Tale of the Portress

Know, O Commander of the Faithful, that I had a father who, after fulfilling his time, deceased and left me great store of wealth. I remained single for a short time and presently married one of the richest of his day. I abode with him a year when he also died, and my share of his property amounted to eighty thousand diners in gold according to the holy law of inheritance. †328 Thus I became passing rich an my reputation spread far and wide, for I had made me ten changes of raiment, each worth a thousand diners. One day as I was sitting at home, behold, there came in to me an old woman †329 with lantern jaws and cheeks sucked in, and eyes rucked up, and eyebrows scant and scald, and head bare and bald; and teeth broken by time and mauled, and back bending and neck nape nodding, and face blotched, and rheum running, and hair like a snake black and white speckled, in complexion a very fright, even as saith the poet of the like of her:—

Ill-omened hag! unshriven be her sins
Nor mercy visit her on dying bed: Thousand head strongest he mules would her guiles,
Despite their bolting lead with spider thread.

And as saith another:—

A hag to whom th' unlawful lawfullest
And witchcraft wisdom in her sight are grown: A mischief making brat, a demon maid,
A whorish woman and a pimping crone. †330

When the old woman entered she salamed to me and kissing the ground before me, said, “I have at home an orphan daughter and this night are her wedding and her displaying. †331 We be poor folks and strangers in this city knowing none inhabitant and we are broken hearted. So do thou earn for thyself a recompense and a reward in Heaven by being present at her displaying and, when the ladles of this city shall hear that thou art to make act of presence, they also will present themselves; so shalt thou comfort her affliction, for she is sore bruised in spirit and she hath none to look to save Allah the Most High.” Then she wept and kissed my feet reciting these couplets:—

“Thy presence bringeth us a grace
We own before thy winsome face: And wert thou absent ne'er an one
Could stand in stead or take thy place.”

So pity get hold on me and compassion and I said, “Hearing is consenting and, please Allah, I will do somewhat more for her; nor shall she be shown to her bridegroom save in my raiment and ornaments and jewelry.” At this the old woman rejoiced and bowed her head to my feet and kissed them, saying, “Allah requite thee weal, and comfort thy heart even as thou hast comforted mine! But, O my lady, do not trouble thyself to do me this service at this hour; be thou ready by supper time, †332 when I will come and fetch thee.” So saying she kissed my hand and went her ways. I set about stringing my pearls and donning my brocades and making my toilette, Little recking what Fortune had in womb for me, when suddenly the old woman stood before me, simpering and smiling till she showed every tooth stump, and quoth she, “O my mistress, the city madams have arrived and when I apprized them that thou promisedst to be present, they were glad and they are now awaiting thee and looking eagerly for thy coming and for the honour of meeting thee.” So I threw on my mantilla and, making the old crone walk before me and my handmaidens behind me, I fared till we came to a street well watered and swept neat, where the winnowing breeze blew cool and sweet. Here we were stopped by a gate arched over with a dome of marble stone firmly seated on solidest foundation, and leading to a Palace whose walls from earth rose tall and proud, and whose pinnacle was crowned by the clouds, †333 and over the doorway were writ these couplets:—

I am the wone where Mirth shall ever smile;
The home of Joyance through my lasting while: And 'mid my court a fountain jets and flows,
Nor tears nor troubles shall that fount defile: The merge with royal Nu'uman's †334 bloom is dight,
Myrtle, Narcissus-flower and Chamomile.

baldaquin ?
margaritas ?
tire attire; a headband or headdress.
tiara Tiara

Arrived at the gate, before which hung a black curtain, the old woman knocked and it was opened to us; when we entered and found a vestibule spread with carpets and hung around with lamps all alight and wax candles in candelabra adorned with pendants of precious gems and noble ores. We passed on through this passage till we entered a saloon, whose like for grandeur and beauty is not to be found in this world. It was hung and carpeted with silken stuffs, and was illuminated with branches sconces and tapers ranged in double row, an avenue abutting on the upper or noble end of the saloon, where stood a couch of juniper wood encrusted with pearls and gems and surmounted by a baldaquin with mosquito curtains of satin looped up with margaritas. And hardly had we taken note of this when there came forth from the baldaquin a young lady and I looked, O Commander of the Faithful, upon a face and form more perfect than the moon when fullest, with a favour brighter than the dawn gleaming with saffron-hued light, even as the poet sang when he said—

Thou pacest the palace a marvel sight,
A bride for a Kisra's or Kaisar's night! Wantons the rose on thy roseate cheek,
O cheek as the blood of the dragon †335 bright! Slim waisted, languorous, sleepy eyed,
With charms which promise all love And the tire which attires thy tiara'd brow
Is a night of woe on a morn's glad light.

