The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night

The Concubine of Al-Maamun470

As I sat one day in my shop, there came up to me a fair woman, as she were the moon at its rising, and with her a hand-maid. Now I was a handsome man in my time; so that lady sat down on my shop471 and buying stuffs of me, paid the price and went her ways. I asked the girl anent her and she answered, “I know not her name.” Quoth I, “Where is her abode?” Quoth she, “In heaven;” and I, “She is presently on the earth; so when doth she ascend to heaven and where is the ladder by which she goeth up?”472 the girl retorted, “She hath her lodging in a palace between two rivers,473 that is, in the palace of Al-Maamún al-Hákim bi-Amri ’llah.”474 Then said I, “I am a dead man, without a doubt;” but she replied, “Have patience, for needs must she return to thee and buy other stuffs of thee.” I asked, “And how cometh it that the Commander of the Faithful trusteth her to go out?” and she answered, “He loveth her with exceeding love and is wrapped up in her and crosseth her not.” Then the slave-girl went away, running after her mistress; whereupon I left the shop and followed them, so I might see her abiding-place. I kept them in view all the way, till she disappeared from mine eyes, when I returned to my place, with heart a-fire. Some days after, she came to me again and bought stuffs of me: I refused to take the price and she cried, “We have no need of thy goods.” Quoth I, “O my lady, accept them from me as a gift;” but quoth she, “Wait till I try thee and make proof of thee.” Then she brought out of her pocket a purse and gave me therefrom a thousand dinars, saying, “Trade with this till I return to thee.” So I took the purse and she went away and returned not till six months had passed. Meanwhile, I traded with the money and sold and bought and made other thousand dinars profit on it. At last she came to me again and I said to her, “Here is thy money and I have gained with it other thousand ducats;” and she, “Let it lie by thee and take these other thousand dinars. As soon as I have departed from thee, go thou to Al-Rauzah, the Garden-holm, and build there a goodly pavilion, and when the edifice is accomplished, give me to know thereof. As soon as she was gone, I betook myself to Al-Rauzah and fell to building the pavilion, and when it was finished, I furnished it with the finest of furniture and sent to tell her that I had made an end to the edifice; whereupon she sent back to me, saying, “Let him meet me to-morrow about day-break at the Zuwaylah gate and bring with him a strong ass.” I did as she bade and, betaking myself to the Zuwaylah gate, at the appointed time, found there a young man on horseback, awaiting her, even as I awaited her. As we stood, behold, up she came, and with her a slave-girl. When she saw that young man, she asked him, “Art thou here?” and he answered, “Yes, O my lady.” Quoth she, “To-day I am invited by this man: wilt thou wend with us?” and quoth he, “Yes.” then said she, “Thou hast brought me hither against my will and parforce. Wilt thou go with us in any case?”475 He cried, “Yes, yes,” and we fared on, all three, until we came to Al-Rauzah and entered the pavilion. The dame diverted herself awhile with viewing its ordinance and furniture, after which she doffed her walking-dress and sat down with the young man in the goodliest and chiefest place. Then I fared forth and brought them what they should eat at the first of the day; presently I again went out and fetched them what they should eat at the end of the day and brought for the twain wine and dessert and fruits and flowers. After this fashion I abode in their service, standing on my feet, and she said not unto me, “Sit,” nor “Take, eat” nor “Take, drink,” while she and the young man sat toying and laughing, and he feel to kissing her and pinching her and hopping over the ground476 and laughing. They remained thus awhile and presently she said, “Hitherto we have not become drunken; let me pour out.” So she took the cup, and crowning it, gave him to drink and plied him with wine, till he lost his wits, when she took him up and carried him into a closet. Then she came out, with the head of that youth in her hand, while I stood silent, fixing not mine eyes on her eyes neither questioning her of the case; and she asked me, “Take it and throw it in the river.” I accepted her commandment and she arose and stripping herself of her clothes, took a knife and cut the dead man’s body in pieces, which she laid in three baskets, and said to me, “Throw them into the river.” I did her bidding and when I returned, she said to me, “Sit, so I may relate to thee yonder fellow’s case, lest thou be affrighted at what accident hath befallen him. Thou must know that I am the Caliph’s favourite concubine, nor is there any higher in honour with him than I; and I am allowed six nights in each month, wherein I go down into the city and tarry with my whilome mistress who reared me; and when I go down thus, I dispose of myself as I will. Now this young man was the son of certain neighbors of my mistress, when I was a virgin girl. One day, my mistress was sitting with the chief officers of the palace and I was alone in the house, and as the night came on, I went up to the terrace-roof in order to sleep there, but ere I was ware, this youth came up from the street and falling upon me knelt on my breast. He was armed with a dagger and I could not get free of him till he had taken my maidenhead by force; and this sufficed him not, but he must needs disgrace me with all the folk for, as often as I came down from the palace, he would stand in wait for me by the way and futtered me against my will and follow me wheresoever I went. This, then, is my story, and as for thee, thou pleasest me and thy patience pleaseth me and thy good faith and loyal service, and there abideth with me none dearer than thou.” Then I lay with her that night and there befel what befel between us till the morning, when she gave me abundant wealth and took to meeting me at the pavilion six days in every month. After this wise we passed a whole year, at the end of which she cut herself off from me a month’s space, wherefore fire raged in my heart on her account. When it was the next month, behold, a little eunuch presented himself to me and said, “I am a messenger to thee from Such-an-one, who giveth thee to know that the Commander of the Faithful hath ordered her to be drowned, her those who are with her, six-and-twenty slave-girls, on such a day at Dayr al-Tin,477 for that they have confessed of lewdness, one against other and she sayeth to thee, ‘Look how thou mayest do with me and how thou mayest contrive to deliver me, even an thou gather together all my money and spend it upon me, for that this be the time of manhood.’”478 Quoth I, “I know not this woman; belike it is other than I to whom this message is sent; so beware, O Eunuch, lest thou cast me into a cleft.” Quoth he, “Behold, I have told thee that I had to say,” and went away, leaving me in sore concern on her account. Now when the appointed day came, I arose and changing my clothes and favour, donned sailor’s apparel; then I took with me a purse full of gold and buying a right good breakfast, accosted a boatman at Dayr al-Tin and sat down and ate with him; after which I asked him, “Wilt thou hire me thy boat?” Answered he, “The Commander of the Faithful hath commanded me to be here;” and he told me the tale of the concubines and how the Caliph purposed to drown them that day. When I heard this from him, I brought out to him ten gold pieces and discovered to him my case, whereupon he said to me, “O my brother, get thee empty gourds, and when thy mistress cometh, give me to know of her and I will contrive the trick.” So I kissed his hand and thanked him and, as I was walking about, waiting, up came the guards and eunuchs escorting the women, who were weeping and shrieking and farewelling one another. The Castratos cried out to us, whereupon we came with the boat, and they said to the sailor, “Who be this?” Said he, “This is my mate whom I have brought to help me, so one of us may keep the boat whilst another doth your service.” Then they brought out to us the women, one by one, saying “Throw them in by the Island;” and we replied, “’Tis well.” Now each of them was shackled and they had made fast about her neck a jar of sand. We did as the neutrals bade us and ceased not to take the women, one after other, and cast them in, till they gave us my mistress and I winked to my mate. So we took her and carried her out and cast her into mid-stream, where I threw to her the empty gourds479 and said to her, “Wait for me at the mouth of the Canal.”480 now there remained one woman after her: so we took her and drowned her and the eunuchs went away, whilst we dropped down the river till we came to where I saw my mistress awaiting me. We haled her into the canoe and returned to our pavilion. Then I rewarded the sailor and he took his boat and went away; whereupon quoth she to me, “Thou art indeed the friend ever faithful found for the shifts of Fortune.”481 and I sojourned with her some days; but the shock wrought upon her so that she sickened and fell to wasting away and redoubled in weakness till she died. I mourned for her and buried her; after which I removed all that was in the pavilion and abandoned the building. Now she had brought to that pavilion a little coffer of copper and laid it in a place whereof I knew not; so, when the Inspector of Inheritances482 came, he rummaged the house and found the coffer. Presently he opened it and seeing it full of jewels and seal-rings, took it, and me with it, and ceased not to put me to the question with beating and torment till I confessed the whole affair. Thereupon they carried me to the Caliph and I told him all that had passed between me and her; and he said to me, “O man, depart this city, for I release thee on account of thy courage and because of thy constancy in keeping thy secret and thy daring in exposing thyself to death.” So I arose forthwith and fared from his city; and this is what befel me.

