Covered with honors and glory, but overwhelmed with cares, Harun was now passing his prime. He was destined to pass his remaining days in scouring the country, at the head of his men-at-arms, through an empire torn by revolts. His sons were his only concern now. He felt a growing need of their affection, and a desire to pass the message of Abbas on to them as a sort of spiritual legacy: their duty to bring into existence that age of gold which had been promised to the Mussulmans so long ago. But the hope of realizing his dreams was fast slipping from his grasp.
He was very fond of his seventeen children and left nothing undone to improve their minds. The best scholars of the period had been engaged to instruct them, and he himself had supervised their schooling with a care and wisdom that showed much discrimination. There are traces of the Humanist strain in a letter that he wrote to Khalil ibn-Ahmad who instructed Amin.
"Ahmad," he told him, "the Prince of the Faithful confides his most precious blood, the fruit of his heart to your care. He gives you full authority over his son and instructs him to obey you implicitly. Try to be worthy of this task which the Caliph has given you. Bring your pupil up to read the Koran, teach him our sacred traditions, fill his memory with classic poetry, instruct him in our holy customs. Let him be cautious in what he says and learn to speak to the point. Regulate the hours for his pastimes, and let him laugh only at the proper times. Teach him to treat the elders of the family of Hashim with great respect and to honor military chiefs. Let not a single hour pass without finding an opportunity to instruct him. Do not over-discipline him, for too much severity quenches the activity of the spirit; but, on the other hand, be not too indulgent, lest he incline toward idleness. Correct him when necessary, but gently and with forbearance. If he ignores your remonstrances, you may then use stern measures."
Harun thought sadly of the days when his two older sons were children. He had been very proud of them and had taken a naive joy in hearing them praised. He probably blushed when he said to the writer Kisai: "Ali, would you like to see my two sons?" and could scarcely contain his pride when the boys entered slowly, "like two stars in the sky," with lowered eyes, and the gentle, grave charm characteristic of small Arabs. He delighted in their replies to Kisai's remarks and the finished way in which they recited poetry. Triumphantly he cried:
"Ali, what have you to say about them?"
And Kisai, a flatterer, albeit a sincere one, replied:
"Oh my Prince, I say as the poet did:
I see two glorious stars,
two branches of light springing from the caliphate,
embellished with a noble perfume!"
The Caliph, with tears in his eyes, embraced his offspring tenderly and dismissed them with a fervent Amen. . . . His emotion, however, arose from a clairvoyant suspicion that these "stars of glory" were not what they appeared. He began to lament:
"I see my children at the moment of their destiny when fate descends upon them out of the sky and the span of days allotted them by the Holy Book is run. Their friendship will be at an end, brothers will be enemies, and disintegration of the empire will cause rivers of blood to flow. Death will spread its ravages everywhere, the honor of women will be trampled underfoot, and all survivors will long for death!"
His melancholy condition of mind seemed to have endowed him with a kind of second sight. He saw in dreams Amin's dreadful plight as, surrounded by minions and pursued by his brother Mamun into a pillaged Bagdad, he tried to escape at night in a bark and was arrested, his severed head first exposed on the Iron Door, then impaled on a pole in the palace courtyard for the soldiery to gape at as they filed past, reviling it. He realized too late that he should have designated the other son. From an early age Amin had led the life of an ascetic, working like a serf at the most menial tasks. When Harun told him one day, "You are dishonoring me among kings," the youth replied to his father, "You are dishonoring me among the saints."
Harun wondered later why he had given second place to this more worthy son. Remorse gripped him as he looked back on his own sins and cruelty; his brother Hadi, the head of Jafar . . . He was continually haunted and pursued by the memory of the Barmecides in their dungeon. They were bearing their persecutions with proud and courageous hearts, voicing their woes in a grave and humble vein:
We have left the world, yet we still inhabit it,
neither among the living nor among dead,
when the jailer appears at the door of our cell
we gaze at him stupidly, saying:
This man comes from the world of real people.
In this "world of real people," Harun al-Rashid was leading a joyless, drab existence, probably unhappier on his throne than was Yahia in his prison. The Barmecide, resigning himself to his fate, could say: "I bow to the will of God and am grateful for His benefits. Praise be to Allah!" Yahia, at least, had the consolation of his faithful son Fadl, who at the point of death still asked him from time to time: "Father, are you satisfied with me?" To which he could answer affectionately: "Yes, my child. And may Allah be as content with you!"
Harun was forced to admit that the Barmecides were even greater in defeat than in prosperity.
About this time the old Yahia succumbed, in his dungeon, at the age of seventy-four. Sewed into the folds of his clothing was a note which proved extremely disquieting to his persecutor, to whom it was addressed. Opening it apprehensively, Harun read: "The plaintiff will be the first to stand before the tribunal of that incorruptible Judge Who makes no mistakes and Who has no need of proof. The defendant will soon follow him. You sleep now, O Tyrant, but death is lurking wakefully near you."
The Caliph wept as he read these words. Each day, as his heart grew heavier, his health became worse. The supreme menace was hanging over him. Like that later emperor, the Tsar of the Russias, he sensed the Angel of Death approaching in a cloud of wings, and murmured: "The heavy hand of the Judge from on High lies on my wicked soul."