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The Fair Persian by James Payn

 

To those young ladies and gentlemen who are acquainted with the Arabian Nights, I foresee that the title of my tale will at once cause to spring up in their recollection the adventure of Nourhadeen and his fair Persian; that a vision will instantly present itself to their gaze of singing trees and dancing fountains, of hanging gardens, and groves of palm, and purses of sequins; and I am sure they will thank me for having recalled to their minds (though I didn't mean to do it) remembrances so charming. To other little folks, on the other hand, who have not read the Arabian Nights, my story will have none the less attraction, since it has no more to do with Nourhadeen than with their excellent grandmother (if they happen to have one), and the fair Persian is not a "young person" at all.

How it all happened was thus: It was papa's birthday, you see, and the children knowing—clever creatures—exactly when it was coming, had prepared a surprise for him. They knew his tastes to a nicety, and had put their money together and bought the present that he would be sure to welcome most. Only he was not to know what it was to be; and yet it being "such fun" to hear him guess, he was allowed three chances, and if he guessed right he was to be told. Only you mightn't say, "You're burning" (which is the same as "you're near it," you know), or anything more to help him than this, namely, that the present was "half alive and half not," and that "one part of it was within the other."

Papa said that he would rather not have been helped in this way, as it did him more harm than good, by putting all probable things—the guesses he would naturally have made—out of the question. The children gave him one minute to guess in, and not till fifty-nine seconds had gone by did he utter a syllable, and then he only said, "I give it up."

They thought it rather stupid of dear papa, but then, you see, they knew, and he didn't, which makes an immense difference in guessing.

Then he asked them to give him "a light"—not a light for his cigar, of course, for all this took place in the drawing-room—but a hint as to what the present was. Then they said, which was a pretty broad one, that it was "a fair Persian;" but even then he couldn't guess. "I have never heard," he said, twiddling his watch chain, "of any fair Persian, except in connection with Nourhadeen, and she was not half alive and half not." "Very good," said Polly, who had given the biggest subscription, and had therefore the best right to speak; "it is plain to us, dear papa, that you want more prompting. When I tell you that Nourhadeen, in this case, is a little basket house, with a lovely red rug in it, that will let the cat out of the bag;" whereupon dear, clever papa guessed it was a Persian cat.

But it wasn't, for it was only a kitten.

It didn't look like a kitten, however, being, when rolled up and asleep, a mere round fluffy black ball, and, when awake, a little black bear, looked at through the wrong end of a telescope. It would have taken about ten thousand of it to have made a real bear, and even then it would have been a small bear, only its tail was by no means small, but a splendid article. Otherwise it was so very tiny that it lay upon its red rug like an ink spot on a piece of blotting-paper. It had a fine house of basket-work, just like what Robinson Crusoe built for himself for a summer residence, with a sloping roof, and a little door that fastened with a pin outside, when he wished to be private; and as every house which has not a number must have a name (so that the postman may know where to leave the letters), it was called Nourhadeen (because of the fair Persian), and the tenant of it was called Fluffy.

Of course, since a gift is a gift, it was papa's own Fluffy, but that did not prevent its being the pet of the whole house, baby included; and to see these two little creatures together was (almost) as good as a play. One was so black, and the other so pink and white, and yet both so soft and warm, and about equal as to talking. For though baby could babble, he couldn't purr, and though Fluffy could purr, she couldn't babble, while neither could stand up on their hind-legs for more than two seconds together.

But when it came to climbing, baby was nowhere. Fluffy was but three months old, but she was oftener on the roof of her house—where baby could never have got—than in it, while if dear mamma came near her, with her long flounces, Fluffy was on them at once, and stuck there like a hairy burr. That was the sad thing about Fluffy, she was such a gad-about, being everywhere where you didn't expect her to be; and so tiny that even when you did expect her, nobody knew she was there.

She was lost about ten times a day, and found in the most astonishing places. Once in mamma's work-box, where she was looked for, but not seen, being taken for a ball of worsted; and once in papa's shooting-jacket pocket, who took her to his office with him, under the impression that she was his seal-skin tobacco pouch.

Moreover, a very fashionable lady called one day, and took Fluffy right away with her, the poor little dear having clung to her mantle, and been amalgamated with its fur trimmings.

To say that dear papa was "weak" about the fair Persian is to take a very favorable view of his devotion to her; but dear mamma said it was "quite ridiculous to make such a fuss about a kitten"—and never herself lost a chance of picking it up and fondling it in her arms. The rest of the family were described by their cousin Charley, who lived over the way, as "sunk in the Persian superstition," and even as "addicted to nigger worship"—an allusion to Fluff's sable hue.

And now comes the best part of the story, which is, of course, the "creepy-crawly" and horrible part.

Cousin Charley had a mastiff dog called Jumbo, ever so high and ever so huge, with great hanging chaps (which are pronounced chops, you know) on both sides of his jaws. If you never saw him open his mouth, I can scarcely give you any idea of it; but if you have seen pictures of Vesuvius during an eruption, think of the crater. It was said by his master that Jumbo would never hurt a fly, but that was not the point with those who were not flies, and all these stood in great fear of him. It is very little satisfaction to one who meets an elephant in his morning's walk, in a narrow way, to have read that that creature is the most gentle of mammals (or mammoths); and similarly there was no knowing what catastrophe might not take place from the presence of Jumbo, though he might not mean to bring it about. He was positively too tremendous for society; while, out-of-doors, I never knew a dog so respected—and avoided—by other dogs.