470 Mr. Payne entitles it, “The Merchant of Cairo and the Favourite of the Khalif el Mamoun el Hakim bi Amrillah.”

471 See my Pilgrimage (i. 100): the seat would be on the same bit of boarding where the master sits or on a stool or bench in the street.

472 This is true Cairene chaff, give and take; and the stranger must accustom himself to it before he can be at home with the people.

473 i.e. In Rauzah-Island: see vol. v. 169.

474 There is no historical person who answers to these name, “The Secure, the Ruler by Commandment of Allah.” The cognomen applies to two soldans of Egypt, of whom the later Abu al-Abbas Ahmad the Abbaside (A.D. 1261-1301) has already been mentioned in The Nights (vol. v. 86). The tale suggests the earlier Al-Hakim (Abu Ali al-Mansúr, the Fatimite, A.D. 995-1021), the God of the Druze “persuasion;” and the tale-teller may have purposely blundered in changing Mansúr to Maamún for fear of offending a sect which has been most dangerous in the matter of assassination and which is capable of becoming so again.

475 Arab. “’Alá kulli hál” = “whatever may betide,” or “willy-nilly.” The phrase is still popular.

476 The dulce desipere of young lovers, he making a buffoon of himself to amuse her.

477 “The convent of Clay,” a Coptic monastery near Cairo.

478 i.e. this is the time to show thyself a man.

479 The Eastern succedaneum for swimming corks and other “life-preservers.” The practice is very ancient; we find these guards upon the monuments of Egypt and Babylonia.

480 Arab. “Al-Khalíj,” the name, still popular, of the Grand Canal of Cairo, whose banks, by-the-by, are quaint and picturesque as anything of the kind in Holland.

481 We say more laconically “A friend in need.”

482 Arab. “Názir al-Mawárís,” the employé charged with the disposal of legacies and seizing escheats to the Crown when Moslems die intestate. He is usually a prodigious rascal as in the text. The office was long kept up in Southern Europe, and Camoens was sent to Macao as “Provedor dos defuntos e ausentes.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31