Told in the Coffee House: Turkish Tales | Annotated Tale

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Forty Wise Men, The

ON A day amongst the many days, when the Turk was more earnest than now, before the Europeans came and gave new ideas to our children, there lived and labored for the welfare of our people an organized body of men. At whose suggestion this society was formed I know not. All that we know of them to-day, through our fathers, is that their forefathers chose from among them the most wise, sincere, and experienced forty brethren. These forty were named the Forty Wise Men. When one of the forty was called away from his labors here, perhaps to continue them in higher spheres, or to receive his reward, who knows? the remaining thirty-nine consulted and chose from the community him whom they thought capable, and worthy of guiding and of being guided, to add to their number. They lived and held their meetings in a mosque of which little remains now, the destructive hand of time having left it but a battered dome, with cheerless walls and great square holes, where once were iron bars and stained glass. It has gone--so have the wise men. But its foundations are solid, and they may in time come to support an edifice dedicated to noble work, and, Inshallah, the seed of the Forty Wise Men will also bear fruit in the days that are not yet.

               You will say, what good did this body of men do? These men who always numbered forty were, as I have told you, originally chosen by the people, and when one of the forty departed from his labors here, the remaining thirty-nine consulted together and from the most worthy of the community they chose another member.

               What was the good of this body of men? Great, great, my friends. Not only did they administer justice to the oppressed, and give to the needy substantial aid; but their very existence had the most beneficial effect on the community. Why? you ask. Because each vied with the other to be worthy of being nominated for the vacancy when it occurred. No station in life was too low to be admitted, no station was too high for one of the faithful to become one of the 'Forty.' Here all were equal. As Allah himself doth consider mankind by deeds, so also mankind was considered by the Forty Wise Men, who presided over the welfare and smoothed the destiny of the children of Allah. With their years, their wisdom grew, and they were blessed by Allah.

               In the town of Scutari, over the way, there lived and labored a Dervish. His counsel to the rash was ever ready, his sole object, apparently, in life was to become one of the Forty Wise Men, who presided over the people and protected them from all ills.

               The years went on, and still without a reward he patiently labored, no doubt contenting himself with the idea that the day would come when the merit of his actions would be recognized by Allah. That was a mistake, my friends; true faith expecteth nothing. However, the day did come, and the Dervish's great desire had every appearance of being realized. One of the Forty Wise Men having accomplished his mission on earth, departed this life. The remaining thirty-nine, who still had duties to fulfil, consulted as to whom they should call to aid them in their work. A eulogy was pronounced in favor of the Dervish. They not unjustly considered how he had labored among the poor in Scutari; ever ready to help the needy, ever ready to counsel the rash, ever ready to comfort and encourage the despairing. It was decided that he should be nominated. A deputation consisting of three, two to listen, one to speak, was named, and with the blessing of their brethren, for success, they entered a caique and were rowed to Scutari. Arriving at the Dervish's gate, the spokesman thus addressed the would-be member of the Forty Wise Men:

               "Brother in the flesh, thy actions have been noted, and we come to put a proposition to thee, which, after consideration, thou wilt either accept or reject as thou thinkest best for all interested therein. We would ask thee to become one of us. We are sent hither by, and are the representatives of, the sages who preside over the people. Brother, we number in all one hundred and thirty-eight in spirit;--ninety-nine, having accomplished their task in the flesh, have departed; thirty-nine, still in the flesh, endeavor their duty to fulfil. And it is the desire of the one hundred and thirty-eight souls to add to us thyself, in order to complete our number of laborers in the flesh. Brother, thy duties, which will be everlasting, thou wilt learn when with us. Do thou consider, and we will return at the setting of the sun of the third day, to receive thy answer."

               And they turned to depart. But the Dervish stopped them, saying: "Brothers, I have no need to consider the subject for three days, seeing that my inmost desire for thirty years, and my sole object in life has been to become worthy of being one of you. In spirit I have long been your brother, in the flesh it is easy to comply, seeing that it has been the spirit's desire."

               Then answered the spokesman: "Brother, thou hast spoken well. Allah, thou art with us in our choice; we praise Thee. Brother, one word! Our ways are different to all men's ways; thou hast but to have faith, and all is well."

               "Brethren, faith! I have had faith; my faith is now even strengthened. I do your bidding."

               "Brother, first of all thy worldly goods must be disposed of and rendered into gold. Every earthly possession thou hast must be represented by a piece of gold. Therefore see to that; we have other duties to fulfil, but will return ere the sun sets in the west."

               The Dervish set about selling all his goods; and when the coloring of the sky in the west harbingered the closing of the day, he had disposed of everything and stood waiting with naught but a sack of gold.

               The three wise men returned, and, on seeing the Dervish, said: "Brother, thou hast done well; we will hence."

               A caique was in waiting, and the four entered. Silently the caique glided over the smooth surface of the Bosphorus; and silently the occupants sat. When beyond Maidens' Tower, the spokesman, turning to the Dervish, said: "Brother, with thy inmost blessing give me that sack, representing everything thou dost possess in this world."

               The Dervish handed the sack as he was bidden, and the wise man solemnly rose, and holding it on high, said: "With the blessing of our brother Mustapha," and dropped it where the current is strongest. Then, sitting down, resumed his silence. The deed was done, and nothing outward told the story; the Caiquedji dipped his oars, and the waves rippled as soft as before. Nothing but the distant, soothing cry of the Muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer, now waxing, now waning, now completely dying away as they moved around the minarets, broke the stillness.

