By Hilaire Belloc
CHAPTER I ENTITLED “AL-RAFSAT”, OR “THE KICK”
In the days of Abd-er-Rahman, who was among the wisest and most glorious of the Commanders of the Faithful, there resided in the City of Bagdad an elderly merchant of such enormous wealth that his lightest expressions of opinion caused the markets of the Euphrates to fluctuate in the most alarming manner.
This merchant, whose name was Mahmoud, had a brother in the middle ranks of Society, a surgeon by profession, and by name El-Hakim. To this brother he had frequently expressed a fixed determination to leave him no wealth of any kind. “It is my opinion,” he would say, “that a man’s first duty is to his own children, and though I have no children myself, I must observe the general rule.” He was fond of dilating upon this subject whenever he came across his relative, and would discover from time to time new and still better reasons for the resolution he had arrived at. His brother received with great courtesy the prospect held out to him by the wealthy merchant; but one day, finding tedious the hundredth repetition of that person’s pious but somewhat wearisome resolve, said to him:
“Mahmoud, though it would be a mean and even an impious thing to expect an inheritance from you to any of my seven sons, yet perhaps you will allow these boys to receive from your lips some hint as to the manner in which you have accumulated that great wealth which you now so deservedly enjoy.”
“By all means,” said Mahmoud, who was ever ready to describe his own talents and success. “Send the little fellows round to me to-morrow about the hour the public executions take place before the Palace, for by that time I shall have breakfasted, and shall be ready to receive them.”
The Surgeon, with profuse thanks, left his brother and conveyed the good news to the seven lads, who stood in order before him with the respect for parents customary in the Orient, each placed according to his size and running in gradation from eight to sixteen years of age.
Upon the morrow, therefore, the Surgeon’s seven sons, seated gravely upon crossed legs, formed a semi-circle at the feet of their revered relative, who, when he had watched them humorously and in silence for some moments, puffing at his great pipe, opened his lips and spoke as follows:
“Your father has wondered, my dear nephews, in what way the fortune I enjoy has been acquired; for in his own honourable but far from lucrative walk of life, sums which are to me but daily trifles appear like the ransoms of kings. To you, his numerous family, it seems of especial advantage that the road to riches should be discovered. Now I will confess to you, my dear lads, that I am quite ignorant of any rule or plan whereby the perishable goods of this world may be rapidly accumulated in the hands of the Faithful. Nay, did any such rule exist, I am persuaded that by this time the knowledge of it would be so widely diffused as to embrace the whole human race. In which case,” he added, puffing meditatively at his pipe, “all would cancel out and no result would be achieved; since a great fortune, as I need not inform young people of your sagacity, is hardly to be acquired save at the expense of others.
“But though I cannot give you those rules for which your father was seeking when he sent you hither, I can detail you the steps by which my present affluence was achieved; and each of you, according to his intelligence, will appreciate what sort of accidents may make for the increase of fortune. When you are possessed of this knowledge it will serve you through life for recreation and amusement, though I very much doubt its making you any richer. For it is not the method nor even the opportunity of intelligent acquisition which lead to great riches, but two other things combined: one, the unceasing appetite to snatch and hold from all and at every season; the other, that profound mystery, the Mercy of God.
“For Allah, in his inscrutable choice, frowns on some and smiles on others. The first he condemns to contempt, anxiety, duns, bills, Courts of law, sudden changes of residence and even dungeons; the second he gratifies with luxurious vehicles, delicious sherbet and enormous houses, such as mine. His will be done.
“A dear friend of mine, one Mashé, was a receiver of stolen goods in Bosra, until God took him, now twenty years ago. He left two sons of equal intelligence and rapacity. The one, after numerous degradations, died of starvation in Armenia; the other, of no greater skill, is to-day governor of all Algeirah and rings the changes at will upon the public purse. Mektub.”
For a moment the ancient Captain of Industry paused with bent head in solemn meditation upon the designs of Heaven, then raising his features protested that he had too long delayed the story of his life, with which he would at once proceed.