There was in the city of Isfahan a poor cobbler called Ahmed, who was possesses of a singularly greedy and envious wife. Every day the woman went to the public baths, the Hammam, and each time saw someone there of whom she became jealous. One day she espied a lady dressed in a magnificent robe, jewels on every finger, pearls in her ears, and attended by many persons. Asking whom this might be, she was told, “The wife of the king’s astrologer”.
“Of course, that is what my wretched Ahmed must become, an astrologer,” thought the cobbler’s wife, and rushed home as fast as her feet would carry her. The cobbler, seeing her face asked: “What in the world is the matter, my dear one?”
“Don’t you speak to me or come near me until you become a court astrologer!” she snapped. “Give up your vile trade of mending shoes! I shall never be happy until we are rich!”
“Astrologer! Astrologer! Cried Ahmed, “What qualifications have I to read the stars? You must be mad!”
“I neither know nor care how you do it, just become an astrologer by tomorrow or I will go back to my father’s house and seek a divorce,” she said.
The cobbler was out of his mind with worry. How was he to become an astrologer – that was the question? He could not bear the thought of losing his wife, so he went out and bought a table of the zodiac signs, an astrolabe and an astronomical almanac. To do this he had to sell his cobblers’ tools, and so felt he must succeed as an astrologer. He went out into the market-place, crying: “O, people, come to me for all answers to everything! I can read the stars, I know the sun, the moon and the twelve signs of the zodiac! I can foretell that which is to happen!”
Now it so happened that the king’s jeweller was passing by, in great distress at losing one of the crown jewels, which had been entrusted to him for polishing. This was a great ruby, and he had searched for it high and low without success. The court jeweller knew that if he did not find it his head would be forfeit. He came to the crowd surrounding Ahmed and asked what was happening.
“Oh, the very latest astrologer, Ahmed the cobbler, now promises to tell everything there is to know!” laughed one of the bystanders. The court jeweller pressed forward and whispered into Ahmed’s ear: “If you understand your art, discover for me the king’s ruby and I will give you two hundred pieces of gold. If you do not succeed, I will be instrumental in bringing out your death!”
Ahmed was thunderstruck. He put a hand to his brow and shaking his head, thinking of his wife, said: “O, woman, woman, you are more baneful to the happiness of man than the vilest serpent!”. Now the jewel had been secreted by the jeweller’s wife, who, guilty about the theft, had sent a female slave to follow her husband everywhere. This slave, on hearing the new astrologer cry out about a woman who was as poisonous as a serpent, thought that all must be discovered, and ran back to the house to tell her mistress.
“You are discovered by a hateful astrologer! Go to him, lady, and plead with the wretch to be merciful, for if he tells your husband you are lost”. The woman then threw on her veil, and went to Ahmed and flung herself at his feet, crying: “Spare my honour and my life and I will tell all!”
“Tell what?” inquired Ahmed.
“Oh nothing that you do not know already!” she wept, “You know well I stole the ruby. I did so to punish my husband, he uses me so cruelly! But you, o most wonderful man from whom nothing is hidden, command me and I will do whatever you ask that this secret never sees the light”.
Ahmed thought quickly, then said: “I know all you have done and to save you I ask you to do this: Place the ruby at once under your husband’s pillow and forget all about it”. The jeweller’s wife returned home and did as she was bidden. In an hour Ahmed followed her and told the jeweller that he had made his calculations and by the sun, moon and stars the ruby was at that moment lying under his pillow. The jeweller ran from the room like a hunted stag and returned a few moments later the happiest of men. He embraced Ahmed like a brother and placed a bag containing two hundred pieces of gold at his feet.
The praises of the jeweller ringing in his ears, Ahmed returned home grateful that he could now satisfy his wife’s lust for money. He thought he would have to work no more, but he was disenchanted to hear her say: “This is only your first adventure in this new way of life! Once your name gets known, you will soon be summoned to court!”
Unhappily Ahmed remonstrated with her. He had no wish to go further in his career of fortune-telling, it simply was not safe. How could he expect to have further strokes of luck like the last, he asked? But his wife burst into tears and again threatened him with divorce.
Ahmed agreed to sally forth next day t the market-place, to advertise himself once more. He exclaimed as loudly as before “I am an astrologer! I can see everything which will happen by the power given to me by the sun, the moon and the stars!”
