Home  »  library  »  prose  »  From ‘The History of King Omar Ben Ennuman, and his Sons Sherkan and Zoulmekan’

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From ‘The History of King Omar Ben Ennuman, and his Sons Sherkan and Zoulmekan’

By The Arabian Nights

Nights 15, 16, 17, and 18: Translation of John Payne

The Meeting of Prince Sherkan and Princess Abrizeh

THERE reigned once in the City of Peace [Bagdad], before the Khalifate of Abdulmelik ben Merwan, a king called Omar ben Ennuman, who was of the mighty giants, and had subdued the kings of Persia and the emperors of the East, for none could warm himself at his fire nor cope with him in battle; and when he was angry there came sparks out of his nostrils. He had gotten him dominion over all countries, and God had subjected unto him all creatures; his commands were obeyed in all the great cities, and his armies penetrated the most distant lands: the East and West came under his rule, with the regions between them, Hind and Sind and China and Hejaz and Yemen and the islands of India and China, Syria and Mesopotamia and the lands of the blacks and the islands of the ocean, and all the famous rivers of the earth, Jaxartes and Bactrus and Nile and Euphrates. He sent his ambassadors to the farthest parts of the earth to fetch him true report, and they returned with tidings of justice and peace, bringing him assurance of loyalty and obedience, and invocations of blessings on his head; for he was a right noble king, and there came to him gifts and tribute from all parts of the world. He had a son called Sherkan, who was one of the prodigies of the age and the likest of all men to his father, who loved him with an exceeding love and had appointed him to be king after him. The prince grew up till he reached man’s estate, and was twenty years old, and God subjected all men to him, for he was gifted with great might and prowess in battle, humbling the champions and destroying all who made head against him. So, before long, this Sherkan became famous in all quarters of the world, and his father rejoiced in him; and his might waxed till he passed all bounds, and magnified himself, taking by storm the citadels and strong places.

[The Prince being sent to assist King Afridoun, of the Greeks, against an enemy, is intrusted with an army of ten thousand soldiers, and leaves Bagdad in military state.]

Then they loaded the beasts and beat the drums and blew the clarions and unfurled the banners and the standards, whilst Sherkan mounted, with the Vizier Dendan by his side, and the standards waving over them; and the army set out and fared on with the [Greek] ambassadors in the van till the day departed and the night came, when they halted and encamped for the night. On the morrow, as soon as God brought in the day, they took horse and continued their march, nor did they cease to press onward, guided by the ambassadors, for the space of twenty days. On the twenty-first day, at nightfall, they came to a wide and fertile valley whose sides were thickly wooded and covered with grass, and there Sherkan called a three-days’ halt. So they dismounted and pitched their tents, dispersing right and left in the valley, whilst the Vizier Dendan and the ambassadors alighted in the midst.

As for Sherkan, when he had seen the tents pitched and the troops dispersed on either side, and had commanded his officers and attendants to camp beside the Vizier Dendan, he gave reins to his horse, being minded to explore the valley, and himself to mount guard over the army, having regard to his father’s injunctions and to the fact that they had reached the frontier of the Land of Roum and were now in the enemy’s country. So he rode on alone, along the valley, till a fourth part of the night was past, when he grew weary and sleep overcame him so that he could no longer spur his horse. Now he was used to sleep on horseback; so when drowsiness got the better of him, he fell asleep, and the horse paced on with him half the night and entered a forest: but Sherkan awoke not till the steed smote the earth with his hoof. Then he started from sleep and found himself among trees: and the moon arose and lighted the two horizons. He was troubled at finding himself alone in this place, and spoke the words which whoso says shall never be confounded—that is to say, “There is no power and no virtue but in GOD, the most High, the Supreme!” But as he rode on, in fear of the wild beasts, behold the trees thinned out, and the moon shone out upon a meadow as it were one of the meads of paradise, and he heard therein the noise of talk and pleasant laughter, such as ravishes the wit of men. So King Sherkan dismounted, and tying his horse to a tree, fared on a little further, till he espied a stream of running water, and heard a woman talking and saying in Arabic, “By the virtue of the Messiah, this is not handsome of you! But whoso speaks the word I will throw her down and bind her with her girdle!” He followed in the direction of the voice, and saw gazelles frisking and wild cattle pasturing, and birds in their various voices expressing joy and gladness; and the earth was embroidered with all manner flowers and green herbs, even as says of it the poet, in the following verses:—

  • Earth has no fairer sight to show than this its
  • blossom-time, With all the gently running streams
  • that wander o’er its face,
  • It is indeed the handiwork of God Omnipotent, The
  • Lord of every noble gift, and Giver of all grace!
  • Midmost the meadow stood a monastery, and within the inclosure a citadel that rose high into the air in the light of the moon. The stream passed through the midst of the monastery; and therenigh sat ten damsels like moons, high-bosomed maids clad in dresses and ornaments that dazzled the eyes, as says of them the poet:—

  • The meadow glitters with the troops Of lovely ones
  • that wander there;
  • Its grace and beauty doubled are By these that are
  • so passing fair;
  • Virgins, that with their swimming gait, The hearts of
  • all that see ensnare,
  • Along whose necks, like trails of grapes, Stream down
  • the tresses of their hair;
  • Proudly they walk, with eyes that dart The shafts and
  • arrows of despair,
  • And all the champions of the world Are slain by
  • their seductive air.
  • Sherkan looked at the ten girls, and saw in their midst a lady like the moon at its full, with ringleted and shining forehead, great black eyes and curling brow-locks, perfect in person and attributes, as says the poet:—

  • Her beauty beamed on me with glances wonder-bright: The slender Syrian spears are not so straight and slight:
  • She laid her veil aside, and, lo, her cheeks rose-red! All manner of loveliness was in their sweetest sight
  • The locks that o’er her brow fell down, were like the night, From out of which there shines a morning of delight.
  • Then Sherkan heard her say to the girls, “Come on, that I may wrestle with you, ere the moon set and the dawn come.” So they came up to her, one after another, and she overthrew them, one by one, and bound their hands behind them, with their girdles. When she had thrown them all, there turned to her an old woman who was before her, and said, as if she were wroth with her, “O shameless! dost thou glory in overthrowing these girls? Behold, I am an old woman, yet have I thrown them forty times! So what hast thou to boast of? But if thou have strength to wrestle with me, stand up that I may grip thee, and put thy head between thy feet.” The young lady smiled at her words, although her heart was full of anger against her, and said, “O my lady Dhat ed Dewahi, wilt indeed wrestle with me—or dost thou jest with me?” “I mean to wrestle with thee in very deed,” replied she. “Stand up to me then,” said the damsel, “if thou have strength to do so!” When the old woman heard this she was sore enraged, and her hair stood on end like that of a hedgehog. Then she sprang up, whilst the damsel confronted her … and they took hold of one another, whilst Sherkan raised his eyes to heaven and prayed to God that the damsel might conquer the old hag. Presently … the old woman strove to free herself, and in the struggle wriggled out of the girl’s hands and fell on her back … and behold the young lady … throwing over her a veil of fine silk, helped her to dress herself, making excuses to her and saying, “O my lady Dhat ed Dewahi, I did not mean to throw thee so roughly, but thou wriggledst out of my hands; so praised be God for safety.” She returned her no answer, but rose in her confusion and walked away out of sight, leaving the young lady standing alone, by the other girls thrown down and bound.

    Then said Sherkan, “To every fortune there is a cause. Sleep fell not on me, nor did the steed bear me hither but for my good fortune; for of a surety this damsel and what is with her shall be my prize.” So he turned back and mounted, and drew his scimitar; then he gave his horse the spur and he started off with him like an arrow from a bow, whilst he brandished his naked blade and cried out, “God is most great!” When the damsel saw him she sprang to her feet, and running to the bank of the river, which was there six cubits wide, made a spring and landed on the other side, where she turned, and standing cried out in a loud voice, “Who art thou, sirrah, that breakest in on our pasture as if thou wert charging an army? Whence comest thou and whither art thou bound? Speak the truth and it shall profit thee, and do not lie, for lying is of the losel’s fashion. Doubtless thou hast strayed this night from thy road, that thou hast happened on this place. So tell me what thou seekest: if thou wouldst have us set thee in the right road, we will do so; or if thou seek help we will help thee.”

    When Sherkan heard her words he replied, “I am a stranger of the Muslims, who am come out by myself in quest of booty, and I have found no fairer purchase this moonlit night than these ten damsels; so I will take them and rejoin my comrades with them.” Quoth she, “I would have thee to know that thou hast not yet come at the booty; and as for these ten damsels, by Allah, they are no purchase for thee! Indeed the fairest purchase thou canst look for is to win free of this place: for thou art in a mead, where, if we gave one cry, there would be with us anon four thousand knights. Did I not tell thee that lying is shameful?” And he said, “The fortunate man is he to whom God sufficeth, and who hath no need of other than him.” “By the virtue of the Messiah,” replied she, “did I not fear to have thy death at my hand, I would give a cry that would fill the meadow on thee, with horse and foot! but I have pity on the stranger; so, if thou seek booty, I require of thee that thou dismount from thy horse, and swear to me by thy faith that thou wilt not approach me with aught of arms, and we will wrestle—I and thou. If thou throw me, lay me on thy horse and take all of us to thy booty; and if I throw thee, thou shalt be at my commandment. Swear this to me; for I fear thy perfidy, since experience has it that as long as perfidy is in men’s natures, to trust in every one is weakness. But if thou wilt swear I will come over to thee.” Quoth Sherkan, “Impose on me whatever oath thou deemest binding, and I will swear not to draw near thee until thou hast made thy preparations, and sayest ‘Come wrestle with me.’ If thou throw me I have wealth wherewith to ransom myself, and if I throw thee I shall get fine purchase.” Then said she, “Swear to me by Him who hath lodged the soul in the body and given laws to mankind that thou wilt not hurt me with aught of violence save in the way of wrestling—else mayest thou die out of the pale of Islam.” “By Allah,” exclaimed Sherkan, “if a Cadi should swear me, though he were Cadi of the Cadis, he would not impose on me the like of this oath!” Then he took the oath she required, and tied his horse to a tree, sunken in the sea of reverie, and saying in himself, “Glory to Him who fashioned her!” Then he girt himself, and made ready for wrestling, and said to her, “Cross the stream to me.” Quoth she, “It is not for me to come to thee; if thou wilt, do thou cross over to me.” “I cannot do that,” replied he; and she said, “O boy! I will come to thee.” So she gathered her skirts, and making a spring landed on the other side of the river by him; whereupon he drew near to her, wondering at her beauty and grace, and saw a form that the hand of Omnipotence had turned with the leaves of Jinn, and which had been fostered by divine solicitude, a form on which the zephyrs of fair fortune had blown, and over whose creation favorable planets had presided. Then she called out to him saying, “O Muslim, come and wrestle before the daybreak!” and tucked up her sleeves, showing a fore-arm like fresh curd; the whole place was lighted up by its whiteness and Sherkan was dazzled by it. Then he bent forward and clapped his hands, and she did the like, and they took hold and gripped each other. He laid his hands on her slender waist … and fell a trembling like the Persian reed in the hurricane. So she lifted him up, and throwing him to the ground sat down on his breast. Then she said to him, “O Muslim, it is lawful among you to kill Christians: what sayest thou to my killing thee?” “O my lady,” replied he, “as for killing me, it is unlawful; for our Prophet (whom God bless and preserve!) hath forbidden the slaying of women and children and old men and monks.” “Since this was revealed unto your prophet,” rejoined she, “it behooves us to be even with him therein; so rise: I give thee thy life, for beneficence is not lost upon men.” Then she got up, and he rose and brushed the earth from his head, and she said to him, “Be not abashed; but indeed one who enters the land of the Greeks in quest of booty and to succor kings against kings, how comes it that there is no strength in him to defend himself against a woman?” “It was not lack of strength in me,” replied he, “nor was it thy strength that overthrew me, but thy beauty; so if thou wilt, grant me another bout, it will be of thy favor.” She laughed and said, “I grant thee this: but these damsels have been long bound, and their arms and shoulders are weary, and it were fitting I should loose them, since this next bout may peradventure be a long one.” Then she went up to the girls, and unbinding them said to them in the Greek tongue, “Go and put yourselves in safety, till I have brought to naught this Muslim.” So they went away, whilst Sherkan looked at them, and they gazed at him and the young lady. Then he and she drew near again and set to…. But [again by admiration of her beauty] his strength failed him, and she feeling this, lifted him in her hands swifter than the blinding lightning and threw him to the ground. He fell on his back, and she said to him, “Rise: I give thee thy life a second time. I spared thee before for the sake of thy prophet, for that he forbade the killing of women, and I do so this second time because of thy weakness and tender age, and strangerhood: but I charge thee, if there be in the army sent by King Omar ben Ennuman a stronger than thou, send him hither and tell him of me.” “By Allah, O my lady,” replied Sherkan (and indeed he was greatly incensed against her), “it was not by thy strength that thou overthrewest me, but by [thy beauty], so that nor wit nor foresight was left in me. But now, if thou have a mind to try another fall with me, with my wits about me, I have a right to this one bout more by the rules of the game, for my presence of mind has now returned to me.” “Hast thou not had enough of wrestling, O conquered one?” rejoined she. “However, come, if thou wilt: but know that this bout must be the last.” Then they took hold of each other, and he set to in earnest and warded himself against being thrown down: so they wrestled awhile and the damsel found in him strength such as she had not before observed, and said to him, “O Muslim, thou art on thy guard!” “Yes,” replied he, “thou knowest that there remaineth but this bout, and after each of us will go his own way.” She laughed and he laughed too: then she seized the opportunity to bore in upon him unawares, and gripping him by the thigh, threw him to the ground, so that he fell on his back. She laughed at him and said, “Thou art surely an eater of bran: for thou art like a Bedouin bonnet that falls off at a touch, or a child’s toy that a puff of air overturns. Out on thee, thou poor creature! Go back to the army of the Muslims and send us other than thyself, for thou lackest thews; and cry as among the Arabs and Persians and Turks and Medes, ‘Whoso has might in him let him come to us!’” Then she made a spring and landed on the other side of the stream and said to Sherkan laughing, “It goes to my heart to part with thee! get thee to thy friends, O my lord, before the morning, lest the knights come upon thee and take thee on the points of their lances. Thou hast not strength enough to defend thee against women; so how couldst thou make head against men and cavaliers!” And she turned to go back to the monastery. Sherkan was confounded, and called out to her, saying “O my lady! Wilt thou go away, and leave the wretched stranger, the broken-hearted slave of love?” So she turned to him laughing, and said, “What wouldst thou? I grant thy prayer.” “Have I set foot in thy country and tasted the sweetness of thy favors,” replied Sherkan, “and shall I return without eating of thy victual and tasting of thy hospitality? Indeed, I am become one of thy servitors.” Quoth she, “None but the base refuses hospitality: on my head and eyes be it! Do me the favor to mount and ride along the stream, abreast of me, for thou art my guest.” At this Sherkan rejoiced, and hastening back to his horse, mounted and rode along the river-bank, keeping abreast of her, till he came to a drawbridge that hung by pulleys and chains of steel, made fast with hooks and padlocks. Here stood the ten damsels awaiting the lady, who spoke to one of them in the Greek tongue and said to her, “Go to him; take his horse’s rein and bring him over into the monastery.”… They went on till they reached a vaulted gate, arched over with marble. This she opened, and entered with Sherkan into a long vestibule, vaulted with ten arches, from each of which hung a lamp of crystal, shining like the rays of the sun. The damsels met her at the end of the vestibule, bearing perfumed flambeaux and having on their heads kerchiefs embroidered with all manner of jewels, and went on before her, till they came to the inward of the monastery, where Sherkan saw couches set up all around, facing one another and overhung with curtains spangled with gold. The floor was paved with all kinds of variegated marbles, and in the midst was a basin of water with four and twenty spouts of gold around it from which issued water like liquid silver; whilst at the upper end stood a throne covered with silks of royal purple. Then said the damsel, “O my lord, mount this throne.” So he seated himself on it, and she withdrew: and when she had been absent awhile, he asked the servants of her, and they said, “She hath gone to her sleeping-chamber; but we will serve thee as thou shalt order.” So they set before him rare meats, and he ate till he was satisfied, when they brought him a basin of gold and an ewer of silver and he washed his hands. Then his mind reverted to his troops, and he was troubled, knowing not what had befallen them in his absence and thinking how he had forgotten his father’s injunctions, so that he abode, oppressed with anxiety and repenting of what he had done, till the dawn broke and the day appeared, when he lamented and sighed and became drowned in the sea of melancholy, repeating the following verses:—

  • “I lack not of prudence, and yet in this case, I’ve been fooled; so what shift shall avail unto me?
  • If any could ease me of love and its stress, Of my might and my virtue I’d set myself free.
  • But alas! my heart’s lost in maze of desire, And no helper save God in my strait can I see.
  • Hardly had he finished when up came more than twenty damsels like moons, encompassing the young lady, who appeared among them as the full moon among stars. She was clad in royal brocade, and girt with a woven girdle set with various kinds of jewels that straitly clasped her waist…. On her head she wore a network of pearls, gemmed with various kinds of jewels, and she moved with a coquettish, swimming gait, swaying wonder-gracefully, whilst the damsels held up her skirts…. She fixed her eyes on him, and considered him awhile, till she was assured of him, when she came up to him and said, “Indeed the place is honored and illumined with thy presence, O Sherkan! How didst thou pass the night, O hero, after we went away and left thee? Verily, lying is a defect and a reproach in kings; especially in great kings: and thou art Sherkan, son of King Omar ben Ennuman; so henceforth tell me naught but truth, and strive not to keep the secret of thy condition, for falsehood engenders hatred and enmity. The arrow of destiny hath fallen upon thee, and it behooves thee to show resignation and submission.” When Sherkan heard what she said, he saw nothing for it but to tell her the truth: so he said, “I am indeed Sherkan, son of Omar ben Ennuman; whom fortune hath afflicted and cast into this place: so now do whatsoever thou wilt.”