“Every man’s fate is fore-ordained,” said the tax-collector, reflectively stroking his beard. “Although we may not understand it at the moment each particular event that happens is simply a means prepared for some destined end that may be many years remote in time. Vishnu the Preserver saved the life of the little maid of Jhalnagor so that her father’s life might later on be saved. But none can read the future, so that we are all blindly doing the things of to-day without knowing their real bearing on the things of a far-away to-morrow. And one man can make or mar the happiness of another man, even though their lives be separated by hundreds of leagues in space or hundreds of years in time.”
“In your mind doubtless is some tale to illustrate the truth of what you teach,” remarked the astrologer, with a shrewd uplifting of his eyebrows. “The stars can help us to read the future, as I can prove to you by a story of actual experience. But before I proceed to my narrative, pray, friend, let us hear from you.”
Edmund Mitchell’s Tales of Destiny (hosted at Project Gutenberg) is a collection of … tales of destiny. They come wrapped in a conceit — the tellers are guests in the compound of a Muslim Indian king — and reflect each man’s vocation (astrologer, merchant, Afghan general) because after all character is destiny. This is the tax collector’s tale.
“Gladly,” assented the tax-collector. “The story of this noble Rajput has brought to memory an incident in my own life many years ago, likewise serving to show that the gods prepare long years ahead for the working out of each particular man’s destiny. Listen:
“As a youth I was a keeper of accounts in the service of a rich zemindar, whose estate lay in the Country of the Five Rivers. He was a usurer as well as a landowner, as had been his fathers before him for many generations. So in his castle was an accumulation of great stores of wealth—gold and silver and precious stones, cloth of gold, silks, brocades, and muslins, ivory and amber, camphor, spices, dye stuffs, and other merchandise of divers kinds.”
The Afghan general stirred, and the scabbard of his sword rattled on the floor as, raising himself from his elbow that rested on a cushion, he sat up and assumed an attitude of keen attention.
“Where is this place?” he asked, a wolfish gleam in his eyes, and his lips curved to a smile that revealed, under the black, curled moustache, the white gleam of sharp-pointed teeth.
The story-teller also smiled, knowingly, and raised a deprecatory hand.
“Nay, friend, this zemindar, my first master, was not fated to be relieved of his treasure, as my story will tell, even though a skillful plot had been laid for his spoliation. Which is the very point of my tale, although I may seem to come to it by a roundabout way of telling.”
The Afghan sank back on his cushion, but his gaze remained riveted on his narrator’s face.
“One day I was seated in my home, casting up my books of account, for I had only that morning completed the taking of taxes from the crops of the rayats, the tenants of my lord. All of a sudden a white-robed figure entered the doorway and threw himself prostrate before me. When at last the face was raised I recognized the dhobi of the village that nestled under the hill on which was perched the castle of the zemindar.
“‘O thou washer of clothes,’ I asked, ‘what is thy plaint?’
“‘Protector of the poor,’ replied my visitor, ‘behold my bandaged feet, beaten with rods until they are swollen and torn.’
“I looked, as requested, and saw the blood-stains soaked through the wrappings of linen.
“‘Thou art an honest and a peaceful man, Bhagwan. Why this cruel punishment?’
“‘I know not, indeed. But I have come to thee, because I have endured the wrong at the hands of thy master.’
“‘Tell me thy story.’
“‘As you have said, O my protector,’ began the dhobi, assuming a sitting posture and spreading the folds of his loose-flowing cotton garment over his bandaged feet, ‘I am an honest man. And it is for that very reason I have suffered. Yesterday, among the apparel I received from the home of the zemindar to be made clean and white was the bodice of a woman, and tied in one corner of this piece of raiment was a ring set with bright red stones that gleamed as if they were aflame. Straightway I returned to the palace of the zemindar, and, entering the audience chamber where, as is his wont at that particular hour each day, he was seated receiving the complaints of the oppressed, did my humble obeisance, and then placed in his hand the jewel I had discovered. He asked me where I had found it, and when I replied truthfully, his eyes flashed with anger, and his voice thundered at me in rebuke. Although I had done no wrong, but rather a virtuous deed, I implored for pardon. But in vain. My mind grew confused, and the next thing I remember was the sharp cut of bamboo rods upon the soles of my feet. I was in a small vaulted chamber, bound to a wooden bench, surrounded by the zemindar’s soldiers, and powerless except to scream out in the agony of each blow. Thirty strokes were counted, and then I was flung out of the gates of the castle, to limp my way home.’
