And when the one thousand and thirty first night had come,
THE TALE OF BAHRAM, HUNĀ, AND THE WONDERFUL CLOAK
Great King of Time, there was once, in the passage of an age and a moment, in the far reaches of China, a king whose name was Usman.
He was a very grand king, and ruled over an enormous kingdom, but he was not a good king. He was greedy and cruel, and taxed his subjects most cruelly. But nobody dared say a word, for he also had an army that was so huge that it might span the earth from one horizon to another, and yet one could not see the head or the tail of it.
This King Usman loved, above all other things, jewels, and over the years of his reign he had gathered so many that one room in his palace was filled with them, in heaps that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Each evening, after his work was done and before going to his harīm, he would come to sit with them and feast his eyes on their splendour.
The King was, at all times, accompanied by his bodyguards, and among them there happened to be one by the name of Bahram. He was young and handsome, and brave and intelligent, but was very poor; so poor, indeed, that but for the one dinār the king paid him every day, he had nothing else in the world at all.
Almost every day, when, at the conclusion of his duties, he lay on the straw pallet that was all that he could afford for a bed, Bahram felt hunger gnawing at him so that he could not sleep. “Surely,” he thought, “Allah could not have meant me to live my entire life so miserably. And, once I am a few years older and my muscles lose their strength and my eyes their keenness, the king will drive me from his service and I will have to beg for a living or starve.”
One night, as he lay so thinking to himself, Bahram’s eyes went to the window of his room, and through it he saw the lights of the King’s palace, shining in the night. One light, in particular, glimmered and sparkled, and Bahram knew that it was due to the lamplight reflected from the huge heap of jewels within.
“Surely,” he thought to himself, “the king could never know it if I helped myself to just one or two of the stones, for there are so many there that he can’t possibly have counted them all.” It was a shameful thought, because Bahram was as honest as he was poor, but once the idea had come into his head it would not let him go.
“Just one or two of those jewels,” he thought, “could keep me from starving for the rest of my life, and that is all I want, not great riches or luxury. And it’s not as though the King either came by the stones by honest labour, for he extorted it from the people by means of his cruel taxes.”
The more he thought about it, the more he felt that this was his only option. All it was left for him to do was to try and find a way to get into the room when nobody was there.
This was not easy, because the room was guarded by a heavy door of brass and iron, and the only key to it hung around the king’s own neck on a chain. Each evening, he would unlock the door, and on leaving would lock it again, and put the key round his neck once more. And after that, giant eunuch slaves with drawn swords would stand guard outside the door all night.
The only time that Bahram could enter the room was when the King himself was in it. Since the monarch did not permit him to come inside further than the door, there was no chance for him to steal even the smallest of the rubies or emeralds that spilled across the floor, and which the monarch sat running through his fingers as though they were so much sand.
Instead of hunger and discomfort, it was now thoughts about the jewels that kept Bahram awake at night, until he would get up, lean on the windowsill, look up at the glittering light in the window of the treasure room, and sigh to himself in longing.
One night, he was thus sighing, and in his longing he intoned these lines:
“If the stars fell down into my hand
If they covered the earth like the desert’s sand
I would not cast a second look on them again
They would not beguile my eye.
But if just one stone from the King’s great hill
Of gems that he gathers still
Fell from heaven onto the earth
For that alone I sigh.
One little stone, of blood’s own rich hue
Or a sapphire like the sky’s calm blue
And I would covet nothing again
But all I can do is cry.
For the days go marching past
And the day is coming fast
When I will be pushed away
And all I can do is die.
If Allah, by His divine will
Decided that I would be better still
Suffering as I am, then be it so
But I would still know why.
And as the years fly so fast
As I lie withered on the street at last
I would raise my face to Heaven’s own
And ask for that reply.”
Just then he heard a voice close at hand.
“Yes,” it said, soft as the clouds that float in the sky, “it would be a good rich haul indeed, even if one only took a hundredth of a hundredth of the riches there, would it not?”
At first Bahram thought that the voice was his imagination, for its words had been in precise accommodation to his own thoughts, and because he could not see where it had sounded from. But then it came again.
“A good rich haul indeed,” it said, “enough to comfort a poor guard in his old age, and also punishment for a king who only knows avarice.”
“Who are you?” Bahram asked eventually. “An ifrīt or a jinni?”
“Hardly,” the response came, with a laugh. “I am as human as you, but, I suspect, a good deal better at what I do than you would be, Bahram the king’s bodyguard.”
“And what are you? How do you know my name?”
“I’m a thief, of course.” The voice was as soft as ever. “My name is Karīm. As to how I know your name, and what you’re thinking, I have been watching you for many nights now, watching you look up at the window of the King’s famed jewel room, and listening to you sigh with longing. What more did I need to know what you’re thinking, Bahram?”
“So why do you speak to me?” Bahram asked. “There is nothing that I can do for you.” He had been looking all over for the thief, but though he could hear him quite clearly, he could see nothing of him at all.
“Is that so?” the thief whispered. “What if I tell you, guard, that I can steal jewels enough from that room for both of us?”
“How can you do that?” Bahram wondered. “Except when the King is there, the room is always locked, and only he has the key. Besides, there are guards outside all night, and the window to the room is, as you see, far too high to climb, and is barred with iron besides.”
“Do not worry about that,” Karīm told him. “I will only need your help to let me get inside that room, and I will do the rest.”
“But I just told you,” Bahram replied, exasperated, “that the room is always locked, and the King has the key. How can I help you get inside?”
“Do you not enter the room every evening, when the King is there?” the reply came. “Now you have been looking all over for me all this time, but you have not seen me, and it is vexing you very much that you do not know where I am. That is because I have a cloak which, when I wear it, allows me to merge completely with my surroundings so I cannot be seen. All you need to do is allow me to accompany you into the palace tomorrow, and when the King enters the treasure room, let me squeeze past you into it with him. Then, I will wait, unseen, until he departs, and then I will choose a few of the gems for both of us, after which I will wait for you. The day after tomorrow, all you have to do is allow me to squeeze out again behind you after he has finished admiring his jewels and wishes to leave. Then, when the King has gone to his harīm, I will accompany you back here, and we will split what I have stolen, equally. After that I will leave this kingdom, for there will be nothing to keep me here; and as for you, you can do as you wish.”
Bahram had listened to this speech with considerable astonishment. “If that is so, by Allah,” he said, “no wonder you said that you were better at your job than I would be at it. But how do I know that you speak the truth?”
“Look, then, and I will show you.” For the briefest moment, Bahram saw what seemed to be a scrap of shadow snatched away, and caught, for the veriest instant, sight of a pale face. Before he could make out any more, the shadow fell into place again. “Do you believe me now? And will you help me?”
“There is no power nor might save in Allah!” the poor bodyguard said. “All these months, I have sighed for just one or two of those jewels, and excoriated Allah for putting the lure of them before my eyes, like a man in the desert who, dying of thirst, sees a skin full of water just out of reach. And now the water comes to my hand, yet I cannot bring myself to trust the one who gives it to me!”
“Do not think about it too long,” the thief Karīm replied, “or you may find yourself faced with the same fate as the goat who was befriended by the crocodile.”
“What goat is that?” Bahram asked.
“Do you not know of the goat? Listen then, and I shall tell you.”
And so saying, the thief began
THE STORY OF THE GOAT AND THE CROCODILE
Long ago, in a distant land, there was a goat that lived beside a river. He was a very handsome goat, with long ears and curved horns, dappled brown and white skin, and a pleasing bleat. But though he was so good looking, he was very lonely, for he had no she goats to give him company and bear his babies.