To see Jumbo and Fluff together was to behold the meeting of two extremes of the animal creation; the introduction of the King of Brobdingnag to the Princess of Lilliput, or of Chang, the Chinese giant, to Mrs. General Tom Thumb. Yet, if you will believe me, on Jumbo's first appearance on our drawing-room rug, Fluff scampered up to him (all on one side, as usual) and hung on to his tail! The moment was one of terrible suspense, not only to her, but to the spectators generally, except Charley, who said, "Oh, Jumbo won't mind," which might or might not have been the case; for it is my fixed conviction that that noble animal was totally unaware of what was taking place, so to speak, behind his back, and to this hour is ignorant of the indignity that was put upon him.

One Sunday morning, in midwinter, Jumbo called without his master, and walked into the back parlor without being announced; there was no living creature there except himself and Fluff, and when the family entered the room there was only Jumbo. They looked everywhere for his late (yes, his late) companion; but she had vanished. Whither? To this vital question it seemed to their horrified minds that there was but one reply; it was in vain for Jumbo to assume an indifferent air, as though he would say, "How should I know?" The accusation that trembled on every lip was, "The dog has swallowed her." He looked about the same size as usual, but that was nothing; fifty Fluffs would not have made any external difference. One of his chaps, indeed, seemed to hang a little lower than usual, but she was not there. He yawned—nobody believed in that; it was just what a dog would do, conscious of crime and assuming unconcern—and everybody shuddered. What might not that enormous throat have swallowed, and thought nothing of it? Messengers were dispatched at once for Charley, who came and cross-examined the animal; but he only shook his head and wagged his tail. These actions might have been proofs of his innocence if Fluff had still been with us, but as it was, it only showed his callousness—the callousness of cannibalism.

All sat round Jumbo in a circle, and listened in solemn silence. Even the tiniest mew of farewell would have been welcome, but it was not vouchsafed. Nothing was heard but the thumping of that wicked tail (to which they had once seen Fluffy cling) upon the bear-skin rug on which they had so often lost her. She was not there now, for they took it up and shook it. She was not in the envelope case upon the writing-table; nor in the coal-scuttle, for they took the coals out one by one, to be quite sure; nor in the work-box, for it was Sunday, and it was not there; nor up the curtains, for they examined them with "the steps"; nor up the chimney, for the fire was alight; nor in either of papa's boots, which were set on the fender to get warm. She was gone from their sight like a beautiful dream, though still, alas! in a manner, present.

Dear papa was the first to recover from the catastrophe. "Whatever has taken place, my dears," said he, "we must go to church; the last bell is already ringing."

Dear mamma sighed, and took the hands of the two youngest children, leaving her muff to hang from her neck by its ribbon. She felt that in that hour of trouble the clasp of her fingers would be a comfort to them.

"FLUFF'S LITTLE BLACK FACE PRESENTED ITSELF."—Drawn by A. B. Frost. "FLUFF'S LITTLE BLACK FACE PRESENTED ITSELF."—Drawn by A. B. Frost.

The whole family walked together like a funeral procession, and they could see the neighbors draw long faces, under the impression that there had been some fatal domestic calamity to account for such looks of woe. Even Charley was affected, though he could hardly believe even yet in his favorite's guilt, while Jumbo came behind with his tail between his legs—either from the stings of conscience, or because he knew he would be left as usual at the church door.

I am afraid the thoughts of some of the little party wandered a little, during the first part of the service, in the supposed direction in which Fluff had gone; but the sermon riveted their attention. They wished sincerely Jumbo could have been there to hear it, for it was upon cruelty to animals. It had just begun, and dear mamma had for the first time got rid of her books and placed her hands in her muff, when she drew them sharply out again and turned very red. At the same time a piteous little mew pervaded the sanctuary. At home we could not have heard it a yard away, but the church, being built for sound, developed those delicate notes. At the same time all the people on the right hand of the aisle began to smile. Fluff's little black face had presented itself at that end of the muff. Dear mamma hastened to close it up with her hand, and then all the people on the left hand of the aisle began to smile. Fluff's little black face had peered out at the other end. Then dear mamma, in desperation, put in both her hands, and then the imprisoned Fluff began to mew indeed. "How hard must that heart be," said the clergyman, going on with his subject, "who would ill use an innocent, helpless kitten!" "Like me, like me," said Fluff, or so it seemed to say, in its piteous way. The people in both aisles fixed their eyes on dear mamma, who in vain pretended to be rapt in the sermon; they knew very well by this time what was wrapped in her muff, and in the end dear mamma had to go. The denunciations of the clergyman against cruel people followed her down the aisle, and were supposed, no doubt, by those who didn't know her, to have a personal application, for Fluff was mewing all the way. It was altogether a most terrible business. What all the family felt, however, when they got home, was that an apology was, in the first place, due to Jumbo for the imputation on his character, and it was offered (on a plate of beef bones) in the amplest manner, and accepted in a similar spirit.