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Payne: The Story of the Portress

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'My father died and left me great wealth, and soon after his death I married one of the richest men of Baghdad. At the end of a year he too died and I inherited from him fourscore thousand dinars, being my lawful share of his property; so that I became passing rich and the report of my wealth spread abroad, for I got me half a score suits of clothes, each worth a thousand dinars. One day, as I was sitting alone, there came in to me an old woman with sunken cheeks and worn eyebrows, bleared eyes and broken teeth, blotched face and bald head, grizzled hair and bent and mangy body, running nose and sallow complexion, even as says the poet of the like of her:

A right pernicious hag! Unshriven be her sins, Nor let her mercy find what time she comes to die! So full of wile she is, that with a single thread Of spider's silk she'd curb a thousand mules that shy.

She saluted me and kissing the ground before me, said, "I have an orphan daughter whose wedding and unveiling I celebrate to-night. We are strangers in the city and know none of its inhabitants, and verily our hearts are broken so do thou earn through us a recompense and reward in the world to come by being present at her unveiling. When the ladies of the city hear that thou art to be present, they also will attend, and so wilt thou bring healing to her spirit, for now she is broken-hearted and has none to look to but God the Most High." Then she wept and kissed my feet, repeating the following verses:

Thy presence honoureth us, and we Confess thy magnanimity: If thou forsake us, there is none Can stand to us in stead of thee.

I was moved to pity for her and said, "I hear and obey; and God willing, I will do more than this for her, for she shall not be unveiled but in my clothes and ornaments and jewellery." At this the old woman rejoiced and fell at my feet and kissed them, saying, "God requite thee with good and gladden thy heart as thou hast gladdened mine! But, O my lady, do not trouble thyself now, but be ready against the evening, when I will come and fetch thee." So saying, she kissed my hand and went away, whilst I attired myself and made my preparations. At the appointed time, the old woman returned, smiling, and kissed my hand, saying, "O my mistress, the most part of the ladies of the city are assembled; and I told them that thou hadst promised to be present, whereat they rejoiced and they are now awaiting thee and are looking eagerly for thy coming." So I veiled myself and taking my serving-maids with me, followed the old woman, till we came to a street swept and watered, through which blew a pleasant breeze. Here she stopped at a handsome portico vaulted with marble and leading to a palace that rose from the ground and took hold upon the clouds. The gateway was hung with a black curtain and lighted by a lamp of gold curiously wrought; and on the door were written the following verses:

I am a dwelling, builded for delight; My time is still for joyance day and night. Right in my midst a springing fountain wells, Whose waters banish anguish and despite, Whose marge with rose, narcissus, camomile, Anemone and myrtle, is bedight.

The old woman knocked at the gate, which opened; and we entered a carpeted vestibule hung with lighted lamps and candles and adorned with pendants of precious stones and minerals. Through this we passed into a saloon, whose like is not to be found in the world, hung and carpeted with silken stuffs and lighted by hanging lamps and wax candles in rows. At the upper end stood a couch of juniper-wood, set with pearls and jewels and canopied with curtains of satin, looped up with pearls. Hardly had I taken note of all this, when there came out from the alcove a young lady more perfect than the moon at its full, with a forehead brilliant as the morning, when it shines forth, even as says the poet:

Upon the imperial necks she walks, a loveling bright, For bride-chambers of kings and emperors bedight. The blossom of her cheek is red as dragon's blood, And all her face is flowered with roses red and white. Slender and sleepy-eyed and languorous of gait, All manner loveliness is in her sweetest sight. The locks upon her brow are like a troubled night, From out of which there shines a morning of delight.

She came down from the dais and said to me, "Welcome, a thousand times welcome to the dear and illustrious sister!" and she recited the following verses:

If the house knew who visits it, it would indeed rejoice And stoop to kiss the happy place whereon her feet have stood; And in the voice with which the case, though mute, yet speaks, exclaim, "Welcome and many a welcome to the generous and good!"

Then she sat down and said to me, "O my sister, I have a brother, who is handsomer than I; and he saw thee at certain festivals and assemblies and fell passionately in love with thee, for that thou art possessed of beauty and grace beyond thy share. He heard that thou wast thine own mistress, even as he also is the head of his family, and wished to make thine acquaintance; wherefore he used this device to bring thee in company with me; for he desires to marry thee according to the law of God and His prophet, and there is no shame in what is lawful." When I heard what she said, I bethought me that I was fairly entrapped and answered, "I hear and obey." At this she was glad and clapped her hands, whereupon a door opened and out came the handsomest of young men, elegantly dressed and perfect in beauty and symmetry and winning grace, with eyebrows like a bended bow and eyes that ravished hearts with lawful enchantments, even as says a poet, describing the like of him:

His face is like unto the new moon's face With signs, like pearls, of fortune and of grace.

And God bless him who said:

He hath indeed been blest with beauty and with grace, And blest be He who shaped and fashioned forth his face! All rarest charms that be unite to make him fair, His witching loveliness distracts the human race. Beauty itself hath set these words upon his brow, "Except this youth there's none that's fair in any place."

