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The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad

ONCE upon a time there was a porter in Baghdad who was a bachelor and who would remain unmarried. It came to pass on a certain day, as he stood about the street leaning idly upon his crate, behold, there stood before him an honorable woman in a mantilla of Mosul silk broidered with gold and bordered with brocade. Her walking shoes were also purred with gold, and her hair floated in long plaits. She raised her face veil and, showing two black eyes fringed with jetty lashes, whose glances were soft and languishing and whose perfect beauty was ever blandishing, she accosted the porter and said in the suavest tones and choicest language, "Take up thy crate and follow me."
The porter was so dazzled he could hardly believe that he heard her aright, but he shouldered his basket in hot haste, saying in himself, "O day of good luck! O day of Allah’s grace!" and walked after her till she stopped at the door of a house. There she rapped, and presently came out to her an old man, a Nazarene, to whom she gave a gold piece, receiving from him in return what she required of strained wine clear as olive oil, and she set it safely in the hamper, saying, "Lift and follow." Quoth the porter, "This, by Allah, is indeed an auspicious day, a day propitious for the granting of all a man wisheth." He again hoisted up the crate and followed her till she stopped at a fruiterer’s shop and bought from him Shami apples and Osmani quinces and Omani peaches, and cucumbers of Nile growth, and Egyptian limes and Sultani oranges and citrons, besides Aleppine jasmine, scented myrtle berries, Damascene nenuphars, flower of privet and camomile, blood-red anemones, violets, and pomegranate bloom, eglantine, and narcissus, and set the whole in the porter’s crate, saying, "Up with it."
So he lifted and followed her till she stopped at a butcher’s booth and said, "Cut me off ten pounds of mutton." She paid him his price and he wrapped it in a banana leaf, whereupon she laid it in the crate and said, "Hoist, O Porter." He hoisted accordingly, and followed her as she walked on till she stopped at a grocer’s, where she bought dry fruits and pistachio kernels, Tihamah raisins, shelled almonds, and all wanted for dessert, and said to the porter, "Lift and follow me." So he up with his hamper and after her till she stayed at the confectioner’s, and she bought an earthen platter, and piled it with all kinds of sweetmeats in his shop, open-worked tarts and fritters scented with musk, and "soap cakes," and lemon loaves, and melon preserves, and "Zaynab’s combs," and "ladies’ fingers," and "Kazi’s titbits," and goodies of every description, and placed the platter in the porter’s crate. Thereupon quoth he (being a merry man), "Thou shouldest have told me, and I would have brought with me a pony or a she-camel to carry all this market stuff." She smiled and gave him a little cuff on the nape, saying, "Step out and exceed not in words, for (Allah willing!) thy wage will not be wanting."
Then she stopped at a perfumer’s and took from him ten sorts of waters, rose scented with musk, orange-flower, water-lily, willow-flower, violet and five others. And she also bought two loaves of sugar, a bottle for perfume-spraying, a lump of male incense, aloe wood, ambergris, and musk, with candles of Alexandria wax, and she put the whole into the basket, saying, "Up with thy crate and after me." He did so and followed until she stood before the greengrocer’s, of whom she bought pickled sallower and olives, in brine and in oil, with tarragon and cream cheese and hard Syrian cheese, and she stowed them away in the crate, saying to the porter, "Take up thy basket and follow me." He did so and went after her till she came to a fair mansion fronted by a spacious court, a tall, fine place to which columns gave strength and grace. And the gate thereof had two leaves of ebony inlaid with plates of red gold. The lady stopped at the door and, turning her face veil sideways, knocked softly with her knuckles whilst the porter stood behind her, thinking of naught save her beauty and loveliness.
Presently the door swung back and both leaves were opened, whereupon he looked to see who had opened it, and behold, it was a lady of tall figure, some five feet high, a model of beauty and loveliness, brilliance and symmetry and perfect grace. Her forehead was flower-white, her cheeks like the anemone ruddy-bright. Her eyes were those of the wild heifer or the gazelle, with eyebrows like the crescent moon which ends Sha’aban and begins Ramazan. Her mouth was the ring of Solomon, her lips coral-red, and her teeth like a line of strung pearls or of camomile petals. Her throat recalled the antelope’s, and her breasts, like two pomegranates of even size, stood at bay as it were. Her body rose and fell in waves below her dress like the rolls of a piece of brocade, and her navel would hold an ounce of benzoin ointment. In fine, she was like her of whom the poet said:

On Sun and Moon of palace cast thy sight,
Enjoy her flowerlike face, her fragrant light.
Thine eyes shall never see in hair so black
Beauty encase a brow so purely white.
The ruddy rosy cheek proclaims her claim,
Though fail her name whose beauties we indite.
As sways her gait, I smile at hips so big
And weep to see the waist they bear so slight.