“Tears of self-pity were in the dhobi’s eyes as he recounted his tale of woe. Even then I was reflecting on the real cause of the zemindar’s wrath. The jewel had been discovered in the folds of a garment worn by one of the women in his zenana, and his quick access of anger showed that the gift had come from some other hand than his. Savage jealousy, therefore, had prompted the act of injustice inflicted upon the unfortunate washerman. I knew my master so well his sullen moods, his outbursts of passion, that already I could arrive at this conclusion with certainty.
“‘Proceed,’ I said, indifferently, for it is well that a man should keep his own counsel in such delicate affairs. ‘What is my concern with your misfortune?’
“‘Harken, O dispenser of bounties! Last night when I lay nursing my wounds, I remembered that the ring which had proved the cause of my misery had been wrapped in a fragment of paper whereon were some strange marks and lines as in the books of learned men. This I had flung away, at that time deeming only the ring to be of any consequence. But the thought came to me in the night that perhaps the paper might tell something about the ring. So all this day have I searched among the bushes by the stream where I beat the clothes on stones and wash them. And behold, I have found that for which I have been seeking.’
“Hereupon the dhobi loosened the loin cloth beneath his upper garment, and extracted from its folds a tiny roll of paper. This he presented to me, with a bow of deference to my superior understanding of such things.
“‘This time I have come to you,’ he said, ‘a man of learning and of justice, not like unto the cruel zemindar. Does the paper tell why I should have suffered such shame and pain at his hands?’
“I had unrolled the scroll, the folds of which showed that it had served as a wrapping for the ring. The writing was in neat Persian characters, and I had no difficulty in deciphering it, for the four lines that met my eyes had been recited to me only a few days before by the very man who claimed to be their author.
“Now did my very heart tremble with agitation. But to the dhobi I appeared cold as the waters of the snows that melt on the mountains.
“‘This writing would only add to your troubles,’ I said. ‘Here, let me destroy it.’ And, turning to the red ashes burning in a brazier near at hand, I dexterously substituted a fragment of paper, on which I had been figuring my accounts, for the paper received, from the dhobi, placing the former on the glowing charcoal embers and bestowing the latter in the security of my girdle. A curl of white smoke, a puff of flame, and the work of destruction was, to all appearance, completed.
“‘In view of your misfortune, my friend,’ I resumed, ‘I bestow upon you in the name of my master ten maunds of dal, which will be sent to your home on the morrow.’
“The recipient of this unexpected bounty prostrated himself before me.
“‘O prince of justice, no longer do my wounds pain me. The bellies of my children will be filled for many long days to come.’
“‘Then go thy way, rejoicing in thy heart even though limping on thy feet. And remember that silence is golden. Say not one word more to anyone about the ring or the paper, your punishment or the reward that has now redressed the wrong. Go in peace.’
“And the dhobi, after profuse expressions of gratitude, hobbled from my presence.
“Alone with my thoughts, I felt sorely troubled. The writer of the verses of ardent poetry written on the paper brought to me by the washerman was my cherished friend, a youth from far-away Bokhara, Abdul by name. This young man had come to our country only a year or so before, bringing several beautiful Arab horses for sale. These the zemindar had purchased, and had retained Abdul in his service, for the youth was skilled in the management of horses, and in the rearing of young stock.
“Abdul and myself were much of an age, and my regulation of expenditures in the stables had brought us constantly together. So a close friendship had resulted, valued greatly on my side, for I had soon come to know that Abdul was a man of refinement and learning such as I had never before encountered in any man of so humble a calling. And despite the fact that he was a Moslem and I a Hindu, he had chosen me as his intimate friend, his only confidant. Thus had it come about that at times he had read to me of an evening songs of his own composing, and even on occasion had sung them to the accompaniment of a small harp, the strings of which he touched with wondrous skill and sensibility.
“Now did I know that this dear friend of mine had endangered not only his well-being but his life, by sending into the zenana of our master, the zemindar, a love token and a love message for one of the women dwelling there.
“Thus ran the fateful lines, written after the style of the famous Persian poet, Omar the Tent-Maker, which I now read again on the paper withdrawn from my girdle:
This ring, O idol mine, tells one is here
To bring thee joy, to kiss away the tear.
Keep in thy heart the ruby fire of love;
The hour of thy deliverance is near.
“And, after reading, I felt thankful that the message had not fallen into the hands of the zemindar, else had the intriguer’s identity been quickly determined and his fate as quickly sealed.
“Yet the lines breathed the spirit of honourable love, and my heart was stirred to aid my friend in his daring enterprise.
“Patiently during the afternoon I waited, cogitating the while, and counting the chances. At last about an hour before sunset Abdul came to me with his usual gay smile and happy greeting.
“He read trouble in my look, for straightway he asked of me:
“‘What is wrong? What matters have gone amiss?’
“I motioned him to sit by my side, and then without more ado told him of the evil turn that had befallen the dhobi, and showed him the quatrain of verses.
“‘These you wrote?’ I questioned.
“‘With my own hand,’ he answered, gravely, but without excess of fear.
“‘And the ring with the flaming red gems?’
“‘Was her mother’s own ring. Zuleika would know it in an instant.’
“‘Zuleika—who is she?’
“‘Listen, my brother, for fate points that to thee should I give my fullest confidence. Zuleika is a maid of the Turkmans, betrothed to me. But a year ago, when gathering flowers in our valley, she was stolen by roving freebooters. And, true to my love, I have followed her here, to the home of the zemindar, your master, who purchased her from the marauders.’
“‘How came you to know that she was here?’
“‘Never mind. I am a man of resource and observation, and I tracked the maid. Moreover, gold opens the gates of confidence, and of this I have goodly store.’ As he spoke, he touched a pouch that hung from his girdle, ‘For I am not, as I may have seemed to you, a mere dealer in horses, but the son of a great chief in my own land.’
“He had drawn himself up proudly, and I bowed my head, in homage as well as in acquiescence. For the news did not surprise me, and in a friend of such noble bearing and high attainments I was well content to recognize an overlord.
“More did he tell me—about a grass-cutter in the stables who had ridden with the robbers, and knew where the captive had been disposed; and about a dancing girl who had carried the ring into the zenana, and brought forth Zuleika’s answer in return, telling that she was well, that she was destined as the bride of the zemindar’s eldest son, but that she would resist all advances until rescued by her lover, the pearl of her heart, now thrice dear because he had followed her so faithfully and so far.
“Abdul, fearful of danger to Zuleika because of the discovery of the ring, was for instant action—the hiring of bravoes, and a bold attack on the zemindar’s person, taking him unawares, carrying him off and holding him to ransom, deliverance of the captive maid of the Turkmans being the price of his freedom.
“But I had more subtle counsel to offer. For by foreordaining of Providence there rested in my breast certain knowledge, the real use of which was only now being revealed.
“‘Harken to me, Abdul,’ I said, ‘and I shall show you a way out of your difficulties—a way, too, that will lead to the attainment of your heart’s desire. Send out to-night relays of horses along the northern road, and reserve for your own use the fleetest and strongest steed in the zemindar’s stables. To-morrow morning early the dancing girl will carry a message to Zuleika, bidding her to watch and wait for you near the door in the women’s quarters that leads to the treasure room of the zemindar.’
“‘Of a surety you jest at me,’ interposed Abdul. ‘How can I gain access either to zenana or to treasure chamber?’
“‘All will presently be made clear. At the appointed place Zuleika must await your coming, to-morrow during the hour of the zemindar’s public audience. Him shall I engage in business matters while you carry off your beloved. In this you cannot fail, for God, the Lord of the Universe, pitying and helping you, has long years ago prepared the precise means for the accomplishment of your purpose.’
“‘Still do you speak in riddles, friend.’
“Nay; listen, Abdul, and though you, a follower of Mohammed, may think of me as an idol-worshipping Hindu, you will yet see that the same supreme spirit rules both our destinies, making me the instrument of your happiness, because of certain knowledge which I possess. There is a secret which my father entrusted to me before he died, bidding me to guard it jealously until occasion for its application might arise. And behold now the appointed hour has come.’
“‘You know the council chamber of our lord, the zemindar, with its three-and-thirty columns of white marble. These are massive, seeming to have been hewn out of single pieces of rock—base, pillar, and capital all in one, each column in its entirety a single piece of quarried stone. But learn that this is not so, for these monoliths are in reality artificially made, having been fashioned by clever workers from the Coromandel country, who brought with them here supplies of a certain hard white stone, which they first roasted to a great heat, and then ground to the fineness of flour, finally compounding this material with other things, and constructing therefrom the columns of marble you now behold.’
“‘Indeed have I marvelled at their size,’ commented Abdul, ‘and wondered how such mighty blocks of hewn stone could have been obtained or set in place.’
“‘Well, you learn now that they were not quarried but moulded. This work was done in the time of my father, when he was treasurer in the service of the zemindar, then a young man. Now, know that the architect of the zemindar’s palace was a dishonest knave, for he contrived that one of the three-and-thirty columns of marble should be hollow, and fitted inside with steps or holding places of iron, so that a lissom man might ascend and gain access to the treasure chamber above. This he confided to my father, seeking to gain him as a confederate in systematically robbing their master. But my father had a heart of gold and a hand of steel, for he slew the would-be thief after disdainfully rejecting his base proposal. Yet did he keep locked up in his own breast exclusively, knowledge of the hollow marble column, and of the sliding sections that gave access to it both above and below. For knowledge is power, he argued, and no man should squander such power any more than he would squander wealth. The destined time would come for the use of the knowledge, and it was in this faith that, just before he died, he confided the secret to me, his successor in the office of treasurer.
