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A short story by Katharine Pyle

The History Of Ali Cogia

Title:     The History Of Ali Cogia
Author: Katharine Pyle [More Titles by Pyle]

In the city of Bagdad there once lived a merchant named Ali Cogia. This merchant was faithful and honest in all his dealings, but he had never made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. He often felt troubled over this, for he knew he was neglecting a religious duty, but he was so occupied with his business affairs that it was difficult for him to leave home. Year after year he planned to make the pilgrimage, but always he postponed it, hoping for some more convenient time.

One night the merchant had a dream so vivid that it was more like a vision than a dream. In this dream or vision an old man appeared before him and, regarding him with a severe and reproachful look, said, "Why have you not made the pilgrimage to Mecca?"

When Ali Cogia awoke he felt greatly troubled. He feared this dream had been sent him as a reproach and a warning from heaven. He was still more troubled when the next night he dreamed the same dream; and when upon the third night the old man again appeared before him and asked the same question, he determined to delay no longer, but to set out upon the pilgrimage as soon as possible.

To this end he sold off all his goods except some that he decided to carry with him to Mecca and to dispose of there. He settled all his debts and rented his shop and his house to a friend, and as he had neither wife nor family, he was now free to set out at any time.

The sale of his goods had brought in quite a large sum of money, so that after he had set aside as much as was needed for the journey he found he had still a thousand gold pieces left over.

These he determined to leave in some safe place until his return. He put the money in an olive jar and covered it over with olives and sealed it carefully. He then carried the jar to a friend named Abul Hassan, who was the owner of a large warehouse.

"Abul Hassan," said he, "I am about to make the journey to Mecca, as you perhaps know. I have here a jar of olives that I would like to leave in your warehouse until my return, if you will allow me to do so."

Abul Hassan was quite willing that his friend should do this and gave him the keys of the warehouse, bidding him place the jar wherever he wished. "I will gladly keep it until you return," said he, "and you may rest assured the jar will not be disturbed until such time as you shall come and claim it."

Ali Cogia thanked his friend and carried the jar into the warehouse, placing it in the farthest and darkest corner where it would not be in the way. Soon after he set out upon his journey to Mecca.

When Ali Cogia left Bagdad he had no thought but that he would return in a year's time at latest. He made the journey safely, in company with a number of other pilgrims. Arrived in Mecca, he visited the celebrated temples and other objects of interest that were there. He performed all his religious duties faithfully, and after that he went to the bazaar and secured a place where he could display the goods he had brought with him.

One day a stranger came through the bazaar and stopped to admire the beauty of the things Ali had for sale.

"It is a pity," said the stranger, "that you should not go to Cairo. You could go there at no great expense, and I feel assured that you would receive a far better price for your goods there than here. I know, for I have lived in that city all my life, and I am familiar with the prices that are paid for such fine merchandise as yours." The stranger talked with Ali for some time and then passed on his way.

After he had gone the merchant meditated upon what had been said, and he finally determined to follow the stranger's advice and to take such goods as he had left to Cairo, and place them on sale there. This he did and found that, as the stranger had promised, the prices he could get there were much higher than those paid in Mecca.

While Ali Cogia was in Cairo he made the acquaintance of some people who were about to journey down into Egypt by caravan. They urged Ali to join them, and after some persuasion he consented to do so, as he had always wished to see that country. From Egypt Ali Cogia journeyed to Constantinople, and then on to other cities and countries. Time flew by so rapidly that when, finally, Ali stopped to reckon up how long it was since he had left Bagdad, he found that seven years had elapsed.

He now determined to return without delay to his own city. He found a camel that suited him, and having bought it he packed upon it such goods as he had left, and set out for Bagdad.

Now all the while that Ali Cogia had been travelling from place to place the jar containing the gold pieces had rested undisturbed and forgotten in Abul Hassan's warehouse. Abul and his wife sometimes talked of Ali and wondered when he would return and how he had fared upon his journey. They were surprised at his long absence and feared some misfortune might have come upon him. At one time there was a rumor that he was dead, but this rumor was afterward denied.

Now the very day that Ali Cogia set out upon his return journey Abul Hassan and his wife were seated at the table at their evening meal, and their talk turned upon the subject of olives.

"It is a long time since we have had any in the house," said the wife. "Indeed, I do not remember when I last tasted one, and yet it is my favorite fruit. I wish we had some now."

"Yes, we must get some," said Abul Hassan. "And by the way, that reminds me of the jar that Ali Cogia left with us. I wonder whether the olives in it are still good. They have been there for some years now."

"Yes, for seven years," replied his wife. "No doubt they are all spoiled by this time."

