The Story of the Three Monks
In the reign of the Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid, there lived in Baghdad a porter who, in spite of his humble position, was an intelligent and sensible man. One morning he was sitting in his usual place with his basket before him, waiting to be hired, when a tall young lady, came up to him and said, “Pick up your basket and follow me.” The porter, who was greatly pleased by her appearance and voice, jumped up at once, placed his basket on his head, and accompanied the lady, saying to himself as he went, “Oh, happy day! Oh, lucky meeting!”
The lady soon stopped before a closed door, at which she knocked. It was opened by an old man with a long white beard, to whom the lady gave some money but said nothing. The old man, who seemed to understand what she wanted, vanished into the house, and returned bringing a large jar of wine, which the porter placed in his basket. Then the lady waved to him to follow, and they went on their way.
The next place she stopped at was a fruit and flower shop. Here she bought a large quantity of apples, apricots, peaches, lilies, jasmine, and all sorts of sweet-smelling plants. From this shop she went to a butcher’s, a grocer’s, and a poultry shop till at last the porter exclaimed in despair, “My good lady, if you had only told me you were going to buy enough food for a town, I would have brought a camel.” The lady laughed, and told him she had not finished yet, but after choosing various kinds of scents and spices from another store, she halted before the door of a magnificent palace, and knocked gently. The lady who opened it was of such beauty that the eyes of the man were quite dazzled, and he was the more astonished as he saw clearly that she was no slave. The lady who had led him there stood watching him with amusement, till the other lady exclaimed, “Why don’t you come in, my sister? This poor man is so heavily weighed down that he is ready to drop.”
When they were both inside the door was locked, and they all three entered a large court, surrounded by a gallery. At one end of the court was a platform, and on the platform stood an amber throne supported by four ebony columns, covered in pearls and diamonds. In the middle of the court stood a marble basin filled with water from the mouth of a golden lion.
The porter looked about him, noticing and admiring everything; but his attention was specially attracted by a third lady sitting on the throne, who was even more beautiful than the other two. By the respect shown to her by the others, he judged that she must be the eldest, and he was right. This lady’s name was Zobeida, the second lady was Sadie, and the first was Amina. At a word from Zobeida, Sadie and Amina took the basket from the porter, who was glad enough to be relieved from its weight, and when it was emptied, paid him well. But instead of taking up his basket and going away, the man still lingered, till Zobeida inquired what he was waiting for, and if he expected more money. “Oh, madam,” replied he, “you have already given me too much, and I fear I may be rude for not leaving at once. But, if you will pardon my saying so, I was astonished at seeing such beautiful ladies by themselves. A company of women without men is, however, as dull as a company of men without women.” And after telling some stories to prove his point, he ended by begging them to let him stay and make a fourth at their dinner.
The ladies were rather amused at the man confidence and after some discussion it was agreed that he should be allowed to stay, as his company might be entertaining. “But listen, friend,” said Zobeida, “if we grant your request, it is only on condition that you behave with the utmost politeness, and that you keep the secret of our way of life.” Then they all sat down to table, which had been covered by Amina with the dishes she had bought.
After the first few mouthfuls Amina poured some wine into a golden cup. She first drank herself, according to the Arab custom, and then filled it for her sisters. When it came to the porter’s turn he kissed Amina’s hand, and sang a song,. The three ladies were pleased with the song, and then sang themselves, so that the dinner was a merry one, and lasted much longer than usual.
At last, seeing that the sun was about to set, Sadia said to the porter, “Rise and go. It is now time for us to separate.”
“Oh, madam,” replied he, “How can you ask me to leave you in the state I am in? Between the wine I have drunk, and the pleasure of seeing you, I should never find the way to my house. Let me remain here till morning, and when I have recovered my senses I will go when you like.”
“Let him stay,” said Amina. “It is only fair, as he has given us so much amusement.”
“If you wish it, my sister,” replied Zobeida; “but if he does, I must make a new condition. Porter,” she continued, turning to him, “if you remain, you must promise to ask no questions about anything you may see. If you do, you may perhaps hear what you don’t like.”
This being settled, Amina brought in supper, and lit up the hall with a number of sweet smelling candles. They then sat down again at the table, and began with fresh appetites to eat, drink, sing, and recite verses. In fact, they were all enjoying themselves when they heard a knock at the outer door, which Sadie rose to open. She soon returned saying that three monks, all blind in the right eye, and all with their heads, faces, and eyebrows clean shaved, begged for admittance, as they were newly arrived in Baghdad, and night had already fallen. “They seem to have pleasant manners,” she added, “but you have no idea how funny they look. I am sure we should find their company entertaining.”
Zobeida and Amina were concerned about admitting the new comers, and Sadie knew the reason for their hesitation. But she pleaded with the others so strongly that Zobeida was at last forced to agree. “Bring them in, then,” said she, “But make them understand that they are not to speak about what does not concern them, and be sure to make them read the writing over the door.” For on the door was written in letters of gold, “Whoever meddles in affairs that are no business of his, will hear truths that will not please him.”
