Monday, May 15, 2006

Mr Davidson's Eastern stories

July 14th[1835].—How I wish I could fix here one quarter of the amusement and information which I have derived from the conversation of Mr. Davidson, the eastern traveller; he seems to me like a man walked out of the ' Arabian Nights' bodily. When, just after dinner, he began a story in which Oriental salutation formed a feature, he to our great surprise jumped from his chair, repeated a few Arabic words, which he translated, 'I devote myself to you in thought' (he struck his forehead); ' in love' (striking his heart); ' in deed ' (showing his hands); (from the crown of my head to the sole of my foot'—so saying, he prostrated his length (full six feet) on the floor at Charlotte's feet. Then, from under his neckcloth, he pulled a beard full twelve inches long, told us of a Frenchman very recently dead, whose beard showed the ointment flowing from Aaron's beard ' even to the hem of his garment' to be no figure. This man's was so long as to sweep the ground when he sate down, coal black and very fine: it was regularly anointed and incensed, the fumigation passing between the throat and beard held out.

' Little facts (he said) curiously illustrate the unchangeableness of the grandiloquent Eastern character. A very few years ago, a troop of Mamelukes, riding near Constantinople, stopped some shepherds, from whom one of the Mamelukes requested a draught of milk they had just drawn. Having drunk it, he refused the wretched remuneration required, telling the shepherd it was but too much honour for him to furnish milk to a Mameluke, and utterly despising the threats of the outraged shepherd, who declared he would have justice, if he applied to the Sultan himself. He actually made his complaint within the hour, and brought his adversary before the distributor of justice. The Mameluke utterly denied the whole transaction, declaring he had not drunk a drop of milk. The modern Solomon settled the difference between the conflicting testimonies by ordering the defendant to be opened, that it might be ascertained whether his stomach contained milk. Of course the milk was found, and the poor shepherd received some fraction of a farthing, being the lawful price of his commodity.

'Strong murmurs began to rise among the troop of Mamelukes, who thought death rather a severe punishment for such an offence, and seemed a little inclined to avenge their companion. Upon this, the judge (I am not sure whether it was not the Sultan) assured them he should never have thought of putting to death a Mameluke for taking a little milk from a shepherd, who was, in fact, too highly honoured in furnishing him refreshment; but that the soldier had been proved guilty of telling a lie, had disgraced the name of Mameluke, and deserved death for that offence. This explanation, of course, delighted the whole corps.'*

I was asking one day about Lady Hester Stanhope. He did not see her, having arrived just after the death of her only English companion, who having begun as maid, ended as secretary, friend, &c. &c. He describes her, as others have done, turning night into day, and sleeping through the daylight, with very weak eyes and without any decided pursuit but astrology. He says she has lost much of her power, or rather, of her widely extended influence; still possessing the most arbitrary authority over her own small district. This diminution of power may be ascribed partly to her increase of years, which prevents her from riding and showing herself among them, partly to the want of that novelty which dazzles, but chiefly from the want of money, from the weight of debt, which prevents her from spending among them the annual income which she derives from England.

Upon this subject he gave us a story curiously illustrative of Oriental character. About two years ago. Lady Hester went into Persia, with a view of obtaining assistance and protection from the Shah. She provided a present of English goods, which was really very handsome. This was (according to etiquette) offered to the Shah by means of the interpreter, through whom were also sent the thanks with all the grandiloquence of the East; his sense of the magnificence of the present: sun, moon, and stars were all eclipsed : gratitude was described in the same terms : their admiration for the spirit, liberality, greatness of mind, of the English aristocracy: of which he felt the influence so strongly, as to be aware that to the English the true way of showing the sense of favours received was to gratify their noble nature by asking more. Aware not only of this, but that his poor empire did not contain anything worthy of being offered to the great English lady, he would ask of her the favour of a loan. Her project (which the Shah had discovered) was to borrow money from him, which she never could have returned.
Editor’s note
* This story, so far as relates to opening the stomach of the
soldier, is told by Gibbon of one of the barbarian monarchs who
overran the Empire.


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