THE SULTAN AND HIS VOW
It is written in the chronicles of the Sassanian monarchs that there once lived an illustrious prince, beloved by his own subjects for his wisdom and his prudence, and feared by his enemies for his courage and for the hardy and well-disciplined army of which he was the leader. This prince had two sons, the elder called Schah-riar, and the younger Schah-zenan, both equally good and deserving of praise.
When the old king died at the end of a long and glorious reign, Schah-riar, his eldest son, ascended the throne and reigned in his stead. Schah-zenan, however, was not in the least envious, and a friendly contest soon arose between the two brothers as to which could best promote the happiness of the other. Schah-zenan did all he could to show his loyalty and affection, while the new sultan loaded his brother with all possible honors, and in order that he might in some degree share the sultan's power and wealth, bestowed on him the kingdom of Great Tartary. Schah-zenan immediately went to take possession of the empire allotted him, and fixed his residence at Samarcand, the chief city.
After a separation of ten years Schah-riar so ardently desired to see his brother, that he sent his first vizier, with a splendid embassy, to invite him to revisit his court. As soon as Schah-zenan was informed of the approach of the vizier, he went out to meet him, with all his ministers, in most magnificent dress, and inquired after the health of the sultan, his brother. Having replied to these affectionate inquiries, the vizier told the purpose of his coming. Schah-zenan, who was much affected at the kindness and recollection of his brother, then addressed the vizier in these words: "Sage vizier, the sultan, my brother, does me too much honor. It is impossible that his wish to see me can exceed my desire of again beholding him. You have come at a happy moment. My kingdom is tranquil, and in ten days' time I will be ready to depart with you. Meanwhile pitch your tents on this spot, and I will order every refreshment and accommodation for you and your whole train."
At the end of ten days everything was ready, and Schah-zenan took a tender leave of the queen, his consort. Accompanied by such officers as he had appointed to attend him, he left Samarcand in the evening and camped near the tents of his brother's ambassador, that they might proceed on their journey early the following morning. Wishing, however, once more to see his queen, whom he tenderly loved, he returned privately to the palace, and went directly to her apartment. There, to his extreme grief, he found her in the company of a slave whom she plainly loved better than himself. Yielding to the first outburst of his indignation, the unfortunate monarch drew his scimitar, and with one rapid stroke slew them both.
He then went from the city as privately as he had entered it, and returned to his pavilion. Not a word did he say to any one of what had happened. At dawn he ordered the tents to be struck, and the party set forth on their journey to the sound of drums and other musical instruments. The whole train was filled with joy, except the king, who could think of nothing but his queen, and he was a prey to the deepest grief and melancholy during the whole journey.
When he approached the capital of Persia he perceived the Sultan Schah-riar and all his court coming out to greet him. As soon as the parties met the two brothers alighted and embraced each other; and after a thousand expressions of regard, remounted and entered the city amid the shouts of the multitude. The sultan there conducted the king his brother to a palace which had been prepared for him. This palace communicated by a garden with the sultan's own and was even more magnificent, as it was the spot where all the fêtes and splendid entertainments of the court were given.
Schah-riar left the King of Tartary in order that he might bathe and change his dress; but immediately on his return from the bath went to him again. They seated themselves on a sofa, and conversed till supper time. After so long a separation they seemed even more united by affection than by blood. They ate supper together, and then continued their conversation till Schah-riar, perceiving the night far advanced, left his brother to repose.
The unfortunate Schah-zenan retired to his couch; but if in the presence of the sultan he had for a while forgotten his grief, it now returned with doubled force. Every circumstance of the queen's death arose to his mind and kept him awake, and left such a look of sorrow on his face that next morning the sultan could not fail to notice it. He did all in his power to show his continued love and affection, and sought to amuse his brother with the most splendid entertainments, but the gayest fêtes served only to increase Schah-zenan's melancholy.
One morning when Schah-riar had given orders for a grand hunting party at the distance of two days' journey from the city, Schah-zenan requested permission to remain in his palace on account of a slight illness. The sultan, wishing to please him, consented, but he himself went with all his court to partake of the sport.