When I looked at him, my heart inclined to him and I loved him; and he sat down by me and talked with me awhile. Presently the young lady clapped her hands a second time, and behold, a side door opened and there came out a Cadi and four witnesses, who saluted and sitting down, drew up the contract of marriage between me and the young man and retired. Then he turned to me and said, "May our night be blessed! O my mistress, I have a condition to lay on thee." Quoth I, "O my lord, what is it?" Whereupon he rose and fetching a copy of the Koran, said to me, "Swear to me that thou wilt never look upon another man than myself, nor incline to him." I did as he wished and he rejoiced with an exceeding joy and embraced me and my whole heart was taken with love of him. Presently they set food before us and we ate and drank, till we were satisfied and night closed in upon us. Then he took me and went to bed with me and ceased not to kiss and embrace me till the morning. I lived with him in all delight and happiness for a month, at the end of which time I asked his leave to go to the bazaar to buy certain stuffs that I wanted, and he gave me leave. So I veiled myself and taking with me the old woman and a serving-maid, went to the bazaar, where I sat down in the shop of a young merchant, whom the old woman knew and had recommended to me, saying, "The father of this young man died, when he was a boy, and left him great wealth: he has great store of goods, and thou wilt find what thou seekest with him, for none in the bazaar has finer stuffs than he." So she said to him, "Show this lady thy finest stuffs." And he answered, "I hear and obey." Then she began to sound his praises; but I said, "I have no concern with thy praises of him; all I want is to buy what I need of him and return home." So he brought me what I sought, and I offered him the price, but he refused to take it, saying, "It is a guest-gift to thee on the occasion of thy visit to me this day." Then I said to the old woman, "If he will not take the money, give him back the stuff." "By Allah!" said he, "I will take nothing from thee! I make thee a present of it all, in return for one kiss; for that is more precious to me than all that is in my shop." Quoth the old woman, "What will a kiss profit thee?" Then she said to me, "O my daughter, thou hearest what this young man says. What harm will it do thee, if he take from thee a kiss and thou get the stuffs for nothing?" "Dost thou not know," answered I, "that I am bound by an oath?" But she said, "Hold thy tongue and let him kiss thee, and thou shalt keep thy money and no harm shall betide thee." And she ceased not to persuade me till I put my head into the noose and consented. So I veiled my eyes and held up the edge of my veil between me and the street, that the passers-by might not see me; and he put his mouth to my cheek under the veil. But, instead of kissing me, he bit me so hard that he tore the flesh of my cheek, and I swooned away. The old woman took me in her arms and when I came to myself, I found the shop shut up and her lamenting over me and saying, "Thank God it was no worse!" Then she said to me, "Come, take courage and let us go home, lest the thing get wind and thou be disgraced. When thou returnest, do thou feign sickness and lie down and cover thyself up, and I will bring thee a remedy that will soon heal the wound." So, after awhile, I arose, full of fear and anxiety, and went little by little, till I came to the house, where I lay down and gave out that I was ill. When it was night, my husband came in to me and said, "O my lady, what has befallen thee in this excursion?" Quoth I, "I am not well: I have a pain in my head." Then he lighted a candle and drew near and looked at me and said, "What is that wound on thy cheek, in the soft part?" Said I, "When I went out to-day to buy stuffs, with thy leave, a camel laden with firewood jostled me and the end of one of the pieces of wood tore my veil and wounded my cheek, as thou seest; for indeed the ways are strait in this city." "To-morrow," rejoined he, "I will go to the governor and speak to him, that he may hang every firewood-seller in the city." "God on thee," cried I, "do not burden thy conscience with such a sin against any one! The truth is that I was riding on an ass, and it stumbled and threw me down, and my cheek fell on a piece of glass, which wounded it." "Then," said he, "to morrow I will go to Jaafer the Barmecide and tell him the case, and he will kill every ass in the city." "Wilt thou ruin all the folk on my account," said I, "when this that befell me was decreed of God?" "There is no help for it," answered he, and springing to his feet, plied me with questions and pressed me, till I was frightened and stammered in my speech, so that he guessed how the case stood and exclaimed, "Thou hast been false to thine oath!" Then he gave a great 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. Moreover, he made one take me by the shoulders and sit upon my head and another sit on my knees and hold my feet and giving a third a naked sword, said to him, "Strike her, O Saad, and cut her in twain and let each take half and throw it into the Tigris that the fish may eat her, for this is the reward of her who breaks her oath and is unfaithful to her love." And he redoubled in wrath and repeated the following verses:

If any other share with me in her whom I adore, I'll root out passion from my heart, though longing me destroy; And I will say unto my soul, "Death is the better part;" For love is naught that men with me in common do enjoy.

Then he said to the slave, "Smite her, O Saad!" Whereupon the latter bent down to me and said, "O my lady, repeat the profession of the faith and tell us if there be aught thou wouldst have done, for thy last hour is come." "O good slave," said I, "grant me a little respite, that I may give thee my last injunctions." Then I raised my head and considered my case and how I had fallen from high estate into abjection; wherefore the tears streamed from my eyes and I wept passing sore. He looked at me with angry eyes and repeated the following

Say unto her who wronged us, on whom our kisses tire, Her that hath chosen another for darling of desire, Lo, we will spurn thee from us, before thou cast us off! That which is past between us suffices to our ire.

