Chapter VIII. All's Well that Ends Well.
 

There was once--the date is of no moment--a Sultan, and he had a Vizier named Ashimullah. This minister was a wise man, much trusted by his master; but he was held in some suspicion and dislike at the court because he had been born--or, if that be doubtful, had at least been bred--a Christian, and had been originally a prisoner of the Sultan's armies.

But Ashimullah, for reasons which intimately concerned his own head, but need not concern anybody else's, promptly found the true path; and, having professed a ready conversion to the tenets of Islam, rose rapidly to a high place in the service of the Sultan, so that his promotion never ceased until he was installed in the office of Grand Vizier. Yet, remembering his discreditable past, the Sultan was accustomed to exact from him the fullest and most minute observance of his religious duties. To such observance Ashimullah submitted, comforting himself with the example of Naaman the Syrian; for Ashimullah was still, in secret, a Christian, and his adherence to Islam was only a polite concession to public feeling. But there was one point on which his conscience struck him sorely, and this was no other than the question of wives. Ashimullah had one wife, a lady of great beauty and remarkable accomplishments, and for the life of him he could not see how, consistently with the religion which he held in his heart and with the honor that he owed to the lady, he could take any other wife. Such an act appeared to him to be a deadly sin, for it was most plainly held and laid down by the rules of his religion, and had moreover been amply proved by experience, that one wife was enough for any man. Therefore when the Sultan, hearing that Ashimullah had but one wife, and considering the thing very suspicious and unnatural, sent for him, and required him to order his establishment on a scale more befitting his present exalted position, Ashimullah was in sad perplexity. To obey was to sin, to refuse was likely to cost him his life; for if his master suspected the sincerity of his conversion, his shrift would be short. In this quandary Ashimullah sought about for excuses.

"O Commander of the Faithful, I am a poor man, and wives are sources of expense," said Ashimullah.

"My treasury is open to the most faithful of my servants," said the Sultan.

"A multitude of women in a house breeds strife," urged Ashimullah.

"He who governs an empire should be able to govern his own house," remarked the Sultan.

"I have no pleasure in the society of women," pleaded Ashimullah.

"It is not a question of pleasure," said the Sultan solemnly, and Ashimullah thought that he saw signs of suspicion on his master's august face. Therefore he prostrated himself, crying that he submitted to the imperial will, and would straightway take another wife.

"I do not love a grudging obedience," said the Sultan.

"I will take two!" cried Ashimullah.

"Take three," said the Sultan; and with this he dismissed Ashimullah, giving him the space of a week in which to fulfill the command laid upon him.

"Surely I am a most unhappy man," mused Ashimullah. "For if I do not obey, I shall be put to death; and if I do obey, I fear greatly that I shall be damned." And he went home looking so sorrowful and perplexed that all men conceived that he was out of favor with the Sultan.

Now Ashimullah, being come to his house, went immediately to his wife, and told her of the Sultan's commands, adding that the matter was a sore grief to him, and not less on her account than on his own. "For you know well, Star of my Heart," said he, "that I desire no wife but you!"

"I know it well, Ashimullah," answered Lallakalla tenderly.

"Moreover, I fear that I shall be damned," whispered Ashimullah.

"I'm sure you would," said Lallakalla.

Three days later it was reported through all the city, on the authority of Hassan, the chief and confidential servant of the Vizier, that Ashimullah, having procured three slaves of great beauty at an immense cost, had wedded them all, and thus completed the number of wives allowed to him by the Law of the Prophet. The first was rosy-cheeked with golden hair; the second's complexion was olive, and her locks black as night; the third had a wonderful pallor, and tresses like burnished gold.

"Thus," added Hassan, "since my lady Lallakalla's hair is brown, his Highness the Vizier enjoys, as is his most just due, all varieties of beauty."

When these things came to the ears of the Sultan, he was greatly pleased with the prompt obedience of Ashimullah, and sent him a large sum of money and his own miniature, magnificently set in diamonds. Moreover, he approved highly of the taste that Ashimullah had displayed in his choice, and regretted very deeply that he could not behold the charms of the wives of the Vizier. Nay, so great was his anxiety concerning them that he determined to send one of his Sultanas to pay a visit to the harem of Ashimullah, in order that, while seeming to render honor to Ashimullah, she might report to him of the beauty of Ashimullah's wives.

"We must make ready for the visit of the Sultana," observed Lallakalla, with a smile.

When the Sultana returned from her visit, the Sultan came to her without delay, and she said:

"O Most Translucent Majesty, wonderful indeed are the wives of Ashimullah! For as they came before me, one after another, I did not know which of them to call most beautiful; for the brown hair, the golden, the black, and the ruddy are all most fair to see. I would that your Majesty could behold them!"

