In the great city of Isfahan lived Ahmed the cobbler, an honest and industrious man, whose wish was to pass through life quietly; and he might have done so, had he not married a handsome wife, who, although she had condescended to accept of him as a husband, was far from being contented with his humble sphere of life.
Sittâra, such was the name of Ahmed”s wife, was ever forming foolish schemes of riches and grandeur; and though Ahmed never encouraged them, he was too fond a husband to quarrel with what gave her pleasure. An incredulous smile or a shake of the head was his only answer to her often-told day-dreams; and she continued to persuade herself that she was certainly destined to great fortune.
It happened one evening, while in this temper of mind, that she went to the Hemmâm, where she saw a lady retiring dressed in a magnificent robe, covered with jewels, and surrounded by slaves. This was the very condition Sittâra had always longed for, and she eagerly inquired the name of the happy person who had so many attendants and such fine jewels. She learned it was the wife of the chief astrologer to the king. With this information she returned home. Her husband met her at the door, but was received with a frown, nor could all his caresses obtain a smile or a word; for several hours she continued silent, and in apparent misery. At length she said:
“Cease your caresses, unless you are ready to give me a proof that you do really and sincerely love me.”
“What proof of love,” exclaimed poor Ahmed, “can you desire which I will not give?”
“Give over cobbling; it is a vile, low trade, and never yields more than ten or twelve dinars a day. Turn astrologer! your fortune will be made, and I shall have all I wish, and be happy.”
“Astrologer!” cried Ahmed,–“astrologer! Have you forgotten who I am–a cobbler, without any learning–that you want me to engage in a profession which requires so much skill and knowledge?”
“I neither think nor care about your qualifications,” said the enraged wife; “all I know is, that if you do not turn astrologer immediately I will be divorced from you to-morrow.”
The cobbler remonstrated, but in vain. The figure of the astrologer”s wife, with her jewels and her slaves, had taken complete possession of Sittâra”s imagination. All night it haunted her; she dreamt of nothing else, and on awaking declared she would leave the house if her husband did not comply with her wishes. What could poor Ahmed do? He was no astrologer, but he was dotingly fond of his wife, and he could not bear the idea of losing her. He promised to obey, and, having sold his little stock, bought an astrolabe, an astronomical almanac, and a table of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Furnished with these he went to the market-place, crying, “I am an astrologer! I know the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the twelve signs of the zodiac; I can calculate nativities; I can foretell everything that is to happen!”
No man was better known than Ahmed the cobbler. A crowd soon gathered round him. “What! friend Ahmed,” said one, “have you worked till your head is turned?” “Are you tired of looking down at your last,” cried another, “that you are now looking up at the planets?” These and a thousand other jokes assailed the ears of the poor cobbler, who, notwithstanding, continued to exclaim that he was an astrologer, having resolved on doing what he could to please his beautiful wife.
It so happened that the king”s jeweller was passing by. He was in great distress, having lost the richest ruby belonging to the crown. Every search had been made to recover this inestimable jewel, but to no purpose; and as the jeweller knew he could no longer conceal its loss from the king, he looked forward to death as inevitable. In this hopeless state, while wandering about the town, he reached the crowd around Ahmed and asked what was the matter. “Don”t you know Ahmed the cobbler?” said one of the bystanders, laughing; “he has been inspired, and is become an astrologer.”
A drowning man will catch at a broken reed: the jeweller no sooner heard the sound of the word astrologer, than he went up to Ahmed, told him what had happened, and said, “If you understand your art, you must be able to discover the king”s ruby. Do so, and I will give you two hundred pieces of gold. But if you do not succeed within six hours, I will use all my influence at court to have you put to death as an impostor.”
Poor Ahmed was thunderstruck. He stood long without being able to move or speak, reflecting on his misfortunes, and grieving, above all, that his wife, whom he so loved, had, by her envy and selfishness, brought him to such a fearful alternative. Full of these sad thoughts, he exclaimed aloud, “O woman, woman! thou art more baneful to the happiness of man than the poisonous dragon of the desert!”
