The ballad of Howard Baskerville

"My mind is set, there is no going back"


The ballad of Howard Baskerville
by Kaveh Afrasiabi

I sought him at the Karachi office of London Times and was directed to a raggedy, third class hotel near Prince’s market filled with beggars and found him still sleep in his cluttered little room – at 2 pm, unshaved and with a heavy breath of alcohol permeating him, looking considerably older than the photo attached to his foreign dispatches from Persia, India, and elsewhere . He offered a bit of his left over rum and I sipped it in a tea cup, wondering if that was the right moment to indulge him in his splendid Persian story.

“So you write for Ohio Tribune?”

”Yes sir.”

”Never heard of it.”

”We are a small outfit, nothing like The Times or Observer,” I replied and then meaningfully added, “Mr. Baskerville was from Ohio you know.”

”Oh right, right, I had almost forgotten,” he yawned as he went through his messy table looking for his glasses and, putting it on, sat upright and said, “very well, I am at your service. Shoot.”

I had a long list of questions jotted down in my reporter’s notebook and the first one was “how did you first meet him Mr. Moore?”

“We met in Trabazon, in May 1908,” he responded instantly and then, after a sip, continued, “he was just off the boat, from a long journey from America and I was returning from London, both of us looking for a way to get inside Persia. After the coup, the Shah’s mercenary army had sealed the borders and were hunting down the revolutionaries who had escaped the Cossacks’ bombardment of their parliament. But, they were looking in only one direction -- after all, whoever in his right mind would want to slip into the country that was ravaged by a civil war? I was natually delighted when I first saw him haggling with the smugglers who were using the old carevan route, telling myself “so I am not the only insane westerner.”

We then went to a tavern and got to know each other a bit. I learnt that he had a degree in history from Princeton University and had just finished his military service, some of it at the Mexican border chasing after Pancho Villa’s gang terrorizing American towns. He had landed a teaching job – world literature – at a missionary school in Tabriz, and his mentor, Woodrow Wilson, had encouraged him to do it to pick up some experience for future teaching at Princeton, or perhaps for a public office, who knows. At first, I found him quite naïve and yet refreshingly open-minded and full of enthusiasm.”

”At the time, did he know of the troubles in Persia?” That was my second question.

“I suppose not. He showed me a letter that the school’s principal had sent him mentioning only in passing that there were some “disturbances” adding t not to worry since it did not affect them. But of course, the letter had been sent before the coup d’etat that overthrew the constitutionalists and resurrected the one-man despotism. I tried to straighten him and showed him my own dispatches from Tehran, the bloodbath, the witch-hunt, etc., but Mr. Baskerville was not the least deterred. 'My mind is set, there is no going back,' he told me after listening to my advise that he was better off turning around and going back to his nest in America.”

”So he knew there was trouble in Tabriz before he arrived, am I right?”

”Well yes of course he did, but perhaps not the full extent of it. I mean, even I did not anticipate things getting as bad as they did in Tabriz, I mean the months of encirclement, the heroic resistance, the constant bombardments, the attacks and counter-attacks, assassinations, and so forth.”

“Correct me if I am wrong Mr. Moore, but my impression was that you were already in league with the revolutionaries, especially the ones who escaped from Tehran to Tabriz, am I right?”

”Who told you that?!” William Moore asked with a somber voice.

“Several people. Mr. Brown, the school’s principal, his daughter, and the American consular in Tehran…”

“Oh that bloody fool. Please don’t mention his name in front of me. He is an embarrassment to his own country. Do you know what he did?

I shook my head negatively.

“He came to Tabriz one day, in the middle of the siege and when Mr. Baskerville was training his militia in the old city square, and demanded that Baskerville stop meddling in his “host country’s affairs” or face charges when he returned to America. That was the only time I saw Mr. Baskerville lose his cool and get really angry. “This is not our fight,” the consular yelled at him and Baskerville had none of that. “You are wrong sir. It is the duty of every American to fight for freedom wherever he is,” those were his exact words.

“My information suggests that Mr. Baskerville did not join the revolutionaries immediately and was actually hesitant for some time, is that true?” I almost interrupted, letting him know that I had done my homework for the interview.
”Quite right. I was pushing him for several months, to no avail, mainly because Mr. Brown had instructed him to keep to his teaching and stay out of trouble. But I knew, after seeing Howard in action when our caravan was attacked by bandits, that he was a splendid marksman and would prove invaluable to the resistance.”

”What changed his mind then?”

”Well, a couple of things. First, he was teaching these adult students, some of whom were already part of the resistance, including his favorite student Shafagh, who was gunned down by the king’s assassins in broad day light right outside the school’s walls. He practically died in Baskerville’s arms. It was only then, at the funeral, that Howard consented to my idea of attending one of the secret meetings of the resistance group - headed by that legendary leader, Satar Khan. Howard got out of his dormitory late at night and was brought there blindfolded – for his own benefit; in case he would be subjected to interrogation later, he would not be able to divulge any information you know. At any rate, he just sat there and listened – it was a stormy meeting and there was a lot of dissension about whether or not to counter-attack against the Cossack army that the Shah had sent together with reinforcement by the savage tribes that raped and pillaged the villages and small towns all around Azerbaijan. After the meeting, one of the revolutionary leaders by the name of Mossavat approached Howard and asked him if he would agree to circulate a petition to the US government and he declined. The next day, however, Howard had somehow changed his mind and agreed to play an auxiliary role with the training of my own militia.”

