The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Volume 1

The Reeve’s Tale

translated by

Richard F. Burton


KNOW, O King, that last night I was at a party where they made a perfection of the Koran and got together doctors of law and religion skilled in recitation and intoning; and, when the readers ended, the table was spread and amongst other things they set before us was a marinated ragout1 flavoured with cumin seed. So we sat down, but one of our number held back and refused to touch it. We conjured him to eat of it but he swore he would not; and, when we again pressed him, he said, “Be not instant with me; sufficeth me that which hath already befallen me through eating it”, and he began reciting:

Shoulder thy tray and go straight to thy goal;
            ⚪ And, if suit thee this Kohl why,—use this Kohl!”2

When he ended his verse we said to him, “Allah upon thee, tell us thy reason for refusing to eat of the cumin ragout?” ‘’If so it be,” he replied, “and needs must I eat of it, I will not do so except I wash my hand forty times with soap, forty times with potash and forty times with galangale,3 the total being one hundred and twenty washings.” Thereupon the hospitable host bade his slaves bring water and whatso he required; and the young man washed his hand as afore mentioned. Then he sat down, as if disgusted and frightened withal, and dipping his hand in the ragout, began eating and at the same time showing signs of anger. And we wondered at him with extreme wonderment, for his hand trembled and the morsel in it shook and we saw that his thumb had been cut off and he ate with his four fingers only. So we said to him, “Allah upon thee, what happened to thy thumb? Is thy hand thus by the creation of God or hath some accident befallen it?” “O my brothers,” he answered, “it is not only thus with this thumb, but also with my other thumb and with both my great toes, as you shall see.” So saying he uncovered his left hand and his feet, and we saw that the left hand was even as the right and in like manner that each of his feet lacked its great toe. When we saw him after this fashion, our amazement waxed still greater and we said to him, “We have hardly patience enough to await thy history and to hear the manner of the cutting off of thy thumbs, and the reason of thy washing both hands one hundred and twenty times.” Know then, said he, that my father was chief of the merchants and the wealthiest of them all in Baghdad city during the reign of the Caliph Harun al Rashid; and he was much given to wine drinking and listening to the lute and the other instruments of pleasaunce; so that when he died he left nothing. I buried him and had perlections of the Koran made for him, and mourned for him days and nights: then I opened his shop and found that he had left in it few goods, while his debts were many. However I compounded with his creditors for time to settle their demands and betook myself to buying and selling, paying them something from week to week on account; and I gave not over doing this till I had cleared off his obligations in full and began adding to my principal. One day, as I sat in my shop, suddenly and unexpectedly there appeared before me a young lady, than whom I never saw a fairer, wearing the richest raiment and ornaments and riding a she mule, with one negro slave walking before her and another behind her. She drew rein at the head of the exchange bazaar and entered followed by an eunuch who said to her, “O my lady come out and away without telling anyone, lest thou light a fire which will burn us all up.” Moreover he stood before her guarding her from view whilst she looked at the merchants’ shops. She found none open but mine; so she came up with the eunuch behind her and sitting down in my shop saluted me; never heard I aught fairer than her speech or sweeter than her voice. Then she unveiled her face, and I saw that she was like the moon and I stole a glance at her whose sight caused me a thousand sighs, and my heart was captivated with love of her, and I kept looking again and again upon her face repeating these verses:—

“Say to the charmer in the dove hued veil,
            ⚪ Death would be welcome to abate thy bale!
Favour me with thy favours that I live:
            ⚪ See, I stretch forth my palm to take thy vail!

When she heard my verse she answered me saying:—

“I’ve lost all patience by despite of you;
            ⚪ My heart knows nothing save love plight to you!
If aught I sight save charms so bright of you;
            ⚪ My parting end not in the sight of you!
I swear I’ll ne’er forget the right of you;
            ⚪ And fain this breast would soar to height of you:
You made me drain the love cup, and I lief
            ⚪ A love cup tender for delight of you:
Take this my form where’er you go, and when
            ⚪ You die, entomb me in the site of you:
Call on me in my grave, and hear my bones
            ⚪ Sigh their responses to the shright of you:
And were I asked ‘Of God what wouldst thou see?’
            ⚪ I answer, ‘first His will then Thy decree!’

