An Eastern Tale

Miss Appleton

Omara was the daughter of the king, and the fairest maid of Abyssinia. She was fresher than the young water-lily; more engaging than the oldest houri; and of nature, tender as the young matron-dove that nestled and fed her young above the cornice of the royal apartment. But Omara, though so lovely by nature and education, was still a mortal, and felt the press of frailty’s hand. She was, at times, peevish amidst a tumult of happiness, and dull and distracted amongst a thousand exertions of strained faculties to please her. She sighed when she should have smiled; and sometimes rewarded an eager bard, an anxious songster, a panting dancer by marks of fretful impatience. Often did she rise up in the midst of the banquet and send those who looked to her for approbation, abruptly to their homes.

It happened that in a small habitation near her father’s palace there dwelt an Arabian sage, of whom report had said much. He was idolized by the poor, and persons of all ranks consulted him as a physician, a judge, and a teacher of divine things. He was mild and gentle of manner; pleasing in address; simple in speech; frank in opinion; and in virtue he was not esteemed less than in knowledge.

Saddac, for so was he named, was accustomed after the heat and fatigues of the day to walk in the terrace of his flat-roofed dwelling, which overlooked the Royal Gardens. He there beheld the Princess surrounded by her maidens who sang, danced, or recited to amuse her. Sometimes she admitted cunning travellers, who excelled in strange feats and sleights of hand, or skilful musicians who sang European strains to sweet-toned instruments, and sometimes she listened to famed Arabs who could recount, either in prose or verse, more adventures than there are in the thousand stories of Scheherazade. Sometimes he beheld the Princess quite alone, pacing the acacia walks; sealed in her grot of jasper, gazing on an aviary of golden wires, or listening to the fall of clear water from an artificial rock of crystal. But with all these resources and amusements, Saddac perceived that discontent warped her young brow. She would hang her head and weep in the midst of the dance; and clap her hands for indignation amidst the best vibrations of the lyre. Her attendants renewed their exertions, and succeeded sometimes in awakening an interest; but their royal mistress was so fickle that the smallest matter discomposed and ruffled her; then she did not recover during the day.

One evening he perceived her sitting by the edge of the river, holding in her hands something which she seemed to guard with great care. She pressed it to her bosom, and kissed it, and looked again upon it, when one of her ladies coming up suddenly to speak to her, she started and opened her hands, from which a very small bird immediately slipped and flew away. Omara sprang up and endeavoured to seize it, but in vain. The little prisoner had escaped. Seeing this, she desired her attendant to be gone, and fell to weeping. After some time she raised her head and perceived on the roof of his house, the old man whom she had so often noticed, with his eyes fixed steadfastly upon her. She blushed with vexation, and returned to the Palace.

“Who is that inquisitive man who loiters away his time in noticing all my actions from his terrace?” said the Princess to her favourite lady. “He is, Madam, a great sage and philosopher, a stranger who has taken up his abode in these parts since the last two years,” replied the attendant. “I marvel whether his art extends to the bringing back of the sweet bird which I have lost,” said Omara, still weeping. “I should not despair of his doing even that, Madam,” answered the lady, “for the whole city resounds with the fame of his wisdom and astonishing skill in all kinds of art. I would lay my jewel bracelets that he could tell your Highness which way the bird is flown, and where he now is.”

“Indeed! Sayest thou really true?” enquired the Princess looking earnestly on the attendant. “Your Highness shall judge,” replied she, “by one circumstance, which I will, with your permission, relate.” — “Go on, then,” said Omara, “and speak out, for I will give thee all due attention.”

“The matter is thus, then,” said the lady. “There lived in my father’s street a jewel merchant who amassed a very considerable fortune. He had a beautiful wife and two fine daughters, and he, moreover, enjoyed all the comforts which a large house, costly furniture, many slaves, and large possessions in camels, asses, and horses, could procure him. Yet was this man discontented and unhappy. He used to start up in the midst of entertainments, or even meals; and leaving his wife and children, fly to some lonely spot, and there sit mournful and solitary till his relations found him, and prevailed on him to join them. When, however, he did so, he was sullen and reserved; and his guests being disgusted with his behaviour, dropped off one by one.

“Just as his eldest daughter, whom he tenderly loved, had passed her fifteenth summer, she fell ill of a fever and died. His wife, catching the infection, immediately followed her. The merchant’s disorder now wore a deeper cast, and the neighbours and friends earnestly besought the remaining daughter to consent to his being conducted to the wise man of the Royal Gardens, that he might administer to him. The young maiden consented, but without any hope. What must have been her delight, to see her beloved father return home at the end of six days, calm, placid, recovered!”

