CHAPTER V. MESHED THE HOLY.
It is with lively recollection of Khorassani March weather and the experience of the last few days that, after a warm bath, I array myself in a suit of Mr. Gray's clothing, elevate my slippered feet, "Yenghi Donia fashion," on a pile of Turcoman! carpets, and, abetted by the cheering presence of a bottle of Shiraz wine, exchange my recent experiences on the road for telegraphic scraps of the latest news. How utterly unsatisfactory and altogether wretched seems even the gilded palace of a Persian provincial governor - the meaningless compliments, the salaaming lackeys and empty show of courtesy, when compared with the cosey quarters, the hearty welcome, the honest ring of an Englishman's voice, and the genuineness of everything!
Shortly after my arrival, a gentleman with a coal-black complexion, a retreating forehead, and an overshadowing wealth of lip appears at the door bearing a tray of sweetmeats. Making a profound salaam, he steps out of his slipper-like shoes, enters, and places the sweetmeats on the table, smiling a broad expectant-of-backsheesh smile the while he explains his mission.
"The Sartiep has sent you his salaams and a present of sweetmeats, preparatory to calling round himself," explains mine host; "he is a Persian gentleman, Ali Akbar Khan, at the head of the Meshed telegraph-service, and has the rank of general or Sartiep." The Sartiep himself arrives shortly afterward, accompanied by his favorite son, a budding youth of some eight or ten summers, of whose beauty he feels very justly proud. The Sartiep's son is one of those remarkably handsome boys met with occasionally in modern Persia, and which so profusely adorn old Persian paintings. With soft, girlish features, big, black, lustrous eyes, and an abundance of long hair, they remind one of the beautiful youths of Oriental romance; his fond parent takes him about on his visits and finds much gratification in the admiring remarks bestowed upon the son.
The Sartiep is an ideal Persian official, courteous and complimentary, but never forgetful of Ali Akbar Khan; his full, round figure and sensual Oriental face speak eloquently of mutton pillau and other fattening dishes galore, sweetmeats, cucumbers, and melons; and deep draughts from pleasure's intoxicating cup have not failed to leave their indelible marks. In this particular the Sartiep is but a casually selected sample of the well-to-do Persian official. Leaving out a few notable exceptions, this brief description of him suffices to describe them all.
Following in the train of the Sartiep arrive more servants, bearing dishes of kabobs, herb-seasoned pillau, and various other strange, savory dishes, which, Mr. Gray explains, are considered great delicacies among the upper-class Persians and are intended as a great compliment to me.
Although Mohammedans, and particularly Shiite Mohammedans, are forbidden by their religion to indulge in alcoholic beverages, the average high official in Persia is anything but a sanctimonious individual, and partakes with a keen relish of the forbidden fruit in an open-secret manner. The thin, transparent veil of abstemiousness that the Persian noble wears in deference to the sanctimonious pretensions of the mollahs and seyuds and the public eye at large, is cast aside altogether in the presence of intimate friends, and particularly if that intimate friend is a Ferenghi. Owing to their association in the telegraph-service, mine host and the Sartiep are on the most intimate terms. The Sartiep soon after his arrival intimates, with a humorous twinkle of the eye, that he feels the need of a little medicine. Mr. Gray, as becomes a good physician who knows well the constitutional requirements of his patient, and who knows what to prescribe without even going through the preliminary act of feeling the pulse, produces a pale-green bottle and a tumbler and pours out a full dose of its contents for an adult.
The patient swallows it at a gulp, nibbles a piece of sweetmeat, and strokes his stomach in token of approval.
"What was the medicine you prescribed, Gray?" "High wines," says the physician, "95 proof alcohol; a bottle that the entomologist of the Boundary Commission happened to leave here a year ago; it was the only thing in the house except wine. The patient pronounces it the 'best arrack' he ever tasted; the firier these fellows can get it the better they like it."
"Why, it didn't even make him gasp!"
"Gasp - nonsense; you haven't been in Persia as long as I have yet, or you wouldn't say 'gasp' even at 95% alcohol."
But how polite, how complimentary, these French of Asia are, and how imaginative and fanciful their language! Not having shaved since leaving Teheran, after surveying myself in the glass, I feel called upon, in the interest of fellow-wheelmen elsewhere, to explain to our discerning visitors that all bicyclers are not distinguished from their fellow men by a bronzed and stubby phiz and an all-around vagrom appearance.
The Sartiep strokes his beard and stomach, casts a lingering glance at the above-mentioned green-glass bottle, smiles, and replies: "Having accomplished so wonderful a journey, you are now prettier with your rough, unshaven face than you ever were before; you can now survey yourself in the looking-glass of fame instead of in a common mirror that reflects all the imperfections of ordinary mortals." Having delivered himself of this compliment, the Sartiep's eye wanders in the direction of the 95% alcohol again, and the next minute is again smacking his lips and complacently stroking his stomach.