The lost ruby had been secreted by the jeweller”s wife, who, disquieted by those alarms which ever attend guilt, sent one of her female slaves to watch her husband. This slave, on seeing her master speak to the astrologer, drew near; and when she heard Ahmed, after some moments of apparent abstraction, compare a woman to a poisonous dragon, she was satisfied that he must know everything. She ran to her mistress, and, breathless with fear, cried, “You are discovered, my dear mistress, you are discovered by a vile astrologer. Before six hours are past the whole story will be known, and you will become infamous, if you are even so fortunate as to escape with life, unless you can find some way of prevailing on him to be merciful.” She then related what she had seen and heard; and Ahmed”s exclamation carried as complete conviction to the mind of the terrified mistress as it had done to that of her slave.
The jeweller”s wife, hastily throwing on her veil, went in search of the dreaded astrologer. When she found him, she threw herself at his feet, crying, “Spare my honour and my life, and I will confess everything!”
“What can you have to confess to me?” exclaimed Ahmed in amazement.
“Oh, nothing! nothing with which you are not already acquainted. You know too well that I stole the ruby from the king”s crown. I did so to punish my husband, who uses me most cruelly; and I thought by this means to obtain riches for myself, and to have him put to death. But you, most wonderful man, from whom nothing is hidden, have discovered and defeated my wicked plan. I beg only for mercy, and will do whatever you command me.”
An angel from heaven could not have brought more consolation to Ahmed than did the jeweller”s wife. He assumed all the dignified solemnity that became his new character, and said, “Woman! I know all thou hast done, and it is fortunate for thee that thou hast come to confess thy sin and beg for mercy before it was too late. Return to thy house, put the ruby under the pillow of the couch on which thy husband sleeps; let it be laid on the side furthest from the door; and be satisfied thy guilt shall never be even suspected.”
The jeweller”s wife returned home, and did as she was desired. In an hour Ahmed followed her, and told the jeweller he had made his calculations, and found by the aspect of the sun and moon, and by the configuration of the stars, that the ruby was at that moment lying under the pillow of his couch, on the side furthest from the door. The jeweller thought Ahmed must be crazy; but as a ray of hope is like a ray from heaven to the wretched, he ran to his couch, and there, to his joy and wonder, found the ruby in the very place described. He came back to Ahmed, embraced him, called him his dearest friend and the preserver of his life, and gave him the two hundred pieces of gold, declaring that he was the first astrologer of the age.
These praises conveyed no joy to the poor cobbler, who returned home more thankful to God for his preservation than elated by his good fortune. The moment he entered the door his wife ran up to him and exclaimed, “Well, my dear astrologer! what success?”
“There!” said Ahmed, very gravely,–“there are two hundred pieces of gold. I hope you will be satisfied now, and not ask me again to hazard my life, as I have done this morning.” He then related all that had passed. But the recital made a very different impression on the lady from what these occurrences had made on Ahmed. Sittâra saw nothing but the gold, which would enable her to vie with the chief astrologer”s wife at the Hemmâm. “Courage!” she said, “courage! my dearest husband. This is only your first labour in your new and noble profession. Go on and prosper, and we shall become rich and happy.”
In vain Ahmed remonstrated and represented the danger; she burst into tears, and accused him of not loving her, ending with her usual threat of insisting upon a divorce.
Ahmed”s heart melted, and he agreed to make another trial. Accordingly, next morning he sallied forth with his astrolabe, his twelve signs of the zodiac, and his almanac, exclaiming, as before, “I am an astrologer! I know the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the twelve signs of the zodiac; I can calculate nativities; I can foretell everything that is to happen!” A crowd again gathered round him, but it was now with wonder, and not ridicule; for the story of the ruby had gone abroad, and the voice of fame had converted the poor cobbler Ahmed into the ablest and most learned astrologer that was ever seen at Isfahan.
While everybody was gazing at him, a lady passed by veiled. She was the wife of one of the richest merchants in the city, and had just been at the Hemmâm, where she had lost a valuable necklace and earrings. She was now returning home in great alarm lest her husband should suspect her of having given her jewels to a lover. Seeing the crowd around Ahmed, she asked the reason of their assembling, and was informed of the whole story of the famous astrologer: how he had been a cobbler, was inspired with supernatural knowledge, and could, with the help of his astrolabe, his twelve signs of the zodiac, and his almanac, discover all that ever did or ever would happen in the world. The story of the jeweller and the king”s ruby was then told her, accompanied by a thousand wonderful circumstances which had never occurred. The lady, quite satisfied of his skill, went up to Ahmed and mentioned her loss, saying: “A man of your knowledge and penetration will easily discover my jewels; find them, and I will give you fifty pieces of gold.”
