THE Mirza and I were sitting together on one of the bare stony hills which look down on the capital. North was the long range of the snowy Elburz, dominated by the immense cone of Demavend; South was the dusty brown plain with the broad green stains on it, the largest of which was the town hidden in its gardens. We were talking politics, and I was discoursing on the benefits of progress and civilisation as exemplified in the recent history of European nations. As a pièce justificative I pointed to the long line of iron telegraph poles, neat and well kept, in that “land without any order,” which stretched out, one behind the other, till they vanished in the West. “Along that wire,” I said, “English people are speaking to each other from opposite sides of the earth.”

“Yes,” said the Mirza, “you have done wonderful things. Once in Persia the lightnings and the fire were our gods. And you have made the lightning your courier, and the fire we worshipped at the hill of the winds* is your baggage mule to carry your merchandise. You know in one hour what happens all over the world. It is more wonderful than the cup of Jemshid, in which he saw all that passed on the surface of the earth. Alas for Jemshid, his cup did not save him from Zohauk.” He looked up at the cone of Demavend, and then pointed to the plain below. “There,” he continued, “was Zohauk's palace, where for two hundred years he feasted the serpents which grew out of his shoulders, where Satan had kissed him, on human flesh. He, too, was a great conqueror and a mighty ruler, till Kawah the blacksmith overcame him, and threw him into the fiery furnace which burnt from the mountain there. It is cold now.” He paused, and then went on: “What things has the mountain seen! There was nursed Zab, the father of the Great Rustam; there Rustam overcame the White Devil of the North; there Kaikobad took refuge. And I have heard that Kai-Khosroo, whom you call Cyrus, when he had conquered the world, weary of his glory, went up into those mountains to seek rest, and none knows where he lies, or if, as some say, he will come again—perhaps” (with a smile) “to fight the White Devil again.

“And look at the low hills to the East. There Derab,* the Great King, Lord of Bokhara and Iran, and Egypt and the isles of the Greeks, he who sent bat and ball to Sikander Roumi,* to mock him with his youth, there he fell wounded by his own people. And there Sikander found him dying, and wept over him, and heard the word which kings are loath to hear: ‘The world has a thousand doors, through which its tenants continually enter and pass away.’ And here, five hundred years after, was fought, they say, a great battle between the glorious Khosroo and the Emperor of Rome,* who came to avenge the wasting of his land and the destruction of the sacred city of the Christians. And listen. Those two great kings received in the day of their pride letters from a certain naked lizard-eater of the South,* bidding them submit to his God and to him. And they laughed the letters to scorn—and in less than twenty years the armies of both were destroyed, and their empires shattered. Yes, these mountains have seen many things, and many rulers: Mahmound of Ghizni, who ruled from India to Bagdad; the lion of the Seljooks,* who took captive the Emperor of Rome; Malek Shah, in whose name prayers were said in every city from Mecca to Bokharah—and the destroying flood of Ghenghiz. But the greatest of all was the Amir Timour,* who destroyed Rhe* down there, and Alamut* up there in the mountains. What country did he not visit? What enemy did he not destroy? And what remains now of the empire which stretched from China to the Grecian sea? You will see in the Shah's treasury the peacock throne of the Emperors of Delhi;* and that is all that remains—the throne in which a stranger sits. Oh, you young peoples! You rise on the great sea, like a wave swelled by the wind; you rise and grow great; but we see, not the wave but the ocean.”

And then the Mirza repeated, half to himself, the Persian verse: “Hail to you, you who after me will come and will go: sweet may your days be in this place of no-abiding.”

“And now,” he said, “let us go down into the garden.”

We rode down among the bare billowy hillocks, the refuse brought down by vanished rivers into a sea long since dried up—till we reached the flat land, and entered the tall gate decorated with the achievements of Rustum. A few minutes brought us to the gate of the garden, and in a moment we were out of the pitiless glare, reflected from the bare gravel under a cloudless sky, and in the cool green shelter of an avenue of planes, with smooth white trunks like marble pillars and thick fresh foliage. The clear water ran along little channels, under thickets of roses. There were roses everywhere. Not in beds, nor in plots, but growing as underwood, in untrained luxuriance. The fruit-trees, peach, almond, cherry, apricot, and apple, had had their day. The Judas tree still stood in the pink circuit of its own scattered flowers: the violet and the narcissus still held out against time; but it was the day of the roses, and they triumphed everywhere. I had watched with the Mirza the appearance of every flower and the arrival of every bird, and from the abundant stores of Persian verse the Mirza had hailed, each as it came, with poem or story. Here he was happy. “I know,” he said, “what you Europeans like is to look at the mountains, or go up among them and kill things. But I like the running water, in a quiet garden, with a rose reflected in it, and the nightingale singing to it. Listen.” It was nearly nine in the morning when, I think, the nightingales* sing their best. And the thickets were indeed resonant.

