FROM his seat on a mattress covered in red plush, which lay in the centre of a huge carpet of arresting pattern, a bearded old gentleman, whose goodly proportions were at the same time indicated and concealed by a brown mantle of ample yardage, remarked benignly: —
‘On the subject of his prolonged journeys the Honorable Engineer has condescended to relate experiences at the same time curious and picturesque; wherein, doubtless, there may lurk, somewhere, a clove of truth.’
The slim, olive-tinted young man in the black tunic and pill-box hat, who stood respectfully before that pyramid of flesh, broadcloth, and upholstery, answered with some warmth: —
‘That which your servant has described, his eye has seen. The avenue is a hundred paces wide; also it runs in a straight line through the city for six farsakhs — ’
‘Who shall deny the traveler his tale?’ mused the stout old gentleman, who was called Preserver-of-the-Kingdom.
‘To deny a tale to a traveler,’ said the Engineer, ‘would be unworthy of the magnanimous and discerning Presence. Nevertheless, your servant has refrained in this instance, not without difficulty, from garnishing the skirts of truth with the embroidery of fancy. As I have explained, the people of the city which has been described number as many as all the inhabitants of Azerbaijan, Khorasan, Fars, and Kerman together —'
‘Peace!’ said the stout old gentleman. ‘A city to hold so many people should be twenty farsakhs long, not six.’
‘Not so,’ answered the young man, ‘if the houses in it are six times the height of the minarets of the Mosque of Friday.’
He who was called Preserver-of-theKingdom made no reply. He let his eyelids fall and allowed his ponderous head to sink on an ample bosom. After an adequate pause his eyes reopened and he inquired with suspicion; —
‘This avenue, which you say is six farsakhs long, and runs through a city whose houses are six times as high as the minarets of the Mosque of Friday — ’
‘As I petitioned,’ said the young man.
‘Who built it?’
The Engineer, disdaining an admission of ignorance, took advantage of an opportunity for loosening the bridle of his fancy.
‘The avenue was built by the wisest governor the city ever had. When it was finished, the gratitude of the people was such that they named it after him, so that his renown might endure forever.’
The stout old gentleman again bent his head and pondered. At last he was heard to murmur: —
‘The Avenue of the Preserver-of-theKingdom’; and again: ‘The Avenue of the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom.’ Then he said cautiously: ‘Should it become apparent that the people of this city also desired such an avenue, could the undertaking be accomplished?’
‘Most assuredly!' cried the Engineer with enthusiasm. ‘ Why, just before they sent me here to dwell in the shadow of the Illustrious Presence, I had completed such a road outside Tehran. It runs from the Gate of Shimran to the Hill of the Hare—’
‘What would be required,’ interrupted the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom, ’for such an undertaking?’
‘First,’ answered the Engineer, ‘a plan of the town must be carefully prepared — ’
‘It is unnecessary,’ interrupted the stout gentleman. ‘Everything is plain. The avenue will begin at the Gate of the Lion, which is at the lower end of the town, and will proceed in a straight line, without deviating a hand’s breadth to the right or left, until it reaches the Gate of Sheikh Mahmoud at the upper end. What next?’
‘Then,’ said the young man, ‘an order must be written bearing the seal of the Illustrious Presence, which will enable your servant to remove certain houses which might be found unfortunately to lie in the line of the proposed road —'
’such an order is wholly unnecessary,’ interrupted the Preserver-ofthe-Kingdom. ’The houses may be removed. Proceed.’
’Then,’ continued the Engineer, ‘to the owners of the removed houses it is customary to give a promise of ultimate compensation.’
‘Compensation!' cried the stout gentleman indignantly. ‘When I am about to present them with a noble avenue, planted on both sides with trees!’
‘Your servant spoke only of a promise,’said the young man airily. ‘The matter of fulfillment was not touched upon. To those who have eaten the bitter herbs of despair at seeing their houses demolished before their eyes such a promise would come as a spiced sweetmeat of hope.’