"I would that I could!" said the Sultan, stroking his beard.

"Yet, O Sultan, since all men are mortal, and it is not given to any to be perfectly happy in this world, know that there is an alloy in the happiness of Ashimullah the Vizier. For these most lovely ladies have, each and all of them, so strong and vehement a temper and so great a reciprocal hatred, that Ashimullah is compelled to keep them apart, each in her own chamber, and by no means can they be allowed to come together for an instant. Not even my presence would have restrained them, and therefore I saw each alone."

"I do not object to a little temper," observed the Sultan, stroking his beard again. "It is a sauce to beauty, and keeps a man alive."

"It is only toward one another that they are fierce," said the Sultana. "For all spoke with the greatest love of Ashimullah, and with the most dutiful respect."

"I do not see on what account they are so fond of Ashimullah," said the Sultan, frowning.

That night the Sultan did not once close his eyes, for he could think of nothing save the marvelous and varied beauty of the wives of the Vizier; and between the rival charms of the black, the brown, the ruddy, and the golden, his Majesty was so torn and tossed about that, when he rose, his brow was troubled and his cheek pale. And being no longer able to endure the torment that he suffered, he sent the Sultana again to visit the house of Ashimullah, bidding her observe most carefully which of the ladies was in truth most beautiful. But the Sultana, having returned, professed herself entirely unable to set any one of Ashimullah's wives above any other in any point of beauty. "For they are all," said she, "and each in her own way, houris for beauty."

"And this man was a Christian dog once!" murmured the Sultan. Then his brow suddenly grew smooth, and he observed:

"Ashimullah himself will know; and, indeed, it is time that I gave a new sign of my favor to my trusted servant Ashimullah."

Therefore he sent for Ashimullah, and spoke to him with unbounded graciousness.

"Ashimullah, my faithful servant," said he, "I am mindful to confer upon you a great and signal favor; desiring to recognize not only your services to my throne, but also and more especially your ready and willing obedience in the matter of your wives. Therefore I have decided to exalt you and your household in the eyes of all the Faithful, and of the whole world, by taking from your house a wife for myself."

When Ashimullah heard this he went very pale, although, in truth, what the Sultan proposed to do was always held the highest of honors.

"And since so good and loyal a servant," pursued the Sultan, "would desire to offer to his Sovereign nothing but the best of all that he has, tell me, O Ashimullah, which of your wives is fairest, that I may take her and exalt her as I have proposed."

Ashimullah was now in great agitation, and he stammered in his confusion:

"My wives are indeed fair; but, O Most Potent and Fearful Majesty, they have, one and all, most diabolical tempers."

"Surely by now I have learned how to deal with the tempers of women," said the Sultan, raising his brows. "Come, Ashimullah; tell me which is fairest."

Then Ashimullah, being at his wits' end, and catching at any straw in order to secure a little delay, declared that it was utterly impossible to say that any one of his wives was fairer than any other, for they were all perfectly beautiful.

"But describe them to me, one by one," commanded the Sultan.

So Ashimullah described his wives one by one to the Sultan, using most exalted eloquence, and employing every simile, metaphor, image, figure, and trope that language contains, in the vain attempt to express adequately the surpassing beauty of those ladies; yet he was most careful to set no one above any other and to distribute the said similes, metaphors, images, figures, and tropes, with absolute impartiality and equality among them.

"By Allah, it is difficult!" said the Sultan, pulling his beard fretfully. "I will consider your several descriptions, and send for you again in a few days, Ashimullah."

So Ashimullah went home and told Lallakalla all that had passed between the Sultan and himself, and how the Sultan proposed to take one of his wives, but could not make up his mind which lady he should prefer.

"But, alas! it is all one to me, whichever he chooses," cried Ashimullah, in despair.

"It is all one to me also," cried Lallakalla. "But, be sure, dear Ashimullah, that the Sultan has some purpose in this delay. Let us wait and see what he does. It may be that we need not yet despair."

But Ashimullah would not be comforted, and cried out that he had done better never to forswear his religion, but to have died at once, as a holy martyr.

"It is too late to think of that," said Lallakalla.

Now, had not the Sultan been most lamentably bewildered and most amazingly dazzled by the conflicting charms of the wives of Ashimullah, beyond doubt he would not have entertained nor carried out a project so impious and irreligious as that which his curiosity and passion now led him into. But being unable to eat or drink or rest until he was at ease on the matter, he determined, all piety and law and decorum to the contrary notwithstanding, to look upon the faces of Ashimullah's wives with his own eyes, and determine for himself to whom the crown of beauty belonged, and whether the brown or the black, or the golden or the ruddy, might most properly and truthfully lay claim to it. But this resolution he ventured to communicate to nobody, save to the faithful and dutiful wife whom he had sent before to visit the house of Ashimullah. She, amazed, tried earnestly to dissuade him, but seeing he was not to be turned, at last agreed to second his designs, and enable him to fulfill his purpose. "Though I fear no good will come of it," she sighed.

