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Harun Al-Rashid, Caliph of Bagdad by  Gabriel Audisio

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AN ARABIAN NIGHT OF KINGS

[34] SO IT came about that Hadi, the Director, became the next Commander of the Faithful. Harun must needs content himself with the title of heir. His mother, who could not endure being in the background, accepted the situation less calmly. She was still hopeful of regaining her lost prestige and did not intend giving ground in the least. She grew still more ostentatious and her personal expenses were enormous. Her house was a rendezvous not only for guests of assured position but also for social climbers and throngs of the nobility whose pomp outshone that of the imperial palace. She would receive her guests, stretched out on silken cushions of her divan and surrounded by some of the most illustrious princesses of the race of Hashim. Each morning her admirers came to her bedchamber to salute her and lay gifts at her feet. She intrigued continually at court and even donned male clothing. It was a dangerous game.

Makers of epigrams warned her: "Softly, Khai- [35] zuran, slowly. Let your son govern." But the Agrippina of Bagdad paid not heed. She loved danger, and after all the Caliph was only her son. He might be tall as Hercules, with the hips of a camel and strong as a bull, yet he could not intimidate his mother. She had dominated Mandi and never dreamed that his son, this young sovereign of twenty-five, would ever venture to dispute her authority. Not so long ago he had been a big boy with a hanging lower lip which had brought him the nickname of "Musa-close-your-mouth." He had changed, and it was quite evident that he was on edge with annoyance. Yet at first he could not bring himself to take a stand against her. He began by treating her with great deference and granted all her requests.

Harun, meantime, conducted himself with discretion. The prudent Yahia was always at his elbow. "Patience and stratagem," he advised. The tutor restrained all evidence of eagerness on the part of his pupil. Let him learn to wait; the horoscope of the dead Caliph had predicted a short reign for Hadi. He counselled Harun to resign himself to worldly pleasures and the joys of family life, of the harem. He was to go on walks, play games, take part in the chase. Every one, the sovereign in particular, must be impressed with [36] the heir's indifference regarding the succession to the throne. It was like Henry of Navarre's ruse at the court of France on the eve of Saint Bartholomew. The role demanded poise.

Hadi remembered that horoscope also, and its prediction haunted him. "My reign will be short," he told himself, sweating with anguish. "What dangerous plots might Harun not be hatching against me even now?" His brother's seeming devotion only partially hoodwinked him. At times his harassed nerves were too much for him. "You are dwelling on that dream too much, Harun," he said to him one day. "Take care, one must first pull the thorns from the tragacanth."

This was rather embarrassing for Harun, but he did not wink an eyelash. Even better, he smiled, joked, appeased his brother, patting him on the back and promising him no end of wonders. The big fellow was relieved and touched. Licking his short upper lip, he would fatuously thank this fond brother of his. More, he showered him with gifts and accorded him unaccustomed honors such as the privilege of riding his horse up to the very throne.

Unhappy rulers they, who can never think of the morrow without apprehension, who never cease to tremble for their lives, whose first thought [37] on awakening is: "My father was assassinated, the father of my father was assassinated " Seeking to escape fear, they indulge sometimes in low pleasures or in cruelties. If their own lives are in jeopardy, they wish at least to perpetuate the dignity of their reign, to bequeath their power to their sons and, chiefly, to destroy the vultures who are waiting for the death which they are plotting.

Hadi was no exception to this rule. He had a son, a mere infant. Suspicious and pressed for time, he resolved to deprive Harun of his right to the succession in favor of this boy. He held the trump cards—his entourage of ministers, lawyers, court officials—all but the ace, whose powerful support was essential—Yahia the Barmecide. He tried to buy him. The sum of twenty thousand dinars is mentioned in this connection. Yahia was not to be purchased or won over. Perhaps it was pride, perhaps guile.

The Barmecide was familiar with the men and kings. He knew it would do no good to change horses; he preferred to continue with the one on which he had staked all. He was clever, however, and did not give himself away. When he refused his support of Hadi, he gave the impression that it [38] was in the interest of the sovereign and his plan. He was subtle and sounded plausible.

"Prince of the Faithful," he admonished the Caliph, "think of the precedent that you would create in thus breaking a vow which binds the people to your brother. Should the throne, God grant otherwise, happen to become vacant, how difficult it would be to have the election of a baby confirmed! Would it not be wiser to leave Rashid his title while entrusting the regency to him until the majority of your son? May God overwhelm him with benefits! You are well aware of your brother's devotion, fidelity and honor. He would not fail, may God be his witness, to yield the throne at the proper time to him who is the little apple of your eye, the splendor of day, the light of the Faith."

Yahia went on and on in this wise, but finally the Caliph could be duped no longer. This man reasoned too well, he thought, and became more suspicious than ever. It was now his turn to feign confidence while secretly calculating a method of arriving at his ends by fair means or foul.

