The Kings of Saranazett

By Lewis Worthington Smith

A Scene From the First Act

A drama of the awakening of the nearer Orient. In this scene Nasrulla appears as the royal lover of the fig merchant's daughter, Nourmahal. She has learned something of the ways of the West, where even kings have but one acknowledged consort, and she is not willing to be merely one of a number of queens.

Before the wall and gate enclosing Nourmahal's Garden. It is early morning, just before dawn. Above the gleaming white of the wall's sun-baked clay there is the deep green of the trees—the plane, the poplar, the acacia, and, beyond the garden, mountains are visible through the purple mist of the hour that waits for dawn, slowly turning to rose as the rising sun warms their snowy heights. At the left the wall extends out of sight behind a clump of trees, but at the right it ends in a tower topped by a turret with a rounded dome passing into a point. The space under the dome is open, except for a railing, and is large enough for one or more persons. It may be entered from the broad top of the wall through a break in the railing. At the left, out from the trees and in front of the wall, there is a well marked out with roughly piled stones.

At the right, out of sight behind the trees that come almost to the tower at the corner of the wall, a man's voice is heard singing Shelley's "Indian Serenade."

"I arise from dreams of thee

In the first sweet sleep of night,

When the winds are breathing low,

And the stars are shining bright;

I arise from dreams of thee,

And a something in my feet

Hath led me—who knows how?

To thy chamber window, Sweet!

"The wandering airs they faint

On the dark, the silent stream—

The Champak odors fail

Like sweet thoughts in a dream;

The nightingale's complaint,

It dies upon her heart;—

As I must die on thine,

O! beloved as thou art!

"Oh lift me from the grass!

I die! I faint! I fail!

Let thy love in kisses rain

On my lips and eyelids pale.

My cheek is cold and white, alas!

My heart beats loud and fast;—

Oh! press it to thine own again,

Where it will break at last."

During the singing Nourmahal has come slowly out from the left, walking along the broad top of the wall until, coming to the tower, she drops down on the floor by the railing of the turret and listens, her veil falling from before her face. When the song has ended, Nasrulla comes forward and approaches the little tower. He leads a horse, a white horse with its tail dyed red in the Persian fashion.

Nourmahal. You turn the gray of the poplars in the darkness into the silver of running water.

King Nasrulla. The dawn is waiting under your veil. I see now only the morning star.

Nourmahal. I am but the moon, and I must not be seen when My Lord the Sun comes.

King Nasrulla. The Lord of the Sky rises to look on the gardens where the nightingales have been singing.

Nourmahal. But when he finds that the nightingales are silent, he passes to other gardens.

King Nasrulla. Following the song, as I follow the lisp of spring in your voice, the flutter of the wings of birds in the branches when buds are swelling.

Nourmahal. It is the flutter of wings and the song that you care for; it is not the bird.

King Nasrulla. It is the song of the bird that tells me where I shall find the bird herself. It is the oasis lifted up into the sky that guides the thirsty traveler across the desert.

Nourmahal (rising in agitation). When I am your queen, will you follow the voices of other nightingales?

King Nasrulla. You will be my first queen.

Nourmahal. I must be your only queen.

King Nasrulla. Always my first queen, and in your garden the fountains shall murmur day and night with a fuller flow of water than any others. The flowers there shall be more beautiful than anywhere else in all the world, and a hundred maidens shall serve you.

Nourmahal. And I shall not be your only queen?

King Nasrulla. It is not the way of the world.

Nourmahal. I have heard stories of places where the king has only one queen.

King Nasrulla. It has never been so in Saranazett.

Nourmahal. It has not been so in Saranazett, but does nothing change?

King Nasrulla. I must be king in the way of my ancestors.

Nourmahal (dropping down by the railing again). And we must live in the way of our ancestors, over and over again, sunrise and noon-glare and star-shine, as it was before our stars rose in the heavens, as it always will be?

King Nasrulla. Our ancestors have taught us that a king should not live too meanly.

Nourmahal. We cannot appeal to our ancestors. We cannot appeal to anything, and nothing can be undone. As the Persian poet says, "The moving finger writes," and what is written must be.

King Nasrulla. And if what is written is beautiful, and if you are to be a king's throne-mate, if all the treasures of all the world are to be sought out for you——

Nourmahal. It is nothing, nothing, if you must have another wife, if you must have two other wives, three.

King Nasrulla. My prime minister will choose the others. I choose you.

Nourmahal (passionately). But what shall we ever choose again—and get what we choose? Have not the hours been counted out for us from the beginning of the world? Can we stop the grains of sand in the hour-glass?

