The Debt

WHEN my fat, spectacled friend, Samsam-ol-Molk, Minister of War, was arrested by the leader of a successful coup d’ état, he took his misfortune serenely, as became a student of the classics and a poet. Serenely, also, because he knew that in Persia revolutions do not kill. With that assurance which springs from a perfect understanding of the precedents, he waited for the moment when the new Prime Minister would condescend to discuss terms with him.

Into the details of that subtle negotiation I will not venture now. Let it be mentioned only that to a haughty demand — accompanied by recriminations and threats — for a payment of one hundred thousand tomans my poet meekly offered ten thousand; that this offer was scorned by the new Prime Minister, who left the room in high dudgeon; that my poet smiled and waited patiently for his return; and that at the third interview, with great good-humor on both sides, a sum of fifty thousand was agreed upon. To raise even a part of this important sum, Samsam-ol-Molk was compelled to order his grain stores to be opened. For the rest, his Zoroastrian banker, Erbab Rustem, accommodated him, at twenty-two per cent. When at length the full amount was discharged, my friend received his liberty. He at once quitted the capital for his estates near Hamadan.

It was during the years of his enforced retirement, following these events, that I met Samsam-ol-Molk. He was living in his kaleh at Noberan — a huge, square, mud-built fortress, set on high ground in a broad valley, thirty miles from Hamadan. There on either hand his villages lay, one green patch behind another, as far as the eye could reach.

A pleasant garden lay inside the battlements, a garden of brimming rectangular pools and straight paths flanked with poplars. At one end spread a low white-plastered house; two tall white-plastered columns supported the ceiling of its high audienceporch, which jutted out, like a stage, into the garden.

In this retreat, secluded and secure behind that immense battlemented wall, Samsam-ol-Molk held his court; dispensed justice among his rayats; gathered in his rents; arranged small, harmless corners in wheat; read his favorite Hafiz; turned, from time to time, a not too indifferent couplet, and from afar watched Tehran.

The revolution had been dead four years. I say ‘dead’ advisedly, because the exalted programme and alluring promises that accompanied the coup d’ état had faded imperceptibly into a policy older and more familiar. That policy, ancient as the Persian State itself, time-honored, accepted of the people, is called, in Persian, ‘eating money.’

The Prime Minister who had so successfully negotiated with my friend had been succeeded by another. He too, after an allotted span of four months of office, had gone, carrying off what he could. With satisfying regularity the chiefs of the great families followed each other in office; yet the keenest eye must have failed to detect any change, either for better or for worse, in the governance of Persia.

The revolution had been dead four years when, on a lambent August evening, I sat with Samsam on his verandah, watching the shadows of the poplars lengthen in the brimming pools, while he recounted to me, in his suave, musical Persian, the events of the opening of this story. Then he said: —

‘You cannot understand these things. I low should you understand? Affairs with you are different. With you, honest and intelligent service is recognized and in time rewarded. But with us — with us, when a man receives an appointment his enemies begin immediately an intrigue. He knows that, though he be Governor to-day, tomorrow he may be an exile—a man without a servant. What then should he do? My friend, we should be fools if we did not eat! Look at me. I was for eight months a Minister. I was eating little — very little. You see, I like to read Hafiz — and also I have enough. Then came the coup d’ état. Sardar Mo’azzam stated in his proclamation that he would begin by cleansing the departments. He began by stealing fifty thousand tomans from me! That is the way of our reformers. They eat like the others, only more.’

And then he added, blowing a filament of blue smoke upward, ‘Ah yes, I had almost forgotten that fifty thousand — shall I ever get it back? Most assuredly! You ask me how? I do not know. There are ways and ways. But you must admit that the Government owes it to me. When will the Government repay that debt, I wonder?’

At that moment, as it were out of the skies, came the beginning of the answer. A barefooted servant, wearing a long, generously pleated tunic and the balloon-shaped hat of usage, sidled up to us and with both hands proffered to my friend a telegram. Samsam, having asked my permission, in that deprecating Persian way, broke the seal.