The poor cobbler was quite confounded, and looked down, thinking only how to escape without a public exposure of his ignorance. The lady, in pressing through the crowd, had torn the lower part of her veil. Ahmed”s downcast eyes noticed this; and wishing to inform her of it in a delicate manner, before it was observed by others, he whispered to her, “Lady, look down at the rent.” The lady”s head was full of her loss, and she was at that moment endeavouring to recollect how it could have occurred. Ahmed”s speech brought it at once to her mind, and she exclaimed in delighted surprise: “Stay here a few moments, thou great astrologer. I will return immediately with the reward thou so well deservest.” Saying this, she left him, and soon returned, carrying in one hand the necklace and earrings, and in the other a purse with the fifty pieces of gold. “There is gold for thee,” she said, “thou wonderful man, to whom all the secrets of Nature are revealed! I had quite forgotten where I laid the jewels, and without thee should never have found them. But when thou desiredst me to look at the rent below, I instantly recollected the rent near the bottom of the wall in the bathroom, where, before undressing, I had hid them. I can now go home in peace and comfort; and it is all owing to thee, thou wisest of men!”
After these words she walked away, and Ahmed returned to his home, thankful to Providence for his preservation, and fully resolved never again to tempt it. His handsome wife, however, could not yet rival the chief astrologer”s lady in her appearance at the Hemmâm, so she renewed her entreaties and threats, to make her fond husband continue his career as an astrologer.
About this time it happened that the king”s treasury was robbed of forty chests of gold and jewels, forming the greater part of the wealth of the kingdom. The high treasurer and other officers of state used all diligence to find the thieves, but in vain. The king sent for his astrologer, and declared that if the robbers were not detected by a stated time, he, as well as the principal ministers, should be put to death. Only one day of the short period given them remained. All their search had proved fruitless, and the chief astrologer, who had made his calculations and exhausted his art to no purpose, had quite resigned himself to his fate, when one of his friends advised him to send for the wonderful cobbler, who had become so famous for his extraordinary discoveries. Two slaves were immediately despatched for Ahmed, whom they commanded to go with them to their master. “You see the effects of your ambition,” said the poor cobbler to his wife; “I am going to my death. The king”s astrologer has heard of my presumption, and is determined to have me executed as an impostor.”
On entering the palace of the chief astrologer, he was surprised to see that dignified person come forward to receive him, and lead him to the seat of honour, and not less so to hear himself thus addressed: “The ways of Heaven, most learned and excellent Ahmed, are unsearchable. The high are often cast down, and the low are lifted up. The whole world depends upon fate and fortune. It is my turn now to be depressed by fate; it is thine to be exalted by fortune.”
His speech was here interrupted by a messenger from the king, who, having heard of the cobbler”s fame, desired his attendance. Poor Ahmed now concluded that it was all over with him, and followed the king”s messenger, praying to God that he would deliver him from this peril. When he came into the king”s presence, he bent his body to the ground, and wished his majesty long life and prosperity. “Tell me, Ahmed,” said the king, “who has stolen my treasure?”
“It was not one man,” answered Ahmed, after some consideration; “there were forty thieves concerned in the robbery.”
“Very well,” said the king; “but who were they? and what have they done with my gold and jewels?”
“These questions,” said Ahmed, “I cannot now answer; but I hope to satisfy your Majesty, if you will grant me forty days to make my calculations.”
“I grant you forty days,” said the king; “but when they are past, if my treasure is not found, your life shall pay the forfeit.”
Ahmed returned to his house well pleased; for he resolved to take advantage of the time allowed him to fly from a city where his fame was likely to be his ruin.
“Well, Ahmed,” said his wife, as he entered, “what news at Court?”
“No news at all,” said he, “except that I am to be put to death at the end of forty days, unless I find forty chests of gold and jewels which have been stolen from the royal treasury.”
“But you will discover the thieves.”
“How? By what means am I to find them?”
“By the same art which discovered the ruby and the lady”s necklace.”
