There is a dreadful place in Persia called the “Valley of the Angel of Death.” That terrific minister of God’s wrath, according to tradition, has resting-places upon the earth and his favourite abodes. He is surrounded by ghools, horrid beings who, when he takes away life, feast upon the carcasses.
The natural shape of these monsters is terrible; but they can assume those of animals, such as cows or camels, or whatever they choose, often appearing to men as their relations or friends, and then they do not only transform their shapes, but their voices also are altered. The frightful screams and yells which are often heard amid these dreaded ravines are changed for the softest and most melodious notes. Unwary travellers, deluded by the appearance of friends, or captivated by the forms and charmed by the music of these demons, are allured from their path, and after feasting for a few hours on every luxury, are consigned to destruction.
The number of these ghools has greatly decreased since the birth of the Prophet, and they have no power to hurt those who pronounce his name in sincerity of faith. These creatures are the very lowest of the supernatural world, and, besides being timid, are extremely stupid, and consequently often imposed upon by artful men.
The natives of Isfahan, though not brave, are the most crafty and acute people upon earth, and often supply the want of courage by their address. An inhabitant of that city was once compelled to travel alone at night through this dreadful valley. He was a man of ready wit, and fond of adventures, and, though no lion, had great confidence in his cunning, which had brought him through a hundred scrapes and perils that would have embarrassed or destroyed your simple man of valour.
This man, whose name was Ameen Beg, had heard many stories of the ghools of the “Valley of the Angel of Death,” and thought it likely he might meet one. He prepared accordingly, by putting an egg and a lump of salt in his pocket. He had not gone far amidst the rocks, when he heard a voice crying, “Holloa, Ameen Beg Isfahânee! you are going the wrong road, you will lose yourself; come this way. I am your friend Kerreem Beg; I know your father, old Kerbela Beg, and the street in which you were born.” Ameen knew well the power the ghools had of assuming the shape of any person they choose; and he also knew their skill as genealogists, and their knowledge of towns as well as families; he had therefore little doubt this was one of those creatures alluring him to destruction. He, however, determined to encounter him, and trust to his art for his escape.
“Stop, my friend, till I come near you,” was his reply. When Ameen came close to the ghool, he said, “You are not my friend Kerreem; you are a lying demon, but you are just the being I desired to meet. I have tried my strength against all the men and all the beasts which exist in the natural world, and I can find nothing that is a match for me. I came therefore to this valley in the hope of encountering a ghool, that I might prove my prowess upon him.”
The ghool, astonished at being addressed in this manner, looked keenly at him, and said, “Son of Adam, you do not appear so strong.” “Appearances are deceitful,” replied Ameen, “but I will give you a proof of my strength. There,” said he, picking up a stone from a rivulet, “this contains a fluid; try if you can so squeeze it that it will flow out.” The ghool took the stone, but, after a short attempt, returned it, saying, “The thing is impossible.” “Quite easy,” said the Isfahânee, taking the stone and placing it in the hand in which he had before put the egg. “Look there!” And the astonished ghool, while he heard what he took for the breaking of the stone, saw the liquid run from between Ameen’s fingers, and this apparently without any effort.
Ameen, aided by the darkness, placed the stone upon the ground while he picked up another of a darker hue. “This,” said he, “I can see contains salt, as you will find if you can crumble it between your fingers;” but the ghool, looking at it, confessed he had neither knowledge to discover its qualities nor strength to break it. “Give it me,” said his companion impatiently; and, having put it into the same hand with the piece of salt, he instantly gave the latter all crushed to the ghool, who, seeing it reduced to powder, tasted it, and remained in stupid astonishment at the skill and strength of this wonderful man. Neither was he without alarm lest his strength should be exerted against himself, and he saw no safety in resorting to the shape of a beast, for Ameen had warned him that if he commenced any such unfair dealing, he would instantly slay him; for ghools, though long-lived, are not immortal.
Under such circumstances he thought his best plan was to conciliate the friendship of his new companion till he found an opportunity of destroying him.
“Most wonderful man,” he said, “will you honour my abode with your presence? it is quite at hand; there you will find every refreshment; and after a comfortable night’s rest you can resume your journey.”
“I have no objection, friend ghool, to accept your offer; but, mark me, I am, in the first place, very passionate, and must not be provoked by any expressions which are in the least disrespectful; and, in the second, I am full of penetration, and can see through your designs as clearly as I saw into that hard stone in which I discovered salt. So take care you entertain none that are wicked, or you shall suffer.”
The ghool declared that the ear of his guest should be pained by no expression to which it did not befit his dignity to listen; and he swore by the head of his liege lord, the Angel of Death, that he would faithfully respect the rights of hospitality and friendship.
Thus satisfied, Ameen followed the ghool through a number of crooked paths, rugged cliffs, and deep ravines, till they came to a large cave, which was dimly lighted. “Here,” said the ghool, “I dwell, and here my friend will find all he can want for refreshment and repose.” So saying, he led him to various apartments, in which were hoarded every species of grain, and all kinds of merchandise, plundered from travellers who had been deluded to this den, and of whose fate Ameen was too well informed by the bones over which he now and then stumbled, and by the putrid smell produced by some half-consumed carcasses.
