THE lady in evening dress, cut low and adorned with green sequins, addressed eagerly a tall, spare gentleman who was staring out of the window in astonishment at the blurred lights, the dingy houses, the unclean rain.
‘Oh, Mr. Marlowe, I have been reading some of your poems from the Persian and I am simply in love with them! They give one the atmosphere of the country so completely. Do you know, I begin to envy you every minute of time that you spent in that delightful land of rose gardens, nightingales, and running brooks —’
‘Er — not exactly,’ said the tall man. Then he added: ‘The country, for instance, between Yezd and Kashan is so barren, so desolate, that you can ride across it for days and hardly see a tree, a human habitation, a piece of cultivated ground. And as for running brooks! ’
The phrase seemed to bring something into his mind. He hesitated, considered, and then went on: ‘I had been riding on this road for thirteen days and was approaching Kashan, my destination. Toward noon of the last day, I came upon a small wayside posthouse, which for an hour had been a speck on the horizon. It was a brown, square, windowless building, covered, as buildings often are in treeless countries, by a dome. Its squareness and its dome gave to it, I remarked, a Byzantine, an ecclesiastical air. I was surprised to see a few servants, in blue livery, lounging before the arched entrance. I concluded that some traveler of consequence was tarrying there.
‘The servants disappeared when they caught sight of me. And very soon a portly individual, clad in a gaberdine of neutral shade and wearing a green sash round his waist, emerged from the building. He took his stand on the porch, a little in advance of his retinue, and awaited my approach. When I rode up he greeted me in the genteel phraseology of usage. But, discerning my embarrassment, he made haste to inform me that he was Seyyid Abbas, a merchant of Kashan. I remembered then that I had letters to a person of this name from a friend in Yezd. News of my approach must have reached him, and in the polite Persian manner he had ridden out a dozen miles to greet me on the road.
‘I had been riding thirteen days. I was covered with dust, half blinded by the sun, exasperated by the termless monotony, irritated that I should have chosen to travel such dolorous spaces. So that when he inquired how I had fared on my journey I spoke disparagingly of his country — to one who had ridden out a dozen miles to greet me on the road.
‘He replied with confidence, with good humor: “Wait until evening.”
‘My host had ordered his servants to prepare lunch in the posthouse. He ushered me, in due course, into the principal chamber. I found the earth floor garnished with a noble carpet from Kashan, where the best carpets in the world are woven. On the carpet a printed cloth was spread. It was dotted with little bowls of stews and sweetmeats; and like a sun, in the centre of that fragrant system, lay a huge metal platter, heaped with steaming rice.
‘I confess that my ill temper was in a measure appeased by this gratifying display. As for my host, the sight of those good things had put him in the best of humor. Gently he rallied me on my peevishness.
‘“Why, O Sah’b, have your times become so bitter? Behold, your journey reaches its end. And because it is fitting that the end should be pleasant and memorable, I will show you this day a wonder which will repay the burden of a thousand farsakhs.”
‘ I had never before visited Kashan. As for my host, he informed me that he had never left it! I was curious to discover what might be there which he held in such esteem. I recounted in my mind what I had read or heard concerning Kashan, but I could not recall anything of renown; except perhaps the fact, on which all later travelers are agreed, that two-thirds of it is a ruin, the habitation of scorpions and pariah dogs.
‘ In the late afternoon, at my friend’s bidding, we turned off from the main road. We found ourselves, suddenly, in a large walled enclosure, filled with dusty trees. The sight of trees, gray and dust-covered though they were, was a relief to me, after intolerable leagues of sun-scorched desert. I spied, in the centre of the garden, a kind of kiosk, which had been decorated once with gay-colored tiles. But there were brown gaps in the walls where the tiles had fallen, showing the cracked and crumbling masonry beneath.
‘“This is Feen,” said my friend Seyyid Abbas, the merchant.
‘I had heard of the garden, Feen. It was made, tradition said, by the great Shah Abbas, for a place of rest on the main road to Isfahan, his capital. It was restored, three generations ago, by the Wasp-Waisted One, the man of three hundred wives, FathAli Shah. His familiar black-bearded visage and wasp-like figure still adorned a crumbling inner wall of the kiosk.
‘Seyyid Abbas beckoned to me and I followed him to another part of the garden. Soon he stopped and pointed to a little stream of water, no bigger than a man’s arm, which issued by a broken conduit from a bank of earth. It ran for a dozen yards and emptied into a brimming water tank. Then Seyyid Abbas, the merchant, said: —
“‘Sah’b, in the whole of Feranghistan, which you have seen and which I have not seen, tell me, is there a stream of water equal to this stream of water? ”
‘What could I answer? My mind roamed the earth and considered its rivers. I thought of a thousand ships setting, in distant seas, their several courses for the yellow Thames; I thought of the Nile, ancient and august; of the holy Ganges; of the prodigious Congo, steaming, pestilent, miasmic; of the Father of Waters, bearing on his banks a dozen cities; of the Amazon; of Niagara!
‘He said, “I perceive that astonishment has dried up the fountains of speech. Yet this morning you were looking without favor upon my country.”
‘I answered, “What petition shall be made? I spoke quickly and without understanding.”
‘He waved a deprecating hand and said, with becoming modesty, “On this engaging theme an obscure poet of Kashan has composed appropriate verses; so nearly do they approach the classic models that they have been mistaken for a ghazel of Hafiz. Begins: —
Is the murmur, O Iran, of thy delectable waters;
The barren desert heard it and was changed
Into a moonlit garden of dark cypresses,
Which has become the refuge of the rose
And the place of torture of the nightingale.” ’
When he had reached this point in his narration, the tall gentleman remembered suddenly that there had been a lady in evening dress, cut low and adorned with green sequins. But she was not to be found.