THE STORY OF ZOBEIDE TOLD BY HERSELF – Tales from the Arabian Nights

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.

Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights.
First Series.
Edited by E. Dixon
The text of the present selection from the Arabian Nights is that of Galland, 1821, slightly abridged and edited. The edition is designed virginibus puerisque.
Xmas, 1893.