When she ended her verse she asked me, “O youth, hast thou any fair stuffs by thee?”; and I answered, “O my lady, thy slave is poor; but have patience till the merchants open their shops, and I will suit thee with what thou wilt.” Then we sat talking, I and she (and I was drowned in the sea of her love, dazed in the desert4 of my passion for her), till the merchants opened their shops; when I rose and fetched her all she sought to the tune of five thousand dirhams. She gave the stuff to the eunuch and, going forth by the door of the Exchange, she mounted mule and went away, without telling me whence she came, and I was ashamed to speak of such trifle. When the merchants dunned me for the price, I made myself answerable for five thousand dirhams and went home, drunken with the love of her. They set supper before me and I ate a mouthful, thinking only of her beauty and loveliness, and sought to sleep, but sleep came not to me. And such was my condition for a whole week, when the merchants required their monies of me, but I persuaded them to have patience for another week, at the end of which time she again appeared mounted on a she mule and attended by her eunuch and two slaves. She saluted me and said, “O my master, we have been long in bringing thee the price of the stuffs; but now fetch the Shroff and take thy monies.” So I sent for the money changer and the eunuch counted out the coin before him and made it over to me. Then we sat talking, I and she, till the market opened, when she said to me, “Get me this and that.” So I got her from the merchants whatso she wanted, and she took it and went away without saying a word to me about the price. As soon as she was out of sight, I repented me of what I had done; for the worth of the stuffs bought for her amounted to a thousand dinars, and I said in my soul, “What manner of love is this? She hath brought me five thousand dirhams, and hath taken goods for a thousand dinars.”5 I feared lest I should be beggared through having to pay the merchants their money, and I said, “They know none other but me; this lovely lady is naught but a cheat and a swindler, who hath diddled me with her beauty and grace; for she saw that I was a mere youth and laughed at me for not asking her address.” I ceased not to be troubled by these doubts and fears, as she was absent more than a month, till the merchants pestered me for their money and were so hard upon me that I put up my property for sale and stood on the very brink of ruin. However, as I was sitting in my shop one day, drowned in melancholy musings, she suddenly rode up and, dismounting at the bazaar gate, came straight towards me. When I saw her all my cares fell from me and I forgot every trouble. She came close up to me and greeted me with her sweet voice and pleasant speech and presently said, “Fetch me the Shroff and weigh thy money.”6 So she gave me the price of what goods I had gotten for her and more, and fell to talking freely with me, till I was like to die of joy and delight Presently she asked me, “Hast thou a wife?”; and I answered “No, indeed: I have never known woman”; and began to shed tears. Quoth she “Why weepest thou?” Quoth I “It is nothing!” Then giving the eunuch some of the gold pieces, I begged him to be go between7 in the matter; but he laughed and said, “She is more in love with thee than thou with her: she hath no occasion for the stuffs she hath bought of thee and did all this only for the love of thee; so ask of her what thou wilt and she will deny thee nothing.” When she saw me giving the dinars to the eunuch, she returned and sat down again; and I said to her, “Be charitable to thy slave and pardon him what he is about to say.” Then I told her what was in my mind and she assented and said to the eunuch, “Thou shalt carry my message to him,” adding to me, “And do thou whatso the eunuch biddeth thee.” Then she got up and went away, and I paid the merchants their monies and they all profited; but as for me, regret at the breaking off of our intercourse was all my gain; and I slept not the whole of that night. However, before many days passed her eunuch came to me, and I entreated him honourably and asked him after his mistress. “Truly she is sick with love of thee,” he replied and I rejoined, “Tell me who and what she is.” Quoth he, “The Lady Zubaydah, queen consort of Harun al-Rashid, brought her up as a rearling8 and hath advanced her to be stewardess of the Harim, and gave her the right of going in and out of her own sweet will. She spoke to her lady of thee and begged her to marry her to thee; but she said, ‘I will not do this, till I see the young man; and, if he be worthy of thee, I will marry thee to him.’ So now we look for the moment to smuggle thee into the Palace and if thou succeed in entering privily thou wilt win thy wish to wed her; but if the affair get wind, the Lady Zubaydah will strike off thy head.9 What sayest thou to this?” I answered, “I will go with thee and abide the risk whereof thou speakest.” Then said he, “As soon as it is night, go to the Mosque built by the Lady Zubaydah on the Tigris and pray the night prayers and sleep there.” “With love and gladness,” cried I. So at nightfall I repaired to the Mosque, where I prayed and passed the night. With earliest dawn, behold, came sundry eunuchs in a skiff with a number of empty chests which they deposited in the Mosque; then all of them went their ways but one, and looking curiously at him, I saw he was our go between. Presently in came the handmaiden, my mistress, walking straight up to us; and I rose to her and embraced her while she kissed me and shed tears.10 We talked awhile; after which she made me get into one of the chests which she locked upon me. Presently the other eunuchs came back with a quantity of packages and she fell to stowing them in the chests, which she locked down, one by one, till all were shut. When all was done the eunuchs embarked the chests in the boat and made for the Lady Zubaydah’s palace. With this, thought began to beset me and I said to myself, “Verily thy lust and wantonness will be the death of thee; and the question is after all shalt thou win to thy wish or not?” And I began to weep, boxed up as I was in the box and suffering from cramp; and I prayed Allah that He deliver me from the dangerous strait I was in, whilst the boat gave not over going on till it reached the Palace gate where they lifted out the chests and amongst them that in which I was. Then they carried them in, passing through a troop of eunuchs, guardians of the Harim and of the ladies behind the curtain, till they came to the post of the Eunuch in Chief11 who started up from his slumbers and shouted to the damsel “What is in those chests?” “They are full of wares for the Lady Zubaydah!” “Open them, one by one, that I may see what is in them.” “And wherefore wouldst thou open them?” “Give me no words and exceed not in talk! These chests must and shall be opened.” So saying, he sprang to his feet, and the first which they brought to him to open was that wherein I was; and, when I felt his hands upon it, my senses failed me and I bepissed myself in my funk, the water running out of the box. Then said she to the Eunuch in Chief, “O steward! thou wilt cause me to be killed and thyself too, for thou hast damaged goods worth ten thousand dinars. This chest contains coloured dresses, and four gallon flasks of Zemzem water;12 and now one of them hath got unstoppered and the water is running out over the clothes and it will spoil their colours.” The eunuch answered, “Take up thy boxes and get thee gone to the curse of God!” So the slaves carried off all the chests, including mine; and hastened on with them till suddenly I heard the voice of one saying, “Alack, and alack! the Caliph! the Caliph!” When that cry struck mine ears I died in my skin and said a saying which never yet shamed the sayer, “There is no Majesty and there is no Might save in Allah, the Glorious, the Great! I and only I have brought this calamity upon myself.” Presently I heard the Caliph say to my mistress, “A plague on thee, what is in those boxes?”; and she answered, “Dresses for the Lady Zubaydah”;13 whereupon he, “Open them before me!” When I heard this I died my death outright and said to myself, “By Allah, today is the very last of my days in this world: if I come safe out of this I am to marry her and no more words, but detection stares me in the face and my head is as good as stricken off.” Then I repeated the profession of Faith, saying, “There is no god but the God, and Mohammed is the Apostle of God!”——And Shahrázád perceived the dawn of day and ceased to say her permitted say.

