There was once an aged fisherman who was so poor that he could scarcely earn as much as would maintain himself, his wife, and three children. He went every day to fish betimes in the morning, and imposed it as a law upon himself not to cast his nets above four times a day. He went one morning by moonlight, and coming to the seaside, undressed himself, and cast in his nets. As he drew them toward the shore, he found them very heavy, and thought he had a good draught of fish, at which he rejoiced; but a moment after, perceiving that instead of fish his net contained nothing but the carcass of an ass, he was much vexed.
When he had mended his nets, which the carcass of the ass had broken in several places, he threw them in a second time; and when he drew them, found a great deal of resistance, which made him think he had taken abundance of fish; but he found nothing except a basket full of gravel and slime, which grieved him extremely. "O Fortune!" cried he, with a lamentable tone, "be not angry with me, nor persecute a wretch who prays thee to spare him. I came hither from my house to seek for my livelihood, and thou pronouncest against me a sentence of death. I have no other trade but this to subsist by, and, notwithstanding all my care, I can scarcely provide what is necessary for my family. But I am to blame to complain of thee; thou takest pleasure to persecute honest people, and advancest those who have no virtue to recommend them."
Having finished this complaint, he fretfully threw away the basket, and, washing his nets from the slime, cast them a third time, but brought up nothing except stones, shells, and mud. No language can express his disappointment; he was almost distracted. However, when day began to appear, he did not forget to say his prayers like a good Mussulman, and he added to them this petition: "Lord, thou knowest that I cast my nets only four times a day; I have already drawn them three times, without the least reward for my labour: I am only to cast them once more; I pray thee to render the sea favourable to me, as thou didst to Moses."
The fisherman, having finished this prayer, cast his nets the fourth time; and when he thought it was proper, drew them as formerly with great difficulty; but instead of fish found nothing in them but a vessel of yellow copper, which, from its weight, seemed not to be empty; and he observed that it was fastened and closed with lead, having the impression of a seal upon it. This turn of fortune rejoiced him: "I will sell it," said he, "to the founder, and with the money buy a measure of corn." He examined the vessel on all sides, and shook it to see if its contents made any noise, but heard nothing. This circumstance, with the impression of the seal upon the cover, made him think it enclosed something precious. To try this, he took a knife and opened it with very little labour. He turned the mouth downward, but nothing came out, which surprised him extremely. He placed it before him, but while he viewed it attentively, there burst forth a very thick smoke, which obliged him to retire two or three paces back.
The smoke ascended to the clouds, and, extending itself along the sea and upon the shore, formed a great mist, which filled the fisherman with astonishment. When the smoke was all out of the vessel, it reunited, and became a solid body, of which was formed a genie twice as high as the greatest of giants. At the sight of such a monster the fisherman would fain have fled, but was so frightened that he could not move.
The smoke ascended to the clouds, and extending itself along the sea and upon the shore formed a great mist.
"Solomon," cried the genie immediately, "Solomon, the great prophet, pardon, pardon; I will never more oppose your will, I will obey all your commands."
The fisherman, when he heard these words of the genie, recovered his courage and said to him: "Thou proud spirit, what is it you say? It is above eighteen hundred years since the prophet Solomon died, and we are now at the end of time. Tell me your history, and how you came to be shut up in this vessel."
The genie, turning to the fisherman with a fierce look, said: "Thou must address me with more courtesy; thou art a presumptuous fellow to call me a proud spirit; speak to me more respectfully, or I will kill thee." "Ah!" replied the fisherman, "why should you kill me? Did I not just now set you at liberty, and have you already forgotten my services?"
"No, I remember it," said the genie, "but that shall not save thy life: I have only one favour to grant thee." "And what is that?" asked the fisherman. "It is," answered the genie, "to give thee thy choice in what manner thou wouldst have me put thee to death." "But wherein have I offended you?" demanded the fisherman. "Is that your reward for the service I have rendered you?" "I cannot treat thee otherwise," said the genie; "and that thou mayest know the reason, hearken to my story."
"I am one of those rebellious spirits that opposed the will of Solomon, the son of David, and to avenge himself, that monarch sent Asaph, the son of Barakhia, his chief minister, to apprehend me. Asaph seized my person, and brought me by force before his master's throne.
"Solomon commanded me to acknowledge his power, and to submit to his commands. I bravely refused, and told him I would rather expose myself to his resentment, than swear fealty as he required. To punish me, he shut me up in this copper vessel; and that I might not break my prison, he himself stamped upon this leaden cover his seal with the great name of God engraven upon it. He then gave the vessel to one of the genies who had submitted, with orders to throw me into the sea.
