The Story of the First Monk, Son of a King
In order, madam, to explain how I came to lose my right eye, and to become a monk, you must first know that I am the son of a king. My father’s only brother reigned over the neighbouring country, and had two children, a daughter and a son, who were of the same age as myself.
As I grew up, and was allowed more freedom, I went every year to pay a visit to my uncle’s court, and usually stayed there about two months. In this way my cousin and I became very close. The very last time I saw him he seemed more delighted to see me than ever, and gave a great feast in my honour. When we had finished eating, he said to me, “My cousin, you would never guess what I have been doing since your last visit to us! As soon as you left I set a number of men to work on a building that I designed. It is now completed, and ready to be lived in. I should like to show it to you, but you must first promise two things; to be faithful to me, and to keep my secret.”
Of course I did not dream of refusing him anything he asked, and made the promise without the least hesitation. He then told me wait a moment, and vanished, returning shortly with a richly dressed lady of great beauty. However he did not tell me her name and I thought it was better not to ask. We all three sat down at a table and chatted, drinking each other’s health. Suddenly the prince said to me, “Cousin, we have no time to lose. Be so kind as to take this lady to a certain spot, where you will find a dome-like tomb, newly built. You cannot miss it. Go in, both of you, and wait till I come. I shall not be long.”
As I had promised I prepared to do as I was told, and giving my hand to the lady, I took her, by the light of the moon, to the place the prince had spoken of. We had barely reached it when he joined us himself, carrying a small cup of water, a pickaxe, and a little bag containing plaster.
With the pickaxe he at once began to destroy the empty sepulchre in the middle of the tomb. One by one he took the stones and piled them up in a corner. When he had knocked down the whole sepulchre he started to dig up the earth. Beneath where the sepulchre had been I saw a trap-door. He raised the door and I caught sight of the top of a spiral staircase. Then he said, turning to the lady, “Madam, this is the way that will lead you down to the spot which I told you of.”
The lady did not answer, but silently descended the staircase, the prince following her. At the top, however, he looked at me. “My cousin,” he exclaimed, “I do not know how to thank you for your kindness. Farewell.”
“What do you mean?” I cried. “I don’t understand.”
“No matter,” he replied, “go back by the path that you came.”
He would say no more, and, greatly puzzled, I returned to my room in the palace and went to bed. When I woke, and considered my adventure, I thought that I must have been dreaming, and sent a servant to ask if the prince was dressed and could see me. But on hearing that he had not slept at home I was much alarmed, and hurried to the cemetery, where, unluckily, the tombs were all so alike that I could not discover which was the one I was in search of, though I spent four days looking for it.
You must know that all this time the king, my uncle, was absent on a hunting expedition, and as no one knew when he would be back, I at last decided to return home, leaving the ministers to make my excuses. I longed to tell them what had become of the prince, about whom they were very anxious, but the promise I had made kept me silent.
On my arrival at my father’s palace, I was astonished to find a large number of guards in front of the gate of the palace. They surrounded me as soon as I entered. I asked the officers in command the reason for this strange behaviour, and was horrified to learn that the army had mutinied and put to death the king, my father, and had placed the grand-vizier on the throne. By his orders I was placed under arrest.
Now this rebel vizier had hated me from my boyhood, because once, when shooting at a bird with a bow, I had shot out his eye by accident. Of course I not only sent a servant at once to offer him my regrets and apologies, but I also made them in person. It was all of no use. He had only hatred towards me, and wasted no time showing it. Having once got me in his power I felt he would show no mercy, and I was right. Mad with fury he came to me in my prison and tore out my right eye. That is how I lost it.
The vizier, however, did not stop there. He shut me up in a large case and ordered his executioner to carry me into a desert, to cut off my head, and then to throw my body to the vultures. The case, with me inside it, was placed on a horse, and the executioner, accompanied by another man, rode into the country until they found a spot suitable for the purpose. But their hearts were not so hard as they seemed, and my tears and prayers affected them.
