THE STORY OF ZOBEIDE

THE STORY OF ZOBEIDE TOLD BY HERSELF



The following story is one of the strangest that ever was heard.
Two black dogs long dwelt with me in my house, and were very
affectionately disposed towards me. These two black dogs and myself
were sisters, and I shall acquaint you by what strange accident
they came to be metamorphosed. After our father's death, the estate
that he left was equally divided among us. My two sisters and
myself stayed with our mother, who was still alive, and when she
died she left each of us a thousand sequins. As soon as we received
our portions, the two elder (for I am the youngest), being married,
followed their husbands and left me alone. Some time after, my
eldest sister's husband sold all that he had, and with that money
and my sister's portion they both went into Africa, where her
husband, by riotous living, spent all; and finding himself reduced
to poverty, he found a pretext for divorcing my sister, and sent
her away.

She returned to this city, and, having suffered incredible
hardships by the way, came to me in so lamentable a condition that
it would have moved the hardest heart to compassion. I received her
with all the tenderness she could expect, and on my inquiring into
the cause of her sad condition, she told me with tears how
inhumanly her husband had dealt with her. I was so much concerned
at her misfortune that it drew tears from my eyes: I clothed her
with my own apparel, and spoke to her thus: 'Sister, you are the
elder, and I esteem you as my mother: during your absence, God has
blessed the portion that fell to my share, and the employment I
follow of feeding and bringing up silk-worms. Assure yourself that
there is nothing I have but is at your service, and as much at your
disposal as my own.'

We lived very comfortably together for some months; and one day as
we were discoursing together about our third sister, and wondering
we heard no news of her, she came home in as bad a condition as the
elder; her husband had treated her after the same manner: and I
received her likewise with the same affection as I had done the
other.

Some time after, my two sisters, on the ground that they would not
be an expense to me, told me they intended to marry again. I
answered them, that if their putting me to expense was all the
reason they might lay those thoughts aside, and be very welcome to
stay with me; for what I had would be sufficient to maintain us all
three in a manner suitable to our condition. 'But,' said I, 'I
rather believe you have a mind to marry again. If you do, I am sure
it will very much surprise me: after the experience you have had of
the small satisfaction there is in marriage, is it possible you
dare venture a second time? You know how rare it is to meet with a
husband that is a really honest man. Believe what I say, and let us
live together as comfortably as we can.' All my persuasion was in
vain; they were resolved to marry, and so they did. But after some
months were past they came back again, and begged my pardon a
thousand times for not following my advice. 'You are our youngest
sister,' said they, 'and much wiser than we; but if you will
vouchsafe to receive us once more into your house and account us
your slaves, we shall never commit such a fault again.' My answer
was, 'Dear sisters, I have not altered my mind with respect to you
since we last parted from one another; come again and take part of
what I have.' Upon this I embraced them again, and we lived
together as we did formerly.

We continued thus a whole year in perfect love and tranquillity;
and seeing that God had increased my small stock, I projected a
voyage by sea, to hazard somewhat by trade. To this end I went with
my two sisters to Balsora, where I bought a ship ready fitted for
sea, and laded her with such merchandise as I brought from Bagdad.
We set sail with a fair wind, and soon cleared the Persian gulf;
and when we got into the ocean we steered our course to the Indies,
and on the twentieth day saw land. It was a very high mountain, at
the foot of which we saw a great town, and having a fresh wind we
soon reached the harbour, where we cast anchor.

I had not patience to stay till my sisters were ready to go with
me, but went ashore in the boat by myself; and, making directly for
the gate of the town, I saw there a great number of men on guard,
some sitting and others standing, with sticks in their hands; and
they had all such dreadful countenances that it frightened me; but
perceiving they had no motion, not so much as with their eyes, I
took courage, and went nearer, and then found they were all turned
into stone. I entered the town and passed through the several
streets, wherein men stood everywhere in various attitudes, but all
motionless and petrified. On that side where the merchants lived I
found most of the shops shut, and in such as were open I likewise
found the people petrified. I looked up to the chimneys, but saw no
smoke; which made me conjecture that the inhabitants both within
and without were all turned into stone.