When the porter looked upon her, his wits were waylaid and his senses were stormed so that his crate went nigh to fall from his head, and he said to himself, "Never have I in my life seen a day more blessed than this day!" Then quoth the lady portress to the lady cateress, "Come in from the gate and relieve this poor man of his load." So the provisioner went in, followed by the portress and the porter, and went on till they reached a spacious ground-floor hall, built with admirable skill and beautified with all manner colors and carvings, with upper balconies and groined arches and galleries and cupboards and recesses whose curtains hung before them. In the midst stood a great basin full of water surrounding a fine fountain, and at the upper end on the raised dais was a couch of juniper wood set with gems and pearls, with a canopy like mosquito curtains of red satin-silk looped up with pearls as big as filberts and bigger.
Thereupon sat a lady bright of blee, with brow beaming brilliancy, the dream of philosophy, whose eyes were fraught with Babel’s gramarye and her eyebrows were arched as for archery. Her breath breathed ambergris and perfumery and her lips were sugar to taste and carnelian to see. Her stature was straight as the letter l and her face shamed the noon sun’s radiancy; and she was even as a galaxy, or a dome with golden marquetry, or a bride displayed in choicest finery, or a noble maid of Araby. The third lady, rising from the couch, stepped forward with graceful swaying gait till she reached the middle of the saloon, when she said to her sisters: "Why stand ye here? Take it down from this poor man’s head!" Then the cateress went and stood before him and the portress behind him while the third helped them, and they lifted the load from the porter’s head, and, emptying it of all that was therein, set everything in its place. Lastly they gave him two gold pieces, saying, "Wend thy ways, O Porter."
But he went not, for he stood looking at the ladies and admiring what uncommon beauty was theirs, and their pleasant manners and kindly dispositions (never had he seen goodlier). And he gazed wistfully at that good store of wines and sweet-scented flowers and fruits and other matters. Also he marveled with exceeding marvel, especially to see no man in the place, and delayed his going, whereupon quoth the eldest lady: "What aileth thee that goest not? Haply thy wage be too little?" And, turning to her sister, the cateress, she said, "Give him another dinar!" But the porter answered: "By Allah, my lady, it is not for the wage, my hire is never more than two dirhams, but in very sooth my heart and my soul are taken up with you and your condition. I wonder to see you single with ne’er a man about you and not a soul to bear you company. And well you wot that the minaret toppleth o’er unless it stand upon four, and you want this same fourth, and women’s pleasure without man is short of measure, even as the poet said:

"Seest not we want for joy four things all told-
The harp and lute, the flute and flageolet-
And be they companied with scents fourfold,
Rose, myrtle, anemone, and violet.
Nor please all eight an four thou wouldst withhold-
Good wine and youth and gold and pretty pet.

"You be three and want a fourth who shall be a person of good sense and prudence, smart-witted, and one apt to keep careful counsel." His words pleased and amused them much, and they laughed at him and said: "And who is to assure us of that? We are maidens, and we fear to entrust our secret where it may not be kept, for we have read in a certain chronicle the lines of one Ibn al-Sumam:

"Hold fast thy secret and to none unfold,
Lost is a secret when that secret’s told.
An fail thy breast thy secret to conceal,
How canst thou hope another’s breast shall hold?"

When the porter heard their words, he rejoined: "By your lives! I am a man of sense and a discreet, who hath read books and perused chronicles. I reveal the fair and conceal the foul and I act as the poet adviseth:

"None but the good a secret keep,
And good men keep it unrevealed.
It is to me a well-shut house
With keyless locks and door ensealed."

When the maidens heard his verse and its poetical application addressed to them, they said: "Thou knowest that we have laid out all our moneys on this place. Now say, hast thou aught to offer us in return for entertainment? For surely we will not suffer thee to sit in our company and be our cup companion, and gaze upon our faces so fair and so rare, without paying a round sum. Wettest thou not the saying:

"Sans hope of gain
Love’s not worth a grain"?

Whereto the lady portress added, "If thou bring anything, thou art a something; if no thing, be off with thee, thou art a nothing." But the procuratrix interposed, saying: "Nay, O my sisters, leave teasing him, for by Allah he hath not failed us this day, and had he been other he never had kept patience with me, so whatever be his shot and scot I will take it upon myself."
The porter, overjoyed, kissed the ground before her and thanked her, saying, "By Allah, these moneys are the first fruits this day hath given me." Hearing this, they said, "Sit thee down and welcome to thee," and the eldest lady added: "By Allah, we may not suffer thee to join us save on one condition, and this it is, that no questions be asked as to what concerneth thee not, and frowardness shall be soundly flogged." Answered the porter: "I agree to this, O my lady. On my head and my eyes be it! Look ye, I am dumb, I have no tongue." Then arose the provisioneress and, tightening her girdle, set the table by the fountain and put the flowers and sweet herbs in their jars, and strained the wine and ranged the flasks in rows and made ready every requisite. Then sat she down, she and her sisters, placing amidst them the porter, who kept deeming himself in a dream. And she took up the wine flagon and poured out the first cup and drank it off, and likewise a second and a third. After this she filled a fourth cup, which she handed to one of her sisters, and lastly, she crowned a goblet and passed it to the porter, saying:

"Drink the dear draught, drink free and fain
What healeth every grief and pain."

He took the cup in his hand and, Touting low, returned his best thanks and improvised:

"Drain not the bowl save with a trusty friend,
A man of worth whose good old blood all know.
For wine, like wind, sucks sweetness from the sweet
And stinks when over stench it haply blow."

Adding:

"Drain not the bowl, save from dear hand like thine,
The cup recalls thy gifts, thou, gifts of wine."

After repeating this couplet he kissed their hands and drank and was drunk and sat swaying from side to side and pursued:

"All drinks wherein is blood the Law unclean
Doth hold save one, the bloodshed of the vine.
Fill! Fill! Take all my wealth bequeathed or won,
Thou fawn! a willing ransome for those eyne."

Then the cateress crowned a cup and gave it to the portress, who took it from her hand and thanked her and drank. Thereupon she poured again and passed to the eldest lady, who sat on the couch, and filled yet another and handed it to the porter. He kissed the ground before them, and after drinking and thanking them, he again began to recite:

"Here! Here! By Allah, here!
Cups of the sweet, the dear!
Fill me a brimming bowl,
The Fount o’ Life I speer."

Then the porter stood up before the mistress of the house and said, "O lady, I am thy slave, thy Mameluke, thy white thrall, thy very bondsman," and he began reciting:

"A slave of slaves there standeth at thy door,
Lauding thy generous boons and gifts galore.
Beauty! May he come in awhile to ’joy
Thy charms? For Love and I part nevermore!"

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