"During the first hundred years of my imprisonment, I swore that if any one should deliver me before the expiration of that period, I would make him rich, even after his death; but that century ran out, and nobody did me the good office. During the second, I made an oath that I would open all the treasures of the earth to any one that might set me at liberty; but with no better success. In the third, I promised to make my deliverer a potent monarch, and to grant him every day three requests, of what nature soever they might be; but this century passed as well as the two former, and I continued in prison. At last, being angry to find myself a prisoner so long, I swore that if afterward any one should deliver me, I would kill him without mercy, and grant him no favour but to choose the manner of his death; and, therefore, since thou hast delivered me to-day, I give thee that choice."
This discourse afflicted the fisherman extremely: "I am very unfortunate," cried he, "to come hither to do such a kindness to one that is so ungrateful. I beg you to consider your injustice, and revoke such an unreasonable oath; pardon me, and Heaven will pardon you; if you grant me my life, Heaven will protect you from all attempts against your own." "No, thy death is resolved on," said the genie, "only choose in what manner thou wilt die." The fisherman, perceiving the genie to be resolute, was extremely grieved, not so much for himself, as on account of his three children, and bewailed the misery they must be reduced to by his death. He endeavoured still to appease the genie, and said, "Alas! be pleased to take pity on me, in consideration of the service I have done you." "I have told thee already," replied the genie, "it is for that very reason I must kill thee." "That is strange," said the fisherman, "are you resolved to reward good with evil? The proverb truly says, 'He who does good to one who deserves it not, is always ill rewarded.'" "Do not lose time," interrupted the genie; "all thy chattering shall not divert me from my purpose; make haste, and tell me what kind of death thou preferrest?"
Necessity is the mother of invention. The fisherman bethought himself of a stratagem. "Since I must die then," said he to the genie, "I submit to the will of Heaven; but before I choose the manner of my death, I conjure you, by the great name which was engraven upon the seal of the prophet Solomon, to answer me truly the question I am going to ask you."
The genie finding himself obliged to a positive answer by this adjuration, trembled, and replied to the fisherman: "Ask what thou wilt, but make haste."
The genie having thus promised to speak the truth, the fisherman said to him: "I wish to know if you were actually in this vessel: dare you swear it by the name of the great God?" "Yes," replied the genie, "I do swear by His great name that I was." "In good faith," answered the fisherman, "I cannot believe you; the vessel is not capable of holding one of your size, and how should it be possible that your whole body could lie in it?" "I swear to thee, notwithstanding," replied the genie, "that I was there just as you see me here. Is it possible that thou dost not believe me after the solemn oath I have taken?" "Truly not I," said the fisherman; "nor will I believe you, unless you go into the vessel again."
Upon this the body of the genie dissolved and changed itself into smoke, extending as before upon the seashore; and at last being collected, it began to re-enter the vessel, which it continued to do by a slow and equal motion, till no part remained out; when immediately a voice came forth, which said to the fisherman: "Well, incredulous fellow, dost thou not believe me now?"
The fisherman, instead of answering the genie, took the cover of lead, and having speedily replaced it on the vessel, "Genie," cried he, "now it is your turn to beg my favour, and to choose which way I shall put you to death; but it is better that I should throw you into the sea, whence I took you: and then I will build a house upon the shore, where I will reside and give notice to all fishermen who come to throw in their nets, to beware of such a wicked genie as you are, who have made an oath to kill him that shall set you at liberty."
The genie, enraged at these expressions, struggled to free himself; but it was impossible, for the impression of Solomon's seal prevented him. Perceiving that the fisherman had the advantage of him, he thought fit to dissemble his anger; "Fisherman," said he, "take heed you do not what you threaten; for what I spoke to you was only by way of jest." "O genie!" replied the fisherman, "thou who wast but a moment ago the greatest of all genies, and now art the least of them, thy crafty discourse will signify nothing, to the sea thou shalt return. If thou hast been there already so long as thou hast told me, thou mayest very well stay there till the day of judgment. I begged of thee, in God's name, not to take away my life, and thou didst reject my prayers; I am obliged to treat thee in the same manner."
The genie omitted nothing that he thought likely to prevail with the fisherman: "Open the vessel," said he, "give me my liberty, and I promise to satisfy you to your own content." "Thou art a traitor," replied the fisherman, "I should deserve to lose my life, if I were such a fool as to trust thee."
