The Story of Sidi-Nouman
The Caliph, Haroun-al-Raschid, was very pleased with the tale of the blind man and the holy man, and when it was finished he turned to the young man who had ill-treated his horse, and asked his name also. The young man replied that he was called Sidi-Nouman.
“Sidi-Nouman,” said the Caliph, “I have seen horses broken in all my life long, and have even broken them in myself, but I have never seen any horse broken in such a cruel manner as by you yesterday. Every one who looked on was angry, and blamed you loudly. As for myself, I was so angry that I very nearly put a stop to it at once. Still, you don’t appear to be a cruel man, and I would gladly believe that you did not act in this way without some reason. As I am told that it was not the first time and indeed that every day you are to be seen flogging your horse, I wish to come to the bottom of the matter. But tell me the whole truth, and conceal nothing.”
Sidi-Nouman reddened as he heard these words, and he grew confused, but he saw there was nothing he could do. So he bowed before the throne of the Caliph and tried to obey, but the words stuck in his throat, and he remained silent.
The Caliph, accustomed to instant obedience, guessed something what the young man was thinking and tried to put him at his ease. “Sidi-Nouman,” he said, “do not think of me as the Caliph, but merely as a friend who would like to hear your story. If there is anything in it that you are afraid may offend me, take courage, for I pardon you beforehand. Speak then openly and without fear, as to one who knows and loves you.”
Reassured by the kindness of the Caliph, Sidi-Nouman at last began his tale.
“Your Majesty” said he, “I will do my best to satisfy your wishes. I am by no means perfect, but I am not naturally cruel, neither do I take pleasure in breaking the law. I admit that the treatment of my horse must give your Highness a bad opinion of me, and to set an evil example to others. Yet I have not punished it without reason.
Your Majesty, I will not bother to describe my early life. It is not of interesting enough to deserve your Highness’ attention. My parents were careful people, and I inherited enough money to enable me to live comfortably.
Having therefore a small fortune, the only thing wanting for my happiness was a wife who could return my affection, but this blessing I was not destined to get, for on the very day after my marriage, my bride began to try my patience in every imaginable way.
Now, seeing that the customs of our land force us to marry without ever seeing the person with whom we are to spend our lives, a man has of course no right to complain as long as his wife is not absolutely repulsive, or is not deformed. And whatever defects her body may have, a pleasant manner and good behaviour will go far to remedy them.
The first time I saw my wife unveiled, when she had been brought to my house with the usual ceremonies, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had not been deceived about her beauty. I began my married life in high spirits, and the best hopes of happiness.
The following day a grand dinner was served to us but as my wife did not appear, I ordered a servant to call her. Still she did not come, and I waited impatiently for some time. At last she entered the room, and she took her place at the table, and plates of rice were set before us.
I ate mine, as was natural, with a spoon, but was shocked to see that my wife, instead of doing the same, drew from her pocket a little case, from which she selected a long pin, and by the help of this pin carried her rice grain by grain to her mouth.
“Amina,” I exclaimed in astonishment, “Is that the way you eat rice at home? And did you do it because your appetite was so small, or did you wish to count the grains so that you might never eat more than a certain number? If it was from economy, and you are anxious to teach me not to be wasteful, you have no cause for alarm. We shall never be so poor! Our fortune is large enough for all our needs. Therefore, dear Amina, eat as much as you desire, as I do!”
In reply to my affectionate words, I expected a cheerful answer, yet Amina said nothing at all, but continued to pick her rice as before, only at longer and longer intervals. And, instead of trying the other dishes, all she did was to put every now and then a crumb, of bread into her mouth that would not have made a meal for a sparrow.
I felt angered by her obstinacy, but to excuse her to myself as far as I could, I suggested that perhaps she had never been used to eat in the company of men, and that her family might have taught her that she ought to behave carefully in the presence of her husband. Likewise that she might either have dined already or intend to do so in her own room. So I took no further notice, and when I had finished left the room, very perplexed at her strange conduct.
The same thing occurred at supper, and all through the next day, whenever we ate together. It was quite clear that no woman could live upon two or three bread-crumbs and a few grains of rice, and I decided to find out how and when she got food. I pretended not to pay attention to anything she did, in the hope that little by little she would get used to me, and become friendlier, but I soon saw that it was quite in vain.
One night I was lying with my eyes closed and, to all appearance, sound asleep, when Amina arose softly, and dressed herself without making the slightest sound. I could not imagine what she was going to do, and as my curiosity was great I made up my mind to follow her. When she was fully dressed, she quietly left the room.
The instant she had let the curtain fall behind her, I threw a coat on and a pair of slippers on my feet. Looking from a window which opened into the court, I saw her in go through the street door, which she carefully left open.
It was bright moonlight, so I easily managed to keep her in sight, till she entered a cemetery not far from the house. There I hid myself under the shadow of the wall, and crouched down cautiously; and hardly was I concealed, when I saw my wife approaching with a ghoul; one of those demons which, as your Highness is aware, wander about the country making their homes in deserted buildings and springing out upon innocent travelers whose flesh they eat. If no live being goes their way, they then take themselves to the cemeteries, and feed upon the dead bodies.
