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SOHRAB AND RUSTEM
J^^pjhe Persians have a great epic which
is to them about what the Iliad and the Odyssey were to the Greeks and the /Eneid was to the Romans. In character, however, the Persian epic is
£&W* more like the English narrative Morte d' Arthur, from which readings will be found elsewhere in these volumes. This wonderful poem, the Shah Nameh, relates exploits of the Shahs of Persia for a period that is supposed to extend over more than three thousand years. It was written by Firdusi, a famous Persian poet, toward the close of the tenth century, and is filled with tales of the marvelous adventures and stirring achievements of national heroes. Fierce monsters like those that appear in the legendary tales of all nations stalk through its pages, and magicians, good and bad, work their enchantments for and against the devoted Persians. The imagination of Eastern writers is more vivid than that of the Europeans, and for that reason the stories are more full of thrilling episodes and supernatural occurrences.
Chief among the heroes is Rustem, who seems to have lived through many centuries, and to have been the one great defender of the Persian throne. From the cradle he was marked for renown, for he was larger, stronger and healthier than any other babe that was ever born. His mother alone could not feed him, and ten nurses were required to satisfy the infant's hunger. His father, Zal, the whitehaired, looked with pride upon his growing son, who as soon as he was weaned fell upon bread and meat as his only diet and required as much of them as would feed five ordinary men. Such a child ought to make a wonderful man, and this one fulfilled the highest hopes of his parents, for he became taller in stature, broader in shoulders, deeper in the chest and stronger in all his muscles than any other man the Persian race had ever known.
His childish exploits were quite as wonderful as those of his later years. One night he was awakened from his slumbers by hearing the servants say that the great white elephant on which his father rode on state occasions had broken loose and was running about the royal gardens, mad with rage, pulling up the trees, tearing down buildings and killing every one that came in his way. Not a man dared stand against the fierce beast, and though the archers had tried again and again their weapons had no effect upon him.
Rustem rose from his couch, put on his clothes, caught from the wall the huge club his grandfather had owned, and made for the door of his chamber.
"Where are you going? What will you do?" cried the frightened servants.
"Open the door. I must stop that elephant before he does greater damage," answered the boy.
One of his serving men, braver than the- rest, opposed the boy. "I dare not obey you," said the man; "your father would never forgive me if I let you go forth to be slain by that ferocious beast whose broken chains clank about his legs and whose huge trunk brings destruction to everything it strikes. You will be knocked down and trampled to death. This is pure folly!"
"Out of my way," cried the enraged Rustem. "You rush upon your own doom."
Almost blind with anger, the furious youth swung his club about him and struck the faithful servant so fearful a blow that his head was knocked from his body and rolled along the floor like a huge ball. The other servants fled to the corners of the room and gave Rustem a clear path. One blow from his great club broke the iron balls from the door and sent it flying from its hinges. Shouldering his club Rustem hurried into the garden, where he soon found the maddened elephant in the midst of the ruin he was making. When the unwieldy animal saw the boy approaching it rushed at him with savage bellowings, swinging its long, powerful trunk from side to side in great circles. The terrible spectacle frightened Rustem not in the least, and the dauntless youth rushed forward and struck the elephant a single blow full in its forehead. The great legs trembled and bent, the huge body tottered and fell, making a mountain of quivering flesh. Rustem calmly shouldered his club, returned to his chamber, and finished his sleep.
As Rustem grew to manhood he became the owner of a great horse little less wonderful than his master. Raksh, for that was the animal's name, not only carried Rustem in war and in the chase, but he fought for his master in every conflict, watched over him in his sleep, and defended him with human intelligence. On one of his expeditions Rustem lay down to sleep near the den of a lion, that as he came forth to hunt at night saw the horse and rider asleep before him. The lion, knowing that if he could kill the horse the man would not get away, made ready to spring upon Raksh, but that wary animal was sleeping with one eye open and met the leaping lion more than half way with two great hoofs planted squarely in his face. Before the astonished animal could recover his senses Raksh seized him by the back and beat his life out upon the ground.
Of Rustem's countless struggles with dragons, witches, genii and other strange beings, and of the wonderful battles by which he defended the throne of Persia, we cannot stop to read. They were all very similar in one respect at least, for always he escaped from deadly peril by his own wisdom and strength, aided often, as we have said, by Raksh. But there is one part of his life, one series of more than human adventures that we ought to know.
One day Rustem was hunting over a plain on the borders of Tartary when he discovered a large herd of wild asses. No animal could outstrip Raksh, and so his master was soon among the herd, killing the animals to right and left. Some he slew with the arrows of his strong bow, others he lassoed and killed with his trusty club. When his love for hunting was satisfied he built a fire, roasted one of the asses and prepared for a great feast. In time even his sharp appetite was quenched, and lying down upon his blanket he was soon buried in a sound slumber.
As he slept Raksh wandered about the plains quietly feeding. Without noticing it he strayed far away from his master, and in fact quite out of sight.
Then it happened that seven Tartars who had been following Kaksh made a dash at him and tried to capture him with their lassoes. The noble horse fought them manfully, killing two of them with the blows of his forefeet and biting the head from the shoulders of another. But the ropes from the lassoes became tangled with his legs, and even the marvelous Raksh was at last thrown, overpowered and led struggling away.
When Rustem awoke his first thought was for his horse, but though he looked everywhere the faithful animal was not in sight. Such a thing had never happened before, and Rustem grew pale with sorrow and dread.
"What can I do without my noble charger?" he said. "How can I carry my arrows, club and other weapons? How can I defend myself? Moreover, I shall be the laughingstock of friends and enemies alike, for all will say that in my carelessnesss I slept and allowed my horse to be stolen."
At last he discovered the tracks of Raksh in the dust of the plain, and following them with difficulty he found himself at the town of Samengan. The king and nobles of the town knew Rustem, but seemed surprised to see him come walking. The wanderer explained what had happened, and the wily monarch answered, "Have no fear, noble Rustem. Every one knows your wonderful horse Raksh, and soon some one will come and bring him to you. I will even send many men to search for him. In the meantime, rest with us and be happy. We will entertain you with the best, and in pleasure you will forget your loss till Raksh is returned to you."