The King of Tartary was no sooner alone than he shut himself up in his apartment, and gave way to his sorrow. But as he sat thus grieving at the open window, looking out upon the beautiful garden of the palace, he suddenly saw the sultana, the beloved wife of his brother, meet a man in the garden with whom she held an affectionate conversation. Upon witnessing this interview, Schah-zenan determined that he would no longer give way to such inconsolable grief for a misfortune which came to other husbands as well as to himself. He ordered supper to be brought, and ate with a better appetite than he had before done since leaving Samarcand. He even enjoyed the fine concert performed while he sat at table.
Schah-riar returned from the hunt at the close of the second day, and was delighted at the change which he soon found had taken place in his brother. He urged him to explain the cause of his former depression and of his present joy. The King of Tartary, feeling it his duty to obey his suzerain lord, related the story of his wife's misconduct, and of the severe punishment which he had visited on her. Schah-riar expressed his full approval of his brother's conduct.
"I own," he said, "had I been in your place I should have been less easily satisfied. I should not have been contented to take away the life of one woman, but should have sacrificed a thousand to my resentment. Your fate, surely, is most singular. Since, however, it has pleased God to afford you consolation, which, I am sure, is as well founded as was your grief, inform me, I beg, of that also."
Schah-zenan was very reluctant to relate what he had seen, but at last yielded to the urgent commands and entreaties of his brother, and told him of the faithlessness of his own queen.
At this unexpected news, the rage and grief of Schah-riar knew no bounds. He far exceeded his brother in his invectives and indignation. Not only did he sentence to death his unhappy sultana but bound himself by a solemn vow that, immediately on the departure of the king his brother, he would marry a new wife every night, and command her to be strangled in the morning. Schah-zenan soon after had a solemn audience of leave, and returned to his own kingdom, laden with the most magnificent presents.
When Schah-zenan was gone the sultan began to carry out his unhappy oath. Every night he married the daughter of some one of his subjects, and the next morning she was ordered out and put to death. It was the duty of the grand vizier to execute these commands of the sultan's, and revolting as they were to him, he was obliged to submit or lose his own head. The report of this unexampled inhumanity spread a panic of consternation throughout the city. Instead of the praises and blessings with which, until now, they had loaded their monarch, all his subjects poured out curses on his head.
The grand vizier had two daughters, the elder of whom was called Schehera-zade, and the younger Dinar-zade. Schehera-zade was possessed of a remarkable degree of courage. She had read much, and had so good a memory that she never forgot anything she had once read or heard. Her beauty was equaled only by her virtuous disposition. The vizier was passionately fond of her.
One day as they were talking together, she made the astonishing request that she might have the honor of becoming the sultan's bride. The grand vizier was horrified, and tried to dissuade her. He pointed out the fearful penalty attached to the favor she sought. Schehera-zade, however, persisted, telling her father she had in mind a plan which she thought might put a stop to the sultan's dreadful cruelty.
"I am aware of the danger I run, my father," she said, "but it does not deter me from my purpose. If I die, my death will be glorious; if I succeed, I shall render my country an important service."
Still the vizier was most reluctant to allow his beloved child to enter on so dangerous an enterprise, and attempted to turn her from her purpose by telling her the following story:
THE FABLE OF THE ASS, THE OX, AND THE LABORER
A very rich merchant had several farmhouses in the country, where he bred every kind of cattle. This merchant understood the language of beasts. He obtained this privilege on the condition of not imparting to any one what he heard, under penalty of death.
By chance he had put an ox and an ass into the same stall; and being seated near them, he heard the ox say to the ass: "How happy do I think your lot. A servant looks after you with great care, washes you, feeds you with fine sifted barley, and gives you fresh and clean water; your greatest task is to carry the merchant, our master. My condition is as unfortunate as yours is pleasant. They yoke me to a plow the whole day, while the laborer urges me on with his goad. The weight and force of the plow, too, chafes all the skin from my neck. When I have worked from morning till night, they give me unwholesome and uninviting food. Have I not, then, reason to envy your lot?"
