In the Orient's motley, twisted annals the tale of Ahmed el-Bagdadi's?"the Thief of Bagdad," as he is called in the ancient records--search for happiness, which is by the same token the tale of his adventures and exploits and love, has assumed in the course of time the character of something Homeric, something epic and fabulous, something close-woven to the golden loom of the desert in both pattern and sweep of romance.
It is mentioned with pride by his own tribe, the Benni Hussaynieh, a raucous-tongued, hard-riding breed of Bedouins, brittle of honor and greedy of gain, of whom--due to a father, tired of the sterile Arabian sands and eager for the pleasures of bazaar and marketplace--he was the city-bred descendant. It is spoken of with a mixture of awe and envy by the Honorable Guild of Bagdad Thieves of whom he was once a keen and highly respected member. It is wide-blown through the flaps of the nomads' black felt tents from Mecca to Jeddah and beyond; berry-brown, wizen old women cackle its gliding gossip as they brew the coffee for the morning meal or rock the blown-up milk skins upon their knees till the butter rolls yellow and frothing; and, on the sun-cracked lips of the cameleers, on the honeyed, lying lips of overland traders and merchants, the tale has drifted South as far as the Sahara, North to the walls of grey, stony Bokhara, Southeast and Northeast to Pekin's carved dragon gates and the orchid plains and ochre mountains of Hindustan, and West to the pleasant, odorous gardens of Morocco where garrulous whitebeards comment upon it as they digest the brave deeds of the past in the curling, blue smoke of their water-pipes.
"Wah hyat Ullah--as God liveth!" their telling begins. "This Ahmed el-Bagdadi--what a keen lad he was! A deer in running! A cat in climbing! A snake in twisting! A hawk in pouncing! A dog in scenting! Fleet as a hare! Stealthy as a fox! Tenacious as a wolf! Brave as a lion! Strong as an elephant in mating-time!
Or, taking a blade of grass between thumb and second finger, another ancient will exclaim:
"Wah hyat hatha el-awd wah er-rub el-mabood--by the life of this stem and the blessed Lord God! Never, in all Islam, lived there one to equal Ahmed the Thief in quality and pride, the scope and exquisite charm of his thievery!"
"Wah hyat duqny--by the honor of these my whiskers! Once, O True Believers, it happened in Bagdad the Golden! Aye--may I eat dirt--may I not be father to my sons if I lie! But once, indeed, it happened in Bagdad the Golden!"
And then the full, rich tale. The wondrous ending.
* * * *
Yet the tale's original cause was simple enough, consisting in the snatching of a well-filled purse, a hungry belly craving food, and the jerk and pull of a magic rope woven from the hair of a purple-faced witch of the left-handed sect; while the scene was the Square of the One-Eyed Jew--thus called for reasons lost in the mists of antiquity--in the heart of Bagdad.
Across the South end of the Square straddled the Mosque of Seven Swords, raised on a flight of broad marble steps as on a base, lifting the apex of its wide horseshoe gateway fifty feet into the air, its walls entwining sinuous arabesques of yellow and elfin-green faience beneath the pigeon-blue glare of the sky, its lonely minaret lovely and pointed and snowy-white. East the latticed Bazaar of the Red Sea Traders filtered the sun on rugs and silks, on copper vessels and jewelry and thin gold-inlaid perfume bottles, in an ever-shifting saraband of shadows, rose and purple and sapphire and purest emerald. North a broad, tree-lined avenue swept on toward the palace of the Caliph of the Faithful that etched the horizon with a tortured abandon of spires and turrets and bartizans. West squatted a packed wilderness of narrow, cobbled alleys; a labyrinth of flat-roofed Arab houses with dead-white walls facing the street, but blossoming toward the inner courtyards with palm and olive and rose-bush. Here, too, was the dim, tortuous Bazaar of the Potters, plum-colored Nubians brought as slaves from Africa and, farther on, a cemetery crisscrossed with Barbary fig and the tiny stone cups filled with grain and water for the birds of passage, in obedience to the blessed Moslem tradition.
In the very centre of the Square of the One-Eyed Jew a great fountain played with sleepy, silvered cadences. And here, on a stone slab a little to one side of the fountain, Ahmed the Thief lay flat on his stomach, his chin cupped in his hands, the sun rays warming his bare, bronzed back, his black eyes darting in all directions like dragon-flies to give warning of rich and careless citizens who might pass within reach of his agile hands and whose purses might be had for a little soft twist and tug.
