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Good Words 1860
The Caravansary of Bagdad


(From the Danish of Kund Lyne Rahbek.)

During the reign of the Caliph Haroun Alraschid, there was in Bagdad a caravansary that contained, as might he supposed, many apartments as well as separate buildings. Among the latter especially, there was one adorned with everything that Asiatic luxury could invent, and Asiatic opulence procure. It lay in the midst of a lovely garden, sheltered by fragrant and fruitful trees, and watered by a silver brook that, with melodious music, bubbled round the Eden it enclosed, From the flat roof of the edifice might be discerned the far-extending and fertile plains of Babylon; farther off, the majestic Euphrates rolled its waters proudly between picturesque elevations, beautified by the ruins of that ancient city, whose gardens embodied in real existence the dreams of the poet, and the wildest legends of romance ; while, on simply turning round, there lay, as it were at your very feet, the whole of mighty Bagdad, and you could perceive the stalls of the innumerable bazaars heaped with jewels, pearls, precious ornaments, matchless silk-stuffs, and, in short, all that the Orient has taught our imitative Europe to admire and purchase at a cost so great.

This building, that was divided into four apartments, each furnished and decorated according to a separate season of the year, was not, as usual, assigned to the guest who should first arrive, nor to him who should pay most liberally: every land has its fashions, and every man his faith;— so the host had laid it down as an invariable rule, that it was only to be allotted to the greatest and most distinguished of the strangers, whom business, necessity, or curiosity might bring to Bagdad.

A German baron, a Chinese mandarin, a Turk, and a Roman,—a modern Roman, be it understood,—happened to reach the city at one and the selfsame time; for in those days people travelled to Bagdad exactly as we now travel to Paris,—just that we may say we have been there ! The German, who was proud of his title, and still more of his two-and-thirty ancestors, never had the slightest doubt that the owner of the caravansary would forthwith assign to a man of his rank and birth the foremost place. "Softly, my friend!" exclaimed the mandarin; "if you demand this on the ground of your ancestry, I will allow those two strangers to decide whether / am not better entitled to it. I have just as many ancestors as you, only with the difference that in Europe the merits of the father, or yet more frequently the elevation he has gained by money, flattery, or base actions, descend hereditarily to his successors —it matters not if they resemble him or no ; and, —what is drollest of all,—continually increase, so that he who has in reality performed a heroic deed, and has been ennobled for the same, is, for example, a far inferior nobleman to him who can prove that he descends in the two-and-thirtieth generation from an individual who once actually merited nobility. In China, on the contrary, when a man has rendered any service to the State, his ancestors receive a patent of nobility on account of his own deserts. I am a military mandarin; and as I saved the Emperor's life in battle, the nation has ennobled my ancestors, without granting permission to my children to partake of honours which they have not earned."

''By Allah! " now began the Turk—for in those days all nations, like the beasts in the fable, must have spoken a common language, so that the one immediately understood the other, and could address him without an interpreter—"By Allah! I would give the preference to this mandarin, if it were not due to myself; because neither my ancestors nor my children have given me my nobility, for which I have to thank the Sultan's favour alone,—since I, as his grand-vizier, am, next to him, the greatest in the kingdom. True enough, as a breath of his mouth has exalted me, another breath might hurl me to the dust; and, even were i dismissed to-morrow without being simultaneously decapitated by a mute of the harem, I would be no more than the most miserable menial that labours in the garden, or than the lowest slave of the seraglio. So long as I am vizier, notwithstanding, I hold the highest position in the State; no one, except my gracious sovereign, is above me,—and I do not believe that any of yourselves can compete with me in rank."

"I only excepted," eagerly broke in the fourth traveller—"I, who am a Roman, and descended from that race of kings before whom the world trembled, and who gave laws from east to west." (At such braggart language the mandarin smiled contemptuously, and glanced to the many-quartered baron ; but the latter was too proud of his lineage to have ever found it necessary to learn anything except the history of his forefathers,—and the smile of the mandarin was therefore beyond his comprehension.) "You boast of your ancestors; my progenitors numbered far more statues in their hall than all the ancestors you count. Perhaps you do not know the meaning of my words: learn then, that every Roman citizen who has been elevated to a post in government by the suffrages of his fellows, obtains the privilege of erecting his own statue in his dwelling; and more than two-and-thirty of such statues did I bury, on leaving home, in my garden,—that they might not become the booty of the barbarians who ravage my native land."

"They are really," now spoke the host, who from a corner had overheard the discussion, ''very admirable claims that you advance; and I cannot venture to decide between such various and well-grounded demands. Fortunately there are present three merchants from Balsora, who have recently arrived at the caravansary, and who have listened with peculiar attention to your dispute."

These three so-called merchants, whom the host himself did not know, were no less personages than the Caliph Haroun Alraschid, his grand-vizier Giafar, and his kislar - aga Mesroun, who were going about the city disguised, as usual, to ascertain what the great and mighty otherwise so seldom learn—namely, truth.

One of these three—it was Haroun Alraschid himself—stepped forward, and spoke as follows :—

''Sons of the dust! the nobility about which ye contend is dust like yourselves. Thou, O German! askest honour for something that the first of thy two-and-thirty ancestors has meritoriously performed ; let him come forth, and we may adjudge his claim—but thou, at least, hast none. Thou, O mandarin! if thou didst demand that we should pay thee reverence for the rescue of thy sovereign's life, we might be justified in rendering it; yet, as it is not thy action, but Ms reward, on which thou hast based thy claim, permit us to entertain a doubt as to that action's worth—for it often happens that a man receives recompense for a deed he has not done, or which, if he has performed it, is rather Fortune's work than his. Thou, O vizier! vauntest thyself of thy master's favour; but, to appreciate its value, we must know his worth—we must learn how wise and righteous is his character. Like the boy's soap-bubble is the favourite of a fool; it is blown into the air, rises on high for a single instant, glances with variegated hues, and then bursts and disappears. And finally, thou, 0 Roman! that gloriest in thy descent from a people who styled themselves the lords of earth, while they were often slaves to the most despicable of mortals—if thou art really born of those better and nobler Romans, by whom it was as yet an honour to be raised to the highest office—those who never sold their suffrages nor rejected men like Cato,— how darest thou uplift thine eye or thy voice? Thy land is, thou sayest, in the grasp of barbarian strangers. Oh, haste thee home again!—exhume the statues of thy ancestors, take sword in hand, annihilate the invader,—and then come back, and call thyself a Roman! But fortunately the thing about which you quarrel, is of no greater moment than the claims you severally advance. Mussulman!" he cried, in conclusion, turning to the host, ''allot to each of them his apartment, and abandon for ever the ridiculous idea that external baubles can be the prize or recompense of merit. When the matter at stake is only where I shall sit, lie, stand, or walk, a pedigree or a statue will always constitute a more than sufficient claim."

J. J.


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