The Great Mogul
“And is there care in Heaven?”
Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
“Allah remembers us not. It is the divine decree. We can but die with His praises on our lips; perchance He may greet us at the gates of Paradise!”
Overwhelmed with misery, the man drooped his head. The stout staff he held fell to his feet. He lifted his hands to hide the anguish of eye and lip, and the grief that mastered him caused long pent-up tears to well forth.
His resigned words, uttered in the poetic tongue of Khorassan, might have been a polished verse of Sa’adi were they not the outpouring of a despairing heart. The woman raised her burning eyes from the infant clinging to her exhausted breast.
“Father of my loved ones,” she said, “let you and the two boys travel on with the cow. If you reach succor, return for me and my daughter. If not, it is the will of God, and who can gainsay it?”
The man stooped to pick up his staff. But his great powers of endurance, suddenly enfeebled by the ordeal thrust upon him, yielded utterly, and he sank helpless by the side of his wife.
“Nay, Mihr-ul-nisa, sun among women, I shall not leave thee,” he cried passionately. “We are fated to die; then be it so. I swear by the Prophet naught save death shall part us, and that not for many hours.”
So, to the mother, uselessly nursing her latest born, was left the woful task of pronouncing the doom of those she held dear. For a little while there was silence. The pitiless sun, rising over distant hills of purple and amber, gave promise that this day of late July would witness no relief of tortured earth by the long-deferred monsoon. All nature was still. The air had the hush of the grave. The greenery of trees and shrubs was blighted. The bare plain, the rocks, the boulder-strewed bed of the parched river, each alike wore the dust-white shroud of death. Far-off mountains shimmered in glorious tints which promised fertile glades and sparkling rivulets. But the promise was a lie, the lie of the mirage, of unfulfilled hope.
These two, with their offspring, had journeyed from the glistening slopes on the northwest, now smiling with the colors of the rainbow under the first kiss of the sun. They knew that the arid ravines and bleak passes behind were even less hospitable than the lowlands in front. Knowledge of what was past had murdered hope for the future. They had almost ceased to struggle. True children of the East, they were yielding to Kismet. Already a watchful vulture, skilled ghoul of desert obsequies, was describing great circles in the molten sky.
The evils of the way were typical of their by-gone lives. Beginning in pleasant places, they were driven into the wilderness. The Persian and his wife, Usbeg Tartars of Teherán, nobly born and nurtured, were now poverty-stricken and persecuted because one of the warring divisions of Islam had risen to power in Ispahán. “It shall come to pass,” said Mahomet, “that my people shall be divided into three-and-seventy sects, all of which, save only one, shall have their portion in the fire!” Clearly, these wanderers found solace in the beliefs held by some of the condemned seventy-two.
Striving to escape from a land of narrow-minded bigots to the realm of the Great Mogul, the King of Kings, the renowned Emperor of India – whom his contemporaries, fascinated by his gifts and dazzled by his magnificence, had styled Akbar “the Great“ – the forlorn couple, young in years, endowed with remarkable physical charms and high intelligence, blessed with two fine boys and the shapely infant now hugged by the frantic mother, had been betrayed not alone by man but by nature herself.
At this season, the great plain between Herát and Kandahár should be all-sufficing to the needs of travelers. Watered by a noble river, the Helmund, and traversed by innumerable streams, it was reputed the Garden of Afghanistán. Pent in the bosom of earth, all manner of herbs and fruits and wholesome seeds were ready to burst forth with utmost prodigality when the rain-clouds gathered on the hills and discharged their gracious showers over a soil athirst. But Allah, in His exceeding wisdom, had seen fit to withhold the fertilizing monsoon, and the few resources of the exiles had yielded to the strain. First their small flock of goats, then their camel, had fallen or been slain. There was left the cow, whose daily store of milk dwindled under the lack of food.
The patient animal, lean as the kine of the seven years of famine in Joseph’s dream, was yet fit to walk and carry the two boys, whose sturdy limbs had shrunk and weakened until they could no longer be trusted to toddle alone even on the level ground. She stood now, regarding her companions in suffering with her big violet eyes and almost contentedly chewing some wizened herbage gathered by the man overnight. Strange to say, it was on the capabilities of the cow that rested the final issue of life and death for one if not all. The cow had carried and sustained the woman before and after the birth of the child. Last and most valued of their possessions, she had become the arbiter of their fate.
The Persian, Mirza Ali Beg was his name, was assured that if they could march a few more days they would reach the cultivated region dominated by the city of Kandahár. There, even in this period of want, the boundless charity of the East would save them from death by starvation. But the infant was exhausting her mother. She demanded the whole meager supply of the life-giving milk of the cow, and in Mirza Ali Beg’s tortured soul the husband wrought with the father.
That four might have a chance of living one should die! Such was the dreadful edict he put forth tremblingly at last. And now, when the woman saw the strong man in a palsy at her feet, her love for him vanquished even the all-powerful instinct of maternity. She fiercely thrust the child into his arms and murmured: —
“I yield, my husband. Take her, in God’s name, and do with her as seemeth best. Not for myself, but for thee and for our sons, do I consent.”
Thinking himself stronger and sterner than he was, Mirza Ali Beg rose to his feet. But his heart was as lead and his hands shook as he fondled the warm and almost plump body of the infant. Here was a man indeed distraught. Between husband and wife, who shall say which had the more grievous burden?
