ISAAC OF MOSUL'S STORY OF THE LADY KHEDIJEH AND THE KHALIF MAMOUN

(Quoth Isaac of Mosul (142)) 'I went out one night from Mamoun's presence, on my way to my house, and being taken with a need to make water, I turned aside into a by-street and stood up against a wall, fearing lest something might hurt me, if I squatted down. Presently, I espied something hanging down from one of the houses and feeling it, found that it was a great four-handled basket, covered with brocade. "There must be some reason for this," said I to myself and knew not what to think, then drunkenness led me to seat myself in the basket, whereupon the people of the house pulled me up, supposing me to be he whom they expected. When I came to the top of the wall, I found four damsels, who said to me, "Descend and welcome!" Then one of them went before me with a flambeau and brought me down into a mansion, wherein were furnished sitting-chambers, whose like I had never seen, save in the Khalif's palace. So I sat down and after awhile, the curtains were drawn from one side of the room and in came damsels bearing lighted flambeaux and censers full of Sumatran aloes-wood, and amongst them a young lady as she were the rising full moon. I rose and she said, "Welcome to thee for a visitor!" Then she made me sit down again and asked how I came thither. Quoth I, "I was returning home from a friend's house and went astray in the dark; then, being taken with an urgent occasion, I turned aside into this street, where I found a basket let down. The wine which I had drunk led me to seat myself in it and it was drawn up with me into this house." "No harm shall befall thee," rejoined she, "and I hope thou wilt have cause to praise the issue of thine adventure. But what is thy condition?" "I am a merchant in the Baghdad bazaar," replied I, and she, "Canst thou repeat any verses?" "Some small matter," answered I. "Then," said she, "let us hear some of them." But I said, "A visitor is [naturally] bashful; do thou begin." "True," answered she and recited some of the choicest verses of the poets, past and present, so that I knew not whether more to marvel at her beauty and grace or at the charm of her diction. Then said she, "Is thy bashfulness gone?" "Yes, by Allah!" answered I. "Then, if thou wilt," rejoined she, "recite us somewhat." So I repeated to her a number of poems by old writers, and she applauded, saying, "By Allah I did not look to find such culture among the trader folk!"

Then she called for food and fell to taking of it and setting it before me; and the place was full of all manner sweet-scented flowers and rare fruits, such as are found only in kings' houses. Presently, she called for wine and drank a cup, after which she filled another and gave it to me, saying, "Now is the time for converse and story-telling." So I bethought myself and related to her a number of pleasing stories and anecdotes, with which she was delighted and said, "It is wonderful that a merchant should have such store of tales like unto these, for they are fit for kings." Quoth I, "I have a neighbour who uses to consort with kings and bear them company at table; so, when he is at leisure, I visit his house and he often tells me what he has heard." "By my life," exclaimed she, "thou hast a good memory!"

We continued to converse thus, and as often as I was silent, she would begin, till the most part of the night was spent, whilst the burning aloes-wood diffused its fragrance and I was in such case as, if the Khalif had suspected it, would have made him wild with longing for it. Then said she to me, "Verily, thou art one of the most pleasant and accomplished of men and passing well-bred; but there lacks one thing." "What is that?" asked I, and she said, "If but thou knewest how to sing verses to the lute!" I answered, "I was once passionately fond of this art, but finding I had no gift for it, I abandoned it, thou reluctantly. Indeed, I should love to sing somewhat well at this present and fulfil my night's enjoyment." "Meseemeth thou hintest a wish for the lute to be brought?" said she, and I, "It is thine to decide, if thou wilt so far favour me, and to thee be the thanks." So she called for a lute and sang a song, in a manner whose like I never heard, both for sweetness of voice and perfection of style and skill in playing, in short, for general excellence. Then said she, "Knowest thou who made the air and words of this song?" "No," answered I; and she said, "The words are so and so's and the air is Isaac's." "And hath Isaac then (may I be thy ransom!) such a talent?" asked I. "Glory be to Isaac!" replied she. "Indeed he excels in this art." "Glory be to Allah," exclaimed I, "who hath given this man what He hath vouchsafed unto none other!" And she said, "How would it be, if thou heardest this song from himself?" Thus did we till break of day, when there came to her an old woman, as she were her nurse, and said to her, "The time is come." So she rose and said to me, "Keep what hath passed between us to thyself; for meetings of this kind are in confidence." "May I be thy ransom!" answered I. "I needed no enjoinder of this." Then I took leave of her and she sent a damsel to open the door to me; so I went forth and retuned to my own house, where I prayed the morning prayer and slept.

