Tales of To-day and Other Days/The Thousand and Second Night
Thousand and Second Night.
I HAD given orders that day to deny my door to every one; having made a solemn resolution that morning that I would do nothing, I did not wish to be disturbed in that important occupation. With a feeling of confidence that I should not be bothered by bores (there are some left yet besides those in Molière's comedy), I had concerted all my measures to enjoy the pleasure of my predilection at my ease.
A bright fire was blazing in my chimney, the curtains were drawn and admitted a dim mysterious light, some half-a-dozen Ottoman cushions were scattered about the carpet, here and there, and, comfortably reclining at exactly the right distance from the cheering blaze, I was balancing upon my toes a roomy Moroccan baboosh of quaint shape and the yellow of the Orient; my cat was cuddled upon my sleeve, like that of the prophet Mohammed, and I would not have changed my position for all the riches of the universe.
My wandering glances, already more than half vanquished by that delicious drowsiness that succeeds the voluntary suspension of thought, were straying, rather apathetically, from Camille Roqueplan's charming sketch of the Magdalen in the Desert to the severe pen-drawing of Aligny and the great landscape of the four inseparables, Feuchères, Séchan, Diéterle, and Despléchins, the, joy and glory of my poor port's domicile; the sensation of real life was gradually slipping away from me, and I was sinking deeper and deeper beneath the unfathomable waves of that ocean of oblivion in which so many dreamers of the East have left their reason, already weakened by the use of opium and hasheesh.
The most intense silence prevailed in the apartment; I had stopped the clock so that I might not hear the ticking of the pendulum, that pulse-beat of eternity; for when I am in one of my idle moods I cannot endure the feverish and idiotic restlessness of that yellow disk of brass that is constantly swinging from one corner of its cage to the other, and is always in motion without taking a step forward.
All at once, kling-klang, there comes a ring, at my bell, sharp, nervous, and reverberating with an insufferably silvery tone, and falls upon my repose as a drop of molten lead might plunge, spluttering, into the bosom of a peaceful lake; unmindful of my cat, curled up like a ball upon my sleeve, I started and jumped to my feet as if impelled by a spring, consigning to all the devils the imbecile of a porter who had allowed some one to enter in spite of my strict orders; then I resumed my seat. Still under the influence of the shock that my nerves had sustained, I settled the cushions beneath my arms and bravely awaited the upshot of the affair.
The door of the salon opened a little way, and the first object to present itself to my view was the woolly pate of Adolfo Francesco Pergialla, a sort of Abyssinian land-shark in whose service I then was, while flattering myself with the delusion that I had a negro servant. The whites of his eyes rolled and glistened in his black face, his broad, flat nose was dilated to an enormous size, his thick lips, expanded in a smile as broad as a barn-door, disclosed a row of teeth as white as a Newfoundland dog's; he was bursting in his black skin with the desire to speak, and making all sorts of grimaces to attract my attention.
"Well, Francesco, what is it? How much the wiser would I be if you should keep on rolling those crockery eyes of yours for an hour, like that bronze darky with a clock in his stomach? A truce to pantomime, and try to tell me, in the best gibberish you are master of, what the matter is and who is the person who is come to start me from the covert of my idleness."
It is incumbent on me to inform you that Adolfo Francesco Pergialla Abdallah-ben-Mohammed; Abyssinian by birth, formerly a Mohammedan, but now a Christian for the time being, knew every language and could not speak one intelligibly; he would commence in French, continue in Italian and wind up with Turkish or Arabic, and this was more notably the case when the conversation took an he would take refuge in Constantinople, in Turkish, whence Alfred would chase him out in short order; finding himself in the toils he would skip over into Algeria, where he would have Eugene at his heels pursuing him through all the dialects of upper and lower Arabia; when he had reached that point he would seek shelter in the Bambara, the Galla and other jargons of the interior of Africa, where it required d'Abadie, Combes or Tamisier to force him out of his intrenchments. This time he answered me firmly in Spanish that was not very pure but was very distinct.turn for him, as when some bottles of Bordeaux wine or of liqueurs of the isles, or other good things, had mysteriously disappeared before their allotted time. Luckily for me I have some polyglot friends: we would first drive him out of Europe; after he had exhausted his stock of Spanish, Italian and German
"mujer muy bonita con sú hermana quien quiere hablar á usted." (A very pretty woman and her sister, who wish to. speak to you).
"Introduce them if they are young and pretty; otherwise tell them that I am busy."
The rascal, who was something of a judge in such matters, disappeared for a short space and presently returned, followed by two women wrapped in great white burnooses with thepulled down over their eyes.
I offered the ladies a couple of easy-chairs with the most gallant air that I had at my command, but noticing the piles of cushions, they made me a little sign with the hand to indicate that they thanked me and, throwing aside their burnooses, seated themselves cross-legged upon the floor, after the Oriental fashion.
The one who was seated facing me, in the ray of sunlight that came into the room through the opening between the curtains, was apparently about twenty years old; the other one, who was not nearly so pretty, seemed to be a little older; we will confine our attention to the prettier one.
She was richly attired in Turkish style; her wasp-like waist was incased in a vest of green velvet heavily loaded with ornaments; her chemisette of striped gauze, fastened at the neck by two diamond buttons, was parted in such a manner as to afford a glimpse of a white and well turned bosom; a kerchief of white satin, studded with starry spangles, did duty as a belt. Wide, voluminous trousers came down to her knees; her slender, shapely legs were protected by Albanian gaiters of embroidered velvet as far down as her little bare feet, that were imprisoned in tiny slippers of stamped and colored morocco, quilted and stitched with gold thread; an orange caftan, embroidered with flowers of silver, and a scarlet fez, set off by a long silken tassel, completed this costume, certainly a rather fantastic one to go paying visits in at Paris in that year of evil omen, 1842.