When he had finished, the ass replied in these words: "Believe me, they would not treat you thus if you possessed as much courage as strength. When they come to tie you to the manger, what resistance, pray, do you ever make? Do you ever push them with your horns? Do you ever show your anger by stamping on the ground with your feet? Why don't you terrify them with your bellowing? Nature has given you the means of making yourself respected, and yet you neglect to use them. They bring you bad beans and chaff. Well, do not eat them; smell at them only and leave them. Thus, if you follow my plans, you will soon perceive a change, which you will thank me for."
The ox took the advice of the ass very kindly, and declared himself much obliged to him.
Early the next morning the laborer came for the ox, and yoked him to the plow, and set him to work as usual. The latter, who had not forgotten the advice he had received, was very unruly the whole day; and at night, when the laborer attempted to fasten him to the stall, he ran bellowing back, and put down his horns to strike him; in short, he did exactly as the ass had advised him.
On the next morning, when the man came, he found the manger still full of beans and chaff, and the ox lying on the ground with his legs stretched out, and making a strange groaning. The laborer thought him very ill, and that it would be useless to take him to work; he, therefore, immediately went and informed the merchant.
The latter perceived that the bad advice of the ass had been followed; and he told the laborer to go and take the ass instead of the ox, and not fail to give him plenty of exercise. The man obeyed; and the ass was obliged to drag the plow the whole day, which tired him the more because he was unaccustomed to it; besides which, he was so beaten that he could scarcely support himself when he came back, and fell down in his stall half dead.
Here the grand vizier said to Schehera-zade: "You are, my child, just like this ass, and would expose yourself to destruction."
"Sir," replied Schehera-zade, "the example which you have brought does not alter my resolution, and I shall not cease importuning you till I have obtained from you the favor of presenting me to the sultan as his consort."
The vizier, finding her persistent in her request, said, "Well then, since you will remain thus obstinate, I shall be obliged to treat you as the rich merchant I mentioned did his wife."
Being told in what a miserable state the ass was, he was curious to know what passed between him and the ox. After supper, therefore, he went out by moonlight, accompanied by his wife, and sat down near them; on his arrival, he heard the ass say to the ox, "Tell me, brother, what you mean to do when the laborer brings you food to-morrow!"
"Mean to do!" replied the ox. "Why, what you taught me, to be sure."
"Take care," interrupted the ass, "what you are about, lest you destroy yourself; for in coming home yesterday evening, I heard our master say these sad words: 'Since the ox can neither eat nor support himself, I wish him to be killed to-morrow; do not, therefore, fail to send for the butcher.' This is what I heard; and the interest I take in your safety, and the friendship I have for you, induces me to mention it. When they bring you beans and chaff, get up, and begin eating directly. Our master, by this, will suppose that you have recovered, and will, without doubt, revoke the sentence for your death; in my opinion, if you act otherwise, it is all over with you."
This speech produced the intended effect; the ox was much troubled, and lowed with fear. The merchant, who had listened to everything with great attention, burst into a fit of laughter that quite surprised his wife.
"Tell me," said she, "what you laugh at, that I may join in it. I wish to know the cause."
"That satisfaction," replied the husband, "I cannot afford you. I can only tell you that I laughed at what the ass said to the ox; the rest is a secret, which I must not reveal."
"And why not?" asked his wife.
"Because, if I tell you, it will cost me my life."
"You trifle with me," added she; "this can never be true; and if you do not immediately inform me what you laughed at, I swear by Allah that we will live together no longer."
In saying this, she went back to the house in a pet, shut herself up, and cried the whole night. Her husband, finding that she continued in the same state all the next day, said, "How foolish it is to afflict yourself in this way! Do I not seriously tell you, that if I were to yield to your foolish importunities, it would cost me my life?"
"Whatever happens rests with Allah," said she; "but I shall not alter my mind."
"I see very plainly," answered the merchant, "it it not possible to make you submit to reason, and that your obstinacy will kill you."
He then sent for the parents and other relations of his wife; when they were all assembled, he explained to them his motives for calling them together, and requested them to use all their influence with his wife, and endeavor to convince her of the folly of her conduct. She rejected them all, and said she had rather die than give up this point to her husband. When her children saw that nothing could alter her resolution, they began to lament most bitterly—the merchant himself knew not what to do.