Being come into a vast square in the heart of the city, I perceived
a great gate covered with plates of gold, the two doors of which
stood open, and a curtain of silk stuff seemed to be drawn before
it; I also saw a lamp hanging over the gate. After I had well
considered, I made no doubt but that it was the palace of the
prince who reigned over that country; and being very much
astonished that I had not met with one living creature, I went
thither in hopes to find some one. I entered the gate, and was
still more surprised when I saw none but the guards in the porches,
all petrified, some standing, some sitting, and some lying.

I crossed over a large court where I saw a stately building just
before me, the windows of which were enclosed with gates of massive
gold: I supposed it to be the queen's apartment, and went into a
large hall, where there stood several black chamberlains turned
into stone. I went from thence into a room richly hung and
furnished, where I perceived a lady. I knew it to be the queen by
the crown of gold that hung over her head, and a necklace of pearls
about her neck, each of them as big as a nut; I went up close to
her to view it, and never beheld a finer sight.

I stood some time and admired the riches and magnificence of the
room; but above all, the footcloth, the cushions and the sofas,
which were all lined with Indian stuff or gold, with pictures of
men and beasts in silver admirably executed.

I went out of the chamber where the petrified queen was, and passed
through several other apartments richly furnished, and at last came
into a vast room, where was a throne of massive gold, raised
several steps above the floor and enriched with large emeralds, and
a bed upon the throne of rich stuff embroidered with pearls. What
surprised me more than all the rest was a sparkling light which
came from above the bed. Being curious to know from whence it came,
I mounted the steps, and lifting up my head, I saw a diamond, as
big as the egg of an ostrich, lying upon a low stool; it was so
pure that I could not find the least blemish in it, and it sparkled
so brightly that I could not endure the lustre of it when I saw it
by daylight.

On each side of the bed's head there stood a lighted torch, but for
what use I could not comprehend; however, it made me imagine that
there was some living creature in this place, for I could not
believe that these torches continued thus burning of themselves.

The doors being all open, or but half shut, I surveyed some other
apartments that were as fine as those I had already seen. I looked
into the offices and store-rooms, which were full of infinite
riches, and I was so much taken with the sight of all the wonderful
things that I forgot myself; and did not think of my ship or my
sisters; my whole design was to satisfy my curiosity. Meantime
night came on, which put me in mind that it was time to retire. I
was for returning by the way I came in, but I could not find it; I
lost myself among the apartments; and finding I was come back again
to that large room where the throne, the couch, the large diamond,
and the torches stood, I resolved to take my night's lodging there,
and to depart the next morning betimes, to get aboard my ship. I
laid myself down upon the couch, not without some dread of being
alone in a desolate place; and this fear hindered my sleep.

About midnight I heard a voice like that of a man reading the
Koran, after the same manner and in the same tone as we read in our
mosques. Being extremely glad to hear it, I got up immediately,
and, taking a torch in my hand to light me, I passed from one
chamber to another on that side where the voice came from: I came
to a door, where I stood still, nowise doubting that it came from
thence. I set down my torch upon the ground, and looking through a
window I found it to be an oratory. In short, it had, as we have in
our mosques, a niche that shows where we must turn to say our
prayers; there were also lamps hung up, and two candlesticks with
large tapers of white wax burning.

I saw a little carpet laid down, like those we have to kneel upon
when we say our prayers, and a comely young man sat upon this
carpet, reading with great devotion the Koran, which lay before him
upon a desk. At the sight of this I was transported with wonder. I
wondered how it came to pass that he should be the only living
creature in a town where all the people were turned into stones,
and I did not doubt but that there was something in it very
extraordinary.

The door being only half shut, I opened it and went in, and
standing upright before the niche, I said this prayer aloud:
'Praise be to God, who has favoured us with a happy voyage, and may
He be graciously pleased to protect us in the same manner until we
arrive again in our own country. Hear me, O Lord, and grant my
request.'

The young man cast his eyes upon me, and said, 'My good lady, pray
let me know who you are, and what has brought you to this desolate
city; and, in return, I will tell you who I am, what happened to
me, why the inhabitants of this city are reduced to that state you
see them in, and why I alone am safe and sound in the midst of such
a terrible disaster.'

I told him in few words from whence I came, what made me undertake
the voyage, and how I had safely arrived at the port after twenty
days' sailing; and when I had done I prayed him to fulfil his
promise, and told him how much I was struck by the frightful
desolation which I had seen in all places as I came along.

'My dear lady,' said the young man, 'have patience for a moment.'
At these words he shut the Koran, put it into a rich case, and laid
it in the niche. I took that opportunity of observing him, and
perceived so much good-nature and beauty in him that I felt strange
emotion. He made me sit down by him; and before he began his
discourse I could not forbear saying to him, 'Sir, I can scarcely
have patience to wait for an account of all those wonderful things
that I have seen since the first time I came into your city; and my
curiosity cannot be satisfied too soon: therefore pray, sir, let me
know by what miracle you alone are left alive among so many persons
that have died in so strange a manner.'

'Madam,' said the young man, 'you have given me to understand that
you have a knowledge of the true God by the prayer you have just
now addressed to Him. I will acquaint you with the most remarkable
effect of His greatness and power. You must know that this city was
the metropolis of a mighty kingdom, over which the king, my father,
did reign. He, his whole court, the inhabitants of the city, and
all his other subjects were magi, worshippers of fire, and of
Nardoun, the ancient king of the giants, who rebelled against God.

'And though I had an idolatrous father and mother, I had the good
fortune in my youth to have a governess who was a good Mussulman; I
learned the Koran by heart, and understood the explanation of it
perfectly. "Dear prince," would she oftentimes say, "there is but
one true God; take heed that you do not acknowledge and adore any
other." She taught me to read Arabic, and the book she gave me to
practice upon was the Koran. As soon as I was capable of
understanding it, she explained to me all the heads of this
excellent book, and infused piety into my mind, unknown to my
father or anybody else. She happened to die, but not before she had
instructed me in all that was necessary to convince me of the truth
of the Mussulman religion. After her death I persisted with
constancy in this belief; and I abhor the false god Nardoun, and
the adoration of fire.

'It is about three years and some months ago that a thundering
voice was heard, all of a sudden, so distinctly, through the whole
city that nobody could miss hearing it. The words were these:
"Inhabitants, abandon the worship of Nardoun, and of fire, and
worship the only God that shows mercy."

'This voice was heard for three years successively, but nobody was
converted: so on the last day of the year, at four o'clock in the
morning, all the inhabitants were changed in an instant into stone,
every one in the same condition and posture they happened to be
then in. The king, my father, had the same fate, for he was
metamorphosed into a black stone, as he is to be seen in this
palace; and the queen, my mother, had the like destiny.

'I am the only person that did not suffer under that heavy
judgment, and ever since I have continued to serve God with more
fervency than before. I am persuaded, dear lady, that He has sent
you hither for my comfort, for which I render Him infinite thanks;
for I must own that this solitary life is very unpleasant.'

'Prince,' said I, 'there is no doubt that Providence hath brought
me into your port to present you with an opportunity of withdrawing
from this dismal place. The ship that I came in may in some measure
persuade you that I am in some esteem at Bagdad, where I have also
left a considerable estate; and I dare engage to promise you
sanctuary there, until the mighty Commander of the Faithful, who is
vice-regent to our Prophet, whom you acknowledge, shows you the
honour that is due to your merit. This renowned prince lives at
Bagdad, and as soon as he is informed of your arrival in his
capital, you will find that it is not vain to implore his
assistance. It is impossible you can stay any longer in a city
where all the objects you see must renew your grief: my vessel is
at your service, where you may absolutely command as you think
fit.' He accepted the offer, and we discoursed the remaining part
of the night about our sailing.

As soon as it was day we left the palace, and came aboard my ship,
where we found my sisters, the captain, and the slaves, all very
much troubled at my absence. After I had presented my sisters to
the prince, I told them what had hindered my return to the vessel
the day before, how I had met with the young prince, his story, and
the cause of the desolation of so fine a city.

The seamen were taken up several days in unlading the merchandise I
had brought with me, and embarking instead all the precious things
in the palace, jewels, gold and money. We left the furniture and
goods, which consisted of an infinite quantity of plate, etc.,
because our vessel could not carry it, for it would have required
several vessels more to carry all the riches to Bagdad that we
might have chosen to take with us.

After we had laden the vessel with what we thought fit, we took
such provisions and water aboard as were necessary for our voyage
(for we had still a great deal of those provisions left that we had
taken in at Balsora): at last we set sail with a wind as favourable
as we could wish.

The young prince, my sisters and myself enjoyed ourselves for some
time very agreeably; but alas! this good understanding did not last
long, for my sisters grew jealous of the friendship between the
prince and me, and maliciously asked me one day what we should do
with him when we came to Bagdad. I perceived immediately why they
put this question to me; therefore, resolving to put it off with a
jest, I answered them, 'I will take him for my husband'; and upon
that, turning myself to the prince, 'Sir,' said I, 'I humbly beg of
you to give your consent; for as soon as we come to Bagdad I design
to do you all the service that is in my power and to resign myself
wholly to your commands.'

The prince answered, 'I know not, madam, whether you be in jest or
no; but for my own part I seriously declare, before these ladies
your sisters, that from this moment I heartily accept your offer,
as my lady and mistress. Nor will I pretend to have any power over
your actions.' At these words my sisters changed colour, and I
could perceive afterwards that they did not love me as formerly.

We had come into the Persian Gulf, not far from Balsora, where I
hoped, considering the fair wind, we might arrive the day
following; but in the night, when I was asleep, my sisters watched
their time and threw me overboard. They did the same to the prince,
who was drowned. I swam for some minutes in the water; but by good
fortune, or rather miracle, I soon felt ground. I went towards a
black place, that, so far as I could discern in the dark, seemed to
be land, and actually was a flat on the coast. When day came, I
found it to be a desert island, lying about twenty miles from
Balsora. I soon dried my clothes in the sun; and as I walked along
I found several sorts of fruit, and likewise fresh water, which
gave me some hope of preserving my life.

I laid myself down in the shade and soon after I saw a winged
serpent, very large and long, coming towards me, wriggling to the
right and to the left, and hanging out his tongue, which made me
think he was ill. I arose, and saw a larger serpent following him,
holding him by the tail, and endeavouring to devour him. I had
compassion on him, and instead of flying away, I had the boldness
and courage to take up a stone that by chance lay by me, and threw
it with all my strength at the great serpent, whom I hit on the
head, and killed him. The other, finding himself at liberty, took
to his wings and flew away. I looked a long while after him in the
air, as an extraordinary thing; but he flew out of sight, and I lay
down again in another place in the shade, and fell asleep.

When I awoke, judge how surprised I was to see by me a black woman,
of lively and agreeable looks, who held, tied together in her hand,
two dogs of the same colour. I sat up and asked her who she was. 'I
am,' said she, 'the serpent whom you delivered not long since from
my mortal enemy. I knew not how to acknowledge the great kindness
you did me, but by doing what I have done. I knew the treachery of
your sisters, and, to revenge you on them, as soon as I was set at
liberty by your generous assistance I called several of my
companions together, fairies like myself. We have carried into your
storehouses at Bagdad all your lading that was in your vessel, and
afterwards sunk it.

'These two black dogs are your sisters, whom I have transformed
into this shape. But this punishment is not sufficient; for I will
have you treat them after such a manner as I shall direct.'

At those words the fairy took me fast under one of her arms, and
the two dogs in the other, and carried me to my house in Bagdad,
where I found in my storehouses all the riches which were laden on
board my vessel. Before she left me she delivered the two dogs, and
told me, 'If you will not be changed into a dog as they are, I
order you to give each of your sisters every night a hundred lashes
with a rod, for the punishment of the crime they have committed
against your person and the young prince whom they drowned.' I was
forced to promise that I would obey her order. For many months I
whipped them every night, though with regret. I gave evidence by my
tears with how much sorrow and reluctance I must perform this cruel
duty.

Now the fairy had left with me a bundle of hair, saying withal that
her presence would one day be of use to me; and then, if I only
burnt two tufts of this hair, she would be with me in a moment,
though she were beyond Mount Caucasus.

Desirous at length to see the fairy and beg her to restore the two
black dogs, my sisters, to their proper shape, I caused fire one
day to be brought in, and threw the whole bundle of hair into it.
The house began to shake at that very instant, and the fairy
appeared in the form of a lady very richly dressed.

I besought her, with every form of entreaty I could employ, to
restore my sisters to their natural shape, and to release me from
the cruel duty that I had always unwillingly performed.

The fairy at length consented, and desired a bowl of water to be
brought; she pronounced over it some words which I did not
understand, and then sprinkled the water upon the dogs. They
immediately became two ladies of surprising beauty, and I
recognised in them the sisters to whose human form I had so long
been a stranger. They soon after married the sons of kings, and
lived happily for the rest of their lives.

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