Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > Greek, Roman & Oriental
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vol. XV: Greek—Roman—Oriental
 
Bakbarah’s Visit to the Harem
By The Thousand and One Nights
 

BAKBARAH THE TOOTHLESS, my second brother, walking one day through the city, met an old woman in a retired street. She thus accosted him: “I have,” said she, “a word to say to you, if you will stay a moment.” He immediately stopped, and asked her what she wished. “If you have time to go with me,” she replied, “I will take you to a most magnificent palace, where you shall see a lady more beautiful than the day. She will receive you with a great deal of pleasure, and will treat you with a collation and excellent wine. I have no occasion, I believe, to say any more.” “But is what you tell me,” replied my brother, “true?” “I am not given to lying,” replied the old woman; “I propose nothing to you but what is the fact. You must, however, pay attention to what I require of you. You must be prudent, speak little, and must comply with everything.”
  1
  Bakbarah having agreed to the conditions, she walked on before, and he followed her. They arrived at the gate of a large palace, where there were a great number of officers and servants. Some of them wished to stop my brother, but the old woman no sooner spoke to them, than they let him pass. She then turned to my brother, and said, “Remember that the young lady to whose house I have brought you is fond of mildness and modesty; nor does she like being contradicted. If you satisfy her in this, there is no doubt you will obtain whatever you wish.” Bakbarah thanked her for this advice, and promised to profit by it.  2
  She then took him into a very beautiful apartment, which formed part of a square building. It corresponded with the magnificence of the palace; there was a gallery all round it, and in the midst of it a very fine garden. The old woman made him sit down on a sofa that was handsomely furnished, and desired him to wait there a moment, till she went to inform the young lady of his arrival.  3
  As my brother had never before been in so superb a place, he immediately began to observe all the beautiful things that were in sight; and judging of his good fortune by the magnificence he beheld, he could hardly contain his joy. He almost immediately heard a great noise, which came from a long troop of slaves who were enjoying themselves, and came toward him, bursting out at the same time into violent fits of laughter. In the midst of them he perceived a young lady of most extraordinary beauty, whom he easily discovered to be their mistress, by the attention they paid her. Bakbarah, who expected merely a private conversation with the lady, was very much surprised at the arrival of so large a company. In the meantime the slaves, putting on a serious air, approached him; and when the young lady was near the sofa, my brother, who had risen up, made a most profound reverence. She took the seat of honor, and then, having requested him to resume his, she said to him, in a smiling manner, “I am delighted to see you, and wish you everything you can yourself desire.” “Madam,” replied Bakbarah, “I cannot wish a greater honor than that of appearing before you.” “You seem to me,” she replied, “of so good-humored a disposition, that we shall pass our time very agreeably together.”  4
  She immediately ordered a collation to be served up, and they covered the table with baskets of various fruits and sweetmeats. She then sat down at the table along with my brother and the slaves. As it happened that he was placed directly opposite to her, she observed, as soon as he opened his mouth to eat, he had no teeth; she remarked this to her slaves, and they all laughed immoderately at it. Bakbarah, who from time to time raised his head to look at the lady, and saw that she was laughing, imagined it was from the pleasure she felt at being in his company, and flattered himself, therefore, that she would soon order the slaves to retire, and that he should enjoy her conversation in private. The lady easily guessed his thoughts, and took a pleasure in continuing a delusion which seemed so agreeable to him: she said a thousand soft, tender things, and presented the best of everything to him with her own hand.  5
  When the collation was finished, she arose from table; ten slaves instantly took some musical instruments and began to play and sing, the others to dance. In order to make himself the more agreeable, my brother also began dancing, and the young lady herself partook of the amusement. After they had danced for some time, they all sat down to take breath. The lady ordered them to bring her a glass of wine, then cast a smile at my brother, to intimate that she was going to drink his health. He instantly rose up, and stood while she drank. As soon as she had finished, instead of returning the glass, she had it filled again, and presented it to my brother, that he might pledge her.  6
  Bakbarah took the glass, and in receiving it from the young lady he kissed her hand, then drank to her, standing the whole time, to show his gratitude for the favor she had done him. After this the young lady made him sit down by her side, and began to give him signs of affection. She put her arm round his neck, and frequently gave him gentle pats with her hand. Delighted with these favors, he thought himself the happiest man in the world; he also was tempted to begin to play in the same manner with this charming creature, but he durst not take this liberty before the slaves, who had their eyes upon him, and who continued to laugh at this trifling. The young lady still kept giving him such gentle taps, till at last she began to apply them so forcibly that he grew angry at it. He reddened, and got up to sit farther from so rude a playfellow. At this moment the old woman, who had brought my brother there, looked at him in such a way as to make him understand that he was wrong, and had forgotten the advice she had before given him. He acknowledged his fault, and, to repair it, he again approached the young lady, pretending that he had not gone to a distance through anger. She then took hold of him by the arm, and drew him toward her, making him again sit down close by her, and continuing to bestow a thousand pretended caresses on him. Her slaves, whose only aim was to divert her, began to take a part in the sport. One of them gave poor Bakbarah a fillip on the nose with all her strength, another pulled his ears almost off, while the rest kept giving him slaps, which passed the limits of raillery and fun.  7