’Or as the sight of a lake of reeds and floating islands to the ignorant and distracted traveler in the desert,’ murmured the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom. ‘Setting aside the matter of compensation,’ he added cautiously, ‘ there might be, perhaps, other expenses.’
‘Difficulties of this nature would be easily resolved by the sagacious mind of the Illustrious Presence,’ said the Engineer. ‘ If, for instance, an insignificant tax of one kran were charged upon every ass, mule, horse, and camel which enters the town, ample funds would be provided for meeting any unavoidable expense.’
‘Certainly, on the score of the heavy cost of construction and ultimate compensation, a sum might be conveniently collected in the manner described,’ said the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom I houghtfully.
‘Most assuredly,’ said the young man. ‘And further, this tax, once imposed, might be usefully retained for the upkeep of the road — or for general purposes. And as for workmen, the town prison is doubtless full of thieves, murderers, and other lost persons, who in their red and yellow costumes, with chains round their ankles, attached to heavy iron balls, would provide a sufficiency of picturesque if reluctant labor.’
’True, true,’ murmured the stout gentleman.
He closed his eyes again, allowing his head to sink once more on his bosom. After an appropriate pause he reopened them and said: —
’The suggestions of the Honorable Engineer have been weighed and are found acceptable. When could the work be commenced and when would the avenue be ready for the ceremony of opening and naming?’
‘Why,’ said the young man, ’there is no day like the first day of the new year for festivities of this nature. If your servant undertakes to have everything ready by then, which is to say in nine months’ time—'
’It is accepted,’ said the Preserverof-the-Kingdom.
He who by all Saidabad is known as Chief-of-the-Masons, and by the purveyors of lime, bricks, poplar poles, and white plaster as The-Most-FamousArchitect, surveyed gloomily a scroll which the young Engineer had unrolled before him on the table.
’It is but a rough, imperfect plan of the town,’ said the Engineer. ‘You will say, “It should have been drawn on a larger paper and every street, alley, mosque, caravanserai, and house should appear.”True, O Chief-of-the-Masons, but what could I do? In the opinion of the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom such details are a headache and a complication. However, thanks be to God, I was able with my instrument to obtain a sight of the Gate of Sheikh Mahmoud from the roof of the Gate of the Lion. So we have our direction. We shall begin from the Gate of the Lion and work upward, slowly, in a straight line, toward the Gate of Sheikh Mahmoud.'
The Chief-of-the-Masons made no remark.
‘Arrangements have been made,’continued the Engineer, ‘with the Chief-of-Police regarding the prisoners. Clad in their picturesque garments of red and yellow, they will work from sunrise to sunset, under a not too exacting guard. It is true that most of them are sick and all of them are hungry, and the chains round their ankles will not increase the alacrity of their movements. Still, the surprising number of them may compensate for their want of zeal.’
The Chief-of-the-Masons maintained a gloomy silence. The Engineer, bending over his plan, continued with enthusiasm: —
‘The new road, as you perceive, will follow for some distance the Street of the Daughters. Then it will cross the Meidan and enter the bazaar, which we should reach in a month’s time. There our headaches will begin. For the merchants, shopkeepers, and money lenders will refuse to be entertained by the new and startling experience of seeing their premises demolished before their eyes. Beyond the bazaar is the quarter of the Plane Tree—’
‘Doubtless everything that has been conceived by the Honorable Engineer may be accomplished,’ interrupted solemnly the Chief-of-the-Masons. ‘With the help of God, everything may be accomplished. Nevertheless —’
‘Nevertheless?’ said the Engineer.
‘The Honorable Engineer has forgotten the Tomb,' said the Chief-of-theMasons.
‘The Tomb?’ questioned the Engineer.
‘The Honorable Engineer is a stranger in this city,’ answered the Chief-ofthe-Masons. ‘Otherwise the Tomb of the Blessed Guide, Sheikh Mahmoud (May God purify his clay!), would not be unknown to him. It lies by the Gate of Sheikh Mahmoud, directly across the line of the road which the Honorable Engineer proposes to build. Who knows?’ continued with bitterness the Chief-of-the-Masons. ‘Perhaps God placed it there so that these detestable Feranghi innovations might be brought to nought! For, whatever else you may demolish and cast away, be assured of this: the bones of His Holy One shall never be moved; neither shall the Tomb of His Saint be defiled by those who have eaten the bread of unbelievers!'