               Ere long the boat was brought to the shore, the four men wended their way up the steep hill, and the horizon, wrapped in the mantle of night, hid them from the boatman's sight. A few minutes' walk brought them to the mosque of the Forty Wise Men; the spokesman turned to the Dervish, and said: "Brother, faithfully follow," and then passed through the doorway. They entered a large, vaulted chamber, the ceiling of which was artistically inlaid with mosaïques, and the floor covered with tiles of the ceramic art of bygone ages. From the centre hung a large chandelier holding a number of little oil cups, each shedding its tiny light, as if to show that union was strength. Round this chandelier were seven brass filagreed, hemispherical-shaped lanterns, holding several oil burners. These many tiny burners gave a soothing, contented, though undefined light, which, together with the silence, added to the impressiveness of the place. Round this hall were forty boxes of the same shape and size.

               Our friend stood in the centre of the hall and under the influence of the scene, he was afraid to breathe; he did not know whether to be happy or sad, for having come so far.

               As he stood thus thinking, dreaming, one of the curtains was raised, and there came forth a very old man, his venerable white beard all but touching his girdle.

               Solemnly and slowly he walked over to the opposite side, and following in his train came thirty-eight more, the last apparently being the youngest.

               Chill after chill went coursing down the spinal cord of the astonished would-be brother, whilst these men moved about in the unbroken silence, as if talking to invisible beings; now embracing, now clasping hands, now bidding farewell.

               The Dervish closed his eyes, opened them, Were these things so? Yes, it was no dream, no hallucination. Yet why heard he no sound?

               Each of the brethren now took his place beside a box, but there was one vacancy; no one stood at the side of the box to the left of the youngest brother. Making a profound salaam, which all answered, the old man silently turned, raised the curtain, and passed into the darkness, each in his order following. As one in a trance, the Dervish watched one after another disappear. The last now raised the curtain, but before vanishing, turned (it was the spokesman), and whispered: "Brother, faith, follow!" and stepped into the darkness.

               These words acted upon the Dervish like a spell; he followed.

               Up, up, the winding stairway of a minaret they go. At last they arrive, and to the horror of the Dervish, what does he see? One, two, three, disappear over the parapet, and his friend the spokesman, with: "Brother, faith, follow!" also vanished into the inky darkness.

               Again at the eleventh hour did the cheering words of the brother spokesman act upon the Dervish like magic, he raised his foot to the parapet, and, in faltering decision, jumped up two or three times. But man's guardian does not lead him over the rugged paths of life; he gives the impulse and you must go. So it was with the Dervish. He jumped once, twice, thrice, but each time fell backward instead of forward. My friends, he hesitated again; at the eleventh hour he was encouraged, but undecided--he was not equal to the test. So, with a great weight on his heart, he descended the winding stairs of the minaret. He had reached his zenith only in desire, and was now on his decline.

               Lamenting, like a weak mortal that he was, for not having followed, he again entered the hall he had just left, with the intention, no doubt, of departing.

               But the charm of the place was on him again, and as he stood the curtain moved, and the old man advanced; and as before, the silence was unbroken. Again did each take his place beside a box, again did the old man salaam, with the simultaneous response of the others. Again did they gesture as if talking to invisible beings of some calamity which had befallen them which they all regretted.

               The old man went and opened the box that stood alone. From this he took, what? the identical bag of gold that had been dropped into the Bosphorus some hours ago. The spokesman came forward and took it from the hand of the old man. The Dervish now no longer believed that he was he himself, and that these things were taking place. He understood not, he knew not.

               Coming forward, the spokesman thus addressed the spell-bound Dervish, his voice giving a strange echo, as if his words were emphasized by a hundred invisible mouths:

               "Friend and brother in the flesh, but weak of the spirit, thou hast proved thyself unworthy to impart that which thou hast not thyself,--Faith! Thine actions hitherto, of seeming conviction, have not been for the eye of the Almighty, the All-seeing, the All-powerful alone, but for the approbation of mankind. To get this approbation thou hast soared out of thine element; the atmosphere is too rarified, thou canst not live, thou must return!

               "Get thee back into the world, back to thy brothers; thou canst not be one of us. One hundred and thirty-nine in the spirit have regretfully judged thee as lacking in faith, and not having a sheltered apartment within thyself, thou canst not shelter others. No man can bequeath that which he hath not. Go thy way, and in secret build thee a wall, brick by brick, action by action; let none see thy place but the eye that seeth all, lest a side, when all but completed, fall, and thou art again exposed to the four winds. Take thy money, thine all, and when hesitation interrupts, offer a prayer in thy heart, and then faithfully follow! Farewell!"

               And the Dervish was led out into the street, a lone and solitary man; he had his all in his hand--a bag of gold.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Forty Wise Men, The
Tale Author/Editor: Adler, Cyrus & Ramsay, Allan
Book Title: Told in the Coffee House: Turkish Tales
Book Author/Editor: Adler, Cyrus & Ramsay, Allan
Publisher: Macmillan & Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1898
Country of Origin: Turkey
Classification: unclassified

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