The crowd gathered again and a veiled lady was passing while Ahmed was holding forth. She paused with her maid and heard of the success he had had the day before with the finding of the king’s ruby, together with a dozen other stories, which had never happened. The lady, very tall and dressed in fine silks, pushed her way forward and said: “I ask you this conundrum. Where are my necklace and earrings, which I mislaid yesterday? I dare not tell my husband about the loss, as he is a very jealous man and may think I have given them to a lover. Do you, astrologer, tell me at once where they are or I am dishonoured! If you give me the right answer, which should not be difficult for you, I will at once give you fifty pieces of gold”.
The unfortunate cobbler was speechless for a moment, on seeing such an important-looking lady before him, plucking at his arm and he put a hand over his eyes. He looked at her again, wondering what he should say. Then he noticed that part of her face was showing, which was quite unsuitable for one of her social level, and the veil was torn, apparently in her pressing through the crowd. He leaned down and said in a quiet voice: “Madam, look down to the rent, look to the rent!”
He meant the rent in her veil, but it immediately touched off a recollection in her mind. “Stay here, o greatest of astrologers,” she said and returned to her house, which was not far away. There, in the rent in her bathroom wall, she discovered her necklace and earrings, which she herself had hidden them from prying eyes. Soon she was back, wearing another veil and carrying a bag containing fifty pieces of gold for Ahmed. The crowd pressed around him in wonder at this new example of the brilliance of the cobbler astrologer.
Ahmed’s wife, however, could not yet rival the wife of the chief court astrologer, so she still urged her husband to continue seeking fame and fortune.
Now, at this time, the king’s treasury was robbed of forty chests of gold and jewels. Officers of state and the chief of police all tried to find the thieves but to no avail. At last, two servants were dispatched to Ahmed to ask if he would solve the case of the missing chests.
The king’s astrologer, however, was spreading lies about Ahmed behind his back and was heard to say that he gave Ahmed forty days to find the thieves, then he prophesied, Ahmed would be hanged for not being able to do so.
Ahmed was being summoned to the presence of the king and bowed low before the sovereign. “Who is the thief, then, according to the stars?” asked the king.
“It is very difficult to say, my calculations will take some time,” stammered Ahmed, “but I will say this so far, your majesty, there was not one thief, but forty who did this dreadful robbery of your majesty’s treasure”.
“Very well,” said the king, “where are they and what can they have done with my gold and jewels?”
“I cannot say before forty days,” answered Ahmed, “if your majesty will grant me that time to consult the stars. Each night, you see, there are different conjunctions to study…”.
“I grant you forty days, then,” said the king, “but when they are past, if you do not have the answer, your life will be forfeit”.
The court astrologer looked very pleased and smirked behind his beard and that look made poor Ahmed very uncomfortable. Suppose the court astrologer was right after all? He returned to his home and told his wife: “My dear, I fear that your great greed has meant that I have now only forty more days to live. Let us cheerfully spend all we have made, for in that time I shall have to be executed”.
“But husband,” she said “you must find out the thieves in that time by the same method you found the king’s ruby and the woman’s necklace and the earrings!”
“Foolish creature!” said he, “do you not recall that I found the answers to those two cases simply by the will of Allah! I can never pull off such a trick again, not if I live to be a hundred. No, I think the best thing will be for me each night to put a date in a bowl, and by the time that there are forty in it, I shall know that it is the night of the fortieth day and the end of my life. You know I have no skill in reckoning and shall never know if I do not do it in this way”.
“Take courage,” she said, “mean, spiritless wretch that you are and think of something even while we are putting dates in the bowl, so that I may ever yet be attired like the wife of the court astrologer and placed in that rank of life to which my beauty has entitled me!” Not a word of kindness did she give him, not a thought of herself and her personal victory over the wife of the court astrologer.
Meanwhile, the forty thieves, a few miles away from the city, had received accurate information regarding the measures taken to detect them. They were told by spies that the king had sent for Ahmed, and hearing that the cobbler had told of their exact number, feared for their lives. But the captain of the gang said: “Let us go tonight, after dark, and listen outside his house, for in fact he might have made an inspired guess and we might be worrying over nothing”.
Everybody approved of this scheme, so after nightfall one of the thieves listening on the terrace just after the cobbler had offered his evening prayer, heard Ahmed say: “Ah, there is the first of the forty!” He had just been handed the first date by his wife. The thief, hearing these words, hurried back in consternation to the gang and told them that somehow, through wall and window, Ahmed had sensed his unseen presence and said: “Ah, there is the first of the forty!”