This might not have mattered so much if there were no she-goats anywhere at all to be found, but, as it happened, there was a large flock of them just on the other side of the river, all of whom looked comely and tempting to the goat, but there was no way he could ever reach them.
The goat had plenty of grass to graze on, and as much water as he wanted to drink, but he was never happy. All day he would stand above the river bank and look across at the she-goats, and yearn to be with them, and sigh with longing. As time passed, his distress rose to the point where he lost his sleep and appetite, and began to get thin and scraggly.
There were crocodiles in the river, and they would have eaten the goat if they had a chance. Undoubtedly, they would have succeeded in ambushing him as he stood staring longingly across the river, but for one particular crocodile, who was the goat’s friend, and who always made haste to defend him with her tail and jaws from her relatives. This crocodile had watched the goat pine away, though she did not know the reason, and at last could contain herself no longer.
“Brother Goat,” she said, crawling up the bank one day, “I do not understand what it is that is troubling you, but I can see you weakening every day, and I am concerned that at this rate you will make yourself seriously ill, or worse.”
“As Allah lives, Sister Crocodile,” the goat bleated, “I would be all right, if only I could be with the she-goats across the river; but all I can do is look across at them, and yearn.”
The crocodile was much disturbed, for she liked the goat and wanted him to be happy, but for the moment there was nothing she could do; and she retreated to her place on the bank, to lie there with her mouth agape like the others of her clan.
That afternoon Allah sent clouds to cover the sky, and as darkness fell, a terrible thunderstorm broke out in the hills above the river, uprooting boulders and trees which the flood bore downstream. One of these trees, as it happened, nudged the far bank of the river with its branches, and swung round so that its roots brushed the near shore.
The crocodile, who had been lying on the bank, watching the flood, at once dropped into the river and, gripping the roots in her jaws, pulled it around until it touched the ground near where the goat was standing, his eyes fixed on the far side as usual. “Brother Goat,” the crocodile shouted, “run across this tree quickly, and get to the other side, for this is your chance.” And she quickly went back to holding the tree root in her mouth, because the flow of the water was so strong that it had almost been swept away.
The goat, however, was terrified at the thought of running across the tree trunk, and stood hesitating, until the flood had brought down so much debris that the poor crocodile found it hard to hold on. Risking letting go for a moment, she screamed, “Brother Goat! If you want to go, you must go now!”
The goat still stood hesitating, until on the far bank he saw one or two of the she goats approaching, The sight finally broke the shackles of his fear, and, leaping on to the trunk, he began bounding across. But the river had brought down so much debris, and its flow was so strong, that the crocodile could no longer hold on. The flood wrenched the roots from her jaws and rolled the tree over, the goat’s hooves lost their purchase on the slippery bark, and with a splash he went into the river.
The other crocodiles, who had long been waiting for such an opportunity as this, were upon him at once, and in an instant he had vanished, in pieces, inside their bellies.
So ended the goat who, had he gone across the moment the crocodile had asked him to, would have got across safely; and who, had he stayed where he was, would also have survived. But Allah knows all!
“Well, then, Bahram?” the thief Karīm asked. “Will you take this opportunity while it is still open to you? Or will you tarry too long, and I move on to other plans I have made to get my hands on the jewels? Choose now, for I cannot wait here much longer.”
Bahram looked at his bare straw pallet and back at the dazzle from the palace window. “If only the King Usman paid me a wage that I could live on,” he thought to himself, “I would never have to do anything like this. But there is nothing for it.” So he turned back to where he had glimpsed the thief. “I will do it,” he said.
“Excellent!” the reply came. “I will follow you to the palace when you go there in the morning, and be near you all day. All you have to do is just not acknowledge, by so much as a breath, that I am there. And now I am going away, for I have preparations to make.”
Poor Bahram, perplexed and greatly worried by his own decision, went back to his pallet, and tossed restlessly for much of the rest of the night, until, just before dawn, he fell into a restless sleep. Woken abruptly by the muezzin’s call to prayer, he thought he had dreamt it all, and was greatly relieved.
This relief only lasted until he set out to the palace. From somewhere nearby he heard a voice, though he could see no one. “O Bahram, I trust that you have not forgotten what I said to you last night, and will do just as I told you. Be assured that I will be near you at all times, and that I will be listening to every word you say.”
“There is no power or might save in Allah!” Bahram thought. “The pitch-faced king will not pay me enough to keep body and soul together, and yet it is my duty to serve him. On the other hand, this invisible thief opens my path to riches, but as clearly warns me that he will be watching every move I make, and if I betray him, it will be the worse for me. All I can do is trust to Allah and carry on.”
The King Usman, as it happened, was in an especially foul temper that day, and abused everyone around him in greatly intemperate terms, so that even the wazīrs and kotwāls did not escape the lash of his tongue. Bahram, too, did not escape his threats and scolding, and it hardened his heart.
“The King draws his own fate behind him,” he thought. “I have served him loyally, and I do not deserve such cruel words. I will do as the thief said, and then we shall see what we shall see.”
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and thirty second night had come,
That evening, when King Usman, as was his wont, went to the treasure room to be with his jewels before proceeding to the harīm, Bahram stood aside in the doorway just enough to let Karīm, with his cloak, squeeze past him. The room was small, and filled with precious stones up to the ceiling, but try as he might the guard could catch no glimpse of the thief.
“It is indeed a marvellous cloak!” he said to himself. “Now I only hope everything else goes through as planned.” So saying, he took up his station at the door, and, after the King had locked it and gone to his harīm, he went back to his little hovel, leaving the thief locked inside with the jewels.
The previous night’s lack of sleep and his mental fatigue had so exhausted Bahram that, for the first time in many days, he fell into a deep sleep, from which he did not wake until so late the next morning that he had to rush to the palace without even a bite of the crust of bread that served him for breakfast. That day, the King’s mood was no better than before, and as the day wore on it became even worse.
“By Allah!” the monarch said, as he rose from his throne at the end of the day, “I need more than ever to feast my eyes on my jewels tonight, for I am sorely vexed.” With Bahram following closely, he went to the treasure room, and, taking the key from his neck, he unlocked the door.
And then the guard and the monarch gasped together with shock, for the stones, which had been stacked so high, were tossed and scattered everywhere; the bars on the window were cut, and a rope hanging down showed which way the thief had gone.
The King Usman then flew into a rage so great that the walls of the palace seemed about to burst into flames with his wrath. “You!” he turned on Bahram. “Summon my kotwāl at once!”
His heart trembling with fear as much as his mind was reeling with wrath at the perfidy of the thief, Bahram brought the kotwāl. This official, who was shrewd and experienced, took one look around the room and turned to the monarch.
“Great King,” he said, “the thief can only have entered this room through this door, for the bars are cut from inside and the rope is secured inside. Therefore, only someone who has access to this room can have carried out the theft.”
The King Usman, his face white with rage, turned to Bahram. “The only other person but for me who ever enters this room is you,” he said. “It must be you who has stolen my jewels. Your head will answer for it!”
“As Allah lives,” the hapless bodyguard lied, “I know nothing about it.”
“Give him to me, O King,” the kotwāl said. “In my torture chambers, I will drag the truth out of him along with his tongue.”
Then Bahram’s eyes turned to darkness and he gave himself up for lost. “Give me but one chance, O King of Time,” he begged. “I will find the lost jewels and return them to you.”
