From the Sacred Books of the East series.
Once upon a time there was an old man who had three daughters. All of them were beautiful, but the youngest, whose name was Rosa, was not only more lovely, but also more amiable and more intelligent than the others. Jealous and envious exceedingly were the two sisters when they found that the fame of Rosa's beauty was greater than the fame of theirs. They, however, refused to believe that Rosa was really more lovely than they were, and they resolved to ask the Sun's opinion on the subject. So, one day at dawn, the sisters stood at their open window and cried, "Sun, shining Sun, who wanders all over the world, say who is the most beautiful among our father's daughters?" The Sun replied, "I am beautiful, and you are both beautiful; but your youngest sister is the most beautiful of all."
When the two girls heard this, they were beside themselves with anger and spite, and determined to get rid of the sister who so outshone them. Saying nothing to her of what the Sun had told them, they on the following day invited Rosa to accompany them to the wood to gather a salad of wild herbs for their father's dinner. The unsuspecting Rosa at once complied, took her basket, and set out with her sisters, who led her to a spot she had never before visited, a long way from her father's house, and surrounded on all sides by forest. When they were arrived, the eldest sister said, "Do thou, Rosa, gather all the herbs that are here; we will go a little farther on, and when we have filled our baskets we will return."
The wicked girls, however, went straight home, abandoning Rosa to her fate. When some hours had passed, and she found that they did not return, she feared that she might, while seeking for the herbs, have wandered from the spot where her sisters had left her. Too innocent to suspect them of the wicked treachery of which they had been guilty, she only blamed herself for her carelessness, and wept bitterly at the thought of remaining all night alone in the wild and lonely wood.
After a time the sun set, the twilight came and passed, and darkness fell. The birds ceased their songs, and the silence of the forest was broken only by the flutter of a bat or great gray moth, the melancholy hoot of an owl, and the faint little rustle made by the other flying and creeping things that come forth with the stars. Seated on a great tree-trunk, Rosa wept more and more bitterly as the darkness deepened, and no one came to her aid. Hours passed, the air grew chilly; and faint with hunger and cold, she was about to lay herself down to die, when suddenly a brilliant light, like the sparkling of many stars, shot through the wood and advanced toward the spot where she sat. It was the Queen of Night, who, attended by all her court, was returning to her palace after her usual journey, for it was now near dawn. Rosa, dazzled and frightened, covered her face with her hands, and wept more bitterly than ever. Attracted by the sound of her sobbing, the Radiant Lady approached the weeping girl, and in a kind and gentle voice asked how she came to be there. Rosa looked up, and, reassured by the benign countenance of the Queen of Night, told her story.
"Come then and live with me, dear girl; I will be your mother, and you shall be my daughter," said the Queen, who knew perfectly well how it had all happened. Gladly the poor girl accompanied the Queen to her palace, and being, as we know, as amiable and intelligent as she was beautiful, her protectress soon became very fond of her, and did everything in her power to make her adopted daughter happy. She gave Rosa the keys of all her treasures, made her the mistress of her palace, and let her do whatever she pleased.
But let us now leave this lucky girl with the Queen of Night for a little while, and return to her sisters. Though they fully believed she must either have perished of hunger or been devoured by wild beasts, they after a time, to make quite certain, went again to their window and cried, "Sun, shining Sun, who wanders all over the world, tell us who is the most beautiful of our father's daughters?"
The Sun replied as before, "I am beautiful, and you are both beautiful; but your youngest sister is the most beautiful of all." "But Rosa has long been dead!" "No," replied the Sun, "Rosa still lives, and she is in the palace of the Queen of Night."
When the sisters heard this, their rage and spite knew no bounds. Long they consulted together as to the best means of bringing about her death; and finally these wicked girls decided to obtain from a witch of their acquaintance an enchanted kerchief which would make the person wearing it appear to be dead. Well, they set out, and presently arrived at the palace at an hour when they knew that the Queen of Night would be absent and they might find their sister alone. Rosa was delighted to see them, for though they had often been unkind to her, she loved her sisters very dearly, and welcoming them warmly, she offered them everything she had, and pressed them to remain. They, on their part, pretended to be overjoyed at finding again the sister they had mourned as lost, and congratulated her on her good fortune. When they had eaten and drunk of the good things she set before them, and were about to take their departure, the eldest sister produced from her basket the enchanted kerchief.
"Here, dear Rosa," said she, "is a little present which we should like you to wear for our sakes. Let me pin it round your shoulders. Good-bye, dear!" she added, kissing her affectionately on both cheeks, "we will come and see you again before long and bring our father with us." "Do, dear sisters, and tell my dear father that I will go to see him as soon as my kind protectress may give me leave."
Rosa watched her sisters from the window till they were out of sight, and then turned to the embroidery-frame which she had laid aside on their arrival. She had not, however, made many stitches, before a feeling of faintness came over her; and letting her work slip from her hands, she fell back on the sofa and lost consciousness. When the Queen of Night came home, she went first, as was her wont, to the chamber of her dear adopted daughter, and finding her thus, she said, as she bent over the maiden and kissed her beautiful mouth, "She has tired herself, poor child, over that embroidery-frame; she is so industrious."