A Persian telegram, at best, exacts for its elucidation a certain inventiveness. It would seem that the mirzas of the telegraph take pride in further lengthening the long pothooks of the shekasta script; and they must regard dots as trifles wholly superfluous. To the eye of the unpractised, most of the letters look alike. Even Samsam, I could see, was puzzled. The telegram was long, and he appeared to study every word. He went over it a second time, and a third. Then he turned to me.

‘I ask pardon,’ said he. ‘A telegram from Tehran. Purposely, it is not in code, yet there are some words in it which I could not understand at first. There is news. The pot is boiling over there. May I read it? Listen: —

'To His Excellency Samsam-ol-Molk, Hamadan. — Information has reached the Government that the Pretender, Salar-i-Nizam, has induced some of the Kurdish tribes to join his standard and to march on Tehran. This miserable force will be met and destroyed before it reaches the capital; but in the meantime it is necessary that urgent steps be taken to hold up the Pretender on his line of march at Hamadan. Your Excellency’s loyalty and skill in war ‘ (Samsam beamed at me over his spectacles), ‘above all, the great honor in which your name is held throughout the province of Hamadan, impel me to call upon you for this service. You are appointed Governor of Hamadan, and are instructed to raise an army of ten thousand horsemen against Salar-i-Nizam. A telegram has been dispatched to the present Governor to hand over to you his office.
President, Council of Ministers’

I said: ‘Salar-i-Nizam again? Will that man never tire of stirring up trouble?’

‘He will never tire,’ said Samsam.

‘ He is mad. He thinks that he is greater than Napoleon or Nadir Shah. Can you believe, he sleeps only four hours at night, because he has read, in some lying history, that Napoleon did so. He will try to seize the throne, and if he succeeds he says that he will march on India to drive the English out! I have heard him talk — it is like the waters of a river. Who knows—perhaps he will arrive. These madmen — ‘ The phrase ended in an elusive shrug.

‘What are you going to do about the telegram?’

’Oh, I am going into Hamadan at once to raise my army. But to do that,’ — he looked at me again, quizzically over his spectacles, — ‘to do that, money is required.’

With an alacrity surprising in one habitually so deliberate, he ordered his carriage, climbed into it, and invited me to a seat beside him. We started on our thirty-mile drive just as the jagged white line of the Elvend ahead of us took on a hint of rose.

It was midnight when we passed the turnpike at the edge of the sleeping town. We clattered through dark, tortuous, ill-paved streets, flanked on either hand by windowless mud-walls, until we reached, beyond the town, the more open country of the foothills. There we few Ferenghis live. Samsam dropped me at my door. I heard him order his coachman to drive on to the telegraph office. I wondered whether he intended to rout out the wretched operator at that hour of the night.

The next morning when Habib, my servant, entered my room I said, knowing that he has an interest in a teahouse, where the gossips of the quarter forgather: ‘Habib, is there any news this morning in the bazaar?’

‘There is a news. They say that Salar-i-Nizam, with ten thousand Kurdish sowars, is coming to take Hamadan. They say also that the Governor has resigned and that Samsam-ol-Molk has been appointed in his place. The Government has ordered Samsam-ol-Molk to collect twenty thousand sowars to fight with Salar-i-Nizam. Samsam-olMolk has telegraphed to the Government that without money he cannot raise an army. He has asked for seventy thousand tomans. All this is true. The mirza of the telegraph, who is my friend, told me.'

In Persia a telegram, if it is not in code, is common property. Even code messages — sometimes.

Before noon I learned indirectly from the National Bank — indirectly, because Finlay, the manager, is a man who takes his position seriously and tries, with varying success, to keep secret the bank’s operations — that Tehran had remitted fifty thousand tomans to Samsam for the expenses of his army. Later Habib came to my room to tell me, with emotion, that the new Governor had issued a proclamation calling upon every man between the ages of eighteen and forty to enroll at the Government House. ‘Up to now,’ he protested, ‘such a thing has not been heard of in Hamadan. Sah’b, what are your commands?’

I answered that, as I saw it, there was only one thing for him to do — to enroll; and also to bring me news of what was doing. In an hour he returned, smiling and much relieved.

