The cook, when she had cleaned the fish, put them in a pan with some oil to fry them. When she thought them cooked enough on one side she turned them on the other. But scarcely had she done so when the walls of the kitchen opened, and there came out a young and beautiful damsel. She was dressed in an Egyptian dress of flowered satin, and she wore earrings, and a necklace of white pearls, and bracelets of gold set with rubies, and she held a wand of myrtle in her hand.
She went up to the pan, to the great astonishment of the cook, who stood motionless at the sight of her. She struck one of the fish with her rod, “Fish, fish,” said she, “are you doing your duty?” The fish answered nothing, and then she repeated her question, whereupon they all raised their heads together and answered very distinctly, “Yes, yes. If you reckon, we reckon. If you pay your debts, we pay ours. If you fly, we conquer, and we are content.”
When they had spoken the girl upset the pan, and entered the opening in the wall, which at once closed, and appeared the same as before.
When the cook had recovered from her fright she lifted up the fish which had fallen into the ashes, but she found them as black as cinders, and not fit to serve up to the Sultan. She began to cry.
“Alas! what shall I say to the Sultan? He will be so angry with me, and I know he will not believe me!”
Whilst she was crying the grand-vizir came in and asked if the fish were ready. She told him all that had happened, and he was much surprised. He sent at once for the fisherman, and when he came said to him, “Fisherman, bring me four more fish like you have brought already, for an accident has happened to them so that they cannot be served up to the Sultan.”
The fisherman did not say what the genius had told him, but he excused himself from bringing them that day on account of the length of the way, and he promised to bring them next day.
In the night he went to the lake, cast his nets, and on drawing them in found four fish, which were like the others, each of a different colour.
He went back at once and carried them to the grand-vizir as he had promised.
He then took them to the kitchen and shut himself up with the cook, who began to cook them as she had done the four others on the previous day. When she was about to turn them on the other side, the wall opened, the damsel appeared, addressed the same words to the fish, received the same answer, and then overturned the pan and disappeared.
The grand-vizir was filled with astonishment. “I shall tell the Sultan all that has happened,” said he. And he did so.
The Sultan was very much astounded, and wished to see this marvel for himself. So he sent for the fisherman, and asked him to procure four more fish. The fisherman asked for three days, which were granted, and he then cast his nets in the lake, and again caught four different coloured fish. The sultan was delighted to see he had got them, and gave him again four hundred gold pieces.
As soon as the Sultan had the fish he had them carried to his room with all that was needed to cook them.
Then he shut himself up with the grand-vizir, who began to prepare them and cook them. When they were done on one side he turned them over on the other. Then the wall of the room opened, but instead of the maiden a black slave came out. He was enormously tall, and carried a large green stick with which he touched the fish, saying in a terrible voice, “Fish, fish, are you doing your duty?” To these words the fish lifting up their heads replied, “Yes, yes. If you reckon, we reckon. If you pay your debts, we pay ours. If you fly, we conquer, and are content.”
The black slave overturned the pan in the middle of the room, and the fish were turned to cinders. Then he stepped proudly back into the wall, which closed round him.
“After having seen this,” said the Sultan, “I cannot rest. These fish signify some mystery I must clear up.”
He sent for the fisherman. “Fisherman,” he said, “the fish you have brought us have caused me some anxiety. Where did you get them from?”
“Sire,” he answered, “I got them from a lake which lies in the middle of four hills beyond yonder mountains.”
“Do you know this lake?” asked the Sultan of the grand-vizir.
“No; though I have hunted many times round that mountain, I have never heard of it,” said the vizir.
As the fisherman said it was only three hours’ journey away, the sultan ordered his whole court to mount and ride thither, and the fisherman led them.
They climbed the mountain, and then, on the other side, saw the lake as the fisherman had described. The water was so clear that they could see the four kinds of fish swimming about in it. They looked at them for some time, and then the Sultan ordered them to make a camp by the edge of the water.
When night came the Sultan called his vizir, and said to him, “I have resolved to clear up this mystery. I am going out alone, and do you stay here in my tent, and when my ministers come to-morrow, say I am not well, and cannot see them. Do this each day till I return.”
The grand-vizir tried to persuade the Sultan not to go, but in vain. The Sultan took off his state robe and put on his sword, and when he saw all was quiet in the camp he set forth alone.
He climbed one of the hills, and then crossed the great plain, till, just as the sun rose, he beheld far in front of him a large building. When he came near to it he saw it was a splendid palace of beautiful black polished marble, covered with steel as smooth as a mirror.
He went to the gate, which stood half open, and went in, as nobody came when he knocked. He passed through a magnificent courtyard and still saw no one, though he called aloud several times.
He entered large halls where the carpets were of silk, the lounges and sofas covered with tapestry from Mecca, and the hangings of the most beautiful Indian stuffs of gold and silver. Then he found himself in a splendid room, with a fountain supported by golden lions. The water out of the lions’ mouths turned into diamonds and pearls, and the leaping water almost touched a most beautifully-painted dome. The palace was surrounded on three sides by magnificent gardens, little lakes, and woods. Birds sang in the trees, which were netted over to keep them always there.
Still the Sultan saw no one, till he heard a plaintive cry, and a voice which said, “Oh that I could die, for I am too unhappy to wish to live any longer!”
The Sultan looked round to discover who it was who thus bemoaned his fate, and at last saw a handsome young man, richly clothed, who was sitting on a throne raised slightly from the ground. His face was very sad.
The sultan approached him and bowed to him. The young man bent his head very low, but did not rise.
“Sire,” he said to the Sultan, “I cannot rise and do you the reverence that I am sure should be paid to your rank.”
“Sir,” answered the Sultan, “I am sure you have a good reason for not doing so, and having heard your cry of distress, I am come to offer you my help. Whose is this palace, and why is it thus empty?”
Instead of answering the young man lifted up his robe, and showed the Sultan that, from the waist downwards, he was a block of black marble.
The Sultan was horrified, and begged the young man to tell him his story.
“Willingly I will tell you my sad history,” said the young man.