The three monks bowed low on entering, and thanked the ladies for their kindness and hospitality. The ladies replied with words of welcome, and they were all about to seat themselves when the eyes of the monks fell on the porter, whose dress was not so very unlike their own, though he still had all his hair. “This,” said one of them, “is apparently one of our brothers.”
The porter, although half asleep from the wine he had drunk, heard the words, cried angrily to the monk, “Sit down and mind your own business. Did you not read the writing over the door? Not everybody has to live in the same way.”
“Do not be so angry, my good man,” replied the monk, “We should be very sorry to anger you.” So the quarrel was forgotten, and supper began. When the monks had satisfied their hunger, they offered to play to their hostesses, if there were any instruments in the house. The ladies were delighted at the idea, and Sadie went to see what she could find. She returned in a few moments with two different kinds of flutes and a tambourine. Each monk took the one he preferred, and began to play a well-known tune, while the ladies sang the words of the song. These words were the happiest and liveliest possible, and every now and then the singers had to stop to laugh. In the midst of all their noise, a knock was heard at the door.
Now early that evening the Caliph secretly left the palace, accompanied by his grand-vizier, Giafar, and Mesrour, chief of the servants. All three were wearing the clothes of merchants. Passing down the street, the Caliph had been attracted by the music and the sound of laughter, and had ordered his vizier to go and knock at the door of the house, as he wished to enter. The vizier replied that the ladies who lived there seemed to be entertaining their friends and he thought his master would do well not to enter. But the Caliph had decided to see for himself, and insisted on being obeyed.
The knock was answered by Sadie, with a candle in her hand, and the vizier, who was surprised at her beauty, bowed low before her, and said respectfully, “Madam, we are three merchants who have just arrived from Moussoul, and, because of misfortune which happened this very night, only reached our inn to find that the doors were closed to us till tomorrow morning. Not knowing what to do, we wandered in the streets till we happened to pass your house. When, seeing lights and hearing the sound of voices, we decided to ask you to give us shelter till the dawn. If you will grant us this favour, we will, with your permission, do all in our power to help you spend the time pleasantly.”
Sadie answered the merchant that she must first ask her sisters; and after having talked over the matter with them, she returned to tell him that he and his two friends would be welcome to join their company. They entered and bowed politely to the ladies and their guests. Then Zobeida came forward and said, “You are welcome here, but I hope you will allow me to ask one thing of you. Have as many eyes as you like, but no tongues. Ask no questions about anything you see, however strange it may appear to you.”
“Madam,” replied the vizier, “you shall be obeyed. We have quite enough to please and interest us without troubling ourselves with things that are not our business.” Then they all sat down, and drank to the health of the new comers.
While the vizier, Giafar, was talking to the ladies the Caliph was thinking about who they could be, and why the three monks had each lost his right eye. He was burning to ask the reason for it all, but was silenced by Zobeida’s request, so he tried to take his part in the conversation, which was very lively. The subject of discussion being the many different sorts of pleasures that there were in the world. After some time the monks got up and performed some unusual dances, which delighted the rest of the company.
When they had finished Zobeida rose from her seat, and, taking Amina by the hand, she said to her, “My sister, our friends will excuse us if we seem to forget their presence and fulfill our nightly task.” Amina understood her sister’s meaning, and collecting the dishes, glasses, and musical instruments, she carried them away, while Sadie swept the hall and put everything in order. Having done this she begged the monks to sit on a sofa on one side of the room, and the Caliph and his friends to place themselves opposite. As to the porter, she requested him to come and help her and her sister.
Shortly after Amina entered carrying a seat, which she put down in the middle of the empty space. She next went over to the door of a closet and signed to the porter to follow her. He did so, and soon reappeared leading two black dogs by a chain, which he brought into the centre of the hall. Zobeida then got up from her seat between the monks and the Caliph and walked slowly across to where the porter stood with the dogs. “We must do our duty,” she said with a deep sigh, pushing back her sleeves, and, taking a whip from Sadie, she said to the man, “Take one of those dogs to my sister Amina and give me the other.”
The porter did as he was bid, but as he led the dog to Zobeida it uttered piercing howls, and gazed up at her with a sad look. But Zobeida took no notice, and whipped the dog till she was out of breath. She then took the chain from the porter, and, raising the dog on its hind legs, they looked into each other’s eyes sorrowfully till tears began to fall from both. Then Zobeida took her handkerchief and wiped the dog’s eyes tenderly, after which she kissed it, then, putting the chain into the porter’s hand she said, “Take it back to the closet and bring me the other.”
The same thing was done with the second dog, and all this time the whole company looked on with astonishment. The Caliph in particular could hardly control himself, and made signs to the vizier to ask what it all meant. But the vizier pretended not to see, and turned his head away.
