Story of the Merchant's Wife and her Suitors.

IT has been reported to me that there was a woman who had a husband accustomed to travel much on business to distant countries. During one of his journeys, his wife became enamoured of a young man, who returned her fondness. It happened one day that this youth, having been engaged in a brawl, was apprehended by the police, and carried before the wālī* of the city, when it was proved that he was the transgressor, and the wālī sentenced him to be im­prisoned.

When the lady heard of her lover's confinement, her mind was employed from hour to hour devising means for his release. At length she dressed herself in her richest apparel, repaired to the wālī, made obeisance to him, and complained that her brother having had a scuffle with another youth, hired witnesses had sworn falsely against him, and he had been wrongfully cast into prison. She added that she could not remain safe without the protection of her brother, and begged that he should be set at liberty. The lady had a great share of beauty, which when the wālī perceived, he desired her to enter his apartment while he gave orders for her brother's release. She guessed his design, and said: “My lord, I am an honourable and reputable woman, and cannot enter any apartments but my own. But if you desire it, you may visit me;” she then mentioned where she resided, and appointed the day when he should come. The wālī was enraptured, and gave her twenty dīnars, saying: “Expend this at the bath.” She then left him, his heart busy in thinking of her beauty.

The lady next went to the venerable qāzī,* and said: “My lord, look upon me,” and removed her veil from her face. “What has happened to thee?” inquired the qāzī. She replied: “I have a younger brother, and none but him, for a protector, whom the wālī has imprisoned wrongfully, and whom I beseech thee out of thy compassion to release from his confine­ment.” The qāzī said: “Step in, while I order his release.” She answered: “If you mean that, my lord, it must be at my house;” and she made an assignation for the same day she had appointed to the wālī. The qāzī then presented her with twenty dīnars, saying: “Purchase provisions and sherbets with part of this sum, and pay for the bath with the remainder.”

From the qāzī's house the lady repaired to that of the vazīr, repeated her story, and besought his inter­ference with the wālī for the release of her brother. The vazīr also, smitten with her beauty, made proposals of love, which she accepted, but said he must visit her at her own house, and fixed the same day she had named to the wālī and the qāzī. The vazīr then gave her twenty dīnars, saying: “Expend part of this money at the bath, and with the rest prepare for us a supper and wine.” She replied: “To hear is to obey.”

From the vazīr she proceeded to the hājib,* and said: “My lord, the wālī has imprisoned my brother, who is but a stripling, on the evidence of false witnesses, and I humbly beseech thee for his release.” The hājib replied: “Step in, while I send for thy brother.” She suspected his designs, and rejoined: “If my lord has business with me—in his house is a constant assemblage of persons—rather let him honour my humble dwelling with his footsteps.” Then she assigned the same day she had appointed for the others, informing him of the situation of her house; and the hājib gave her fifty dīnars, saying: “Prepare a supper for us with part, and lay out the remainder at the bath.”

The lady took the gold, and went to a joiner's shop, and said: “I desire that you will make me a large cabinet, with four compartments, so strong that no single person could burst it open. When thou hast finished it, I will pay thee ten dīnars.” The joiner agreed, and she hurried him daily till it was finished, when he carried it to her house upon a camel, and set it up in its place. She offered him the price agreed upon, but the joiner refused it, saying: “My dear lady, I will not take anything, and only desire that I may pass an evening with you.” She replied: “If that be the case, you must add a fifth compartment to the cabinet.” He readily consented, and she fixed the same evening she had appointed for the wālī, the qāzī, the vazīr, and the hājib.

She now went to market, and bought some old garments, which she dyed red, yellow, black, and blue, and made to them whimsical caps of various colours. Then she cooked flesh and fowl, bought wine,* and prepared everything for the appointed evening; when she attired herself in her richest apparel, and sat down, expecting her guests.

First the wālī* knocked at the door, and she rose and opened it, and said: “My lord, the house of your slave is yours, and I am your handmaid.” Then, having feasted him till he was satisfied, she took off his robes, and, bringing a black vest and a red cap, said: “Put on the dress of mirth and pleasure;” after which she made him drink wine till he was intoxicated, when lo! there was a knocking at the door, and she said: “My lord, I cannot be cheerful till you have released my brother.” He immediately wrote an order to the jailor to give the young man his freedom, which she gave to a servant to deliver, and had no sooner returned to the wālī when the knocking became louder. “Who is coming?” he inquired. “It is my husband,” replied the lady; “get into this cabinet, and I will return presently and release thee.” Having locked the wālī in the cabinet, she went to the door.

