night.
In the daytime I am more concerned with what passes between our garden wall and the crumpled rim of the horizon. There is no great passing on that tawny slope save of light and shadow, for the highways all march out of the town in other directions. Runnels of
water flash in the sun at their seasons. In the autumn and in the spring oxen tickle the earth with the little wooden plow of Asia. There is a time when I watch the rippling of wheat like a lake. That is also the time when I may hear, heightened by distance, a melancholy singing. Peasants occasionally pass, with russet rags flapping about bare knees. A rare horseman gallops afar, his dark mantle eddying behind him. Mules and donkeys are less rare, tinkling from nowhere to nowhere.
Silence is so much the note of the place that I was astonished one winter afternoon to hear a new sound, a jingle-jangle that grew louder as I listened. I was the more astonished because snow was deep on the ground, and passers had been fewer than ever. I went to the window to look. Camels! Out of the crack between Musalla and the town they came, the dark line of them lengthening obliquely across the snow till it reached the corner of the garden above ours. I am a child about camels. I shall never see enough of them. It is not only their strangeness, however, which for us of the West makes them the symbol of Asia. They are immensely decorative in themselves, though they are so much the color of the lands they live in that they have a curious power of invisibility, for creatures so large, unless you catch them against the sky. But the snow brought out the silhouettes of these the
more fantastically because of the loads lashed on each side of their humps. I caught glimpses of sad
dle-cloths and big saddle-bags woven like the precious rugs of the country. Necklaces of bright beads made another touch of color, or dangling plaques of beads, with much blue in them to ward off the evil eye. And the camels wore almost as many bells as beads. Some carried them around their necks in strings. A few beasts, bigger than the rest, had one great copper bell slung from the saddle, which rang out a slow ding-dong amid the general jingle-jangle. It made me think of Charpentier's "Impressions d'Italie," and the way he suggests the tinkling of mule-bells. But this was something deeper and wilder, and evoked the endless marches of the desert.
There were more camels in that caravan than I had ever seen before. It did not occur to me to count them until many of them were out of sight; then I counted nearly three hundred. They marched in single file in groups of six or seven, each group roped together like barges in a tow and led by a man. Many of the men had an odd Mongolian look in their little, round fur caps, with the skin outside. The eyes of almost all of them were inflamed from the glare of the sun on the snow. Where had they come from? Where were they going? I had no tongue to ask, nor could I have understood if they told me. They disappeared at last among the bare gardens. But that strange, complicated music, punctuated by the deep notes of the big copper bells, sounded so long in the thin winter air that I could not be sure when it ceased to sound. Indeed, I often hear it now at night when I look at the low stars of the desert, and think of Afghanistan and Kashmir and Tibet.
THE most characteristic color of our house, to my inquisitive eye, is imparted
by its retainers. You of the effete West are wont to the soft ministrations of the eternal feminine. To us of Ecbatana is permitted no such luxury.
may note, however, the exceptional case of firengis with young children. A lady of the land may then risk her reputation by entering the presence of corrupt Christian men. She does so barefooted, in full trousers of a figured red print, loosely swathed in a length of black or white cloth covering her head and held for decency's sake in front of her mouth. Custom, of course, will make her less meticulous; but when a stranger is present and her duties require the use of both her hands, it is astonishing how ingenious she is in holding her veil in her teeth and in keeping her back on the quarter of peril.
There is another exceptional case to be noted of a country where laundresses are more than likely to have smallpox in their houses. They answer to the most romantic names: Deer, Sugar, Angel, Peacock, Parrot. To you, however, they are generically known as Sister. They carry on their operations in big blue-glazed bowls, preferably set on the ground near the clothes-lines, beside which they squat on their heels. I remember one of them who sent us one week a substitute. Inquiring into the matter, the khanum (that is, the mistress of the house) was told: "She makes a petition: she will have a child. But she will come next week." And she did.