“‘And with me unto this day the secret has remained. But now at last the workings of fate are disclosed. How old art thou, Abdul?’
“‘Four-and-twenty summers,’ he replied.
“‘Well, a full score years before you were born God so contrived that there should be a means for you to rescue the pearl of your heart, and escape, both of you, back to your own country. Go now and arrange the relays of horses, as I have directed, and when to-morrow’s sun has risen, send by the hand of the dancing girl the message to your betrothed within the zenana, bidding her to be prepared. An hour before the zemindar’s noontide council I will meet you, and, conducting you to the vaults below the assembly hall with its three-and-thirty columns of marble, will show you that particular column which, by the touching of a hidden spring, will open a passage way whereby you can climb to the zemindar’s treasury. The door of that chamber you can open on the inside, simply by pushing back the wooden bolt which serves as a lock and answers only to a key on the other side. Let the maid be waiting there at the appointed time for your coming. Now go, brother of my soul, and make your preparations. Then sleep, for sleep is the best surety of success when wakefulness and courage come to be required.’
“Next day shortly after the hour of noon, the zemindar was seated in council. He was a big stout man, having waxed fat with age and prosperity. His beard descended to his waist like the moss on an old tree, and, above, his moon-like face surveyed complacently the circle of courtiers, soldiers, and retainers. Petitions had been presented, judgments had been spoken, and affairs of the day had been discussed, and we, the few close counsellors who tarried, were only awaiting the raised hand that would have bidden us go our several ways.
“‘Where is Abdul?’ of a sudden asked the zemindar, casting a glance of inquiry around.
“‘He has been smitten with a fever, my lord,’ I answered, taking upon my shoulders the burden of excuse, and telling no falsehood, for surely love is the fiercest burning fever of all.
“‘Ah, ha!’ muttered the zemindar, in a guttural note of disappointment. And there and then I saw him toying with a ruby ring, not worn upon one of his fingers, but held lightly between his two hands.
“‘Does anyone here know aught of this bauble?’ he added, raising the gem aloft.
“There were glances of inquiry from all around, then bows and gestures and murmurs of disavowal. I alone remained irresponsive, for at that very moment every fibre of my being was strained to nervous rigidity. My senses were preternaturally at work. The marble column against which I was leaning with seeming carelessness, vibrated under my hand. Within its circular depths I could see Abdul descending stealthily and slowly, his one free arm pressing a silken bundle to his breast. Even to my nostrils there was wafted the fragrance of attar of roses, and with the exhalations of perfume came a gentle sigh of timidity almost at my very ear.
“I was moistening my parched lips with my tongue, when I awoke from my momentary trance. The zemindar’s eyes were blazing down at me.
“‘Villain, this ring is yours!’ he cried, struggling to his feet.
“‘Not mine, my lord,’ I protested, flinging myself at full length before him.
“But at that very moment there rang forth the sharp tattoo of a horse’s hoofs on the paved courtyard without, followed by the sharp challenge of a sentry, the bang of a matchlock, and then a very babel of excited yelling.
“Everyone in the audience hall swept outside, even the zemindar, his dignity all forgotten. Left alone, with swift consciousness of the suspicion that had fastened itself upon me, and of my powerlessness to deny connivance with the escape of my friend, I gathered myself up and fled by a side passage to a ghat on the river. Here I had a boat prepared for just the emergency that had happened, and because of this happy foresight I am enabled to-day, after more than two score of years, to tell the tale.”
“And the zemindar?” asked the Afghan soldier.
“Dead long since.”
“The hollow marble column?” pressed the interlocutor.
“Its secret remained unrevealed,” replied the tax-collector. “Trusty friends told me later that the flight of Abdul on a fiery stallion, with a female figure clinging to him on the saddle behind, ever remained a mystery. So the youth had had the presence of mind to close the sliding panels above and below.”
“He escaped? He lived?” queried the Rajput.
“Assuredly,” came the quiet reply. “I have never seen nor heard from Abdul from that day to this. But as destiny had provided, long years before the actual event, a means for the accomplishment of his happiness, I have ever rested content in the belief that all was well with him—that all is well with him even yet perhaps—with him and his beloved in the valley of far-away Bokhara.”
“I should like to find that hollow column,” muttered the Afghan.
“As I have said, the column was contrived for love and not for rapine, my friend. Should the white stone from Coromandel that can be cunningly wrought into marble ever cross your fate, be on your guard lest the omen mean, not the gaining of a fortune, but the making of a tomb.”
The Afghan smiled, half disdainfully, half uneasily, and silence reigned for a spell.