 

When it was the Twenty-eighth Night,

She said, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that the young merchant continued as follows: Now when I testified, “I bear witness that there is no god save the God,” I heard my mistress the handmaid declare to the Caliph, “These chests, O Commander of the Faithful, have been committed to my charge by the Lady Zubaydah, and she doth not wish their contents to be seen by any one.” “No matter!” quoth the Caliph, “needs must they be opened, I will see what is in them”; and he cried aloud to the eunuchs, “Bring the chests here before me.” At this I made sure of death (without benefit of a doubt) and swooned away. Then the eunuchs brought the chests up to him one after another and he fell to inspecting the contents, but he saw in them only otters and stuffs and fine dresses; and they ceased not opening the chests and he ceased not looking to see what was in them, finding only clothes and such matters, till none remained unopened but the box in which I was boxed. They put forth their hands to open it, but my mistress the handmaid made haste and said to the Caliph, “This one thou shalt see only in the presence of the Lady Zubaydah, for that which is in it is her secret.” When he heard this he gave orders to carry in the chests; so they took up that wherein I was and bore it with the rest into the Harim and set it down in the midst of the saloon; and indeed my spittle was dried up for very fear.14 Then my mistress opened the box and took me out, saying, “Fear not: no harm shall betide thee now nor dread; but broaden thy breast and strengthen thy heart and sit thee down till the Lady Zubaydah come, and surely thou shalt win thy wish of me.” So I sat down and, after a while, in came ten hand maidens, virgins like moons, and ranged themselves in two rows, five facing five; and after them twenty other damsels, high bosomed virginity, surrounding the Lady Zubaydah who could hardly walk for the weight of her raiment and ornaments. As she drew near, the slave girls dispersed from around her, and I advanced and kissed the ground between her hands. She signed to me to sit and, when I sat down before her chair, she began questioning me of my forbears and family and condition, to which I made such answers that pleased her, and she said to my mistress, “Our nurturing of thee, O damsel, hath not disappointed us.” Then she said to me, “Know that this handmaiden is to us even as our own child and she is a trust committed to thee by Allah.” I again kissed the ground before her, well pleased that I should marry my mistress, and she bade me abide ten days in the palace. So I abode there ten days, during which time I saw not my mistress nor anybody save one of the concubines, who brought me the morning and evening meals. After this the Lady Zubaydah took counsel with the Caliph on the marriage of her favourite handmaid, and he gave leave and assigned to her a wedding portion of ten thousand gold pieces. So the Lady Zubaydah sent for the Kazi and witnesses who wrote our marriage contract, after which the women made ready sweetmeats and rich viands and distributed them among all the Odahs15 of the Harim. Thus they did other ten days, at the end of which time my mistress went to the baths.16 Meanwhile, they set before me a tray of food where on were various meats and among those dishes, which were enough to daze the wits, was a bowl of cumin ragout containing chickens breasts, fricandoed17 and flavoured with sugar, pistachios, musk and rose water. Then, by Allah, fair sirs, I did not long hesitate; but took my seat before the ragout and fell to and ate of it till I could no more. After this I wiped my hands, but forgot to wash them; and sat till it grew dark, when the wax candles were lighted and the singing women came in with their tambourines and proceeded to display the bride in various dresses and to carry her in procession from room to room all round the palace, getting their palms crossed with gold. Then they brought her to me and disrobed her. When I found myself alone with her on the bed I embraced her, hardly believing in our union; but she smelt the strong odours of the ragout upon my hands and forth with cried out with an exceeding loud cry, at which the slave girls came running to her from all sides. I trembled with alarm, unknowing what was the matter, and the girls asked her, “What aileth thee, O our sister?” She answered them, “Take this mad man away from me: I had thought he was a man of sense!” Quoth I to her, “What makes thee think me mad?” Quoth she, “Thou madman’ what made thee eat of cumin ragout and forget to wash thy hand? By Allah, I will requite thee for thy misconduct. Shall the like of thee come to bed with the like of me with unclean hands?”18 Then she took from her side a plaited scourge and came down with it on my back and the place where I sit till her forearms were benumbed and I fainted away from the much beating; when she said to the handmaids, “Take him and carry him to the Chief of Police, that he may strike off the hand wherewith he ate of the cumin ragout, and which he did not wash.” When I heard this I said, “There is no Majesty and there is no Might save in Allah! Wilt thou cut off my hand, because I ate of a cumin ragout and did not wash?” The handmaidens also interceded with her and kissed her hand saying, “O our sister, this man is a simpleton, punish him not for what he hath done this nonce;” but she answered, “By Allah, there is no help but that I dock him of somewhat, especially the offending member.” Then she went away and I saw no more of her for ten days, during which time she sent me meat and drink by a slave girl who told me that she had fallen sick from the smell of the cumin ragout. After that time she came to me and said, “O black of face!19 I will teach thee how to eat cumin ragout without washing thy hands!” Then she cried out to the handmaids, who pinioned me; and she took a sharp razor and cut off my thumbs and great toes; even as you see, O fair assembly! Thereupon I swooned away, and she sprinkled some powder of healing herbs upon the stumps and when the blood was stanched, I said, “Never again will I eat of cumin ragout without washing my hands forty times with potash and forty times with galangale and forty times with soap!” And she took of me an oath and bound me by a covenant to that effect. When, therefore, you brought me the cumin ragout my colour changed and I said to myself, “It was this very dish that caused the cutting off of my thumbs and great toes;” and, when you forced me, I said, “Needs must I fulfil the oath I have sworn.” “And what befell thee after this?” asked those present; and he answered, “When I swore to her, her anger was appeased and I slept with her that night. We abode thus awhile till she said to me one day, “Verily the Palace of the Caliph is not a pleasant place for us to live in, and none ever entered it save thyself; and thou only by grace of the Lady Zubaydah. Now she hath given me fifty thousand dinars,” adding, “Take this money and go out and buy us a fair dwelling house.” So I fared forth and bought a fine and spacious mansion, whither she removed all the wealth she owned and what riches I had gained in stuffs and costly rarities. Such is the cause of the cutting off of my thumbs and great toes. We ate (continued the Reeve), and were returning to our homes when there befell me with the Hunchback that thou wottest of. This then is my story, and peace be with thee! Quoth the King; “This story is on no wise more delectable than the story of the Hunchback; nay, it is even less so, and there is no help for the hanging of the whole of you.” Then came forward the Jewish physician and kissing the ground said, “O King of the age, I will tell thee an history more wonderful than that of the Hunchback.” “Tell on,” said the King of China; so he began the