"That I will see," said Abul Hassan, rising and taking up a light. "If they are still good we might as well have some, for I do not believe Ali Cogia will ever return to claim the jar."

His wife was horrified. "What are you thinking of?" cried she. "Ali Cogia entrusted this jar to you, and you gave your word that it would not be disturbed until he came again to claim it. We heard, indeed, that he was dead, but this rumor was afterward denied. What opinion would he have of you if he returned and found you had helped yourself to his olives?"

Abul Hassan, still holding the light in his hand, waited impatiently until his wife had finished speaking. Then he replied, "Ali Cogia will not return; of that I feel assured. And at any rate, if he should, I can easily replace the olives."

"You can replace the olives, no doubt," answered his wife, "but they would not be Ali Cogia's olives. This jar is a sacred trust and should not be disturbed by you under any consideration." But though she spoke thus strongly she could see by her husband's face that he had not changed his determination. He now took up the dish and said, "If the olives are good I will bring a dish full from the jar, but if they are spoiled, as I suppose they are, I will replace the cover and no one will be any the wiser."

His wife would have tried again to dissuade him, but without listening further he went at once to the warehouse. It did not take him long to find the jar. He took off the cover and found that, as he had suspected, the olives were spoiled. Wishing to see whether those beneath were in the same condition he tilted the jar and emptied some of them out into the dish. What was his surprise to see some gold pieces fall out with the olives. Abul Hassan could hardly believe his eyes. Hastily he plunged his hands down into the jar and soon found that except for the top layer of fruit the whole jar was full of gold pieces.

Abul Hassan's eyes sparkled with desire. He was naturally a very avaricious man, and the sight of the gold awakened all his greed. It had been there in his warehouse, all unknown to him, for seven years. He felt as though he had been tricked, for, thought he, "All this time I might have been using this money to advantage by trading with it and with no harm to any one, for I could have replaced it at any time I heard Ali Cogia was about to return."

For a while he stood there lost in thought. Then he returned the gold to the jar, covered it over with olives as before, and replaced the cover, and taking up the empty dish and the light he returned to his wife.

"You were quite right," said he carelessly. "The olives were spoiled, so I did not bring any."

"You should not even have opened the jar," said his wife. "Heaven grant that no evil may come upon us for this."

To this remark Abul Hassan made no reply, and soon after he and his wife retired to rest. But the merchant could not sleep. All night he tossed and twisted, thinking of the gold and planning how he could make it his own, and it was not until morning that he fell into a troubled sleep.

The next day he arose early and as soon as the bazaar opened he went out and bought a quantity of olives. He brought them home and carried them into the warehouse secretly, and without his wife's knowing anything about it. Then he again opened Ali Cogia's jar, and having emptied it of its contents, he filled it with fresh olives and replaced the cover in such a way that no one, looking at it, would have known it had been disturbed. He then threw the spoiled olives away and hid the gold in a secret place known only to himself.

About a month after this Ali Cogia returned to Bagdad. As his own house was still rented he took a room in a khan and at once hastened to Abul Hassan's house to get his jar.

Abul Hassan was confounded when he saw Ali Cogia enter his house, for he had managed to convince himself that Ali must be dead. This he had done to try to excuse himself in his own eyes for taking the gold. However he hid his confusion as best he could, and made the returned traveller welcome, and asked him how he had fared in his journeyings.

Ali Cogia answered his inquiries politely, but he was uneasy and restless, and as soon as he could make the opportunity he inquired about the olive jar he had left in the warehouse.

"The jar is there where you put it, I am sure," answered Abul Hassan, "though I myself have not seen it. I do not even know in what part of the warehouse you left it. But here are the keys, and as I am busy I will ask you to get it for yourself."

Ali Cogia made haste to seek out the jar and was much relieved to find it exactly where he had left it and apparently untouched. He had trust in Abul Hassan's honor, but a thousand pieces of gold was such a large sum that he could not but feel some concern until he had it in his own hands again.

After thanking his fellow merchant for keeping the jar, more earnestly than seemed necessary, he carried it back to his room in the khan, and having locked the door he opened it. He removed the two top layers of olives and was somewhat surprised not to see the gold. However, he thought he must have covered the money more carefully than he had supposed. He took out more olives, and then still more, but still there were no signs of the gold.

Filled with misgivings, Ali Cogia tilted the jar and emptied out the rest of the olives so hastily that they rolled all over the floor, but not a single piece of gold was there.

The merchant was dismayed. He could scarcely believe that Abul Hassan would rob him of his money, and yet there seemed no other explanation. He knew that the merchant kept his warehouse locked except when he was there himself, and that no one was allowed to visit it but those with whom he was well acquainted, and then only upon special business.

