Stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
The Story Told by the Sultans Steward
I WAS last night with a party who celebrated a recitation of the Kuran, for which purpose they had assembled the professors of religion and law; and when these reciters had accomplished their task, the servants spread a repast, comprising among other dishes a zirbajeh. We approached, therefore, to eat of the zirbajeh; but one of the company drew back, and refused to partake of it: we conjured him; yet he swore that he would not eat of it: and we pressed him again; but he said, Press me not; for I have suffered enough from eating of this dish. And when he had finished, we said to him, By Allah, tell us the reason of thine abstaining from eating of this zirbajeh. He replied, Because I cannot eat of it unless I wash my hands forty times with kali, and forty times with cyperus, and forty times with soap; altogether, a hundred and twenty times. And upon this, the giver of the entertainment ordered his servants, and they brought water and the other things which this man required: so he washed his hands as he had described, and advanced, though with disgust, and, having seated himself, stretched forth his hand as one in fear, and put it into the zirbajeh, and began to eat, while we regarded him with the utmost wonder. His hand trembled, and when he put it forth, we saw that his thumb was cut off, and that he ate with his four fingers: we therefore said to him, We conjure thee, by Allah, to tell us how was thy thumb maimed; was it thus created by God, or hath some accident happened to it?O my brothers, he answered, not only have I lost this thumb, but also the thumb of the other hand; and each of my feet is in like manner deprived of the great toe: but see ye:and, so saying, he uncovered the stump of the thumb of his other hand, and we found it like the right; and so also his feet, destitute of the great toes. At the sight of this, our wonder increased, and we said to him, We are impatient to hear thy story, and thine account of the cause of the amputation of thy thumbs and great toes, and the reason of thy washing thy hands a hundred and twenty times. So he said,
Know that my father was a great merchant, the chief of the merchants of the city of Baghdad in the time of the Khalifeh Harun Er-Rashid; but he was ardently addicted to the drinking of wine, and hearing the lute; and when he died, he left nothing. I buried him, and caused recitations of the Kuran to be performed for him, and, after I had mourned for him days and nights, I opened his shop, and found that he had left in it but few goods, and that his debts were many: however, I induced his creditors to wait, and calmed their minds, and betook myself to selling and buying from week to week, and so paying the creditors.
Thus I continued to do for a considerable period, until I had discharged all the debts and increased my capital; and as I was sitting one day, I beheld a young lady, than whom my eye had never beheld any more beautiful, decked with magnificent ornaments and apparel, riding on a mule, with a slave before her and a slave behind her; and she stopped the mule at the entrance of the market-street, and entered, followed by a eunuch, who said to her, O my mistress, enter, but inform no one who thou art, lest thou open the fire of indignation upon us. The eunuch then further cautioned her; and when she looked at the shops of the merchants, she found none more handsome that mine; so, when she arrived before me, with the eunuch following her, she sat down upon the seat of my shop, and saluted me; and I never heard speech more charming than hers, or words more sweet. She then drew aside the veil from her face, and I directed at her a glance which drew from me a sigh; my heart was captivated by her love, and I continued repeatedly gazing at her face, and recited these two verses:
Say to the beauty in the dove-coloured veil, Death would indeed be welcome to relieve me from my torment.
Favour me with a visit, that so I may live. See, I stretch forth my hand to accept thy liberality.
And when she had heard my recitation of them she answered thus:
May I lose my heart if it cease to love you! For verily my hear loveth none but you.
If my eye regard any charms but yours, may the sight of you never rejoice it after absence!
She then said to me, O youth, hast thou any handsome stuffs?O my mistress, I answered, thy slave is a poor man; but wait until the other merchants open their shops, and then I will bring thee what thou desirest. So I conversed with her, drowned in the sea of her love, and bewildered by my passion for her, until the merchants had opened their shops, when I arose, and procured all that she wanted, and the price of these stuffs was five thousand pieces of silver: and she handed them all to the eunuch, who took them; after which, they both went out from the market-street, and the slaves brought to her the mule and she mounted, without telling me whence she was, and I was ashamed to mention the subject to her: consequently, I became answerable for the price to the merchants, incurring a debt of five thousand pieces of silver.
