EL ASMAÏ AND THE THREE GIRLS OF BASSORA.
The Khalif Haroun er Reshid was exceeding restless one night and rising from his bed, fared from chamber to chamber, but could not compose himself to sleep. As soon as it was day, he said, 'Fetch me El Asmaï. (52) So the eunuch went out and told the doorkeepers, who sent for the poet and when he came, informed the Khalif. The latter bade admit him and said to him, 'O Asmaï, I wish thee to tell me the best thou hast heard of stories of women and their verses.' 'I hear and obey,' answered El Asmaï. 'I have heard great store of women's verses; but none pleased me save three lines I once heard from three girls.' 'Tell me of them,' said the Khalif. 'Know then, O Commander of the Faithful,' replied the poet, 'that I once abode a year in Bassora, and one day, as I was walking about, the heat was sore upon me and I sought for a place where I might take the noonday rest, but found none. Presently, however, I came upon a porch swept and watered, at the upper end whereof was an open lattice-window, whence exhaled a scent of musk and thereunder a wooden bench. I entered the porch, and lying down on the bench, would have slept, when, behold, I heard from within a girl's sweet voice talking and saying, "O my sisters, we are sat here to spend this day in each other's company; so come, let us each put down a hundred dinars and recite a line of verse; and whoso recites the goodliest and sweetest line, the three hundred dinars shall be hers." "With all our hearts," said the others; and the eldest recited the following verse:By Allah, I should delight in him, if in dreams to my couch came he! But, an he visited me on wake, 'twould yet more marvellous be.
Quoth the second:Only his image, in very deed, in slumber visited me; And 'Welcome!' straightway I said to him, 'a welcome fair and free!'
Then said the youngest:With my soul and my folk I will ransom him, whom my bedfellow still I see Each night and whose scent is pleasanter than the scent of musk to me!"
Quoth I, "If [the speaker] have beauty after the measure [of the goodliness] of this [her speech] the thing is every way complete." Then I rose and was about to go away, when the door opened and out came a slave-girl, who said to me, "Sit, O elder." So I sat down again, and she gave me a scroll, wherein was written, in characters of the utmost beauty, with straight Alifs, (53) big-bellied Has (54) and rounded Waws, (55) the following: "We would have the Sheikh (whose days God prolong) to know that we are three maidens, sisters, sitting in friendly converse, who have laid down each a hundred dinars, on condition that whoso recites the best and most agreeable line of verse shall have the whole three hundred dinars; and we appoint thee judge between us: so decide as thou seest best, and peace be on thee!" Quoth I to the girl, "Bring me inkhorn and paper." So she went in and returning after a little, brought me a silvered inkhorn and gilded pens, with which I wrote the following verses:I've heard of young beauties once that sat in converse frank and free And talked the talk of a man who's seen and proved all things that be;
Then I gave the scroll to the girl, who went in with it, and presently I heard a noise of dancing and clapping of hands and tumult. Quoth I to myself, "It is time for me to go." So I rose from the bench and was about to go away, when the damsel cried out to me, saying, "Sit down, O Asmaï!" "Who gave thee to know that I was El Asmaï?" asked I, and she, "If thy name be unknown to us, thy poetry is not." So I sat down again and behold, the door opened and out came the first damsel, with a dish of fruits and another of sweetmeats. I ate of both and praised their fashion and would have gone away; but she cried out, saying, "Sit down, O Asmaï!" Wherewith I raised my eyes to her and saw a rosy palm in a saffron sleeve, meseemed it was the full moon breaking out from under the clouds. Then she threw me a purse containing three hundred dinars and said to me, "This is mine and I give it to thee in requital of thy judgment."
Quoth the Khalif, 'Why didst thou decide for the youngest?' 'O Commander of the Faithful, whose life God prolong,' answered El Asmaï, 'the eldest said, "I should delight in him, if he visited my couch in sleep." Now this is restricted and dependent upon a condition, that may befall or may not befall; whilst, for the second, an image of dreams came to her in sleep, and she saluted it; but the youngest said that she actually lay with her lover and smelt his breath sweeter than musk and she engaged her soul and her folk for him, which she had not done, were he not dearer to her than her soul.' 'Thou didst well, O Asmaï,' said the Khalif and gave him other three hundred dinars, in payment of his story.