In the reign of the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid, there lived at Baghdad a porter who, in spite of his humble calling, was an intelligent and sensible man. One morning he was sitting in his usual place with his basket before him, waiting to be hired, when a tall young lady, covered with a long muslin veil, came up to him and said, “Pick up your basket and follow me.” The porter, who was greatly pleased by her appearance and voice, jumped up at once, poised his basket on his head, and accompanied the lady, saying to himself as he went, “Oh, happy day! Oh, lucky meeting!”
Illustration by H.J. Ford (1898)
The lady soon stopped before a closed door, at which she knocked. It was opened by an old man with a long white beard, to whom the lady held out money without speaking. The old man, who seemed to understand what she wanted, vanished into the house, and returned bringing a large jar of wine, which the porter placed in his basket. Then the lady signed to him to follow, and they went their way.
The next place she stopped at was a fruit and flower shop, and here she bought a large quantity of apples, apricots, peaches, and other things, with lilies, jasmine, and all sorts of sweet-smelling plants. From this shop she went to a butcher’s, a grocer’s, and a poulterer’s, till at last the porter exclaimed in despair, “My good lady, if you had only told me you were going to buy enough provisions to stock a town, I would have brought a horse, or rather a camel.” The lady laughed, and told him she had not finished yet, but after choosing various kinds of scents and spices from a druggist’s store, she halted before a magnificent palace, at the door of which she knocked gently. The porteress who opened it was of such beauty that the eyes of the man were quite dazzled, and he was the more astonished as he saw clearly that she was no slave. The lady who had led him hither stood watching him with amusement, till the porteress exclaimed, “Why don’t you come in, my sister? This poor man is so heavily weighed down that he is ready to drop.”
When they were both inside the door was fastened, and they all three entered a large court, surrounded by an open-work gallery. At one end of the court was a platform, and on the platform stood an amber throne supported by four ebony columns, garnished with pearls and diamonds. In the middle of the court stood a marble basin filled with water from the mouth of a golden lion.
The porter looked about him, noticing and admiring everything; but his attention was specially attracted by a third lady sitting on the throne, who was even more beautiful than the other two. By the respect shown to her by the others, he judged that she must be the eldest, and in this he was right. This lady’s name was Zobeida, the porteress was Sadie, and the housekeeper was Amina. At a word from Zobeida, Sadie and Amina took the basket from the porter, who was glad enough to be relieved from its weight; and when it was emptied, paid him handsomely for its use. But instead of taking up his basket and going away, the man still lingered, till Zobeida inquired what he was waiting for, and if he expected more money. “Oh, madam,” returned he, “you have already given me too much, and I fear I may have been guilty of rudeness in not taking my departure at once. But, if you will pardon my saying so, I was lost in astonishment at seeing such beautiful ladies by themselves. A company of women without men is, however, as dull as a company of men without women.” And after telling some stories to prove his point, he ended by entreating them to let him stay and make a fourth at their dinner.
The ladies were rather amused at the man’s assurances and after some discussion it was agreed that he should be allowed to stay, as his society might prove entertaining. “But listen, friend,” said Zobeida, “if we grant your request, it is only on condition that you behave with the utmost politeness, and that you keep the secret of our way of living, which chance has revealed to you.” Then they all sat down to table, which had been covered by Amina with the dishes she had bought.
After the first few mouthfuls Amina poured some wine into a golden cup. She first drank herself, according to the Arab custom, and then filled it for her sisters. When it came to the porter’s turn he kissed Amina’s hand, and sang a song, which he composed at the moment in praise of the wine. The three ladies were pleased with the song, and then sang themselves, so that the repast was a merry one, and lasted much longer than usual.
At length, seeing that the sun was about to set, Sadia said to the porter, “Rise and go; it is now time for us to separate.”
“Oh, madam,” replied he, “how can you desire me to quit you in the state in which I am? Between the wine I have drunk, and the pleasure of seeing you, I should never find the way to my house. Let me remain here till morning, and when I have recovered my senses I will go when you like.”