King Nasrulla. Each one will make a new pleasure as it falls.

Nourmahal. Yes, but it falls. We do not gather it up. It falls out of the heavens as the rain comes. We cannot make it rain.

King Nasrulla. But the drops are always pleasant.

Nourmahal. Yes, like a cup of water to a prisoner who dies of thirst and cannot know when his jailer comes. If we could bring the clouds up over the sun when the hot dust is flying, it would be really pleasant, but

"That inverted Bowl we call the Sky,

Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,

Lift not your hands to It for help—for It

As impotently moves as you or I."

You are my sky, and the old poet is right, if you must have four wives because your father had four wives, and his father.

King Nasrulla. They are but symbols of kingliness, and they shall bow in the dust before you, whom my heart chooses, as weeds by the roadside bow when you pass in your tahktiravan and the air follows its flying curtains.

Nourmahal. Why should anyone bow to me? Why should I care for bowing? It would make me a slave to the custom of bowing. Are you a king and must you be a slave too? Impotence is the name of such kingship, and why should I care to be a queen when my king cannot make me queenly?

King Nasrulla (advancing to the tower and leaving his horse standing). Come! The stars are paling, and there is only the light of your eyes to lift me out of the dust. Come!

In the side of the wall by the tower a sloping series of stout pegs has been driven, descending to the ground at short intervals. Nourmahal comes out of the tower, puts her foot on the highest of these pegs, takes Nasrulla's hand, and, with his help, comes slowly down the pegs, as if they were a flight of stairs, to the ground.

Nourmahal. How I love a horse! It is Samarcand and Delhi and Bokhara and Paris, even Paris.

King Nasrulla. Paris! What is Paris?

Nourmahal (standing in front of the horse and caressing its head). I don't know. I have never been there, but a horse makes me think of Paris. I don't know London, but a horse makes me think of London too. A horse could take me there. I could ride and ride, and every day there would be something new and something wonderful. There are cities beyond the water, too, marvelous cities, full of things more than we dream of here. A horse is swift, and the tapping of his feet on the stones is distance. When he lifts his head, when he curves his neck, already in his heart he is going on and on.

King Nasrulla. And these are the stories that you have heard, stories about Paris and London and the cities across the water?

Nourmahal. Stories? Perhaps not stories. Dreams, I think, imaginings dropped from the wings of falcons flying out of the west.

King Nasrulla. You shall sit on the horse, and you can seem to be riding. Then as your dreams come true, you can tell them to me. Let the horse be Paris in my fancies too, and London and the cities across the water.

The horse is still standing where he stopped when Nasrulla led him out from behind the trees with him. He faces toward the left, and Nasrulla is back of him. Nourmahal puts her foot into Nasrulla's hand, and he lifts her into the saddle. When she is comfortably seated, he stands beside her and in front of her, back of the horse, leaning against the horse's neck and caressing his shoulder.

King Nasrulla. Now we are on the road, and all the world is moving across the horizon. If it is all a dream, let me be in the dream.

Nourmahal (looking out and away from him and pausing a moment). Stories! Dreams!—What I have heard is only a whisper, but it seems so true and so beautiful. Somewhere a man loves one woman always and no other. Somewhere a king is not a manikin stalking through ceremonies. Somewhere he lives humanly as other men. Somewhere to-day is not like yesterday, and man has learned to break the cycle of what has been forever, of what seems dead and yet out of death comes back again and again. I have not seen it, but I know it. Somewhere you and I could be happy without being king or queen. Somewhere a woman thinks her own thoughts, and not the thoughts of her lord only. Somewhere men are not bound to a king, and somewhere kings are not bound to the words of their fathers' fathers.

King Nasrulla (slowly, after a pause). It is the way of the world, Nourmahal. What the world is, it is, and that is forever and ever, unless it should be the will of God to make a new world.

Nourmahal. A new world! (She pauses dreamily.) Yes, that is what I want, a new world. That is what men are making somewhere, I know it. That is what is in my heart, and the same thing must be in the hearts of other men and women. A new world! What would it be to wake up every morning with a fresh wonder, not knowing what the day would bring? What would it be every morning to take the saddle and follow a new road ahead of the sun?

King Nasrulla. If I could go with you——

Nourmahal. You have horses.

King Nasrulla. It is not so decreed. My place is here.

Nourmahal. Your place is here, and it is your place to have three or four queens as your ministers decide for you. One queen is to keep peace with the King of the South, another is to keep peace with the King of the West, and the third is to keep peace with the King of the East. The fourth queen you may choose for yourself from your own people—if you choose before some other king offers a daughter. You may make slaves of your queens so that your neighbor kings may make a slave of you.