As to her face, it had that regularity of beauty that characterizes the Turkish race: her eyes, those beautiful Oriental eyes, so clear. and so deep beneath their long lids stained with henna, seemed to open mysteriously, like two black flowers, in the dull, creamy pallor of her complexion that was like unpolished marble. She looked about her with a troubled air and seemed embarrassed; to set her mind at ease, no doubt, she held one of her feet in one of her hands and with the other hand toyed with the end of one of her tresses, which were all loaded with sequins pierced with a hole in the middle and with ribbons and strings of pearls.
The second woman, attired in pretty much the same way, only not so richly, preserved the same silence and immobility. Mentally referring to the appearance in Paris of the bayadères, I had an idea that they were dancing-girls from Cairo, some Egyptian acquaintances of my friend Dauzats, and that, encouraged by the favorable notice I had given in my paper to pretty Amany and her brown friends, Sandiroun and Rangoun, they had come to seek my favor in my quality as a feuilletoniste.
"What can I do for you, ladies?" I said, raising my hands to my ears in such a way as to produce a salamalec that should be adequate to the occasion.
The fair Turk raised her eyes to the ceiling, cast them down to the floor, finally looked at her sister with an air of profound meditation. She did not understand a word of French.
"Halloa, Francesco! scoundrel, blockhead, ragamuffin; come here, you misshapen monkey, and make yourself useful for once in your life, at least."
Francesco approached with an important and majestic air.
"As you speak French so badly, you must speak Arabic very well, and you are going to play the part of dragoman between these ladies and me. I promote you to the position of interpreter; in the first place ask these fair strangers who they are, whence they come, and what they want."
I will relate the conversation that ensued as if it had been carried on in French, without attempting to reproduce the various contortions and flowers of rhetoric of the aforesaid Francesco.
"Sir," said the pretty Turk, through the organ of the negro, "although you are a man of letters, you must have read the Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arab tales, translated, more or less faithfully, by good M. Galland, and the name of Scheherazade should be familiar to you?"
"Beautiful Scheherazade, wife of Schahriar, that sultan fruitful in resources who, that he might not be deceived, married a wife overnight and sent her to be bowstrung in the morning? I know her very well."
"Well! I am the Sultana Scheherazade, and this is my good sister Dinarzarde, who has never a single night missed saying to me: 'Sister, if you are not sleeping, tell us, I pray you, before it is day, one of those nice stories that you know.'"
"Delighted to see you, I am sure, although your visit appears a little singular; but tell me, what is it that procures me the distinguished honor of receiving in my abode, poor poet that I am, the Sultana Scheherazade and her sister Dinarzarde?"
"I have told so many stories that I have reached the end of my repertory; I don't know another single one. I have exhausted the personages of fairy-land; "the ghouls, the djinns and the magicians, male and female, have been of great service to me, but nothing lasts forever, not even the impossible. The most glorious sultan, shadow of the padishah, light of lights, sun and moon of the middle empire, is beginning to yawn portentously and trifle ominously with the handle of his ataghan; I told my last story this morning, and my sublime lord has condescended to leave my head upon my shoulders yet for a while. I have made my way hither in all haste, with the assistance of the magic carpet of the four Facardins, to hunt up a tale, a story, a romance; for to-morrow morning, at the accustomed summons of my sister Dinarzarde, I must have something in readiness to relate to the illustrious Schahriar, arbiter of my destiny; Galland, the idiot, has deceived the universe by asserting that the sultan, surfeited with stories, had granted me a pardon after the thousand and first night; there is not a word of truth in it; he is more ravenous for stories than ever, and his curiosity alone can countervail his cruelty."
"Your sultan Schahriar, my poor Scheherazade, is dreadfully like our public; if we fail for a single day to afford it its usual amusement, it does not cut off our head, it is true, but it forgets us, and that is pretty nearly as bad. Your sad fate grieves me, but what can I do?"
"You must have some novel, some feuilleton, in your portfolio; let me have it."
"Do you know what you are asking, charming Sultana? I have nothing finished; I never work except when compelled by the last extremity of famine, for, as Persius has well said: Fames facit poetridas picas. I have still enough to keep myself from starving for three days; go and find Karr, if you can get to him through the swarms of wasps that are all the time buzzing and fluttering around his door and against his windows; he has his head stuffed full with the most delightful love-stories that he will relate to you in the interval between a boxing lesson and a tune on his French horn; or wait and catch Jules Janin as he turns the corner of some feuilleton, and he will walk along at your side and improvise such a story as the sultan Schahriar never heard-in all his life."
Poor Scheherazade hereupon raised her long henna-stained eyes upward toward the ceiling with a look so soft, lustrous, melting, and suppliant that my heart was softened and I made up my mind to do a great thing.
"I did have a subject, such as it is, that I was intending to spin into a feuilleton; I will dictate it to you and you can translate it into Arabic, adding the embroideries, the flowers and pearls of poesy, in which it is deficient; there is a title ready made for it: we will christen our story the Thousand and Second Night."
Scheherazade took a block of paper and began to write from right to left, in the Oriental way, with great swiftness. There was no time to lose: she had to be in the capital of the kingdom of Samarcand that same evening.