But the beautiful lips were cold and white, and the maiden neither breathed nor stirred. Distracted with grief, the Queen of Night began to unfasten Rosa's dress in order to ascertain whether her death had been caused by the bite of some poisonous reptile, and while doing so, she observed that the kerchief on her shoulders was not one that her daughter was in the habit of wearing. When she had unpinned and taken it off, Rosa heaved a deep sigh, opened her eyes, and seeing the Queen bending over her, smiled and stretched out her arms to her dear mother, saying, "I must have slept a long time! Oh, I remember!" she added, "I was feeling faint and giddy and lay down, and, I suppose, fell asleep immediately, for I don't recollect anything else."
"But where did you get this?" asked the Queen, picking up the kerchief from the floor. "I don't remember having given it to you." "Oh, I have not told you that I had a great pleasure yesterday. My sisters, who had thought me forever lost, found out where I was and came to see me, bringing this kerchief as a present. Is it not pretty?" These words told the Queen of Night the secret of the whole matter; but, not wishing to distress her daughter by acquainting her with her sisters' cruel perfidy, she only replied, "Yes, very pretty. Will you give it to me, Rosa? I should like to have it for myself."
Rosa was naturally only too pleased to be able to give her kind protectress something in return for all her favors; and she also promised her, though not without tears, never again to receive any visitors, not even her sisters, when she was left by herself in the palace. These wicked creatures in a little while again stood at their window and cried, "Sun, shining Sun, who wanders the world over, say, is there now any one more beautiful than we are?" But the Sun only replied as before, "I am beautiful; you, too, are beautiful; but Rosa is the most beautiful of all!"
The sisters looked at each other in dismay. "The kerchief has then failed," said the elder to the younger. "We must try some other method of getting rid of her." So the wretches went to the same old witch who had given them the magic kerchief, and got from her an enchanted sugarplum. When at nightfall they again knocked at the door of the palace, the porter informed them that his mistress was absent, and had given orders that the palace-gates were not to be opened until her return. They, however, saw Rosa at her window, and pretending to be greatly distressed at their exclusion, asked her at least to accept from them the delicious sugar-plum which they had brought for her.
"Let down a basket," said the eldest; "I will put the sugarplum inside, and you can draw it up." Rosa did so, and drew up the sweetmeat. "Taste it at once," cried the second sister, "and if you like it, we will bring you more of the same kind." The poor girl, suspecting no evil, put the sugar-plum into her mouth; but scarcely had she tasted it, than she fell back as if dead; and her sisters, seeing this, hurried away home.
When the Queen returned and again found her favorite lifeless, she was both grieved and angry. All her servants, however, when questioned, assured her that no one had entered the palace during her absence, and that Rosa's sisters had only been allowed to speak to her from a distance as she stood at her high window. In the hope of bringing her to life again, as on the previous occasion, the Queen of Night searched every fold of the maiden's dress, but in vain; she could not discover the fatal charm. "Perhaps," said she to herself, as she sat and gazed on the lifeless features of her adopted daughter, "what I can not discover, chance may, and I could never bring myself to bury her, dead though she seems to be." So the grieving Queen sent for a cunning workman, who made at her orders a coffer of silver; and after dressing Rosa in her most beautiful clothes and jewels, she laid her in it, closed the lid, fastened the coffer on the back of a splendid horse, and let him loose to wander at will.
The horse, following his fancy, carried his fair burden in a few hours' time into a neighboring country, the ruler of which was the handsomest man of his time; and this King, being that day out hunting with his court, happened to catch sight of the horse. Attracted by its beauty and fleetness, and by the strange shining burden it bore on its saddle, he approached, and seeing the animal to be masterless, he bade his people seize and lead it to the palace. The silver coffer the King caused to be carried into his bed-chamber, and there he opened it. Imagine, if you can, his surprise on seeing within the form of a beautiful maiden. Though apparently lifeless, she was more lovely than any living woman he had ever beheld, and his heart became filled with such ardent love for her that he would sit for hours together gazing upon her beautiful features, neglecting duties and pleasures alike; and when his ministers came and prayed him to accompany them to the council chamber, he only said, "Go, I pray you, and do justice in my name."
Days passed, his gentlemen tried to tempt him out hunting, but again he only replied, "Do you go without me." The royal cooks vied with one another in preparing the most delicious dishes for his table; but these he hardly tasted, nor did he even appear to notice what he was eating. When this state of things had continued for some days the ministers became alarmed, and sent a messenger to inform the Queen mother, who was away at her country palace. She came with all speed, and was much distressed to find her son so dispirited and melancholy. To all her anxious inquiries, however, he only replied that he was quite well, but preferred to remain alone in his bed-chamber. The Queen had, of course, already heard from the courtiers the story of the riderless horse and the silver chest; and she rightly guessed that her son had been bewitched by what he had found in it, and determined to discover what this might be.
