Adventures in Bagdad

May 29, 2020

Sheherezade in the palace of her husband

Stories from the Thousand and One Nights.
Vol. 16, pp. 177-184 of The Harvard Classics

A Bagdad merchant dreamed of the money he would make from the sale of a tray of glassware, and of marrying the king's daugh­ter. But, daydreaming, he kicked over the tray.

Nights 24–32
The Barber’s Fifth Brother

MY fifth brother (El-Feshshar [“Alnaschar”]) was cropped of his ears, O Prince of the Faithful. He was a pauper, who begged alms by night, and subsisted upon what he thus acquired by day: and our father was a very old man, and he fell sick and died, leaving to us seven hundred pieces of silver, of which each of us took his portion; namely, a hundred pieces. Now my fifth brother, when he had received his share, was perplexed, not knowing what to do with it; but while he was in this state, it occurred to his mind to buy with it all kinds of articles of glass, and to sell them and make profit: so he bought glass with his hundred pieces of silver, and put it in a large tray, and sat upon an elevated place, to sell it, leaning his back against a wall. And as he sat, he meditated, and said within himself, Verily my whole stock consisteth of this glass: I will sell it for two hundred pieces of silver; and with the two hundred I will buy other glass which I will sell for four hundred; and thus I will continue buying and selling until I have acquired great wealth. Then with this I will purchase all kinds of merchandise and essences and jewels, and so obtain vast gain. After that, I will buy a handsome house, and memluks, and horses, and gilded saddles; and I will eat and drink; and I will not leave in the city a single female singer but I will have her brought to my house that I may hear her songs.—All this he calculated with the tray of glass lying before him.—Then, said he, I will send all the female betrothers to seek in marriage for me the daughters of Kings and Wezirs; and I will demand as my wife the daughter of the chief Wezir; for I have heard that she is endowed with perfect beauty and surprising loveliness; and I will give as her dowry a thousand pieces of gold. If her father consent, my wish is attained; and if he consent not, I will take her by force, in spite of him: and when I have come back to my house, I will buy ten young eunuchs, and I will purchase the apparel of Kings and Sultans, and cause to be made for me a saddle of gold set with jewels; after which I will ride every day upon a horse, with slaves behind me and before me, and go about through the streets and markets to amuse myself, while the people will salute me and pray for me. Then I will pay a visit to the Wezir, who is the father of the maiden, with memluks behind me and before me, and on my right hand and on my left; and when he seeth me, he will rise to me, in humility, and seat me in his own place; and he himself will sit down below me, because I am his son-in-law. I will then order one of the servants to bring a purse containing the pieces of gold which compose the dowry; and he will place it before the Wezir; and I will add to it another purse, that he may know my manly spirit and excessive generosity, and that the world is contemptible in my eye; and when he addresseth me with ten words, I will answer him with two. And I will return to my house; and when any person cometh to me from the house of the Wezir, I will clothe him with a rich dress: but if any come with a present, I will return it; I will certainly not accept it. Then, on the night of the bridal display, I will attire myself in the most magnificent of my dresses, and sit upon a mattress covered with silk; and when my wife cometh to me, like the full moon, decked with her ornaments and apparel, I will command her to stand before me as stands the timid and the abject; and I will not look at her, on account of the haughtiness of my spirit and the gravity of my wisdom; so that the maids will say, O our master and our lord, may we be thy sacrifice! This thy wife, or rather thy handmaid, awaiteth thy kind regard, and is standing before thee: then graciously bestow on her one glance; for the posture hath become painful to her.—Upon this, I will raise my head, and look at her with one glance, and again incline my head downwards; and thus I will do until the ceremony of displaying her is finished; whereupon they will conduct her to the sleeping-chamber; and I will rise from my place, and go to another apartment, and put on my night-dress, and go to the chamber in which she is sitting, where I will seat myself upon the divan; but I will not look towards her. The tirewomen will urge me to approach her; but I will not hear their words, and will order some of the attendants to bring a purse containing five hundred pieces of gold for them, and command them to retire from the chamber. And when they have gone, I will seat myself by the side of the bride; but with averted countenance, that she may say, Verily this is a man of a haughty spirit. Then her mother will come to me, and will kiss my hands, and say to me, O my master, look upon thy handmaid with the eye of mercy; for she is submissively standing before thee. But I will return her no answer. And she will kiss my feet, again and again, and will say, O my master, my daughter is young and hath seen no man but thee; and if she experience from thee repugnance, her heart will break: incline to her, therefore, and speak to her, and calm her mind. And upon this I will look at her through the corner of my eye, and command her to remain standing before me, that she may taste the savour of humiliation, and know that I am the Sultan of the age. Then her mother will say to me, O my master, this is thy handmaid: have compassion upon her, and be gracious to her:—and she will order her to fill a cup with wine, and to put it to my mouth. So her daughter will say, O my lord, I conjure thee by Allah that thou reject not the cup from thy slave; for verily I am thy slave. But I will make her no reply; and she will urge me to take it, and will say, It must be drunk; and will put it to my mouth: and upon this, I will shake my hand in her face, and spurn her with my foot, and do thus.—So saying, he kicked the tray of glass, which, being upon a place elevated above the ground, fell, and all that was in it broke: there escaped nothing: and he cried out and said, All this is the result of my pride! And he slapped his face, and tore his clothes; the passengers gazing at him, while he wept, and exclaimed, Ah! O my grief!