“Why should I do that?” the King asked. “You have already broken my trust, so why should I give you it again?”
“I did not steal the jewels,” Bahram said, “and torturing me will not restore them to you, O my master. But while you are torturing me, the real thief will have escaped with his loot where you will never find him. For has the poet not said...” And he recited these lines:
“I saw a shadow on the floor
And knew if I looked up I’d see
The face of Beauty itself
Gazing in through the door at me.
The shadow stayed on the floor
I watched it, hoping you to follow
All through the day, as the hours
Fled by, long and hollow.
Evening came, and with it the shadow
Grey long at the end of day
And at last up I looked
But you were already far away.
Then the night came, and the dark
Drowned out the light and the shadow too
And still I sit in the doorway
Waiting for it, and for you.”
The King and the kotwāl glanced at each other. “If he tells the truth,” the latter said, “and is indeed not the real thief, that wretch will be fleeing at this very moment with the jewels, and every moment of delay makes it less likely that we will ever be able to recover them.”
“In that case,” the King replied, “let him go and find the thief, since he claims that he can do so. You,” he told the guard, “have to return here within the week with the lost stones. Do not think you can escape, for I will have all the spies in the far reaches of my kingdom looking out for you, and if you try to flee, my good kotwāl’s torture chambers will soon know the music of your screams.”
“I hear and I obey,” the bodyguard said, and hurried from the palace, but his heart was beating hard within his chest. “By Allah,” he thought, “I wish I had never heard of that thief, and been content with my dinār a day. Even that would have been better than ending on the torturer’s rack. But that is where I will inevitably end, for I do not even know what this thief looks like, and he has that cloak which makes him impossible to see. Perhaps he is already far away from the city, and I will never find him, no matter how hard I look.”
So distraught was he that for some time he wandered aimlessly through the city, until he came to the souk, which was closing for the night. Some of the merchants were talking, and Bahram overheard them as he went by.
“I hear that the perfume merchant Burzmani’s daughter Hunā will be getting married tomorrow,” one said. “I am only surprised that it did not happen already, for she is as beautiful as she is clever, and as kind and sweet-tempered as she is talented.”
“You know how greedy that miser Burzmani is,” another responded. “He said he would give her in marriage to someone who could pay him a dowry of jewels so rare that only kings might hope to own their equal. And it seems that today someone has come who has jewels to pay such a dowry.”
Bahram’s ears pricked up at the words, and he made as if he had work nearby so he could tarry and listen. “It seems that the man is called Karīm, comes from a distant land, and is immensely wealthy,” the first merchant added. “He intends to set out for his country with the girl, as soon as he is married to her.”
“What does old Burzmani think about that?” a third merchant said. “You would think he would want his daughter nearby, where he could see her and have her close by him to comfort his old age.”
“All he cares about is riches,” the second merchant scoffed. “Why, once I remember, he had a business dealing...” Still speaking, the merchants walked away.
Bahram did not follow them. “So that is what the scoundrel was up to,” he thought. “I must go and wait for him at the perfume merchant’s house, for that is undoubtedly where I will find him.”
The perfume merchant Burzmani’s house was well known to everyone, for it was the largest and richest mansion in the kingdom after the palace of the King Usman himself. It was not far from the souk, and after only a short walk, Bahram found himself outside the gate, which was set in a wall far too high to climb over, even had he any ability or experience in doing so.
“I must get inside somehow,” he thought to himself. “The wretched thief will see me if I stand out here in the street, and I will never catch him.”
Going up to the eunuch who was standing guard at the gate, Bahram gave him the dinār which had been his salary for the day. “May Allah give you wealth and happiness, my brother,” he said. “I have had a strange dream about you, and it is important that you listen to it, for my dreams always come true.”
“What dream would that be?” the eunuch asked, his cheeks glistening with sweat.
Then Bahram told him:
THE STORY OF BAHRAM’S DREAM
O noble eunuch, you must know that I am in reality a diviner of mysteries, who has spent many years studying with the great sages in the lands of the south. My dreams are not dreams as ordinary men understand them; they are, instead, messages from the world of the jinn and perīs, or warnings and premonitions of what is to come.
Last night, as I took the name of Allah and lay down to sleep, I had the distinct feeling that I would be dreaming something of importance to someone close by, in this very city, and that I must find that person and speak to him or her about it as soon as I could.
So I slept, and in my dream found myself on a great open plain, on which not a thing grew, not even a blade of grass. Far in the distance, I glimpsed a spot of white, and began walking towards it. As I came closer, I saw that it was a giant’s skull, as high as the dome of a mosque, half buried in the sand.
“As Allah lives,” I said to myself, “I am profoundly glad I did not meet the owner of this piece of bone when he was alive, for he must have been fearsome in the extreme, quite as bad as the evil jinn our master Sulaiman ibn Daud had punished for their rebellion.” Even as I said this, I saw a movement within the skull’s eye sockets, and, looking closer, saw that there were birds nesting in them. One of them struck me in particular, for each feather of it was a different colour, and it sat with its wings spread open, as though to display them to everyone.
Wishing to see this wonderful creature from closer, I set out to climb up to the socket, and it was like climbing a cliff because it was so high. At last, though, I reached the socket’s margin, and found myself quite close to the bird, which was as large as five men, and even more beautiful than I had imagined. And, strange to say, it turned to me as though it was expecting me, and greeted me in the purest and most chaste form of our language.
“Welcome,” it said. “I have called you here to show you something, which will be of great importance to you, and which you must remember in detail afterwards. Here, stand by me, and look.”
So I stood beside it and looked down at the plain, and the way I had come, but it was a desolation no longer. Indeed, I have seldom seen a land so green, so fertile, and so filled with fruit trees and waterfalls, with pleasant villages and beautiful towns, in all my travels.
“This is indeed a wonderful sight,” I said to the bird, “but how is it that I could see nothing of it as I was walking this way?”
“Not everything is as it appears,” the creature responded. “Tie yourself with your turban to my leg, and I will take you across this plain and show you what you need to see.”
Accordingly, I tied myself to its leg with my turban, and it flew with me into the sky and over the plain. The further we went, the greater the beauty of the gardens and towns grew, until I could scarcely believe that one world could hold them all.
Then at last we came to a city which was more beautiful than any other I had seen, and in the very heart of it was a building of black marble. At its gate there was a guard with drawn sword, and as the bird swooped low overhead I saw that it was none other than you, good eunuch.
The bird flew slowly round and round the building, so that I could see in through the windows, and I saw within them a great opened oyster shell, as large as a cart; and inside it was a pearl, the palest pink in colour, and of such surpassing loveliness that even all the splendours of that plain were as nothing in comparison.
“That pearl,” the bird informed me, “is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the world. If it should be defiled, all that you saw will be destroyed and contaminated forever.”
Even as it spoke, I saw movement in the corner of the room, and a serpent of enormous size came crawling through one of the windows. Coiling around the oyster, it opened its jaws wide, and swallowed the pearl in one bite.
And on an instant the building, the city, and all the gardens and towns of the plain had vanished; and the bird was flapping sadly over the endless desolation, taking me back towards the skull once more.
“This is what you must do,” it said when it had returned to the skull and I had untied my turban, freeing myself from its leg. “You must stop the pearl from being swallowed by the serpent, for only then will the beauty remain.”
“I will find and warn the guard,” I said. “After all, it is his responsibility to keep the pearl safe, and his negligence that allowed the serpent to enter in the first place.”