We sat down. The Mirza was still in a historical vein. “I am thinking,” he said, “of what has been not so long ago, and what may be yet. Less than two hundred years ago our native rulers, the Sevarviye, had ruled the country with honour for two hundred years, and had their chief palace in my town, Isfahan. And an Afghan robber, of mean birth, with a few thousand ragged soldiers, came down from the mountains and took the city and slew the people. And the Turks on the West and the Russians on the North came in and took what they wished of Persian land. And then rose in the mountains of the North, Nadir, who came to Isfahan and drove out the Afghans and destroyed them utterly. Then he turned upon the Turks, and, by war and negotiation, he drove them and the Russians back. And in less than twenty years from the time when, as it seemed, the empire of Persia was destroyed, the power of Nadir extended from the Caucasus to Delhi.”

“And what,” I said, “remains of that?”

“What remains of the snow of two years ago? You will say, nothing. But the snow of two years ago has sunk into the rocks, and is drawn into the wells which feed the kanat which waters this garden—this garden of ours. Let us come to the pond and look at the water.”

I followed to where the water was collected into a deep basin, walled and paved with green-blue tiles.

“Look into it and tell me what you see,” he said.

I saw in the clear water the reflection of the bright blue sky, and the willows which stood round the pool, and the red geraniums growing by the side.

“A poet has said that even such is the mirror of thought in which man sees the reflection of the things that are—of the branches of the tree of life. But he only sees the image.”

A light green leaf fluttered from the willow into the pond.

“And sometimes, as you see, a leaf from the tree, a real leaf, falls on to the mirror and hangs between the image and him that looks. And then he knows that there is a real tree as well as the image.”

A goldfish swirled to the surface and broke the reflection.

“And then our passions come from the bottom of our mind and break the image, hunting for worms. But I forgot; you asked me what was the outcome of Nadir's victories. I will tell you one thing that came of that troublous time.” He drew out a book from the bosom of his dress. The binding was lacquered, the lacquer covering rich flower-paintings, the colour dimly showing through the golden film. The leaves were of fine vellum; each letter of the text was lovingly and carefully finished by a skilful penman; and the margin was illuminated with delicate tracery-work in gold. But the peculiarity of it was that here and there verses were written in the margin in a careless, hurried handwriting, and that round these verses the delicate gold tracery was lovingly drawn so as to make a rich frame­work for them.

The title-page was covered with writing in red and black, written in every direction; also there were the impressions of seals large and small: and when I looked closely I saw that thin pieces of paper with writing on them had been pasted into the page. Only one of these remained: there had been two others, which had vanished. And all round the seals and the writing, in every available place, the illuminator had drawn with minute and loving care his curves and flowers and branching lines, in gold, red, blue and yellow.

“What is the book?” I asked. “Tell me its history.”

“It was written,” he said, “by a poet called Fakrir, who lived in India two centuries ago. It is the history of the love of a friend of his who called himself Valeh. And he wrote it to please his friend. His friend had been in Isfahan when the Afghans took it and went to Delhi, where he lived when Delhi was taken and sacked by Nadir. I said the book was the history of Valeh's love—and he wrote verses of his own in it, and he fastened into it fragments from the letters of his beloved, who lived in Isfahan. And when he died it was sent to his beloved, and it remained in her family, till one of them sold it: and here it is.”

The Mirza opened the book at the first page and said: “Here you see Valeh's writing, here he bids the reader listen to him.” And then he read from the manuscript the verses:

“‘We all have read the stories of hapless lovers, but no story tells of a sorrow greater than mine: the story of Majnun and his Leila is old and out-worn: read the story of me; waste not your days reading old stories: listen to mine.’”

“You see,” said the Mirza, “he wants an attentive listener. Now hear what comes next;” and he proceeded:

“‘In my heart may the sorrow of the world become the sorrow of my beloved, even as new wine ripens in the vat.’”