When, with the aid of a variety of fragrant sauces, the virginal hillock of boiled rice had been ravished and consumed; when a sufficient number of gobbets of grilled mutton, concealed between slabs of smoking bread, had disappeared; when the cool, capacious bowl of sour milk and water had been drained with the aid of Halt a dozen boat-shaped wooden ladles; when a score of dripping segments of crimson watermelon had vanished, one by one — the Engineer from Tehran invited his guests to precede him into the inner chamber. There each took up a kneeling attitude upon the carpet and by refined and well-mannered noises of a belching nature sought to express his satisfaction at the hospitality vouchsafed.
Then Agha Seyyid Fazyl (called also Eye-of-Wisdom), the most distinguished among the assembled guests, made a sign to his serving man, who was waiting by the door; and soon, from the anteroom, his favorite water pipe was produced. For a person of his consequence would hardly venture forth to after-sunset dinner during the Blessed Month unaccompanied by his favorite water pipe. It had come, packed in a leather pocket which hung securely from the saddle of his Chief-ofServants.
By this time the minds of the assembled company were so filled with the consciousness of peace and wellbeing as to cause a lull in the conversation. Whereupon the Engineer from Tehran, sensing that his principal guest, in the magnificent black turban, was pleasantly disposed toward him and to the world at large, ventured to remark; —
‘The meagre hospitality of your servant is unworthy of this honor. Nevertheless, the humblest morsel may become acceptable, if it be offered in the name of God.'
‘To us unknown provincials,’ replied affably the Eye-of-Wisdom, ‘ how rarely is an opportunity accorded of edifying conversation with famous and instructed persons from the capital! Above all with those who, like the Honorable Engineer, have perfected their studies in the unrivaled universities of Feranghistan.’
‘In alluding to himself as an unknown provincial,’ replied the Engineer, ' the Eye-of-Wisdom is vainly attempting to drown the blare of the Trumpet, of Fame with the refined music of the thin Tar of Modesty. His reputation, which he esteems to be merely local, extends in reality far beyond the confines of this province. Thus he may be surprised to learn that the fame of the school of Dream Interpretation which he has founded among the learned doctors of the Mosque of Friday has long since reached the ears of instructed persons in the capital.’
‘I am indeed surprised and confused,’ answered the Eye-of-Wisdom with becoming humility, ‘that the learned doctors of the capital should have deigned to take note of our inadequate inquiries into the domain of Dream Interpretation.’
‘It is as I have petitioned,’ replied the Engineer. ‘ Before starting on my journey to your agreeable city, I decided to consult a learned mollah, one Sheikh Rahim of Shah Abdul Azim, about a dream which had caused me some uneasiness. For it concerned a personage of Saidabad and I feared that it might be intended as a warning to me to desist from this journey. Happily the learned Sheikh was able to allay my fears; he recommended me to proceed in peace and doubted not that my arrival would be fortunate. “You will find,” he added, “in the city of Saidabad whither you are journeying, a learned doctor of the Mosque of Friday, who is called the Eye-of-Wisdom and who has made an illuminating study of the art of Dream Interpretation. Should you require further advice on this matter, consult him with confidence, for his knowledge of the mystic science surpasses ours as the peak of Demavend outtops the hills of the Shimran.”'
To the smile of humility of the Eyeof-Wisdom was added a deprecating gesture which denoted an unwilling acknowledgment that the remark of the Engineer contained a measure of perspicacity and truth.
‘This dream,’inquired the Eye-ofWisdom with professional interest, ’which you say concerns a personage of Saidabad, has not by chance been repeated since your arrival in our midst ?’
‘Alas!’ said the Engineer distressfully. ‘Not once, but several times. But why should I trouble this distinguished company on such an occasion with a recital of ray secret distresses? Yet perhaps the problem is of interest to the Eye-of-Wisdom and to the other learned doctors, who are all Lamps of Enlightenment.’
‘All of us who are at this moment enjoying the gracious hospitality of the Honorable Engineer,’ replied the Eyeof-Wisdom, ’are priests and doctors of the Mosque of Friday. And all have been associated in those humble inquiries to which allusion has been made. It seems that the Honorable Engineer has an unusual experience to relate. Let him relate it openly, as a patient to his physicians. It may be that the inadequate researches of this company may bring to light a satisfactory interpretation of this dream, which is the cause of such distress to his habitually calm and undistracted mind.’
The Engineer paused a moment to collect his thoughts, while the assembled guests rearranged their mantles and prepared to listen.
‘My friends,’ he began, ‘one night, as I lay asleep in my house in Tehran, I had a dream in which a saintly personage, who declared that he was a native of this city, appeared before me and complained bitterly of his estate. When I awoke, I was much concerned and puzzled, for at that time your delectable city was wholly unknown to me. Judge of my astonishment, however, when, on the very next day, I was informed by the Minister of the Public Works Department that I was to proceed without delay to Saidabad. I was so concerned at this strange coincidence that, before starting on my journey, I determined, as I have said, to consult one Sheikh Rahim, a learned doctor, who, when he heard my story, reassured me, saying that the dream was not unfavorable and that I should not hesitate to set out on my journey.
’But, on the very night of my arrival in this city, no sooner had sleep taken possession of my faculties than the personage again appeared before me. He was of saintly aspect; his beard was of a silvery whiteness; he wore the turban of one who has performed the sacred pilgrimage; and in his hand he held a copy of the Word. “Welcome to Saidabad.” said he, “O Ibrahim, my deliverer.” “O Blessed One,” I replied, prostrating myself before the Saint, “tell your unworthy slave what dangers or discomforts threaten you, and by the justice of God I will deliver you from them all.”
’Thereupon the Saint lifted me by the hand and said: “Listen, O Ibrahim! I whom thou seest am Sheikh Mahmoud. whom men call Saint, Guide, and Holy One. For five generations I have lain in a small chapel, over against the city gate which is named after me. But no rest have I found there: day after day, from the first streak of dawn until far into the night, the noises of the passers-by, the cries of street vendors, and the wrangling of barterers distract me; I hear the booming and jangling of bells, the braying of mules and asses, the grunting of camels, the cries of the muleteers and camel drivers; at night I hear the howl of the jackal and the laugh of the hyena without the city wall. As the generations pass, the noises multiply. O Ibrahim, I desire to lie in a place of quietude. Seek out for me, O my son, a secluded corner in this the city of my birth, where I may rest in peace and hear only the call to prayer and the voices of the faithful.” With that he disappeared, and I woke, aghast at the reality of the vision.
‘My friends,’continued the Engineer, ‘this is not all. Since I arrived in this auspicious city, three times has the holy Sheikh Mahmoud appeared to me. Three times, repeating each time his piteous appeal. I have spent my days wandering, about the city, seeking for a peaceful and secluded spot, where the Blessed Saint might rest. Until yesterday, I despaired of finding it. Then, happening at the hour of the third prayer to enter the courtyard of the Mosque of Friday, I was attracted by a pathway which led under an arch adorned with a sacred inscription in tiles of black and yellow. Beneath the arch was a small door. It led into a delightful courtyard surrounded by a high wall. In the centre of the courtyard was a brimming tank, and on either side of the tank a row of dark cypresses; these were so elegantly placed that the slender beauty of each one was reflected separately in the still water.’
‘The prince of blessed memory who, many generations ago, built the Mosque of Friday,’ said the Eye-of-Wisdom, ‘intended to erect a tomb in this courtyard for himself and his favorite wife. But, having departed on a pilgrimage to Kerbela, he died there and was buried near the sacred shrine. And the woman married another. So that the courtyard has remained unoccupied ever since.'
‘Perhaps,’ said the Engineer thoughtfully, ‘this spot has been preserved and set aside to harbor at last the sacred dust of the Blessed Saint and Guide, Sheikh Mahmoud.’
