Stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
The Story of the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad, and of the Three Royal Mendicants, Etc.
THERE was a man of the city of Baghdad, who was unmarried, and he was a porter; and one day, as he sat in the market, reclining against his crate, there accosted him a female wrapped in an izar of the manufacture of El-Mosil,1 composed of gold-embroidered silk, with a border of gold lace at each end, who raised her face-veil, and displayed beneath it a pair of black eyes, with lids bordered by long lashes, exhibiting a tender expression, and features of perfect beauty; and she said, with a sweet voice, Bring thy crate, and follow me.
The porter had scarcely heard her words when he took up his crate, and he followed her until she stopped at the door of a house, and knocked; whereupon there came down to her a Christian, and she gave him a piece of gold, and received for it a quantity of olives, and two large vessels of wine, which she placed in the crate, saying to the porter, Take it up, and follow me. The porter exclaimed, This is, indeed, a fortunate day!and he took up the crate, and followed her. She next stopped at the shop of a fruiterer, and bought of him Syrian apples, and Othmani quinces, and peaches of Oman, and jasmine of Aleppo, and water-lilies of Damascus, and cucumbers of the Nile, and Egyptian limes, and Sultani citrons, and sweet-scented myrtle, and sprigs of the henna-tree, and chamomile, and anemones, and violets, and pomegranate-flowers, and eglantine: all these she put into the porters crate, and said to him, Take it up. So he took it up, and followed her until she stopped at the shop of a butcher, to whom she said, Cut off ten pounds of meat;and he cut it off for her, and she wrapped it in a leaf of a banana-tree, and put it in the crate, and said again, Take it up, O porter:and he did so, and followed her. She next stopped at the shop of a seller of dry fruits, and took some of every kind of these, and desired the porter to take up his burden. Having obeyed, he followed her until she stopped at the shop of a confectioner, where she bought a dish, and filled it with sweets of every kind that he had, which she put into the crate; whereupon the porter ventured to say, If thou hadst informed me beforehand, I had brought with me a mule to carry all these things. The lady smiled at his remark, and next stopped at the shop of a perfumer, of whom she bought ten kinds of scented waters; rose-water, and orange-flower-water, and willow-flower-water, &c.; together with some sugar, and a sprinkling-bottle of rose-water infused with musk, and some frankincense, and aloes-wood, and ambergris, and musk, and wax candles; and, placing all these in the crate, she said, Take up thy crate, and follow me. He, therefore, took it up, and followed her until she came to a handsome house, before which was a spacious court. It was a lofty structure, with a door of two leaves, composed of ebony, overlaid with plates of red gold.
The young lady stopped at this door, and knocked gently: whereupon both its leaves were opened, and the porter, looking to see who opened it, found it to be a damsel of tall stature, high-bosomed, fair and beautiful, and of elegant form, with a forehead like the bright new moon, eyes like those of gazelles, eyebrows like the new moon of Ramadan, cheeks resembling anemones, and a mouth like the seal of Suleyman: her countenance was like the full moon in its splendour, and the forms of her bosom resembled two pomegranates of equal size. When the porter beheld, her she captivated his reason, the crate nearly fell from his head, and he exclaimed, Never in my life have I seen a more fortunate day than this! The lady-portress, standing within the door, said to the cateress and the porter, Ye are welcome:and they entered, and proceeded to a spacious saloon, decorated with various colours, and beautifully constructed, with carved wood-work, and fountains, and benches of different kinds, and closets with curtains hanging before them; there was also in it, at the upper end, a couch of alabaster inlaid with large pearls and jewels, with mosquito-curtain of red satin suspended over it, and within this was a young lady with eyes possessing the enchantment of Babil,2 and a figure like the letter Alif, with a face that put to shame the shining sun: she was like one of the brilliant planets, or rather, one of the most high-born of the maidens of Arabia. This third lady, rising from the couch, advanced with a slow and elegant gait to the middle of the saloon, where her sisters were standing, and said to them, Why stand ye still? Lift down the burden from the head of this poor porter:whereupon the cateress placed herself before him, and the portress behind him, and, the third lady assisting them, they lifted it down from his head. They then took out the contents of the crate, and, having put everything in its place, gave to the porter two pieces of gold, saying to him Depart, O porter.