“This will be sufficient for your supper, I hope,” said the ghool, taking up a large bag of rice; “a man of your prowess must have a tolerable appetite.” “True,” said Ameen, “but I ate a sheep and as much rice as you have there before I proceeded on my journey. I am, consequently, not hungry, but will take a little lest I offend your hospitality.” “I must boil it for you,” said the demon; “you do not eat grain and meat raw, as we do. Here is a kettle,” said he, taking up one lying amongst the plundered property. “I will go and get wood for a fire, while you fetch water with that,” pointing to a bag made of the hides of six oxen.
Ameen waited till he saw his host leave the cave for the wood, and then with great difficulty he dragged the enormous bag to the bank of a dark stream, which issued from the rocks at the other end of the cavern, and, after being visible for a few yards, disappeared underground.
“How shall I,” thought Ameen, “prevent my weakness being discovered? This bag I could hardly manage when empty; when full, it would require twenty strong men to carry it; what shall I do? I shall certainly be eaten up by this cannibal ghool, who is now only kept in order by the impression of my great strength.” After some minutes’ reflection the Isfahânee thought of a scheme, and began digging a small channel from the stream towards the place where his supper was preparing.
“What are you doing?” vociferated the ghool, as he advanced towards him; “I sent you for water to boil a little rice, and you have been an hour about it. Cannot you fill the bag and bring it away?” “Certainly I can,” said Ameen; “if I were content, after all your kindness, to show my gratitude merely by feats of brute strength, I could lift your stream if you had a bag large enough to hold it. But here,” said he, pointing to the channel he had begun,—“here is the commencement of a work in which the mind of a man is employed to lessen the labour of his body. This canal, small as it may appear, will carry a stream to the other end of the cave, in which I will construct a dam that you can open and shut at pleasure, and thereby save yourself infinite trouble in fetching water. But pray let me alone till it is finished,” and he began to dig. “Nonsense!” said the ghool, seizing the bag and filling it; “I will carry the water myself, and I advise you to leave off your canal, as you call it, and follow me, that you may eat your supper and go to sleep; you may finish this fine work, if you like it, to-morrow morning.”
Ameen congratulated himself on this escape, and was not slow in taking the advice of his host. After having ate heartily of the supper that was prepared, he went to repose on a bed made of the richest coverlets and pillows, which were taken from one of the store-rooms of plundered goods. The ghool, whose bed was also in the cave, had no sooner laid down than he fell into a sound sleep. The anxiety of Ameen’s mind prevented him from following his example; he rose gently, and having stuffed a long pillow into the middle of his bed, to make it appear as if he was still there, he retired to a concealed place in the cavern to watch the proceedings of the ghool. The latter awoke a short time before daylight, and rising, went, without making any noise, towards Ameen’s bed, where, not observing the least stir, he was satisfied that his guest was in a deep sleep; so he took up one of his walking-sticks, which was in size like the trunk of a tree, and struck a terrible blow at what he supposed to be Ameen’s head. He smiled not to hear a groan, thinking he had deprived him of life; but to make sure of his work, he repeated the blow seven times. He then returned to rest, but had hardly settled himself to sleep, when Ameen, who had crept into the bed, raised his head above the clothes and exclaimed, “Friend ghool, what insect could it be that has disturbed me by its tapping? I counted the flap of its little wings seven times on the coverlet. These vermin are very annoying, for, though they cannot hurt a man, they disturb his rest!”
The ghool’s dismay on hearing Ameen speak at all was great, but that was increased to perfect fright when he heard him describe seven blows, any one of which would have felled an elephant, as seven flaps of an insect’s wing. There was no safety, he thought, near so wonderful a man, and he soon afterwards arose and fled from the cave, leaving the Isfahânee its sole master.
When Ameen found his host gone, he was at no loss to conjecture the cause, and immediately began to survey the treasures with which he was surrounded, and to contrive means for removing them to his home.
After examining the contents of the cave, and arming himself with a matchlock, which had belonged to some victim of the ghool, he proceeded to survey the road. He had, however, only gone a short distance when he saw the ghool returning with a large club in his hand, and accompanied by a fox. Ameen’s knowledge of the cunning animal instantly led him to suspect that it had undeceived his enemy, but his presence of mind did not forsake him. “Take that,” said he to the fox, aiming a ball at him from his matchlock, and shooting him through the head,—“Take that for your not performing my orders. That brute,” said he, “promised to bring me seven ghools, that I might chain them, and carry them to Isfahan, and here he has only brought you, who are already my slave.” So saying, he advanced towards the ghool; but the latter had already taken to flight, and by the aid of his club bounded so rapidly over rocks and precipices that he was soon out of sight.
Ameen having well marked the path from the cavern to the road, went to the nearest town and hired camels and mules to remove the property he had acquired. After making restitution to all who remained alive to prove their goods, he became, from what was unclaimed, a man of wealth, all of which was owing to that wit and art which ever overcome brute strength and courage.