Presently, there came to me a messenger from the Khalif; so I went to him and passed the day in his company. When the night came, I called to mind my yesternight's pleasure, a thing from which none but a fool could be content to abstain, and betook myself to the street, where I found the basket, and seating myself therein, was drawn up to the place in which I had passed the previous night. When the lady saw me, she said, "Indeed, thou art assiduous," And I answered, "Meseems rather that I am neglectful." Then we fell to conversing and passed the night as before in talking and reciting verses and telling rare stories, each in turn, till daybreak, when I returned home. I prayed the morning prayer and slept, and there came to me a messenger from Mamoun. So I went to him and spent the day with him till nightfall, when he said to me, "I conjure thee to sit here, whilst I go on an occasion and come back." As soon as he was gone, my thoughts turned to the lady and calling to mind my late delight, I recked little what might befall me from the Commander of the Faithful. So I sprang up and going out, ran to the street aforesaid, where I sat down in the basket and was drawn up as before. When the lady saw me, she said, "Verily, thou art a sincere friend to us." "Yea, by Allah!" answered I; and she said, "Hath thou made our house thine abiding-place?" 'May I be thy ransom!" replied I. "A guest hath a right to three days' entertainment, and if I return after this, ye are free to shed my blood." Then we passed the night as before; and when the time of departure drew near, I bethought me that Mamoun would certainly question me nor be content save with a full explanation: so I said to her, "I see thee to be of those who delight in singing. Now I have a cousin who is handsomer than I and higher of station and more accomplished; and he is the most intimate of all God's creatures with Isaac." "Art thou a spunger?" asked she. "Verily, thou art importunate." Quoth I, "It is for thee to decide;" and she, "If thy cousin be as thou sayst, it would not displease me to make his acquaintance."

Then I left her and returned to my house, but hardly had I reached it, when the Khalif's messengers came down on me and carried me before him by main force. I found him seated on a chair, wroth with me, and he said to me, "O Isaac, art thou a traitor to thine allegiance?" "No, by Allah, O Commander of the Faithful!" answered I. "What hast thou then to say?" asked he. "Tell me the truth." And I replied, "I will well; but in private." So he signed to his attendants, who withdrew to a distance, and I told him the case, adding, "I promised to bring thee to visit her." And he said, "Thou didst well." Then we spent the day in our usual pleasures, but Mamoun's heart was taken with the lady, and hardly was the appointed time come, when we set out. As we went along, I cautioned him, "Look that thou call me not by my name before her; but do thou sing and I will accompany thee." He assented to this, and we fared on till we came to the house, where we found two baskets hanging ready. So we sat down in them and were drawn up to the usual place, where the damsel came forward and saluted us. When Mamoun saw her, he was amazed at her beauty and grace; and she began to entertain him with stories and verses. Presently, she called for wine and we fell to drinking, she paying him especial attention and delighting in him and he repaying her in kind. Then he took the lute and sang an air, after which she said to me, "And is thy cousin also a merchant?" "Yes," answered I, and she said, "Indeed, ye resemble one another nearly." But when Mamoun had drunk three pints, he grew merry with wine and called out saying, "Ho, Isaac!" "At thy service, O Commander of the Faithful," answered I. Quoth he, "Sing me such an air."

As soon as the lady knew that he was the Khalif, she withdrew to another place, and when I had made an end of my song, Mamoun said to me, "See who is the master of this house;" whereupon an old woman hastened to make answer, saying, "It belongs to Hassan ben Sehl." (143) "Fetch him to me," said the Khalif. So she went away and after awhile in came Hassan, to whom said Mamoun, "Hath thou a daughter?" "Yes," answered he; "her name is Khedijeh." "Is she married?" asked the Khalif. "No, by Allah!" replied Hassan. "Then," said Mamoun, "I ask her of thee in marriage." "O Commander of the Faithful," replied Hassan, "she is thy handmaiden and at thy commandment." Quoth Mamoun, "I take her to wife at a present dower of thirty thousand dinars, which thou shalt receive this very morning; and do thou being her to us this next night." And Hassan answered, "I hear and obey."

'Then he went out, and the Khalif said to me, "O Isaac, tell this story to no one." So I kept it secret till Mamoun's death. Surely never was man's life to fulfilled with delights as was mine these four days' time, whenan I companied with Mamoun by day and with Khedijeh by night; and by Allah, never saw I among men the like of Mamoun, neither among women have I ever set eyes on the like of Khedijeh, no, nor on any that came near her in wit and understanding and pleasant speech!'




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