“Do so,” the bird said, “and you will find us all grateful.” And, flapping its wings, it flew away, leaving me to climb down from the skull and trudge across the desolation once more, looking for the city; but I found nothing but dust until I woke.
The eunuch’s eyes rolled fearfully at the tale when Bahram finished. “That pearl is my mistress Hunā, as Allah lives,” he said, tearing his hair. “She is the most beautiful and accomplished of all women, and is to be married tomorrow; and yet, if some evil spirit, be it jinni or ifrīt, should harm her tonight, it will be my head that will answer for it.”
“Do not be so distressed, good eunuch,” Bahram said. “Perhaps we can, together, keep your mistress safe. Will you take me to her so I can see for myself?”
“I will,” the eunuch said, quivering with gratitude, and preceded Bahram into the mansion. Inside was a courtyard with flowers growing and fountains playing, and on the far side, the zenānā, which, as it happened, was a building of black marble.
“My mistress is in there,” the eunuch said. “Come in quickly with me, before anyone sees you.”
As soon as Bahram entered the zenānā, he heard, instead of the happy laughter and singing that he had expected, of a young woman about to be married, the sound of quiet weeping. The eunuch drew aside a curtain and entered.
“Mistress Hunā,” the eunuch announced, “here is a very wise man, who wishes to meet you most urgently, for he has urgent concerns for your safety.”
The room was filled with beautiful women, who were crowded around a chair in the centre, painting the hands and feet of the girl who sat there with henna; but they were all crying, and the girl in the chair most of all. And though Bahram’s only purpose in coming into the zenānā had been to catch the thief, recover the jewels, and save his own life, the moment his eyes fell on her his heart was caught like a bird in a snare.
“My safety?” Hunā said, with a mirthless little smile. “I would be glad of a knife in my breast at this moment, rather than safety.”
“Do not say any such thing,” the other women said. “If something happened to you, we could not remain alive.”
“Something is happening to me,” Hunā replied to them. “My father is selling me, as surely as he might sell a slave, to some stranger I have never seen, who wants to take me away to a country I do not know, and I will never see any of you again.”
Bahram at last found his tongue. “Perhaps I can help you with that,” he said. “I have had a vision in which I was given forewarning of your predicament, and understood how I might save you from it.”
“Let me talk to you in private,” the girl answered, and dismissed the women and the eunuch. When they had all gone, she turned to him. “Well? What do you have to say that might help me?”
“I had a most compelling dream last night,” Bahram told her, and recounted the story he had told the eunuch; but nothing would be gained by repeating it here.
“Possibly it is this unknown man my dream was warning against,” he said when he had finished. “If I can see him for myself, I could be in a better position to judge.”
The girl nodded. “Young man whose name I do not know,” she said, “if you could save me from the fate of being married to this unknown man, whoever he might be, you will have my gratitude for eternity.”
“I am but your slave,” Bahram murmured. “I ask only your permission to remain hidden near you, for I apprehend that the man may try and approach you tonight, even though you have not yet been married to him, just like the snake did with the pearl. If he does, do exactly as I will tell you now, and leave the rest to me.” And he gave her some instructions.
“I will do so,” the girl said, and indicated drapes that hung to one side from the ceiling to the floor. “Behind those is a niche where you can wait, and from which it is possible to see and hear everything that happens in this room.”
“Thank you, my mistress,” Bahram said, and...
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and thirty third night had come,
O King of Time, Bahram the bodyguard sat behind the curtains, from where he could see and hear everything that happened in the girl’s room, while remaining entirely hidden. For a while, though, he could scarcely draw his eyes away from Hunā, from her lovely face and graceful figure, and her beautiful henna-painted hands and feet. Each movement of hers filled his heart with delight, and it was only with a great effort that he brought back his mind to his purpose, which was, of course, to catch the thief Karīm and recover the stolen jewellery.
Just then, he thought he saw a hint of movement near the door, and it seemed to him that the flame of the oil lamps flickered, as though with the breeze made by someone’s passing by them. A moment later, he saw the girl turn round suddenly, as though she’d been touched by an unseen hand.
“Who’s there?” she asked. “Whether you be man or jinni, answer me.”
“It is merely I, your groom of the morrow,” a voice replied, and Bahram recognised it instantly as that of Karīm, the thief. “I merely came because I could no longer refrain from feasting my eyes on your beauty, queen of my heart.”
“Those are nice words,” Hunā responded, “but I wonder how you managed to get in here without my seeing you. I do not want to be the wife of an accursed sorcerer or warlock, for such dark arts are indeed hārām by Allah’s command.”
“I am no warlock,” the thief responded. “I merely have a wondrous cloak, which shields me from view.”
“How can I believe that unless you prove it?” Hunā asked. “I must believe that you are some evil magician, unless you show yourself and prove otherwise.”
“Your wish is my command,” the thief said, and removed his cloak, revealing himself. Bahram saw a large pouch at his belt, which he immediately realised must be filled with the stolen precious stones. “And from someone as beautiful as you, any wish can only be beautiful.”
“Let me see that cloak,” Hunā responded, still doing exactly as Bahram had advised. “Until I have it in my hands and see for myself that it is real, I will not believe you.”
“Here it is, mistress,” Karīm said, and handed her the cloak. No sooner had she got it in her hands, that she clutched it to her bosom and rushed to the far side of the room, leaving the startled thief alone in the middle.
This was exactly what Bahram had been waiting for. Taking his sword from his belt, he rushed from behind the curtains; and in a moment more, Karīm’s head had gone bouncing from his shoulders, and his soul went flying to its abode in the fires of hell.
“Dear youth,” the maiden said, when she saw what had happened. “How can I thank you enough? Name whatever price you desire, and it will not be a tenth part of the recompense I owe you for this. If it were not for your vision, I would have had no alternative but to be wed to this foul man.”
“Mistress,” Bahram said, “I must owe you an apology, and beg a thousand pardons for the tale I had to tell you earlier. In truth I am no wise man, but merely a penniless bodyguard in the employ of the King, and I had to hunt down this man, who is an arrant thief, to save my own life.” And he told her the story of what had actually happened, leaving out not the slightest detail, but no purpose would be served by repeating it here.
“And now there is nothing for me to do but take the jewels back to the King,” Bahram finished, “and I will have done what I had set out to do. That I was of service to you is reward enough; I can ask no more.”
Hunā had listened all the while with rapt attention to his story, and now she shook her head. “O Bahram,” she said, “I am afraid that if you imagine that the King will pardon you if you take the jewels back, you are much mistaken. He, and his kotwāl, will say that since you brought back the gems, it is merely proof that you stole them yourself, and knew just where they were hidden; and you will end under the executioner’s sword anyway. Do you not know the tale of the sailor Gulb Ad Din, and the magic crystal?”
“What tale is that?” Bahram asked, though his heart fell to the pit of his stomach at the maiden’s words. “I have never heard it before.”
“It is never too late to hear it,” Hunā replied, “for it is a cautionary story for the ages.”
THE STORY OF GULB AD DIN AND THE MAGIC CRYSTAL
Once upon a time, in the Isles of the Indies, there was a sailor called Gulb Ad Din. For many years he had sailed the seven seas on a variety of ships, but had never grown rich; indeed, he was so poor that his wife and children had to run a little shop in his absence, where they sold pots and crockery, to make ends meet.
“O father of my children,” Gulb Ad Din’s wife told him one day, “I am very afraid that if something happens to you, we will be left without any way to keep body and soul together, for the shop brings in almost no money. Each time you set out on a voyage, I am terrified that I will never see you again.”