Zobeida remained for some time in the middle of the room, till at last Sadie went up to her and begged her to sit down, as she also had her part to play. At these words Amina fetched a lute from a case of yellow satin and gave it to Sadie, who sang several songs to its accompaniment. When she was tired she said to Amina, “My sister, I can do no more; come, please take my place.”
Amina then broke into a song, which she sang with so much feeling that she was quite overcome, and sank gasping on a pile of cushions, tearing open her dress as she did so to give herself some air. To the amazement of all present, her neck, instead of being as smooth and white as her face, was a mass of scars.
The monks and the Caliph looked at each other, and whispered together, unheard by Zobeida and Sadie, who were looking after their fainting sister.
“What does it all mean?’ asked the Caliph.
“We know no more than you,” said the monk to whom he had spoken.
“What! You do not belong to the house?”
“My lord,” answered all the monks together, “we came here for the first time an hour before you.”
They then turned to the porter to see if he could explain the mystery, but the porter was no wiser than they were themselves. At length the Caliph could contain his curiosity no longer, and declared that he would force the ladies to tell them the meaning of their strange conduct. The vizier, foreseeing what would happen, begged him to remember the condition their hostesses had made, and added in a whisper that if his Highness would only wait till morning he could as Caliph summon the ladies to appear before him. But the Caliph, who was not used to being told no, rejected this advice, and it was decided after a little more talking that the question should be asked by the porter. Suddenly Zobeida turned round, and seeing their excitement she said, “What is the matter? What are you all discussing?”
“Madam,” answered the porter, “these gentlemen ask you to explain to them why you should first whip the dogs and then cry over them, and also how it happens that the fainting lady is covered with scars. They have requested me, Madam, to ask on their behalf.”
“Is it true, gentlemen,” asked Zobeida, standing up straight, “that you have ordered this man to ask me that question?”
“It is,” they all replied, except Giafar, who was silent.
“Is this,” continued Zobeida, growing angrier every moment, “Is this what I receive for the hospitality I have shown you? Have you forgotten the one condition on which you were allowed to enter the house? Come quickly,” she added, clapping her hands three times, and the words were hardly uttered when seven black slaves, each armed with a sabre, burst in and stood over the seven men, throwing them on the ground, and preparing themselves, on a sign from their mistress, to cut off their heads.
The seven men all thought their last hour had come, and the Caliph regretted bitterly that he had not taken the vizier’s advice. But they made up their minds to die bravely, all except the porter, who loudly asked Zobeida why he was to suffer for other people’s faults, and declared that these misfortunes would never have happened if it had not been for the monks, who always brought bad luck. He ended by begging Zobeida not to confuse the innocent with the guilty and to spare his life.
In spite of her anger, there was something so funny in the groans of the porter that Zobeida could not stop herself from laughing. But putting him aside she addressed the others a second time, saying, “Answer me, who are you? Unless you tell me truly you have not another moment to live. I can hardly think you are men of any position, whatever country you belong to. If you were, you would have had more consideration for us.”
The Caliph was convinced that she had only to learn his name and position for all the danger to be over. So he whispered to the vizier, who was next to him, to reveal their secret. But the vizier, wiser than his master, wished to conceal from the public the embarrassment they had received merely answered, “After all, we have only got what we deserved.”
Meanwhile Zobeida had turned to the three monks and inquired if, as they were all blind, they were brothers.
“No, madam,” replied one, “We are no blood relations at all, only brothers because of our way of life.”
“And you,” she asked, addressing another, “were you born blind in one eye?”
“No, madam,” replied he, “I became blind through a most surprising adventure, such as probably has never happened to anybody. After that I shaved my head and eyebrows and put on the robes in which you see me now.”
Zobeida put the same question to the other two monks, and received the same answer.
“But,” added the third, “it may interest you, madam, to know that we are not men of low birth, but are all three sons of kings, whom the world holds in high respect.”
At these words Zobeida’s anger cooled down, and she turned to her slaves and said, “You can give them a little more liberty, but do not leave the hall. Those that will tell us their stories and their reasons for coming here shall be allowed to leave unhurt and those who refuse….” And she paused, but in a moment the porter, who understood that he had only to tell his story to set himself free from this terrible danger, immediately spoke,
“Madam, you know already how I came here, and what I have to say will soon be told. Your sister found me this morning in the place where I always stand waiting to be hired. She told me follow her to various shops, and when my basket was quite full we returned to this house, when you had the goodness to permit me to remain, for which I shall be forever grateful. That is my story.”
He looked anxiously to Zobeida, who nodded her head and said, “You can go and take care we never meet again.”
“Oh, madam,” cried the porter, “Let me stay yet a little while. It is not fair that the others should have heard my story and that I should not hear theirs,” and without waiting for permission he seated himself on the end of the sofa occupied by the ladies, while the rest crouched on the carpet, and the slaves stood against the wall.
Then one of the monks, speaking to Zobeida as the main lady, began his story.