I went home, intoxicated with her love, and they placed before me the supper, and I ate a morsel; but reflections upon her beauty and loveliness prevented my eating more. I desired to sleep, but sleep came not to me; and in this condition I remained for a week. The merchants demanded of me their money; but I prevailed upon them to wait another week; and after this week, the lady came again, riding upon a mule, and attended by a eunuch and two other slaves; and, having saluted me, said, O my master, we have been tardy in bringing to thee the price of the stuffs: bring now the money-changer, and receive it. So the money-changer came, and the eunuch gave him the money, and I took it, and sat conversing with her until the market was replenished, and the merchants opened their shops, when she said to me, Procure for me such and such things. Accordingly, I procured for her what she desired of the merchants, and she took the goods and departed without saying anything to me respecting the price. When she had gone, therefore, I repented of what I had done for I had procured for her what she demanded for the price of a thousand pieces of gold; and as soon as she had disappeared from my sight, I said within myself, What kind of love is this? She hath brought me five thousand pieces of silver, and taken goods for a thousand pieces of gold!I feared that the result would be my bankruptcy and the loss of the property of others and said, The merchants know none but me, and this woman is no other than a cheat, who hath imposed upon me by her beauty and loveliness: seeing me to be young, she hath laughed at me, and I asked her not where was her residence.
I remained in a state of perplexity, and her absence was prolonged more than a month. Meanwhile the merchants demanded of me their money, and so pressed me that I offered my possessions for sale, and was on the brink of ruin; but as I was sitting absorbed in reflection, suddenly she alighted at the gate of the market-street, and came in to me. As soon as I beheld her, my solicitude ceased, and I forgot the trouble which I had suffered. She approached, and addressed me with her agreeable conversation, and said, Produce the scales, and weigh thy money:and she gave me the price of the goods which she had taken, with a surplus; after which, she amused herself by talking with me, and I almost died with joy and happiness. She then said to me, Hast thou a wife? I answered, No: for I am not acquainted with any woman: and wept. So she asked me, What causeth thee to weep? And I answered, A thought that hath come into my mind:and, taking some pieces of gold, gave them to the eunuch, requesting him to grant me his mediation in the affair; upon which he laughed, and said, She is in love with thee more than thou art with her, and hath no want of the stuffs, but hath done this only from her love of thee: propose to her, therefore, what thou wilt; for she will not oppose thee in that which thou wilt say. Now she observed me giving the pieces of gold to the eunuch, and returned, and resumed her seat; and I said to her, Shew favour to thy slave, and pardon me for that which I am about to say. I then acquainted her with the feelings of my heart, and my declaration pleased her, and she consented to my proposal, saying, This eunuch will come with my letter; and do thou what he shall tell thee;and she arose, and departed.
I went to the merchants and delivered to them their money, and all profited except myself; for when she left me I mourned for the interruption of our intercourse, and I slept not during the whole of the next night: but a few days after, her eunuch came to me, and I received him with honour, and asked him respecting his mistress. He answered, She is sick:and I said to him, Disclose to me her history. He replied, The lady Zubeydeh, the wife of Harun Er-Rashid, brought up this damsel, and she is one of her slaves: she had desired of her mistress to be allowed the liberty of going out and returning at pleasure, and the latter gave her permission: she continued, therefore, to do so until she became a chief confident; after which, she spoke of thee to her mistress, and begged that she would marry her to thee: but her mistress said, I will not do it until I see this young man, and if he have a desire for thee, I will marry thee to him. We therefore wish to introduce thee immediately into the palace; and if thou enter without any ones having knowledge of thy presence, thou wilt succeed in accomplishing thy marriage with her; but if thy plot be discovered, thy head will be struck off. What, then, sayest thou?I answered, Good: I will go with thee, and await the event that shall befall me there.As soon, then as this next night shall have closed in, said the eunuch, repair to the mosque which the lady Zubeydeh hath built on the banks of the Tigris, and there say thy prayers, and pass the night.Most willingly, I replied.