There once lived in the city of Cairo a young man named Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, who had his residence on the place of the Esbekick.
His father and mother had died some years before, leaving him a moderate fortune, but one which sufficed to yield him a living without having recourse to the toil of his hands; others would have essayed the venture of loading a ship with merchandise, or sending a few camels laden with precious stuffs to accompany the caravan which traffics between Bagdad and Mecca, but Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed chose rather to live tranquilly, and his pleasures consisted in smoking tombeki in his nargile, in drinking sherbets and eating the dried confections of Damascus.
Although he was of attractive presence, with regular features and a pleasing expression, he held himself aloof from affairs of love, and to those who did urge him to marry and proffer him wealthy and suitable alliances, he had several times made answer that the time was not yet come and that he felt no inclination to take unto himself a wife.
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed had received a good education; he could read with ease the most ancient works, wrote an elegant hand, knew by heart the verses of the Koran and the remarks of the commentators, and could have rattled you off the Moallakats of the famous poets that were nailed against the doors of the mosques without missing a verse; he was himself something of a poet, and took delight in composing sonorous rhymed couplets that he would declaim to airs fashioned by himself, with much grace and elegance.
Now, through much smoking of his nargile and dreaming in the coolness of eventide upon the marble pavement of his terrace, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed had come to have exalted ideas in his head; he had determined that he would bestow his love only upon a peri, or, at the very least, upon a princess of royal birth. Therein lay the secret motive that made him look with such indifference upon the offers of marriage that were made him and refuse the proposals of the slave-merchants. The only companion who found favor in his eyes was his cousin Abdul-Malek, a gentle and timid youth, whose tastes seemed to be of a modesty equal to his own.
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, one day, was wending his way to the bazaar to purchase some flasks of attar-gul and other conserves of Constantinople that he stood in need of. In a very narrow street he met a litter inclosed by curtains of rose-red velvet, borne by two milk-white mules and preceded by mutes and chaoushes in sumptuous raiment. He drew back against the wall to make way for the cortége, but not so quickly as to avoid catching a glimpse, through the parting of the curtains, which were just then raised by a truant breath of air, of an exceedingly handsome woman, reclining on cushions of gold brocade. The lady had trusted in the thickness of her curtains and raised her veil on account of the heat, believing that she was beyond the reach of any audacious eye. It lasted but the space of a lightning-flash, but it was sufficient to turn poor Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed's head; the lady's complexion was of dazzling whiteness, her eyebrows one might have deemed traced by the pencil of a painter, her mouth was like a pomegranate, and the lips, when parted, disclosed a double row of pearls, of purer water and more lustrous than those that form the bracelets and the necklace of the favorite sultana; she possessed an agreeable and lofty mien, and from all her person there seemed to exhale an inexpressible air of nobleness and majesty.
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed remained a long time motionless where he stood, as if dazed by such perfection, and forgetting that he had come forth to make some purchases, returned to his dwelling empty-handed, bearing the radiant vision imprinted on his heart.
All night long he dreamed only of the fair unknown, and was no sooner risen than he applied himself to composing a long poem in her honor, on which he lavished all his most flowery and impassioned comparisons.
When his piece was finished and a fair copy made upon a noble sheet of milk-white papyrus, with great initial letters in red ink and flourishes of gold, he knew not what to do, so put it in his sleeve and went forth to show his production to his friend Abdul, from whom he had no secrets.
On his way to Abdul's abode he passed the bazaar and entered the shop of the perfumer to obtain the flasks of attar of rose; there he found a beautiful lady, wrapped in a long white veil that concealed all her person excepting her left eye. That left eye incontinently betrayed to Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed the lady of the palanquin. His emotion was so great that he was compelled to support himself against the wall.
The lady of the white veil remarked Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed's trouble, and courteously inquired what ailed him and if, peradventure, he were unwell. Thereupon the merchant, the lady and Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed withdrew to the back-shop. A little negro brought a glass of snow-water upon a salver, of which Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed quaffed a few swallows.
"Why, pray tell me, hath the sight of me produced such an impression upon you?" the lady said in a sweet voice that betrayed a passably tender interest.
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed told how he had beheld her near the mosque of Hassan the Sultan just as the curtains of her litter had been parted a little, and that since that moment he had been dying with love for her.
"Of a verity," said the lady, "and your passion was of such sudden birth as that? I had thought that love grew not so quickly. I am indeed the woman whom you met yesterday; I was hieing me to the bath in my litter, and as the heat was stifling, I had put up my veil. But you did see amiss, and I am not as beautiful as you say."
As she said these words she put aside her veil and disclosed a face radiant with beauty, and so perfect that Envy herself could not have discovered in it the least defect.
The reader may imagine what were Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed's transports upon receiving such a mark of favor; he overwhelmed the fair one with compliments, and, which is a rare thing with compliments, they all had the merit of being truthful and devoid of exaggeration. As he proceeded, infusing great fire and animation into his words, the scroll upon which his verses were transcribed escaped from his sleeve and rolled upon the floor.
"What is that scroll?" said the lady. "The writing appears to me of passing elegance, and tells of a skilled hand."
"It is a copy of verses," the young man made answer, blushing deeply, "that I did compose last night, being unable to slumber. I have essayed in them to do honor to your transcendent charms, but the copy is far inferior to the original, and my verse has not the brilliancy that it should have worthily to describe the brilliancy of your eyes."
The young lady read the verses attentively, and placing them in her belt, said:
"Though they contain many flatteries, they are truly, not ill turned."
