13. The Forty Wise Men
Many years ago, there lived and worked for the welfare of the people, an organized body of men. All that we know of them today, through our fathers, is that their forefathers chose from among them the wisest, most sincere, and experienced forty men. These forty were named the Forty Wise Men. When one of the forty passed away 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.
Not only did they administer justice to the oppressed, and give to the needy; but their very existence had the most beneficial effect on the community. Because each competed with the other to be worthy of being nominated for the vacancy when it occurred. No-one was too low to be admitted, no-was too high to become one of the ‘Forty.’ Here all were equal.
In the town of Scutari, over the way, there lived a Dervish. His advice to the rash was always good, 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 remained patient, contenting himself with the idea that the day would come when the merit of his actions would be recognized by God. 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 fulfill, consulted as to whom they should call to aid them in their work. A decision was made in favor of the Dervish. They considered how he had worked 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, and one to speak was named, and with the blessing of their brethren, for success, they entered a boat and were rowed to Scutari. Arriving at the Dervish’s gate, the spokesman addressed the would-be member of the Forty Wise Men:
“Brother your actions have been noted and we come to put a proposition to you, which, after consideration you will either accept or reject as you think best. We would ask you to become one of us. We are sent here 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 fulfill. And it is the desire of the one hundred and thirty-eight souls to add to us you, in order to complete our number of laborers in the flesh. Brother, your duties, which will be everlasting, you will learn when with us. Consider it, and we will return at the setting of the sun of the third day, to receive your 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 the spokesman answered, “Brother, you have spoken well.”Brother, first of all your possessions must be sold and turned into gold. Every earthly possession you have must be represented by a piece of gold. Therefore see to that; we have other duties to fulfill, but will return before the sun sets in the west.”
The Dervish set about selling all his goods; and at the closing of the day, he had disposed of everything and stood waiting with nothing but a sack of gold.
The three wise men returned, and, on seeing the Dervish, said, “Brother, you have done well. Let us go.”
A boat was waiting, and the four entered. Silently the boat glided over the smooth surface of the river, and the occupants sat in silence. After some time, the spokesman, turning to the Dervish, said, “Brother, give me that sack, representing everything you possess in this world.”
The Dervish handed the sack as he was told, and the wise man solemnly rose, and holding it up high, said, “With the blessing of our brother Mustapha,” and dropped it where the current is strongest. Then, sitting down, resumed his silence.
Before long the boat was brought to the shore, the four men made their way up the steep hill. 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. Round this hall were forty boxes of the same shape and size.
Our friend stood in the centre of the hall. He was afraid to breathe. He did not know whether to be happy or sad, for having come so far.
As he stood there thinking, one of the curtains was raised, and there came out a very old man, his white beard all but touching his belt.
Solemnly and slowly he walked over to the opposite side, and following him came thirty-eight more, the last apparently being the youngest.
Chill after chill went coursing down the spine of the astonished would-be brother, while 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 did he hear 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 bow, 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 raised the curtain, but before vanishing, turned (it was the spokesman), and whispered, “Brother, 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 went. At last they arrived, 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 the words of the brother spokesman acted upon the Dervish like magic. He raised his foot to the parapet, and, in faltering decision, jumped up two or three times. He jumped once, twice, three times, but each time fell backward instead of forward. He hesitated again. 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.
As he stood the curtain moved, and the old man entered, and as before, the silence was unbroken. Again each took his place beside a box, again the old man bowed, with the simultaneous response of the others. Again they gestured 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, the identical bag of gold that had been dropped into the river 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 nothing, he knew nothing.
Coming forward, the spokesman spoke to the Dervish, “Friend and brother in the flesh, but weak in spirit, you have proved yourself unworthy to give that which you have not yourself,—Faith!
“Go back into the world, back to your brothers; you cannot not be one of us. One hundred and thirty-nine in the spirit have regretfully judged you as lacking in faith, and not having a sheltered apartment within yourself, you cannot not shelter others. No man can give that which he does not have.
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.