“The same art!” replied Ahmed. “Foolish woman! thou knowest that I have no art, and that I have only pretended to it for the sake of pleasing thee. But I have had sufficient skill to gain forty days, during which time we may easily escape to some other city; and with the money I now possess, and the aid of my former occupation, we may still obtain an honest livelihood.”
“An honest livelihood!” repeated his lady, with scorn. “Will thy cobbling, thou mean, spiritless wretch, ever enable me to go to the Hemmâm like the wife of the chief astrologer? Hear me, Ahmed! Think only of discovering the king”s treasure. Thou hast just as good a chance of doing so as thou hadst of finding the ruby, and the necklace and earrings. At all events, I am determined thou shalt not escape; and shouldst thou attempt to run away, I will inform the king”s officers, and have thee taken up and put to death, even before the forty days are expired. Thou knowest me too well, Ahmed, to doubt my keeping my word. So take courage, and endeavour to make thy fortune, and to place me in that rank of life to which my beauty entitles me.”
The poor cobbler was dismayed at this speech; but knowing there was no hope of changing his wife”s resolution, he resigned himself to his fate. “Well,” said he, “your will shall be obeyed. All I desire is to pass the few remaining days of my life as comfortably as I can. You know I am no scholar, and have little skill in reckoning; so there are forty dates: give me one of them every night after I have said my prayers, that I may put them in a jar, and, by counting them may always see how many of the few days I have to live are gone.”
The lady, pleased at carrying her point, took the dates, and promised to be punctual in doing what her husband desired.
Meanwhile the thieves who had stolen the king”s treasure, having been kept from leaving the city by fear of detection and pursuit, had received accurate information of every measure taken to discover them. One of them was among the crowd before the palace on the day the king sent for Ahmed; and hearing that the cobbler had immediately declared their exact number, he ran in a fright to his comrades, and exclaimed, “We are all found out! Ahmed, the new astrologer, has told the king that there are forty of us.”
“There needed no astrologer to tell that,” said the captain of the gang. “This Ahmed, with all his simple good-nature, is a shrewd fellow. Forty chests having been stolen, he naturally guessed that there must be forty thieves, and he has made a good hit, that is all; still it is prudent to watch him, for he certainly has made some strange discoveries. One of us must go to-night, after dark, to the terrace of this cobbler”s house, and listen to his conversation with his handsome wife; for he is said to be very fond of her, and will, no doubt, tell her what success he has had in his endeavours to detect us.”
Everybody approved of this scheme; and soon after nightfall one of the thieves repaired to the terrace. He arrived there just as the cobbler had finished his evening prayers, and his wife was giving him the first date. “Ah!” said Ahmed, as he took it, “there is one of the forty.”
The thief, hearing these words, hastened in consternation to the gang, and told them that the moment he took his post he had been perceived by the supernatural knowledge of Ahmed, who immediately told his wife that one of them was there. The spy”s tale was not believed by his hardened companions; something was imputed to his fears; he might have been mistaken;–in short, it was determined to send two men the next night at the same hour. They reached the house just as Ahmed, having finished his prayers, had received the second date, and heard him exclaim, “My dear wife, to-night there are two of them!”
The astonished thieves fled, and told their still incredulous comrades what they had heard. Three men were consequently sent the third night, four the fourth, and so on. Being afraid of venturing during the day, they always came as evening closed in, and just as Ahmed was receiving his date, hence they all in turn heard him say that which convinced them he was aware of their presence. On the last night they all went, and Ahmed exclaimed aloud, “The number is complete! To-night the whole forty are here!”
All doubts were now removed. It was impossible that Ahmed should have discovered them by any natural means. How could he ascertain their exact number? and night after night, without ever once being mistaken? He must have learnt it by his skill in astrology. Even the captain now yielded, in spite of his incredulity, and declared his opinion that it was hopeless to elude a man thus gifted; he therefore advised that they should make a friend of the cobbler, by confessing everything to him, and bribing him to secrecy by a share of the booty.
His advice was approved of, and an hour before dawn they knocked at Ahmed”s door. The poor man jumped out of bed, and supposing the soldiers were come to lead him to execution, cried out, “Have patience! I know what you are come for. It is a very unjust and wicked deed.”