The Square and the streets and bazaars were teeming with humanity, not to mention humanity's wives and children and mothers-in-law and visiting country cousins. For today was a holiday: the day before the Lelet el-Kadr, the "Night of Honor," the anniversary of the occasion when the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the year 609.
So throngs milled and moiled everywhere: people of half the Orient's crazy-quilt of races, Arabs and Seljuks and Osmanlis, Tartars and Syrians, Turkomans and Uzbeks, Bokharans, Moors and Egyptians, with here and there men from the Farther East, Chinese, Hindus and Malays, traveling merchants these, come to Bagdad to swap the products of their home lands for what the Arabs' markets had to offer. They were all making merry after the Orient's immemorial fashion, resplendently, extravagantly, and noisily: the men swaggering and strutting, fingering their jeweled daggers and cocking their immense turbans at a rakish, devil-may-care angle; the women adjusting their thin-meshed face veils which did not need adjusting at all; the little boys seeing if they could shout richer and louder abuse than the other little boys; the little girls rivaling each other in the gay pansy-shades of their dresses and the consumption of greasy candy.
There were ambulant coffee houses filled with men and women in their silken, colorful holiday best, listening to singers and professional story tellers, smoking and chatting, looking at jugglers, knife twirlers, sword swallowers, and dancing-boys. There were cook shops and lemonade stands, toy booths and merry-go-rounds. There were bear leaders, ape leaders, fakirs, fortune tellers, buffoons and Punch and Judy shows. There were itinerant dervish preachers chanting the glories of Allah the One, of the Prophet Mohammed and the Forty-Seven True Saints. There were bell-shaped tents where golden-skinned, blue-tattooed Bedouin maidens trilled and quavered their desert songs, to the accompaniment of tambourines and shrill scrannel pipes. There was everything which makes life worth the living, including a great deal of love making--the love making of the Orient which is frank, direct, and a trifle indelicate to Western ears and prejudices.
There were of course the many cries of the street.
"Sweet water! Sweet water, and gladden thy soul! Lemonade! Lemonade here!" cried the sellers of that luxury, clanking their brass cups together.
"O chick pease! O pips!" shouted the vendors of parched grains. "Good for the liver--the stomach! To sharpen the teeth!"
"In thy protection, O my Head, O my Eyes!" moaned a peasant, drunk with hashish, whom a turbaned policeman, wielding his rhinoceros-hide whip with all his strength, was flogging toward the station house, the peasant's wife following with loud plaints of: "Yah Gharati-yah Dahwati! O thou my Calamity--O thou my Shame!"
"Bless the Prophet and give way to our Great Pasha!" exclaimed the panting, black slave who was running by the side of a grandee's carriage as it crossed the Square.
"O Daughter of the Devil! O Commodity on which Money is lost! O thou especially not wanted!" shrieked a woman as she yanked her tiny, pert-eyed girl-child from beneath the crimson paper partition of a sugar candy booth. The next moment she fondled and kissed her. "O Peace of my Soul!" she cooed. "O Chief Pride of thy Father's House--though only a girl!"
"The grave is the darkness! Good deeds are the lamps!" wailed the blind beggar woman, rattling two dry sticks.
Friend would meet friend and greet each other with all the extravagance of the Orient, throwing themselves upon each other's breasts, placing right arm over left shoulder, squeezing like wrestlers, with intermittent hugs and caresses, then laying cheek delicately against cheek and flat palm against palm, at the same time making the loud, smacking noise of many kisses in the air.
Mild-mannered, sleepy-eyed and suave, they would burst into torrents of rage at the next moment because of some fancied insult. Their nostrils would quiver and they would become furious as Bengal tigers. Then would come streams of obscene abuse, carefully chosen phrases of that picaresque vituperation in which the East excels.
"Owl! Donkey! Christian! Jew! Leper! Pig bereft of gratitude, understanding, and the average decencies!" This from an elderly Arab whose long white beard gave him an aspect of patriarchal dignity in ludicrous contrast with the foul invective which he was using. "Unclean and swinish foreigner! May thy countenance be cold! May dogs defile thy mother's grave!"
Came the reply courteous:
"Basest of illegitimate hyenas! Father of seventeen dogs! Bath servant! Seller of pig's tripe!"
And then the final retort, drawling, slow-voiced, but bristling with all the venom of the East:
"Ho! Thy maternal aunt had no nose, O thou brother of a naughty sister!"
Then a physical assault, an exchange of blows, fists going like flails, until the grinning, spitting, crimson-turbaned policeman separated the combatants and cuffed them both with cheerful, democratic impartiality.
"Hai! Hai! Hai!" laughed the onlookers.