Accordingly, when the time of nightfall arrived, I went to the mosque, and said my prayers there, and passed the night; and as soon as the morning began to dawn I saw two eunuchs approaching in a small boat, conveying some empty chests, which they brought into the mosque. One of them then departed, and the other remained; and I looked attentively at him, and lo, it was he who had been our intermediary: and soon after, the damsel, my companion, came up to us. I rose to her when she approached, and embraced her; and she kissed me, and wept; and after we had conversed together for a little while, she took me and placed me in a chest, and locked it upon me. The slaves then brought a quantity of stuffs, and filled with them the other chests, which they locked and conveyed, together with the chest in which I was enclosed, to the boat, accompanied by the damsel; and having embarked them, they plied the oars, and proceeded to the palace of the honoured lady Zubeydeh. The intoxication of love now ceased in me, and reflection came in its place: I repented of what I had done, and prayed God to deliver me from my dangerous predicament.
Meanwhile, they arrived at the gate of the Khalifeh, where they landed, and took out all the chests, and conveyed them into the palace: but the chief of the doorkeepers, who had been asleep when they arrived, was awoke by the sounds of their voices, and cried out to the damsel, saying, The chests must be opened, that I may see what is in them:and he arose, and placed his hand upon the chest in which I was hidden. My reason abandoned me, my heart almost burst from my body, and my limbs trembled; but the damsel said These are the chests of the lady Zubeydeh, and if thou open them and turn them over, she will incensed against thee, and we shall all perish. They contain nothing but clothes dyed of various colours, except this chest upon which thou hast put thy hand, in which there are also some bottles filled with the water of Zemzem,1 and if any of the water run out upon the clothes it will spoil their colours. Now I have advised thee, and it is for thee to decide: so do what thou wilt.When he heard, therefore, these words, he said to her, Take the chests, and pass on:and the eunuchs immediately took them up, and with the damsel, conveyed them into the palace: but in an instant, I heard a person crying out, and saying, The Khalifeh! The Khalifeh!
I was bereft of my reason, and seized with a colic from excessive fear; I almost died, and my limbs were affected with a violent shaking. The Khalifeh cried out to the damsel, saying to her, What are these chests? She answered, O my lord (may God exalt thy dominion!), these chests contain clothes of my mistress Zubeydeh.Open them, said the Khalifeh, that I may see the clothes.When I heard this, I felt sure of my destruction. The damsel could not disobey his command; but she replied, O Prince of the Faithful, there is nothing in these chests but clothes of the lady Zubeydeh, and she hath commanded me not to open them to any one. The Khalifeh, however, said, The chests must be opened, all of them, that I may see their contents:and immediately he called out to the eunuchs to bring them before him. I therefore felt certain that I was on the point of destruction. They then brought before him chest after chest, and opened each to him, and he examined the contents; and when they brought forward the chest in which I was enclosed, I bid adieu to life, and prepared myself for death; but as the eunuchs were about to open it, the damsel said, O Prince of the Faithful, verily this chest containeth things especially appertaining to women; and it is proper, therefore, that it should be opened before the lady Zubeydeh:and when the Khalifeh heard her words, he ordered the eunuchs to convey all the chests into the interior of the palace. The damsel then hastened, and ordered two eunuchs to carry away the chest in which I was hidden, and they took it to an inner chamber, and went their way: whereupon she quickly opended it, and made a sign to me to come out: so I did as she desired, and entered a closet that was before me, and she locked the door upon me, and closed the chest: and when the eunuchs had brought in all the chests, and had gone back, she opended the door of the closet, and said, Thou hast nothing to fear! May God refresh thine eye! Come forth now, and go up with me, that thou mayest have the happiness of kissing the ground before the lady Zubeydeh.
I therefore went with her, and beheld twenty other female slaves, high bosomed virgins, and among them was the lady Zubeydeh, who was scarcely able to walk from the weight of the robes and ornaments with which she was decked. As she approached, the female slaves dispersed from around her, and I advanced to her, and kissed the ground before her. She made a sign to me to sit down: so I seated myself before her; and she began to ask me questions respecting my condition and lineage; to all of which I gave such answers that she was pleased, and said, By Allah, the care which we have bestowed on the education of this damsel hath not been in vain. She then said to me, Know that this damsel is esteemed by us as though she were really our child, and she is a trust committed to thy care by God. Upon this, therefore, I again kissed the ground before her, well pleased to marry the damsel; after which, she commanded me to remain with them ten days. Accordingly, I continued with them during this period; but I knew nothing meanwhile of the damsel; certain of the maids only bringing me my dinner and supper, as my servants. After this, however, the lady Zubeydeh asked permission of her husband, the Prince of the Faithful, to marry her maid, and he granted her request, and ordered that ten thousand pieces of gold should be given to her.
