The Story of Prince Seyf el Mulouk

I HAVE already had the honour of tell­ing your majesty that I am the son of the late Sultan of Egypt, Asem Ben Sefouan, and brother of the prince who succeeded him. One day, being in my sixteenth year I found the door of my father’s treasury open. I entered, and I began to scrutinise with much attention the things which seemed rarest to me. I lingered particularly over a little box of red sandal wood, strewn with pearls, diamonds, emeralds, and topazes. It opened with a little gold key, which was in the lock. I opened it, and per­ceived within a ring of marvellous beauty, with a gold box which contained the portrait of a woman.

The features were so regular, the eyes so fine, her appearance so charming, that I thought at first it was a fancy portrait. ‘The works of nature are not so perfect,’ I said. What honour to the brush which produced it does this do!’ I admired the imagination of the painter who had been capable of forming so beautiful an idea to himself

My eyes could not detach themselves from this painting, and, what is most surprising, it inspired me with love. I thought it was perhaps the portrait of some living princess, and the more amorous I became the more I persuaded myself of it. I closed the box and put it in my pocket with the ring; then I left the treasury.

I had a confidant named Saed. He was the son of a great lord of Cairo. I loved him, and he was a few years older than me. I related my adventure to him; he asked me for the portrait and I gave it him. He took it out of the box to see whether there were not some writing at the back which could tell us what I longed passionately to know—that is to say, the name of the person portrayed.

We perceived round the box inside these words in Arabic characters: ‘Bedy-Aljemal, daughter of the King Achahbal.’

This discovery charmed me; I was enchanted to learn that I was not in love with an imaginary person. I bade my confidant discover where King Achahbal reigned.

Saed asked it of the best informed people of Cairo, but no one could tell him, so that I resolved to travel, to scour the world if necessary, and not to return to Egypt until I had seen Bedy-Aljemal. I begged the sultan, my father, to permit me to go to Bagdad to see the court of the caliph and the marvels of that town of which I had heard so much. He granted me this permission. As I wished to travel incognito, I did not make a pompous exit from Cairo; my suite consisted only of Saed and some slaves whose zeal was known to me. I soon put on my finger the beautiful ring which I had taken from my father’s treasury, and the whole way I talked with my confidant only of the Princess Bedy-Aljemal, whose portrait I had always in my hands. When I arrived at Bagdad and had seen all that was curious there, I asked of some wise men if they could not tell me in what part of the world were situated the States of the King Achahbal. They replied in the negative; but if I wished very much to know I had only to take the trouble to go to Bassora and find an old man aged a hundred and seventy, named Padmanaba. This person knew everything, and would doubtless satisfy my curiosity.

I left Bagdad immediately, flew to Bassora, and inquired for the old man. His dwelling was pointed out to me. I went to him. I saw a venerable man still full of vigour, although nearly two centuries had passed over him.

‘My son,’ he said to me, with a laughing air, ‘what can I do for you?’

‘My father,’ I said to him, ‘I would like to know where the King Achahbal reigns. It is of the utmost importance for me to know. Some wise men of Bagdad whom I have consulted, and who have not been able to throw any light upon it, have assured me that you would tell me the name of and the road to the Kingdom of Achahbal.’

‘My son,’ replied the old man, ‘the wise men who have sent you to me think me less ignorant than I am. I do not know exactly where the States of Achahbal are, I only remember to have heard some traveller speak of them. This king reigns, I believe, in a neighbouring island to that of Serendib, but it is only a conjecture, and I am perhaps in error.’

I thanked Padmanaba for having at least indi­cated a spot where I might hope to be informed of what I wished to know. I formed the resolution to go to the island of Serendib. I embarked with Saed and my slaves on the Gulf of Bassora in a merchant vessel which was going to Surat. From Surat we went to Goa, where we learnt on arrival that a vessel was going to sail in a few days and take the direction of the island of Serendib. We profited by the occasion.

We left Goa with a favourable wind, which took us far on our way the first day; but the second day the wind changed, and towards evening so violent a tempest arose that the sailors, seeing our destruction to be inevitable, abandoned the vessel to the mercy of the wind and sea. Some­times the waves, opening as if to engulf us, pre­sented frightful abysses to our frightened eyes, and sometimes rising they lifted us to the clouds. The vessel soon filling, we took to the boats. I threw myself into one with Saed. Hardly had we left the vessel than it foundered with a terrible sound, and we lost sight of our companions.