"Hai! Hai! Hayah! Hai!" laughed the Thief of Bagdad; and the very next moment, as a paunchy, grey-bearded money lender stopped at the fountain and bent to sip a drink of water with cupped hands, Ahmed's agile fingers descended, twisted, tugged imperceptibly and came up with a well-filled purse.
Another imperceptible jerk of these agile, brown fingers; and while his body lay flat and motionless, while his eyes were as innocent as those of a child, the purse plopped into his baggy trousers of purple, silver-threaded silk that were tight about the ankles and that, only the night before, he had acquired--without paying for them--in the Bazaar of the Persian Weavers.
Minute after minute he lay there, laughing, watching, exchanging jests with people here and there in the crowd; and many of those who stopped by the fountain to drink or to gossip, helped to swell the loot in Ahmed's loose breeches.
There was amongst that loot, to describe just a few items, a knotted handkerchief, clinking with coined silver and filched from the woolen folds of a hulking, bullying, beetle-browed Tartar camel master's burnoose; a tinkling ruby-and-moonstone girdle gem from the waist shawl of one of the Caliph's favorite Circassian slave girls who moved through the Square and past the fountain escorted by a dozen armed eunuchs; a ring of soft, hammered gold set with an enormous star-sapphire from the henna-stained thumb of a visiting Stambul dandy whom Ahmed, lest the stranger spot his brocaded robe, had helped to a drink of water, and had been rewarded by the other's courtly: "May the Prophet Mohammed repay thee for thy kindness!"--rewarded too, and rather more substantially, by the afore-mentioned ring.
Ahmed was about to call it a day when there came out of the Bazaar of the Red Sea Traders a rich merchant, a certain Tagi Kahn, well known throughout all Bagdad because of his wealth and extravagance--an extravagance, be it added, which he centered on his own person and the enjoyment of his five senses, and which he made up for by extreme penury where the poor and the needy were concerned, and by lending money at exorbitant rates, taking as security the cow and the unborn calf.
He walked with a mincing step, his wicked, shriveled old face topped ludicrously by a coquettish turban of pale cerise, his scanty beard dyed blue with indigo, his pointed finger nails gilt in a foppish manner, his lean body clad in green silk and holding in his bony right hand a large cluster of lilies at which he sniffed.
All this Ahmed saw and disliked. Saw, furthermore, protruding a little from Tagi Kahn's waist shawl, the sagging plumpness of an embroidered purse. A fat purse! A rich, swollen, bloated purse! A purse to stir the indignation of both the righteous and the unrighteous!
"Mine--by the red pig's bristles!" thought Ahmed, as the other passed the fountain. "Mine--or may I never laugh again!"
Already his right hand had descended. Already his agile fingers were curling like question marks. Already the purse was sliding gently from Tagi Kahn's waist shawl when--for let us remember that Ahmed was stretched flat on his stomach, his bare back warmed by the sun--an inquisitive mosquito lit on his shoulder and stung him painfully.
He wiggled; twisted.
His tapering fingers slipped and jerked.
And Tagi Kahn, feeling the jerk, looked up, and saw his purse in Ahmed's hand.
"Thief! Thief! Thief!" he yelled, reaching up, clutching at the purse, grabbing its other end. "Give it back to me!"
"No! No!" protested Ahmed, pulling the purse away and transferring it quickly to his left hand. "It is mine own purse! I am not a thief! I am an honest man! It is you, yourself, who are the thief!"
And, appealing to the people who came crowding up on a run, he continued heatedly, with every expression of injured innocence:
"Behold me this Tagi Kahn! This oppressor of widows and orphans! This worshiper before the unclean gods of compound interest! He accuses me--me--of being a thief!"
"You are a thief!" bellowed the merchant "You stole my purse!"
"The purse is mine!"
"No--mine--O Father of a bad Smell!"
"Goat!" came Ahmed's reply. "Goat of an odor most goatish! Abuser of the Salt!"--and he jumped down from the ledge and faced the other.
Standing there in the bright, yellow sunlight, poised on the balls of his bare feet, ready for either flight or combat as the odds might advise, he was a fine figure of a man: short rather than tall, but perfectly proportioned from narrow foot to curly head, with a splendid breadth of chest and shoulders, and long muscles that were like running water. There was here none of your clumsy, flabby, overfed Nordic flesh, like a greasy, pink-and-white suet pudding, but a smooth, hairless torso, with the crunching strength of a man and the grace of a woman. The face was clean-shaven except for an impudent little mustache that quivered with well-simulated wrath as he heaped insults upon the stammering, raging Tagi Khan.