When I heard this, I wept and looked at him and repeated the following verses:

You doom my banishment from love and all unmoved remain; You rob my wounded lids of rest and sleep whilst I complain. You make mine eyes familiar with watching and unrest; Yet can my heart forget you not, nor eyes from tears refrain. You swore to me that you would keep, for aye, your plighted faith; But when my heart was yours, you broke the oath that you had ta'en. Are you secure against the shifts of time and evil chance, That you've no mercy on my love nor aught of pity deign? If I must die, I prithee, write, 'fore God, upon my tomb, "A slave of passion lieth here, who died of love in vain." It may be one shall pass that way, who knows the pangs of love, And looking on a lover's grave, take pity on her pain.

Then I wept; and when he heard what I said and saw my tears, his anger redoubled, and he repeated the following verses:

I left the darling of my heart, not from satiety; But she had sinned a sin that called aloud for punishment. She would have ta'en another in to share with me her love, But the religion of my heart to share will not consent.

Then I wept again and implored him, saying to myself, "I will work on him with words; so haply he may spare my life, though he take all I have." So I complained to him of my sufferings and repeated the following verses:

If thou indeed wert just to me, thou wouldst not take my life. Alas! against the law of Death no arbiter is there! Thou layst upon my back the load of passion and desire, When I for weakness scarce can lift the very gown I wear! That so my soul should waste away, small wonder is to me; But oh! I wonder how my flesh can thine estrangement bear.

Then I wept again, and he looked at me and reviled and reproached me, repeating the following verses:

Thou hast forgotten my love in the arms of another than me; Thou shew'st me estrangement, though I was never unfaithful to thee. So I will cast thee away, since thou wast the first to forsake, And by thy pattern content to live without thee will I be. And (like thyself) in the arms of another thy charms I'll forget; 'Tis thou that hast sundered our loves: thou canst not reproach it to me.

Then he called to the slave with the sword, saying "Cut her in half and rid us of her, for we have no profit of her." So the slave drew near to me and I gave myself up for lost and committed my affair to God the Most High; but, at this moment, in came the old woman and threw herself at my husband's feet and kissed them, saying, "O my son, for the sake of my fosterage of thee and my service to thee, spare this young lady, for indeed she has done nothing deserving of death. Thou art a very young man, and I fear lest her death be laid to thy count, for it is said, 'He who kills shall be killed.' As for this wretched woman, put her away from thee and from thy thought and heart." And she ceased not to weep and implore him, till he relented and said, "I pardon her, but I will set a mark on her that shall stay with her all her life." Then he made the slaves strip off my clothes and hold me down, and taking a rod of quince-wood beat me with it on the back and sides till I lost my senses for excess of pain and despaired of life. Then he commanded slaves, as soon as it was dark, to carry me back to the house in which I had lived before my marriage with him, taking the old woman with them to guide them. They did as he bade them and cast me down in my house and went away. I did not recover from my swoon till the morning, when I applied myself to the dressing of my wounds, and medicined myself and kept my bed for four months, at the end of which time my body healed and I was restored to health; but my sides still bore the marks of the blows, as thou hast seen. As soon as I could walk, I went to the house where all this had happened, but found the whole street pulled down and nothing but heaps of rubbish where the house had stood, nor could I learn how this had come about. Then I betook myself to this my half-sister and found with her these two black bitches. I saluted her and told her what had befallen me; and she said, "O my sister, who is safe from the vicissitudes of fortune? Praised be God, who hath brought thee off with thy life!" And she repeated the following verse:

Fortune indeed was ever thus: endure it patiently, Whether thou suffer loss of wealth or friends depart from thee.

Then she told me her own story, and we abode together, she and I, never mentioning the name of marriage. After awhile there came to live with us this our other sister the cateress, who goes out every day and buys what we require for the day and night. We led this life till yesterday, when our sister went out as usual and fell in with the porter. Presently we were joined by these three Calenders and later on by three respectable merchants from Tiberias, all of whom we admitted to our company on certain conditions, which they infringed. But we forgave them their breach of faith, on condition that they should give us an account of themselves; so they told us their stories and went away; and we heard nothing more till this morning, when we were summoned to appear before thee; and this is our story.'

[Resume The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad]

Payne, John (1842-1916). The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. London. 1901. Gutenberg Vol. I. Gutenberg Vol. II. Gutenberg Vol. III. Gutenberg Vol. IV. Please consult the Gutenberg edition for footnotes; the footnotes have not been included in this web version. Wollamshram Vol. V. Wollamshram Vol. VI. Wollamshram Vol. VII. Wollamshram Vol. VIII. Wollamshram Vol. IX. Please consult the Wollamshram edition for footnotes; the footnotes have not been included in this web version.

1001 Nights Hypertext. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. The texts presented here are in the public domain. Thanks to Gene Perry for his excellent help in preparing the texts for the web. Page last updated: January 1, 2005 10:46 PM

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