CHAPTER VII. BEERJAND AND THE FRONTIER OF AFGHANISTAN.
Thirty miles over hill and dale, after leaving the little hamlet, and behold, the city of Beerjand appears before me but a mile or thereabouts away, at the foot of the hills I am descending. One's first impression of Beerjand is a sense of disappointment; the city is a jumbled mass of uninteresting mud buildings, ruined and otherwise, all of the same dismal mud-brown hue. Not a tree exists to relieve the eye, nor a solitary green object to break the dreary monotony of the prospect; the impression is that of a place existing under some dread ban of nature that forbids the enlivening presence of a tree, or even the redeeming feature of a bit of greensward.
The broad, sandy bed of a stream contains a sluggishly-flowing reminder of past spring freshets; but the quickening presence of a stream of water seems thrown away on Beerjand, except as furnishing a place for closely-veiled females to come and wash clothes, and for the daily wading and disporting of amphibious youngsters. In any other city a part of its mission would be the nurturing of vegetation.
The Ameer, Heshmet-i-Molk, I quickly learn, is living at his summer-garden at Ali-abad, four farsakhs to the east. Curious to see something of a place so much out of the world, and so little known as Beerjand, I determine upon spending the evening and night here, and continuing on to Ali-abad next morning.
There appears to be absolutely nothing of interest to a casual observer about the city except its population, and they are interesting from their strange, cosmopolitan character, and as being the most unscrupulous and keenest people for money one can well imagine. The city seems a seething nest of hard characters, who buzz around my devoted person like wasps, seemingly restrained only by the fear of retribution from pouncing on my personal effects and depriving me of everything I possess.
The harrowing experiences of Torbet-i Haiderie have taught a useful lesson that stands me in good stead at Beerjand. Ere entering the city proper, I enlist the services of a respectable-looking person to guide the way at once where the pressing needs of hunger can be attended to before the inevitable mob gathers about me and renders impossible this very necessary part of the programme. Having duly fortified myself against the anticipated pressure of circumstances by consuming bread and cheese and sheerah in the semi-seclusion of a suburban bake-house, my guide conducts me to the caravanserai, receives his backsheesh, and loses himself in the crowd that instantly fills the place.
The news of my arrival seems to set the whole city in a furore; besides the crowds below, the galched roof of the caravanserai becomes standing room for a mass of human beings, to the imminent danger of breaking it in. So, at least, thinks the caravanserai-jee, who becomes anxious about it and tries to persuade them to come down; but he might as well attempt to summon down from above the unlistening clouds.
Around two sides of the caravanserai compound is a narrow, bricked walk, elevated to the level of the menzil floors; at the imminent risk of breaking my neck, I endeavor to appease the clamorous multitude, riding to and fro for the edification of what is probably the wildest-looking assembly that could be collected anywhere in the world. Afghans, with tall, conical, gold-threaded head-dresses, converted into monster turbans by winding around them yards and yards of white or white-and-blue cloth, three feet of which is left dangling down the back; Beloochees in flowing gowns that were once white; Arabs in the striped mantles and peculiar headdress of their country; dervishes, mollahs, seyuds, and the whole fantastic array of queer-looking people living in Beerjand, travelling through, or visiting here to trade.
Some of the Afghans wear a turban and kammerbund, all of one piece; after winding the long cotton sheet a number of times about the peaked head-dress, it is passed down the back and then ends its career in the form of a kammerbund about the waist. Fights and tumults occur as the result of the caravanserai-jee's attempt to shut the gate and keep them out, and in despair he puts me in a room and locks the door. In less than five minutes the door is broken down, and a second attempt to seclude myself results in my being summarily pelted out again with stones through a hole in the roof.
A Yezdi traveller, occupying one of the menzils - all of which at Beeriand are provided with doors and locks - now invites me to his quarters; locking the door and keeping me out of sight, he hopes by making me his guest to assist in getting rid of the crowd. Whatever his object, its consummation is far from being realized; the unappeased curiosity of the crowds of newly arriving people finds expression in noisy shouts and violent hammering on the door, creating a din so infernal that the well-meaning traveller quickly tires of his bargain. Following the instincts of the genuine Oriental, he conjures up the genius of diplomacy to rid himself of his guest and the annoyance occasioned by my presence.
"If you go outside and ride around the place once more," he says, "Inshallah, the people will all go home."
This is a very transparent proposition - a broad hint, covered with the thin varnish of Persian politeness. No sooner am I outside than the door is locked, and the wily Yezdi has accomplished his purpose of ousting me and thereby securing a little peace for himself. No right-thinking person will blame him for turning me out; on the contrary, he deserves much praise for attempting to take me in.