The Clock

IT is the traveling kind. I take it with me on my journeys, snugly packed in its red leather case. At other times, bereft of that armor against the uncertainties of Persian travel, it stands on the mantelpiece in my study. A sturdy clock of gilded metal it is then, and a part of the permanent furniture of the room.

I like the cool liquid note with which it strikes the hours — not so loud as to disturb me at my work, yet loud enough to remind me, gently, of the inevitable lapse of time.

On the day that Agha Seyyid Fazel sent his servant to inquire whether it would be convenient to me if he were to arrive at my service at an hour before noon, I answered, ‘Let him command,’and prepared to receive my visitor.

Then it was that Habib reminded me that the wives and mothers of my hospital assistants had asked the Khanum to appoint a time, and that she had appointed the same hour of eleven. The drawing-room, therefore, would scintillate with unveiled ladies. Would My Honor, said Habib, receive Agha Seyyid Fazel in the study?

My Honor would. Quickly, out of that wilderness of books and papers order was evolved. A table was prepared on which five plates were set, containing five kinds of sweetmeats; and charcoal was put into the samovar, so that the tea of custom might be ready.

At the appointed hour, the servant of Agha Seyyid Fazel knocked at the outer gate and announced, with hand upraised and in a hushed voice: ‘They are coming.’

A few minutes later, through the drawn curtain of my study, I viewed the entry of that great man. He bestrode, as became the dignity of an ecclesiastic, a white ass, which appeared to carry his bulk with pride along the garden path. He was enveloped in an ample brown abba, or gown. He sat the animal huddled up, with back bent and head sunk on his chest, so that he looked for all the world like a huge brown sack set perilously on the small white donkey.

The demeanor of the Persians in the matter of calls is far above ours. Perhaps they consider unnecessary any conversation which is not edifying — as indeed it is; or perhaps they think that silence is a thing too precious to be frittered away in small talk; or it may be that, having really nothing to say, they think it wisdom to say nothing.

However this may be, we sat there, when the ordained inquiries as to our healths were over, in cordial silence. Habib brought tea, which we consumed with noises, but almost without words. From time to time my guest would hazard a short question, but of the kind which affords no opening for anything beyond an answer: as, ‘How much did you pay for that clock on the mantel behind you?’

Suddenly, the even tenor of our entertainment was cruelly convulsed. Sparks rushed into the room, barking. There hung from his collar a broken end of string.

To a Persian, all dogs are unclean; but for little dogs that bark and snap he has a peculiar detestation. And it would seem that little dogs are aware of it, for they look upon all Persians as their enemies and rightful victims. It is for this that Habib has strict instructions to keep Sparks tied up when I have Persian callers. But the string had not been equal to the strain.

Agha Seyyid Fazel, terror-struck, gathered his abba around him, and drew his fat legs as far toward his chin as his ponderosity allowed. I lunged forward, and caught Sparks just in time to prevent the defilement of that holy man. I then dragged the dog by the collar from the room.

After giving him his deserts, I returned to the study, to find my guest sitting very straight in his chair, with his mantle arranged primly around him. I apologized for the intrusion of my dog. Agha Seyyid Fazel nodded his head sagely several times, and murmured something in his beard.

After that I attempted bravely a conversation, but without success. Agha Seyyid Fazel answered in monosyllables, or by a wagging of his vast turbaned head. I began to wonder how long it would be before Habib brought coffee, the signal for departure. In despair, I glanced furtively over my shoulder toward the clock, on the mantelpiece.

The clock was not there.

In Persia, one learns to control one’s emotions. I could have sworn the clock was there when I went out, but even if it was, what then? I looked askance at Agha Seyyid Fazel, fearing that he might have detected my momentary excitement. But my guest was sitting with eyes half closed and head sunk forward on his chest, solemn and immovable.

Suddenly, from beneath the ample folds of Agha Seyyid Fazel’s mantle, I heard a little grinding sound, as of revolving wheels, followed by a muffled stroke; then another, and another, and another —

The clock struck twelve.

How can I describe the agony of those twelve muffled strokes? If it had struck three times or four — but twelve. Shade of Imam Reza!

There was a momentary quiver of Agha Fazel’s enormous bulk. His impassive face became ashen, but he did not move a muscle. He continued to sit, immobile, with head bent forward and eyes half closed, as if he were pondering eternal problems.

The situation was saved by Habib. He brought coffee. We took our little cups with friendly ease. After he had drained his cup, Agha Seyyid Fazel waited for the required time, and then begged me to command his departure.

A week later Agha Seyyid Fazel sent his servant to inform me that his daughter was unwell, and would My Honor come to see her and ordain a medicine. It is my custom with Persians to collect my fees in advance, this being the only way to get anything out of them. But I reasoned that in the case of Agha Seyyid Fazel, whose honesty is renowned, I could safely make an exception.

I went. The girl was suffering from a minor indisposition, caused, no doubt, by overindulgence in cucumbers.

I prescribed something and left.

A few days later, the servant again appeared, bearing on a tray something concealed beneath an embroidered cloth. He explained that it was a small present from his master, in recognition of My Honor’s skill and kindness in restoring his beloved daughter to health. A Persian of position will rarely pay a doctor’s fee in cash — he will send a present of becoming value.

I removed the cloth.

It was my clock.