  The people were now repairing to perform the Friday-prayers; and some merely cast their eyes at him, while others noticed him not; but while he was in this state, deprived of his whole property, and weeping, without intermission, a female approached him, on her way to attend the Friday prayers: she was of admirable loveliness; the odour of musk was diffused from her; under her was a mule with a stuffed saddle covered with gold—embroidered silk; and with her was a number of servants; and when she saw the broken glass, and my brother’s state and his tears, she was moved with pity for him, and asked respecting his case. She was answered, He had a tray of glass, by the sale of which to obtain his subsistence, and it is broken, and he is afflicted as thou seest:—and upon this, she called to one of the servants, saying, Give what thou hast with thee to this poor man. So he gave him a purse, and he took it, and when he had opened it, he found in it five hundred pieces of gold, whereupon he almost died of excessive joy, and offered up prayers for his benefactress.

  He returned to his house a rich man, and sat reflecting, and lo, a person knocked at the door: he rose, therefore, and opened it; and beheld an old woman whom he knew not, and she said to him, O my son, know that the time of prayer hath almost expired, and I am not prepared by ablution; wherefore I beg that thou wilt admit me into thy house, that I may perform it. He replied, I hear and obey;—and, retiring within, gave her permission to enter; his mind still wandering from joy on account of the gold; and when she had finished the ablution, she approached the spot where he was sitting, and there performed the prayers of two rek’ahs. She then offered up a supplication for my brother; and he thanked her, and doffed her two pieces of gold; but when she saw this, she exclaimed, Extolled be God’s perfection! Verily I wonder at the person who fell in love with thee in thy beggarly condition! Take back thy money from me, and if thou want it not, return it to her who gave it thee when thy glass broke.—O my mother, said he, how can I contrive to obtain access to her? She answered, O my son, she hath an affection for thee; but she is the wife of an affluent man; take then with thee all thy money, and when thou art with her be not deficient in courteousness and agreeable words; so shalt thou obtain of her favours and her wealth whatever thou shalt desire. My brother, therefore, took all the gold, and arose and went with the old woman, hardly believing what she had told him; and she proceeded, and my brother behind her, until they arrived at a great door, at which she knocked; whereupon a Greek damsel came and opened the door, and the old woman entered, ordering my brother to do the same. He did so, and found himself in a large house, where he beheld a great furnished chamber, with curtains hung in it; and, seating himself there, he put down the gold before him, and placed his turban on his knees; and scarcely had he done so, when there came to him a damsel, the like of whom had never been seen, attired in most magnificent apparel. My brother stood up at her approach; and when she beheld him she laughed in his face, and rejoiced at his visit: then going to the door, she locked it; after which she returned to my brother, and took his hand, and both of them went together into a private chamber, carpeted with various kinds of silk, where my brother sat down, and she seated herself by his side, and toyed with him for a considerable time. She then rose, saying to him, Move not, from this place until I return to thee;—and was absent from him for a short period; and as my brother was waiting for her, there came in to him a black slave, of gigantic stature, with a drawn sword, the brightness of which dazzled the sight; and he exclaimed to my brother, Wo to thee! Who brought thee to this place? Thou vilest of men! Thou misbegotten wretch, and nursling of impunity!—My brother was unable to make any reply; his tongue was instantly tied; and the slaves laid hold upon him, and stripped him, and struck him more than eighty blows with the flat of his sword, until he fell sprawling upon the floor; when he retired from him, concluding that he was dead, and uttered a great cry, so that the earth trembled, and the place resounded at his voice, saying, Where is El-Melihah? upon which a girl came to him, holding a handsome tray containing salt; and with this she forthwith stuffed the flesh-wounds with which my brother’s skin was gashed until they gaped open; but he moved not, fearing the slave would discover that he was alive, and kill him. The girl then went away, and the slave uttered another cry, like the first, whereupon the old woman came to my brother, and, dragging him by the feet to a deep and dark vault, threw him into it upon a heap of slain. In this place he remained for two whole days; and God (whose perfection he extolled!) made the salt to be the means of preserving his life, by stanching the flow of blood from his veins; so, when he found that he had strength sufficient to move, he arose, and, opening a shutter in the wall, emerged from the place of the slain; and God (to whom be ascribed all might and glory!) granted him his protection. He therefore proceeded in the darkness, and concealed himself in the passage until the morning, when the old woman went forth to seek another victim, and my brother, going out after her, without her knowledge, returned to his house.