The porter, however, stood looking at the ladies, and admiring their beauty and their agreeable dispositions; for he had never seen any more handsome; and when he observed that they had not a man among them, and gazed upon the wine, and fruits, and sweet-scented flowers, which were there, he was full of astonishment, and hesitated to go out; upon which one of the ladies said to him, Why dost thou not go? dost thou deem thy hire too little? Then turning to one of her sisters, she said to her, Give him another piece of gold.By Allah, O my mistress, exclaimed the porter, my hire is but two half-dirhems, and I thought not what ye have given me too little; but my heart and mind were occupied with reflections upon you and your state, ye being alone, with no man among you, not one to amuse you with his company; for ye know that the menareh3 standeth not firmly but on four walls: now ye have not a fourth, and the pleasure of women is not complete without men: ye are three only, and have need of a fourth, who should be a man, a person of sense, discreet, acute, and a concealer of secrets.We are maidens, they replied; and fear to impart our secret to him who will not keep it: for we have read, in a certain history, this verse:
Guard thy secret from another: intrust it not: for he who intrusteth a secret hath lost it.
By your existence, said the porter, I am a man of sense, and trustworthy: I have read various books, and perused histories: I make known what is fair, and conceal what is foul, and act in accordance with the saying of the poet:
None keepeth a secret but a faithful person: with the best of mankind it remaineth concealed.
A secret is with me as in a house with a lock, whose key is lost, and whose door is sealed.
When the ladies heard the verses which he quoted, and the words with which he addressed them, they said to him, Thou knowest that we have expended here a considerable sum of money: hast thou then wherewith to requite us? We will not suffer thee to remain with us unless thou contribute a sum of money; for thou desirest to sit with us, and to be our cup-companion, and to gaze upon our beautiful faces.If friendship is without money, said the mistress of the house, it is not equivalent to the weight of a grain:and the portress added, If thou hast nothing, depart with nothing:but the cateress said, O sister, let us suffer him; for, verily, he hath not been deficient in his services for us this day: another had not been so patient with us: whatever, therefore, falls to his share of the expense, I will defray for him.At this the porter rejoiced, and exclaimed, By Allah, I obtained my first and only pay this day from none but thee:and the other ladies said to him, Sit down: thou art welcome.
The cateress then arose, and, having tightened her girdle, arranged the bottles, and strained the wine, and prepared the table by the pool of the fountain. She made ready all that they required, brought the wine, and sat down with her sisters; the porter also sitting with them, thinking he was in a dream. And when they had seated themselves, the cateress took a jar of wine, and filled the first cup, and drank it: she then filled another, and handed it to one of her sisters; and in like manner she did to her other sister; after which she filled again, and handed the cup to the porter, who, having taken it from her hand, repeated this verse:
I will drink the wine, and enjoy health; for, verily, this beverage is a remedy for disease.
The wine continued to circulate among them, and the porter, taking his part in the revels, dancing and singing with them, and enjoying the fragrant odours, began to hug and kiss them, while one slapped him, and another pulled him, and the third beat him with sweet-scented flowers, till, at length, the wine made sport with their reason; and they threw off all restraint, indulging their merriment with as much freedom as if no man had been present.
Thus they continued until the approach of night, when they said to the porter, Depart, and shew us the breadth of thy shoulders;but he replied, Verily the departure of my soul from my body were more easy to me than my departure from your company; therefore suffer us to join the night to the day, and then each of us shall return to his own, or her own, affairs. The cateress, also, again interceded for him, saying, By my life I conjure you that ye suffer him to pass the night with us, that we may laugh at his drolleries, for he is a witty rogue. So they said to him, Thou shalt pass the night with us on this condition, that thou submit to our authority, and ask not an explanation of anything that thou shalt see. He replied, Good.Rise then, said they, and read what is inscribed upon the door. Accordingly, he went to the door, and found the following inscription upon it in letters of gold, Speak not of that which doth not concern thee, lest thou hear that which will not please thee:and he said, Bear witness to my promise that I will not speak of that which doth not concern me.