“Let him stay,” said Amina, who had before proved herself his friend. “It is only just, as he has given us so much amusement.”
“If you wish it, my sister,” replied Zobeida; “but if he does, I must make a new condition. Porter,” she continued, turning to him, “if you remain, you must promise to ask no questions about anything you may see. If you do, you may perhaps hear what you don’t like.”
This being settled, Amina brought in supper, and lit up the hall with a number of sweet smelling tapers. They then sat down again at the table, and began with fresh appetites to eat, drink, sing, and recite verses. In fact, they were all enjoying themselves mightily when they heard a knock at the outer door, which Sadie rose to open. She soon returned saying that three kalendars, all blind in the right eye, and all with their heads, faces, and eyebrows clean shaved, begged for admittance, as they were newly arrived in Baghdad, and night had already fallen. “They seem to have pleasant manners,” she added, “but you have no idea how funny they look. I am sure we should find their company diverting.”
Zobeida and Amina made some difficulty about admitting the new comers, and Sadie knew the reason of their hesitation. But she urged the matter so strongly that Zobeida was at last forced to consent. “Bring them in, then,” said she, “but make them understand that they are not to make remarks about what does not concern them, and be sure to make them read the inscription over the door.” For on the door was written in letters of gold, “Whoso meddles in affairs that are no business of his, will hear truths that will not please him.”
The three kalendars bowed low on entering, and thanked the ladies for their kindness and hospitality. The ladies replied with words of welcome, and they were all about to seat themselves when the eyes of the kalendars fell on the porter, whose dress was not so very unlike their own, though he still wore all the hair that nature had given him. “This,” said one of them, “is apparently one of our Arab brothers, who has rebelled against our ruler.”
The porter, although half asleep from the wine he had drunk, heard the words, and without moving cried angrily to the kalendar, “Sit down and mind your own business. Did you not read the inscription over the door? Everybody is not obliged to live in the same way.”
“Do not be so angry, my good man,” replied the kalendar; “we should be very sorry to displease you;” so the quarrel was smoothed over, and supper began in good earnest. When the kalendars had satisfied their hunger, they offered to play to their hostesses, if there were any instruments in the house. The ladies were delighted at the idea, and Sadie went to see what she could find, returning in a few moments laden with two different kinds of flutes and a tambourine. Each kalendar took the one he preferred, and began to play a well-known air, while the ladies sang the words of the song. These words were the gayest and liveliest possible, and every now and then the singers had to stop to indulge the laughter which almost choked them. In the midst of all their noise, a knock was heard at the door.
Now early that evening the Caliph secretly left the palace, accompanied by his grand-vizir, Giafar, and Mesrour, chief of the eunuchs, all three wearing the dresses of merchants. Passing down the street, the Caliph had been attracted by the music of instruments and the sound of laughter, and had ordered his vizir to go and knock at the door of the house, as he wished to enter. The vizir replied that the ladies who lived there seemed to be entertaining their friends, and he thought his master would do well not to intrude on them; but the Caliph had taken it into his head to see for himself, and insisted on being obeyed.
The knock was answered by Sadie, with a taper in her hand, and the vizir, who was surprised at her beauty, bowed low before her, and said respectfully, “Madam, we are three merchants who have lately arrived from Moussoul, and, owing to a misadventure which befel us this very night, only reached our inn to find that the doors were closed to us till to-morrow morning. Not knowing what to do, we wandered in the streets till we happened to pass your house, when, seeing lights and hearing the sound of voices, we resolved to ask you to give us shelter till the dawn. If you will grant us this favour, we will, with your permission, do all in our power to help you spend the time pleasantly.”