So the very next day, while the King was at dinner with his vizier, his mother went to his chamber--for she had a master-key that would open all the doors in the palace---and there, extended on the divan, she saw the silver chest. Going hastily up to it, she raised the lid which the King had closed before leaving At first she could only gaze in astonishment at the wonderful beauty of the maiden lying within; but her admiration presently changed to anger when she thought of her son; and seizing poor Rosa by her long hair, she dragged her out of the coffer and shook her violently, saying, "You wicked dead thing! Why are you not decently buried instead of wandering about casting spells on Princes?" But as the Queen shook her the enchanted sugar-plum was jerked out of Rosa's mouth, and she immediately came to life again, and gazed around her in bewilderment. And as she opened her large, lovely eyes, the Queen's anger passed away, and she embraced and kissed Rosa tenderly, weeping with delight the while. The poor girl was so astonished by the strangeness of everything around her, that it was some minutes before she could ask: "Where am I, noble lady, and where is my dear mother?"
"I know not, my child, but I will be your mother. For you shall marry my son, the King, who is dying for love of you." As she spoke, footsteps were heard at the door, and the King entered. Imagine, if you can, his amazement and joy at finding, seated on the divan by his mother's side, the maiden he loved so dearly, restored to life, and twenty times lovelier than before. Not to make too long a story of it, the King took her by the hand, and asked her to be his wife. And when Rosa heard of his love for her, and saw how handsome and noble he was, she could not but love him in return. So they were married with great splendor, and there were feasts for the poor, and fountains running honey and wine, and rejoicing for everybody.
Well, the King and Rosa lived very happily together for some time; but her troubles were not over, for her wicked sisters had not yet done their worst to her. They had for long feared to go near the palace again, and nearly a year passed before they learned what had been the result of their last visit. One day, however, in order to make quite sure that Rosa was dead, they once more stood at their window, and cried, "Sun, shining Sun, who wanders all over the earth, tell us if thou hast, since our youngest sister died, seen any maiden fairer than we?" But the Sun only replied as before, "I am beautiful; you, too, are both beautiful; but your youngest sister is the fairest of all." "But Rosa is dead!" "No, Rosa lives, and she is the wife of the King of the neighboring country."
Well, if these wicked women could not bear that their sister should be considered fairer than they, still less could they allow her to be a Queen. So, disguised as two old women, they set off at once for Rosa's palace. When they arrived in the royal city, great rejoicing were going on because a baby prince had just been born. "That is good news," said the elder to the younger when she heard this, "for now we will be the nurses." So they went to the Queen-Mother and gave themselves out to be wonderfully clever nurses from the neighboring country who had nursed the princes there; and the Queen-Mother, deceived by their story, put them in charge of her daughter-in-law and the baby. On the pretext of keeping the young Queen and her child free from evil spells, the make-believe nurses sent away all the other attendants from her apartments; and when they were left alone with their sister, they stuck into her head an enchanted pin.
She was immediately changed into a bird, and flew away out of the window; and her eldest sister laid herself down on her bed in her place. When the King came in to see his wife, he could hardly believe his eyes. This could not be his wife. The false Queen, guessing his thoughts, said, "You find me changed, dear husband? It is because I have been so ill." The King, however, pretended not to have observed anything, but his heart froze within him as he looked on the object of this pretended transformation. It was his custom to breakfast alone every day in the garden; and one day while he was sadly musing there, a pretty bird flew down, perched on a branch overhead, and said, "Tell me, my lord, have the King, and the Queen-Mother, and the little Prince slept well?" The King smiled and nodded, and the bird continued, "May they ever sleep sweetly. But may she whom they call the young Queen sleep the sleep that knows no waking, and may all things over which I fly wither away!"
This said, the bird spread its wings, and wherever it passed, the grass and flowers withered, and the place became a desert. The gardeners, in despair, asked the King if they might not kill the bird which caused the mischief; but he forbade them, on pain of death, to do it any injury. Afterward the bird came every day while he was at breakfast in the garden; and the kind voice of the Prince soon made it so tame and fearless that it would perch on his knee and eat from his hand. This familiarity enabled the Prince to observe the bird's plumage more closely, and one day he caught sight of the pin in its head. Surprised at this, he ventured to withdraw it, when the bird disappeared, and his own dear wife stood again by his side. When he had recovered a little from the joy and surprise caused by this strange event, and had welcomed his wife back, he asked her to tell how it had all happened. And Rosa, whose eyes were now fully opened to the malice and wickedness of her sisters, told him all she knew of her own adventures.
When the Prince had learned the evil deeds of his sisters-in-law, he bade his guards bring these wretches before him, and condemned them both to a death suitable to their crimes. In vain did Rosa entreat him to pardon them. The King was inexorable. But when, at sunset, the criminals were being led away to execution, the Queen of Night appeared on the scene, followed by all her train; and touched by the distress of her adopted daughter, she prevailed upon the king to change the sentence he had pronounced. The two evil-doers were then offered the choice of dying a violent death, or living to witness their sister's happiness while deprived of the power of ever again being able to injure her. They chose the latter fate; and it was not long before they both died of spite and jealousy.
From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 262-271.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.
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© Paul Halsall, September 1998