The tale of the spy was not believed and the next day two members of the band were sent to listen, completely hidden by darkness, outside the house. To their dismay they both heard Ahmed say quite distinctly: “My dear wife, tonight there are two of them!” Ahmed, of course, having finished his evening prayer, had been given the second date by his wife. The astonished thieves fled into the night, and told their companions what they had heard.
The next night three men were sent and the fourth night four, and so for many nights they came just as Ahmed was putting the date into the bowl. On the last night they all went and Ahmed cried loudly: “Ah, the number is complete! Tonight the whole forty are here!”
All doubts were now removed. It was impossible that they could have been seen, under cover of darkness they had come, mingling with passers-by and people of the town. Ahmed had never looked out of the window; had he done so, he would not even been able to see them, so deeply were they hidden in the shadows.
“Let us bribe the cobbler-astrologer!” said the chief of the thieves. “We will offer him as much of the booty as he wants and then we will prevent him telling the chief of police about us tomorrow,” he whispered to the others.
They knocked at Ahmed’s door, it was almost dawn. Supposing it to be the soldiers coming to take him away to be executed, Ahmed came to the door in good spirits. He and his wife had spent half of the money on good living and he was feeling quite ready to go. He did not even feel sorry that he was to leave his wife behind. She, in fact, was secretly pleased at having quite a lot of money left over to spend solely on herself.
“I know what you have come for!” he shouted out, as the cock crowed and the sun began to rise. “Have patience, I am coming out to you now. But what a wicked deed are you about to do!’ and he stepped forward bravely.
“Most wonderful man!” cried the head of the thieves. “We are fully convinced that you know why we have come, but can we not tempt you with two thousand pieces of gold and beg you to say nothing about the matter!”
“Say nothing about it?” said Ahmed. “Do you honestly think it is possible that I should suffer such gross wrong and injustice without making it known to all the world?”
“Have mercy upon us,” exclaimed the thieves and most of them threw themselves at his feet. “Only spare our lives and we shall return the treasure we stole!”
The cobbler was not sure if he was indeed awake or perhaps still sleeping, but realising that these were the forty thieves he assumed a solemn tone and said: “Wretched men! You cannot escape from my penetration, which reaches to the sun and the moon and knows every star in the sky. If you restore every chest of the forty I will do my very best to intercede with the king on your behalf. But go now, get the treasure and place it in a ditch a foot deep, which you must dig under the wall of the old hammam, the public baths. If you do this before the people of Isfahan are up and about, your lives will be spared. If not, you shall all hang! Go or destruction will fall upon you and your families!”
Stumbling and falling and picking themselves up, the band of thieves rushed away. Would it work? Ahmed knew he had only a short time to wait and find out. It was a very long shot, but he knew that he had only one life to lose and that he was in great danger anyway.
But Allah is just. Rewards suitable to their merits awaited Ahmed and his wife. At midday Ahmed stood cheerfully before the king, who said: “Your looks are promising, have you good news?”
“Your majesty!” said Ahmed, “the stars will only grant one or the other – the forty thieves or the forty chests of treasure. Will your majesty choose?”
“I should be sorry not to punish the thieves” said the king, “but if it must be so, I choose the treasure”.
“And you give the thieves a full and free pardon, O king?”
“I do,” said the monarch “provided I find my treasure untouched”.
“Then follow me,” said Ahmed and set off to the old hammam.
The king and all his courtiers followed Ahmed, who most of the times was casting his eyes to heaven and murmuring things under his breath, describing circles in the air the while. When his prayer was finished, he pointed to the southern wall and requested that his majesty ask the slaves to dig, saying that the treasure would be found intact. In his heart of hearts he hoped it were true.
Within a short while all the forty chests were discovered, with all the royal seals intact. The king’s joy knew no bounds. He embraced Ahmed like a father and immediately appointed him chief court astrologer. “I declare that you shall marry my only daughter,” he cried delightedly, “as you have restored the fortunes of my kingdom and to thus promote you is nothing less than my duty!”
The beautiful princess, who was as lovely as the moon on her fourteenth night, was not dissatisfied with her father’s choice, for she had seen Ahmed from afar and secretly loved him from the first glance.
The wheel of fortune had taken a complete turn. At dawn Ahmed was conversing with the band of thieves, bargaining with them; at disk he was lord of a rich palace and the possessor of a fair, young, highborn wife who adored him. But his did not change his character and he was as contented as a prince as he had been as a poor cobbler. His former wife, for whom he had now ceased to care, moved out of his life, and got the punishment to which her unreasonableness and unfeeling vanity had condemned her. Thus is the tapestry, which is our life, completed by the Great Designer.