“Do not be so fearful,” Gulb Ad Din told her. “Each person’s fate is written in a tablet hung around his neck by chains forged by Allah; but, if it distresses you so much, I will leave the sea after this voyage that I am going on tomorrow, and never take ship again.”
And, leaving his wife rejoicing at the thought that this was the last time she would have to be parted from him, he sailed away the next morning. For a week the voyage proceeded excellently; the skies were clear, and the winds blew just from the right quarter and at the right force. But then one morning the sky at dawn was red as old blood, and by noon the heavens had clouded over and the waves had risen until they towered over the masts.
“A terrible storm is coming,” the captain said. “We must make for the nearest land, and hope it shelters us, or we are done for.”
But the wind blew strong, and the waves pushed higher and higher, and by nightfall the ship had been blown far out to sea; and that night the storm, like a hungry tiger, struck with such ferocity that every man on board commended his soul to Allah.
All night the storm blew, and when morning came again, the ship was in the midst of an unknown sea, with the only land visible an island in the distance.
“We must make for that island,” the captain said, “for we can never survive another day of this.”
So the men set what sails they could, and all day they did their best with ropes and rudder; and at last, as darkness began to fall, they came to the island.
“Let us drop anchor here,” the captain ordered, “and not get too close, for unknown shores can be dangerous.”
But just then the storm blew harder than ever, and an enormous wave rose so high that it took up the ship like a toy boat, and flung it on the island with a great crash of splintering wood and ripping canvas. Gulb Ad Din, who had been on one of the masts securing the sails, was flung from the wreck, and knocked unconscious by the impact.
When he regained his senses it was morning. The storm had ended, and he lay on a rocky shore, with broken wreckage from the ship strewn on all sides, but not a single one of his shipmates was to be seen.
“It must be they are all drowned,” Gulb Ad Din lamented. “And I am left alone on this island, and must die here, without ever seeing my wife and children again.” And he bitterly regretted having come on this last voyage, and not having heeded his wife’s advice to remain ashore with her. In his sorrow he intoned these lines:
“I thought to catch a bird on the wing
I thought in my blindness, that I could fly
I thought to rule the world’s vast reaches
And now here I wither and die.
In the desert, I had an oasis
Full of water all mine
And I left it behind for what I saw
On the horizon, a cup of wine.
Now I am left alone and ruined
On a desperate and broken shore
Ah, if only I had my oasis
In the desert sands once more!
“Still,” he thought eventually, “Allah must have had a purpose in sparing me from drowning in the wreck; let me see if I can find something to eat and drink, for I am thirsty and famished.”
Searching among the shattered fragments of the ship, he found a bag of dates and a skin of wine; and, taking these with him, he set out to explore the island.
By noon he had made his way all around the shore, seeing and meeting no one. There remained the interior of the island, from the middle of which a peak rose like a finger of stone, pointing up at the sky and proclaiming the oneness of Allah and the sanctity of His prophet.
“If I can get to the top of that hill,” Gulb Ad Din thought, “I can see out over the whole island, and far over the sea.” Eating some of the dates and drinking some wine, he began climbing the mountain.
As he climbed, he passed bushes with red and yellow berries, which gave off a tantalisingly sweet smell, and little streams with water as clear as crystal; but having eaten and drunk, he passed them by, thinking only that he would return to them once he had finished his dates and wine. At first the climb was easy, but as time passed the slope grew steeper and steeper, until he was forced to climb on all fours, and he realised that he would never be able to reach the top before nightfall.
“There is no succour or help but in Allah!” Gulb Ad Din said. “How am I to spend the night on this barren cliff, and not fall off and break my bones on the rocks below?”
Just then, in the last light of the day, he saw the mouth of a cave a little distance away; and, exerting all his remaining strength, he managed to enter it just as darkness fell.
It was dark in the cave at first; but, as Gulb Ad Din’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he noticed a pale blue glimmer from the shadows. Investigating, he found that the light came from a crystal the size of his fist, which was partly embedded in the wall of the cave. A little digging with the point of his knife soon freed it, so that it fell onto the floor.
“What manner of stone is this?” Gulb Ad Din asked, bewildered. “There seems to be something moving inside.” Holding it up to his eye, he suddenly saw that there were figures and scenes passing by to and fro within the crystal.
“Why,” he thought, “I can see the storm again, and the ship being thrown on the shore by the force of the waves.” And, as he watched, he saw that the rest of the crew, whom he had thought drowned, struggled free of the wreckage and reached the shore. After looking around and calling for him for a while, they set out for the interior of the island, thinking to find there respite from the storm.
As they climbed, they came across the bushes with the succulent berries, and the streams with water clear as crystal; and he saw them eat and drink their fill from them. But just as they had finished, the earth split and a terrible ogre emerged.
“Who dares eat my fruit and drink my water?” he thundered, in a voice so loud that it quite drowned the noise of the storm. “You will all be my slaves henceforth.” Taking a rope from around his waist, in a trice he had bound them all up, and, slinging them over his back like a bundle of grass, he leaped into the air. In a series of leaps he had reached the top of the mountain, where he had his lair, made of stone and guarded with trenches and battlements..
“Allah be praised for saving me from this!” Gulb Ad Din said, when he had seen the fate of his shipmates. “But how am I to save them from their slavery?” Peering into the stone, he reflected for an hour, and at last he had a plan.
In the morning, after the sun had arisen, Gulb Ad Din sated his hunger and thirst with more of the dates and wine, and then proceeded up the mountain, with the crystal tied securely in his sash. Around noon, he finally reached the very top, where he found the ogre’s lair, just as the crystal had shown.
“Is there anyone within?” he shouted, his hands cupped around his mouth. “If so, show yourself.”
There was a sound like thunder, and the ogre appeared. In person he was even more fearsome than in the crystal, being as tall as a palm tree and the colour of dark slate. He glared down at Gulb Ad Din. “And who are you who dares interrupt my rest?” he demanded.
“I am but a gambler,” the sailor responded. “I am here to gamble myself against the slaves you have taken, whom I would free from your clutches.”
“Is that so?” the ogre shouted, and laughed so immoderately that the ground shook as though at an earthquake. “A puny human would gamble against me? Very well then, human; what gamble do you propose?”
“Merely this,” Gulb Ad Din responded. “You ask me a question, and, if I can answer it, you let the slaves go free. If I cannot answer it, you can enslave me, too.”
“Excellent!” the ogre said. “Answer this then, human: at this very moment, what is happening in the court of the King of the Jinn at Wak-Wak?”
“I will answer forthwith,” the sailor said, and, turning his back on the monster, he took the crystal from his sash and glanced at it quickly. “The King of the Jinn,” he said, turning back to the ogre, “is, at this very moment, celebrating the betrothal of his daughter, the Princess Jahan Ara, to the Jinni Zaman As Salaam, the greatest hero of the jinn. They are to be wed at the next full moon.”
The ogre’s red eyes grew thoughtful. “Wait here,” he snapped. “I will go and see for myself.” With a colossal leap, he disappeared into the heavens. Hiding the crystal in his sash, Gulb Ad Din sat down to wait.
In a while the ogre returned. “I do not know how you did it, human,” he said, “but you are correct. The Princess is indeed betrothed to Zaman, and, since I always keep my word, you can have the slaves back. But remember, if they eat my fruit and drink my water again, they will become slaves once more.”