“Do you understand?” said the Mirza.

I confessed that I did not.

“Perhaps you will understand before you have finished. But have you seen the vine-picking? If the grapes are not picked they fall to the ground and no one is the better. But the earth does not grow them to be picked. Yet you may pick them if you will. And then we put them together in the vat, and in a month we have wine and in ten years good wine. And so is the sorrow and the joy of the world, even as the grapes of the earth. Make them your own, through love, and store them in your own soul, and you will have the excellent wine which we call by many names.”

The Mirza turned the page. The next page was elaborately illuminated. In the centre was a medallion. Written on it in white on gold was an Arabic inscription. “This,” said the Mirza, “is the verse of the Koran with which the story of Joseph begins. ‘Now I will tell a story better than all the stories of the world.’ And here is the title of the book, ‘The Tale of Valeh, King of Words, Lord of Knowledge, the Darvish of Delhi.’ And above and below are the seals of Valeh and of his lady Hadijeh Sultan. And here along the sides are written verses in Valeh's hand­writing.” And the Mirza read: ‘Save my beloved let me have no friend, save her let me know no refuge.’

“Here he has added in the Arabic language: ‘Oh, my friend, thou art my God, and, save thine, I know no worship.’

“And here, you see, down the side, he has written some more lines: ‘I am the wine in the cup of Hadijeh, the lips of Hadijeh are wet with me. Oh death, I fear thee! for Hadijeh would mourn for me, Hadijeh would weep. Alas for the nightingale who mourned outside the garden: so weep I, parted from Hadijeh.’ And then you see the impress of the seal he made for Hadijeh: ‘Hadijeh, daughter of Hassan, the glory of Daghestan, and by the Grace of God Queen of the Kingdom of Purity.’ And now look at these two blank spaces. Once there were fastened there fragments of Hadijeh's letters, as you see by what Valeh has written beside them. ‘These three fragments of her letters bear witness how my heart was broken in three pieces when I read her words, the preface of the book of my life. I was drunken with love. Lost to me, far from me, she wrote them: and I have fastened her written words to this page, that they may abide there as a blessing and good omen, living and present. I have lost her, but her words are there. Ali Ghuli Valeh: may Allah make great his love.’

“But, as you see, the paper has dropped off, or been removed. Only one of the fragments remains. You see it there. That is the writing of Hadijeh. It is good writing for a woman. It is a quotation from Hafiz: ‘Oh friend, if one said to thee, “enquire not after her welfare,” let him be a stranger to thee, cursed be his name.’ And here you see Valeh has written beside it, ‘This also is from her letters.’”

“We will read the book together,” I said.

“Yes,” he answered, “but you must remember when we read that our language is not yours, and that our thoughts are not like your thoughts. And you must remember too what this man, who wrote these words, has seen with his eyes. He had seen in Isfahan a great monarchy shattered to pieces, and the streets of his native town red with the blood of the princes and nobles of his country. He had seen in Delhi, the descendant of Ghenghiz and Akbar, the Emperor of the Kings of the East, bowing himself in supplication before a robber of the mountains, that at least some of his people might be spared, that his city might not be left utterly desolate. You say, ‘as solid and steadfast as the earth.’ But did you live, as some do, where the earth is shaken daily, you would look for steadfastness not in the earth, but in the stars. I have heard that it is written in your holy book that the wise men who sought for knowledge in the heavens, after long waiting, learnt from the writing of the stars that the child was born who was to be Lord of the whole earth. And they followed the leading of the stars, and they brought with them the tribute which it was the custom of their country to bring to a king, as the Queen of Saba did to Solomon, gold and incense. And they found not a queen in the royal chamber of a great palace, but a beggar woman in a stable. And they returned to their own country, having learned from the earth that which the stars had never taught them. Oh, wise men of the West, you who seek knowledge not in heaven but in earth, and who bring to the East your gifts, the iron and the woven stuffs and the new knowledge you have learnt, you too, perhaps, may find with us that which you have not sought, and which the earth will never teach you. To-morrow I will come to the garden, and will bring the book, and we will read it together.”

The next day, an hour after sunrise, I found the Mirza pacing slowly along the garden. He had the book in his hand. We sat down and he read, and as he read he explained the meaning of the lines, and I wrote it down in English.