The grand vizier, who had all along been the spokesman, answered Zobeide: “Madam, in order to obey you, we need only repeat what we have already said to the fair lady who opened for us the door. We are merchants come to Bagdad to sell our merchandise, which lies in the khan where we lodge. We dined to-day with several other persons of our condition, at a merchant’s house of this city; who, after he had treated us with choice dainties and excellent wines, sent for men and women dancers and musicians. The great noise we made brought in the watch, who arrested some of the company, but we had the good fortune to escape. But it being already late, and the door of our khan shut up, we knew not whither to retire. We chanced, as we passed along this street, to hear music at your house, which made us determine to knock at your gate. This is all the account that we can give you, in obedience to your commands.”
“Well, then,” said Zobeide, “you shall all be equally obliged to me; I pardon you all, provided you immediately depart!”
Zobeide having given this command, the caliph, the vizier, Mesrour, the three calenders, and the porter, departed; for the presence of the seven slaves with their weapons awed them into silence. As soon as they had quitted the house, and the gate was closed after them, the caliph said to the calenders, without making himself known, “You, gentlemen, who are newly come to town, which way do you design to go, since it is not yet day?”
“It is this,” they replied, “that perplexes us.”
“Follow us,” resumed the caliph, “and we will convey you out of danger.”
He then whispered to the vizier: “Take them along with you, and to-morrow morning bring them to me.”
The vizier Giafar took the three calenders along with him; the porter went to his quarters, and the caliph and Mesrour returned to the palace.
On the following morning, as the day dawned, the sultan Haroun al Raschid arose and went to his council chamber, and sat upon his throne. The grand vizier entered soon after, and made his obeisance.
“Vizier,” said the caliph, “go, bring those ladies and the calenders at the same time; make haste, and remember that I impatiently expect your return.”
The vizier, who knew his master’s quick and fiery temper, hastened to obey, and conducted them to the palace with so much expedition that the caliph was much pleased.
When the ladies had arrived the caliph turned toward them and said, “I was last night in your house, disguised in a merchant’s habit; but I am at present Haroun al Raschid, the fifth caliph of the glorious house of Abbas, and hold the place of our great prophet. I have sent for you only to know who you are, and to ask for what reason one of you, after severely whipping the two black dogs, wept with them. And I am no less curious to know why another of you has her bosom so full of scars.”
Upon hearing these words, Zobeide thus related her story:
THE STORY OF ZOBEIDE
Commander of the Faithful, my story is truly wonderful. The two black dogs and myself are sisters by the same father and mother. The two ladies who are now here are also my sisters, but by another mother. After our father’s death, the property that he left was equally divided among us. My two half sisters left me, that they might live with their mother. My two sisters and myself resided with our own mother. At her death she left us three thousand sequins each. Shortly after my sisters had received their portions, they married; but their husbands, having spent all their fortunes, found some pretext for divorcing them, and put them away. I received them into my house, and gave them a share of all my goods. At the end of a twelvemonth my sisters again resolved to marry, and did so. After some months were passed, they returned again in the same sad condition; and as they accused themselves a thousand times, I again forgave them, and admitted them to live with me as before, and we dwelt together for the space of a year. After this I determined to engage in a commercial speculation. For this purpose I went with my two sisters to Bussorah, where I bought a ship ready fitted for sea, and laded her with such merchandise as I had carried with me from Bagdad. We set sail with a fair wind, and soon cleared the Persian Gulf; when we had reached the open sea we steered our course to the Indies, and on the twentieth day saw land. It was a very high mountain, at the bottom of which we perceived a great town; having a fresh gale, we soon reached the harbor, and cast anchor.
I had not patience to wait till my sisters were dressed to go along with me, but went ashore alone in the boat. Making directly to the gate of the town, I saw there a great number of men upon guard, some sitting, and others standing with weapons in their hands; and they had all such dreadful countenances that I was greatly alarmed; but perceiving they remained stationary, and did not so much as move their eyes, I took courage and went nearer, when I found they were all turned into stone. I entered the town, and passed through several streets, where at different intervals stood men in various attitudes, but all motionless and petrified. In the quarter inhabited by the merchants I found most of the shops open; here I likewise found the people petrified.
Having reached a vast square, in the heart of the city, I perceived a large folding gate, covered with plates of gold, which stood open; a curtain of silk stuff seemed to be drawn before it; a lamp hung over the entrance. After I had surveyed the building, I made no doubt but it was the palace of the prince who reigned over that country; and being much astonished that I had not met with one living creature, I approached in hopes of finding some. I lifted up the curtain, and was surprised at beholding no one but the guards in the vestibule, all petrified.