“Most wonderful man!” said the captain, as the door was opened, “we are fully convinced that thou knowest why we are come, nor do we mean to justify the action of which thou speakest. Here are two thousand pieces of gold, which we will give thee, provided thou wilt swear to say nothing more about the matter.”
“Say nothing about it!” said Ahmed. “Do you think it possible I can suffer such gross wrong and injustice without complaining, and making it known to all the world?”
“Have mercy upon us!” exclaimed the thieves, falling on their knees; “only spare our lives, and we will restore the royal treasure.”
The cobbler started, rubbed his eyes to see if he were asleep or awake; and being satisfied that he was awake, and that the men before him were really the thieves, he assumed a solemn tone, and said: “Guilty men! ye are persuaded that ye cannot escape from my penetration, which reaches unto the sun and moon, and knows the position and aspect of every star in the heavens. Your timely repentance has saved you. But ye must immediately restore all that ye have stolen. Go straightway, and carry the forty chests exactly as ye found them, and bury them a foot deep under the southern wall of the old ruined Hemmâm, beyond the king”s palace. If ye do this punctually, your lives are spared; but if ye fail in the slightest degree, destruction will fall upon you and your families.”
The thieves promised obedience to his commands and departed. Ahmed then fell on his knees, and returned thanks to God for this signal mark of his favour. About two hours after the royal guards came, and desired Ahmed to follow them. He said he would attend them as soon as he had taken leave of his wife, to whom he determined not to impart what had occurred until he saw the result. He bade her farewell very affectionately; she supported herself with great fortitude on this trying occasion, exhorting her husband to be of good cheer, and said a few words about the goodness of Providence. But the fact was, Sittâra fancied that if God took the worthy cobbler to himself, her beauty might attract some rich lover, who would enable her to go to the Hemmâm with as much splendour as the astrologer”s lady, whose image, adorned with jewels and fine clothes, and surrounded by slaves, still haunted her imagination.
The decrees of Heaven are just: a reward suited to their merits awaited Ahmed and his wife. The good man stood with a cheerful countenance before the king, who was impatient for his arrival, and immediately said, “Ahmed, thy looks are promising; hast thou discovered my treasure?”
“Does your Majesty require the thieves or the treasure? The stars will only grant one or the other,” said Ahmed, looking at his table of astrological calculations. “Your Majesty must make your choice. I can deliver up either, but not both.”
“I should be sorry not to punish the thieves,” answered the king; “but if it must be so, I choose the treasure.”
“And you give the thieves a full and free pardon?”
“I do, provided I find my treasure untouched.”
“Then,” said Ahmed, “if your majesty will follow me, the treasure shall be restored to you.”
The king and all his nobles followed the cobbler to the ruins of the old Hemmâm. There, casting his eyes towards heaven, Ahmed muttered some sounds, which were supposed by the spectators to be magical conjurations, but which were in reality the prayers and thanksgivings of a sincere and pious heart to God for his wonderful deliverance. When his prayer was finished, he pointed to the southern wall, and requested that his majesty would order his attendants to dig there. The work was hardly begun, when the whole forty chests were found in the same state as when stolen, with the treasurer”s seal upon them still unbroken.
The king”s joy knew no bounds; he embraced Ahmed, and immediately appointed him his chief astrologer, assigned to him an apartment in the palace, and declared that he should marry his only daughter, as it was his duty to promote the man whom God had so singularly favoured, and had made instrumental in restoring the treasures of his kingdom. The young princess, who was more beautiful than the moon, was not dissatisfied with her father”s choice; for her mind was stored with religion and virtue, and she had learnt to value beyond all earthly qualities that piety and learning which she believed Ahmed to possess. The royal will was carried into execution as soon as formed. The wheel of fortune had taken a complete turn. The morning had found Ahmed in a wretched hovel, rising from a sorry bed, in the expectation of losing his life; in the evening he was the lord of a rich palace, and married to the only daughter of a powerful king. But this change did not alter his character. As he had been meek and humble in adversity, he was modest and gentle in prosperity. Conscious of his own ignorance, he continued to ascribe his good fortune solely to the favour of Providence. He became daily more attached to the beautiful and virtuous princess whom he had married; and he could not help contrasting her character with that of his former wife, whom he had ceased to love, and of whose unreasonable and unfeeling vanity he was now fully sensible.