Sadie answered the merchant that she must first consult her sisters; and after having talked over the matter with them, she returned to tell him that he and his two friends would be welcome to join their company. They entered and bowed politely to the ladies and their guests. Then Zobeida, as the mistress, came forward and said gravely, “You are welcome here, but I hope you will allow me to beg one thing of you–have as many eyes as you like, but no tongues; and ask no questions about anything you see, however strange it may appear to you.”
“Madam,” returned the vizir, “you shall be obeyed. We have quite enough to please and interest us without troubling ourselves about that with which we have no concern.” Then they all sat down, and drank to the health of the new comers.
While the vizir, Giafar, was talking to the ladies the Caliph was occupied in wondering who they could be, and why the three kalendars had each lost his right eye. He was burning to inquire the reason of it all, but was silenced by Zobeida’s request, so he tried to rouse himself and to take his part in the conversation, which was very lively, the subject of discussion being the many different sorts of pleasures that there were in the world. After some time the kalendars got up and performed some curious dances, which delighted the rest of the company.
When they had finished Zobeida rose from her seat, and, taking Amina by the hand, she said to her, “My sister, our friends will excuse us if we seem to forget their presence and fulfil our nightly task.” Amina understood her sister’s meaning, and collecting the dishes, glasses, and musical instruments, she carried them away, while Sadie swept the hall and put everything in order. Having done this she begged the kalendars to sit on a sofa on one side of the room, and the Caliph and his friends to place themselves opposite. As to the porter, she requested him to come and help her and her sister.
Shortly after Amina entered carrying a seat, which she put down in the middle of the empty space. She next went over to the door of a closet and signed to the porter to follow her. He did so, and soon reappeared leading two black dogs by a chain, which he brought into the centre of the hall. Zobeida then got up from her seat between the kalendars and the Caliph and walked slowly across to where the porter stood with the dogs. “We must do our duty,” she said with a deep sigh, pushing back her sleeves, and, taking a whip from Sadie, she said to the man, “Take one of those dogs to my sister Amina and give me the other.”
The porter did as he was bid, but as he led the dog to Zobeida it uttered piercing howls, and gazed up at her with looks of entreaty. But Zobeida took no notice, and whipped the dog till she was out of breath. She then took the chain from the porter, and, raising the dog on its hind legs, they looked into each other’s eyes sorrowfully till tears began to fall from both. Then Zobeida took her handkerchief and wiped the dog’s eyes tenderly, after which she kissed it, then, putting the chain into the porter’s hand she said, “Take it back to the closet and bring me the other.”
The same ceremony was gone through with the second dog, and all the while the whole company looked on with astonishment. The Caliph in particular could hardly contain himself, and made signs to the vizir to ask what it all meant. But the vizir pretended not to see, and turned his head away.
Zobeida remained for some time in the middle of the room, till at last Sadie went up to her and begged her to sit down, as she also had her part to play. At these words Amina fetched a lute from a case of yellow satin and gave it to Sadie, who sang several songs to its accompaniment. When she was tired she said to Amina, “My sister, I can do no more; come, I pray you, and take my place.”
Amina struck a few chords and then broke into a song, which she sang with so much ardour that she was quite overcome, and sank gasping on a pile of cushions, tearing open her dress as she did so to give herself some air. To the amazement of all present, her neck, instead of being as smooth and white as her face, was a mass of scars.
The kalendars and the Caliph looked at each other, and whispered together, unheard by Zobeida and Sadie, who were tending their fainting sister.
“What does it all mean? ‘ asked the Caliph.
“We know no more than you,” said the kalendar to whom he had spoken.
“What! You do not belong to the house?”
“My lord,” answered all the kalendars together, “we came here for the first time an hour before you.”
They then turned to the porter to see if he could explain the mystery, but the porter was no wiser than they were themselves. At length the Caliph could contain his curiosity no longer, and declared that he would compel the ladies to tell them the meaning of their strange conduct. The vizir, foreseeing what would happen, implored him to remember the condition their hostesses had imposed, and added in a whisper that if his Highness would only wait till morning he could as Caliph summon the ladies to appear before him. But the Caliph, who was not accustomed to be contradicted, rejected this advice, and it was resolved after a little more talking that the question should be put by the porter. Suddenly Zobeida turned round, and seeing their excitement she said, “What is the matter– what are you all discussing so earnestly?”