Deeply troubled he returned to the merchant's house, determined to demand an explanation and, if necessary, to force him by law to return the gold.

Abul Hassan seemed surprised to see Ali return so soon. "Did you forget something?" he asked. "Or do you wish to speak to me upon some business?"

"Do you not guess what I have come to speak to you about?" asked Ali.

"How should I guess? Unless it is to thank me again for keeping your jar for you."

"Abul Hassan, when I went away I left a thousand pieces of gold in the jar I placed in your warehouse. The gold is now gone. I suppose you saw some way in which you could use it both for your advantage and my own. If such is the case, please to give me some receipt for the money, and I am willing to wait until you can return it to me, but I think you should have spoken of the matter when I was here before."

Abul Hassan showed the greatest surprise at this address. "I do not know what you are talking about," said he. "I know nothing about any gold. If there was any in the jar, which I very much doubt, it must be there still, for the jar has never been disturbed since you yourself placed it in my warehouse."

"The gold certainly was in the jar when I placed it there, and you must know it, for no one else could have taken it. No one goes into the warehouse without your permission, as you have often told me and then only for some express purpose."

Ali Cogia would have said more, but his fellow merchant interrupted him. "I repeat I know nothing of any gold," he cried angrily. "Go away and do not trouble me any further, or you will find yourself in difficulties. Do you not see how your loud talking has gathered a crowd about my house?"

And indeed a number of people had gathered in front of Abul's house, drawn thither by the sound of the dispute. They listened with curiosity to what the merchants were saying and presently became so interested that they began to discuss the matter among themselves, and to argue and dispute as to which of the merchants was in the right.

At last Ali Cogia, finding that Abul would confess nothing, said, "Very well. I see you are determined to keep the money if possible. But you shall find it is not as easy to rob me as you seem to think." Then, laying his hand upon Abul's shoulder, he added, "I summon you to appear with me before the Cadi, that he may decide the matter between us."

Now this is a summons no true Mussulman can disobey. Abul was compelled to go before the Cadi with Ali, and a great crowd of people followed them, eager to know what decision would be given in the matter by the judge.

The Cadi listened attentively to all the two merchants had to say and after reflecting upon the matter he asked, "Abul Hassan, are you ready to swear that you know nothing of the gold Ali Cogia says he left with you, and that you did not disturb the jar?"

"I am," answered the merchant. "And indeed I wish to swear to it," and this he did.

"And you, Ali Cogia; have you any witnesses to prove there was gold in the jar when you left it in Abul Hassan's warehouse?"

"Alas! no; no one knew of it but myself."

"Then it is your word against his. Abul Hassan has sworn that he did not touch the jar, and unless you can bring witnesses to your truth, I cannot compel him to pay you a thousand pieces of gold that you may never have lost."

The case was dismissed. Abul Hassan returned to his home, satisfied and triumphant, but Ali Cogia with hanging head and bitterness of heart.

But though the Cadi had decided against him, Ali was not willing to let the matter rest there. He was determined to have justice done him, even though he were obliged to appeal to the Caliph himself.

At that time Haroun-al-Raschid was Commander of the Faithful. Every morning Haroun-al-Raschid went to the mosque to offer up prayers, accompanied by his Grand Vizier and Mesrour the Chief Eunuch. As he returned to the palace all who had complaints to make or petitions to offer stationed themselves along the way and gave their complaints and petitions in written form to Mesrour. Afterward these papers were presented to the Caliph that he might read them and decide upon their merits.

The day after the Cadi had dismissed the case of the two merchants, Ali Cogia set out early in the morning and placed himself beside the way where he knew the Caliph would pass.

In his hand he carried his complaint against Abul Hassan, written out in due form. He waited until Haroun-al-Raschid was returning from the mosque and then put the paper in the hand of Mesrour.

Later, when the Caliph was reading the papers, he was particularly interested in the one presented by Ali Cogia: "This is a curious case," said he to his Vizier, "and one which it will be difficult to decide. Order the two merchants to appear before me to-morrow, and I will hear what they have to say."

That evening the Caliph and his Vizier disguised themselves, and, attended only by Mesrour, they went out to wander about the streets of the city. It was the custom of the Caliph to do this, as in this way he learned much about his people, their needs and wants and ways of life, which would otherwise have been hidden from him.

For some time after they set out they heard and saw nothing of importance, but as they came near to a court that opened off one of the streets they heard the voices of a number of boys who were at play there in the moonlight.

