I had lived in this manner for some time, when for three successive evenings, towards the dusk, retiring from my coffee-house, I remarked an old woman standing at the corner of a small street that nearly faced it. She always gazed intensely at me, seemed desirous to speak, looked up every now and then at the latticed windows of the house, at the foot of which she had taken post, and then allowed me to pass on.
The first time I scarcely took notice of her, an old woman standing at the corner of a street being nothing remarkable; but, on the second, I became surprised, and was on my guard; the third roused all my curiosity; and on the fourth evening I determined, if she appeared again, to discover what could be her meaning.
Accordingly I dressed myself rather better than usual, having taken it for granted that my good looks, added to the protection of my good planet, were at work for me; and issuing forth from the coffee-house, I walked with a slow and sauntering step towards the mysterious woman. I was about accosting her, when, as I turned the angle of the street that screened me from the windows of the coffee-house, of a sudden a lattice of the house before mentioned was thrown open, and an unveiled female presented herself to my sight, whose face and form appeared to me of the most dazzling beauty. A flower was in her hand, which she first held out to my notice, then placed it on her heart, threw it to me, and then shut the lattice in such haste, that the whole scene was like an apparition which had shown itself, and then suddenly disappeared. I stood with my mouth open, and my eyes directed upwards, until I was gently pulled by the sleeve by the old woman, who had picked up the flower, and was presenting it to me as I looked round upon her.
‘What is this,’ said I, ‘in the name of the Prophet? Are there Gins and Peris in this land?’
‘Are you such a novice,’ answered the old woman, ‘not to know what that flower means? Your beard is long enough, you are not a child, and your dress proclaims that you have travelled; but you have travelled to little purpose, if you know not what a lady means when she gives you an almond flower.
‘O yes,’ said I, ‘I know that fistek (almond) rhymes to yastek (pillow); and I also know that two heads upon one pillow have frequently been compared to two kernels in one almond; but my beard is long enough to remind me also, that such things do not happen without danger, and that the heads may be cut off, as well as the kernels swallowed up.’
‘Fear nothing,’ said my companion with great emotion, ‘by the holy Mohamed, we are clean ones, and you despise fortune, if you reject us. Are you an ass, that you should start at a shadow? for such are your fears.’
‘Tell me then,’ said I, ‘who is the lady I have just seen, and what am I to do?’
‘Be not in such a hurry,’ answered she; ‘nothing can be done to-night, and you must have patience. Time and place are not now convenient; but meet me to-morrow at noon, at the cemetery of Eyúb, and you will hear all that you wish to know. I shall be seated at the foot of the tomb of the first emir on your right hand, and you will recognize me from any other woman by a red shawl, thrown over my left shoulder. Go, and Allah go with you!’
Upon this we parted, and I returned to my room in the caravanserai to ruminate over what had happened. I did not doubt that something good was in store for me; but I had heard terrible accounts of the jealousy of Turkish husbands, and could not help imagining that I might fall a victim to the fury of some much-injured man. Zeenab and her tower, Mariam and her Yûsûf, Dilaram and her pimple, all the instances of unfortunate loves, came across my mind in succession, and damped any desire that I might at first have felt in prosecuting this adventure. However, my blood was yet young and warm enough to carry me forwards, and I determined, though reluctantly, to proceed.
On the noon of the ensuing day I faithfully kept my engagement, looked for the first green-turbaned tomb, which I duly found on my right hand, where I discovered the old woman with her red shawl over her left shoulder. We retired from the roadside, and retreated to the shade of some of the loftiest cypress trees in the burial-ground; where, seated on the ground, with the magnificent view of the harbour of Constantinople before us, we calmly entered upon the subject of our conference.
She first complimented me upon my punctuality, and then again assured me, that I had nothing to fear from what she was about to propose. She had all the garrulity of her age, and spoke for some time but to little purpose, making professions of her attachment, and of her desire to serve me; all of which I foresaw would ultimately diminish the profits of my pipe-sticks, and I therefore stopped her progress, and requested her at once to let me know the history of the fair lady at the window.
Divesting her narrative of all her repetitions and circumlocutions, she spoke nearly to the following effect:—
‘The lady whom you saw, and whose servant I am, is the only daughter of a rich Aleppo merchant, who, besides her, had two sons. The father died not long ago, and was succeeded in his business by his sons, who are now wealthy merchants, and reside in this city. My mistress, whose name is Shekerleb, or Sugar-lips, was married when very young to an old but rich emir, who scrupulously refrained from having more than one wife at a time, because from experience he knew that he could have no peace at home if he took advantage of the permissions of his law in multiplying to himself his female companions. He was very fond of domestic quiet, and therefore hoped, by taking one so young, he might be able to mould her to his wishes, and that she would never thwart him in his inclinations. In that he was fortunate, for a more gentle and docile creature than my mistress does not exist. There was only one point upon which they could never agree, which proved indeed one of the causes of the Emir’s death, which happened soon after. She liked tarts made with cream, and he preferred his with cheese. On this subject, regularly for five years they daily at breakfast had a dispute, until, about six months ago, the old man, having ate over much of his favourite cheese-tarts, had an indigestion and died. He bequeathed one-fourth of his wealth, the house which you saw, his furniture, his slaves, in short, all that he could leave according to the Mohamedan law, to the fair Shekerleb, now his disconsolate widow. With the advantages of youth, beauty, and riches, you may be certain that she has not lived without admirers; but she has wisdom and discretion beyond most young women of her age, and hitherto has resisted forming any new tie, resolving to wait until some good opportunity, to marry one whom she might really love, and who would neither be swayed by interest nor ambition.