Thereupon she arranged her veil and left the shop negligently letting fall these words, with an accent that went straight to Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed's heart:
"I sometimes visit Bedreddin's shop on my way home from the bath, to purchase essences and boxes of perfume."
The merchant, conducting Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed to the most remote recess of his shop, congratulated him upon his good fortune and whispered mysteriously in his ear:
"That young lady is no other than the princess Ayesha, daughter of the Caliph."
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed returned to his abode utterly bewildered by his happiness and scarce daring to believe that it could be true. And yet, modest as he was, he could not be blind to the fact that the princess Ayesha had looked on him with an eye of favor. That great busybody, Chance, had exceeded his most audacious dreams. How he congratulated himself now that he had not yielded to the advice of those friends of his who had urged him to marry, and that he had not been seduced by the alluring descriptions that old women gave him of marriageable young girls, who, as is well known by every one, invariably have the eyes of the gazelle, a face like the full moon, hair longer than the tail of Al Borack, the prophet's favorite mare, a mouth as red as jasper, with a breath sweet as ambergris, and a thousand perfections beside which disappear at the same time as the haick and the nuptial veil: how he rejoiced that he was untrammeled by any vulgar tie, and free to abandon himself entirely to his new passion!
It was all to no purpose that he turned and twisted on his divan, he could not sleep; the image of the princess Ayesha kept passing and repassing before his eyes, flashing like a bird of flame upon a background of sunset sky. Unable to secure repose, he ascended to one of his cabinets of cedar, marvelously carved, that in eastern cities are built out from the exterior walls of the houses, in order to profit by the coolness of the breeze that never failed to draw through the street; still sleep visited him not—for sleep is like happiness, it flies from us when we seek it—and to soothe his mind by the spectacle of the serenity of the night, he took his nargile and went out upon the highest terrace of his mansion.
The cool air of night, the splendor of the heavens, more thickly set with golden spangles than a peri's robe, and in which the moon was displaying her silvery face like a sultana, pale with love, bending over the trellis of her kiosk, brought joy and content to Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, for he was a poet and could not but be affected by the glorious spectacle that offered itself to his vision.
From that height the city of Cairo lay stretched before his eyes like one of those birds-eye plans in which the giaours trace the outlines of their fortified places. The terraces adorned with luxuriant plants in pots and gay with multi-colored tapestries; the spots where the waters of the Nile shone in the moonlight, for it was then the time of the yearly inundation; the gardens, from whence rose clusters of palms and groves of locust and fig-trees; the blocks of houses intersected by narrow streets; the brazen domes of the mosques; the slender minarets, pierced with carvings until they were like a toy of ivory; the palaces, brilliantly lighted or else lying in deepest obscurity, all formed a coup d’œil than which there could have been found nothing more magnificent to delight the eye. In the far distance the ashy hues of the desert sands blended away into the milky tints of the firmament, and the three pyramids of Ghizeh described their huge triangular masses of stone, vaporous and unsubstantial as shadows in the blue moonlight, against the line of the horizon.
Reclining on a pile of cushions with the long, flexible tube of his nargile enwrapping his form in its coils, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed endeavored to make out through the transparent darkness the shape of the distant palace where slumbered the fair Ayesha. A deep silence reigned over this picture that one might have taken for the work of the painter's brush, for not a breath, not a sound was there to reveal the presence of a living being: the only noise perceptible was that made by the smoke of Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed's nargile as it passed through the ball of rock-crystal that contained water designed to cool its white wreaths. All at once this tranquillity was broken by a piercing cry, a cry of supreme distress, such as the antelope at the border of the spring must utter when it feels the lion's paw upon its shoulder, or its head buried deep in the wide-extended jaws of the crocodile. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, terror-stricken at this cry of agony arid despair, sprang to his feet at a single bound and instinctively placed his hand upon the pommel of his yataghan and partially drew it so as to assure himself that it was free in the scabbard, then bent his ear in the direction whence the sound had seemed to him to proceed.
Far away in the darkness he descried a strange, shadowy group, composed of a white-robed figure pursued by a horde of black, fantastic, monstrous forms in disorderly array and with maniacal gestures. The white shadow seemed to fly over the house-tops, and the distance between it and its enemies was so small that there was reason to fear that it would soon be overtaken should the chase be protracted or should nothing happen to favor it. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed at first believed that it was a peri beset by a pack of ghouls, who munch the flesh of the dead with their huge tusks, or of djinns, with flabby, membranous wings and long nails like those of bats, and, drawing from his pocket his comboloio of beads of ruddy aloe-wood, he began to recite the ninety-nine names of Allah by way of exorcism. He had not yet reached the twentieth when he desisted. It was not a peri, a supernatural being, who was flying thus, leaping from terrace to terrace and bounding across the streets, four or five feet in width—which, in eastern cities, bisect the close-built blocks of houses—but a woman of flesh and blood, and the djinns were only mutes, chaouses, and eunuchs, who were after her in hot pursuit.
Only two or three terraces and a street now lay between the fugitive and the platform where Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was standing, but her strength seemed to be abandoning her; she turned her head convulsively for a look backward, and, as a spent horse that feels the spur tearing his flank, beholding the hideous band so close upon her trail, she made a supreme effort, and with a desperate leap placed the street between her and her foes.
She grazed Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed in her headlong flight without perceiving him, for the moon was now obscured by clouds, and flew to the extremity of the terrace, which fronted on that side upon a second street, wider than the first. Distrusting her ability to leap it, she seemed to be casting her eyes about for some nook in which to conceal herself, and noticing a great marble vase, she hid within it, like the genie who re-enters the cup of a lily.