I was nearly struck dumb with horror on seeing my wife with this hideous female ghoul. They passed by me without noticing me, and began to dig up a corpse which had been buried that day. Then they sat down on the edge of the grave, to enjoy their frightful meal, talking quietly and cheerfully all the while, though I was too far off to hear what they said. When they had finished, they threw back the body into the grave, and heaped back the earth upon it. I made no effort to disturb them, and returned quickly to the house, and took care to leave the door open, as I had previously found it. Then I got back into bed, and pretended to sleep soundly.
A short time after Amina entered as quietly as she had gone out. She undressed and climbed into bed.
As may be guessed, after such a scene it was long before I could close my eyes, and at dawn, I put on my clothes and went to the mosque. But even prayer did not restore peace to my troubled spirit, and I could not face my wife until I had made up my mind what I should do. Therefore I spent the morning wandering the streets, considering various plans for forcing my wife to give up her horrible ways. I thought of using violence to make her obey, but felt reluctant to be unkind to her. Besides, I had feeling that gentle means had the best chance of success; so, a little calmer, I turned towards home, which I reached at about dinner time.
As soon as I appeared, Amina ordered dinner to be served, and we sat down together. As usual, she only picked a few grains of rice, and I decided to speak to her at once of what lay so heavily on my heart.
“Amina,” I said, as quietly as possible, “you must have guessed the surprise I felt, when the day after our marriage you refused to eat anything but a few grains of rice, and behaved in such a manner that most husbands would have been deeply upset. However I had patience with you, and only tried to get you to eat with the best dishes I could find But it was all no use. Still, Amina, it seems to me that some people prefer the flesh of a corpse?”
I had no sooner spoken these words than Amina, who instantly understood that I had followed her to the grave-yard, was seized with a fury beyond any that I have ever seen. Her face became purple, her eyes looked as if they would explode from her head, and she looked at me in rage.
I watched her with terror, wondering what would happen next. She seized a cup of water, and plunging her hand in it, murmured some words I failed to hear. Then, sprinkling it on my face, she cried madly:
“Wretch, receive the reward of your spying, and become a dog.”
The words were not out of her mouth when, I suddenly knew that I had ceased to be a man. In the greatness of the shock and surprise, I never dreamed of running away, and stood rooted to the spot, while Amina took a stick and began to beat me. Indeed her blows were so heavy, that I only wonder they did not kill me at once. However they succeeded in bringing me back to my senses, and I dashed into the court-yard, followed closely by Amina, who was still beating me. At last she got tired of pursuing me, or else a new trick entered into her head, which would give me speedy and painful death. She opened the gate leading into the street, intending to crush me as I passed through. Dog though I was, I saw through her plan, and I timed my movements so well that I was able to rush through, and only the tip of my tail received a squeeze as she banged the gate.
I was safe, but my tail hurt me horribly, and I yelped and howled so loudly all along the streets, that the other dogs came and attacked me, which made matters no better. In order to avoid them, I took refuge in a butcher shop.
At first the owner showed me great kindness, and drove away the other dogs that were still chasing me, while I crept into the darkest corner. But though I was safe for the moment I spent the night in sleep, which I needed, after the pain inflicted on me by Amina.
I have no wish to bore your Highness by talking about the sad thoughts I had, but it may interest you to hear that the next morning the butcher went out early to do his marketing, and returned with the sheep’s heads, and tongues and trotters that he sold. The smell of meat attracted hungry dogs in the neighbourhood, and they gathered round the door begging for some bits. I crept out of my corner, and stood with them.
My protector was a kind-hearted man, and knowing I had eaten nothing since yesterday, he threw me bigger and better bits than the other dogs. When I had finished, I tried to go back into the shop, but this he would not allow, and stood so firmly at the entrance with a big stick, that I was forced to give it up, and seek some other home.
A few paces further on was a baker’s shop, which seemed to have a happy man for a master. At that moment he was having his breakfast, and though I gave no signs of hunger, he at once threw me a piece of bread. Before gobbling it up, as most dogs are in the habit of doing, I bowed my head and wagged my tail, in token of thanks, and he understood, and smiled pleasantly. I really did not want the bread at all, but felt it would be ungracious to refuse, so I ate it slowly, in order that he might see that I only did it out of politeness. He understood this also, and seemed quite willing to let me stay in his shop, so I sat down, with my face to the door, to show that I only asked his protection. This he gave me, and indeed encouraged me to come into the house itself, giving me a corner where I might sleep, without being in anybody’s way.
The kindness shown me by this excellent man was far greater than I could ever have expected. He was always affectionate in his manner of treating me, and I shared his breakfast, dinner and supper, and I showed him much gratitude and affection.
I sat with my eyes fixed on him, and he never left the house without having me at his heels. If it ever happened that when he was preparing to go out I was asleep, and did not notice, he would call “Rufus, Rufus,” for that was the name he gave me.