"I wonder which is in truth the fairest!" murmured the Sultan. And he sent word to Ashimullah that the Sultana would visit his wives on the evening of that day.

"All will be ready for her," said Lallakalla, when she received the message from her husband.

But in the afternoon the Sultan sent men into the bazaar, and these men caught Hassan, Ashimullah's servant, as he came to make his daily purchases, and carried him to the Sultan, with whom he was closeted for hard on an hour. When he came out Hassan returned home, shaking his head sorrowfully, but patting his purse comfortably; whence it appears that he suffered from a conflict of feelings, his mind being ill at ease, but his purse heavier. And when in the evening the Sultana came, attended only by one tall, formidable, and inky-black attendant, Hassan ushered her into the reception room of the harem, telling her that Lallakalla, the first wife of his master, would attend her immediately. Then he went out, and, having brought in the big black slave very secretly, set him in the antechamber of the room where the Sultana was, and hid him there, behind a high screen. And Hassan pierced a hole in the screen, so that the big slave could see what passed in the antechamber without being seen himself. Then Hassan, still shaking his head, but also patting his purse, went to summon Lallakalla. But the big black slave lay quiet behind the screen.

Presently Lallakalla passed through and entered the room where the Sultana was. A few moments later Ashimullah came in, carrying over one arm several robes of silk and in the other a large box or trunk. Ashimullah looked round cautiously, but saw nobody; the big black slave held his breath, but laid his hand on the scimitar that he wore. Ashimullah waited. Then Lallakalla came out.

"Yes, of a truth this brown-haired one is most lovely," thought the big slave. "It would seem impossible that the others can be so lovely. Moreover, she looks amiable enough. Yet I must see the others. Which will come next?" And he composed himself to wait for the next, not caring whether she were the ruddy, the golden, or the black, so that she came quickly.

But, to the amazement of the slave, Lallakalla tore off the silken robe she wore and cried to her husband, "Give me the blue robe--yes, and the golden hair." And, having put on the blue robe, she took from Ashimullah's hand something that he had taken from the square box, and put it on her head. Then Ashimullah gave her a smaller box, and, taking out paints and brushes and a mirror, she made a complexion for herself. And thus she was transformed into a golden-haired lady with cheeks of rosy red, and in this guise she passed in to the Sultana's presence.

"The dog!" thought the slave. "Then he took only two wives more!"

Presently Lallakalla came forth; and all happened as before, save that she stained her face to an olive tint and put on a wig of coal-black hair.

"By the Prophet!" thought the slave, "he took but one wife more!"

Yet again Lallakalla came out from visiting the Sultana, and on this occasion she hastily donned a robe of red, sprinkled white powder over her cheeks, and set on her head a most magnificent structure of ruddy hair. Thus arrayed she went again into the room where the Sultana was.

"By Allah, the dog took no other wife at all!" thought the slave, and, looking through his spy-hole, he saw Ashimullah making off in great haste, carrying the box and the robes with him. Then Hassan came and led the slave back by the way they had come to the place where he awaited the Sultana.

"This wife of Ashimullah is a wonderful woman," said the Sultan to himself, as he lay awake that night. "Behold, she is in herself a multitude!"

Early the next morning Ashimullah was summoned to the palace, and at once ushered into the presence of the Sultan.

"O Ashimullah, I have reflected," said the Sultan, "and I desire that you will send me that wife of yours who has ruddy hair. For although the choice is difficult, yet I think that she must be the fairest of them all."

Ashimullah, knowing not what to say, prostrated himself and promised obedience; then, having withdrawn from the presence, he ran back home as fast as he could lay his feet to the ground, and sought out Lallakalla. With her he talked for some time; then he returned to the palace, weeping and wringing his hands.

"What ails you, Ashimullah?" asked the Sultan.

"Alas! O Light of the World, a pestilence has fallen on my house, and my wife with the ruddy hair lies dead."

"We must resign ourselves to the will of Heaven," said the Sultan. "Yet I will not recall the favor I had destined for you. Send me the wife that has coal-black hair, Ashimullah."

"Alas! Most Mighty One, misfortunes crowd upon me. That graceless wife has fled from me in company with a fishmonger," groaned Ashimullah.

"You are well quit of her, and so also am I," remarked the Sultan. "Yet I am not to be turned from my benevolent purpose, and rather than fail in doing you honor, I will accept the wife with the golden hair."