A little while afterward he was sitting by chance at the door of his house, considering whether he should not even sacrifice himself in order to save his wife, whom he so tenderly loved, when he saw his favorite dog run up to the cock in the farmyard, and tell him all the circumstances of the painful situation in which he was placed. Upon which the cock said, "How foolish must our master be. He has but one wife, and cannot gain his point, while I have fifty, and do just as I please. Let him take a good-sized stick, and not scruple to use it, and she will soon know better, and not worry him to reveal what he ought to keep secret."
The merchant at once did as he suggested, on which his wife quickly repented of her ill-timed curiosity, and all her family came in, heartily glad at finding her more rational and submissive to her husband.
"You deserve, my daughter," added the grand vizier, "to be treated like the merchant's wife."
"Do not, sir," answered Schehera-zade, "think ill of me if I still persist in my sentiments. The history of this woman does not shake my resolution. I could recount, on the other hand, many good reasons which ought to persuade you not to oppose my design. Pardon me, too, if I add that your opposition will be useless; for if your paternal tenderness should refuse the request I make, I will present myself to the sultan."
At length the vizier, overcome by his daughter's firmness, yielded to her entreaties; and although he was very sorry at not being able to conquer her resolution, he immediately went to Schah-riar, and announced to him that Schehera-zade herself would be his bride on the following night.
The sultan was much astonished at the sacrifice of the grand vizier. "Is it possible," said he, "that you can give up your own child?"
"Sire," replied the vizier, "she has herself made the offer. The dreadful fate that hangs over her does not alarm her; and she resigns her life for the honor of being the consort of your majesty, though it be but for one night."
"Vizier," said the sultan, "do not deceive yourself with any hopes; for be assured that, in delivering Schehera-zade into your charge to-morrow, it will be with an order for her death; and if you disobey, your own head will be the forfeit."
"Although," answered the vizier, "I am her father, I will answer for the fidelity of this arm in fulfilling your commands."
When the grand vizier returned to Schehera-zade, she thanked her father; and observing him to be much afflicted, consoled him by saying that she hoped he would be so far from repenting her marriage with the sultan that it would become a subject of joy to him for the remainder of his life.
Before Schehera-zade went to the palace, she called her sister, Dinar-zade, aside, and said, "As soon as I shall have presented myself before the sultan, I shall entreat him to suffer you to sleep in the bridal chamber, that I may enjoy for the last time your company. If I obtain this favor, as I expect, remember to awaken me to-morrow morning an hour before daybreak, and say, 'If you are not asleep, my sister, I beg of you, till the morning appears, to recount to me one of those delightful stories you know.' I will immediately begin to tell one; and I flatter myself that by these means I shall free the kingdom from the consternation in which it is."
Dinar-zade promised to do with pleasure what she required.
Within a short time Schehera-zade was conducted by her father to the palace, and was admitted to the presence of the sultan. They were no sooner alone than the sultan ordered her to take off her veil. He was charmed with her beauty; but perceiving her tears, he demanded the cause of them.
"Sire," answered Schehera-zade, "I have a sister whom I tenderly love—I earnestly wish that she might be permitted to pass the night in this apartment, that we may again see each other, and once more take a tender farewell. Will you allow me the consolation of giving her this last proof of my affection?"
Schah-riar having agreed to it, they sent for Dinar-zade, who came directly. The sultan passed the night with Schehera-zade on an elevated couch, as was the custom among the eastern monarchs, and Dinar-zade slept at the foot of it on a mattress prepared for the purpose.
Dinar-zade, having awakened about an hour before day, did what her sister had ordered her. "My dear sister," she said, "if you are not asleep, I entreat you, as it will soon be light, to relate to me one of those delightful tales you know. It will, alas, be the last time I shall receive that pleasure."
Instead of returning any answer to her sister, Schehera-zade addressed these words to the sultan: "Will your majesty permit me to indulge my sister in her request?"
"Freely," replied he.
Schehera-zade then desired her sister to attend, and, addressing herself to the sultan, began as follows: