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A short story by William Hauff

Abner, The Jew, Who Had Seen Nothing

Title:     Abner, The Jew, Who Had Seen Nothing
Author: William Hauff [More Titles by Hauff]

Sire, I am from Mogadore, on the coast of the Atlantic, and during the time that the powerful Emperor Muley Ismael reigned over Fez and Morocco, the following incident occurred, the recital of which may perhaps amuse you. It is the story of Abner, the Jew, who had seen nothing.

Jews, as you know, are to be found every-where, and every-where they are Jews--sharp, with the eye of a hawk for the slightest advantage to be gained; and the more they are oppressed the more do they exhibit the craft on which they pride themselves. That a Jew may sometimes, however, come to harm through an exhibition of his smartness, is sufficiently shown by what befel Abner, one afternoon, as he took his way through the gates of Morocco for a walk.

He strode along with a pointed hat on his head, his form enveloped in a plain and not excessively clean mantle, taking from time to time a stolen pinch from a gold box that he took special pains to conceal. He stroked his mustaches, and in spite of the restless eyes that expressed fear, watchfulness, and the desire to discover something that could be turned to account, a certain satisfaction was apparent in his shifting countenance, which plainly denoted he must have recently concluded some very good bargains. He was doctor, merchant, and every thing else that brought in money. He had this day sold a slave with a secret defect, had bought a camel-load of gum very cheap, and had prepared the last dose for a wealthy patient--not the last before his recovery, but the last before his death.

He had just emerged from a small thicket of palm and date trees, when he heard the shouts of a number of people running after him. They were a crowd of the emperor's grooms, headed by the master of the horse, looking about them on all sides as they ran, as if in search of something.

"Philistine!" panted the master of the horse. "Have you not seen one of the emperor's horses, with saddle and bridle on, run by?"

"The best racer to be seen anywhere--a small neat hoof, shoes of fourteen carat silver, a golden mane, fifteen hands high, a tail three and a half feet long, and the bit of his bridle of twenty-three carat gold?"

"That's he!" cried the master of the horse. "That's he!" echoed the grooms. "It is Emir," said an old riding-master. "I have warned the Prince Abdallah not to ride Emir without a snaffle. I know Emir, and said beforehand he would throw the prince, and though his bruises should cost me my head, I warned him beforehand. But quick! which way did he go?"

"I haven't seen a horse at all!" returned Abner, smiling. "How then can I tell you where the emperor's horse ran?"

Astonished at this contradiction, the gentlemen of the royal stables were about to press Abner further, when another event occurred, that interfered with their purpose.

By one of those singular chances of which there are numerous examples, the empress's lap-dog had turned up missing; and a number of black slaves came running up, calling at the top of their voices: "Have you seen the empress's lap-dog?"

"A small spaniel," said Abner, "that has recently had a litter, with hanging ears, bushy tail, and lame in the right fore-leg?"

"That's she--her own self!" chorused the slaves. "That's Aline; the empress went into fits as soon as her pet was missed. Aline, where are you? What would become of us if we were to return to the harem without you? Tell us quickly, where did you see her run to?"

"I have not seen any dog, and never knew that my empress--God preserve her--owned a spaniel!"

The men from the stable and harem grew furious at Abner's insolence, as they termed it, in making jests over the loss of imperial property; and did not doubt for a moment that Abner had stolen both dog and horse. While the others continued the search, the master of the horse and the chief eunuch seized the Jew, and hurried him, with his half-sly and half-terrified expression, before the presence of the emperor.

Muley Ismael, as soon as he heard the charge against Abner, sent for his privy-counsellor, and, in view of the importance of the subject, presided over the investigation himself. To begin with, fifty lashes on the soles of the feet were awarded the accused. Abner might whine or shriek, protest his innocence or promise to tell every thing just as it had happened, recite passages from the Scripture or from the Talmud; he might cry: "The displeasure of the king is like the roar of a young lion, but his mercy is like dew on the grass," or "Let not thy hand strike when thy eyes and ears are closed." Muley Ismael made a sign to his slaves, and swore by the beard of the Prophet, and his own, that the Philistine should pay with his head for the pains of the Prince Abdallah and the convulsions of the empress, if the runaways were not restored.

The palace of the emperor was still resounding with the shrieks of the Jew, as the news was brought that both dog and horse had been found. Aline was surprised in the company of some pug dogs, quite respectable curs, but not fit associates for a court lady; while Emir, after tiring himself out with running, had found the fragrant grass on the green meadows by the Tara brook suited his taste better than the imperial oats--like the wearied royal huntsman who, having lost his way on the chase, forgot all the delicacies of his own table as he ate the black bread and butter in a peasant's hut.

Muley Ismael now requested of Abner an explanation of his behavior, and the Jew saw that the time had come, although somewhat late, when he could answer; which, after prostrating himself three times before his highness's throne, he proceeded to do in the following words:

"Most high and mighty Emperor, King of Kings, Sovereign of the West, Star of Justice, Mirror of Truth, Abyss of Wisdom, you who gleam like gold, sparkle like a diamond, and are as inflexible as iron! Hear me, as it is permitted your slave to lift his voice in your august presence. I swear by the God of my fathers, by Moses and the Prophets, that I never saw your sacred horse, and the amiable dog of my gracious empress, with the eyes of my body. But listen to my explanation.

"I walked out to refresh myself after the fatigues of the day, and in the small wood where I had the honor to meet his excellency, the master of the horse, and his vigilancy, the black overseer of your blessed harem, I perceived the trail of an animal in the fine sand between the palms. As I am well acquainted with the tracks of various animals, I at once recognized these as the footprints of a small dog; other traces near the prints of the fore-paws where the sand seemed to be lightly brushed away, assured me that the animal must have had beautiful pendant ears; and as I noticed how, at long intervals, the sand was brushed up, I thought: the little creature has a fine bushy tail that must look something like a tuft of feathers, and it has pleased her now and then to whip up the sand with it. Nor did it escape my observation that one paw had not made as deep an imprint on the sand as the others; unfortunately, therefore, it could not be concealed from me that the dog of my most gracious empress--if it is permitted me to say it aloud--limped a little.

"Concerning your highness's horse, I would say that on turning into a path in the wood I came upon the tracks of a horse. I had no sooner caught sight of the small noble hoof-print of the fine yet strong frog of the foot, than I said in my heart; a horse of the Tschenner stock, of which this must have been one of the noblest specimens, has passed by here. It is not quite four months since my most gracious emperor sold a pair of this breed to a prince in the land of the Franks, and my brother Ruder was there when they agreed on the price, and my most gracious emperor made so and so much by the transaction. When I saw how far apart these hoof-prints were, and how regular were the distances between them, I thought: that horse galloped beautifully and gently and could only be owned by my emperor; and I thought of the war horse described by Job--'He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed men. He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted: neither turneth he back from the sword. The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.' And as I saw something glistening on the ground, I stooped down, as I always do in such cases, and lo, it was a marble stone in which the hoof of the running horse had cut a groove, from which I perceived that the shoe must have been of fourteen carat silver, as I have learned the mark each metal makes, be it pure or alloyed. The path in which I walked was seven feet wide, and here and there I noticed that the dust had been brushed from the palms; the horse switched it off with his tail, thought I, which must therefore be three and a half feet long. Under trees that began to branch about five feet from the ground, I saw freshly-fallen leaves, that must have been knocked off by the horse in his swift flight; hence he was fully fifteen hands high; and behold, under the same trees were small tufts of hair of a golden lustre, hence his hide would have been a yellow-dun! Just as I emerged from the copse, my eye was caught by a deep scratch on a wall of rock. I ought to know what caused this, thought I, and what do you think it was? I put a touch-stone, dusted over, on the scratch, and got an impression of some fine hairlines such as for fineness and precision could not be excelled in the seven provinces of Holland. The scratch must have been caused by the stem of the horse's bit grazing the rock, as he ran close by it. Your love of splendor is well-known. King of Kings; and one should know that the most common of your horses would be ashamed to champ any thing less fine than a golden bit. Such was the result of my observations, and if----"

"Well, by the cities of the Prophet!" cried Muley Ismael, "I call that a pair of eyes! Such eyes would not harm you, master of the huntsmen; they would save you the expense of a pack of hounds; you, minister of the police, could see further than all your bailiffs and spies. Well, Philistine, in view of your uncommon acuteness, that has pleased us so well, we will show you clemency; the fifty lashes that you justly received are worth fifty zecchini, as they will save you fifty more; so draw your purse and count out fifty in cash, and refrain in the future from joking over our imperial property; as for the rest, you have our royal pardon."

The whole court were astonished at Abner's sagacity, and his majesty, too, had declared him to be a clever fellow; but all this did not recompense him for the anguish he suffered, nor console him for the loss of his dear ducats. While groaning and sighing, he took one coin after another from his purse, and before parting with it weighed it on the tip of his finger. Schnuri, the king's jester, asked him jeeringly whether all his zecchini were tested on the stone by which the bit of Prince Abdallah's dun horse was proved. "Your wisdom to-day has brought you fame," said the jester; "but I would bet you another fifty ducats that you wish you had kept silent. But what says the Prophet? 'A word once spoken can not be overtaken by a wagon, though four fleet horses were harnessed to it.' Neither will a greyhound overtake it, Mr. Abner, even if it did not limp."

Not long after this (to Abner) painful event, he took another walk in one of the green valleys between the foot-hills of the Atlas range of mountains. And on this occasion, just as before, he was overtaken by a company of armed men, the leader of whom called out:

"Hi! my good friend! have you not seen Goro, the emperor's black body-guard, run by? He has run away, and must have taken this course into the mountains."

"I can not inform you, General," answered Abner.

"Oh! Are you not that cunning Jew who had seen neither the dog nor the horse? Don't stand on ceremony; the slave must have passed this way; can you not scent him in the air? or can you not discover the print of his flying feet in the long grass? Speak! the slave must have passed here; he is unequalled in killing sparrows with a pea-shooter, and this is his majesty's greatest diversion. Speak up! or I will put you in chains!"

"I can not say I have seen what I have yet not seen."

"Jew, for the last time I ask, where is the slave? Think on the soles of your feet; think on your zecchini!"

"Oh, woe is me! Well, if you will have it that I have seen the sparrow-shooter, then run that way; if he is not there, then he is somewhere else."

"You saw him, then?" roared the general.

"Well, yes, Mr. Officer, if you will have it so."

The soldiers hastened off in the direction he had indicated; while Abner went home chuckling over his cunning. Before he was twenty-four hours older, however, a company of the palace guards defiled his house by entering it on the Sabbath, and dragged him into the presence of the Emperor of Morocco.

"Dog of a Jew!" shouted the emperor. "You dare to send the imperial servants, who were pursuing a fugitive, on a false scent into the mountains, while the slave was fleeing towards the coast, and very nearly escaped on a Spanish ship. Seize him, soldiers! A hundred on his soles, and a hundred zecchini from his purse! The more his feet swell under the lash, the more his purse will collapse."

You know, O Sire, that in the kingdom of Fez and Morocco the people love swift justice; and so the poor Abner was whipped and taxed without consulting his own inclinations beforehand. He cursed his fate, that condemned his feet and his purse to suffer every time it pleased his majesty to lose any thing. As he limped out of the room, bellowing and groaning, amidst the laughter of the rough court people, Schnuri, the jester, said to him: "You ought to be contented, Abner, ungrateful Abner; is it not honor enough for you that every loss that our gracious emperor--whom God preserve--suffers, likewise arouses in your bosom the profoundest grief? But if you will promise me a good fee, I will come to your shop in Jews Alley an hour before the Sovereign of the West is to lose any thing, and say: 'Don't go out of your house, Abner; you know why; shut yourself up in your bedroom under lock and key until sunset.'"

This, O Sire, is the story of Abner, the Jew, Who had seen Nothing.

When the slave had finished, and every thing was quiet in the salon, the young writer reminded the old man that the thread of their discourse had been broken, and requested him to declare wherein lay the captivating power of tales.

"I will reply to your question," returned the old man. "The human spirit is lighter and more easily moved than water, although that is tossed into all kinds of shapes, and by degrees, too, bores through the thickest objects. It is light and free as the air, and, like that element, the higher it is lifted from earth, the lighter and purer it is. Therefore is there an inclination in humanity to lift itself above the common events of life, in order to give itself the freer play accorded in more lofty domains, even if it be only in dreams. You yourself, my young friend, said to me: 'We lived in those stories, we thought and felt with those beings,' and hence the charm they had for you. While you listened to the stories of yonder slaves, that were only fictions invented by another, did you also use your imagination? You did not remain in spirit with the objects around you, nor were you engrossed by your every-day thoughts: no, you experienced in your own person all that was told; it was you yourself to whom this and that adventure occurred, so strongly were you interested in the hero of the tale. Thus your spirit raised itself, on the thread of such a story, over and away from the present, which does not appear so fair or have such charms for you. Thus this spirit moved about, free and unconfined in a strange and higher atmosphere; fiction became reality to you--or, if you prefer, reality became fiction--because your imagination and being were absorbed into fiction."

"I do not quite comprehend you," returned the young merchant; "but you are right in saying that we live in fiction, or fiction lives in us. I remember clearly that beautiful time when we had nothing to do. Waking, we dreamed; we pretended that we were wrecked on desert islands, and took counsel with one another as to what we should do to prolong our lives; and often we built ourselves huts in a willow copse, made scanty meals of miserable fruits, although we could have procured the very best at the house not a hundred paces distant; yes, there were even times when we waited for the appearance of a kind fairy, or a wonderful dwarf, who should step up to us and say: 'The earth is about to open--will it please you to descend with me down to my palace of rock-crystal, and take your choice of what my servants, the baboons, can serve up?'"