“And is this merchant now alive?” said Omara. “He is, Madam,” answered the attendant, “both alive and well. He has sold the half of his large possessions, and much of his fine furniture and equipage, the sum arising from which he has distributed among the needy. He has now purchased a pleasant residence at no great distance from here, and lives contented and retired with his daughter, and divides his time between a few friends, books, and study, and the Sage, whom he often visits: as we suppose to renew the charm which he must have received from him, and which has worked his recovery.”

“This is a strange story,” said the Princess. “I am often, myself, very unhappy in the midst of pleasures, and like the jewel merchant, I could often flee away when all are trying to entertain me. I will see the Sage, but how can it be contrived?” — “Only by your going to him, Madam,” said the attendant, “for I question if he would leave his habitation for the King himself. Besides which, I hear all his charms are kept in his apartments, and may not be transported elsewhere at pleasure.”

“This being the case and, as I am resolved to speak to the philosopher,” said Omara, “I will go, and in disguise for I may not be seen as myself without these walls. Look to it, I pray you; and contrive some habit for you as well as for myself, which may effectually conceal us.” — “I am dying to speak to this wise man, and to ask him whether, if I marry the nobleman I have dreamt of these three nights; I shall be happy,” answered the lady. “And I shall not fail obeying your Highness’s commands to a very tittle.”

Accordingly, the next morning the Princess and the lady having attired after the fashion of a matron going to the bath with her slave, drew their thick veils close round, passed the gates of the palace, and ascended as the porter commanded them, the flight of steps which led to the apartment of the Sage. Omara trembled so violently that she was forced to grasp the balustrade with one hand, as she leaned on her attendant with the other. “Fear nothing, Madam,” whispered the lady, “we cannot hurt. No harm can befall the Princess of Abyssinia.” — “I am not so sure of that,” said Omara. “Fate seems no more to respect me than another. Else why am I unhappy in the midst of festivity? And why does accident touch me when I least expect it?” — “That is for the Sage to answer,” said the lady, “and for the very purpose of hearing his reply we are come so far. Let us therefore be courageous and proceed to the end.”

By this time the ladies had arrived at the last step and one of them rang a small bell which hung near a door. This was immediately opened by an old man of mild aspect, who bowed in salutation and stood aside for them to pass. Omara motioned to her attendant to speak; but, as fear overcame her, the Princess took up the word. “We are come,” said she, “to advise with you, great Sir, upon our several grievances — my slave and myself. We have each subjects for redress, and would profit by the wisdom which all the country gives you. First, let my slave speak, whilst I consider the questions I would put to you.”

Saddac lent an attentive ear, and when the Princess had finished speaking, again bowed and drew forth a cushion for her to recline upon. Omara received it with dignity and extended a hand covered with jewels, and white as the snows of a virgin mountain’s top, to meet it. The Sage then turned to the attendant.

“Before I administer to you relief, young woman, pray inform me of what nature are your grievances. Are they of the mind, or of the body?” At this unceremonious appellation, the lady felt angry; and drawing aside a little of her veil, discovered a fair forehead, eyes of great sprightliness and beauty, and cheeks flushed with the warmth of indignation. Saddac instantly recognized her, and felt a confirmation of his suspicions of Omara’s rank, but he betrayed no signs of this, and continued to enforce his question.

“I wish,” said the lady, again covering her face, “to know whether a certain woman will be happy if she marry the man of her choice.” — “First,” interrupted Saddac, “tell me whether the woman loves the man?” The lady hesitated. At length she said, “Yes — I think — she loves him.” — “Is the man handsome?” asked the Sage. “Is he well formed; and is he rich?” — “Yes,” answered the lady, “he has all these advantages.” — “Or,” continued Saddac, “has he fine abilities, good disposition, and quick comprehension, for these alone would be a balance to the others?” — “These, too, he may have, for aught I know,” replied the lady, “but I confess, I never thought of them when I felt certain of the others.” Saddac smiled, and proceeded. “Now,” said he, “imagine thirty years added to the thirty which the man may have. Suppose his strength diminished and his faculties somewhat dimmed. Let his round cheek be hollowed by age, his temple wrinkled by decay, and his head whitened by care. Let reverses have drawn his robe close around him, and affliction and crosses have chilled his affections. Let the man so stand before her who now prefers him. What says she?” — “I confess,” replied the lady, “I could not like such a one.” — “Then,” answered Saddac, “love dwells not in thy breast, nor has ever joined sentiment to thine. If thou marry the man, misery will always hover near thee, to threaten in the shape of accident — malady — misfortune.”