The raging troop, came upon the terrace with the impetuosity of a flight of demons. Their black or copper-colored faces, either with long mustaches or else hideously beardless, their flashing eyes, their clenched hands, brandishing kandjars or blades of Damascus, the ferocity expressed upon their degraded and cruel countenances, inspired Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed with a feeling of terror, although he was personally a brave man and well skilled in the use of arms. They gave a rapid glance over the unoccupied terrace and, not beholding the fugitive there, doubtless thought she had passed the second street, and continued onward in their pursuit without paying further attention to Mahmoud-Ben-Ahraed.
When the clash of their weapons and the noise of their babooshes upon the flagstones of the terraces had died away in the distance, the fugitive first raised her pretty, pale face above the edge of the vase and looked about her with the air of a frightened antelope, then her shoulders emerged and she stood erect, a charming pistil rising from the depths of that great flower of marble; perceiving that there was no one there but Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, who was smiling upon her and making signs that she had no cause for fear, she leaped lightly from the vase and came toward the young man with an aspect of humility and hands extended in supplication.
"I beseech you, my lord, for sweet pity's sake, have mercy on me and save me; hide me in the darkest corner of your mansion, protect me from those demons who are pursuing me."
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed took her by the hand, led her to the staircase of the terrace, of which he lowered and carefully closed the trap-door, and conducted her to his apartment. When he had lighted his lamp he saw that the fugitive was young, which the silvery tone of her voice had already given him reason to suspect was the case, and very pretty, which did not astonish him, for the light of the stars had sufficed to reveal the elegance of her form. She seemed not to be more than fifteen years old. Her excessive pallor contrasted strongly with her big, black, almond-shaped eyes, the corners of which were prolonged so that they reached the temples; her thin and delicately moulded nose gave distinction to a profile that might have inspired envy in the most beautiful maidens of Scio or of Cyprus, and eclipsed the marble beauty of the idols that were once worshiped by the old pagan Greeks. Her fleck was perfect in form and charming in its whiteness; only there was visible at the back a thin streak of scarlet, thin as a hair or the finest thread of silk, and a few tiny drops of blood were oozing from this red line. Her attire was plain, and consisted of a silk-embroidered jacket, muslin trousers and a belt with gayly colored stripes; her bosom was heaving tumultuously beneath her tunic of striped gauze, for she was still breathless and scarcely recovered from her alarm.
When she was rested and reassured somewhat, she kneeled before Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed and told him her story in well-chosen language. "I was a slave," said she, "in the seraglio of the wealthy Abu-Becker, and I was guilty of conveying to his favorite sultana a selam, or floral letter, that had been sent her by an extremely handsome young emir with whom she was carrying on a correspondence. Abu-Becker, having surprised the secret and thereon fallen into a terrible rage, caused the sultana to be sewn up in a leather bag along with two cats and thrown into the river and sentenced me to have my head cut off. The execution of the sentence devolved upon the kislar-aga; but, taking advantage of the fright and consternation that poor Nourmahal's terrible punishment had caused in the seraglio, and finding the trap-door leading to the terrace open, I made my escape. My flight was discovered, and forthwith the black eunuchs, the zebecs and the Albanians in my master's service started in pursuit of me. One of them, Mesrour by name, whose advances I have many a time repelled, was so close at my heels that he barely missed catching me; I once even felt the edge of the blade that he was brandishing graze my neck, and it was then that I gave utterance to that dreadful cry that you must have heard, for I confess that I thought my last hour had come; but God is God and Mohammed is his prophet, and the angel Azrael was not yet ready to carry me away to the bridge Alsirat. My only hope now rests in you. Abu-Becker is powerful, he will send out men upon my track and, should he succeed in taking me, Mesrour's hand will be steadier next time and his kandjar will not be satisfied with grazing my neck," said she, smiling and passing her hand over the faint red mark that the eunuch's blade had left behind it. "Take me for your slave; I will devote to you the life for which I am indebted to you. You will always have a shoulder on which to rest your elbow, and my hair will serve to wipe the dust from your sandals."
As is the case with all men who devote their attention to poetry and literature, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was of a very compassionate disposition. Leila, as the fugitive slave was called, used choice language to express her thoughts and was young and beautiful, and had this not been so, humanity would not have allowed him to drive her from his door. He designated to the young slave a corner of the room where there were a Persian carpet and some silken cushions, and upon the edge of the estrade a little collation of dates, candied cedrats and conserve of roses of Constantinople which he, distraught as he was and busied with his reflections, had not touched, and further, two jars of the porous clay of Thebes for imparting coolness to the water, standing in saucers of Japanese porcelain and covered with pearly beads of dew. Having thus provided temporarily for Leila's comfort, he mounted again to his terrace to finish his nargile and find the concluding rhymes for the ghazel that he was composing in honor of the princess Ayesha, a ghazel in which the lilies of Iran, the flowers of Gulistan, the stars and all the constellations of the heavens were quarreling among themselves to be allowed the honor of a place.
