ATTAR OF ROSES
The gardens of Damascus are full of roses; the damask rose takes its name from the city, while among the strange and ancient things still manufactured in the town is attar of roses. As my wife and I wished to purchase some of this perfume, we were taken by the dragoman to a certain merchant who was to be found in a fragrant corner of the bazaar. His shop was full of pleasant things, things agreeable to smell, to eat, and to look upon. The merchant was a handsome, staid, and venerable man who conducted his business with great solemnity and made of a common transaction a picturesque ceremonial. He had piercing black eyes and a grey beard trimmed with the utmost nicety. He was tall and very thin. On his head was a turban of white and gold cloth folded around a crimson skull-cap. He wore a mouse-grey waistcoat of abnormal length, the same being edged with innumerable buttons. Over the vest was a long, mouse-grey, academic robe lined with brown fur. He was so dignified and courtly a man that to buy of him seemed to be little less than purchasing a cake of soap from the chancellor of a university arrayed in his full robes of office.
The merchant sent for two stools and motioned us to sit down in the roadway before the shop. This we did with as much awe as if we were about to take part in some occult rites. He then handed each of us a lump of sweetmeat, as if to keep us quiet, and in a moment we felt that we were about ten years old. From a gap in the wall he drew out an ancient box which he opened with a curious key. If a smoke had come out when the lid was raised, and had turned into a genie, I should hardly have been surprised. In the box was something wrapped up in silk. He proceeded to unwind it with precision, and in time revealed a glass bottle full of what appeared to be tallow.
The day was cold and the dragoman explained that attar of roses became solid at a low temperature. The dragoman was our connecting link with the outer world, and from him I had ascertained (in a whisper such as would be proper to a question asked in church) that the attar was sold by the drop, and that the price of each minim was equal to about three-half pence. I could no more have dared to discuss halfpence with this grave Arabian than to have asked an archbishop in his vestments for a penny stamp. I whispered that I wished to have a hundred drops.
The merchant now produced a candle, and beckoned to him a boy who appeared to emerge from the earth like a familiar spirit. Without a word the boy took the candle over to a charcoal fire burning in a shop on the other side of the way, and brought it back lighted.
The old man then proceeded to warm the bottle over the candle in order to melt the contents. It was an interesting process. The candle was not visible to us as we sat—the shop was dark, being almost like a cave in a cliff, so that the fine, sharply cut features of the old man were illumined as if from some crucible fire. His face and the delicate feminine hand that held the bottle stood out against the gloom with a supernatural glow. He became at once an Eastern alchemist. Strange reflections were thrown upon the wall, the shadow of the turban took the form of a giant head, wondrous things appeared on the shelves that I had not noticed before, while curious flashes of light played over the bottle as he rotated it in his hand. The bottle might have held the Elixir of Life.
The silence of the old man and his intense watching of the vial became almost oppressive. At last the attar was melted, and then, standing erect in the faint light of the recess, he proceeded to drop one hundred drops into a tiny bottle that he produced—as he produced all things—from one of the invisible cupboards with which he was surrounded. This was also a solemn process, for, as each drop fell, he counted the number in Arabic, 'wahid, tnein, tlateh, arbaa, khamseh, sitteh, saba.' He rolled out the words as if they were the words of an incantation, and it was with some sense of relief that the last utterance was reached—' miyeh,' one hundred.
The business part of the ceremony was completed by the dragoman, who dealt coarsely with francs and even with centimes. For my own part I felt that this cabalistic seance could only be appropriately concluded in the coinage of the ' Arabian Nights'—namely in golden deenars or in handfuls of dirhems. As we made other purchases the impassive dragoman demanded a bill— a bill from an alchemist! I herewith append the document, which was written upon blue paper and dried with sand. I am sometimes doubtful if it is really a bill and if it is not more probably the formula for the Elixir of Life.