In the first place, he had had enough of his mother, who arrogated all rights to herself. He was weary of her guardianship. He was the ruler, and he wanted to prove it to her. She must be [39] shown her place, made to do the work of women. She must learn that he was master in the palace. He wished to humiliate her in such a way that she would lose her prestige forever.

The occasion for this was not long in coming. Khaizuran was always wanting something, favors for some protege, sinecures for her favorites. One day she sought an audience with her son. He had been waiting for this moment and enjoyed in advance the spectacle he meant to make of her. Her object was to request an official post for one of her followers, and she had not the slightest doubt that her mission would be successful. To her utter amazement Hadi stood out steadfastly against her. He was so calm that she was misled and thought it only necessary to assume an authoritative tone.

"You absolutely must consent," she said. "I have promised this post to Abdallah and I wish you to give it to him at once."

This was going too far. Hadi, unable to contain himself any longer, burst out: "A plague on this son of a strumpet! I shall not grant him the post!"

Khairzuran played the wounded mother. "God knows, then, that I shall never ask anything of you again."

[40] "God knows also that it will not worry me," replied her son in an insolent tone.

The mother paled. This lummox whom she despised thought himself stronger than she. Rage stifled her. She rose abruptly to go, her attendants flattening against the inscribed tiles behind them, and more silent.

"Wait!" cried this man who, since ruler of nations, intended also to rule his mother. "Wait, and attend carefully to what I have to say. Listen also, you who stand about us! I deny my descent from the Prophet if I ever go back on what I am about to say. If any one among my generals, followers, or servants intercedes for this woman or aids her in any way, he shall lose his head, and all his belongings shall be confiscated. Now, let who will, disobey me and curse on him who opens his mouth! Go home, woman, and keep your hands busy with your spindle, study your Koran, and pray in your room—alone! Go!"

Thus war was declared openly. But Khaizuran was not a woman to let herself be defeated without a struggle. Her affection for Harun was now drowned in an all-absorbing hatred for Hadi who, on his side, was resolved to stop at nothing to put his parent in her place. He first attempted to force Harun's renunciation of his rights; then, [41] failing in this, finally decided to free himself once and for all from those who stood in his way. He even tried to do away with his mother and ordered a certain dish of rice served to her. Fortunately for her, she happened to leave it untasted. Yahia, that minister of the soft speech and high sounding phrases, was thrown into prison. After some time had elapsed an order was given one evening that he be killed before dawn.

All would have been over for Khaizuran then and there had she not acted instantly. With her colleague Yahia out of the way, there was no hope for her and Harun. This indefatigable creature did not lose a moment. The royal family were all, at the time, at Isabad, near Mosul, in the House of Peace, built by Mandi. The perfumed summer night was warm and heady. The young Caliph was in his harem, surrounded by slave girls. They seemed unusually beautiful that evening as they danced about him, their henna-tipped fingers like red fruits and their mouths like the seal of Solomon. Their teeth were white as alabaster and their figures flexible as willow wands. They danced about him like fluttering doves. The perfumes of their scented bodies and the ambrosial fragrance of their breath made his senses reel. Drugged and wearied from so much [42] voluptuousness, Hadi sank into a blissful doze. Then the beautiful houris, carrying out Khaizuran's instructions, buried the Caliph's face under quantities of feather cushions and as his powerful lungs still continued to function, they sat on top of the soft pile until his heart stopped beating.

It was Thursday, the fifteenth of September, 786. Hadi had reigned but one year.

Further details of the plot developed during the night. A feverish haste animated the conspirators. A few of the Faithful hurried to Harun and placed the dead Caliph's ring upon his finger. Yahia was released from prison. The small son of Hadi was rudely wakened from his sleep, pulled from his bed and forced, before witnesses, to renounce his pretensions to the throne, swear allegiance to his uncle Harun and formally release from their obligations to him all of his father's followers. He was then carried off to prison.

Without further delay Harun was invested with the insignia of the caliphate and proclaimed Commander of the Faithful. Hurriedly he prepared the official prayers for his brother's funeral. Emissaries were sent to Bagdad and the provinces not only to announce his advent to the throne [43] and to exact the homage due him, but to spread a plausible version of Hadi's death. Accidental, of course. Then he gave orders to have one of Hadi's closest friends, who had once humiliated him, put to death; a mere matter of routine for an incoming monarch.

Some one came running, at that moment, with the news of a son just born to the new Caliph. A happy climax to this glorious—this truly Arabian—night of kings: one Caliph dead, another ascending the throne and a third just coming into the world! So it was that Harun al-Rashid, the Well-directed, if not by God, at least by his mother, set out upon his immortal road of power and glory.


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