The fair young girl came down from the estrade and said to me, “Welcome and well come and good cheer to my sister, the dearly beloved, the illustrious, and a thousand greetings!” Then she recited these couplets:—

“An but the house could know who cometh 'twould rejoice,
And kiss the very dust whereon thy foot was placed And with the tongue of circumstance the walls would say,
“Welcome and hail to one with generous gifts engraced!”

lot One's fortune in life; fate.

Then sat she down and said to me, “O my sister, I have a brother who hath had sight of thee at sundry wedding feasts and festive seasons: he is a youth handsomer than I, and he hath fallen desperately in love with thee, for that bounteous Destiny hath garnered in thee all beauty and perfection; and he hath given silver to this old woman that she might visit thee; and she hath contrived on this wise to foregather us twain. He hath heard that thou art one of the nobles of thy tribe nor is he aught less in his; and, being desirous to ally his lot with thy lot, he hath practiced this device to bring me in company with thee; for he is fain to marry thee after the ordinance of Allah and his Apostle; and in what is lawful and right there is no shame.” When I heard these words and saw myself fairly entrapped in the house, I said, “Hearing is consenting.” She was delighted at this and clapped her hands; †336 whereupon a door opened and out of it came a young man blooming in the prime of life, exquisitely dressed, a model of beauty and loveliness and symmetry and perfect grace, with gentle winning manners and eyebrows like a bended bow and shaft on cord, and eyes which bewitched all hearts with sorcery lawful in the sight of the Lord; even as saith some rhymer describing the like of him:—

His face as the face of the young moon shines
And Fortune stamps him with pearls for signs. †337

And Allah favour him who said:—

Blest be his beauty; blest the Lord's decree
Who cast and shaped a thing so bright of blee: All gifts of beauty he conjoins in one;
Lost in his love is all humanity; For Beauty's self inscribed on his brow
“I testify there be no Good but he!” †338

whist hush!, a interjection.