  He now occupied himself with the treatment of his wounds until he was restored; and continued to watch for the old woman, and constantly saw her taking men, one after another, and conducting them to the same house. But he uttered not a word on the subject; and when his health returned, and his strength was completely renewed, he took a piece of rag, and made of it a purse, which he filled with pieces of glass: he then tied it to his waist, and disguised himself so that no one would know him, in the dress of a foreigner; and, taking a sword, placed it within his clothes; and as soon as he saw the old woman, he said to her, in the dialect of a foreigner, Old woman, hast thou a pair of scales fit for weighing nine hundred pieces of gold? The old woman answered, I have a young son, a money-changer, and he hath all kinds of scales; therefore accompany me to him before he go forth from his abode, that he may weigh for thee thy gold. So my brother said, Walk on before me:—and she went, and my brother followed her until she arrived at the door, and knocked; upon which the girl came out, and laughed in his face; and the old woman said to her, I have brought you to-day some fat meat. The girl then took my brother’s hand, and conducted him into the house (the same which he had entered before), and after she had sat with him a short time, she rose, saying to him, Quit not this place until I return to thee:—and she retired; and my brother had remained not long after when the slave came to him with the drawn sword, and said to him, Rise, thou unlucky! So my brother rose, and, as the slave walked before him, he put his hand to the sword which was concealed beneath his clothes, and struck the slave with it, and cut off his head; after which he dragged him by his feet to the vault, and called out, Where is El-Melihah? The slave-girl, therefore, came, having in her hand the tray containing the salt; but when she saw my brother with the sword in his hand, she turned back and fled: my brother, however, overtook her, and struck off her head. He then called out, Where is the old woman?—and she came; and he said to her, Dost thou know me, O malevolent hag? She answered, No, O my lord.—I am, said he, the man who had the pieces of gold, and in whose house thou performedst the ablution, and prayedst; after which, devising a stratagem against me, thou betrayedst me into this place.—The old woman exclaimed, Fear God in thy treatment of me!—but my brother, turning towards her, struck her with the sword, and clove her in twain. He then went in search for the chief damsel, and when she saw him, her reason fled, and she implored his pardon; whereupon he granted her his pardon, and said to her, What occasioned thy falling into the hands of this black? She answered, I was a slave to one of the merchants, and this old woman used to visit me; and one day she said to me, We are celebrating a festivity, the like of which no one hath seen, and I have a desire that thou shouldst witness it. I replied, I hear and obey:—and arose, and clad myself in the best of my attire, and, taking with me a purse containing a hundred pieces of gold, proceeded with her until she entered this house, when suddenly this black took me, and I have continued with him in this state three years, through the stratagem of the old witch.—My brother then said to her, Is there any property of his in the house?—Abundance, she answered; and if thou canst remove it, do so:—and upon this, he arose and went with her, when she opened to him chests filled with purses, at the sight of which he was confounded; and she said to him, Go now, and leave me here, and bring some person to remove the property. So he went out, and, having hired ten men, returned; but on his arrival at the door, he found it open, and saw neither the damsel nor the purses; he found, however, some little money remaining, and the stuffs. He discovered, therefore, that she had eluded him; and he took the money that remained, and, opening the closets, took all the stuffs which they contained, leaving nothing in the house.

  He passed the next night full of happiness; but when the morning came, he found at the door twenty soldiers, and on his going forth to them, they laid hold upon him, saying, The Wali summoneth thee. So they took him, and conducted him to the Wali, who, when he saw him, said to him, Whence obtainedst thou these stuffs?—Grant me indemnity, said my brother:—and the Wali gave him the handkerchief of indemnity; and my brother related to him all that had befallen him with the old woman from first to last, and the flight of the damsel; adding,—and of that which I have taken, take thou what thou wilt; but leave me wherewith to procure my food. The Wali thereupon demanded the whole of the money and the stuffs; but fearing that the Sultan might become acquainted with the matter, he retained a portion only, and gave the rest to my brother, saying to him, Quit this city, or I will hang thee. My brother replied, I hear and obey:—and went forth to one of the surrounding cities. Some robbers, however, came upon him, and stripped and beat him, and cut off his ears; and I, having heard of his situation, went forth to him, taking to him some clothes; and brought him back privily into the city, and supplied him with daily food and drink.

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