King Nasrulla. Yes, if I would be king—and you would be queen.

Nourmahal. Queen!—in a world where the flowers that bloom to-day died centuries ago! Queen—in a world where queens may look out of grated windows and never walk the streets! Queen—in a world where My Lord the King may not come to my door too often lest the daughter of the King of the South put poison in the nectar that her slaves offer him to-morrow!

King Nasrulla. The world is the world, and its enduring is forever and ever. We are but shadows that change and break on the surface of running water. We may stand for a moment in the sun, but we cannot stop the rain that fills the stream. We cannot fix our images for a moment on the drops that are rushing out to the sea.

Nourmahal (looking away from him dreamily). "Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things Entire, Would we not shatter it to bits—and then Remould it nearer to the Heart's desire?"

He looks at her steadily, but she does not turn her head, and, while they are so silent a woman comes from the left with a water jar, fills it from the well, puts it on her head, and passes off again. The sun is now warming the tops of the mountains to a soft pink.

King Nasrulla. We must find the water where it flows—or go thirsty.

Nourmahal (more passionately). But somewhere the women do not carry water. The poet only thought of doing what somewhere men have done. Here a thousand years are but as yesterday and ten thousand as a watch in the night. I am not I, but an echo of the mad desires of dead men whose dust has been blown across the desert for countless centuries. Why should I not think of my own desires before my dust, too, flies forgotten before the passing caravans?

King Nasrulla. But you are to be my queen. Nothing more can anyone give you in Saranazett.

Nourmahal. And to-morrow or next week your ambassador to the King of the East comes back with letters and pledges of friendship. Perhaps he brings with him the King's daughter.

King Nasrulla. But she is only the official seal of a bond, only a hostage. She is not the rose that I pin over my heart. She is not the nightingale that I love to hear singing in my garden. She is not the face behind the lattice that draws my eager feet. She is not the fountain that will make me drink and drink again.

Nourmahal. But I shall not ride with you into the distance and leave the kings' daughters behind?

King Nasrulla. The King of the East——

Nourmahal. I know. The King of the East has a great army. I must stay in my garden, or I shall have to spend my life talking about the things he likes or dislikes, his angers and his fondnesses, with the women of his harem.

She puts her foot out for his hand, ready to be taken down from the horse.

King Nasrulla. Nourmahal!

Nourmahal. Yes, I must keep my veil before my face and stay within my garden.

He helps her down, and she turns the horse's head back to the right in the direction from which they came.

King Nasrulla. I shall take you, Nourmahal, and make you queen.

Nourmahal. Take me! Take the others and let them be queens. They will be happy enough, after the way of their mothers, but you cannot take the wind.

King Nasrulla. Being your lover is not ceasing to be king. May not the king ask of his subjects what he will? What is it to be king?

Nourmahal (turning as she is passing toward the gate). Sometimes it is making a fresher and happier world for those who come to kneel before the throne. Kings are not often so wise.

King Nasrulla. And when they are not so wise they think of their own happiness. They let love come into the palace, and the favorite queen has the riches of the earth heaped in jewels before her. The tenderness of the moon shines in the clasp of her girdle, and the splendor of the sun glitters in a circlet for her forehead.

Nourmahal. And sometimes, seeking their own pleasure, kings make the killing of those who are not kings their joy. They teach all men to be soldiers and all soldiers to be ruthless. Their women learn to delight in the echoes of battle, and the man who is not scarred by the marks of many fights they pity and despise. So women forget to be gentle, and the lords and masters of earth no longer watch over them and care for them, no longer shelter the weak and the defenseless, no longer think of right and justice, because they carry in their hands the javelins of might and they have learned to fling them far.

King Nasrulla. But I shall watch over you as the cloud watches over the garden where the roses are waiting for the rain.

Nourmahal. No, I shall not have a king to watch over me. Somewhere they have no kings. A queen dies daily with loneliness, or lives hourly in the burning hate of all her sister queens. To breathe the air where there are no queens would be an ecstasy. I will not be a king's first queen or his last queen or his concubine or any other creature whom he may cast aside for a new fancy whenever the fancy comes.

A messenger enters from the right, preceded by two attendants carrying each one of the long, melon-shaped lanterns that accompany royalty. The messenger bows before Nasrulla, dropping on one knee.

Messenger. Your Royal Highness, I am sent to beg that you will hear me.

King Nasrulla. It is my pleasure to listen to your message. Speak!

Messenger. It is not I speaking, Your Majesty, but your minister, Huseyn.

King Nasrulla. I listen to the words of Huseyn.