The Caliph motioned to his Vizier to be silent, and together they stole to the opening of the court and looked in. The moon was so bright that they could see clearly the faces of the boys at play there. They had gathered about the tallest and most intelligent-looking lad, who appeared to be their leader.

"Let us act out some play," the leader was saying. "I will be the Cadi, and you shall bring some case before me to be tried."

"Very well," cried another. "But what case shall we take?"

"Let us take the case of Ali Cogia and Abul Hassan. We all know about that, and if it had come before me I should have decided it differently from the way the Cadi did."

All the boys agreed to this by clapping their hands.

The leader then appointed one boy to take the part of Ali Cogia and another to be Abul Hassan. Still others were chosen to be guards and merchants and so on.

The Caliph and his Vizier were much amused by this play of the boys, and they sat down upon a bench so conveniently placed that they could see all that went on without themselves being observed.

The pretended Cadi took his seat and commanded that Abul Hassan and Ali Cogia should be brought before him. "And let Ali Cogia bring with him the jar of olives in which he said he hid the gold," said he.

The lads who were taking the parts of Ali Cogia and Abul Hassan were now led forward by some of the other boys and were told by the pretended Cadi to state their cases. This they did clearly, for the case had been much talked about by their elders, and they were well acquainted with all the circumstances and had discussed them among themselves.

The pretended Cadi listened attentively to what they said, and then addressing the lad who took the part of Abul he asked, "Abul Hassan, are you willing to swear that you have not touched the jar nor opened it?"

The pretended merchant said he was.

The lad then asked, "Has Ali Cogia brought the jar of olives into court with him?"

"It is here," said the boys who were taking the parts of officers of the court.

The feigned Cadi ordered them to place the jar before him, which they pretended to do. He then went through the motions of lifting the lid and examining the olives and even of tasting one.

"These are very fine olives," said he. "Ali Cogia, when did you say you placed this jar in the warehouse?"

"It was when I left Bagdad, seven years ago," answered the pretended merchant.

"Abul Hassan, is that so?"

The boy who acted the part of Abul said that it was.

"Let the olive merchants be brought into court," commanded the pretended Cadi.

The boys who were taking the parts of olive merchants now came forward.

"Tell me," said the feigned Cadi, "how long is it possible to keep olives?"

"However great the care that is taken," they answered, "it is impossible to preserve them for more than three years. After that time they lose both color and flavor and are fit for nothing but to be thrown out." The boys spoke with assurance, for their fathers were among the most expert olive dealers in the city, and they knew what they were talking about.

The pretended Cadi then bade them examine the olives in the jar and tell him how old they were. "As you see," said he, "they are of a fine color, large, and of a delicious fresh taste."

The feigned merchants pretended to examine them carefully and then announced the olives were of that year's growth.

"But Ali Cogia says he left them with Abul Hassan seven years ago, and to this statement Abul Hassan agrees."

"It is impossible they should have been kept that long," answered the feigned merchants. "As we tell you, after three years olives are worth nothing, and at the end of seven years they would be utterly spoiled. These are fresh olives and of this year's growth."

The boy who took the part of Abul Hassan would have tried to explain and make excuses, but the pretended Cadi bade him be silent.

"You have sworn falsely," said he, "and also proved yourself a thief."

Then to the pretended guards he cried, "Take him away and let him be hung according to the law."

The feigned guards dragged away the boy who was acting Abul Hassan and then, the play being finished, all the boys clapped their hands and shouted their approval of the way the feigned Cadi had conducted the case.

Seeing that all was over the Caliph withdrew, beckoning to the Vizier and Mesrour to follow him. After they had gone a short distance, Haroun-al-Raschid turned to the Vizier and asked him what he thought of the play they had just witnessed.

"I think," said the Vizier, "that the pretended Cadi showed a wisdom and a judgment that the real Cadi would do well to imitate. I also think the boy is a lad of remarkable intelligence."

"It is my own thought," replied the Caliph. "Moreover I have a further thought. You know this very case between Ali Cogia and Abul Hassan is to appear before me to-morrow, I have it in mind to send you to bring this boy to the palace, and I will then let him conduct this case in reality as he has to-day in play."

The Vizier applauded this plan, and he and his master returned to the palace, still talking of the boy.

The next day the Vizier went back to the court they had visited the evening before, and after looking about he found the lad who had taken the part of the Cadi sitting in a doorway. The Vizier approached him and spoke to him in a kind and friendly manner.

"My boy," said he, "I have come here by order of the Commander of the Faithful. Last evening, when you were acting your play, he overheard all that was said, and he wishes to see you at the palace to-day."