The cateress then arose, and prepared for them a repast; and, after they had eaten a little, they lighted the candles and burned some aloes-wood. This done, they sat down again to the table; and, while they were eating and drinking, they heard a knocking at the door; whereupon, without causing any interruption to their meal, one of them went to the door, on her return, said, Our pleasure this night is now complete, for I have found, at the door, three foreigners4 with shaven chins, and each of them is blind of the left eye: it is an extraordinary coincidence. They are strangers newly arrived, and each of them has a ridiculous appearance: if they come in, therefore, we shall be amused with laughing at them.The lady ceased not with these words, but continued to persuade her sisters until the consented, and said, Let them enter; but make it a condition with them that they speak not of that which doth not concern them, lest they hear that which will not please them. Upon this she rejoiced, and having gone again to the door, brought in the three men blind of one eye and with shaven chins, and they had thin and twisted mustaches. Being mendicants, they saluted and drew back; but the ladies rose to them, and seated them; and when these three men looked at the porter, they saw that he was intoxicated; and, observing him narrowly, they thought that he was one of their own class, and said, He is a mendicant like ourselves, and will amuse us by his conversation:but the porter, hearing what they said, arose, and rolled his eyes, and exclaimed to them, Sit quiet, and abstain from impertinent remarks. Have ye not read the inscription upon the door?The ladies, laughing, said to each other, Between the mendicants and the porter we shall find matter for amusement. They then placed before the former some food, and they ate, and then sat to drink. The portress handed to them the wine, and, as the cup was circulating among them, the porter said to them, Brothers, have ye any tale or strange anecdote wherewith to amuse us? The mendicants, heated by the wine, asked for musical instruments; and the portress brought them a tambourine of the manufacture of El-Mosil, with a lute of El-Irak, and a Persian harp; whereupon they all arose; and one took the tambourine; another the lute; and the third, the harp: and they played upon these instruments, the ladies accompanying them with loud songs; and while they were thus diverting themselves, a person knocked at the door. The portress, therefore, went to see who was there; and the cause of the knocking was this.
The Khalifeh Harun Er-Rashid had gone forth this night to see and hear what news he could collect, accompanied by Jafar his Wezir, and Mesrur his executioner. It was his custom to disguise himself in the attire of a merchant; and this night, as he went through the city, he happened to pass, with his attendants, by the house of these ladies, and hearing the sounds of the musical instruments, he said to Jafar, I have a desire to enter this house, and to see who is giving this concert.They are a party who have become intoxicated, replied Jafar, and I fear that we may experience some ill usage from them;but the Khalifeh said, We must enter, and I would that you devise some stratagem by which we may obtain admission to the inmates. Jafar therefore answered, I hear and obey:and he advanced, and knocked at the door; and when the portress came and opened the door, he said to her, My mistress, we are merchants from Tabariyeh,5 and have been in Baghdad ten days; we have brought with us merchandise, and taken lodgings in a Khan; and a merchant invited us to an entertainment this night: accordingly, we went to his house, and he placed food before us, and we ate, and sat a while drinking together, after which he gave us leave to depart; and going out in the dark, and being strangers, we missed our way to the Khan: we trust, therefore in your generosity that you will admit us to pass the night in your house; by doing which you will obtain a reward in heaven.The portress, looking at them, and observing that they were in the garb of merchants, and that they bore an appearance of respectability, returned, and consulted her two companions; and they said to her; Admit them:so she returned, and opened to them the door. They said to her, Shall we enter with thy permission? She answered, Come in. The Khalifeh, therefore, entered, with Jafar and Mesrur; and when the ladies saw them, they rose to them, and served them, saying, Welcome are our guests; but we have a condition to impose upon you, that ye speak not of that which doth not concern you, lest ye hear that which will not please you. They answered, Good:and when they had sat down to drink, the Khalifeh looked at the three mendicants, and was surprised at observing that each of them was blind of the left eye; and he gazed upon the ladies, and was perplexed and amazed at their fairness and beauty. And when the others proceeded to drink and converse, the ladies brought wine to the Khalifeh; but he said, I am a pilgrim;and drew back from them. Whereupon the portress spread before him an embroidered cloth, and placed upon it a China bottle, into which she poured some willow-flower-water, adding to it a lump of ice, and sweetening it with sugar, while the Khalifeh thanked her, and said within himself, To-morrow I must reward her for this kind action.