He then turned to the Princess. “Now, Lady, have you prepared yur questions?”

“I did intend to ask concerning a bird which I have lost,” said Omara, “but I would rather now enquire why I am so often unhappy in the midst of pleasures and delights?” — “This is a disease of mind,” answered the Sage. “Do you desire to have a remedy for it?” — “I do, indeed,” replied Omara, “for I have no enjoyment of life, although I am surrounded with pleasures and preside at banquets.” — “It is no uncommon disorder,” said Saddac. “Pray is your health good?” — “It is not amiss,” replied Omara. “I bathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and can also walk as far as my slave, yonder, without being tired.” — “Satisfactory, so far,” said the philosopher. “Now, I pray you, wait whilst I dispatch my breakfast. I cannot advise, fasting.” The Princess bowed in acquiescence and the Sage called to a child to come forward and arrange it for him. A pretty little maid immediately advanced from behind a screen and holding up her robe, and knelt down to blow up the embers on the hearth, that the coffee might boil. Whilst she was so engaged, the Sage turned about and have her a blow on the head, which felled her to the ground. Without showing any compunction he assisted her to rise, and she resumed her employment whilst the tears rolled down her soft face to her hand.

At this action, the Princess uncovered her face a little to cast a look of indignation and surprise on Saddac. He took no notice of it, but put into her hands a crystal box full of butterflies. “Take,” said he, “while I breakfast, all these insects and tear off their wings. On one you will find written a curious word which may assist us.” — “What!” exclaimed Omara, “must I put twenty harmless animals to torture, for one may be good? It shall not be. Take back the box.” — “Nay, Madam,” said her attendant, “I would not mind assisting you.” — “Hold your peace,” said Omara, “what is cruelty in one, is the same in another; and in my presence you shall not so aver.” Saddac, therefore, took back the insects and drank up his coffee. When he had finished, he threw the vase at the child with such force, that he wounded on side of her cheek. The blood sprang out and fell down as she shrieked, and retired behind the screen.

Omara darted forward but the Sage respectfully put her back. “The child is my slave,” said he. “I am her master. You, Lady, are my visitor. Observe, but be still.”

The Princess, pale with indignation and horror was however silent. Saddac led her forward to a small window, and placing her on a seat, bid her look attentively through it. He then left her but presently returned.

“Know, Lady,” said he, “that I am going, by the force of my art, to command before you different persons whom I wish you to consider — see them; hear them; judge them; you shall then draw your own conclusions, and be at liberty to depart.”

A curtain which had darkened the window, was now drawn aside. Omara looked as she was desired.

In front appeared a young and lovely woman whose face was pale and flushed by turns. She knelt, and rose up, and leaned against the wall of her chamber: then she took and old tattered paper from her bosom and kissed it, and burst into a flood of tears, and read it, and put it away as they trickled down to her bosom. Just then, an old man entered, and going gravely to her, seemed to ask a question of great moment. The female clasped her hands and was at first silent. Then her lips moved. She wept, pleaded, knelt, and at last, sank insensible on the floor, where the old man left her.

The scene now changed. The same lady, surrounded by a long train of assistants, stood on the step of a chapel. A priest joined her hand to that of a man richly attired, whilst she was supported on both sides by females. As the ceremony finished, she again swooned, and was carried away. Again a different scene appeared. The same lady so worn by grief as only to be known by her fine eye, long tresses, and delicate shape, was seen serving up the dinner to her Lord. She addressed him with sweetness, whilst he replied with disdain. Her head shook as she offered him the meat he desired and she sighed as he pushed it scornfully from him. At this instant, a noise attracted the tyrant to the balcony. He looked out and returned. His lips moved, as if he said, “The city in triumph, to be rewarded for his services? But thank Heaven, not by you.” She started, a slight blush passed. She bowed, put her hand to her heart, and remained silent, suffering and submissive.

Omara’s tears flowed as she gazed, but all was in an instant withdrawn from her sight. There appeared a gloomy, tremendous gulf with scarcely a ray to enlighten it. Several minutes elapsed before anything could be distinguished, but a few lamps were here and there lighted and exposed to view several men and women, wretched, meagre, deformed, and naked, who wandered over every part. Some were digging and groping in the earth, whilst sharp flints and stones cut their feet and hands, and made wounds in both; as drops of sweat rolled from their brows.

