The Little Hunchback
In the kingdom of Kashgar, there lived long ago, a tailor and his wife who loved each other very much. One day, when the tailor was hard at work, a little hunchback came and sat at the entrance of the shop, and began to sing and play his tambourine. The tailor was amused by the fellow, and thought he would take him home to show his wife. The hunchback agreed, so the tailor closed his shop and they set off together.
When they reached the house they found the table ready laid for supper, and in a very few minutes all three were sitting before a beautiful fish which the tailor’s wife had cooked with her own hands. But unluckily, the hunchback happened to swallow a large bone, and, in spite of all the tailor and his wife could do to help him, died in an instant. Besides being very sorry for the poor man, the tailor and his wife were very much frightened for if the police came to hear of it the couple ran the risk of being thrown into prison for murder. In order to prevent this they both set about inventing some plan which would throw suspicion on someone else, and at last they made up their minds that they could do no better than select a doctor who lived close by. So the tailor picked up the hunchback by his head while his wife took his feet and carried him to the doctor’s house. Then they knocked at the door, which opened straight on to a steep staircase. A servant soon appeared, feeling her way down the dark staircase and asked what they wanted.
“Tell your master,” said the tailor, “that we have brought a very sick man for him to cure. And,” he added, holding out some money, “give him this in advance, so that he may not feel he is wasting his time.” The servant climbed the stairs to give the message to the doctor, and the moment she was out of sight the tailor and his wife carried the body swiftly after her, sat it up at the top of the staircase, and ran home as fast as their legs could carry them.
Now the doctor was delighted at the news of a patient.
“Get a light,” he called to the servant, “and follow me as fast as you can!” and rushing out of his room he ran towards the staircase. There he nearly fell over the body of the hunchback, and without knowing what it was gave it such a kick that it rolled right to the bottom, and very nearly dragged the doctor after it. “A light! A light!” he cried again, and when it was brought and he saw what he had done he was almost beside himself with terror.
“Holy Moses!” he exclaimed, “Why did I not wait for the light? I have killed the sick man who they brought me; and if God does not come to help me I am lost! It will not be long before I am led to jail as a murderer.”
Upset though he was the doctor did not forget to shut the house door, in case some passers-by might happen to see what had happened. He then took up the corpse and carried it into his wife’s room, nearly driving her crazy with fright.
“We are finished!” she cried, “if we cannot find some way of getting the body out of the house. Once the sun rises we can hide it no longer! Why did you commit such a terrible crime?”
“Never mind that,” replied the doctor, “The thing is to find a way out of it.”
For a long while the doctor and his wife continued to turn over in their minds a way of escape, but could not find any that seemed good enough. At last the doctor gave up altogether and prepared himself to accept the punishment of his misfortune.
But his wife, who was twice as smart, suddenly exclaimed, “I have thought of something! Let us carry the body onto the roof of the house and lower it down the chimney of our neighbor.” Now this neighbor was employed by the Sultan, and provided him with oil and butter. Part of his house was occupied by a great storeroom, where there were rats and mice.
The doctor jumped at his wife’s plan, and they picked up the hunchback, and passing ropes under his armpits they let him down into the neighbor’s bedroom so gently that he really seemed to be leaning against the wall. When they felt he was touching the ground they drew up the ropes and left him.
Scarcely had they got back to their own house when the neighbor entered his room. He had spent the evening at a wedding feast, and had a lantern in his hand. In the dim light he was astonished to see a man standing in his chimney, but being naturally courageous he seized a stick and went straight for the supposed thief. “Ah!” he cried, “so it is you, and not the rats and mice, who steal my butter. I’ll take care that you don’t want to come back!”
So saying he struck him several hard blows. The corpse fell on the floor, but the man only redoubled his blows, till at length it occurred to him it was odd that the thief should lie so still. Then, finding he was quite dead, a cold fear came over him. “I have murdered a man. Ah, my revenge has gone too far. Without the help of God I am finished!” And already he felt the hangman’s rope round his neck.
But when he had got over the first shock he began to think of some way out of the difficulty, and seizing the hunchback in his arms he carried him out into the street, and leaning him against the wall of a shop he snuck back to his own house, without once looking behind him.
A few minutes before the sun rose, a rich merchant, who supplied the palace with all sorts of goods, left his house to go to the bath. Though he was very drunk, he was still sober enough to know that the dawn was near, and that all good men would shortly be going to prayer. So he hurried in case he should meet someone, who, seeing his condition would send him to prison as a drunkard. In his hurry he bumped into the hunchback, who fell heavily on him, and the merchant, thinking he was being attacked by a thief, knocked him down with one blow of his fist. He then called loudly for help, beating the fallen man all the time.
The chief policeman of the neighborhood came running up, and found him beating the hunchback. “What are you doing?” he asked angrily.
“He tried to rob me,” replied the merchant, “and very nearly choked me.”
“Well, you have had your revenge,” said the policeman, taking hold of his arm. “Come, be off with you!”
As he spoke he held out his hand to the hunchback to help him up, but the hunchback never moved. “Oho!” he went on, looking closer, and seizing the merchant in a firm grip he took him to the inspector of police, who threw him into prison till the judge should be out of bed and ready to hear his case. The more he thought of it the less he could understand how the hunchback could have died merely from the blows he had received.
The merchant was still considering this subject when he was called before the chief of police and questioned about his crime, which he could not deny. As the hunchback was one of the Sultan’s private jesters, the chief of police decided to not to pass sentence of death until he had told his master. He went to the palace and told his story to the Sultan, who only answered,
“There is no pardon. Do your duty.”
