CHAPTER VI. TEHERAN - ISPAHAN.
We are already some farsakhs [A] from Teheran when day breaks on the 4th of February, 1889. The start is not a propitious one. Hardly have we cleared the Ispahan gate than down comes the Shagird's horse as if he were shot, breaking his girths and rider's thumb at the same moment. Luckily, we are provided with rope, and Persian saddles are not complicated. In ten minutes we are off again; but it is terribly hard going, and all one can do to keep the horses on their legs. Towards midday the sun slightly thaws the surface of the frozen snow, and makes matters still worse. Up till now the pace has not been exhilarating. Two or three miles an hour at most. It will take some time to reach India at this rate!
Four or five hours of this work, and there is no longer a sign of life to be seen on the white waste, saving, about a mile ahead of us, a thin wreath of grey smoke and half a dozen blackened tents - an encampment of gypsies. Far behind us the tallest minarets of the capital are dipping below the horizon, while to the left the white and glittering cone of Demavend stands boldly out from a background of deep cloudless blue. Though the sun is powerful - so much so, indeed, that face and hands are already swollen and blistered - the cold in the shade is intense. A keen, cutting north-easter sweeps across the white waste, and, riding for a time under the shadow of a low ridge of snow, I find my cigar frozen to my lips - nor can I remove it without painfully tearing the skin. Gerome is in his element, and, as a natural consequence, my spirits fall as his rise. The slowness of our progress, and constant stumbling of my pony, do not improve the temper, and I am forced at last to beg my faithful follower to desist, for a time at least, from a vocal rendering of "La Mascotte" which has been going on unceasingly since we left Teheran. He obeys, but (unabashed) proceeds to carry on a long conversation with himself in the Tartar language, with which I am, perhaps happily, unacquainted. Truly he is a man of unfailing resource!
But even his angelic temper is tried when, shortly afterwards, we ride past the gipsy encampment As he dismounts to light a cigarette out of the wind, one of the sirens in a tent catches sight of the little Russian, and in less than half a minute he is surrounded by a mob of dishevelled, half-naked females, who throw their arms about him, pull his hair and ears, and try, but in vain, to secure his horse and drag him into a tent. These gipsies are the terror of travellers in Persia, the men, most of them, gaining a precarious living as tinkers and leather-workers, with an occasional highway robbery to keep their hand in, the women living entirely by thieving and prostitution. The gentlemen of the tribe were, perhaps luckily for us, away from home on this occasion. One of the women, a good-looking, black-eyed girl, was the most persistent among this band of maenads, and, bolder than the rest, utterly refused to let Gerome get on his pony, till, white with passion, the Russian raised his whip. This was a signal for a general howl of rage. "Strike me if you dare!" said the girl, her eyes ablaze. "If you do you will never reach the next station." But in the confusion Gerome had vaulted into his saddle, and, setting spurs to our horses, we galloped or scrambled off as quick as the deep snow would allow us. "Crapule va!" shouted the little man, whose cheek and hair still bore traces of the struggle. "Il n'y a qu'en Perse qu'on fait des chameaus comme cela!"
Ispahan is about seventy farsakhs distant from Teheran. The journey has, under favourable conditions, been ridden in under two days, but this is very unusual, and has seldom been done except for a wager by Europeans. In our case speed was, of course, out of the question, with the road in the state it was. The ordinary pace is, on an average, six to eight miles an hour, unless the horses are very bad. It was nearly a week, however, before we rode through the gates of Ispahan, and even this was accounted a fair performance considering the difficulties we had to contend with.
Towards sunset the wind rose - a sharp north-easter that made face and ears feel as if they were being flogged with stinging-nettles. It was not until dusk that we reached Rabat Kerim, a small mud village, with a filthy windowless post-house. But a pigstye would have been welcome after such a ride, and the vermin which a flickering oil-lamp revealed in hundreds, on walls and flooring, did not prevent our sleeping soundly till morning. My thermometer marked only one degree above zero when we retired to rest, and the wood was too damp to light a fire. But we are in Persia!
It is only fair, however, to say that the road we were now travelling is not the regular post-road, which lies some distance to the eastward of Rabat Kerim, but was now impassable on account of the snow. The smaller track joins the main road at Koom. By taking the less frequented track, we were unable to go through the "Malak al Niote," or "Valley of the Angel of Death," which lies about half-way between the capital and Koom. The valley is so called from its desolate and sterile appearance, though, if this be so, the greater part of Persia might with reason bear the same name. Be this as it may, the Shagirds and natives have the greatest objection to passing through it after dark. A legend avers that it is haunted by monsters having the bodies of men and heads of beasts and birds. Surrounded by these apparitions, who lick his face and hands till he is unconscious, the traveller is carried away - where, history does not state - never to return.