The milking of a cow is one more ex
ceptional case, since such duties are too ignoble for man. Here again a blueglazed bowl comes into use, being held between the knees of the operator. I might add that for the complete success of the operation it is considered necessary for the calf to be tied in sight of the cow. Otherwise the sacred fount infallibly goes dry. We had the greatest trouble to induce our underlings even to try the experiment of milking when no calf was in sight. That, I suppose, is why the Persians are so unwilling to sell or to kill a calf, and why they are so tender of the little creatures. The first time the stork visited our stable, a small animal wrapped. up against the cold in green felt was brought blinking into the dining-room for us to admire. And we learned that the calf spent its first night with the servants in their quarters.
These, I hasten to add, are not in the house. While there are, especially in Persia, very solid advantages in having servants out of the house at
night, there are also disadvantages, as will appear most plainly
on a winter morn
end of the stable, with a fireplace of their own, and rugs to cover the mud floor. That is why there are so many rugs in Persia-the mud floors. And there is another good reason why so many rugs are a little more or a little less than six feet long. A do-zar (two yards) is all that your Persian needs in the way of a bed, and if you have such a rug that is not brand-new, you may be sure that some very picturesque-looking customer has dreamed upon it the dreams of Asia. I fear that the dreams of our dependents are sometimes interrupted, for the roof over their heads is a mud one, and being new, it is leaky. After a rain or a thaw, therefore, we hire the youth of the neighborhood to play tag on it in order to pack the mud the harder with their bare feet.
The sahib-to my unpractised ear that classic word sounds more like sah'b-complains that he never knows how many servants we have. One of his diversions is to ask the khanum how many more she has taken on. Persia follows the rest of Asia in this regard, though as a mat
ter of fact we are not so dreadfully attended as most of our neighbors. Servants work for longer hours with fewer outings than in America, but each one does much less. The only one of ours who makes us feel that he earns every shahi of his somewhat sketchy stipend is a youngster whose voice just begins to crack, a laborious, quick-witted, and picturesque infant named Abbas, after the uncle of the prophet. None of them is much more than a boy, for that matter. It surprises me to see how quickly they pick up our ways, which to them must seem capricious and inexplicable beyond reason. I often wish I knew what their comments We sometimes catch rumors, however, through confidences made to the masters of other servants. When we go out to dinner our cook, our butler, or both, usually go, too, to help in the kitchen or the dining-room. In fact, it is not good form for a person of
ing after a party. We then have the choice of walking a long way through the snow bang on the stable door or of waiting for breakfast. Their own breakfast, and all their other meals, the servants are supposed to provide for themselves, primarily because a firengi is an impure being, whose food and dishes are defilement to those of the faith, and secondarily because a firengi eats meats too strange for the palate of a Persian. We have reason to believe, however, that at least in our house the Persians are not too fastidious about our purity or They have quarters at one
What to an alien eye is most striking about these gentry is their dress. To be served at dinner by a butler in bare or stockinged feet, according to the season, bearing upon his head a pontifical-looking miter of black or brown felt, not unlike the tall, brimless hat of Greek monks and Russian priests, is an experience which I shall never live long enough in Persia to take as a matter of course. It makes no difference that I myself am perfectly capable of balancing upon my brow an even more fantastic erection, eaved like a house, shinier than satin, and garnished with a coquettish ribbon. What catches my eye is the extraordinary fact that any human being can cherish a head-dress different from my own, and account himself dis
graced ever to be seen without it. Tall hats, however, are not all that Bedistinguish our serving-men. tween their kola and their unshod feet flap trousers not so full as those of the country Turk, but giving no hint of the leg it contains, and a succession of tailed or kilted coats. Persians think that firengi men dress as indecently as firengi women in permitting our clothes to follow closely the lines of our bodies. The fit of their own coats stops at the waist. From there hangs to the knee, or below, an amply pleated skirt which even a traveled Persian unwillingly exchanges for a Prince Albert, while a morning or evening coat is to him a thing of shame. Under his outer garment, with which he usually dispenses indoors, he wears a shorter and thinner one, less amply kilted, the tight sleeves of which are slit to the elbow, and dangle decoratively, if inconveniently enough, when not buttoned up or turned back. This tunic is also more gaily hued.
The chief virtue of Habib, our butler, is that he possesses a beautiful emerald undercoat in which, when there is no company, he is sometimes good enough to pass, and eke to break, our plates. He is the official chief of our establishment, being technically known as the head of the service. He always receives an order with the words, "On my eye!" and when he knows not how to answer you he will say,