A young female chained to a man, made, with him, the most prominent figures. From time to time he pressed her to his breast, and kissed away her tears. She smiled through them upon him, joined her arms around his neck, and then grasping a handful of earth, continued her search. In a moment, the lights were extinguished; a scream and report followed, and all was dark.

Presently the lamps were relighted, and the young woman was seen lifeless — her countenance wore the same character it had done some minutes before — that of mingled love, pain, grief, suffering, and want. The young man stood the length of his chain from her. He said not a word, but looked and looked as a statue, which receives from its master’s hand one attitude — fixed, motionless, unalterable. The Keeper, or Director, now came forward, and having examined the body, ordered it to be removed. The chains were seized to be knocked asunder. At this, a sense of feeling returned. The young man twined his arms in desperation, round and round the chain, and drew up his partner to his breast. He kissed her cheek and forehead; grasped her hand, and acted the wildest states of frenzied affection. Three times did the keeper give the signal to separate him from the corpse, and three times was he disobeyed. At length he was overpowered by numbers, and driven back by stripes of the scourge to his labour.

At this sight, Omara exclaimed, “Impossible! ’tis indeed, Sir, too much.” — “Silence, Madam,” answered Saddac, “and attend.” The cave had now vanished and before them was a rugged desolate island with a tremendous sea dashing and breaking round it. The clouds hung black, low, and fiery over the naked and sharp precipices, and the sand which covered the bit of earth was carried up in whirlwind, and then precipitated furiously down again. A few planks of a vessel lay here and there, and in the distance were several men, two women, and a child. They were all so meagre and wretched that they resembled animated skeletons, whilst hunger raged to madness in their visages. They seemed busy in casting lots, which fell upon the child. Then they shouted, tore it from the mother’s breast, and plunging a knife in its heart quickly divided the unhappy victim. The mother in her struggles to save the child had received a large wound in her arm, from which she was drinking the blood as it fell.

Saddac watched the Princess, and observed that this sight was too dreadful for her to bear. Another immediately appeared.

In the midst of the most delightful gardens in the world, lay stretched, under a pavilion of embroidered silk, a man in the prime of life. He was wrapped in a pelisse of damask satin, edged with costly fur, and slaves to lower or raise the awning over him; to admit more, or less, or air; to fan away the insects, to scatter perfumes, or gently to raise the head, or smooth the limbs of their master. Then, Omara perceived that the legs were twice their natural size, and that diseases had gnawed away the lower part of his face. Groans escaped from the patient’s breast as he raised his fine intelligent eyes as if to petition for relief, which he knew to be hopeless.

“Blessed be health!” said Saddac, “but look once more, Lady.”

The Princess saw a dejected looking female employed in painting. Her eye was sunk in her head, and hopelessness was seated on her brow. She looked at times right and left, upon different richly dressed persons who passed her; but none gave her any attention. Presently she smiled — not one joined with her. She wept — none observed it. As Omara looked, she saw her slip from the steps on which she had been standing to reach the uppermost point of distance in the work, and in falling dislocated her wrist. Those around her now stepped forward to assist in holding her arm, but none spoke; none offered consolation, none commiserated; none felt. The poor being withdrew her hand from them, bound it in her own kerchief, and moved to her closet. Here she threw herself on her knees and prayed, and then pale with agony, and pining for one expression of sympathy, went back and resumed her occupation.

“Here we stop,” said Saddac. “I could show you more of life, but this will suffice. These, Lady, are some of the miseries which are the lot of your fellow creatures. What think you?” — “I think,” replied Omara, “if such as these exist, that I, in repining, am the most ungrateful of women.”

“It is enough,” cried Saddac. “Oh, Lady! whatever be your rank, learn and be wise. Reform and be happy, for discontent which cannot remedy evil, disfigures all good, and renders all enjoyment insipid. But listen to me yet a few minutes, whilst I go into the explanation you desire.

“Of all the applications which I have, that to show the road from discontent to happiness is the most universal. Of all the means fro weighing misery and judging good, that of comparison is the most effectual. Knowing this I have employed myself during twenty years in forming a variety of figures in ware, to which I have, by affixing springs, given the motions which suited me. Such are those you have just viewed; which are not produced by magic, as you imagined, but by scientific act.”

“But,” exclaimed Omara, “the child whom you so cruelly used was a real child?” — “Pardon me,” said Saddac, “it was an automaton, but highly finished. I considered it necessary, when you asked me to teach you content, to begin by discovering whether you possessed feeling. I ill-treated my slave to try your disposition towards human creatures; and I gave you real insects to torture, to learn whether you had any humanity to animals.”