The party continued their carousal, and, when the wine took effect upon them, the mistress of the house arose, and waited upon them; and afterwards, taking the hand of the cateress, said, Arise, O my sister, that we may fulfil our debt. She replied, Good. The portress then rose, and, after she had cleared the middle of the saloon, placed the mendicants at the further end, beyond the doors; after which, the ladies called to the porter, saying. How slight is thy friendship? thou art not a stranger, but one of the family. So the porter arose, and girded himself, and said, What would ye?to which one of the ladies answered, Stand where thou art:and presently the cateress said to him, Assist me:and he saw two black bitches, with chains attached to their necks, drew them to the middle of the saloon; whereupon the mistress of the house arose from her place, and tucked up her sleeve above her wrist, and, taking a whip, said to the porter, Bring to me one of them. Accordingly, he dragged one forward by the chain. The bitch whined, and shook her head at the lady; but the latter fell to beating her upon the head, notwithstanding her howling, until her arms were tired, when she threw the whip from her hand, and pressed the bitch to her bosom, and wiped away her tears, and kissed her head; after which she said to the porter, Take her back and bring the other;and he brought her, and she did to her as she had done to the first. At the sight of this, the mind of the Khalifeh was troubled, and his heart was contracted, and he winked to Jafar that he should ask her the reason; but he replied by a sign, Speak not.
The mistress of the house then looked towards the portress and said to her, Arise to perform what thou hast to do. She replied, Good:and the mistress of the house seated herself upon a couch of alabaster, overlaid with gold and silver, and said to the portress and the cateress, Now perform your parts. Then portress then seated herself upon a couch by her; and the cateress, having entered a closet, brought out from it a bag of satin with green fringes, and, placing herself before the lady of the house, shook it, and took out from it a lute; and she tuned its strings, and sang to it these verses:
Restore to my eyelids the sleep which hath been ravished; and inform me of my reason, whither it hath fled.
I discovered, when I took up my abode with love, that slumber had become an enemy to my eyes.
They said, We saw thee to be one of the upright; what, then, hath seduced thee? I answered, Seek the cause from his glance.
Verily I excuse him for the shedding of my blood, admitting that I urged him to the deed by vexation.
He cast his sun-like image upon the mirror of my mind, and its reflection kindled a flame in my vitals.
When the portress had heard this song, she exclaimed, Allah approve thee!and she rent her clothes, and fell upon the floor in a swoon; and when her bosom was thus uncovered, the Khalifeh saw upon her the marks of beating, as if from mikraahs6 and whips; at which he was greatly surprised. The cateress immediately arose, sprinkled water upon her face, and brought her another dress, which she put on. The Khalifeh then said to Jafar, Seest thou not this woman, and the marks of beating upon her? I cannot keep silence respecting this affair, nor be at rest, until I know the truth of the history of this damsel, and that of these two bitches. But Jafar replied, O our lord, they have made a covenant with us that we shall not speak excepting of that which concerneth us, lest we hear that which will not please us.The cateress then took the lute again, and, placing it against her bosom, touched the chords with the ends of her fingers, and thus sang to it:
If of love we complain, what shall we say? Or consuming through desire, how can we escape?
Or if we send a messenger to interpret for us, he cannot convey the lovers complaint.
Or if we would be patient, short were our existence after the loss of those we love.
Nought remaineth to us but grief and mourning, and tears streaming down our cheeks.
O you who are absent from my sight, but constantly dwelling within my heart!
Have you kept your faith to an impassioned lover, who, while time endureth will never change?
Or, in absence have you forgotten that lover who, on your account, is wasting away?
When the day of judgment shall bring us together, I will beg of our Lord a protractive trial.
On hearing these verses of the cateress, the portress again rent her clothes, and cried out, and feel upon the floor in a swoon; and the cateress, as before, put on her another dress, after she had sprinkled some water upon her face.