“Madam,” answered the porter, “these gentlemen entreat you to explain to them why you should first whip the dogs and then cry over them, and also how it happens that the fainting lady is covered with scars. They have requested me, Madam, to be their mouthpiece.”
“Is it true, gentlemen,” asked Zobeida, drawing herself up, “that you have charged this man to put me that question?”
“It is,” they all replied, except Giafar, who was silent.
“Is this,” continued Zobeida, growing more angry every moment, “is this the return you make for the hospitality I have shown you? Have you forgotten the one condition on which you were allowed to enter the house? Come quickly,” she added, clapping her hands three times, and the words were hardly uttered when seven black slaves, each armed with a sabre, burst in and stood over the seven men, throwing them on the ground, and preparing themselves, on a sign from their mistress, to cut off their heads.
The seven culprits all thought their last hour had come, and the Caliph repented bitterly that he had not taken the vizir’s advice. But they made up their minds to die bravely, all except the porter, who loudly inquired of Zobeida why he was to suffer for other people’s faults, and declared that these misfortunes would never have happened if it had not been for the kalendars, who always brought ill-luck. He ended by imploring Zobeida not to confound the innocent with the guilty and to spare his life.
In spite of her anger, there was something so comic in the groans of the porter that Zobeida could not refrain from laughing. But putting him aside she addressed the others a second time, saying, “Answer me; who are you? Unless you tell me truly you have not another moment to live. I can hardly think you are men of any position, whatever country you belong to. If you were, you would have had more consideration for us.”
The Caliph, who was naturally very impatient, suffered far more than either of the others at feeling that his life was at the mercy of a justly offended lady, but when he heard her question he began to breathe more freely, for he was convinced that she had only to learn his name and rank for all danger to be over. So he whispered hastily to the vizir, who was next to him, to reveal their secret. But the vizir, wiser than his master, wished to conceal from the public the affront they had received, and merely answered, “After all, we have only got what we deserved.”
Meanwhile Zobeida had turned to the three kalendars and inquired if, as they were all blind, they were brothers.
“No, madam,” replied one, “we are no blood relations at all, only brothers by our mode of life.”
“And you,” she asked, addressing another, “were you born blind of one eye?”
“No, madam,” returned he, “I became blind through a most surprising adventure, such as probably has never happened to anybody. After that I shaved my head and eyebrows and put on the dress in which you see me now.”
Zobeida put the same question to the other two kalendars, and received the same answer.
“But,” added the third, “it may interest you, madam, to know that we are not men of low birth, but are all three sons of kings, and of kings, too, whom the world holds in high esteem.”
At these words Zobeida’s anger cooled down, and she turned to her slaves and said, “You can give them a little more liberty, but do not leave the hall. Those that will tell us their histories and their reasons for coming here shall be allowed to leave unhurt; those who refuse–” And she paused, but in a moment the porter, who understood that he had only to relate his story to set himself free from this terrible danger, immediately broke in,
“Madam, you know already how I came here, and what I have to say will soon be told. Your sister found me this morning in the place where I always stand waiting to be hired. She bade me follow her to various shops, and when my basket was quite full we returned to this house, when you had the goodness to permit me to remain, for which I shall be eternally grateful. That is my story.”
He looked anxiously to Zobeida, who nodded her head and said, “You can go; and take care we never meet again.”
“Oh, madam,” cried the porter, “let me stay yet a little while. It is not just that the others should have heard my story and that I should not hear theirs,” and without waiting for permission he seated himself on the end of the sofa occupied by the ladies, whilst the rest crouched on the carpet, and the slaves stood against the wall.
Then one of the kalendars, addressing himself to Zobeida as the principal lady, began his story.