When I looked at him my heart inclined to him and I loved him; and he sat by my side and talked with me a while, when the young lady again clapped her hands and behold, a side door opened and out of it came the Kazi with his four assessors as witnesses; and they saluted us and, sitting down, drew up and wrote out the marriage contract between me and the youth and retired. Then he turned to me and said, “Be our night blessed,” presently adding, “O my lady, I have a condition to lay on thee.” Quoth I, “O my lord, what is that?” Whereupon he arose and fetching a copy of the Holy Book presented it to me saying “Swear hereon thou wilt never look at any other than myself nor incline thy body or thy heart to him.” I swore readily enough to this and he joyed with exceeding joy and embraced me round the neck while love for him possessed my whole heart. Then they set the table †339 before us and we ate and drank till we were satisfied, but I was dying for the coming of the night. And when night did come he led me to the bride chamber and slept with me on the bed and continued to kiss and embrace me till the morning—such a night I had never seen in my dreams. I lived with him a life of happiness and delight for a full month, at the end of which I asked his leave †340 to go on foot to the bazar and buy me certain especial stuffs and he gave me permission. So I donned my mantilla and, taking with me the old woman and a slave-girl, †341 I went to the khan of the silk-mercers, where I seated myself in the shop front of a young merchant whom the old woman recommended, saying to me, “This youth's father died when he was a boy and left him great store of wealth: he hath by him a mighty fine †342 stock of goods and thou wilt find what thou seekest with him, for none in the bazar hath better stuffs than he. Then she said to him, “Show this lady the most costly stuffs thou hast by thee;” and he replied, “Hearkening and obedience!” Then she whispered me, “Say a civil word to him!”; but I replied, “I am pledged to address no man save my lord. And as she began to sound his praise I said sharply to her, We want nought of thy sweet speeches; our wish is to buy of him whatsoever we need, and return home.” So he brought me all I sought and I offered him his money, but he refused to take it saying, “Let it be a gift offered to my guest this day!” Then quoth I to the old woman, “If he will not take the money, give him back his stuff.” “By Allah,” cried he, “not a thing will I take from thee: I sell it not for gold or for silver, but I give it all as a gift for a single kiss; a kiss more precious to me than everything the shop containeth.” Asked the old woman, “What will the kiss profit thee?”; and, turning to me, whispered, “O my daughter, thou hearest what this young fellow saith? What harm will it do thee if he get a kiss from thee and thou gettest what thou seekest at that price?” Replied I, “I take refuge with Allah from such action! Knowest thou not that I am bound by an oath?'' †343 But she answered, “Now whist! just let him kiss thee and neither speak to him nor lean over him, so shalt thou keep shine oath and thy silver, and no harm whatever shall befal thee.” And she ceased not to persuade me and importune me and make light of the matter till evil entered into my mind and I put my head in the poke †344 and, declaring I would ne'er consent, consented. So I veiled my eyes and held up the edge of my mantilla between me and the people passing and he put his mouth to my cheek under the veil. But while kissing me he bit me so hard a bite that it tore the flesh from my cheek, †345 and blood flowed fast and faintness came over me. The old woman caught me in her arms and, when I came to myself, I found the shop shut up and her sorrowing over me and saying, “Thank Allah for averting what might have been worse!” Then she said to me, “Come, take heart and let us go home before the matter become public and thou be dishonoured. And when thou art safe inside the house feign sickness and lie down and cover thyself up; and I will bring thee powders and plasters to cure this bite withal, and thy wound will be healed at the latest in three days.” So after a while I arose and I was in extreme distress and terror came full upon me; but I went on little by little till I reached the house when I pleaded illness and lay me down. When it was night my husband came in to me and said, “What hath befallen thee, O my darling, in this excursion of shine?”; and I replied, “I am not well: my head acheth badly.” Then he lighted a candle and drew near me and looked hard at me and asked, “What is that wound I see on thy cheek and in the tenderest part too?” And I answered, When I went out to day with thy leave to buy stuffs, a camel laden with firewood jostled me and one of the pieces tore my veil and wounded my cheek as thou seest; for indeed the ways of this city are strait.” “To morrow,” cried he, “I will go complain to the Governor, so shall he gibbet every fuel seller in Baghdad.” “Allah upon thee,” said I, “burden not thy soul with such sin against any man. The fact is I was riding on an ass and it stumbled, throwing me to the ground; and my cheek lighted upon a stick or a bit of glass and got this wound.” “Then,” said he, “to morrow I will go up to Ja'afar the Barmaki and tell him the story, so shall he kill every donkey boy in Baghdad.” “Wouldst thou destroy all these men because of my wound,” said I, “when this which befel me was by decree of Allah and His destiny?” But he answered, “There is no help for it;” and, springing to his feet, plied me with words and pressed me till I was perplexed and frightened; and I stuttered and stammered and my speech waxed thick and I said, “This is a mere accident by decree of Allah.” Then, O Commander of the Faithful, he guessed my case and said, “Thou hast been false to thine oath.” He at once cried out with a loud cry, whereupon a door opened and in came seven black slaves whom he commanded to drag me from my bed and throw me down in the middle of the room. Furthermore, he ordered one of them to pinion my elbows and squat upon my head; and a second to sit upon my knees and secure my feet; and drawing his sword he gave it to a third and said, “Strike her, O Sa'ad, and cut her in twain and let each one take half and cast it into the Tigris †346 that the fish may eat her; for such is the retribution due to those who violate their vows and are unfaithful to their love.” And he redoubled in wrath and recited these couplets:—

“An there be one who shares with me her love,
I'd strangle Love tho' life by Love were slain Saying, O Soul, Death were the nobler choice,
For ill is Love when shared 'twixt partners twain.”

Then he repeated to the slave, “Smite her, O Sa'ad!” And when the slave who was sitting upon me made sure of the command he bent down to me and said, “O my mistress, repeat the profession of Faith and bethink thee if there be any thing thou wouldst have done; for verily this is the last hour of thy life.” “O good slave,” said I, “wait but a little while and get off my head that I may charge thee with my last injunctions.” Then I raised my head and saw the state I was in, how I had fallen from high degree into lowest disgrace; and into death after life (and such life!) and how I had brought my punishment on myself by my own sin; where upon the tears streamed from mine eyes and I wept with exceeding weeping. But he looked on me with eyes of wrath, and began repeating:—

“Tell her who turneth from our love to work it injury sore,
And taketh her a fine new love the old love tossing o'er: We cry enough o' thee ere thou enough of us shalt cry!
What past between us cloth suffice and haply something more.” †347

When I heard this, O Commander of the Faithful, I wept and looked at him and began repeating these couplets:—

“To severance you doom my love and all unmoved remain;
My tear sore lids you sleepless make and sleep while I complain: You make firm friendship reign between mine eyes and insomny;
Yet can my heart forget you not, nor tears can I restrain: You made me swear with many an oath my troth to hold for aye;
But when you reigned my bosom's lord you wrought me traitor bane: I loved you like a silly child who wots not what is Love;
Then spare the learner, let her not be by the master slain! By Allah's name I pray you write, when I am dead and gone,
Upon my tomb, This died of Love whose senses Love had ta'en: Then haply one shall pass that way who fire of Love hath felt,
And treading on a lover's heart with ruth and woe shall melt.”