“And if these trials had ended otherwise than they have done,” said the astonished Omara — 

“Then, Madam,” replied Saddac, “I should have taken my coffee, and have dismissed you with excuses. The attempt is vain, to work upon an insensible and selfish heart. Yours is not such a one, and I have proved to you that I think so, by what I have shown you. Our first scene represented the anguish of those beings, and they are not a few, who have to lock up in their bosoms a warm, tender affection which a sordid, remorseless parent in the shape of duty forbids them to encourage. Life hangs heavily on their hands, and joys of the simplest kind are robbed of their charm, yet house, home, riches, friends — some, or all of these comforts are left. Let even them repeat that others can be worse off than they.

“The second representation is a poor unhappy men and women who are snatched from their country and friends, and are sold to be pent up in caverns, where they must search and dig for gold; and where they are chained like brutes and are forced to work till they die from fatigue or accident — the last of which has been the case here, in the shape of a noxious vapour which has burst and taken the only earthly comfort of the poor man in his faithful wife. Yet he has the satisfaction of thinking that his partner’s cares are ended with her life, that she is gone to a place of rest, and that he will meet her again.

“The next subject is more dreadful. Mariners who had been ten days tossed on the wide raging seas and exposed to dangers, of which the peasant who reposes on a bed of straw can have no conception, are landed on a rocky island, and have been six days wholly without food. They are feeding on human flesh and theirs is perhaps the most dreadful state in existence for all are more or less under the influence of madness; excepting the second female, whom you might see fall with weakness as we looked on. The extremes of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, with shipwreck and sudden death — to all these are mariners exposed; and every nation sends forth its thousands to ride the billows and to conduct its trade, or fight its sea battles. Yet, even with the men we have seen all is not lost. Had we looked longer, we should have seen in the distance a ship labouring with the waves, and bending her course to the island, in a small bay of which she anchors and is perceived by the mariners, who kneel with one accord to thank Heaven for their deliverance, forget their sufferings, and declare that others may be worse off than they.

“The fourth subject is of a nobleman who has riches, friends, home, abilities, power, rank. He has every earthly blessing but one, which is health. The blood which has flowed in his veins since his birth has never been pure. Existence has been, with him, one round of pain and suffering. Yet, as drops of agony rise round is forehead, and as his deathly hands stroke aside a ringlet from his face, he smiles on the friend near him, and admits that the poor diseased wretch who has nothing to afford for comforts, or even necessaries, is even worse than himself.

“The fifth representation is illustrative of the being who is doomed to live without a friend. The woman you saw is joined with persons of higher rank or fortune than her own. She has all the enjoyment their wealth can procure, but pity, sympathy, commiseration, she has none. In health or poverty, sickness or success, she has no one to hear her story, to rejoice or to sigh with her. Poor wretch, she is without a friend! But if she have no earthly, she is sure of a heavenly guardian, and to him, as she looks up with hope, so is she cheered by promise. Even she can smile — smile although under the hardest lot of all: mortality, for she can imagine a state worse than her own.

“And now, Lady,” continued Saddac, “I leave to you the reflections upon the miseries of your fellow mortals, and in summing them up, to judge whether you ought to suffer discontent to prey upon you. Have you parents and friends? Love them. Have you health? Prize it. Have you riches? Value them as you may benefit others, and procure moderate enjoyment to yourself. Have you talents? Exercise them and detest idleness. Have you rank? Let a consciousness of it induce you to give a bright example to those who look up to you.”

“All these, in some degree, are mine,” exclaimed Omara with modest animation. “Then be happy,” said Saddac, “in the possession of blessings which seldom fall in a mass to one being. Be happy, and recollect that whilst you revel in all earthly good, one half of the Creation suffers from pain, sickness and want; whilst the other half, with the exception of a very few like yourself, are beings in whom blessing and misfortune is united to a greater or less degree. Try to make them happy and you shall become so yourself; and, as you smile with grateful content, ask, where is the being who can say with me — Misfortune has never blighted my hopes — Accident has never checked my career — Sickness has never faded my cheek — and yet has discontent always soured my existence! Go, my daughter; reflect, be wise, and sin no more.”

Thus speaking, the Sage led Omara respectfully to the door. Her attendant followed. When both ladies bowing three times in token of gratitude, respect, and reverence took their silent way to the Palace.