"My good fisherman," replied the genie, "I conjure you once more not to be guilty of such cruelty; consider that it is not good to avenge one's self, and that, on the other hand, it is commendable to do good for evil; do not treat me as Imama formerly treated Ateca." "And what did Imama to Ateca?" inquired the fisherman. "Ho!" cried the genie, "if you have a mind to be informed, open the vessel: do you think that I can be in a humour to relate stories in so strait a prison? I will tell you as many as you please, when you have let me out." "No," said the fisherman, "I will not let thee out; it is in vain to talk of it; I am just going to throw thee into the bottom of the sea." "Hear me one word more," cried the genie; "I promise to do you no hurt; nay, far from that, I will show you a way to become exceedingly rich."
The hope of delivering himself from poverty prevailed with the fisherman. "I could listen to thee," said he, "were there any credit to be given to thy word; swear to me, by the great name of God, that thou wilt faithfully perform what thou promisest, and I will open the vessel; I do not believe thou wilt dare to break such an oath."
The genie swore to him, upon which the fisherman immediately took off the covering of the vessel. At that instant the smoke ascended, and the genie, having resumed his form, the first thing he did was to kick the vessel into the sea. This action alarmed the fisherman. "Genie," said he, "will not you keep the oath you just now made?"
The genie laughed at his fear, and answered: "Fisherman, be not afraid, I only did it to divert myself, and to see if you would be alarmed at it; but to convince you that I am in earnest, take your nets and follow me." As he spoke these words, he walked before the fisherman, who having taken up his nets, followed him, but with some distrust. They passed by the town, and came to the top of a mountain, from whence they descended into a vast plain, which brought them to a lake that lay betwixt four hills.
When they reached the side of the lake, the genie said to the fisherman: "Cast in your nets and catch fish." The fisherman did not doubt of taking some, because he saw a great number in the water; but he was extremely surprised when he found they were of four colours; white, red, blue, and yellow. He threw in his nets and brought out one of each colour. Having never seen the like before, he could not but admire them, and, judging that he might get a considerable sum for them, he was very joyful. "Carry those fish," said the genie to him, "and present them to your sultan; he will give you more money for them. You may come daily to fish in this lake; but I give you warning not to throw in your nets above once a day, otherwise you will repent." Having spoken thus, he struck his foot upon the ground, which opened, and after it had swallowed him up, closed again.
The fisherman, being resolved to follow the genie's advice, forbore casting in his nets a second time, and returned to the town very well satisfied, and making a thousand reflections upon his adventure. He went immediately to the sultan's palace to offer his fish, and his majesty was much surprised when he saw the wonders which the fisherman presented. He took them up one after another, and viewed them with attention; and after having admired them a long time, "Take those fish," said he to his vizier, "and carry them to the cook whom the emperor of the Greeks has sent me. I cannot imagine but that they must be as good as they are beautiful."
The vizier carried them as he was directed, and delivering them to the cook, said: "Here are four fish just brought to the sultan; he orders you to dress them." He then returned to the sultan, who commanded him to give the fisherman four hundred pieces of gold, which he did accordingly.
The fisherman, who had never seen so much money, could scarcely believe his good fortune, but thought the whole must be a dream, until he found it otherwise, by being able to provide necessaries for his family with the produce of his nets.
As soon as the sultan's cook had cleaned the fish, she put them upon the fire in a frying-pan, with oil, and when she thought them fried enough on one side, she turned them upon the other; but, O monstrous prodigy! scarcely were they turned, when the wall of the kitchen divided, and a young lady of wonderful beauty entered from the opening. She held a rod in her hand and was clad in flowered satin, with pendants in her ears, a necklace of large pearls, and bracelets of gold set with rubies. She moved toward the frying-pan, to the great amazement of the cook, and striking one of the fish with the end of the rod, said: "Fish, fish, are you in your duty?" The fish having answered nothing, she repeated these words, and then the four fish lifted up their heads, and replied: "Yes, yes: if you reckon, we reckon; if you pay your debts, we pay ours; if you fly, we overcome, and are content." As soon as they had finished these words, the lady overturned the frying-pan, and returned into the open part of the wall, which closed immediately, and became as it was before.
The cook was greatly frightened at what had happened, and coming a little to herself went to take up the fish that had fallen on the hearth, but found them blacker than coal and not fit to be carried to the sultan. This grievously troubled her, and she fell to weeping most bitterly. "Alas!" said she, "what will become of me? If I tell the sultan what I have seen, I am sure he will not believe me, but will be enraged against me."
