IBRAHIM BEN EL MEHDI AND THE MERCHANT'S SISTER

The Khalif El Mamoun once said to [his uncle] Ibrahim ben el Mehdi, 'Tell us the most remarkable thing that thou hast ever seen.' 'I hear and obey, O Commander of the Faithful,' answered he. 'Know that I went out one day, a-pleasuring, and my course brought me to a place where I smelt the odour of food. My soul longed for it and I halted, perplexed and unable either to go on or enter. Presently, I raised my eyes and saw a lattice window and behind it a hand and wrist, the like of which for beauty I never saw. The sight turned my brain and I forgot the smell of the food and began to cast about how I should get access to the house. After awhile, I espied a tailor hard by and going up to him, saluted him. He returned my greeting and I said to him, "Whose house is that?" "It belongs to a merchant called such an one, "answered he, "who consorteth with none but merchants."

As we were talking, up came two men of comely and intelligent aspect, riding on horseback; and the tailor told me their names and that they were the merchant's most intimate friends. So I spurred my horse towards them and said to them, "May I be your ransom! Abou such an one (58) waits for you!" And I rode with them to the gate, where I entered and they also. When the master of the house saw me, he doubted not but I was their friend; so he welcomed me and made me sit down in the highest room. Then they brought the table of food and I said, "God hath granted me my desire of the food; and now there remain the hand and wrist." After awhile, we removed, for carousal, to another room, which I found full of all manner of rarities; and the host paid me particular attention, addressing his conversation to me, for that he deemed me a guest of his guests; whilst the latter, in like manner, made much of me, taking me for a friend of the master of the house.

When we had drunk several cups of wine, there came in to us a damsel of the utmost beauty and elegance, as she were a willow-wand, who took a lute and playing a lively measure, sang the following verses:

      Is it not passing strange, indeed, one house should hold us tway And still thou drawst not near to me nor yet a word dost say,
      Except the secrets of the souls and hearts that broken be And entrails blazing in the fires of love, the eye bewray
      With meaning looks and knitted brows and eyelids languishing And hands that salutation sign and greeting thus convey?

When I heard this, my entrails were stirred and I was moved to delight, for the excess of her grace and the beauty of the verses she sang; and I envied her her skill and said, "There lacketh somewhat to thee, O damsel!" Whereupon she threw the lute from her hand, in anger, and cried, "Since when do you use to bring ill-mannered fools into your assemblies?" Then I repented of what I had done, seeing that the others were vexed with me, and said in myself, "My hopes are at an end;" and I saw no way of quitting myself of reproach but to call for a lute, saying, "I will show you what escaped her in the air she sang." So they brought me a lute and I tuned it and sang the following verses:

      This is thy lover distraught, absorbed in his passion and pain; Thy lover, the tears of whose eyes run down on his body like rain.
      One hand to his heart ever pressed, whilst the other the Merciful One Imploreth, so He of His grace may grant him his hope to attain.
      O thou, that beholdest a youth for passion that's perished, thine eye And thy hand are the cause of his death and yet might restore him again.

When the damsel heard this, she sprang up and throwing herself at my feet, kissed them and said, "It is thine to excuse, O my lord! By Allah, I knew not thy quality nor heard I ever the like of this fashion!" And they all extolled me and made much of me, being beyond measure delighted, and besought me to sing again. So I sang a lively air, whereupon they all became as drunken men, and their wits left them. Then the guests departed to their homes and I abode alone with the host and the girl. The former drank some cups with me, then said to me, "O my lord, my life hath been wasted, in that I have not known the like of thee till now. By Allah, then, tell me who thou art, that I may know who is the boon-companion whom God hath bestowed on me this night."

I would not at first tell him my name and returned him evasive answers; but he conjured me, till I told him who I was; whereupon he sprang to his feet and said, "Indeed, I wondered that such excellence should belong to any but the like of thee; and Fortune hath done me a service for which I cannot avail to thank her. But, belike, this is a dream; for how could I hope that the family of the Khalifate should visit me in my own house and carouse with me this night?." l conjured him to be seated; so he sat down and began to question me, in the most courteous terms, as to the cause of my visit. So I told him the whole matter, concealing nothing, and said to him, "Verily, I have had my desire of the food, but not of the hand and wrist." Quoth he, "Thou shalt have thy desire of them also, so God will." Then said he to the slave-girl, "Bid such an one come down." And he called his slave-girls down, one by one and showed them to me; but I saw not my mistress among them, and he said, "O my lord, there is none left save my mother and sister; but, by Allah, I must needs have them also down and show them to thee."

I marvelled at his courtesy and large-heartedness and said, "May I be thy ransom! Begin with thy sister." "Willingly," replied he. So she came down and behold, it was she whose hand and wrist I had seen. "May God make me thy ransom!" said I. "This is the damsel whose hand and wrist I saw at the lattice." Then he sent at once for witnesses and bringing out two myriads of dinars, said to the witnesses, "This our lord Ibrahim ben el Mehdi, uncle of the Commander of the Faithful, seeks the hand of my sister such an one, and I call you to witness that I marry her to him and that he has endowed her with a dowry of ten thousand dinars." And he said to me, "I give thee my sister in marriage, at the dowry aforesaid." "I consent," answered I. Whereupon he gave one of the bags to her and the other to the witnesses, and said to me, "O my lord, I desire to array a chamber for thee; where thou mayst lie with thy wife." But I was abashed at his generosity and was ashamed to foregather with her in his house; so I said, "Equip her and send her to my house." And by thy life, O Commander of the Faithful, he sent me such an equipage with her, that my house was too strait to hold it, for all its greatness! And I begot on her this boy that stands before thee.'

The Khalif marvelled at the merchant's generosity and said, 'Gifted of God is he! Never heard I of his like.' And he bade Ibrahim bring him to court, that he might see him. So he brought him and the Khalif conversed with him; and his wit and good breeding so pleased him, that he made him one of his chief officers.




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