The crowd laughed and applauded--for Tagi Khan had not many friends in Bagdad--until finally a gigantic, black-bearded Captain of the Watch shouldered his way through the throng.
"Be quiet, both you fighting-cocks!" he thundered threateningly. "This is Bagdad, the Caliph's town, where they hang men in chains from the Gate of Lions for shouting too loudly in the marketplace. And now--softly, softly--what is the trouble?"
"He took my purse, O Protector of the Righteous!" wailed Tagi Khan.
"The purse was never his," asserted Ahmed, boldly displaying the disputed article and holding it high. "It is a most previous heirloom bequeathed to me by my late father--may his soul dwell in Paradise!"
"A lie!" exclaimed the other.
"The truth!" insisted Ahmed.
"A lie! A lie! A lie!" the merchant's voice rose a hectic octave.
"Softly, softly!" came the Captain's warning; and he went on: "There is but one way to decide this matter. Whoever owns this purse knows its contents."
"A wise man!" commented the crowd.
"As wise as Solomon, the King of the Jews!"
Unblushingly, the Captain of the Watch accepted the flattery. He stuck out his great beard like a battering ram; raised hairy, high-veined hands.
"Wise indeed am I!" he admitted calmly. "Let him whose purse it be tell what is in it. And now--my Tagi Khan--since you claim this purse, suppose you tell me what its contents are..."
"Gladly! Readily! Easily!" came the merchant's triumphant reply. "My purse holds three golden tomans from Persia, one chipped at the edge; a bright, carved silver medjidieh from Stambul; eighteen various gold pieces from Bokhara, Khiva, and Samarkand; a shoe-shaped candareen from far Pekin; and a handful of small coins from the land of the Franks--cursed be all unbelievers! Give me the purse! It is mine!"
"One moment," said the Captain. He turned to Ahmed. "And what do you claim the purse to contain?"
"Why," laughed the Thief of Bagdad, "Tis empty. It contains nothing at all, O Great Lord! And," opening the purse and turning it inside out, "here is the proof!" But he kept his right leg very quiet to keep the stolen money, which he had plopped into his baggy breeches, from rattling against the rest of his loot and thus giving him away.
Laughter, then, from the crowd. Riotous, exaggerated, falsetto Oriental laughter--presently topped by the Captain's words:
"You spoke the truth, young man!"
He winked at Ahmed shamelessly and brazenly. For a year or two earlier he had borrowed a sum of money from Tagi Khan; and, the first of every month, had paid high interest and substantial installments without, thanks to the other's miraculous calculations, being ever able to diminish the principal.
He addressed the merchant with crushing, chilly words:
"Consider, O Wart, that the Prophet Mohammed--on Him the blessings and the peace!--recommended honesty as a charming and worthwhile virtue! No--no..." as Tagi Khan was about to break into a flood of bitter protestations?"consider, furthermore, that the tongue is the enemy of the neck!"
With which cryptic threat he swaggered off, bumping his saber tip martially against the stone pavement, while the Thief of Bagdad thumbed his nose insultingly at the infuriated merchant and turned West across the Square, toward the Bazaar of the Potters.
Ahmed was pleased with himself, the sunshine, and the world at large. Money he had! Money that would be eagerly welcomed by his pal, an old man who had first initiated him into the Honorable Guild of Bagdad Thieves and had taught him the tricks and principles of their ancient profession.
Today Ahmed was a greater thief than his former teacher. But he still loved the other, a certain Hassan el-Toork, nicknamed Bird-of-Evil because of his scrawny neck, his claw-like hands, his parrot's beak, and beady, purple-black eyes; and he shared everything with him.
Yes. Hassan el-Toork would be glad of the money--and the other rich loot.
But here it was getting on toward the noon hour, and Ahmed had not yet broken his fast. His stomach grumbled and rumbled, protestingly, challengingly. Should he spend his money on food? No! Not unless he absolutely had to!
"I shall follow my nose!" he said to himself. "Aye! I shall follow this clever nose of mine than which, except for my hands, I have no better friend in the world. Lead on, nose!" he laughed. "Sniff! Smell! Trail! Show me the way! And I, thy master, shall be grateful to thee and shall reward thee with the aroma of whatever rich food may tickle my palate and bloat this shriveled belly of mine!"