I came to a large court. I went from thence into a room richly furnished, where I perceived a lady turned into a statue of stone. The crown of gold on her head, and a necklace of pearls about her neck, each of them as large as a nut, proclaimed her to be the queen. I quitted the chamber where the petrified queen was, and passed through several other apartments richly furnished, and at last came into a large room where there was a throne of massy gold, raised several steps above the floor, and enriched with large enchased emeralds, and upon the throne there was a bed of rich stuff embroidered with pearls. What surprised me most was a sparkling light which came from above the bed. Being curious to know whence it proceeded, I ascended the steps, and, lifting up my head, saw a diamond as large as the egg of an ostrich, lying upon a low stool; it was so pure that I could not find the least blemish in it, and it sparkled with so much brilliancy that when I saw it by daylight I could not endure its luster.
At the head of the bed there stood on each side a lighted flambeau, but for what use I could not comprehend; however, it made me imagine that there must be some one living in the place; for I could not believe that the torches continued thus burning of themselves.
The doors being all open, I surveyed some other apartments, that were as beautiful as those I had already seen. In short, the wonders that everywhere appeared so wholly engrossed my attention that I forgot my ship and my sisters, and thought of nothing but gratifying my curiosity. In the meantime night came on, and I tried to return by the way I had entered, but I could not find it; I lost myself among the apartments; and perceiving I was come back again to the large room, where the throne, the couch, the large diamond, and the torches stood, I resolved to take my night’s lodging there, and to depart the next morning early, to get aboard my ship. I laid myself down upon a costly couch, not without some dread to be alone in a desolate place; and this fear hindered my sleep.
About midnight I heard a man reading the Koran, in the same tone as it is read in our mosques. I immediately arose, and taking a torch in my hand passed from one chamber to another, on that side from whence the voice proceeded, until looking through a window I found it to be an oratory. It had, as we have in our mosques, a niche, to direct us whither we are to turn to say our prayers; there were also lamps hung up, and two candlesticks with large tapers of white wax burning.
I saw a little carpet laid down like those we have to kneel upon when we say our prayers, and a comely young man sat on this carpet, with great devotion reading the Koran, which lay before him on a desk. At this sight I was transported with admiration. I wondered how it came to pass that he should be the only living creature in a town where all the people were turned into stone, and I do not doubt but there was something in the circumstance very extraordinary.
The door being only half shut I opened it, went in, and standing upright before the niche, I exclaimed, “Bismillah! Praise be to God.” The young man turned toward me, and, having saluted me, inquired what had brought me to this desolate city. I told him in a few words my history, and I prayed him to tell me why he alone was left alive in the midst of such terrible desolation. At these words he shut the Koran, put it into a rich case, and laid it in the niche. Then he thus addressed me:
“Know that this city was the metropolis of a mighty kingdom, over which the sultan, who was my father, reigned. That prince, his whole court, the inhabitants of the city, and all his other subjects, were magi, worshipers of fire instead of God.
“But though I was born of an idolatrous father and mother I had the good fortune in my youth to have a nurse who was a good Mussulman, believing in God and in His prophet. ‘Dear Prince,’ would she oftentimes say, ‘there is but one true God; take heed that you do not acknowledge and adore any other.’ She taught me to read Arabic, and the book she gave me to study was the Koran. As soon as I was capable of understanding it, she explained to me all the passages of this excellent book, unknown to my father or any other person. She died, but not before she had perfectly instructed me in the Mussulman religion. After her death, I persisted in worshiping according to its directions; and I abhor the adoration of fire.
“About three years and some months ago, a thundering voice was suddenly sounded so distinctly through the whole city that nobody could miss hearing it. The words were these: ‘Inhabitants, abandon the worship of fire, and worship the only God who shows mercy.’ This voice was heard three years successively, but no one was converted. On the last day of that year, at the break of day, all the inhabitants were changed in an instant into stone, each one in the condition and posture in which he happened to be. The sultan, my father, and the queen, my mother, shared the same fate.
“I am the only person who did not suffer under that heavy judgment, and ever since I have continued to serve God with more fervency than before. I am persuaded, dear lady, that He has sent you hither for my comfort, for which I render Him infinite thanks, for I must own that I have become weary of this solitary life.”