‘It is nothing,’ said he. ‘A way of getting money. I went to the Government House. There was a great commotion; the courtyard was filled with bazaar people and villagers. Two soldiers led me to a man who was sitting at the end of a long table. I knew him. It was an agent of Samsam-ol-Molk. “Ah, Habib,” said he, “it is you. Well, have you seen the proclamation of the Governor? Are you ready to become a sowar and fight for the King of Kings against that miscreant, Salar-i-Nizam? ”

‘“Nasrullah Khan,” I answered, “thou knowest I am ready. My life and that of my children are a sacrifice to the Point of Adoration of the Universe. Still, what have I to do with Salar-i-Nizam? And as to becoming a sowar, why, I should fall off my horse! Also, I am too old. Let me go back to my master, the Sah’b.”

‘“True,” answered Nasrullah Khan. “I had forgotten. You are one of the Sah’b’s servants.”

‘“The Head of his Servants,” said I.

'"It is well,” answered Nasrullah Khan. “You are excused. But everyone who is excused has to pay three tomans. You must pay three tomans.”

'"Why three tomans?” I asked. “Others are paying one toman.”

‘“It is true,” answered Nasrullah Khan, “but they are villagers and beggars, while you are the Head of the Servants of the Sah’b. Three tomans! It is as cheap as the water of the river.”

‘ I gave him two tomans,’ said Habib, ‘and I received my paper. Here it is. Truly Samsam-ol-Molk has a cleverness. He is collecting thousands of tomans from the people, but no army. Why should he collect an army? It is the business of the Government to fight against Salar-i-Nizam. What are the Cossacks and gendarmes doing in Tehran? It is their business to fight, not his. And if he were to raise an army what kind of army would it be? A rabble without exercise, without Maxims. The Kurds of Salar-i-Nizam would eat it up! And then he would march on Tehran and seize the throne, and what would become of Samsamol-Molk? No, an army is not his business. What should he be doing with an army?’

What indeed? An army could accomplish nothing — except swallow up the fifty thousand tomans!

Apparently, though, Samsam was getting something together. Not everybody in the town, I found, preferred a peaceful life, minus a toman or two, to a life of glory. Yet it must be added that most of his recruits were unable to buy, like Habib, a paper of exemption.

A week later I went for an evening’s ride to the top of a little hill that overlooks the plain northward and eastward of the town. Habib accompanies me on these occasions, because Safer, my groom, has never mastered the mystery of rising in the saddle, as the Ferenghis do, to a trotting horse. As I rode over the brow of the hill, — where, if one were to dig, the chances are that one would come upon the bones of a palace of Darius, — I perceived, dotted on the plain below, a matter of fifty white tents. Habib exclaimed: —

‘ Look, Sah’b! The army of Samsamol-Molk! They say in the bazaar that he has collected five thousand sowars. Pah! It is a lie. Five hundred, perhaps. And most of them are his own rayats. He pays them nothing, and each man brings his own horse. Do you see where he has pitched his camp? If Salar-iNizam comes to Hamadan, he will attack from the other side. Yet Samsam has made his camp on this side! Assuredly he has some design.’

That night I was awakened from my first, sleep by what sounded like the crackle of musketry. There was a lull, and afterward, for some time, the sound of desultory firing; then the rumble of a drum, growing fainter and fainter. Then silence. I went to sleep again.

In the morning, when Habib entered the room with early tea, I perceived that he was bursting with news.

‘Sah’b, Salar-i-Nizam has taken Hamadan!'

‘What,’ cried I, jumping out of bed.

‘ It is nothing, Sah’b. Drink your tea in peace. The Kurds rode in at midnight. They fired a few shots, but there was no opposition. Salar-i-Nizam has occupied the Government House.’

‘Has there been any looting?’

‘None at all, Sah’b. Early this morning Salar-i-Nizam issued a proclamation to the townspeople, telling them that he had come to protect them from the robber government in Tehran, and threatening to shoot anyone who was caught looting. His Kurds will not be happy at that! But he knows them. He knows that they are good fighters until their saddles are heavy with loot. Then they begin to look behind them toward their villages and to forget the enemy. Until the battle for Tehran is won, he will forbid them. But afterward? Assuredly he will give them the Tehran bazaar for two days as a reward. Alas for the poor shopkeepers!'

‘Where is Samsam-ol-Molk?’