“Give up the kingdom at once,” said the executioner at last, “And take care never to come back, for you will not only lose your head, but make us lose ours.” I thanked him gratefully, and tried to comfort myself for the loss of my eye by thinking of the other misfortunes I had escaped.
After all I had gone through, and my fear of being recognized by some enemy, I could only travel very slowly and cautiously, generally resting in some remote place by day, and walking as far as I was able by night. But at last I arrived in the kingdom of my uncle, of whose protection I was sure.
I found him in great trouble about the disappearance of his son but his own grief did not prevent him sharing mine. We cried together, for the loss of one was the loss of the other, and then I made up my mind that it was my duty to break the promise I had made to the prince. I therefore lost no time in telling my uncle everything I knew, and I noticed that even before I had ended he seemed a little happier.
“My dear nephew,” he said, “Your story gives me some hope. I was aware that my son was building a tomb, and I think I can find the spot. But as he wished to keep the matter secret, let us go alone and seek the place ourselves.”
He then told me to disguise myself, and we both slipped out of a garden door which opened on to the cemetery. It did not take long for us to arrive at the scene of the prince’s disappearance, or to discover the tomb I had looked for in vain before. We entered it, and found the trap-door which led to the staircase, but we had great difficulty in raising it, because the prince had fastened it down underneath with the plaster he had brought with him.
My uncle went first, and I followed him. When we reached the bottom of the stairs we stepped into a sort of ante-room, filled with such a dense smoke that it was hardly possible to see anything. However, we passed through the smoke into a large chamber, which at first seemed quite empty. The room was brilliantly lighted, and in another moment we could see a sort of platform at one end, on which were the bodies of the prince and a lady, both half-burned.
This horrible sight turned me faint, but, to my surprise, my uncle did not show so much surprise as anger.
“I knew,” he said, “that my son was very fond of this lady, whom it was impossible he should ever marry. I tried to change his mind, and presented to him the most beautiful princesses, but he cared for none of them. Now, as you see, they have now been united by a horrible death in an underground tomb.” But, as he spoke, his anger melted into tears, and again I wept with him.
When he recovered he drew me to him. “My dear nephew,” he said, “You have come to me to take his place, and I will do my best to forget that I ever had a son who could act in so wicked a manner.” Then he turned and went up the stairs.
We reached the palace without anyone having noticed our absence, when, shortly after, a clashing of drums, and cymbals, and the blare of trumpets burst upon our astonished ears. At the same time a thick cloud of dust on the horizon told of the approach of a great army. My heart sank when I saw that the commander was the vizier who had killed my father, and had come to seize the kingdom of my uncle.
The capital was completely unprepared to withstand a siege, and seeing that resistance was useless, at once opened its gates. My uncle fought hard for his life, but was soon overpowered, and when he fell I managed to escape through a secret passage, and found safety with an officer I knew I could trust.
Pursued by misfortune, and terribly sad, there seemed to be only one means of safety left to me. I shaved my beard and my eyebrows, and put on the robes of a monk, in which it was easy for me to travel without being known. I avoided the towns till I reached the kingdom of the famous and powerful Caliph, Haroun-al-Raschid, where I had no further reason to fear my enemies. It was my intention to come to Baghdad and to throw myself at the feet of his Highness, who would, I felt certain, be touched by my sad story, and would grant me his help and protection.
After a journey which lasted some months I arrived at last at the gates of this city. It was sunset, and I paused for a little to look about me, and to decide which way to turn my steps. I was still considering this when I was joined by this other monk, who stopped to greet me. “You, like me, appear to be a stranger,” I said. He replied that I was right, and before he could say more the third monk came up. He, also, was newly arrived in Baghdad, and being brothers in misfortune, we decided join together, and to share whatever fate might have in store.
By this time it had grown late, and we did not know where to spend the night. But our lucky star guided us to this door, and we asked for shelter, which was given to us at once with the best grace in the world.
This, madam, is my story.
“I am satisfied,” replied Zobeida; “you can go when you like.”
The monk, however, begged to stay and to hear the histories of his two friends and of the three other persons of the company, which he was allowed to do.