The Shah's Messenger

Clark Ashton Smith

The Shah sealed the letter and summoned a servant from another room. The servant entered, and salaamed till his long beard touched the floor.

"Ahmet," said the Shah, "you are to take this message with all speed to Amurath, Sultan of Turkey, and bring his answer to me. By all means you must be back within a month. If you are not—well, you know as well as I do," he added significantly.

Ahmet understood. Genghis, Shah of Persia, was a man whose slightest command must be obeyed to the letter, otherwise, trouble for the disobedient one would surely ensue. And the punishment would be no slight one—a sound bastinadoing at the least, and death by the cruellest tortures at the most. Ahmet had no desire to incur either. Besides, he loved his master.

He left the presence of Genghis, after salaaming three times in his profoundest manner. He went first to the stables to make his preparations for the long journey. He selected a horse, but not the swiftest he could find. The one he did take was a small, wiry, impatient beast, not over twelve hands high, of a deep, black color. This steed was noted for its endurance, and tho many a horse could easily have outstripped it, none could hold out as long. The beast could run a hundred miles on a little water and a handful of dates. It was of the purest Arabian breed.

Ahmet told the grooms to have it ready for him within an hour and then returned to the palace to make his other preparations.

Going to his room he took a large quantity of money from a box and placed it in a leathern wallet. The wallet he securely attached to his belt.

In another and smaller wallet he placed the King's letter. Then he stowed the wallet in an inner pocket of his jacket and proceeded to sew the pocket up with strong pack-thread.

This done he went again to the Shah, took his farewells, went to the stables, leaped into the saddle of his horse which the grooms held waiting for him, and was off at a gallop.

The walls of Ispahan were soon left behind. He put up in a Khan by the roadside for the night, and then proceeded on his journey again.

In due time he reached Istanboul, the capital of the Turks, and delivered his letter to the Sultan.

After reading it the Sultan wrote a somewhat lengthy reply and handed it to Ahmet.

"Do not read it!" cautioned Amurath. "If you do, trouble will come of it for you, myself, and your imperial master the Shah."

"Your command is sacred to me, and shall be obeyed," replied Ahmet, and he withdrew with a great curiosity gnawing at his heart.

Two hours later, Istanbul and the Bosphorus were out of sight behind the hills of Room-Elee, and Ahmet was galloping swiftly on the homeward journey.

"What can it be that disaster will ensue if I read it?" thought Ahmet. "Surely there will be no harm in that. No one will be the wiser, save I."

But his promise to the Sultan kept him from opening the packet. Nothing else could have done so. But strive against it as he might, curiosity still gnawed at his heart, and at last he determined to satisfy it. "There can be no harm," he said to his troubled conscience. "No one, save I, will be the wiser."

He drew the letter from his pocket, but knew not how to break the seal and replace it so that the opening would not be detected. Then he put it back and thought awhile.

"Why not duplicate it?" he said, at last.

At Bagdad, on the next day, he secured wax, exactly alike as to the color, to that of which the seal was formed. Then, with his knife, he removed the seal which was on the letter. This was of a round shape, and no design was stamped upon it.

He unfolded the sheets of fine parchment, which were closely written in the Arabic character. The language was Persian. First, before reading them, he counted the sheets. They were two in number and written only on one side.

This done, he began at the beginning and read the letter. It was somewhat as follows, but I have shortened it by half to accommodate it to the length of this story:

"To thee Genghis, Shah in Shah of Persia, I, Amurath the Fourth, the prince of all true Believers, Shadow of God on Earth, King of the Two Worlds, Lord of the Two Seas, thru whose existence life hath been ennobled, send greeting:

"On this very day, thy messenger, Ahmet, arrived at our palace, and presented thy letter to us. I have no objection to telling thee where the treasure is hidden. It seemeth strange to me that thou didst not before ask me this question. The treasure, which is lawfully yours, is situated on the main road between Bagdad and Ispahan, exactly ten miles east of the former, in a large cave which you cannot help seeing, it being the only one within twenty miles, and in the first hillside you come to after leaving Bagdad. As a reward for this information, I think it not unreasonable that you send me one twentieth part of what you find.

     "Thy faithful Friend,
           "Amurath the Fourth,
                "Sultan of Turkey"

Ahmet folded the letter again and sealed it with the wax. He viewed his work with great satisfaction, for to his eye there was absolutely no difference between its present appearance, and the appearance in which it had been. "That was well-done," he said, with a sigh of satisfaction as he replaced the whole in the wallet, and the wallet in its hiding place.

Then he went on, thinking of the treasure and keeping a sharp outlook for the cave in which it was hidden. At last he saw it.