With a frenzied prayer to the Almighty for help, he wrapped a linen cloth over the infant’s face, placed the struggling little form among the roots of a tall tree, and left it there. Bidding the two boys, dark-eyed youngsters aged three and five, to cling tightly to the pillion on the cow’s back, he took the halter and the staff in his right hand, passed his left arm around the emaciated frame of his wife, and, in this wise, the small cavalcade resumed its journey.
Ever and anon the plaint of the abandoned infant reached their ears. The two children, without special reason, began to cry. The mother, always turning her head, wept with increasing violence. Even the poor cow, wanting food and water, lowed her distress.
The man, striving to compress his tremulous lips, strode forward, staring into vacancy. He dared not look behind. He knew that the feeble cries of the baby girl would ring in his ears until they were closed to all mortal sounds. He took no note of the rough caravan track they followed, marked as it was by the ashes of camp fires and the whitened bones of pack animals. With all the force of a masterful nature he tried to stagger on, and on, until the tragedy was irrevocable.
But the woman, when they reached a point where the road curved round a huge rock, realized that the next onward step would shut out forever from her eyes the sight of that tiny bundle lying in the roots of the tree. So she choked back her sobs, swept away her tears, gave one last look at her infant, gasped a word of fond endearment, and fell fainting in the dust.
Amidst the many troubles and anxieties of that four months’ pilgrimage she had never fainted before. Though she was a Persian lady of utmost refinement and great accomplishments, she came of a hardy race, and her final collapse imbued her husband with a stoicism hitherto lacking in his despair.
“This, then, is the end,” said he. “Be it so. I can strive against destiny no further.”
Tenderly he lifted his wife to a place where sand offered a softer couch than the rocks on which she lay.
“I must bring the infant,” he muttered aloud. “The touch of its hands will revive her. Then I shall kill poor Deri (the cow), and we can feast on her in the hope that some may pass this way. Walk, with three to carry, we cannot.”
This was indeed the counsel of desperation. The cow, living, provided their sole link with the outer world. Dead, she maintained them a little while. Soon the scanty meat she would yield would become uneatable and they were lost beyond saving. Nevertheless, once the resolve was taken a load was lifted from the man’s breast. Bidding the elder boy hold Deri’s halter, he strode back towards the infant with eager haste.
As he drew near he thought he saw something black and glistening amidst the soiled linen which enwrapped the little one. After another stride he stood still. A fresh tribulation awaited him. Many times girdling the child’s limbs and body was a hideous snake, a monster whose powerful coils could break the tiny bones as if they were straws.
The flat and ugly head was raised to look at him. The beady black eyes seemed to emit sparks of venemous fire, and the forked tongue was darting in and out of the fanged mouth as though the reptile was anticipating the feast in store.
Mirza Ali Beg was no coward, but this new frenzy almost overcame him. There was a chance, a slight one, that the serpent had not yet crushed the life out of its prey. Using words which were no prayer, the father uplifted the tough staff which he still carried. He rushed forward. The snake elevated its head to take stock of this unexpected enemy, but the stick dealt it a furious blow on the tail.
Instantly uncoiling itself, either to fight or escape, as seemed most expedient, it received another blow which hurled it, with dislocated vertebræ, far into the dust.
The man, with a great cry of joy, saw that the child was stretching her limbs, now that the tight clutch of its terrible assailant was withdrawn. He caught her up into his arms and, weak as he was, ran back to his wife.
“Here is one who will restore the blood to thy cheeks, Mihr-ul-nisa,” he cried. And truly the mother stirred again with the first satisfied chuckle of the infant as it sought her breast.
The husband, heedless what befell for the hour, obtained from the cow such slight store of milk as she possessed. He gave some to the two boys, the greater portion to the baby, and was refuting his wife’s remonstrance that he had taken none himself as he pressed the remainder on her, when the noise of a commotion at a distance caused them to look in wonderment along the road they had recently traversed in such sorrow.
There, gathered around some object, were a number of men, some mounted on Arab horses or riding camels, others on foot; behind this nearer group they could distinguish a long kafila of loaded beasts with armed attendants.
“God be praised!” cried Mihr-ul-nisa, “we are saved!”
This was the caravan of a rich merchant, faring from Persia or Bokhara to the court of the Great Mogul. The undulating plain, no less than their own anguish of mind, had prevented the Persian and his wife from noting the glittering spear points of the warrior merchant’s retainers as they rode forward in the morning sun. Surely such a host would spare a little food and water for the starving family, and forage for Deri, the cow!
“But what are they looking at?” cried the woman, of whom hope had made a fresh being.
“They have found the snake.”
“It is matterless. As I returned for the child, when you fell in a swoon, I met a snake and killed it.”
A startled look came into her eyes.
“Khodah hai!”[1 - “There is indeed a God!”] she murmured; “it would have attacked my baby!”
Two men, mounted on Turkoman horses, were now spurring towards them. Mirza Ali Beg advanced a few paces to meet them.
One, an elderly man of grave appearance and richly attired, reined in his horse at a little distance and cried to his companion: —
“By the tomb of Mahomet, Sher Khan, ’tis he of my dream!”