‘Living opposite to one of the most fashionable coffee-houses in the city, she has had an opportunity of watching those who frequent it; and without a compliment, I need not say that she soon distinguished you as the handsomest amongst them, and indeed, as the man most to her fancy whom she had ever seen. My brother,’ said the old woman, ‘is the owner of the coffee-house, and as the opportunities of seeing him are frequent, I requested him to inquire who you were; and to let me know what sort of a character you bore. His report was such as highly pleased my mistress; and we resolved to endeavour to make you notice us, and if possible to get acquainted with you. You best know how we have succeeded, and now will be able to judge whether I have rendered you a service or not.’
Little did I expect to hear such a result when first the old woman began her tale. I now felt like one who had received his reprieve after condemnation. Instead of the mysteries, disguises, scaling of walls and windows, drawn scimitars, and bloody wounds attendant on a Turkish intrigue, I saw nothing before me but riches, ease, and repose from all future care. I blessed my star; in short, I held my fortune to be made. I was so transported at what I heard, that I made use of a thousand incoherent expressions to my companion; I protested and vowed eternal love to her mistress, and promised the most liberal remuneration to herself.
‘But there is one circumstance,’ said she, ‘which my mistress has ordered me to ascertain before she can receive you; which is, the respectability of your family and the extent of your fortune. You must know that her brothers and relations are very proud; and if she were to make an unworthy alliance, they would treat her with the greatest harshness, and not fail to ill-treat if not to make away with her husband.’
Although I was not prepared for this, yet such was the quickness with which I had seized the whole extent of the good fortune awaiting me, that with the same quickness I without hesitation said, ‘Family? Family, did you say? Who is there that does not know Hajji Baba? Let him inquire from the confines of Yemen to those of Irâk, and from the seas of Hind to the shores of the Caspian, and his name will be well known.’
‘But who was your father?’ said the old woman.
‘My father?’ said I, after a pause; ‘he was a man of great power. More heads came under his thumb, and he took more men with impunity by the beard, than even the chief of the Wahabi himself.’
I had now gained sufficient time to arrange a little off-hand genealogy for myself; and as ‘the old woman’s countenance expanded at what I had said, I continued to speak to her after this manner:—
‘If your mistress wants high blood, then let her look to me. Be assured, that she and her brothers, be they who they may, will never exceed me in descent. Arab blood flows in my veins, and that of the purest kind. My ancestor was a Mansouri Arab, from the province of Nejd in Arabia Felix, who with the whole of his tribe was established by Shah Ismael of Persia in some of the finest pastures of Irâk, and where they have lived ever since. My great ancestor, Kâtir, ben Khur, ben Asp, ben Al Madian, was of the tribe of Koreish, and that brought him in direct relationship with the family of our blessed Prophet, from whom all the best blood of Islam flows.’
‘Allah, Allah!’ exclaimed the old woman, ‘enough, enough. If you are all this, my mistress wants no more. And if your riches are equal to your birth, we shall be entirely satisfied.’
‘As for my riches,’ said I, ‘I cannot boast of much cash; but what merchant ever has cash at command? You must know as well as myself, that it is always laid out in merchandise, which is dispersed over different parts of the world, and which in due time returns back to him with increase. My Persian silks and velvets are now travelling into Khorassan, and will bring me back the lambskins of Bokhara. My agents, provided with gold and otter skins, are ready at Meshed to buy the shawls of Cashmere, and the precious stones of India. At Astrakan, my cotton stuffs are to be bartered against sables, cloth and glass ware; and the Indian goods which I buy at Bassorah and send to Aleppo are to return to me in the shape of skull-caps and shalli stuffs. In short, to say precisely what I am worth, would be as difficult as to count the ears in a field of wheat; but you may safely tell your mistress that the man of her choice, whenever he gathers his wealth together, will astonish her and her family by its extent.’
‘Praise be to Allah!’ said the confidant, ‘all is now as it should be, and it only remains to make you acquainted with each other. You must not fail to be at the corner of the street at night-fall, when, with all the necessary precautions you will be introduced to the divine Shekerleb; and if she approves of you, nothing will interpose to defer your marriage and your happiness. There is only one piece of advice which I have to give; that is, be sure to like cream-tarts, and to disapprove of cheese ones. Upon every other topic she is liberal and without prejudice. May Allah keep you in peace and safety!’
So saying, she drew up the lower part of her veil over her mouth; and receiving two pieces of gold without a struggle, which I put into her hand, she walked away, and left me again to my meditations.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12