“Let us have one more gamble,” Gulb Ad Din suggested. “Excellent ogre, I suggest that I ask you a question. If you answer it correctly, you can keep them all as slaves, and enslave me, too; but if you fail to answer it, you must convey us all to any part of the world I tell you to.”
“That is an excellent suggestion,” the ogre replied. “I do not want to be parted from my slaves, not even for an instant. Well, then, human, ask your question.”
“This is it, ogre,” Gulb Ad Din, who had already looked into the crystal while waiting, said. “In the very heart of the desert in the west, deep below the sands, is a cave where the greatest of the jinn who rebelled against our master Sulaiman ibn Daud is imprisoned, awaiting Judgement Day. He has three heads and six arms, and on each wrist he has a spiked armlet on which his names are carved. Can you tell me what those names are?”
The ogre grew so pale that his colour turned from that of slate to that of marble. “I cannot,” he confessed. “That jinni would tear to pieces anyone who ventured into the cave, for all he has in his heart now are anger and the thirst for vengeance.”
“Very well,” Gulb Ad Din said. “Listen then, ogre, for these are the names on the jinni’s armlets; on the first is the word Jahar, which is the first of his names. On the second is Munaf; on the third, Furqan; on the fourth, Shahar. On the fifth armlet is Dustam, and on the sixth and last is Ashurman. This is his full name – Jahar al Munaf al Furqan ibn Shahar al Dustam Ashurmani. Now do as you promised, and convey us all back to our home in the Isles of the Indies.”
“I hear and I obey, O human,” the ogre replied. Returning to his lair, he brought out the captives, who, on seeing Gulb Ad Din, were astounded in the extreme, and even more surprised when he announced to them that they were about to go free.
Taking the sailors on his back, the ogre leaped into the sky and...
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent. Then the King Shariyar took her in his arms and did his usual with her, and they spent the rest of the hours of darkness in mutual kisses and caresses. And when dawn came, the king rose from his bed and went to his court, where he met his wazīr, Shahrazad’s father, who had brought his daughter’s winding sheet with him over his arm, for he thought her surely dead. But the King said to him not a word, but conducted his business as usual, governing and ruling, righting wrongs and meting out justice; so that the good man was thrown into the greatest perplexity.
But when the one thousand and thirty fourth night had come,
O great and gracious monarch, when the ogre came to land with the seamen to the Isles of the Indies, he let them all go, and they departed with much rejoicing. But he detained Gulb Ad Din a moment, and looked hard at him.
“Remember this, O human,” he said. “I have kept my word, for I own myself honestly defeated in a contest I entered into of my own free will. But if I ever find you again, and you are within my power, I will do to you according to my own law, and will enter into gambles with you no more.”
“That day will never come,” Gulb Ad Din assured him, and returned home happily to his wife and children, who praised Allah exceedingly when they saw him, for they had assumed him surely lost.
But despite their happiness, Gulb Ad Din and his wife soon realised that they were in fact no better off than before, for since the ship had been wrecked the sailor had received no money from this voyage at all. And there seemed to be no work on land at which he could turn his hands to, for everywhere he went he got the same reply, that he had none of the skills that were necessary.
“There is no help for it,” Gulb Ad Din said at last. “I must go on one more voyage, and with the profits of it we can manage until I find some work here on land.”
“I do not want you to go,” his wife said, clutching him to her breast. “I am certain that this time I will never see you again.”
“But I must,” the sailor said. “Do not worry, this time I will certainly return home safe and sound.” He had full confidence in the magic crystal, the secret of which he had kept to himself; and the next day he set sail on a voyage with another ship, with a new crew.
For some weeks all went well, and the ship visited many ports and did good business, so that the holds were filled with merchandise, and then it started on the return voyage. One evening, just before darkness fell, the captain was looking out over the sea, when he saw something flying high in the air in the distance.
“It is an enormous bird,” he said in agitation. “I believe it is none other than the monstrous Rūkh, of which we have heard so much in stories; and these foul birds are in the habit of carrying aloft enormous stones, which they then drop on ships they see, for they hate humanity ever since a band of sailors despoiled some of their eggs and ate one of their chicks.”
Scarcely a moment after he said this, the Rūkh flew overhead and dropped the boulder it was clutching in its claws, which fell on to the ship and smashed the hull to pieces. Gulb Ad Din, who had again been on the mast furling the sails, was thrown into the water; but the rest of the crew were all drowned. So much for them.
All night the unfortunate sailor swam desperately, trying to keep his head above the waves; but his clothes, being soaked with water, began to drag him down so much that he had to strip them away one by one, until he was quite naked but for his sash, in which he had tied the crystal. Then, just before morning came, a wave struck him hard as a hammer and flung him through the air until he fell on to a rocky shore, rolling him out of the reach of the tide so that he could not drown. Gulb Ad Din had been knocked out by the force of the wave, and knew nothing of what was happening.
When he opened his eyes, it was morning, and the first thing he saw was the ogre, leaning over him with joy in his red eyes. “Why, it’s the human,” he rumbled, shaking with laughter. “Back again on my island, and you said the day would never come. How long, O human, before you eat the fruit and drink the water? Remember, the moment you do either, you will be my slave, and this time I will play no games with you.”
“And so,” Hunā finished, “Gulb Ad Din became the slave of the ogre; and he must be still on that island, the crystal still in his sash, hoping against hope that someday he can manage to find his way back to his family. But Allah knows all!”
“It is a strange and terrible tale indeed, my mistress,” Bahram replied when the girl had finished. “But tell me, what can I do? I cannot flee the kingdom, for the king’s spies will all be watching out for me. Nor, in truth, do I wish to leave any longer, for ever since my eyes fell on your face, my heart has been on the ground at your hennaed feet.”
“I, too, have been struck with the arrow of love for you, Bahram,” the girl replied. “But listen carefully, for we have much to think of. In the first place, we have my father to consider; his only desire is for riches, and he would gladly sell me to the next thief who came along, if only he might get gems in exchange. In the second, there is the king, who will never rest until he recovers his stolen stones. And after that we have to consider what to do about us. But before we do anything more, here, take the thief’s cloak, for this will be of the utmost importance in our plans.”
Taking the cloak, and the pouch of jewels from Karīm’s corpse, Bahram listened carefully as the girl told him her idea. Then, leaving her to summon the eunuch to get rid of the criminal’s body, he put on the cloak and departed for the perfume merchant’s own rooms, as she had directed.
The merchant Burzmani was sitting at his accounts, going over the profits he had made that day, when he heard a voice from the back of the room. “O great Burzmani,” it said, “it has come to my notice that you intend to marry your daughter, the wise and fair Hunā, to some man who intends to take her away to a distant country.”
Burzmani peered around the room, but could see no one. “What of it?” he mumbled. “She is my daughter, to do with as I wish. Besides, the man has promised to pay me with jewels.”
“I will pay you with more jewels,” the voice said, and Burzmani saw, with wide-eyed astonishment, a pile of gems appear before him on his book of accounts. “I am certain that these are worth more than those the man Karīm offered you. All I ask for in return is that you set your daughter free from the marriage you planned to enforce between her and him, and that in future you leave her to marry whomsoever she might wish, of her own will.”
“I will do so gladly,” Burzmani said, his greed so overwhelming him that he was hardly aware of what he was saying. “The marriage is cancelled, and she can wed whoever her foolish eyes look upon.” Gathering up the jewels, he rushed to a safe in the corner and put them inside.
“Very well!” the voice said. “I hope you will remember your promise, and not reverse it again if someone offers you even more jewels in future.”