‘That may be,’ answered the Eye-ofWisdom cautiously, ‘if, as I anticipate, our interpretation of the singular dreams of the Honorable Engineer confirms his supposition of their meaning.’
‘May I without offending suggest,’said the Engineer, ‘that, if the bones of Sheikh Mahmoud are removed to this place, honor beyond computation will be added to the Mosque of Friday? And you, my friends,’ he continued with enthusiasm, ‘who are priests and doctors of the Mosque, will become known throughout this province — nay, throughout all Iran — as Guardians of the Blessed Tomb! Under your fostering care it will become a shrine and a place of pilgrimage for thousands! Who can compute the total of the votive offerings which will flow into the treasury of the Mosque of Friday—for the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor?’
‘There is no doubt,’ replied the Eyeof-Wisdom, with more affability, ‘that the removal of the bones of the Blessed Guide from their present lamentable situation to the holy precincts of the Mosque would add a certain lustre to an already famous foundation. And it is reasonable to suppose that the Tomb, under our care, would acquire renown as a place of pilgrimage. Again, it may be conceded that the more apprehensive or more fortunate pilgrims would open for us the hand of generosity — to the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor. All these things may be conceded; but the difficulty of persuading the people of Saidabad to consent to the removal of the bones of the justly revered Hajji Sheikh Mahmoud remains to be resolved.’
‘That difficulty,’ answered the Engineer, ‘has by no means been lost sight of. If, for instance, it should become known that the Blessed Guide has appeared in a dream on several occasions to a person of note in the city and complained of his distressful state, begging to be removed to the courtyard adjoining the Mosque; and if,’ added affably the Engineer, ‘ the Blessed Guide should by good fortune appear to one or two of the assembled company, and this also should become known, is there any doubt that in a few days he will appear to a hundred persons more? And then surely the good people of Saidabad would not permit their justly revered Saint to endure his vexations a day longer!’
‘The Honorable Engineer has spoken with singular discernment,’ answered the Eye-of-Wisdom. ‘The Saint might well appear to one or two of the assembled company; whereupon the circumstance will certainly be made known. And then doubtless everything will take place as the Honorable Engineer has suggested.’
‘May it be added,’ said the Engineer, ‘ that His Illustrious Presence, the Preserver-of-the-Kingdom, is desirous, with us, that the distresses of the Saint be terminated at an early date? He has desired me to make, on his behalf, a small contribution to the treasury of the Mosque — for the alleviation of the sufferings of the poor. He also desires it to be known that a new and elegant shrine with a dome of blue tile work will be erected in the courtyard at his charges, beyond, and in alignment with, the tank of water; so that the reverent pilgrims, entering the courtyard beneath the arch, will see, beyond the brimming tank, between a double row of slender cypresses, a turquoise dome under which will rest forever the Blessed Saint and Guide, Sheikh Mahmoud, whose clay is purified and who will there find peace.’
The Eye-of-Wisdom nodded sagely in acquiescence, and observed after an adequate pause: —
‘The Chief-of-the-Masons informed us that the Honorable Engineer had proposed to build an avenue through the town; he added, moreover, that the project had been abandoned because of an unforeseen obstacle. Now, however — ’
‘Now,’ interrupted with extreme affability the Engineer, ‘since, with the assistance of the discerning Eye-ofWisdom, the obstacle is to be happily removed, the project will be carried out. On the first of the new year the avenue will be opened. Then the good people of Saidabad will forget the annoyances to which they have been subjected, in the joy of moving easily and freely through their city. Doubtless,’ continued the Engineer thoughtfully, ‘in the scheme of things there is a place for the Saint as well as for the Engineer. Yet, more and more, in this old country, they will meet and perhaps interfere — ’
‘Whereupon,’ interrupted with a smile of tolerance and understanding the Eye-of-Wisdom, ‘the Engineer, whose skill and address as a remover of unforeseen obstacles are unsurpassed, will devise for the bewildered Saint a way of dignified withdrawal.’