The lady Zubeydeh, therefore, sent for the Kadi and witnesses, and they wrote my contract of marriage to the damsel; and the maids then prepared sweetmeats and exquisite dishes, and distributed them in all the apartments. Thus they continued to do for a period of ten more days; and after the twenty days had passed, they conducted the damsel into the bath, preparatively to my being introduced to her as her husband. They then brought to me a repast comprising a basin of zirbajeh sweetened with sugar, perfumed with rosewater infused with musk, and containing different kinds of fricandoed fowls and a variety of other ingredients, such as astonished the mind; and, by Allah, when this repast was brought, I instantly commenced upon the zirbajeh, and ate of it as much as satisfied me, and wiped my hand, but forgot to wash it. I remained sitting until it became dark; when the maids lighted the candles, and the singing-girls approached with the tambourines, and they continued to display the bride, and to give presents of gold, until she had perambulated the whole of the palace; after which they brought her to me, and disrobed her; and as soon as I was left alone with her, I threw my arms around her neck, scarcely believing in our union: but as I did so, she perceived the smell of the zirbajeh from my hand, and immediately uttered a loud cry: whereupon the female slaves ran in to her from every quarter.
I was violently agitated, not knowing what was the matter; and the slaves who had come in said to her, What hath happened to thee, O our sister?Take away from me, she exclaimed to them, this of madman, whom I imagined to be a man of sense!What indication of my insanity hath appeared to thee? I asked. Thou madman, said she, wherefore hast thou eaten of the zirbajeh, and not washed thy hand? By Allah, I will not accept thee for thy want of sense, and thy disgusting conduct!And so saying, she took from her side a whip, and beat me with it upon my back until I became insensible from the number of the stripes. She then said to the other maids, Take him to the magistrate of the city police, that he may cut off his hand with which he ate the zirbajeh without washing it afterwards. On hearing this, I exclaimed, There is no strength nor power but in God! Wilt thou cut off my hand on account of my eating a zirbajeh and neglecting to wash it?And the maids who were present entreated her, saying to her, O our sister, be not angry with him for what he hath done this time. But she replied, By Allah, I must cut off something from his extremities! And immediately she departed, and was absent from me ten days: after which, she came again, and said to me. O thou black-faced! Am I not worthy of thee? How didst thou dare to eat the zirbajeh and not wash thy hand?And she called to the maids, who bound my hands behind me, and she took a sharp razor, and cut off both my thumbs and both my great toes, as ye see, O companions; and I swooned away. She then sprinkled upon my wounds some powder, by mean of which the blood was stanched; and I said, I will to eat of a zirbajeh as long as I live unless I wash my hands forty times with kali and forty times with cyperus and forty times with soap:and she exacted of me an oath that I would not eat of this dish unless I washed my hands as I have described to you. Therefore, when this zirbajeh was brought, my colour changed, and I said within myself, This was the cause of the cutting off of my thumbs and great toes:so, when ye compelled me, I said, I must fulfil the oath which I have sworn.
I then said to him (continued the Sultans steward), And what happened to thee after that? He answered, When I had thus sworn to her, she was appeased, and I was admitted into her favour and we lived happily together for a considerable time: after which she said, The people of the Khalifehs palace know not that thou hast resided here with me, and no strange man beside thee hath entered it; nor didst thou enter but through the assistance of the lady Zubeydeh. She then gave me fifty thousand pieces of gold, and said to me, Take these pieces of gold, and go forth and buy for us a spacious house. So I went forth, and purchased a handsome and spacious house, and removed thither all the riches that she possessed, and all that she had treasured up, and her dresses and rarities.This was the cause of the amputation of my thumbs and great toes.So we ate (said the Sultans steward), and departed; and after this, the accident with the humpback happened to me: this is all my story; and peace be on thee.
The King said, This is not more pleasant than the story of the humpback; nay, the story of the humpback is more pleasant than this; and ye must all of you be crucified.The Jew, however, then came forward, and, having kissed the ground, said, O King of the age, I will relate to thee a story more wonderful than that of the humpback:and the King said, Relate thy story. So he commenced thus: