The Tale of Caliph Stork
A LARGE caravan was moving slowly across the desert. Afar off over the immense plain, where sand and sky alone were to be seen, could be heard the sound of the camels' bells and the jingle of the horses' harness; a great cloud of dust arose, and when this was blown asunder by a sudden breeze the eye became dazzled by the glittering of weapons and the gleaming of bright raiment. It was thus that the caravan appeared to a man who was riding towards it from the side. He was mounted on a superb Arab covered with a tiger's skin; the dark-red trappings were hung with little silver bells; and over the animal's head waved a splendid plume of herons' feathers. The rider himself was of stately appearance, and his dress corresponded to the gorgeous caparison of his horse: a white turban, richly embroidered in gold, formed his headgear; his coat and wide trousers were of brilliant red; and a scimitar with a finely-mounted hilt hung at his side. The turban was drawn low over his face; this, and the dark eyes that flashed from under the bushy eyebrows, and the long beard that hung down under his hooked nose, gave him a bold and savage appearance. When the rider was within fifty paces or so of the caravan he spurred forward his horse, and in a few minutes had come up with the vanguard. It was such an unusual thing to see a man traversing the desert alone that the men belonging to the escort lowered the points of their lances. Seeing himself received in so hostile a fashion, the rider called out: "What is that for? Do you imagine that one man by himself would try to attack your caravan?"
The men looked ashamed, and raised their weapons; while their leader stepped forward to the stranger and asked him what he wanted of them.
"Who is the owner of the caravan?" asked the rider.
"It does not belong to any single person," was the answer, "but to a company of merchants who are returning home from Mecca, and whom we are escorting through the desert, for travellers are often molested along the way by rabble of various kinds."
"Conduct me, then, to these merchants," said the rider.
"That is impossible just now," replied the other, "for we have to travel on without pause, and the merchants are nearly a mile behind us; if, however, you will ride on with me until we encamp for our midday rest, I shall be able then to attend to your wishes."
The stranger made no answer, but drawing out a long pipe, which he had fastened to the saddle, began smoking in great puffs, meanwhile riding on beside the captain of the escort. The latter scarcely knew what to make of the stranger, but did not venture to ask him point-blank what his name was, and to all his skilful attempts at drawing him into conversation, with such remarks as "That is an excellent tobacco you are smoking" or "That black horse of yours steps well," he got nothing in return but a curt "Yes, yes." At last they reached the point where they were to halt for their midday rest. The captain, having stationed his men on guard, returned to the stranger, to wait with him till the remainder of the caravan came up. Thirty camels, heavily laden, their drivers all armed, first went by; these were followed by the five merchants to whom the caravan belonged, mounted on beautiful horses: they were mostly men of advanced age, of grave and sedate appearance, but there was one among them who seemed younger, gayer, and livelier than the rest; finally, a large number of camels and pack-horses brought up the rear.
The tents had been pitched, and the camels and horses fastened in a circle outside. In the middle stood one large tent of blue silk cloth, and towards this the captain of the escort now conducted the stranger. On stepping within through the curtains they saw the five merchants, who, seated on cushions of cloth of gold, were being served with food and drink by black slaves.
"Whom do you bring us here?" the young merchant called out; but before the other man had time to answer the stranger said: "I am Selim Baruch, and I come from Bagdad; on my way to Mecca I was seized and imprisoned by a band of robbers, and only three days ago managed to escape. The great Prophet brought the sound of your camel bells to me from afar, and so it is that I have arrived in your midst. I now beg you to allow me to continue my journey in your company; you will bestow your protection on no unworthy object, and on reaching Bagdad your kindness will be richly repaid, for I am the nephew of the Grand Vizier."
The eldest of the merchants now spoke. "Selim Baruch," he said, "you are welcome to our protection; it is a pleasure to us to be of assistance to you; and now, before you do anything else, sit down, and eat and drink with us."
So Selim Baruch sat down, and ate and drank with the merchants. When the meal was finished, the slaves removed the dishes and drinking-vessels, and brought in long pipes and Turkish sherbet. For a long time the merchants sat without speaking, puffing out the blue clouds of smoke, and watching them as they formed into rings, broke, and finally dispersed into the air.
The young merchant at last interrupted the silence. "We have been sitting like this," he said, "either on horseback or at meals for the last three days without attempting to do anything to amuse ourselves. I begin to feel painfully affected by the monotony, for I am accustomed after my meals to be entertained with dancing or with music and singing. Can you think of nothing, my friends, wherewith we might beguile the time?"
The four elder merchants went on with their smoking, apparently still lost in meditation, but the stranger answered: "If I may be allowed to do so, I would make a suggestion. My proposal is that at each halting-place one of us should tell a tale; this would certainly help to lesson the tedium of our journey."
"Selim Baruch, you have spoken well," responded Achmed, the eldest of the company; "let us all agree to this that is proposed."
"I am glad that my suggestion has pleased you," said Selim; "and, that you may be assured that I do not make it with any idea of not taking a fair share in the story-telling, I myself will be the one to begin."
Delighted at this, the five merchants drew their seats together, and made the stranger sit in the middle; the slaves filled up the drinking-cups, refilled the pipes, and brought in live coals to light them with.
Selim took a long pull at the sherbet to clear his voice, stroked his beard aside, and said: "Listen, then, to the tale of Caliph Stork."
The Tale of Caliph Stork
C ALIPH CHASID of Bagdad was sitting comfortably on his sofa one beautiful afternoon; he had slept for a little while, for the day was hot; and now, after his short nap, he looked remarkably cheerful. He was smoking a long rosewood pipe, now and again taking a sip of coffee, which a slave poured out for him, and complacently stroking his beard as he found the taste agreeable. In short, one had only to look at the Caliph to see that he was thoroughly enjoying his ease. This was a good hour to talk with him, as he was always mild and affable, and so the Grand Vizier Mansor chose this time to pay him his daily visit. He came as usual this afternoon, but, contrary to custom, looked extremely thoughtful.
The Caliph drew his pipe a little way out of his mouth, and said: "Why are you wearing such a long face, Grand Vizier?"
The Grand Vizier crossed his arms over his breast, bowed low before his master, and answered: "Sire, how my face looks I cannot tell, but I know that down below by the castle there is a pedlar with such beautiful things to sell that I am beyond measure vexed at not having plenty of superfluous money to spend."
The Caliph, who for some time past had been wishing to procure his Grand Vizier a pleasure of some kind, sent one of his slaves to bring up the pedlar. The latter was a short, thick-set man, dressed in ragged clothing; he carried a box in which he had all sorts of wares, beads and rings, richly-mounted pistols, goblets, and combs. The Caliph and his Vizier examined all the wares, and finally the Caliph bought beautiful pistols for himself and Mansor, and a comb for the Vizier's wife. As the pedlar was about to fasten up his box the Caliph caught sight of a little drawer, and asked if there were yet more things in that. The man pulled out the drawer, and showed within it a box containing some darkish-looking powder, and a paper written over in curious characters which neither the Caliph nor Mansor could read.
"I got these two things one day from a merchant, who had picked them up in the street at Mecca," said the pedlar. "I do not know what they are, and you are welcome to them both for a trifle, as they are of no use to me."
The Caliph, who liked to stock his library with old manuscripts, although he could not read them himself, bought both the box and the script, and then dismissed the pedlar. But the Caliph thought that he should like to know what the writing was about, and asked the Vizier if he knew of anyone who could decipher it.
"Most gracious Lord and Master," replied the latter, "a man known as Selim the Learned lives at the Mosque, who understands all languages. Let him be sent for; he may, perhaps, know the meaning of these mysterious characters."
The learned Selim was quickly brought into the presence of the Caliph. "Selim," the latter said to him, "you are a learned man; look at this paper, and see if you are able to read it. If you can interpret the writing you will receive a new holiday robe; if not you will receive twelve boxes on the ear and five and twenty blows on the soles of the feet, for you will without reason have been called learned."
Selim bowed, and said: "Let it be as thou commandest, my Lord!" Then he took the paper, and, after examining it for some time, he exclaimed: "If it is not Latin, my Lord, you may hang me!"
"If it is Latin then let me know what is in it," ordered the Caliph.
Selim thereupon translated as follows:—"Whosoever thou art, O man, that findest this, praise Allah for his goodness. He who shall take a pinch of the powder in this box, and, so doing, say the word 'Mutabor' will be able to transform himself into any animal he pleases, and at the same time will be able to understand the speech of animals. When he wishes to re‑enter his human form he must bow himself three times towards the east, saying the same word. But let him beware of laughing after he has transformed himself, or the magic word will entirely slip from his memory, and he will remain an animal."
The Caliph was highly delighted to hear what Selim read; made him swear not to reveal the secret to anyone; and, presenting him with a handsome robe, dismissed him. Then the Caliph turned to his Grand Vizier, and said: "I call that a good bargain, Mansor! How I shall amuse myself with thinking of becoming an animal! Be here early to‑morrow morning, and then we will go together into the fields, and take a pinch of powder out of my box, and after that we can listen, and hear all that is being said in the air and in the water, in wood and field."
T HE Caliph Chasid had hardly finished his breakfast and dressed himself next morning before the Grand Vizier arrived, to accompany his master on his walk, as commanded. The Caliph stuck the box with the magic powder into his girdle, ordered his retainers to remain behind, and then started off alone with his Grand Vizier.
They passed first through the Caliph's spacious garden, but they looked about in vain for any living thing wherewith to make trial of their experiment. At last the Vizier proposed that they should walk on farther to a pond, where he had often seen many living things, especially storks, that had always attracted his attention by their solemn behaviour and continual clatter.
The Caliph agreed to this proposal, and they went together to the pond. As they drew near to it they saw a stork walking gravely backwards and forwards, looking for frogs, and now and then clattering aloud to himself; at the same time they could see another stork, far up above them in the air, sailing down towards the same spot.
"I'll bet my beard upon it, my Lord," said the Grand Vizier, "that these two long-legs are at this moment having quite a conversation with each other. How would it be if we turned ourselves into storks?"
"Well said!" answered the Caliph. "But before we do so let us once more remind ourselves how we are to become men again. Just so! Bow three times towards the east, and say 'Mutabor,' and I am once more Caliph and you Vizier. But for Heaven's sake remember not to laugh, or we shall be done for!"
As the Caliph was speaking the other stork could be seen hovering over their heads and slowly descending. The Caliph quickly pulled out his box, took a good pinch of powder, handed it to the Vizier, who did the same, and then both called out "Mutabor"!
Their legs immediately dwindled and became slender and red; the beautiful yellow slippers of the Caliph and his companion turned into storks' feet, their arms became wings, the neck stretched itself out from the shoulders and grew a yard long, the beard disappeared, and their bodies were covered with soft white feathers.
"You have got a fine bill, and no mistake, Grand Vizier," said the Caliph after he had recovered from his first astonishment. "By the beard of the Prophet I have never seen anything like it before in my life."
"I thank you most humbly," replied the Grand Vizier, bowing at the same time; "but if I might venture to make the remark I should say that your Highness looks, if possible, more charming as a stork than as a Caliph. But come, if it so pleases you, that we may listen, and find out if we really understand stork language."
In the meanwhile the other stork had alighted, and after first trimming his feet with his bill, and setting his feathers to rights, he walked up to the first stork.
The two new storks made haste to get near them,
when, to their surprise, they heard the following
"Good morning, Mrs. Longleg; so early out in the meadow?"
"Many thanks, dear Clapperbill! I have provided a little breakfast for myself; would you, perhaps, care for a small piece of lizard or a frog's leg?"
"I thank you extremely; but to‑day I seem to have no appetite. It was for quite a different purpose that I came into the meadow, for to‑day I have to dance before my father's guests, and I thought I could get a little quiet practice here."
Thereupon the young lady stork began walking about the grass, making the most extraordinary movements. The Caliph and Mansor looked on in amazement, and when at last she put herself into a picturesque attitude, standing on one foot, and gracefully waving her wings, they could neither of them any longer restrain their amusement, and they burst out into irrepressible laughter, from which it was some time before they could recover themselves. The Caliph was the first to be able to speak: "That was, indeed, a droll performance, which no money could pay for. It's a pity our laughter has frightened away the foolish things or they would certainly have given us a song!"
But now the Vizier suddenly remembered that they had been warned not to laugh while in their new forms, and he communicated his alarm to the Caliph.
"By Mecca and Medina! It will have been a bad joke for me if I have to remain a stork. Do you remember the wretched word? I cannot for the life of me think of it."
"We are to bow three times towards the east, and
They both turned to the east, and kept on bowing
till their bills nearly touched the ground; but, alas!
the magic word had quite slipped from their memory,
and, often as the Caliph bowed, often as the Vizier
desperately called out "Mu—
T HE two bewitched men went wandering through the fields, not knowing what to be about in their trouble. They could not get away from their stork skins, nor could they return into the town to make themselves known; for who would believe a stork that said he was the Caliph, and even if he were believed, would the people of Bagdad be willing to have a stork for their Caliph?
So they crept about for several days, making scanty meals of the wild fruits, which they did not find easy to eat with their long bills; they could not get up an appetite for lizards and frogs, and were afraid of spoiling their stomachs with these dainties. The only pleasure they found in their miserable condition was that they could fly, and so they often flew over the roofs of Bagdad to see what was going on there.
For a day or two they noticed signs of great commotion and distress about the streets, but on the fourth day, as they were sitting on the Caliph's palace, they saw a magnificent procession passing along in the street below. Drums and fifes were heard, and a man clad in a scarlet, gold-embroidered mantle rode along on a grandly accoutred horse, surrounded on all sides by gorgeously dressed attendants. Half Bagdad came running up behind, and everybody was shouting: "Hail, Mirza! Hail to the Lord of Bagdad!" Then the two storks on the roof of the palace exchanged glances, and the Caliph Chasid said: "Have you a suspicion now, Grand Vizier, why I was put under this spell? This Mirza is the son of my deadly enemy, the powerful magician Kaschnur, who, in an evil hour, swore to take his revenge on me. But I do not yet give up hope. Come with me, thou faithful companion of my misfortune, and we will make our way to the tomb of the Prophet. Maybe that at that holy spot we shall be released from this spell."
They rose from the palace roof, and flew in the direction of Medina.
But flying was not such an easy matter for them, for neither of the storks had had much practice.
"O my Lord," groaned the Grand Vizier when they had been journeying for about an hour or two, "with your permission, I cannot hold out any longer; you fly much too quickly! The evening, too, is already closing in, and we should do well to be looking for a shelter for the night."
Chasid gave ear to his minister's entreaty, and, seeing in the valley below a ruin which seemed to promise them protection, they directed their course thither. The place where they now settled themselves for the night appeared to have been formerly a castle. Beautiful pillars arose among the ruins, and several of the rooms, which were still to some extent in good preservation, testified to the former splendour of the building. Chasid and his companion went up and down the passages to find a dry place for themselves. Suddenly stork Mansor stood still. "My Lord and Master," he whispered in a low voice, "if it were not too ridiculous for a Grand Vizier, and still more for a stork, to be afraid of ghosts, I should feel dreadfully uncomfortable, for I distinctly heard close to us a sound of sighing and groaning." Whereupon the Caliph also stood still, and he too could distinctly hear a low moaning, that seemed to come rather from some human being than from an animal.
Full of curiosity, the Caliph moved forward in the direction whence the sounds proceeded; but the Vizier caught hold of his wing with his bill, beseeching him not to rush into new and unknown dangers. In vain; the Caliph, whose heart still beat bravely beneath his stork's wings, tore himself away, with the loss of a few feathers, and hurried along a dark passage. Ere long he came to a door, apparently only on the latch, from the farther side of which came unmistakable sighs and an occasional wail. He pushed open the door with his bill, but paused on the threshold, overcome with surprise. There on the floor of the dilapidated room, only dimly lighted by a small grated window, sat a large screech-owl. Big tears were rolling down out of the large round eyes, and with a hoarse voice she uttered her cries of distress from her crooked beak. When, however, she caught sight of the Caliph and his Vizier, who had meanwhile followed quietly up behind, she gave a shriek of joy. She gracefully wiped away her tears with her brown speckled wings, and to the great astonishment of the other two called out in a human voice, and in good Arabic: "Welcome, storks; I see in you a sign of my deliverance, for it was once foretold me that a great happiness would come to me through storks!"
As soon as the Caliph had recovered from his surprise he made her a bow with his long neck, and, bringing his thin feet into an elegant position, said: "Owl! I gather from your words that I may presume to look upon you as a companion in suffering. But, alas! the hope you express of obtaining deliverance through us is a vain one; you will yourself understand how helpless we are when you have heard our story."
The owl begged him to tell her the story, and the Caliph, thereupon, related to her that which we already know.
W HEN the Caliph had finished his tale the owl thanked him, and said: "Listen now to my history, and you will see that I am not less unhappy than you. My father is the King of India, and I, his only and unfortunate daughter, am called Lusa. The magician Kaschnur, who has bewitched you, has also plunged me into this misery. He came one day to see my father, and asked for me as a wife for his son Mirza; but my father, who is a hot-tempered man, had him thrown downstairs. The wretch knew how to come sneaking into my neighbourhood in an assumed form; and one day, when I had called for refreshments in my garden, he came to me, dressed as a slave, and brought me a drink, which transformed me into this horrible shape. As he carried me here, fainting with fear, he shrieked into my ears with his hideous voice: 'There you shall remain, ugly one, looked upon with derision by the very animals, until you die, or until someone of his own free will asks you, even in the frightful shape you now wear, to be his wife. So I revenge myself on you and on your proud father.'
"Many months have passed since then; sad and lonely, I spend my days, like a hermit, within these walls, abhorred by the world, an object of aversion to the animals; the beauties of nature are hid from me, for I can see nothing by day, and the concealing veil only falls from my eyes when the moon is shedding her pale light upon these ruins."
The owl broke off, and again wiped her eyes with her wing, for the relation of her sorrows had once more opened the floodgates of her tears.
On hearing the Princess' tale the Caliph had become buried in deep thought. "If I am not deceived by everything," he said, "there is some secret connection between your misfortune and my own; but where shall we find the key to this riddle?"
The owl made answer; "My Lord, I also suspect this; for when I was but a child a wise woman foretold that a stork would bring me some great happiness, and it is possible that I may know how we can procure our deliverance." The Caliph was very much astonished on hearing this, and asked her what she meant. "Once every month the magician who has done us both this injury pays a visit to these ruins. Not far from this room there is a dining-hall, and there he and several of his friends make a custom of feasting. I have often watched them; they tell one another what shameful things they have done, and, perhaps, he might let out the magic word which you have forgotten."
"O dearest Princess," cried the Caliph, "tell me, when does he come, and where is the dining-hall?"
The owl did not speak for a moment or two, and then said; "Do not take it ill, but only under one condition can I tell you what you ask."
"Speak! Speak!" almost screamed the Caliph. "State what conditions you like, and I am ready to accept them."
"Well, then, I also should like to be quickly released, but this can only be if one of you will offer me his hand."
The storks seemed somewhat taken aback at this proposal, and the Caliph made a sign to his Vizier to come outside for a moment.
"Grand Vizier," said the Caliph when they were on the other side of the door, "this is a queer piece of business, but, perhaps, you could take her."
"Indeed!" answered the latter. "And have my eyes scratched out by my wife when I get home! What is more, I am an old man; whereas you are still young, and unmarried, and therefore a more suitable wooer for a young and beautiful princess."
"That is just it," sighed the Caliph, and his wings drooped sadly as he spoke. "Who says that she is young and lovely? It is buying the cat in the bag."
They continued to argue with one another for some time; but the Caliph at last, seeing that his Vizier would even rather remain a stork than marry the owl, decided that he must himself fulfil the proposed condition. The owl was overcome with joy. She told them that they could not have chosen a better time to come, for in all probability the magicians would have their meeting there that very night.
She now left the room with the storks so as to lead them to the dining-hall. They went for some way along a dark passage, until they saw a light before them, which came through a wall partly crumbled away. On coming up to this the owl told them to stand quite still and look through the hole, and they were now able to see into the large dining-hall. It was surrounded by pillars, and gorgeously decorated, and a number of coloured lamps made it light as day; round the table was placed a sofa, upon which eight guests were seated. The storks recognised in one of the men the pedlar who had sold them the powder; another man who sat next him asked him to relate to them his latest achievements. This he did, including among his tales that of the Caliph and his Vizier.
"What sort of a word did you give them?" asked another of the magicians.
"A good hard Latin word:
When the storks, who were listening at their hole, heard this they were beside themselves with joy. They ran at such a rate on their long legs towards the door of the ruin that the owl could hardly keep up with them. Arrived there, the Caliph turned to her, and said with emotion: "Saviour of my life, and of the life of my friend, I pray you, as a token of my eternal gratitude to you for what you have done, to take me as your husband." Then he turned himself to the east. Three times did the storks bow their long necks towards the sun, which was just then rising above the mountains: "Mutabor!" they both cried; and in a twinkling they were themselves again, and in their joy at this renewed gift of life they fell laughing and weeping into each other's arms. But who shall describe their astonishment when they looked round! Before them they saw a beautiful lady, splendidly dressed, who smilingly held out her hand to the Caliph.
"Do you recognise your owl?" she said, for it was, indeed, she. The Caliph was so enchanted with her beauty and amiability that he declared the luckiest thing that had ever happened to him was being turned into a stork.
All three now returned together to Bagdad. The Caliph found his purse, as well as his box of powder, in his clothes, so he was able to buy the necessaries for their journey at the first place they came to, and ere long they arrived before the gates of Bagdad. Great astonishment was excited in the town by the arrival of the Caliph; he had been given up as dead, and the people were, therefore, rejoiced to have their beloved ruler back again.
All the more bitter and violent became their anger towards the traitor Mirza; they made their way into the palace, and took the old magician and his son prisoners. The Caliph had the old man taken to the room in the ruined building in which the Princess had spent her days as an owl, and there hanged. To the son, who was ignorant of his father's arts, he gave the choice of being put to death or of snuffing the powder. He chose the latter, and the Grand Vizier handed him the box. A good pinch of the powder, and the Caliph's magic word turned him into a stork, and the Caliph then had him put into an iron cage, and placed in his garden.
Caliph Chasid and his wife lived long and happily
together; their pleasantest hours were always those
when the Grand Vizier came to visit them in the
afternoon. Then their conversation often turned on their
stork adventure, and when the Caliph was in more
than usually good spirits he so far forgot his dignity
as to show how the Grand Vizier looked when he was
a stork. He then gravely stalked up and down the
room, stiffening his feet, clattering, and waving his
arms as if they were wings, and then showed how he
turned to the east, crying out in vain "Mu—Mu——."
This entertainment was always the source of great
amusement to the Caliph's wife and children, but if the
Caliph went on too long clattering and bowing and
When Selim Baruch had thus finished his tale, the merchants all expressed the great pleasure they had had in listening to it. "In truth, the afternoon has gone without our even taking note of how it was passing!" said one of them as he drew back the curtain of the tent. "The evening breeze blows fresh; we may yet cover a good bit of the way." His friends agreeing, the tents were struck, and once more the caravan started, in the order in which it had arrived.
They rode nearly the whole night through, for the days were sultry, but the nights refreshing and bright with stars. Coming at length to a convenient halting-place, they pitched their tents, and lay down to rest.
Nothing happened to prevent the caravan from journeying on as usual the next day, and after the travellers had halted and refreshed themselves Selim, the stranger, turned to Muley, the youngest of the merchants, and said:
"You are the youngest of our party, it is true, but you are always in such lively spirits that I am sure you must have some merry tale to tell us. Dish it up for us, that we may enjoy a little good cheer after the heat of the day."
"I would gladly tell you something that would amuse you," answered Muley; "but it becomes youth to be modest in all things, therefore I think one of the older members of our company should have the precedence. There is Zaleukos, always so grave and reserved—ought he not to relate to us what has made life so serious for him? Maybe, should we learn what his trouble is, we might be able to soothe it, for we are glad to be of help to a brother, even when he is not of our own faith."
The man so addressed was a Greek merchant, middle-aged, handsome, and well-built, but exceedingly serious. Notwithstanding that he was an unbeliever (that is, not a Mussulman) his travelling companions were all fond of him, for his whole demeanour had called forth their respect and trust. Further, it may be remarked that he had but one hand, and his companions conjectured that the loss of the other might possibly be the cause of his unusual gravity of temper.
In response to Muley's friendly speech Zaleukos answered: "I am honoured by the confidence you have in me; trouble have I none, at least none that you, my friends, with the best will in the world, could help me out of. Since Muley, however, seems somewhat to upbraid me with my seriousness, I will relate to you what I think will justify me in your eyes for being graver than other people. You see that I have lost my left hand; I was not born without it, but forfeited it on one of the most terrible days of my life. How far I was guilty, and whether since that time I have reason or not to be less cheerful than my circumstances appear to demand, you must yourselves judge when you have heard the tale of the Severed Hand."