On hearing these words, I said, “Prince, who can doubt that Providence has brought me into your port, to afford you an opportunity of withdrawing from this dismal place? I am a lady at Bagdad, where I have considerable property; and I dare engage to promise you sanctuary there, until the mighty Commander of the Faithful, caliph of our prophet, whom you acknowledge, shows you the honor that is due to your merit. This renowned prince lives at Bagdad, and as soon as he is informed of your arrival in his capital you will find it not in vain to implore his assistance. Stay no longer in a city where you can only renew your grief; my vessel is at your service, which you may absolutely command as you shall think fit.” He accepted the offer, and as soon as it was day we left the palace, and went aboard my ship, where we found my sisters, the captain, and the slaves, all much troubled at my absence. After I had presented my sisters to the prince, I told them what had hindered my return the day before, how I had met with the young prince, his story, and the cause of the desolation of so fine a city.
The seamen were taken up several days in unloading the merchandise I brought with me, and embarking in its stead many of the precious things in the palace, especially jewels, gold, and money. We left the furniture and goods, which consisted of an infinite quantity of silver vessels, because our vessel could not carry it, for it would have required several vessels more to convey to Bagdad all the riches that we might have taken with us.
After we had laden the vessel with what we thought most desirable, we took such provisions and water aboard as were necessary for our voyage. At last we set sail with a favorable wind.
The young prince, my sisters, and myself passed our time very agreeably. But, alas! this good understanding did not last long, for my sisters grew jealous of the friendship between the prince and myself, and maliciously asked me, one day, what we should do with him when we came to Bagdad. Resolving to put this question off with a joke, I answered, “I will take him for my husband.” Upon that, turning myself to the prince, I said, “Sir, I humbly beg of you to give your consent, for as soon as we come to Bagdad I design to offer you my person to be your slave, to do you all the service that is in my power, and to resign myself wholly to your commands.”
The prince replied, “I know not, madam, whether you be in jest or no; but for my part, I seriously declare before these ladies, your sisters, that from this moment I heartily accept your offer, not with any intention to have you as a slave, but as my lady and wife.” At these words my sisters changed color, and I could perceive afterward that they did not love me as before.
We entered the Persian Gulf, and had come within a short distance of Bussorah (where I hoped, considering the fair wind, we might have arrived the day following), when, in the night, while I was asleep, my sisters watched their opportunity and threw me overboard. They did the same to the prince, who was drowned. I floated some minutes on the water, and by good fortune, or rather miracle, I felt ground. I went toward a dark spot, that, by what I could discern, seemed to be land, and which, when day appeared, I found to be a desert island, lying about twenty miles from Bussorah. I soon dried my clothes in the sun, and as I walked along I found several kinds of fruit, and likewise fresh water, which gave me some hopes of preserving my life.
I had just laid myself down to rest in a shade, when I perceived a very large winged serpent coming toward me, with an irregular waving movement, and hanging out its tongue, which induced me to conclude it had received some injury. I instantly arose, and perceived that it was pursued by a larger serpent which had hold of its tail, and was endeavoring to devour it. This perilous situation of the first serpent excited my pity; and instead of retreating, I took up a stone that lay near me, and threw it with all my strength at its pursuer, whom I hit upon the head and killed. The other, finding itself at liberty, took wing and flew away. I looked after it for some time till it disappeared. I then sought another shady spot for repose, and fell asleep.
Judge what was my surprise, when I awoke, to see standing by me a black woman of lively and agreeable features, who held in her hand two dogs of the same color, fastened together. I sat up, and asked her who she was.
“I am,” said she, “the serpent whom you lately delivered from my mortal enemy, and I wish to requite the important services you have rendered me. These two black dogs are your sisters, whom I have transformed into this shape. But this punishment will not suffice; and my will is that you treat them hereafter in the way I shall direct.”
As soon as she had thus spoken the fairy took me under one of her arms, and the two black dogs under the other, and conveyed us to my house in Bagdad, where I found in my storehouses all the riches with which my vessel had been laden. Before she left me, she delivered to me the two dogs, and said, “If you would not be changed into a similar form, I command you to give each of your sisters every night one hundred lashes with a rod, as the punishment of the crime they have committed against yourself and the young prince, whom they have drowned.” I was forced to promise obedience. Since that time I have whipped them every night, though with regret, whereof your majesty has been a witness. My tears testify with how much sorrow and reluctance I perform this painful duty. If there be anything else relating to myself that you desire to know, my sister Amina will give you full information in the relation of her story.
After the caliph had heard Zobeide with much astonishment, he desired his grand vizier to request Amina to acquaint him wherefore her breast was disfigured with so many scars.