While she was thus bewailing herself, the grand vizier entered, and asked her if the fish were ready. She told him all that had occurred, which we may easily imagine astonished him; but without speaking a word of it to the sultan he invented an excuse that satisfied him, and sending immediately for the fisherman bid him bring four more such fish, for a misfortune had befallen the others, so that they were not fit to be carried to the royal table. The fisherman, without saying anything of what the genie had told him, told the vizier he had a great way to go for them, in order to excuse himself from bringing them that day, but said that he would certainly bring them on the morrow.
Accordingly the fisherman went away by night, and coming to the lake, threw in his nets betimes next morning, took four fish like the former, and brought them to the vizier at the hour appointed. The minister took them himself, carried them to the kitchen, and shutting himself up with the cook, she cleaned them and put them on the fire. When they were fried on one side, and she had turned them upon the other, the kitchen wall again opened, and the same lady came in with the rod in her hand, struck one of the fish, spoke to it as before, and all four gave her the same answer.
After they had spoken to the young lady, she overturned the frying-pan with her rod, and retired into the wall. The grand vizier being witness to what had passed, "This is too wonderful and extraordinary," said he, "to be concealed from the sultan; I will inform him of this prodigy."
The sultan, being much surprised, sent immediately for the fisherman, and said to him: "Friend, cannot you bring me four more such fish?" The fisherman replied: "If your majesty will be pleased to allow me three days, I will do it." Having obtained his time, he went to the lake immediately, and at the first throwing in of his net he caught four fish, and brought them directly to the sultan, who was so much the more rejoiced, as he did not expect them so soon, and ordered him four hundred pieces of gold. As soon as the sultan had the fish, he ordered them to be carried into his closet, with all that was necessary for frying them; and having shut himself up with the vizier, the minister cleaned them, put them into the pan, and when they were fried on one side, turned them upon the other; then the wall of the closet opened, but instead of the young lady, there came out a black, in the habit of a slave, and of a gigantic stature, with a great green staff in his hand. He advanced toward the pan, and touching one of the fish with his staff, said, with a terrible voice: "Fish, are you in your duty?" At these words the fish raised up their heads, and answered: "Yes, yes; we are; if you reckon, we reckon; if you pay your debts, we pay ours; if you fly, we overcome and are content."
The fish had no sooner finished these words, than the black threw the pan into the middle of the closet, and reduced them to a coal. Having done this, he retired fiercely, and entering again into the aperture, it closed, and the wall appeared just as it did before.
"After what I have seen," said the sultan to the vizier, "it will not be possible for me to be easy; these fish, without doubt, signify something extraordinary." He sent for the fisherman, and when he came, said to him: "Fisherman, the fish you have brought us make me very uneasy; where did you catch them?" "Sir," answered he, "I fished for them in a lake situated betwixt four hills, beyond the mountain that we see from hence." "Know'st thou not that lake?" said the sultan to the vizier. "No," replied the vizier, "I never so much as heard of it, although I have for sixty years hunted beyond that mountain." The sultan asked the fisherman how far the lake might be from the palace. The fisherman answered it was not above three hours' journey; upon this assurance the sultan commanded all his court to take horse, and the fisherman served them for a guide. They all ascended the mountain, and at the foot of it they saw, to their great surprise, a vast plain that nobody had observed till then, and at last they came to the lake, which they found to be situated betwixt four hills, as the fisherman had described. The water was so transparent that they observed all the fish to be like those which the fisherman had brought to the palace.
The sultan stood upon the bank of the lake, and after beholding the fish with admiration, demanded of his courtiers if it were possible they had never seen this lake which was within so short a distance of the town. They all answered that they had never so much as heard of it.
"Since you all agree that you never heard of it," said the sultan, "and as I am no less astonished than you are at this novelty, I am resolved not to return to my palace till I learn how this lake came here, and why all the fish in it are of four colours." Having spoken thus, he ordered his court to encamp; and immediately his pavilion and the tents of his household were planted upon the banks of the lake.
When night came the sultan retired under his pavilion, and spoke to the grand vizier thus: "Vizier, my mind is uneasy; this lake transported hither, the black that appeared to us in my closet, and the fish that we heard speak; all these things so much excite my curiosity that I cannot resist my impatient desire to have it satisfied. To this end I am resolved to withdraw alone from the camp, and I order you to keep my absence secret: stay in my pavilion, and to-morrow morning, when the emirs and courtiers come to attend my levee, send them away and tell them that I am somewhat indisposed and wish to be alone; and the following days tell them the same thing, till I return."