The boy was alarmed when he heard this, grew pale, and showed great uneasiness. "Have I done something wrong?" he asked. "If I have I did it unknowingly, and I hope I am not to be punished for something I did without intention."

"You have done no wrong," answered the Vizier, "and it is not to punish you that the Caliph has sent for you. Indeed he is very much pleased with your conduct, and his sending for you in this manner is a great honor." He then told the lad what it was the Caliph wished him to do.

Instead of being put at ease by this the lad showed even greater discomfort. "This seems a strange thing for me to do," said he:--"to decide a case between two grown men--I who am only a child. I am afraid I will not be able to please the Caliph, and that he will be angry with me."

"Conduct the case as wisely as you did last night when you were playing," answered the Vizier, "and the Caliph will not be displeased with you."

The boy then asked permission to go and tell his mother where he was going and for what purpose, and to this the Vizier consented.

When the lad's mother heard that he was to go to the palace to act as judge in a case of such importance she could hardly believe her ears. She was frightened lest the lad should in some way offend the Caliph by saying or doing something ill-judged.

The lad tried to reassure her, though he himself was far from being at ease.

"If the Caliph was pleased with the way I conducted the case last night I do not think he can be so very much displeased with me to-day," said he; "for I feel sure that only in this way can we discover the truth between the two merchants."

When the lad returned to the Vizier he looked very grave, and as they went along together on their way to the palace the Vizier tried in every way to put him more at ease and give him confidence.

Immediately upon their arrival at the palace they were shown into the room where the Caliph was sitting. Haroun-al-Raschid greeted the boy with no less kindness than the Vizier had shown and asked him if he understood the purpose for which he had been brought thither.

The lad said he did.

"Then let the two merchants come in," said the Caliph.

Ali Cogia and Abul Hassan were at once brought in by the officers of the court. Ali Cogia brought with him the jar of olives, for so he had been commanded to do.

The Cadi who had judged between the two merchants had also been ordered to attend, and he entered and took the place assigned to him.

The Caliph then turned to the lad and bade him open the case by bidding the merchants tell their stories, and this, after a moment's pause, the lad did.

Ali Cogia told his story just as he had before, stating that he had left with Abul Hassan seven years before a thousand pieces of gold packed in a jar and covered over with olives.

"Is this the jar you left with Abul Hassan?" asked the boy, pointing to the jar Ali had brought into court.

Ali stated that it was.

"Abul Hassan, do you also say this is the jar Ali Cogia left with you?" asked the lad.

Abul answered that it was. He also asked to be allowed to take his oath that the jar had not been disturbed after it was left in his warehouse until Ali Cogia had returned and removed it.

"That is not necessary at present," answered the boy. "First let some expert olive merchants be brought in."

Several olive dealers, the most expert in the city, had been sent for, and they now came forward.

The lad asked these real merchants the same questions he had asked of the feigned merchants the night before. "How long," said he, "is it possible to keep olives good?"

And the merchants answered, as had the boys, "Not more than three years, for no matter how carefully they have been packed, after that time they lose both color and flavor."

"Look in that jar," said the lad, "and tell us how long you think those olives have been kept there."

The merchants examined the olives with the greatest care, and then they all agreed that the olives were of that year's growth and quite fresh.

"And do you not think it possible they may have been kept a year or so?"

"No, it is not possible," answered the merchants. "We know, of a surety, as we have already said, that these olives are of this year's growth, and have only recently been packed in the jar."

When Ali Cogia heard this he gave a cry of surprise, but Abul Hassan was silent; his face grew as pale as ashes, and his legs failed under him, for he knew that the merchants, in saying this, had pronounced sentence against him.

But the lad turned to the Caliph and begged that he might now be allowed to hand over the case to him. "When I pronounced sentence last night, it was but in play," said he. "But this is not play. A man's life is at stake, and I dare not pronounce sentence upon him."

To this request the Caliph agreed. "Abul Hassan, you have condemned yourself," he said. He then bade the guards take Abul Hassan away and execute him according to the law.

Before the wretched man was hanged, however, he confessed his guilt and told where he had hidden the thousand pieces of gold that belonged to Ali Cogia.

After Abul had been led away the Caliph caressed and praised the lad for conducting the case so wisely and with so much judgment.

"As for you," said he to the Cadi, "you have not shown the wisdom I demand from my judges. Learn from this child that such cases are not to be dismissed lightly, but to be inquired into with judgment and care. Otherwise it may go ill with you."

The Cadi retired, full of shame, but the Caliph ordered that a hundred pieces of gold should be given to the boy and that he should be sent home to his mother with honor.

[The end]
Katharine Pyle's short story: History Of Ali Cogia [from The Arabian Nights]