AL-ASMA'I AND THE THREE GIRLS OF BASSORAH.



The Commander of the Faithful Harun Al-Rashid was exceeding restless one night and rising from his bed, paced from chamber to chamber, but could not compose himself to sleep. As soon as it was day, he said, "Fetch me Al-Asma'i!" [FN#114] So the eunuch went out and told the doorkeepers; these sent for the poet and when he came, informed the Caliph who bade admit him and said to him, "O Asma'i, I wish thee to tell me the best thou hast heard of stories of women and their verses." Answered Al-Asma'i, "Hearkening and obedience! I have heard great store of women's verses; but none pleased me save three sets of couplets I once heard from three girls." --And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.

When it was the Six Hundred and Eighty-seventh Night,

She pursued, It hath reached me, O auspicious King, that Al-Asma'i said to the Prince of True Believers, "Verily I have heard much, but nothing pleased me save three sets of couplets improvised by as many girls." Quoth the Caliph, "Tell me of them," and quoth he, "Know then, O Commander of the Faithful, that I once abode in Bassorah, and one day, as I was walking, the heat was sore upon me and I sought for a siesta-place but found none. However by looking right and left I came upon a porch swept and sprinkled, at the upper end whereof was a wooden bench under an open lattice-window, whence exhaled a scent of musk. I entered the porch and sitting down on the bench, would have stretcht me at full length when I heard from within a girl's sweet voice talking and saying, 'O my sisters, we are here seated to spend our day in friendly converse; so come, let us each put down an hundred dinars and recite a line of verse; and whoso extemporiseth the goodliest and sweetest line, the three hundred dinars shall be hers.' 'With love and gladness,' said the others; and the eldest recited the first couplet which is this,

'Would he come to my bed during sleep 'twere delight * But a visit on wake were delightsomer sight!'

Quoth the second,

'Naught came to salute me in sleep save his shade * But 'welcome, fair welcome,' I cried to the spright!'

Then said the youngest,

'My soul and my folk I engage for the youth * Musk-scented I see in my bed every night!'

Quoth I, 'An she be fair as her verse hath grace, the thing is complete in every case.' Then I came down from my bench [FN#115] and was about to go away, when behold, the door opened and out came a slave-girl, who said to me, 'Sit, O Shaykh!' So I climbed up and sat down again when she gave me a scroll, wherein was written, in characters of the utmost beauty, with straight Alifs, [FN#116] big-bellied Has, and rounded Waws, the following, 'We would have the Shaykh (Allah lengthen his days!) to know that we are three maidens, sisters, sitting in friendly converse, who have laid down each an hundred dinars, conditioning that whoso recite the goodliest and sweetest couplet shall have the whole three hundred dinars; and we appoint thee umpire between us: so decide as thou seest best, and the Peace be on thee! Quoth I to the girl, 'Here to me inkcase and paper.' So she went in and, returning after a little, brought me a silvered inkcase and gilded pens [FN#117] with which I wrote these couplets,

They talked of three beauties whose converse was quite * Like the talk of a man with experience dight:
Three maidens who borrowed the bloom of the dawn     * Making hearts of their lovers in sorriest plight.
They were hidden from eyes of the prier and spy            * Who slept and their modesty mote not affright;
So they opened whatever lay hid in their hearts              * And in frolicsome fun began verse to indite.
Quoth one fair coquette with her amorous grace            * Whose teeth for the sweet of her speech flashed bright:--
Would he come to my bed during sleep 'twere delight    * But a visit on wake were delightsomer sight!
When she ended, her verse by her smiling was gilt:        * Then the second 'gan singing as nightingale might:--
Naught came to salute me in sleep save his shade          * But 'welcome, fair welcome,' I cried to the spright!
But the third I preferred for she said in reply,                * With expression most apposite, exquisite:--
My soul and my folk I engage for the youth                  * Musk-scented I see in my bed every night!
So when I considered their words to decide,                 * And not make me the mock of the cynical wight;
I pronounced for the youngest, declaring her verse       * Of all verses be that which is nearest the right.'

Then I gave scroll to the slave-girl, who went upsatirs with it, and behold, I heard a noise of dancing and clapping of hands and Doomsday astir. Quoth I to myself, ''Tis no time of me to stay here.' So I came down from the platform and was about to go away, when the damsel cried out to me, 'Sit down, O Asma'i!' Asked I, 'Who gave thee to know that I was Al-Asma'i?' and she answered, 'O Shaykh, an thy name be unknown to us, thy poetry is not!' So I sat down again and suddently 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 ganged my gait; but she cried out, 'Sit down, O Asma'i!' Wherewith I raised my eyes to her and saw a rosy palm in a saffron sleeve, meseemed it was the full moon rising splendid in the cloudy East. Then she threw me a purse containing three hundred dinars and said to me, 'This is mine and I give it to thee by way of douceur in requital of thy judgment.'" Quoth the Caliph, "Why didst thou decide for the youngest?" and quoth Al-Asma'i, "O Commander of the Faithful, whose life Allah prolong! the eldest said, 'I should delight in him, if he visited my couch in sleep.' Now this is restricted and dependent upon a condition which may befal or may not befal; whilst, for the second, an image of dreams came to her in sleep, and she saluted it; but the youngest's couplet 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 sprite." Said the Caliph, "Thou didst well, O Asma'i." and gave him other three hundred ducats in payment of his story. And I have heard a tale concerning