The grand vizier endeavoured to divert the sultan from this design; he represented to him the danger to which he might be exposed, and that all his labour might perhaps be in vain; but it was to no purpose; the sultan was resolved. He put on a suit fit for walking and took his cimeter; and as soon as he found that all was quiet in the camp, went out alone, and passed over one of the hills without much difficulty; he found the descent still more easy, and when he came to the plain, walked on till the sun arose, and then he saw before him, at a considerable distance, a vast building. He rejoiced at the sight, in hopes of receiving there the information he sought. When he drew near, he found it was a magnificent palace, or rather a strong castle, of black polished marble, and covered with fine steel, as smooth as glass. Being highly pleased that he had so speedily met with something worthy his curiosity, he stopped before the front of the castle, and considered it with attention.
He then advanced toward the gate, which had two leaves, one of them open; though he might immediately have entered, yet he thought it best to knock. This he did at first softly, and waited for some time; but seeing no one, and supposing he had not been heard, he knocked harder the second time, and after that he knocked again and again, but no one yet appearing, he was exceedingly surprised; for he could not think that a castle in such repair was without inhabitants. "If there be no one in it," said he to himself, "I have nothing to fear; and if it be inhabited, I have wherewith to defend myself."
At last he entered, and when he came within the porch, he cried: "Is there no one here to receive a stranger who comes in for some refreshment as he passes by?" He repeated the same words two or three times; but though he spoke very loud, he was not answered. The silence increased his astonishment: he came into a spacious court, and looked on every side for inhabitants, but discovered none.
Perceiving nobody in the court, he entered the grand halls, which were hung with silk tapestry, the alcoves and sofas covered with stuffs of Mecca, and the porches with the richest stuffs of India. He came afterward into a superb saloon, in the middle of which was a fountain, with a lion of massy gold at each angle: water issued from the mouths of the four lions, and as it fell, formed diamonds and pearls resembling a jet d'eau, which, springing from the middle of the fountain, rose nearly to the top of a cupola painted in Arabesque.
The castle, on three sides, was encompassed by a garden, with parterres of flowers and shrubbery; and to complete the beauty of the place, an infinite number of birds filled the air with their harmonious notes, and always remained there, nets being spread over the garden, and fastened to the palace to confine them. The sultan walked from apartment to apartment, where he found everything rich and magnificent. Being tired with walking, he sat down in a veranda, which had a view over the garden, reflecting upon what he had seen, when suddenly he heard the voice of one complaining, in lamentable tones. He listened with attention, and heard distinctly these words: "O fortune! thou who wouldst not suffer me longer to enjoy a happy lot, forbear to persecute me, and by a speedy death put an end to my sorrows. Alas! is it possible that I am still alive, after so many torments as I have suffered!"
The sultan rose up, advanced toward the place whence he heard the voice, and coming to the door of a great hall, opened it, and saw a handsome young man, richly habited, seated upon a throne raised a little above the ground. Melancholy was painted on his countenance. The sultan drew near and saluted him; the young man returned his salutation, by an inclination of his head, not being able to rise, at the same time saying: "My lord, I should rise to receive you, but am hindered by sad necessity, and therefore hope you will not be offended." "My lord," replied the sultan, "I am much obliged to you for having so good an opinion of me: as to the reason of your not rising, whatever your apology be, I heartily accept it. Being drawn hither by your complaints, and afflicted by your grief, I come to offer you my help. I flatter myself that you will relate to me the history of your misfortunes; but inform me first of the meaning of the lake near the palace, where the fish are of four colours; whose castle is this; how you came to be here; and why you are alone."
Instead of answering these questions, the young man began to weep bitterly. "How inconstant is fortune!" cried he; "she takes pleasure to pull down those she has raised. Where are they who enjoy quietly the happiness which they hold of her, and whose day is always clear and serene?"
The sultan, moved with compassion to see him in such a condition, prayed him to relate the cause of his excessive grief. "Alas! my lord," replied the young man, "how is it possible but I should grieve, and my eyes be inexhaustible fountains of tears?" At these words, lifting up his robe, he showed the sultan that he was a man only from the head to the girdle, and that the other half of his body was black marble.
The sultan was much surprised when he saw the deplorable condition of the young man. "That which you show me," said he, "while it fills me with horror, excites my curiosity, so that I am impatient to hear your history, which, no doubt, must be extraordinary, and I am persuaded that the lake and the fish make some part of it; therefore I conjure you to relate it. You will find some comfort in so doing, since it is certain that the unfortunate find relief in making known their distress." "I will not refuse your request," replied the young man, "though I cannot comply without renewing my grief. But I give you notice beforehand, to prepare your ears, your mind, and even your eyes, for things which surpass all that the imagination can conceive."