When I ended my verses tears came again; but the poetry and the weeping only added fury to his fury, and he recited:—

clips (archaic) embrace.

“'Twas not satiety bade me leave the dearling of my soul,
But that she sinned a mortal sin which clips me in its clip: She sought to let another share the love between us twain,
But my True Faith of Unity refuseth partnership.” †348

When he ceased reciting I wept again and prayed his pardon and humbled myself before him and spoke him softly, saying to myself, “I will work on him with words; so haply he will refrain from slaying me, even though he take all I have.” So I complained of my sufferings and began to repeat these couplets:—

“Now, by thy life and wert thou just my life thou hadst not ta'en,
But who can break the severance law which parteth lovers twain! Thou loadest me with heavy weight of longing love, when I
Can hardly bear my chemisette for weakness and for pain: I marvel not to see my life and soul in ruin lain:
I marvel much to see my frame such severance pangs sustain.”

When I ended my verse I wept again; and he looked at me and reviled me in abusive language, †349 repeating these couplets:—

“Thou west all taken up with love of other man, not me;
'Twas shine to show me severance face, 'twas only mine to see: I'll leave thee for that first thou west of me to take thy leave
And patient bear that parting blow thou borest so patiently: E'en as thou soughtest other love, so other love I'll seek,
And make the crime of murdering love shine own atrocity.”

When he had ended his verses he again cried out to the slave, “Cut her in half and free us from her, for we have no profit of her. So the slave drew near me, O Commander of the Faithful and I ceased bandying verses and made sure of death and, despairing of life, committed my affairs to Almighty Allah, when behold, the old woman rushed in and threw herself at my husband's feet and kissed them and wept and said, “O my son, by the rights of my fosterage and by my long service to thee, I conjure thee pardon this young lady, for indeed she hath done nothing deserving such doom. Thou art a very young man and I fear lest her death be laid at thy door; for it is said:—Whoso slayeth shall be slain. As for this wanton (since thou deemest her such) drive her out from thy doors, from thy love and from thy heart.”

endlong lengthwise (archaic).

And she ceased not to weep and importune him till he relented and said, 'I pardon her, but needs must I set on her my mark which shall show upon her all my life.” Then he bade the slaves drag me along the ground and lay me out at full length, after stripping me of all my clothes; †350 and when the slaves had so sat upon me that I could not move, he fetched in a rod of quince tree and came down with it upon my body, and continued beating me on the back and sides till I lost consciousness from excess of pain, and I despaired of life. Then he commanded the slaves to take me away as soon as it was dark, together with the old woman to show them the way and throw me upon the floor of the house wherein I dwelt before my marriage. They did their lord's bidding and cast me down in my old home and went their ways. I did not revive from my swoon till dawn appeared, when I applied myself to the dressing of my wounds with ointments and other medicaments; and I medicined myself, but my sides and ribs still showed signs of the rod as thou hast seen. I lay in weakly case and confined to my bed for four months before I was able to rise and health returned to me. At the end of that time I went to the house where all this had happened and found it a ruin; the street had been pulled down endlong and rubbish heaps rose where the building erst was; nor could I learn how this had come about. Then I betook myself to this my sister on my father's side and found her with these two black bitches. I saluted her and told her what had betided me and the whole of my story and she said, “O my sister, who is safe from the despite of Time and secure? Thanks be to Allah who has brought thee off safely;” and she began to say:—

“Such is the World, so bear a patient heart
When riches leave thee and when friends depart!”

Mosul A city in northern Iraq and the capital of the Ninawa Governorate, some 400 km (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Mosul

Then she told me her own story, and what had happened to her with her two sisters and how matters had ended; so we abode together and the subject of marriage was never on our tongues for all these years. After a while we were joined by our other sister, the procuratrix, who goeth out every morning and buyeth all we require for the day and night; and we continued in such condition till this last night. In the morning our sister went out, as usual, to make her market and then befell us what befell from bringing the Porter into the house and admitting these three Kalandar men., We entreated them kindly and honourably and a quarter of the night had not passed ere three grave and respectable merchants from Mosul joined us and told us their adventures. We sat talking with them but on one condition which they violated, whereupon we treated them as sorted with their breach of promise, and made them repeat the account they had given of themselves. They did our bidding and we forgave their offence; so they departed from us and this morning we were unexpectedly summoned to thy presence. And such is our story! The Caliph wondered at her words and bade the tale be recorded and chronicled and laid up in his muniment-chambers.


