CHAPTER V. MESHED THE HOLY.
Fortunately the road improves rapidly, developing beyond the Nishapoor Valley into smooth, upland camel-trails that afford quite excellent wheeling. The Nishapoor Valley impresses me as about the finest area of cultivation seen in Persia, except, perhaps, the Tabreez Plain; and toward Gadamgah the country gets positively beautiful - at least, beautiful in comparison. Crystal streamlets come purling and gurgling across the road over pebbly beds; and, looking northward for their source, one finds that the usually gray and uninteresting foot-hills have changed into bright, green slopes, on whose cheerful brows are seen an occasional pine or cedar. Overtopping these green, grassy slopes are dark, rugged rocks, and higher still the grim white region of - winter. Somewhere behind these emerald foot-hills, near Gadamgah, are the famous turquoise mines alluded to in the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan." The mines are worked at the present time, but only in a desultory and unenterprising manner.
Favored with good roads, I succeed in reaching Gadamgah before dark, where, besides a comfortable and commodious caravanserai, and the pleasure of seeing around a number of fine-spreading cedars, one can obtain the rare luxury of pine-wood to build a fire.
Immediately upon my arrival a knowing and respectable-looking old pilgrim, who calls himself a hadji and a dervish from Mazan-deran, rescues me from the annoying importunities of the people and invites me to share the accommodation of his menzil. Augmenting his scanty stock of firewood and obtaining eggs and bread, quite a comfortable evening is spent in reclining beside the blazing pine-wood fire, which is itself no trifling luxury in a country of scanty camel-thorn and tezek. Whenever the prying curiosity of the occupants of neighboring menzils impels them to visit our quarters, to stand and stare at me, my friend the hadji waxes indignant, and, waving a stick of firewood threateningly toward them, he pours forth a torrent of withering and sarcastic remarks. Once, in his wrath, he hops lightly off the menzil floor, seizes an individual twice his own size by the kammerbund, jerks him violently forward, bids him stare until he gets ashamed of staring, and then, turning him round, shoves him unceremoniously away again, pursuing him as he retreats to his own quarters with vengeful shouts of "y-a-h!"
To a few eminently respectable travellers, however, the hadji graciously accords the coveted privilege of squatting around our fire and chatting. Being himself a person who dearly loves the music of his own voice, he holds forth at great length on the subject of himself in particular, dervishes in general, and the Province of Mazanderaii. Like a good many other people conscious of their own garrulousness, the hadji evidently suspects his auditors of receiving his statements with a good deal of allowance; consequently, when impressing upon them the circumstance of his hailing from Mazanderan - a fact that he seems to think creditable in some way to himself - he produces from the depths of his capacious saddlebags several dried fish of a variety for which that province is celebrated, and exhibits them in confirmation of his statements.
It is genuine wintry weather, and with no bedclothes, save a narrow horse-blanket borrowed from my impromptu friend, I spend a cold, uncomfortable night, for a caravanserai menzil is but a mere place of shelter after all. The hadji rises early and replenishes the fire, and with his little brass teapot we make and drink a glass of tea together before starting out.
At daybreak the hadji goes outside to take a preliminary peep at the weather, and returns with the unwelcome intelligence that it is snowing.
"Better snow than rain," I conclude, as I prepare to start, little thinking that I am entering upon the toughest day's experience of the whole journey through Persia.
Before covering three miles, the snow-storm develops into a regular blizzard; a furious, driving storm that would do credit to Dakota. Without gloves, and in summer clothes throughout, I quickly find myself in a most unenviable plight. It is no common snow-storm; every few minutes a halt has to be made, hands buffeted and ears rubbed to prevent these members from freezing; yet foot-gear has to be removed and streams waded in the bitter cold.
The road leads up into a region of broken hills, and the climax of my discomfort is reached, when the blizzard is raging with ever-increasing fury, and the cold has already slightly nipped one finger. While attempting to cross a deep, narrow stream without disrobing, it is my unhappy fate to drop the bicycle into the water, and furthermore to front the necessity of instantly plunging in, armpit deep, to its rescue. When I emerge upon the opposite bank my situation is really quite critical; in a few moments my garments are frozen stiff; everything I have with me is wet; my leathern case, containing the small stock of medicines, matches, writing material, and other small but necessary articles, is full of water, and, with hands benumbed, I am unable to unstrap it.
My only salvation consists in vigorous exercise, and, conscious of this, I splurge ahead through the blinding storm and the fast-deepening snow, fording several other streams, often emerging dripping from the icy water to struggle through waist-deep snow-drifts that are rapidly accumulating under the influence of the driving blast and fast-falling snow. Uncertain of the distance to the next caravanserai, I push determinedly forward in this condition for several hours, making but slow progress. Everything must come to an end, however, and twenty miles from Gadamgah the welcome outlines of a road-side caravanserai become visible through the thickly falling snow-flakes, and the din of many jangling camel-bells proclaims it already occupied.