The mendicants, when they witnessed this scene, said, Would that we had never entered this house, but rather had passed the night upon the [rubbish-] mounds; for our night hath been rendered foul by an event that breaketh the back! The Khalifeh, looking towards them, then said, Wherefore is it so with you? They answered, Our hearts are troubled by this occurrence.Are ye not, he asked, of this house?No, they answered; nor did we imagine that this house belonged to any but the man who is sitting with you:upon which the porter said, Verily, I have never seen this place before this night; and I would that I had passed the night upon the mounds rather than here. They then observed, one to another, We are seven men, and they are but three women; we will, therefore, ask them of their history; and if they answer us not willingly they shall do it in spite of themselves:and they all agreed to this, excepting Jafar, who said, This is not a right determination; leave them to themselves, for we are their guests, and they made a covenant with us which we should fulfil: there remaineth but little of the night, and each of us shall soon go his way. Then, winking to the Khalifeh, he said, There remaineth but an hour; and to-morrow we will bring them before thee, and thou shalt ask them their story. But the Khalifeh refused to do so, and said, I have not patience to wait so long for their history.Words followed words, and at last they said, Who shall put the question to them?and one answered, The porter.
The ladies then said to them, O people, of what are ye talking?whereupon the porter approached the mistress of the house, and said to her, O my mistress, I ask thee, and conjure thee by Allah, to tell us the story of the two bitches, and for what reason thou didst beat them, and then didst weep, and kiss them, and that thou acquaint us with the cause of thy sisters having been beaten with mikraahs: that is our question, and peace be on you.Is this true that he saith of you? inquired the lady, of the other men; and they all answered, Yes,excepting Jafar, who was silent. When the lady heard their answer, she said, Verily, O our guests, ye have wronged us excessively; for we made a covenant with you beforehand, that he who should speak of that which concerned him not should hear that which would not please him. Is it not enough that we have admitted you into our house, and fed you with our provisions? But it is not so much your fault as the fault of her who introduced you to us.She then tucked up her sleeve above her writs, and struck the floor three times, saying, Come ye quickly!and immediately the door of a closet opened, and there came forth from it seven black slaves, each having in his hand a drawn sword. The lady said to them, Tie behind them the hands of these men of many words, and bind each of them to another:and they did so, and said, O virtuous lady, dost thou permit us to strike off their heads? She answered, Give them a short respite, until I shall have inquired of them their histories, before ye behead them.By Allah, O my mistress, exclaimed the porter, kill me not for the offence of others: for they have all transgressed and committed an offence, excepting me. Verily our night had been pleasant if we had been preserved from these mendicants, whose presence is enough to convert a well-peopled city into a heap of ruins!He then repeated this couplet:
How good is it to pardon one able to resist! and how much more so, one who is helpless!
For the sake of the friendship that subsisted between us, destroy not one for the crime of another!
On hearing these words of the porter, the lady laughed after her anger. Then approaching the men, she said, Acquaint me with your histories, for there remaineth of your lives no more than an hour. Were ye not persons of honourable and high condition, or governors, I would hasten your recompense.The Khalifeh said to Jafar, Woe to thee, O Jafar! make known to her who we are; otherwise she will kill us.It were what we deserve, replied he.Jesting, said the Khalifeh, is not befitting in a time for seriousness: each has its proper occasion.The lady then approached the mendicants, and said to them, Are ye brothers? They answered, No, indeed; we are only poor foreigners. She said then to one of them, Wast thou born blind of one eye?No, verily, he answered; but a wonderful event happened to me when my eye was destroyed, and the story of it, if engraved on the understanding, would serve as a lesson to him who would be admonished. She asked the second and the third also; and they answered her as the first; adding, Each of us is from a different country, and our history is wonderful and extraordinary. The lady then looked towards them and said, Each of you shall relate his story, and the cause of his coming to our abode, and then stroke his head, and go his way.
The first who advanced was the porter, who said, O my mistress, I am a porter; and this cateress loaded me, and brought me hither, and what hath happened to me here in your company ye know. This is my story; and peace be on you.Stroke thy head, then, said she, and go:but he replied, By Allah, I will not go until I shall have heard the story of my companions.The first mendicant then advanced, and related as follows:
Note 1. Mosul, a city long famous for its fine stuffs. [back]
Note 2. Babil, or Babel, is regarded by the Muslims as the fountain-head of the science of magic, which was, and, as most think, still is, taught there to mankind by two fallen angels, named Harut and Marut (Kuran, ii. 96), who are there suspended by the feet in a great pit closed by a mass of rock. [back]