”You had your own militia?”

”Yes, some 300, 350 strong, but of course it was all done discretely without too many people knowing about it. Somehow, the word got around and I was subsequently shunned by the western community in Tabriz, labeled as a rabble rouser and agent provocateur, above all by that no good Presbyterian Brown, who got nervous every time he saw me talking to Mr. Baskerville. No wonder Howard avoided me once or twice when we ran into each other, at a fruit market once and at a farewell party by the British legation later on. He had befriended Brown’s daughter, who was also a teacher, and was ordered to leave to Tehran when the siege began. She begged him to go with her, but Howard refused. I could see in her lovely tearful eyes she was blaming me for his decision, but she, they, were all wrong. Howard happened to have a natural sympathy for the freedom-fighters and didn’t really need any convincing. It was only a matter of time before he was fully involved. I simply facilitated the process for him a bit, that’s all.”

“Forgive me Mr. Moore. I mean no disrespect by asking you this. But I wonder if you could explain why compared to Mr. Baskerville who is universally liked and even revered by the Persians, there is so much, well, how shall I put it, mixed feelings toward you. I mean, even the historian Ahmad Kasravi, has not minced any words of disparagement toward you.”

”I suppose because Howard is dead and I am alive. But if at that fateful night, when my militia and Howard’s militia attacked the Cossacks at their camp, I was the recipient of the bullet that pierced his heart, I really wonder if Mr. Kasravi and others currently vilifying me would not be singing the same tunes of hero worship we hear about Mr. Baskerville? But, of course, some of it is the ancient Persian conspiracy theory, that looks at every foreign hand as an arm of imperial shenanigan. But I assure you that is all pure nonsense. My loyalties were, and still are, completely with the freedom-fighters in Persia.”

”I understand that, and that comes pretty clear through your dispatches and your interviews with the king that you conducted -- during the long siege of Tabriz, am I right?

”Correct. But that was after Howard’s death, when temporarily I lost my morale and tried to take maximum advantage of my power of pen, instead of the barrel of my rifle.”

“I see. My next question is: what did Satar Khan think of Baskerville? I wanted to ask him myself but as you know he is in internal exile in Tehran and impossible to reach.”

”Well, Satar khan as you probably know is a horse expert who played host for Mr. Baskerville for a few days after he was kicked out of the school for breaking the rules, and the two of them shared their love of horses. Howard was most impressed by Satar Khan – a simple, honest yet incredibly brave leader who received total loyalty from his men without ever demanding any. Satar khan’s moral authority, his dedication to the cause, was so powerful that no one ever doubted that as long as he was around the counter-revolutionaries would never take over Tabriz. Howard once compared him to Zapata and I instantly.”

”Yes, such a legendary figure. I have heard about how he single handedly turned the tides more than once,” I commented and then switched the conversation back to Baskerville.

”But why do some people allege that Satar Khan betrayed Mr. Baskerville?”

Moore would have none of that and burst in a terse laughter. “What imbesol said that? Satar Khan never betrayed any one. All he did was to keep the one canon he had in his possession from sharing with us, when Howard and I decided to raid the Cossack’s camp – ignoring his good advise that it was too risky because of the odds – of fighting two thousands with our measly couple of hundreds – that dwindled down to less than seventy by the time we got tried of waiting for reinforcements and commenced the attack from our hiding spot in a nearby garden at around 4 in the morning. Satar Khan never promised to send his men and had left it to them to volunteer, so only a dozen or so showed up and most of them left after inspecting the sea of enemy tents and realizing it was futile.”

”But you and Howard didn’t, why?”

”Because we knew that by striking at them unawares we would inflict a wound on their self-confidence, that perhaps if we put up a resistance for a few hours there would be a fighting chance to survive with the others rushing to help, but of course that didn’t happen and our calculations proved disastrously wrong.”

”Yes, I have read your detailed description of the assault in the Times. I must say I was very moved by it, by your candor especially, which must have been a cause for so much misinterpretation in Persia today.”

”Thank you. I suppose so. But I am a journalist first and foremost and that means truth above self-interest.”

“Who collected Mr. Baskerville’s body?”

”I am not sure. We were in the middle of a retreat and I was under fire, when I saw some men collecting him and taking him to Satar khan’s home. The entire city mourned him and his students who formed the Liberty Squad took a group picture which they sent his family together with his rifle.”

”I am afraid it never got to them, I hate to tell you.”

”Really? That’s a crying shame. I wonder if that American counselor has anything to do with it?”

”I have heard that Satar khan gave a moving eulogy at the funeral and that the revolutionaries flanked both sides of the street with their rifles upside down and flowers in their barrels as his coffin was paraded to the cemetery.”

”That is right. That was quite a spectacle of respect and gratitude by the Persians, for a young American who adopted their cause and sacrificed his life for their liberty.”

On the way out, I inquired about his current work and he replied that he was going to Kandahar to interview the “famous Lawrence” taking refuge there as a border guard. “Sounds intriguing,” I replied, thinking in my head if Moore will one day be as famous as El-Lawrence!


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