Messenger. Know, O Mighty Lord of the Great Center of Earth—the ambassador to the King of the East is reported returning by the long highway.

Nourmahal's father, Mehrab, comes out from the gate in the wall and stands listening.

King Nasrulla. Say to Huseyn that I will see him and make arrangements for his reception before nightfall.

Messenger. He brings very important tidings, Your Majesty. Pardon me, O Lord of the Lives of Your Servants. I speak but the words of Huseyn.

King Nasrulla. I hear the words of Huseyn.

Messenger. The ambassador should be received a early as may be, is the word of Huseyn. He knows the will of the King of the East, and the King of the East would know your will, O Mightiest of the Mighty.

Nourmahal (bowing to her knees before him). Let me beg of you also, King Nasrulla, that you give audience at once to the ambassador who comes with word from the King of the East.

King Nasrulla. I listen to the words of Nourmahal with the words of Huseyn.

Messenger. And I shall say to the Prime Minister Huseyn that His Majesty, the Lord of Everlasting Effulgence, will graciously consent to speak with him before the sun looks in at his image in the water jars.

Nourmahal. O King Nasrulla, for the sake of the rule that is thine from thy fathers, for the maintaining of peace in all thy borders, for the security of thy people, who harvest their hopes in fear, permit the approach of the ambassador who returns from the King of the East.

King Nasrulla. The wish of Nourmahal is a command. I go to make ready for the ambassador who comes with word from the King of the East.

Nourmahal. And for the daughter of the King of the East, give thanks, O King Nasrulla. It is said that she is very beautiful, and many wooers have sought her vainly. She has been kept for the joy and the splendor and the growing greatness of My Lord the King.

King Nasrulla. Announce my coming to my Prime Minister, Huseyn.

Messenger (rising). Your Noble Majesty is most gracious. I fly with your words to Huseyn.

King Nasrulla. As a king I go, but my thoughts are not a king's thoughts, and they stay here. It may be I shall look for them again, as one looks for love in his friend's heart at the home-returning. Farewell!

Nourmahal. I shall keep your thoughts forever, My Lord Nasrulla, but for the King and the ways of the King—farewell!

The two lantern carriers who have come with the messenger turn to the right to light the way for the King, and, as they pass off, he follows them. Nourmahal watches them until they are gone, while Mehrab, Nourmahal's father, comes forward slowly.

Mehrab. He threatened you, did he?

Nourmahal. Threaten! No, father, he did not threaten me.

Mehrab. Does he not mean to make you queen whether you wish to be or not?

Nourmahal. He will not dare.

Mehrab. I am only a merchant, only a dealer in figs and olives. I am not to be feared or considered by him or by those that are about him. It is the way of his kind to think that you are to be taken as he would take a pomegranate from the garden of one of his satraps.

Nourmahal. He will not take me.

Mehrab. They despise me because I go with the caravans, but I have learned something. I know the world. My camels have tracked the sands hundreds of miles from Saranazett, and there are places where the words of Nasrulla the King mean less than the words of Mehrab the merchant.

Nourmahal. They will have horses to follow us. Horses are swifter than camels.

Mehrab. We shall have horses too, and ours shall be the fleetest. The riders of the King's horses will put out their palms for my silver. They will know how to make their whips fall lightly.

Nourmahal (eagerly). Let us go to-morrow. Let us go before the daughter of the King of the East is carried in her palanquin to the palace. I want to see all the places where you have been. I want to know something of the strange things that you have seen.

Mehrab. The women of Saranazett have never traveled.

Nourmahal. But I will not be a woman of Saranazett. There are other worlds and other ways for me than the ways of Saranazett.

Mehrab. You shall not be queen one day and someone else queen in your place the next. I was not born to live in the world's high places, but also I was not born to bend the knee. You shall not suffer because you are not a king's daughter, and because those that are kings' daughters smile at you behind their curtains.

Nourmahal (more dreamily reluctant). If we could make Saranazett over into a new world.

Mehrab. A new world somewhere else, Nourmahal. The packs are being made ready for the camels. Have your women tie up your clothes as if they were bundles of figs. Day after to-morrow or the next day or the next, we shall take horse and follow. We shall go to a world that is an old, old world, wiser than our world, a world where men's thoughts are free and their women's eyes look wherever they will.

Nourmahal (passing to the gate). The women shall make ready.

Mehrab. At once, and tell Zuleika she goes with you.

Nourmahal. Zuleika shall make ready.

She passes out through the gate into the garden. Mehrab turns and sees the spikes driven into the wall by the tower. For a moment he looks at them in astonishment, observing that they pass down to the ground slopingly, and then, one by one, he pulls them out and flings them down on the ground violently.