  My brother bore all this with the most exemplary patience; he even affected an air of gaiety, and looked at the old woman with a forced smile. “You were right,” said he, “when you said that I should find a very fine, agreeable, and charming young lady. How much am I obliged to you for it!” “Oh, this is nothing yet,” replied the old woman; “let her alone, and you will see very different things by and by.” The young lady then spoke. “You are a fine man,” said she to my brother, “and I am delighted at finding in you so much kindness and complaisance toward all my little fooleries, and that you possess a disposition so conformable to mine.” “Madam,” replied Bakbarah, ravished with this speech, “I am no longer myself, but am entirely at your disposal; you have full power to do with me as you please.” “You afford me the greatest delight,” added the lady, “by showing so much submission to my inclination. I am perfectly satisfied with you, and I wish that you should be equally so with me. Bring,” cried she to the attendants, “perfumes and rose-water!” At these words two slaves went out and instantly returned, one with a silver vase, in which there was exquisite aloe-wood, with which she perfumed him, and the other with rose-water, which she sprinkled over his face and hands. My brother could not contain himself for joy at seeing himself so handsomely and honorably treated.  8
  When this ceremony was finished, the young lady commanded the slaves who had before sung and played to recommence their concert. They obeyed; and while this was going on, the lady called another slave, and ordered her to take my brother with her, saying, “You know what to do; and when you have finished, return with him to me.” Bakbarah, who heard this order given, immediately got up, and going toward the old woman, who had also risen to accompany the slave, he requested her to tell him what they wished him to do. “Our mistress,” replied she, in a whisper, “is extremely curious, and she wishes to see how you would look disguised as a female; this slave, therefore, has orders to take you with her, to paint your eyebrows, shave your mustachios, and dress you like a woman.” “You may paint my eyebrows,” said my brother, “as much as you please; to that I readily agree, because I can wash them again; but as to shaving me, that, mind you, I will by no means suffer. How do you think I dare appear without my mustachios?” “Take care,” answered the woman, “how you oppose anything that is required of you. You will quite spoil your fortune, which is going on as prosperously as possible. She loves you, and wishes to make you happy. Will you, for the sake of a paltry mustachio, forego the most delicious favors any man can possibly enjoy?”  9
  Bakbarah at length yielded to the old woman’s arguments, and without saying another word, he suffered the slave to conduct him to an apartment, where they painted his eyebrows red. They shaved his mustachios, and were absolutely going to shave his beard. But the easiness of my brother’s temper did not carry him quite so far as to suffer that. “Not a single stroke,” he exclaimed, “shall you take at my beard!” The slave represented to him that it was of no use to have cut off his mustachios if he would not also agree to lose his beard; that a hairy countenance did not at all coincide with the dress of a woman; and that she was astonished that a man, who was on the very point of possessing the most beautiful woman in Bagdad, should care for his beard. The old woman also joined with the slave, and added fresh reasons; she threatened my brother with being quite in disgrace with her mistress. In short, she said so much that he at last permitted them to do what they wished.  10
  As soon as they had dressed him like a woman, they brought him back to the young lady, who burst into so violent a fit of laughter at the sight of him, that she fell down on the sofa on which she was sitting. The slaves all began to clap their hands, so that my brother was put quite out of countenance. The young lady then got up, and continuing to laugh all the time, said, “After the complaisance you have shown to me, I should be guilty of a crime not to bestow my whole heart upon you; but it is necessary that you should do one thing more for love of me: it is only to dance before me as you are.” He obeyed; and the young lady and the slaves danced with him, laughing all the while as if they were crazy. After they had danced for some time, they all threw themselves upon the poor wretch, and gave him so many blows, both with their hands and feet, that he fell down almost fainting. The old woman came to his assistance, and without giving him time to be angry at such ill treatment, she whispered in his ear, “Console yourself, for you are now arrived at the conclusion of your sufferings, and are about to receive the reward for them. You have only one thing more to do,” added she, “and that is a mere trifle. You must know that my mistress makes it her custom, whenever she has drunk a little, as she has done to-day, not to suffer anyone she loves to come near her, unless they are stripped to their shirt. When they are in this situation, she takes advantage of a short distance, and begins running before them through the gallery, and from room to room, till they have caught her. This is one of her fancies. Now, at whatever distance from you she may start, you, who are so light and active, can easily overtake her. Undress yourself quickly, therefore, and remain in your shirt, and do not make any difficulty about it.”  11
  My brother had already carried his complying humor too far to stop at this. The young lady at the same time took off her outer robe, in order to run with greater ease. When they were both ready to begin the race, the lady took the advantage of about twenty paces, and then started with wonderful celerity. My brother followed her with all his strength, but not without exciting the risibility of the slaves, who kept clapping their hands all the time. The young lady, instead of losing any of the advantage she had first taken, kept continually gaining ground of my brother. She ran round the gallery two or three times, then turned off down a long dark passage, where she saved herself by a turn of which my brother was ignorant. Bakbarah, who kept constantly following her, lost sight of her in this passage, and he was also obliged to run much slower, because it was so dark. He at last perceived a light, toward which he made all possible haste; he went out through a door which was instantly shut upon him.  12
  You may easily imagine what was his astonishment at finding himself in the middle of a street inhabited by curriers. Nor were they less surprised at seeing him in his shirt, his eyebrows painted red, and without either beard or mustachios. They began to clap their hands, to hoot at him; and some even ran after him, and kept lashing him with strips of their leather. They then stopped him, and set him on an ass, which they accidentally met with, and led him through the city, exposed to the laughter and shouts of the mob.  13
  To complete his misfortune, they led him through the street where the judge of the police court lived, and this magistrate immediately sent to inquire the cause of the uproar. The curriers informed him that they saw my brother, exactly in the state he then was, come out of the gate leading to the apartments of the women belonging to the grand vizier, which opened into their street. The judge then ordered the unfortunate Bakbarah, upon the spot, to receive a hundred strokes on the soles of his feet, to be conducted without the city, and forbade him ever to enter it again.  14
 
 
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