So the chief of police ordered a gallows to be erected, and sent criers to proclaim in every street in the city that a man was to be hanged that day for having killed another man.
When all was ready the merchant was brought from prison and led to the foot of the gallows. The executioner tied the rope firmly round the unfortunate man’s neck and was just about to swing him into the air, when the Sultan’s provider of oil and butter dashed through the crowd, and cried, panting, to the hangman,
“Stop, stop, don’t be in such a hurry. It was not he who committed the murder, it was I.”
The chief of police, who was present to see that everything was in order, put several questions to the man, who told him the whole story of the death of the hunchback, and how he had carried the body to the place where it had been found by the merchant.
“You are going,” he said to the chief of police, “to kill an innocent man, for it is impossible that he should have murdered a man who was dead already. It is bad enough for me to have killed another man without having it on my conscience that a man who is innocent should suffer through my fault.”
Now his speech had been made in a loud voice, and was heard by all the crowd, and even if he had wished it, the chief of police could not have escaped setting the merchant free.
“Loosen the rope from his neck,” he commanded, turning to the executioner, “and hang this man in his place, seeing that by his own confession he is the murderer.”
The hangman did as he was told, and was tying the rope firmly, when he was stopped by the voice of the doctor asking him to stop, for he had something very important to say. When he had fought his way through the crowd and reached the chief of police,
“Sir,” he began, “this man who you want to hang doesn’t deserve it. I alone am guilty. Last night a man and a woman who were strangers to me knocked at my door, bringing with them a patient for me to cure. The servant opened it, but having no light was hardly able to make out their faces. She woke me and gave me the fee for my services. While she was telling me her story they seem to have carried the sick man to the top of the staircase and then left him there. I jumped up in a hurry without waiting for a lantern, and in the darkness I fell against something, which tumbled headlong down the stairs and never stopped till it reached the bottom. When I examined the body I found it was quite dead, and the corpse was that of a hunchback. Terrified at what we had done, my wife and I took the body on the roof and let it down the chimney of our neighbor the man, who you were just about to hang. The neighbor, finding him in his room, naturally thought he was a thief, and struck him such a blow that the man fell down and lay motionless on the floor. Bending over to examine him, and finding him dead, the neighbor supposed that the man had died from the blow he had received. But of course this was a mistake, and I am the only murderer; and although I am innocent of any wish to commit a crime, I must suffer for it all the same, or else have the blood of two men on my conscience. Therefore send away this man, I beg you, and let me take his place, as it is I who am guilty.”
On hearing what the doctor had to say, the chief of police commanded that he should be led to the gallows, and the Sultan’s supplier of oil and butter go free. The rope was placed round the doctor’s neck, and his feet had already left the ground when the voice of the tailor was heard begging the executioner to pause one moment and to listen to what he had to say.
“Oh, my lord,” he cried, turning to the chief of police, “how nearly have you caused the death of three innocent people! But if you will only have the patience to listen to my tale, you shall know who the real culprit is. If someone has to suffer, it must be me! Yesterday, I was working in my shop when the little hunchback, who was more than half drunk, came and sat in the doorway. He sang me several songs, and then I invited him to finish the evening at my house. He accepted my invitation, and we went there together. At supper I gave him to a slice of fish, but in eating it a bone stuck in his throat, and in spite of all we could do he died in a few minutes. We felt deeply sorry for his death, but fearing we should be held responsible, we carried the corpse to the house of the doctor. I knocked, and asked the servant to bring her master down as fast as possible and see a sick man who we had brought for him to cure. In order to make him hurry I placed a piece of money in her hand as the doctor’s fee. As soon as she had disappeared I dragged the body to the top of the stairs, and then hurried away with my wife back to our house. When coming down the stairs the doctor accidentally knocked over the corpse, and finding him dead believed that he himself was the murderer. But now you know the truth, set him free, and let me die in his place.”
The chief of police and the crowd of spectators were lost in astonishment at the strange events resulting from the death of the hunchback.
“Free the doctor,” said he to the hangman, “and hang the tailor instead, since he has made confession of his crime. Really, one cannot deny that this is a very special story, and it deserves to be written in letters of gold.”
The executioner speedily untied the knots, and was passing the rope round the neck of the tailor, when the Sultan of Kashgar, who had missed his jester, happened to ask his officials what had become of him.
“Sire,” replied they, “the hunchback having drunk more than was good for him, escaped from the palace and was seen wandering about the town, where this morning he was found dead. A man was arrested for having caused his death, and held till a gallows was erected. At the moment that he was about to suffer punishment, first one man arrived, and then another, each admitting the murder, and this went on for a long time, and at the present instant the chief of police is questioning a man who declares that he alone is the true killer.”
The Sultan of Kashgar no sooner heard these words than he ordered an official to go to the chief of police and to bring all the persons concerned in the hunchback’s death, together with the corpse, that he wished to see once again. The official hurried on his errand, but was only just in time, for the tailor was swinging in the air, when his voice, commanded the hangman to cut down the body. The hangman, recognizing the official as one of the king’s servants, cut down the tailor, and the official, seeing the man was safe, found the chief of police and gave him the Sultan’s message. The chief of police at once set out for the palace, taking with him the tailor, the doctor, the supplier, and the merchant, who carried the dead hunchback on their shoulders.
When they reached the palace the chief of police bowed at the feet of the Sultan, and told all that he knew of the matter. The Sultan was so much amazed that he ordered his private historian to write down an exact account of what had passed, so that in the years to come the miraculous escape of the four men who had thought themselves murderers might never be forgotten.
The Sultan asked everybody concerned in the hunchback’s affair to tell him their stories. Among others was a barber, whose tale of one of his brothers follows.