‘Where would he be, Sah’b? The camp in the plain has disappeared. Did I not say that he had a design? Without a doubt he has retired with his five hundred sowars to his kaleh at Noberan. There he wall wait to see which way the tree will fall. Truly, Samsam-ol-Molk has a cleverness!’

Later, I took a walk into the town. Habib, in his blue livery with gold buttons and his balloon-hat, followed me at a respectful distance. We found the bazaar thronged with hundreds of tough, undisciplined mountaineers, urging their wiry horses with strange cries through the anxious crowds of townspeople. The Kurdish troopers wore black trousers, each trouser leg as wide at the bottom as a woman’s skirt, and long black coats, with sashes of gay colors and of enormous length wound around their waists. And every man wore the peculiar headdress of the Kurd, a black balloon-hat like Habib’s but flatter at the top, with one or more checked handkerchiefs tied loosely around it.

Salar’s army rested for two days in Hamadan. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it disappeared. One had a vision of those ten thousand wild horsemen riding to the capital across two hundred miles of dry, desolate, sun-baked plain, searching out and devouring on their way every little store of grain or fodder which the wretched peasants had laid up against the long, cruel winter. I took out the map and reckoned, day by day, how far they must have gone on their journey. I calculated when the battle, if there was to be a battle, must engage. From Tehran there could be no news, because Salar had cut the wires; but I knew that certain of my friends had arranged to be kept informed, by runners, of the progress of events.

Then, on a sudden, the news passed from mouth to mouth that Salar’s army had been beaten by the Government forces. The Kurds, it seemed, had been mowed down by machine-guns directed by a German artillery officer. Back over the road which they had taken they were in full retreat, with Persian Cossacks and Armenian cavalry at their heels. In three days, I thought, they would be in Hamadan again — a broken, undisciplined rabble, greedy for plunder. There was time for all, Ferenghi and Persian alike, to barricade our houses, to look to our firearms, and to conceal whatever we had of value that could be carried away on a Kurdish saddle-bow.

We might have spared ourselves the trouble. On the third day, the advance guard of the retreat — horse and man hungry, weary, dejected — straggled into Hamadan. All the afternoon and far into the night the troopers streamed in, too dispirited, too homesick, too exhausted to think of loot. All they wanted was bread, and that the townspeople, breathing more freely, gave them. Knowing that their pursuers were not far behind, they made no halt, but, mounting again their jaded horses, the disillusioned children of the mountains rode out of the city, westward, toward their homes in Kurdistan.

When the last straggler was gone, I too mounted my horse, and rode in the opposite direction to meet the first of the pursuit. I had not far to ride; very soon I saw, through a cloud of dust, the fur caps of the Armenian cavalry. At their head rode a small, swarthy Armenian whom I remembered; and by his side, sitting easily a familiar gray horse, rode a fat, spectacled Persian gentleman, clad in a black coat buttoned to the neck, with a black cap, shaped like a pill-box, set jauntily upon his head. It was my friend. He seemed to be taking a hand in the pursuit.

As we rode side by side toward the town, I prevailed upon him to rest a moment from his wars and discuss with me a bottle of Shirazi on my verandah. When we had dismounted, and Habib had filled the glasses, I said: —

’Everything, then, has turned out all right? ‘

‘Yes,’ he replied complacently, fanning himself with his handkerchief. ‘As I anticipated, the mitrailleuses Maximes of that German officer of artillery made it unnecessary that my invincible army should participate in the battle. lake many famous generals of history,’ he beamed at me over his spectacles, ‘ I arrived when the mists of doubt had been dispersed by the noonday of certainty. I was in time to take part in the pursuit.’

’And that little debt of fifty thousand has been repaid?’ I ventured.

‘Yes,’ answered Samsam with a sigh. ‘ It has been repaid — at last. But with what a trouble, my friend! With what a headache! There was a small account for interest too — interest for four years. However,’ he added, deprecatingly, ‘I will let that pass. Between ourselves, Salar-i-Nizam has paid it. Three weeks ago, before he entered Hamadan, he sent me a little present — to assist me in making up my mind! Good-bye, my dear friend!’

He climbed into the saddle. Gracefully he waved a fine Persian hand to me, as his gray curveted down my avenue of poplars.