The qāzī now entered, whom she saluted, led in, and seated respectfully. She first filled a cup with wine, and drank to him; and then presented him with meat and wine. The qāzī said gravely: “I have never drunk wine during all my life;” but she per­suaded him to drink, saying that company was always dull without wine. After this, she pulled off his magisterial robes, and saying, “My lord, put on the garments of mirth and pleasure,” dressed him in a robe of yellow and red, with a black cap. Suddenly the door resounded, and the qāzī, alarmed for his reputation, asked: “Who is at the door? what shall we do?” She replied: “I fear it is my husband. Go into this cabinet, until he goes away, when I will release thee, and we shall pass the evening pleasantly together.”

Having locked the qāzī in the cabinet, the lady admitted the vazīr, and, kissing his hand, she said: “Thou hast highly honoured me, my lord, by thy auspicious approach.” Then she set supper before him, and cajoled him to drink till he was merry and frolicsome, when she said: “Disrobe yourself, my lord, put on the vesture of pleasure, and leave the habit of the vazīr for its proper offices.” Smiling at her playfulness, the vazīr undressed, and put on, at the lady's request, a red vest and a green cap tufted with wool, after which they began to drink and sing, when there was a knocking at the door, and the vazīr, in terror, inquired the cause. “It is my husband,” said the lady; “step into this cabinet, till he is gone.” The vazīr quickly slipped in, upon which she locked the compartment, and hastened to the door.

The hājib now entered, according to appointment, and having seated him, the lady said courteously: “My lord, you have honoured me by your kindness and condescension.” Then she began to undress him, and his robes were worth at least four thousand dīnars. She brought him a parti-coloured vest, and a copper cap set with shells, saying: “These, my lord, are the garments of festivity and mirth.” The hājib, having put them on, began to toy and kiss, and she plied him with wine till he was intoxicated. A knock­ing was again heard at the gate, when the hājib cried out: “Who is this?” and she replied: “My husband; hide in this cabinet, until I can send him away, and I will immediately return to thee.”

The poor joiner was next admitted, and the lady plied him so freely with wine, after he had supped, that he was ready for any kind of foolery; so she bade him take off his clothes, and left him, to fetch a dress, when once more the door resounded, and she ex­claimed: “Run into this cabinet, even as thou art, for here is my husband.” He entered,* and having locked him in, the lady then admitted her lover, just released from prison by the wālī's order. She informed him of her stratagem, and said: “We must not remain longer here;” upon which the lover went out and hired camels, and they loaded them with all the effects of the house, leaving nothing but the cabinet, strongly secured with five locks, and within it the worthy officers of government and the poor joiner. The lady and her lover set off without further delay, and travelled to another city, where they could be secure from discovery.

Meanwhile the unfortunate lovers in the cabinet were in a woeful condition.* At length they became aware of each other's presence, and began to converse, and, notwithstanding their distress, could not refrain from laughing at each other. In the morning the landlord of the house, finding the gate open, entered, but hearing voices from the cabinet, he was alarmed, and summoned a number of the neighbours. Then the landlord exclaimed: “Are you men or jinn that are in this cabinet?” They replied: “If we were jinn, we should not remain here, nor should we want any one to open the doors. We are only men.” The neighbours cried out: “Let us not open the cabinet, but in presence of the sultan;” upon which the qāzī exclaimed: “O my people, let us out—‘Conceal what God has concealed!’* and do not disgrace us. I am the qāzī.” They replied: “Thou liest, and it is impossible. For if thou art the qāzī, how camest thou to be confined here? Thou art an impostor; for our worthy qāzī, thou impious wretch, is a man who sub-dueth his passions. Be silent, lest he hear thee, and bring thee to punishment.” After this the qāzī durst not speak, and was silent.

Then they brought several porters, who took up the great cabinet, and carried it to the palace of the sultan,* who, on being informed of the affair, sent for carpenters and smiths, and caused it to be broken open in his presence, when lo! he discovered the wālī, the qāzī, the vazīr, the hājib, and the poor joiner. “What brought thee here, O reverend qāzī?” inquired the sultan. The qāzī exclaimed: “God be praised, who hath providentially saved thee, O sultan, from what hath befallen us!” He then issued from the cabinet in his coloured vest and fool's cap, as did the rest of his companions in their ridiculous dresses, but the poor joiner in his birth-day habit. The sultan laughed till he almost fainted, and commanded the adventures of each to be written, from first to last. He also ordered search to be made for the merchant's wife, but in vain, for she had escaped with the robes, valuables, and weapons of the foolish gallants. [30]