“But naturally,” the merchant said, but his little eyes gleamed with greed, and Bahram knew that he lied. Still, this was precisely what the girl had told him to expect, so he was not surprised. Wishing the merchant a good and peaceful evening in the grace of Allah, he returned to the zenānā and, after divesting himself of the cloak, told Hunā what had happened.
“Very good,” the maiden said. “Here, take this bag of dinārs. Now, early tomorrow you must rent a house in the best part of the town. Then go to the souk, and buy yourself the best clothes you can find, made of the finest materials; and then go to the hamām, and bathe yourself. Then, hire a group of musicians to sing and dance behind you, and come here, throwing money all around at the beggars and others in the street. Make sure you spare not a single dinār in expense.” And she told him what else he must do.
“I hear and I obey!” Bahram said, and withdrew with the bag of money. Putting on the cloak again, he slipped out of the mansion, past the eunuch who was still shaking at the gate with terror at his narrow escape from being punished for negligence. Then he went back to his little hut and his straw pallet, where he tossed and turned for the rest of the night.
In the morning, as directed, Bahram first went to rent a house, and after a little looking, found one that was large and airy, and had a beautiful garden beside it. He then went to the market and bought the best outfit, of the finest silks, he could find; and then he went to the hamām to have himself bathed, massaged, and rubbed until his skin shone. Dressed in his new finery, not even his fellow bodyguards might have recognised him in the splendid figure he cut as he went to hire musicians, and then, at their head, proceeded to the merchant’s house, throwing handfuls of coins left and right.
Long before he had reached Burzmani’s gate, the word had reached the perfume merchant’s ears of the immensely rich and handsome man who was coming, and he himself hurried out to greet the newcomer. “How may I help you, O golden youth?” he enquired, his eyes wide with avarice as he took in Bahram’s finery. “Ask, and it will be yours.”
“I hear that you have a beautiful and nubile daughter, of great talent and felicity,” Bahram declared. “I also hear that you will marry her to anyone who can pay you a sufficient dowry of jewels. I would gladly marry her, and I have enough jewels to make you happy.”
“Ah, yes,” the perfume merchant replied, his face shining with greed. “Come to my office, and we shall talk business.”
So, throwing more money to the crowd that had been following him, Bahram went with Burzmani to the same room which he had visited the previous evening, and there handed over more of the jewels, much greater in value and splendour than those he had given the merchant the night before. “Are these perhaps enough?” he asked.
“Absolutely!” the vile old man responded, almost weeping with happiness. “When do you want to marry her? The silly little chit had plans to wed someone else, and had already been readied for the wedding, which was supposed to be concluded today; but for reasons which need not concern us, that marriage fell through.”
“No time like the present,” Bahram declared. “Have the kādi and witnesses summoned, and we shall conclude this business without further delay.”
Pausing only to stuff the jewels in the safe where he had put the others, the merchant rushed off to summon the kādi and witnesses, and to inform his daughter that she was to be married at once; and, in only a short while, she was led to his presence, her eyes downcast demurely, though she darted quick glances at him when nobody was looking.
Then the marriage was concluded, and Bahram took his new wife with him back to the house that he had rented that morning. When they were alone there at last, he told her exactly what had happened.
“He has done as I was afraid he would,” Hunā responded with a sigh. “He has no trace of integrity, and cannot keep his solemn word. So he will have to be punished as we had intended. In any case, you will have to settle things with the King, and the time is growing short.”
“I will go now,” Bahram said, and doffing his finery, he put on his old clothes, with the wonderful cloak over them. Making his way to the palace, he slipped past the guards, who of course could not see him, and to the King, whom he found just as he was making his way to the treasure room, with a new bodyguard at his back.
“I wonder if I shall ever see my stones again,” the monarch said, as he unlocked the door. “That thrice-accursed thief made off with all the best in my collection. Well, if we cannot get the gems back, that pitch-faced guard Bahram’s head shall answer for it.”
Bahram, who had been waiting right beside the door, slipped inside just behind the King, and so quickly that neither the monarch nor the new bodyguard felt a hint of his presence. Standing at the monarch’s shoulder, he listened to him grumble.
“Right at this moment,” King Usman said to himself, “I would be holding my sapphire in my hands. It is the largest and the most perfect sapphire known to man, and nobody will ever see the like. I would do anything to be able to see it again.”
Even as he spoke, the room seemed to fill with blue fire, and there on the stack of jewels before him he saw the sapphire, which he was certain he had lost forevermore.
“By Allah!” he exclaimed, staring with astonishment at the stone. “I was sure that it was gone, as sure as I was that my blood ruby, size of a hen’s egg, was stolen as well!” Scarcely had he spoken that he saw the ruby, too, lying on top of another pile of stones. But as he reached out to snatch it, it disappeared almost from his very fingertips, and when he turned around, he saw that the sapphire had gone, too.
Then the heart of the King Usman was filled with terror. “Are my stones accursed?” he screamed. “This is surely the work of a jinni or an evil magician. Why do you torment me like this?”
Bahram said nothing, but, reaching into his pouch, he dropped a stone on to the floor. Slipping past the astonished guard, he dropped another stone on to the floor of the corridor, and then another. The King followed as quickly as he could, snatching up the stones as quickly as Bahram dropped them.
“Come with me!” he shouted, and the guard followed at his heels. Bahram led them out of the palace, dropping a stone at intervals so they followed his trail, along the streets all the way to the souk, and, beyond, to the house of the perfume merchant Burzmani. The streets were all filled with people, and they murmured with wonder and astonishment to see their king running along in public, scrabbling in the dirt as he went. Soon a crowd was following the monarch, and growing by the moment.
The merchant Burzmani had been gloating over the gems he had acquired, and feeling excellently satisfied with his double cross. Suddenly he heard a commotion at the gate, and, looking out of the window, he saw the King Usman himself enter, pushing past the eunuch guard, who was too terrified to do anything at all. Burzmani himself was so taken aback that he was still gaping at the crowd streaming into his mansion when the door to his room slammed open and the king himself entered.
Bahram, still hidden in his cloak, threw all but two of the remaining jewels on the table, on which the others, which he had given the merchant, were already piled. “Behold, O King,” he said, speaking for the first time, “here are the rest of your stones, and here is the man who had them in his possession!”
Then the bowels of the perfume merchant turned to water, and the world turned black before his eyes. Falling to the floor, he began wailing, explaining that he had got the stones in exchange for marrying off his daughter to a stranger, and that he’d had not the slightest idea that they were the royal property.
The King Usman was not mollified. “Seize him,” he shouted to the new bodyguard. “Seize him and take him off to the prison, and tomorrow I will decide what is to be done with him.” So saying, he began gathering up the jewels, stuffing them into his robe.
Meanwhile, Bahram had quietly slipped out of the room, and...
At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of dawn and discreetly fell silent.
But when the one thousand and thirty fifth night had come,
While the bodyguard was dragging off the greedy old perfume merchant to prison, and the King was gathering up his recovered precious stones, Bahram made his way through the crowds and back to the house he had rented, where he recounted what had happened to his wife.
“That is excellent,” Hunā said. “Now go to the palace, and wait there, while I do my part.” Quickly dressing in the clothes of a man, she made herself look like a beardless youth, and, taking another bag of dinārs, she went out into the streets. They were still filled with crowds which were discussing what had just happened, each telling the other of the astonishing sight of the king scrabbling with his fingernails in the dirt, and afterwards of the perfume merchant being dragged away in chains. It was at this point that Hunā arrived, and, moving among them, began handing out dinārs left and right. Soon she had people gathered around her, eager to listen to what she had to say.