It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the Caliph commanded this story and those of the sister and the Kalandars to be recorded in the archives and be set in the royal muniment-chambers. Then he asked the eldest lady, the mistress of the house, “Knowest thomunu the whereabouts of the Ifritah who spelled thy sisters?”; and she answered, “O Commander of the Faithful, she gave me a ringlet of her hair saying: —Whenas thou wouldest see me, burn a couple of these hairs and I will be with thee forthright, even though I were beyond Caucasus-mountain.” Quoth the Caliph, “Bring me hither the hair.” So she brought it and he threw the whole lock upon the fire As soon as the odour of the burning hair dispread itself, the palace shook and trembled, and all present heard a rumbling and rolling of thunder and a noise as of wings and lo! the Jinniyah who had been a serpent stood in the Caliph's presence. Now she was a Moslemah, so she saluted him and said, “Peace be with thee O Vicar †351 of Allah;” whereto he replied, “And with thee also be peace and the mercy of Allah and His blessing.” Then she continued, “Know that this damsel sowed for me the seed of kindness, wherefor I cannot enough requite her, in that she delivered me from death and destroyed mine enemy. Now I had seen how her sisters dealt with her and felt myself bound to avenge her on them. At first I was minded to slay them, but I feared it would be grievous to her, so I transformed them to bitches; but if thou desire their release, O Commander of the Faithful, I will release them to pleasure thee and her for I am of the Moslems.” Quoth the Caliph, “Release them and after we will look into the affair of the beaten lady and consider her case carefully; and if the truth of her story be evidenced I will exact retaliation †352 from him who wronged her.” Said the Ifritah, “O Commander of the Faithful, I will forthwith release them and will discover to thee the man who did that deed by this lady and wronged her and took her property, and he is the nearest of all men to thee!” So saying she took a cup of water and muttered a spell over it and uttered words there was no understanding; then she sprinkled some of the water over the faces of the two bitches, saying, “Return to your former human shape!” whereupon they were restored to their natural forms and fell to praising their Creator. Then said the Ifritah, “O Commander of the Faithful, of a truth he who scourged this lady with rods is thy son Al-Amin brother of Al-Maamun ; †353 for he had heard of her beauty and loveliness and he played a lover's stratagem with her and married her according to the law and committed the crime (such as it is) of scourging her. Yet indeed he is not to be blamed for beating her, for he laid a condition on her and swore her by a solemn oath not to do a certain thing; however, she was false to her vow and he was minded to put her to death, but he feared Almighty Allah and contented himself with scourging her, as thou hast seen, and with sending her back to her own place. Such is the story of the second lady and the Lord knoweth all.” When the Caliph heard these words of the Ifritah, and knew who had beaten the damsel, he marvelled with mighty marvel and said, “Praise be to Allah, the Most High, the Almighty, who hath shown his exceeding mercy towards me, enabling me to deliver these two damsels from sorcery and torture, and vouchsafing to let me know the secret of this lady's history! And now by Allah, we will do a deed which shall be recorded of us after we are no more.” Then he summoned his son Al-Amin and questioned him of the story of the second lady, the portress; and he told it in the face of truth; whereupon the Caliph bade call into presence the Kazis and their witnesses and the three Kalandars and the first lady with her sisters german who had been ensorcelled; and he married the three to the three Kalandars whom he knew to be princes and sons of Kings and he appointed them chamberlains about his person, assigning to them stipends and allowances and all that they required, and lodging them in his palace at Baghdad. He returned the beaten lady to his son, Al-Amin, renewing the marriage contract between them and gave her great wealth and bade rebuild the house fairer than it was before. As for himself he took to wife the procuratrix and lay with her that night: and next day he set apart for her an apartment in his Serraglio, with handmaidens for her service and a fixed daily allowance And the people marvelled at their Caliph's generosity and natural beneficence and princely widsom; nor did he forget to send all these histories to be recorded in his annals. When Shahrazad ceased speaking Dunyazad exclaimed, “O my own sister, by Allah in very sooth this is a right pleasant tale and a delectable; never was heard the like of it, but prithee tell me now another story to while away what yet remaineth of the waking hours of this our night.” She replied, “With love and gladness if the King give me leave;” and he said, “Tell thy tale and tell it quickly.” So she began, in these words,

Footnotes