So the nose sniffed and led the way; and Ahmed followed, across the Square of the One-Eyed Jew, through the packed wilderness of small Arab houses that ran together like children at play, with a glimpse at the sky above the roof tops revealing scarcely three yards of breadth, the copings meeting at times, and the bulbous, fantastic balconies seeming to interlace like the out-rigging of sailing craft in a Malay harbor; until finally, at a place where the alleys broadened into another Square, the nostrils quivered and the nose dilated, causing the owner of the nose to stop and stand still, like a pointer at bay.
A delicious, seductive odor was wafted from somewhere: rice cooked with honey and rose buds and green pistache nuts and drowned in a generous flood of clarified butter; meat balls spiced with saffron and poppy seeds; egg plants cleverly stuffed with raisins and with secret condiments from the Island of the Seven Purple Cranes.
Ahmed looked in the direction where the nose sniffed.
And there, balanced on the railing of a bird's-nest balcony high up on the wall of a Pasha's proud palace, he saw three great porcelain bowls, heaped with steaming food, that a fat Nubian cook had put there to cool a little.
He looked at the wall. It was steep, high, straight up and down, with never a foothold of any sort. A cat in climbing, he was. But to reach this balcony he needed wings, and--he laughed?"I am not a bird, and may Allah grant it be many more years before I become an angel!"
And then, brushing through the deserted Square, he heard two noises blending into a symphony: a man's staccato snore and a donkey's melancholy, pessimistic bray. He looked about, and, a little to the left, he saw an enormous Tartar peddler--well over three hundred pounds he must have weighed--asleep in the sun, sitting cross-legged on huge haunches, his extravagant stomach resting and overlapping on his stout knees, his great, turbaned head bobbing up and down, snoring loudly through half-open lips, while, a few feet away, a tiny white donkey, the fruit-panniers empty but for three spoiled melons and roped to the wooden pack-saddle, was braying at the sky, doubtless complaining of its boredom.
"A pulley!" thought Ahmed. "Sent by Allah Himself to help me up to yonder balcony!"
A few moments later he had unwound the turban cloth from about the Tartar's head, weighted it with a melon, flung one end over the balcony railing, and, when it came back to his hands, tucked it deftly under the sleeping man's knees, then tied it to the donkey's saddle.
"Up, little donkey!" he called softly. "Up, little brother, and back to thy stable--the rich, green food! Up!"
And the donkey, nothing loath, ambled sturdily on its way; the Tartar, with the turban cloth tugging at his knees, awakened, saw the donkey trotting away, and waddled after it with loud shouts of: "Hey, there! Wait a moment, Long-Ears!" And thus, clinging to the turban cloth as if it were a rope, ambling donkey and waddling peddler serving as a pulley, Ahmed was drawn up to the balcony in triumph and comfort, and lost no time in helping himself to food, stuffing his mouth with large, greedy, well-spiced handfuls.
He had not been there very long when a commotion caused him to look down. Around the corner, surrounded by a crowd of men and women and children, he saw an Indian sorcerer swinging with a majestic stride. The man was immensely tall, emaciated, bearded, and naked but for a scarlet loin-cloth. By his side tripped a young boy, while two attendants followed, one carrying a grass-woven basket and a bundle of swords, the other a coiled rope.
Arrived just below the balcony, the Hindu stopped and addressed the crowd.
"Moslems," he said, "permit me to introduce myself. I am," he announced without the slightest diffidence, "Vikramavata, the Swami, the Yogi, the greatest miracle-worker out of Hindustan! There is none in the Seven Known Worlds who approaches me in the mastery of either white or black magic! I am a vast sea of most excellent qualities! I am--so I have been assured by truth-telling and disinterested persons in China and Tartary and the lands of the dog-faced Mongols--a jewel of pure gold, a handful of powdered rubies, an exquisite tonic for the human brain, the father and mother of hidden wisdom!" He motioned to his attendants who put basket, swords, and rope on the ground, and went on: "If you like my sorcery, stay not the generosity of your hands! For"--in flat and shameless contradiction to his previous statement?"I am but a poor and humble man, with seven wives and seven times seventeen children, all clamoring for food!"
He bent; opened the basket.
"Ho!" he shouted at the young boy who thereupon jumped into the basket, where he curled up like a kitten. The Hindu closed it, picked up the swords and thrust them through every part of the basket with all his strength, while the crowd looked on, utterly fascinated.
Up on the balcony Ahmed, too, watched. He was pleased more than ever with himself and the world at large. Why, he had money, a few choice jewels, an abundance of food--here he helped himself to another liberal handful--and now a show: all free of charge, all for the asking and taking!
"Hayah!" he said to himself, sitting on the balcony rail and chewing luxuriously, "life is pleasant--and he who works and strives is a fool!"