Some weeks passed in this way, when one day a woman came in to buy bread. In paying for it, she laid down several coins, one of which was bad. The baker saw this, and refused to take it, demanding another in its place. The woman, refused to take it back, declaring it was perfectly good, but the baker would have nothing to do with it. “It is really such a bad imitation,” he exclaimed at last, “that even my dog would not be fooled. Here Rufus! Rufus!” and hearing his voice, I jumped on to the counter. The baker threw down the money before me, and said, “Find out if there is a bad coin.” I looked at each in turn, and then laid my paw on the false one, glancing at the same time at my master, so as to point it out.
The baker, who had of course only been joking, was surprised at my cleverness, and the woman, who was at last convinced that the man spoke the truth, produced another coin in its place. When she had gone, my master was so pleased that he told all the neighbors what I had done.
The neighbors, of course, didn’t believe his story, and tested me several times with all the bad money they could collect, but I passed every test.
Soon, the shop was filled from morning till night, with people came to see if I was as clever as I was reported to be. The baker sold much bread, and admitted that I was worth my weight in gold to him.
Of course there were plenty of people who envied him, and many traps were set for me, so that he never dared to let me out of his sight. One day a woman, who had not been in the shop before, came to ask for bread. As usual, I was lying on the counter, and she threw down six coins before me, one of which was false. I spotted it at once, and put my paw on it, looking as I did so at the woman. “Yes,” she said, nodding her head. “You are quite right, that is the one.” She stood gazing at me attentively for some time, then paid for the bread, and left the shop, making a sign for me to follow her secretly.
Now I was always thinking of some means of shaking off the spell on me, and noticing the way in which this woman had looked at me, the idea entered my head that perhaps she might have guessed what had happened, and I was right. However I let her go on a little way and merely stood at the door watching her. She turned, and seeing that I was quite still, she again called to me.
The baker all this while was busy with his oven, and had forgotten all about me, so I crept out quietly, and ran after the woman.
When we came to her house, which was some distance off, she opened the door and then said to me, “Come in, come in and you will never be sorry that you followed me.” When I had entered she locked the door, and took me into a large room, where a beautiful girl was working at a piece of embroidery. “My daughter,” exclaimed the woman, “I have brought you the famous dog belonging to the baker which can tell good money from bad. You know that when I first heard of him, I told you I was sure he must be really a man, changed into a dog by magic. Today I went to the baker’s, to prove for myself the truth of the story, and persuaded the dog to follow me here. Now what do you say?”
“You are right, mother,” replied the girl, and rising she dipped her hand into a cup of water. Then sprinkling it over me she said, “If you were born dog, remain a dog, but if you were born man, resume your proper form.” In one moment the spell was broken. The dog’s shape vanished as if it had never been, and it was a man who stood before her.
Overcome with gratitude, I flung myself at her feet. “How can I thank you for your goodness towards a stranger, and for what you have done? From this time forward I am your slave!”
Then, in order to explain how I came to be changed into a dog, I told her my whole story, and finished with giving the mother the thanks due to her for the happiness she had brought me.
“Sidi-Nouman,” replied the daughter, “The knowledge that we have been of service to you is enough. Let us talk about Amina, your wife, who I knew before her marriage. I was aware that she was a magician, and she knew too that I had studied the same art, under the same mistress. We met often, but we did not like each other, and never tried to become friends. It is not enough to have broken your spell; she must be punished for her wickedness. Remain for a moment with my mother,” she added, “I will return shortly.”
Left alone with the mother, I again expressed the gratitude I felt, to her as well as to her daughter.
“My daughter,” she answered, “is, as skilled a magician as Amina herself, but you would be astonished at the amount of good she does by her knowledge. That is why I have never interfered; otherwise I should have put a stop to it long ago.” As she spoke, her daughter entered with a small bottle in her hand.
“Sidi-Nouman,” she said, “I have just discovered me that Amina is not home at present, but she should return at any moment. I have also found out, that she shows great anxiety in front of the servants about your absence. She has spread a story that, while at dinner with her, you remembered some important business that had to be done at once, and left the house without shutting the door. Then a dog had strayed in, which she was forced to get rid of with a stick. Go home then without delay, and await Amina’s return in your room. When she comes in, go down to meet her, and in her surprise, she will try to run away. Then have this bottle ready, and throw the water it contains over her, saying boldly, “Receive the reward of your crimes.” That is all I have to tell you.”
Everything happened exactly as the young magician had foretold. I had not been in my house many minutes before Amina returned, and as she approached I stepped in front of her, with the water in my hand. She gave one loud cry, and turned to the door, but she was too late. I had already dashed the water in her face and spoken the magic words. Amina disappeared, and in her place stood the horse you saw me beating yesterday.
This, Your Majesty, is my story, and may I say that, now you have heard the reason of my conduct, your Highness will not think this wicked woman too harshly treated?
“Sidi-Nouman,” replied the Caliph, “your story is indeed a strange one, and there is no excuse to be offered for your wife. But, without criticizing your treatment of her, I wish you to think of how much she must suffer from being changed into an animal. I hope you will let that punishment be enough. I do not order you to ask the young magician to restore your wife to her human shape, because I know that when once women such as she begin to work evil they never stop.”