The young men laughed, but confessed to their friend that he had spoken truth. "To this day," continued another, "this enchantment creeps over me now and then. I became, for instance, somewhat vexed at the stupid fable with which my brother would come rushing up to the door: 'Have you heard of the misfortune of our neighbor, the stout baker? He had dealings with a magician, who, out of revenge, transformed him into a bear, and now he lies within his chamber growling fearfully.' I would get angry, and call him a liar. But what a different aspect the case took on when I was told that the stout neighbor had made a journey into a far-distant and unknown land, and there fell into the hands of a magician who transformed him into a bear! I would after a while find myself absorbed in the story; would take the trip with my stout neighbor; experience wonderful adventures, and it would not have astonished me very much if he had actually been stuck into a bear-skin and forced to go on all fours."

"And yet," said the old man, "there is a very delightful form of narrative, in which neither fairies nor magicians figure, no palace of crystal and no genii who bring the most delicious food, no magic horse, but a kind that differs materially from those usually designated as tales."

"Another kind?" exclaimed the young men. "Please explain to us more clearly what you mean."

"I am of the opinion that a certain distinction should be made between fairy tales and narratives which are commonly called stories. When I tell you that I will relate a fairy tale, you would at the outset count upon its treating of events outside of the usual course of life and of its being located in a kingdom entirely different from any thing on earth. Or, to make my meaning plain, in a fairy tale you would look for other people as well as mortals to appear; strange powers, such as fairies and magicians, genii and ruling spirits, are concerned in the fate of the person of whom the tale treats; the whole fabric of the story takes on an extraordinary and wonderful shape, and has somewhat the appearance of the texture of our carpets, or many pictures of our best masters which the Franks call arabesques. It is forbidden the true Mussulman to represent human beings, the creatures of Allah, in colors and paintings, as a sin; therefore one sees in this texture wonderful tortuous trees, and twigs with human heads; human beings drawn out into a bush or fish; in short, forms that remind one of the life around him, and are yet unlike that life. Do you follow me?"

"I believe I perceive your meaning," said the young writer; "but continue."

"After this fashion then is a fairy tale; fabulous, unusual, astonishing; and because it is untrue to the usual course of life, it is often located in foreign lands or referred to a period long since passed away. Every land, every tribe, has such tales; the Turks as well as the Persians, the Chinese as well as the Mongolians; and even in the country of the Franks there are many, at least so I was told by a learned Giaour; still they are not as fine as ours, for instead of beautiful fairies who live in splendid palaces, they have decrepit old women, whom they name witches--an ugly, artful folk, who dwell in miserable huts, and instead of riding in a shell wagon, drawn by griffins, through the blue skies, they ride through the mist astride of a broomstick. They also have gnomes and spirits of the earth, who are small, undersized people, and cause all kinds of apparitions. Such are the fairy tales; but of far different composition are the narratives commonly called stories. These are located in an orderly way on the earth, treat of the usual affairs of life, the wonderful part mostly made up of the links of fate drawn about a human being, who is made rich or poor, happy or unhappy, not by magic or the displeasure of fairies, as in the tale, but by his own action, or by a singular combination of circumstances."

"Most true!" responded one of the young men; "and such stories are also to be found in the glorious tales of Scheherazade called 'The Thousand and One Nights.' Most of the events that befel King Haroun-al-Raschid and his vizier were of that nature. They go out disguised and see this and that very singular incident, which is afterwards solved in a natural manner."

"And yet you must admit," continued the old man "that those stories did not constitute the least interesting part of 'The Thousand and One Nights.' And still, how they differ in their motive, in their development and in their whole nature from the tales of a Prince Biribinker, or the three dervishes with one eye, or the fisher who drew from the sea the chest fastened with the seal of Salomo! But after all there is an original cause for the distinctive charms possessed by both styles--namely, that we live to experience many things striking and unusual. In the fairy tales, this element of the unusual is supplied by the introduction of a fabulous magic into the ordinary life of mortals; while in the stories something happens that, although in keeping with the natural laws, is totally unexpected and out of the usual course of events."

"Strange!" cried the writer, "strange, that this natural course of events proves quite as attractive to us as the supernatural in the tales. What is the explanation of that?"

"That lies in the delineation of the individual mortal," replied the old man. "In the tales, the miraculous forms the chief feature, while the mortal is deprived of the power of shaping his course; so that the individual figures and their character can only be drawn hastily. It is otherwise with the simple narrative, where the manner in which each one speaks and acts his character, in due proportion, is the main point and the most attractive one."

"Really, you are right!" exclaimed the young merchant. "I never took time to give the matter much thought. I looked at every thing, and then let it pass by me. I was amused with one, found another wearisome, without knowing exactly why; but you have given us the key that unlocks the secret, a touch-stone with which we can make the test and decide properly."

"Make a practice of doing that," answered the old man, "and your enjoyment will constantly increase, as you learn to think over what you have heard. But see, another slave has risen to tell his story." (see story 16)

[The end]
William Hauff's short story: Abner, The Jew, Who Had Seen Nothing