TALE OF THE JEWISH DOCTOR.


1.    Arab. “Zirbájah” = meat dressed with vinegar, cumin-seed (Pers. Zír) and hot spices. More of it in the sequel of the tale.    [back]

2.    A saying not uncommon meaning, let each man do as he seems fit; also = “age quad agis”: and at times corresponding with our saw about the cap fitting.    [back]

3.    Arab. “Su’úd,” an Alpinia with pungent rhizome like ginger; here used as a counter-odour.    [back]

4.    Arab. “Tá’ih” = lost in the “Tíh,” a desert wherein man may lose himself, translated in our maps ‘The Desert of the Wanderings,” scil. of the children of Israel. “Credat Judæus.”    [back]

5.    i.e. £125 and £500.    [back]

6.    A large sum was weighed by a professional instead of being counted, the reason being that the coin is mostly old and worn: hence our words “pound” and “pension” (or what is weighed out).    [back]

7.    The eunuch is the best possible go-between on account of his almost unlimited power over the Harem.    [back]

8.    i.e., a slave-girl brought up in the house and never sold except for some especial reason, as habitual drunkenness, etc.    [back]

9.    Smuggling men into the Harem is a stock “topic” of eastern tales. “By means of their female attendants, the ladies of the royal harem generally get men into their apartments in the disguise of women,” says Vatsyayana in The Kama Sutra, Part V. London: Printed for the Hindoo Kamashastra Society. 1883. For private circulation.    [back]

10.    These tears are shed over past separation. So the “Indians” of the New World never meet after long parting without beweeping mutual friends they have lost.    [back]

11.    A most important Jack in office whom one can see with his smooth chin and blubber lips, starting up from his lazy snooze in the shade and delivering his orders more peremptorily than any Dogberry. These epicenes are as curious and exceptional in character as in external conformation. Disconnected, after a fashion, with humanity, they are brave, fierce and capable of any villainy or barbarity (as Agha Mohammed Khan in Persia 1795-98). The frame is unnaturally long and lean, especially the arms and legs; with high, flat, thin shoulders, big protruding joints and a face by contrast extraordinarily large, a veritable mask; the Castrato is expert in the use of weapons and sits his horse admirably, riding well “home” in the saddle for the best of reasons; and his hoarse, thick voice, which apparently does not break, as in the European “Cáppone,” invests him with all the circumstance of command.    [back]

12.    From the Meccan well used by Moslems much like Eau de Lourdes by Christians: the water is saltish, hence the touch of Arab humour (Pilgrimage iii., 201-202).    [back]

13.    Such articles would be sacred from Moslem eyes.    [back]

14.    Physiologically true, but not generally mentioned in describing the emotions.    [back]

15.    Properly “Uta,” the different rooms, each “Odalisque,” or concubine, having her own.    [back]

16.    Showing that her monthly ailment was over.    [back]

17.    Arab “Muhammarah” = either browned before the fire or artificially reddened.    [back]

18.    The insolence and licence of these palace-girls was (and is) unlimited, especially when, as in the present case, they have to deal with a “lofty.” On this subject numberless stories are current throughout the East.    [back]

19.    i.e., blackened by the fires of Jehannam.    [back]


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