The next morning, as soon as it was day, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed reflected that he had no sachet of benzoin, that he was quite out of civet, and that the silken pouch, embroidered with gold and studded with spangles, in which he kept his latakia, was frayed and that it was high time to replace it by another, richer and in better taste. Barely giving himself time to perform his ablutions and say his morning prayer, turning his face the while toward the rising sun, he went forth from his abode, first having re-copied his verses and placed them in his sleeve, as he had done the other time, not, however, with the intention of showing them to his friend Abdul, but of giving them to the princess Ayesha in person should he be so happy as to meet with her at the bazaar, in the shop of the merchant Bedreddin. The muezzin, perched aloft upon the balcony of the minaret, had only called the fifth hour, and the streets were untenanted save for the fellahs driving before them their asses loaded with watermelons, frails of dates, chickens tied together by their claws and quarters of mutton, which they were carrying to the market. He was in the quarter where Ayesha's palace was situated, but all that he could see was crenelated and whitewashed walls. Nothing was to be seen at the three or four small windows, obstructed by wooden lattices with narrow openings, which allowed the people of the house to see what was going on in the street, but were provokingly disappointing to the inquisitive glances of the Paul Prys who were outside. The palaces of the East, unlike the palaces of Frankestan, save their glories for the interior, and, so to speak, turn their back to the wayfarer. So Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed did not profit greatly by his investigations. He saw three or four richly appareled negro slaves going out or coming in, whose insolent and haughty bearing attested their consciousness of making part of a prominent family and belonging to a person of the highest quality. Our love-struck swain made fruitless efforts, by gazing at those thick walls, to discover in what quarter Ayesha's apartments lay. He gazed in vain: the main entrance, an arch describing the shape of a heart, was protected by an inner wall; access to the court was by means of a lateral door which suffered no impertinent glance to enter. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was obliged to retire without having made any discovery; it was getting late and he might have attracted attention. He therefore bent his steps toward Bedreddin's shop, to gain whose favor he made considerable purchases of things of which he was not in the slightest need. He seated himself in the shop, cross-questioned the merchant, examined him upon his trade, inquired if the silks and carpets brought in by the last caravan from Aleppo had met with a good sale, if his ships had got into port without damage; in a word, he had recourse to all the contemptible tricks that lovers habitually make use of; he was in hopes to see Ayesha come into the shop, but he was disappointed in his anticipation; she did not come that day. He went away home with a heavy heart, already branding her as cruel and perfidious, as if she had actually promised him that she would be at Bedreddin's and had broken her word.
When he returned to his room he deposited his babooshes in the niche of sculptured marble that was hollowed in the wall beside the door for that purpose, laid aside the caftan of costly stuff that he had donned with the idea of making himself attractive and appearing to the best advantage before Ayesha, and stretched himself upon his divan in a state of dejection that bordered on despair. It seemed to him that all was lost, that the world was about to come to an end, and he solaced himself by railing bitterly against fate; and all because he had failed to meet, as he had hoped to do, a woman whom, two days before, he was entirely unacquainted with.
As he lay there with the eyes of his body closed that he might the better behold the dream of his soul, he was conscious of a gentle, breeze blowing refreshingly upon his brow; he raised his eyelids and beheld Leila, seated on the floor at his side, waving one of those little streamers made of the bark of the palm tree which in Eastern countries serve as a fan and a fly-flap. He had quite forgotten her existence.
"What is the matter with you, dear master?" she said, in a voice that was as soft and melodious as sweetest music. "Some care is troubling you; your peace of mind seems to have deserted you. Were it in the power of your poor slave to disperse that cloud of melancholy that rests upon your brow, she would deem herself the happiest woman upon earth, and not even upon Ayesha, rich and beautiful though she be, would she look with the eye of envy."
The mention of that name caused Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed to start upon his divan, like a sick man upon whose sore a hand is unintentionally laid; he raised himself partially upon his elbow and cast an inquiring look upon Leila, who maintained a perfectly unruffled countenance, expressive only of a tender solicitude. For all that he blushed as if she had read his heart and surprised the secret of his passion. Leila, without remarking upon this tell-tale and significant signal, continued to soothe her new master with consoling words:
"What can I do to drive from your mind the dark thoughts by which it is haunted? Peradventure a little music might serve to dissipate that melancholy. I was taught the secrets of composition by an old slave who was an odalisque of the former sultan; I can improvise poetry and accompany myself upon the guzla."
So saying she took from the wall the guzla with its sounding-board of lemon-wood, its ivory keys and handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ebony, and with rare address performed upon it the tarabuca and some other Arab airs.
The purity of her voice and the sweetness of the music would have gladened Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed at any other time, for he was extremely susceptible to the charm of poetry and harmony, but now his brain and heart were so full of the woman whom he had seen at Bedreddin's that he gave no attention to Leila's songs.
The next day was kinder to him than the preceding one had been, for he met Ayesha at Bedreddin's shop. To attempt to describe his joy would be a hopeless undertaking; only those who have loved are capable of understanding it. He remained for a moment speechless, breathless, seeing things dimly, as through a cloud. Ayesha, who perceived his emotion, was gratified by it and addressed him very affably, for there is nothing that so flatters the pride of those of noble birth as the disturbance that they cause. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, once he was master of himself again, strained every nerve to make himself agreeable, and as he was young and good looking, had studied poetry and expressed himself in the most elegant language, he thought he could see that he was not displeasing to her eyes and made bold to ask the princess for a rendezvous in a more suitable and more retired place than was afforded by Bedreddin's shop.
"I know," he said, "that at best I am but fit to be the dust beneath your feet, that the swiftest horse in the stable of the prophet, even should he gallop at his highest speed, could not traverse the distance that parts me from you in a thousand years; but love begets audacity, and the worm enamored of the rose may not refrain from telling his passion."
Ayesha listened to it all without the slightest indication of anger, and fixing full upon Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed her languorous eyes, said to him:
"Be in the mosque of the sultan Hassan, beneath the third lamp, to-morrow at the hour of prayer; you will encounter there a black slave attired in yellow damask. Follow him whither he may lead you." That said, she covered her face with her veil and left the shop.
Our swain, as may well be supposed, did not fail to be punctual at the rendezvous; he stationed himself beneath the third lamp and did not dare to stir from it for fear of not being found by the black slave, who was not yet at his post. It is true that Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was there two hours ahead of the appointed time. At last he saw the negro in yellow damask approaching; he came straight to the pillar against which Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was leaning. When the slave had observed him closely he made a sign to indicate that the young man was to follow him, and they left the mosque together. The black walked rapidly, and led Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, with many a twist and turn, through the tortuous tangle of the streets of Cairo. Once our young man would have entered into conversation with his guide, but the latter, opening wide his mouth that bristled with sharp, white teeth, showed that his tongue had been cut away at the roots. This circumstance would have rendered it difficult for him to commit an indiscretion.
At last they reached a portion of the city that seemed entirely deserted and to which Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was a stranger, although he was born in Cairo and thought that he knew every quarter of it: the mute stopped before a whitewashed wall in which there was no indication of a door. He measured off six paces, from the corner of the wall and then looked very carefully among the interstices of the stones, doubtless for a spring that was concealed there. Having discovered it he pressed the lever and a column revolved upon its axis, disclosing a dark and narrow passage which the mute entered, followed by Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed. First they descended a flight of steps, over a hundred in number, after which they pursued their way along a dark corridor that seemed to be of interminable length. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, as he groped his way along the walls, covered with sculptured hieroglyphics, knew that they had been cut through the living rock, and perceived that he was among the subterranean passages of an ancient Egyptian necropolis which some one had utilized by transforming them into this concealed exit. There was a glimpse of bluish daylight visible in the remote distance, at the end of the corridor. This light came to them through the lace-work of a carving that evidently made part of the room in which the corridor terminated. The slave again touched a spring, and Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed found himself in a great hall paved with white marble, with a basin and fountain in the middle, columns of alabaster, walls covered with mosaics of glass and sentences from the Koran, interspersed with flowers and other decorations, while over all was a vault, intricately and laboriously carved, like the interior of a beehive or of a grotto roofed with stalactites; the decoration was completed by huge scarlet poppies growing in great Moorish vases of blue and white porcelain. Seated upon an estrade piled with cushions, in a sort of alcove that had been excavated in the thickness of the wall, was the princess Ayesha, unveiled, radiant with beauty and surpassing in loveliness the houris of the fourth heaven.
"Well! Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed," she said, addressing him in a most gracious tone and signing to him to be seated, "have you been making more verses in my honor?"
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed cast himself at Ayesha's feet and, drawing the papyrus from his sleeve, recited his ghazel in most impassioned tones; in truth it was a remarkable piece of poetry. As he read the princess's cheeks brightened and flamed like a lamp of alabaster that has been newly lighted. Her eyes shone like stars and emitted rays of surprising brightness, her form seemed to become transparent, and there was a faint apparition as of butterfly-wings growing from her pretty, vibrating shoulders. Unfortunately Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, too deeply engrossed in reading his piece of poetry, did not raise his eyes and so saw nothing of the transformation that had been going on. When he reached the end he had only before him the Princess Ayesha, who looked at him with an ironical smile upon her lips.
Like all poets, who are too much wrapped up in their own creations, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed had forgotten that the finest lines are of no worth as compared with a sincere word or a look that is illumined by the light of love. Peris are like women, it behooves one to read them and grasp them just at the very moment when they are about to wing their way back to heaven, to descend to earth no more. Opportunity, is to be seized by the forelock, and the spirits of air by their wings; it is by such methods alone that they are to be subjugated.
"Of a truth, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, you possess a poetic talent of the rarest, and your verses are worthy of being displayed upon the doors of the mosques, written in letters of gold, beside the most celebrated productions of Ferdusi, Saadi and Ibnn-Ben-Omaz. It is a pity that you were so absorbed but now in the perfection of your alliterative rhymes that you did not look at me; you might have seen—something that perhaps you will never see again. The dearest wish of your heart was fulfilled right before your eyes without your being awai-e of it. Adieu, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, who would marry none but a peri."
Thereupon Ayesha arose with an extremely majestic air, raised a portière of gold brocade and disappeared.
The mute came to seek Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed and conducted him by the same road back to the same place whence he had taken him. Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, shocked and grieved at having been dismissed in such summary fashion, knew not what to think, and lost himself in conjectures without being able to discover any reason for the princess's abrupt leave-taking; his reflections resulted in attributing it to the caprice of a woman who would be ready to veer around again, at the first opportunity, but it was to no purpose that he visited Bedreddin to purchase benzoin and skins of the civet cat, he saw nothing more of the Princess Ayesha; he made countless pilgrimages to the mosque of the sultan Hassan and wasted much time standing by the third pillar; the black slave in yellow damask did not appear, and the result of it all was that he sank into a deep, black fit of melancholy.
Leila taxed her ingenuity in inventing a thousand things for his diversion: she played for him on the guzla; she told him most wonderful tales, adorned his chamber with festoons and garlands of flowers of which the colors were so agreeably mated and diversified that the sense of sight was as much gratified as was that of smell; sometimes she even danced before him, displaying as much agility and grace as the most skilful almée; any other than Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed would have been touched by such attention and good will, but his thoughts were elsewhere and the longing to find Ayesha again left him no repose. Many a time he had gone and wandered about the princess's palace, but had never succeeded in catching a glimpse of her; nothing was visible behind the tightly closed lattices; the palace was like a tomb.
His friend Abdul-Malek, alarmed by his condition, frequently came to see him, and on such occasions could not help observing Leila's beauty and accomplishments, which, to say the least, equaled those of the princess Ayesha, even if they did not surpass them, and he was astonished to see how blind Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed was; had it not been that he feared to violate the sacred laws of friendship he would gladly have made, the young slave his wife. Still, however, Leila, without suffering any loss of beauty, grew paler and paler day by day; her great eyes were suffused with languor, and the roseate hues of dawn upon her cheeks were displaced by the pallor of the moonlight. One day Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed perceived that she had been weeping and asked of her the reason.
"Oh! dear master," she said, "how can I tell it? I, the poor slave, received and sheltered by your compassion, have dared to love you; but what am I in your eyes? I know that you have made a vow to love none but a peri or sultana: others might be content to have the sincere love of a pure young heart without longing for the daughter of the caliph or the queen of the genii. Look at me; I was fifteen years old yesterday, and it may be that I am as beautiful as that Ayesha whose name you are constantly mentioning in your dreams; it is true that my brow is not adorned by the magic ruby or by the aigrette of heron-plumes, I am not accompanied in my walks by soldiers bearing muskets inlaid with silver and coral. I can sing, however, I can improvise airs upon the guzla, and I dance like Emineh herself. I am to you as a devoted sister; what, then, is wanting to enable me to reach your heart?"
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed felt a disturbance in the region of his heart as he listened to these words of the fair Leila; he said nothing, however, and seemed to be buried in profound meditation. His mind was divided between two conflicting considerations: on the one hand he could not renounce his cherished dream without a pang; on the other, he told himself that he would be a madman to bestow his affections upon a woman who had trifled with him and left him with mocking words, when right there in his house there was a being who was, at least, the equal in youth and beauty of her whom he had lost.
Leila, as if awaiting her doom, remained kneeling before him, and two great tears coursed silently down the poor child's pale cheeks.
"Ah! why did not Mesrour's blade complete the work that he had begun!" she exclaimed, raising her hand to her white, slender neck.
Moved by her despairing accent, Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed raised the young slave and imprinted a kiss upon her forehead.
Leila drew herself up as a dove does when it is caressed, and taking a position in front of Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed took both his hands in hers and said to him: "Look at me closely; don't you think that I am very like some one whom you know?"
Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed could not help uttering a cry of surprise:
"The face is the same, the eyes are the same; in a word, all the features are those of the princess Ayesha. How is it that I have never noticed the resemblance until now?"
"The looks with which you have favored your poor slave up to the present time have been very unobservant," Leila replied in a tone of gentle raillery.
"The princess Ayesha herself, now, might send me her blackamoor in his yellow damask robe with the selam of love; I would refuse to follow him."
"Do you mean it?" said Leila, in a voice more melodious than that of Bulbul telling his tale of love to his dear rose. "And yet it won't do to be too scornful toward that poor Ayesha, who is so like me."
The only answer that Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed made was to press the young slave to his heart. Imagine his astonishment, though, when he beheld a gentle light emanating from Leila's face, the magic ruby glittering upon her brow, and wings, shot with the hues of the peacock, sprouting from her lovely shoulders! Leila was a peri!
"Dear Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, I am not the princess Ayesha, neither am I Leila, the slave. My true name is Boudroulboudour. I am a peri of the highest rank, as you may see by my ruby and my wings. As I was passing through the air one night, over your terrace, I heard you express the wish that you might be loved by a peri. The daring aspiration pleased me; ignorant, vulgar mortals, abandoned to terrestrial pleasures, are not visited by such dreams of rare delights. I determined to make trial of you, and I assumed the disguise of Ayesha and of Leila to see if you would recognize me and love me in my human garb. Your heart was more clear-sighted than your, mind and your goodness was stronger than your vanity. The devotedness of the slave made you prefer her above the sultana; it was what I wished to see you do. At one time I was seduced by the beauty of your verse and was on the point of betraying myself, but I feared that you were but a poet enamored of your own imagination and your rhymes, and I left you with an affectation of haughty disdain. It was your wish to marry Leila, the slave: Boudroulboudour, the peri, takes it upon her to replace her. I will be Leila for all the world beside and peri for you alone, for I have your happiness at heart and the world would never forgive you the enjoyment of a felicity greater than its own. Fairy though I be, it would tax all my powers to protect you against the envy and the wickedness of mankind."
These conditions were rapturously accepted by Mahmoud-Ben-Ahmed, and the wedding-feast was celebrated just as if he had really married little Leila.
Such is substantially the story that I dictated to Scheherazade, with the assistance of Francesco.
"How did the Sultan like your Arab story, and what has become of Scheherazade?"
"I have never seen her since."
I am afraid that Schahriar did not like the story and gave orders, in earnest, this time, to chop off the poor Sultana's head.
Friends of mine, returning from Bagdad, have, told me that they saw a woman sitting on the steps of a mosque, whose craze it was to think that she was Dinarzarde of the Thousand and One Nights, and that she kept repeating these words over and over:
"Sister, if you are not sleeping, tell us, I pray you, one of those pretty stories that you know so well."
She would wait a few moments, turning her head and listening intently, and as she received no answer would begin to weep, then would dry her eyes with a gold-embroidered handkerchief, all stained with spots of blood.
- An allusion to Alphonse Karr's work, Les Guêpes.