“Good people,” she shouted. “You have seen the King rooting in the ground like a chicken after grain, have you not, with your own eyes? Do you know what he was hunting for? Gems, precious stones, which he has stored in a room in his palace, a room which is filled from floor to ceiling with them. Where did the gems come from? From you, good people. They were bought with the taxes gouged out of you by the royal revenue collectors, and stacked in the palace, while you almost starved, and while your homes fell to ruin around you. Will you stand for that, good people?”
At first only a few voices murmured with growing anger, but soon the news had spread like wildfire, and the fury of the crowd grew. In a very short while, it was no longer a crowd, but a mob, and was streaming, filled with vengeance, towards the palace.
Long before that, Hunā had left for the barracks of the royal army, and there she went to the soldiers at the gate. “Good warriors,” she said, handing them fistfuls of dinārs, “you are paid almost nothing, while the King’s treasury grows fat with gold. Would you not be happier if you were paid wages better suited to your worth?”
“We would indeed, young master,” the soldiers said, taking the coins. “But what can we do?”
“Just this,” Hunā told them. “For tonight, whatever summons you receive from the palace, ignore them. Stay where you are, and all will be well tomorrow.”
“We are deaf and blind,” the soldiers agreed, and Hunā, well content, went off to the palace, to see what was happening there.
By the time she arrived, the mob had arrived at the palace, and was battering down the gates. The guards, outnumbered and terrified, had run for their lives.
Meanwhile the King was in the treasure room, putting his jewels back in their places. “Only two are missing,” he sighed, “and they are the two best in all my collection, the sapphire and the ruby. Whichever jinni tormented me earlier in the evening with them must have made off with them, and I will never see them again.”
At that moment there was a terrific crash as the doors of the palace were smashed down by the mob, which streamed into the palace. A few terrified slaves ran to the treasure room, almost gibbering with fear, and reported to the King.
“Summon the army!” the King ordered. “Have them ride with their chariots and elephants over the crowd, and cut down all the ringleaders.”
“We already did, as soon as the mob appeared, Your Highness,” one of the servants replied. “But the soldiers at the barracks said they would not come.”
Then Usman’s face grew yellow with dread, and he felt his teeth chatter together with fear. “All is lost,” he thought. “For surely the mob will now tear me to pieces. I would gladly give them all these jewels, if that would make them spare me.”
This was what Bahram had been waiting for. Drawing his sword, he went to the head of the stairs, and, as the first members of the mob reached it, he struck them with the flat of his blade, forcing them down. Since he was still in his cloak, all that the members of the crowd could see was a sword which hung in mid air, hitting them across the faces and hands, and forcing them back, step by step. Soon, their anger had turned to fear, and they were in terrified flight back down to the street.
Then Bahram went to the King, who was close to fainting with mingled terror and relief. “Your Highness,” he said, “you have just said that you were willing to give the crowd your jewels if your life were spared. Do you, then, value them so little that they are worth giving away in exchange for your life?”
Usman startled to hear the voice coming out of the empty air. “Indeed,” he said. “These stones are pretty baubles, but they mean nothing at all in comparison to my life. If I must sacrifice them to save myself, then I will, and most gladly too.”
“In that case,” Bahram said, “you realise that acquiring them has been a waste of your time and energy, and taxed the people so cruelly that they are filled with fury; and I suggest that you not only distribute them among the populace, but in future lighten the burden which is close to breaking their backs.”
“I will do so most gladly,” King Usman said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Also, you have seen that your army, which you pay so abysmally, has abandoned you in your hour of need,” Bahram continued. “If you want the loyalty of the men who put their lives at your service, you must pay them a wage better in accord with their responsibilities.”
“I will do so too,” the hapless monarch agreed, and, calling for his scribes, he set out the orders. Soon, his servants had taken the gems from the treasure room and were handing them out among the people in the streets, so that they were going home rejoicing and praising the monarch’s name. “Is there anything else?” he asked.
“Yes, O King,” Hunā, who had slipped into the palace, said. “There is the little matter of your bodyguard, Bahram, whom you have so unjustly accused.”
The king’s brow grew black as thunder with wrath. “That wretch is the one who started this whole thing by stealing the jewels,” he roared. “And though I have given all the rest away, he is responsible for the loss of the two dearest to my heart, a sapphire and a ruby. Whatever else I do, young man, whoever you might be, I cannot forgive him.”
“Here is your sapphire, O King,” Hunā said, taking out the stone and tossing it into the royal lap. “In return I ask you to pardon Bahram, who in truth never stole the gems, and who has done all in his power to restore them to your possession.”
The King’s eyes grew round as the sapphire itself, and he snatched up the gem and clutched it to his bosom. “Allah be praised!” he gasped. “I indeed pardon Bahram, and will be glad to appoint him to my service again. But what of my ruby?”
“It, too, will be restored to you, O King,” Hunā said. “All you need to do is to set free the perfume merchant you threw into prison tonight. He is a greedy old rogue, and deserved his punishment, but I think he has learnt his lesson now.”
“It will be done,” the monarch said, and Hunā gave him back the ruby. “But where is Bahram?”
“He is indeed by you,” Hunā said, signalling. “In fact, it was he who forced back the mob and saved your life tonight, after all your guards had fled and the army had refused to come to your rescue.”
Then Bahram took off the cloak and revealed himself; and the King, after his astonishment had abated, threw himself on the young man’s neck, and wept.
“You must forgive me,” he said at last. “I have been cruel and hasty, but I have seen the error of my ways. From this moment forth, I pledge to rule for the people, not for my own pleasures and caprices, and I appoint you the head of my guards, and give you a salary in accordance with the post. As for this young man...”
“I am not a young man, Your Highness,” Hunā confessed. “I am a woman, and I am indeed Bahram’s wife. It was in order to clear my husband’s name and to set right the wrong that you had done him that I had to assume this disguise.”
“By Allah’s name,” the King said, “this has truly been a day of wonders, and I will have my scribes write an account of it in letters of gold for inclusion in the royal archives. I did not know, Bahram, that you were married.”
“We have only been married since this afternoon, O King,” the bodyguard said. “What more can I say but that she has done me the greatest honour of my life by agreeing to be my wife.”
“All I can do, then,” the monarch said, “is to hold a grand wedding feast for you tomorrow, and all the kingdom will be invited. And it will also mark the beginning of my new rule.”
So it was that from that day on, the King Usman became the kindest, most beloved ruler of that age, and people sang his praises instead of cursing him under their breaths. And by his side, always, was his beloved head of guards, Bahram, and his wife Hunā, who was as famous in the kingdom for her grace, wisdom, and beauty. But Allah knows all!
“Dear sister,” Dunyazad exclaimed, when Shahrazad had finished, “how I wish I had a cloak like Bahram’s, for then I could go around doing mischief, tweaking the noses of the old wazīrs and the grandees of the guilds in the markets! I am afraid I could be nowhere near as restrained as Bahram or Hunā, and use it only for good. It would be just too tempting.”
Both Shahrazad and the King Shariyar laughed. “You may indeed find more in future stories to tempt you,” the Queen said. “But for that you will have to wait till tomorrow night.”
“As for me,” the monarch said, drawing her to him and covering her face with kisses, “I am in the mood for mischief right now.”
“So am I, O King,” Shahrazad said, and smiled up at him beguilingly.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016