"Alas! and alas! High and Potent Majesty, Heaven has set its wrath upon me. As she rowed this morning, the boat upset, and she, my golden-haired beauty, was drowned!" And Ashimullah laid his head on the ground and sobbed pitifully.

"Of a truth you are afflicted. Yet do not despair, I will comfort you, my good Ashimullah," said the Sultan. "Weep no more. Send me the wife with the brown hair, and all shall be well. By Allah! I am a man that hears reason, and does not exact more than Fate will allow! A man can give only what he has. I shall be well pleased with her of the brown hair, Ashimullah."

Then Ashimullah crawled to the feet of the Sultan, and said:

"Ruler of the World, great is the honor that you purpose for the meanest of your servants. Yet behold, if I send my wife with the brown hair, I shall have no wife at all; for the others are gone, and my house will be altogether desolate."

The Sultan smiled down at Ashimullah. Then he bent and took him by the hands and raised him up. And he spoke to him in a tone of most tender and friendly reproach:

"Indeed, Ashimullah," said he, "you wrong me in your thoughts, supposing that I would leave your house desolate, or that I would receive without bestowing. Such is not the custom of great princes, nor is it my custom. But where we take we give fourfold of what is given to us. Be of good cheer, and grieve no more either for the wives who are dead or for the brown-haired wife whom it is my gracious pleasure to accept from you. For I will send you four wives; and thus you shall be as you were before your misfortunes, and before you gave me your brown-haired wife. And if the color of their hair does not please you (for it seems that you are curious in these matters, O Ashimullah), I think that you have means to set right what is wrong, and to array the head of each in the color that you love best." And, as he said this, the Sultan looked very full and significantly in the face of Ashimullah.

But Ashimullah turned and went out, full of fear; for he perceived that the Sultan had discovered his secret and that he had been betrayed by Hassan his servant, and he feared for his life, because of the trick that he had played upon the Sultan, besides being greatly afflicted to think that now indeed there was no escape, but he must have four wives. Moreover, although this could not stand beside the question of his salvation, he regretted greatly the losing of Lallakalla, whom the Sultan took from him. And as he told Lallakalla all that had passed, he wept; but she bade him be of good cheer, and, having comforted him, withdrew to her apartments, and was very busy there all the afternoon.

In the evening came a litter from the palace, and with it a letter from the Sultan, commanding that Lallakalla should come, and bidding Ashimullah to expect his four wives the next day. Accordingly Ashimullah, having divorced Lallakalla according to the formalities of the law, set her in the litter, and she, being brought to the palace, was soon visited by the Sultan, who was full of curiosity to see her. But, when he entered, he gave a loud cry of surprise. For, behold, the hair on Lallakalla's head was red. But then he smiled and said to her:

"Take off the wig, my daughter."

"I obey," said she, "but I pray you to look away while I obey."

So the Sultan looked away, and, when he turned again, her hair was golden.

"Take that off also," said the Sultan, turning his head away. And when he looked again her hair was coal-black.

"Take that off also," said the Sultan.

"I obey," said Lallakalla, and the Sultan turned away.

"Now," said he, "I will behold your own brown hair," and he turned to her. But again he cried out in surprise and horror. For there was no brown hair on Lallakalla's head, but her head was bare and shaven as clean as the ball of ivory on the staff that the Sultan carried.

"Heaven forbid," said Lallakalla meekly, "that I should come to the Light of the Universe with hair of the color that he hates; for he chose every color sooner than my poor color. Therefore I have left the brown hair for Ashimullah, for he loves it, and I have brought my lord the colors that my lord loves." And with this she laid the three wigs of black hair, of golden, and of ruddy at the Sultan's feet, and stood herself before him with her shaven poll.

Then the Sultan, seeing that Lallakalla looked very ludicrous with her shaven poll, burst out laughing. And he came and took her by the hand, and said to her:

"Behold a woman who loves her husband better than her beauty, and to be his wife rather than mine! Return, then, to Ashimullah and be his wife again."

"My lord," said she, "suffer me also to take back with me the other wives of Ashimullah," and she pointed to the heads of hair that lay upon the ground.

"Take them," said he, laughing. "And since Ashimullah has already four wives and yet will give me no wife, why, neither will I give Ashimullah any wives. But he shall have the four wives that he had before, and all the city shall hear of the beauty and the virtue of Ashimullah's wives."

So Lallakalla went home in great joy, and put on her own hair, which she had fashioned into a wig, and went in to Ashimullah. And they dwelt happily together, there being no differences in their household, save in the color of Lallakalla's hair from day to day. But the Sultan raised a pillar of many-colored marble, black and gold, brown and red, and inscribed it, "To the Virtues of the Wives of Ashimullah the Vizier." And henceforward none troubled Ashimullah concerning his wives.

Hassan, however, was most justly put to death.