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The sultan having heard the other man's story, which was of but little interest, dismissed the three foolish schoolmasters with a present, commanded the vizier to go and recognize the house of the three ladies and their mother, it being his intention to visit them again in disguise and hear their adventures. The vizier hastened to the street, but to his surprise and mortification found all the houses marked in the same manner, for the youngest sister having overheard the sultan's instructions, had done this to prevent a discovery of their residence. The vizier returned to the sultan, and informed him of the trick which had been played. He was much vexed, but the circumstance excited his curiosity in a greater degree. At length the vizier bethought himself of a stratagem, and said, "My lord, let a proclamation be issued for four days successively throughout the city, that whoever presumes after the first watch of the night to have a lamp lighted in his house, shall have his head struck off, his goods confiscated, his house razed to the ground, and his women dishonoured. It is possible, as these ladies did not regard your proclamation at the nuptials of the princess, they may disobey this, and by that means we may discover their residence."
The sultan approved the contrivance of the vizier, caused the proclamation to be made, and waited impatiently for the fourth night, when he and his minister having disguised themselves as before, proceeded to the street in which the ladies lived. A light appeared only in one house, which it being now tolerably certain was that they were in quest of, they knocked at the door.
Immediately on their knocking the youngest sister called out, "Who is at the door?" and they replied, "We are dervishes, and entreat to be your guests." She exclaimed, "What can you want at such a late hour, and where did you lodge last night?" They answered, "Our quarters are at a certain serai, but we have lost our way, and are fearful of being apprehended by the officers of police. Let your kindness then induce you to open the door, and afford us shelter for the remainder of the night: it will be a meritorious act in the eye of heaven." The mother overhearing what was said, ordered the door to be opened.
When they were admitted, the old lady and her daughters rose up, received them respectfully, and having seated them, placed refreshments before them, of which they partook, and were delighted with their treatment. At length the sultan said, "Daughters, you cannot but know of the royal proclamation; how comes it that you alone of all the inhabitants of the city have disobeyed it by having lights in your house after the first watch of the night?" Upon this the youngest sister replied, "Good dervish, even the sultan should not be obeyed but in his reasonable commands, and as this proclamation against lighting our lamps is tyrannical, it ought not to be complied with, consistently with the law of scripture; for the Koraun says, ‘Obedience to a creature in a criminal matter, is a sin against the Creator.' The sultan (may God pardon him!) acts against scripture, and obeys the dictates of Satan. We three sisters, with our good mother, make it a rule to spin every night a certain quantity of cotton, which in the morning we dispose of, and of the price of our labour we lay out a part in provisions, and the remainder in a new supply of materials for working to procure us a subsistence."
The sultan now whispered to his vizier, saying, "This damsel astonishes me by her answers; endeavour to think of some question that may perplex her." "My lord," replied the vizier, "we are here in the characters of strangers and dervishes as their guests: how then can we presume to disturb them by improper questions?" The sultan still insisted upon his addressing them: upon which, the vizier said to the ladies, "Obedience to the sultan's orders is incumbent upon all subjects." "It is true he is our sovereign," exclaimed the youngest sister, "but how can he know whether we are starving or in affluence?" "Suppose," replied the vizier, "he should send for you to the presence, and question you concerning your disobedience to his commands, what could you advance in excuse for yourselves?" "I would say to the sultan," rejoined she, "‘Your majesty has acted in contradiction to the divine law.'"
The vizier upon this turned towards the sultan, and said in a whisper, "Let us leave off disputing further with this lady on points of law or conscience, and inquire if she understands the fine arts." The sultan put the question; upon which she replied, "I am perfect in all:" and he then requested her to play and sing. She retired immediately, but soon returning with a lute, sat down, tuned it, and played in a plaintive strain, which she accompanied with the following verses:
"It is praiseworthy in subjects to obey their sovereigns, but his reign will continue long who gains their affections by kindness. Be liberal in thy manners, and he who is dependent upon thee will pray for thy life, for the free man alone can feel gratitude. To him who confers gifts man will ever resort, for bounty is fascinating. Sadden not with denial the countenance of the man of genius, for the liberal mind is disgusted at stinginess and haughty demeanour. Not a tenth part of mankind understand what is right, for human nature is ignorant, rebellious, and ungrateful."
When the sultan had heard these verses, he remained for some time immersed in thought; then whispering his vizier, said, "This quotation was certainly meant in allusion to ourselves, and I am convinced they must know that I am their sultan, and thou vizier, for the whole tenor of their conversation shews their knowledge of us." He then addressed the lady, saying, "Your music, your performance, your voice, and the subject of your stanzas have delighted me beyond expression." Upon this she sang the following verse:
"Men endeavour to attain station and riches during an age of toil and oppression, while, alas! their accounts to heaven and their graves are decreed from their very birth."
The sultan, from the purport of these last verses, was more assured than ever that she knew his quality. She did not leave off singing and playing till day-light, when she retired, and brought in a breakfast, of which the sultan and the vizier partook; after which she said, "I hope you will return to us this night at the conclusion of the first watch, and be our guests." The sultan promised, and departed in admiration at the beauty of the sisters, their accomplishments, and graceful manners; saying to the vizier, "My soul is delighted with the charms of these elegant women."
The following evening the sultan and vizier, disguised as usual, repaired to the house of the sisters, taking with them some purses of deenars, and were received with the same respectful welcome. Being seated, supper was set before them, and after it basins and ewers to wash their hands. Coffee was then served up, and conversation on various subjects amused them till the prayer time of the first watch; they then arose, performed their ablutions, and prayed. When, their devotions were ended, the sultan presented a purse of a thousand deenars to the youngest sister, and said, "Expend this upon your necessary occasions." She took the purse with a profound obeisance, kissed his hands, and was convinced, as she had before suspected, that he must be the sultan; at the same time hinting privately to her mother and sisters the quality of their guests, and prostrating herself before him.
The other ladies upon this arose, and followed the example of their sister; when the sultan said aside to his vizier, "They certainly know us:" and then turning to the ladies, addressed them saying, "We are merely dervishes, and you pay us a respect only due to sovereigns; I beseech you refrain." The youngest sister again fell at his feet, and repeated the following verse:
"May prosperous fortune daily accompany thee in spite of the malice of the envious! May thy days be bright and those of thy enemies gloomy!"
"I am convinced thou art the sultan, and thy companion thy vizier." The sultan replied, "What reason have you for such a supposition?" She answered, "From your dignified demeanour and liberal conduct, for the signs of royalty cannot be concealed even in the habit of a recluse."
The sultan replied, "You have indeed judged truly, but inform me how happens it, that you have with you no male protectors?" She answered, "My lord the sultan, our history is so wonderful, that were it written on a tablet of adamant it might serve as an example in future ages to such as would be advised." The sultan requested her to relate it, which she did in the following manner.
[Resume The Story of the Sisters and the Sultana their Mother]
Scott, Jonathan (1754-1829). The Arabian Nights Entertainments. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1890. 4 Volumes. Project Gutenberg.
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