Having drifted all night, we saw at daybreak a little island. We landed on it. Trees, laden with very fine fruit hanging to the ground, first met our view, which rejoiced us all the more that we began to feel very hungry. We picked and ate of them, and found them excellent. When we had taken a little refreshment, we fastened our boat and advanced further into the island. I have never seen a more delightful spot: sandal and aloe woods grew there; there were springs of fresh water, and all sorts of fruits, as well as the most beautiful flowers.

What surprised us most was that this island, although so pleasant to look upon, seemed to be deserted.

‘Whence comes it,’ I said to Saed, ‘that this island is not inhabited? We are not the first to visit it; others before us have doubtless discovered it. Why is it abandoned?’

‘My prince,’ replied my confidant, ‘since no one lives here, it is a sure proof that no one can live here; there is something about it which renders it uninhabitable.’ Alas! when the unfortunate Saed spoke thus, he little knew with what truth he was speaking.

We spent the day in rejoicing, and when night fell we stretched ourselves on the grass, which was sprinkled with a thousand sweet-smelling flowers. We slept deliciously; but on awaking I was very astonished to find myself alone. I called Saed repeatedly. As he did not reply I rose to seek him, and, after having searched a part of the island, I returned to the same place where I had spent the night, thinking he might perhaps be there. I awaited him in vain the whole day and even the following night; then, despairing of seeing him again, I made the air resound with cries and groans. ‘Ah! my dear Saed,’ I cried every minute, ‘what has become of you? Whilst you were with me you helped me to bear the burden of my misfortune; you relieved my troubles in sharing them; by what misfortune or by what enchantment have you been carried off from me? What barbarous power has separated us? It would have been sweeter to die with you than to live quite alone.’

I could not console myself for the loss of my confidant; and what troubled me was that I could not think what could have happened to him. I was in despair and resolved to perish also on that island. I said to myself, ‘I will scour it thoroughly; I will find either Saed or death.’ I walked towards a wood that I saw, and when I had arrived there, I discovered in the middle a very well-built castle, surrounded by a large moat full of water, the draw­bridge of which was let down. I entered a large courtyard paved with white marble, and advanced towards the door of a fine block of buildings. It was made of aloe-wood; several figures of birds were represented in relief upon it, and a great padlock of steel, made in the form of a lion, kept it closed. The key was in the padlock; I took hold of it to turn it; the padlock broke like a piece of glass, and the door opened more of itself than from the effort I made to open it, which caused me extreme surprise. I found a staircase of black marble. I ascended, and first entered a great hall ornamented with a gold and silken tapestry with sofas of brocade. From there I entered a room richly furnished, but what I looked at with most attention was a perfectly beautiful young lady. She was reclining on a large sofa, her head resting on a cushion, richly dressed, and beside her was a little jasper table. As her eyes were closed, and I had reason to doubt her being alive, I approached her gently and perceived that she breathed.

I remained for some moments in contemplation of her. She seemed charming to me, and I should have become enamoured of her had I not been so absorbed in Bedy-Aljemal. I was extremely desirous of knowing why I found in a deserted island a young lady alone in a castle where I saw no one. I sincerely hoped she would wake, but she slept so soundly I did not dare disturb her rest. I left the castle, resolved to return some hours later. I walked about the island, and saw with alarm a great number of animals as large as tigers, and formed something like ants. I should have taken them for cruel and ferocious beasts had they not fled at sight of me. I saw other wild animals who seemed to fear me, although they had an alarmingly ferocious appearance. After having eaten several fruits whose beauty charmed me, and having walked for some time, I returned to the castle, where the lady was still asleep. I could no longer resist the desire I had to speak to her. I made a noise in the room and coughed to awake her. As she did not awake, I approached her and touched her arm, but without effect. ‘There is some enchantment here,’ I then said to myself; ‘some talisman keeps this lady asleep, and if this is the case it is not possible to awake her from this slumber.’ I despaired of succeeding, when I per­ceived on the jasper table of which I have spoken several graven characters; I thought this graving might hold the secret. I was about to study the table, but I had hardly touched it when the lady gave a deep sigh and awoke.