"What harm can there be in taking a look at the treasure itself?" He said. His curiosity overcame him, and he dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. Then he entered the cave. It was large enough for him to stand upright [inside, but at] a distance of twenty feet from the mouth it grew smaller and he was compelled to crawl on his hands and knees. The floor was dry and no reptiles were visible. That, he reflected, was one advantage. Everything was dark and he could no longer see. He stopped for a moment, drew a taper from under his caftan, and lit it.

Then he went on and at last reached the end of the passage. It was a small chamber, seemingly cut out in the solid rock, and perfectly square as to shape.

Ahmet stood up and examined it. It was evidently the end of the cave. In the corner opposite to him, he perceived ten great earthenware jars, each large enough to hold three or four gallons.

Concluding that these contained the treasure, he crossed to them and removed the lid from the first that met his hand. It was full to the top with golden coins. Ahmet hastily replaced the cover and opened the next. It was full to the brim with silver.

The third was half-full of diamonds and rubies, and all manner of jewels. One particularly large one caught his eye, and he picked it up to examine it more closely.

"Why should I not keep it?" he exclaimed half-aloud. "Who should be the wiser?"

"I would," said a deep and well-known voice from behind him. Turning, he beheld the Shah standing in the entrance and regarding him fixedly.

"Ahmet," he said, coldly, "what are you doing here?"

Ahmet turned pale and stammered out some excuse.

"Come with me," replied Genghis shortly, and he led the way out of the cave. In the road without, the unhappy messenger saw the Shah's escort, all mounted and evidently waiting for them.

"Ahmet," said Genghis, "give me Amurath's letter." Ahmet, trembling with fear, produced it and gave it to his master. The Shah broke the seal and read the contents. "It was a remarkable coincidence that you happened to enter this cave," he said, suspiciously. Then he examined the seal.

"This wax was made in Bagdad." He announced. "The Sultan's wax is always made in Istanbul, and by a man employed especially for this purpose. It has a much different smell from the wax that forms this seal. It seems to me, Ahmet, that you are guilty of disobeying the Sultan's orders, for I am sure that he enjoined you not to open this letter. Besides, it is a serious crime to open any letter sent to me. In addition to this you were about to steal part of the treasure, and would undoubtedly have done so, had I not caught you in the act. It is very plain that you deserve either death or banishment from Persia. I give you the choice. Which?"

"Death, your Majesty!" said Ahmet, his face full of shame and fear.

"Bring the treasure to me," said Genghis to some of his retinue. They dismounted and hastened to execute his orders.

"Now, Ahmet," said the Shah, "perhaps you would like to know how I found you here. I grew impatient for your return and set out with a number of my servants to meet you. When we came to this hill we espied your horse tied to a tree and knew that you were somewhere near. I perceived the cave, and instantly divined that you had entered it for something or other, what, I did not then know. I followed, and found you about to remove a diamond from the treasure. That is all."

"Your Majesty," said Ahmet, "I beg your forgiveness. If the Sultan had not told me not to open the letter, all these unpleasant things could never have happened. Morally, all the fault lies with him. My curiosity did the rest, not me. I was helpless under its influence."

"Your reasoning is all very pretty, but it would never do before a cadi," replied the Shah, with an amused smile.

Ahmet bowed his head in resignation to his fate, and said: "Very well, your Majesty. If you say so, it must be so."

"Seek not to soften my verdict by flattery," said Genghis, "If you do so it will be all the worse for you."

The mental torture that Ahmet underwent during the next week is entirely beyond my powers to describe. It is sufficient to say that by the time he and his captors entered Ispaham, he had lost many pounds of flesh.

The Shah watched him closely and began to pity the poor fellow. On the day set for Ahmet's death, he called the man before him.

The headsman and his block were in the room. Two guards stood on either side of the prisoner. Otherwise, the apartment was empty. Silence prevailed for a moment, and then the Shah spoke.

"Ahmet," he said, "I think you have died a thousand deaths during the last few days, from fear. I said that you should die but once. Is that not true?"

"Yes, your Majesty," said Ahmet, seeing a thread of hope and grasping it eagerly.

"I do not think that you will be inclined to break the law again," spoke Genghis, "after all that you have suffered. Remember, my dear Ahmet, that a mental death is much worse than a material one. You may go free."

Editor's Note:
This nice little tale is clearly a very early work, and rather tidily done. Since it is written with a very specific "moral," it is easy to identify as coming from Clark's very early work, perhaps age eleven or twelve. His family, though poor exemplified the high standards of Victorian morality in their instruction to their son "by precept and example."

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Printed on: October 29, 2020