From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 193-203.193
ALL are desirous of happiness, and all more or less study the means of attaining it. Yet we scarcely meet with anyone who will not admit that, in spite of his best directed and most persevering efforts, he has failed in the object of his wishes. How then, we may inquire, does it happen that amidst so many candidates for the prize not a single one should prove the victor and bear away the olive-branch in peace, the envy of his less happy fellow-mortals? Can we all of us mistake the way, pursuing, as we do, such a diversity of routes; or, misled by false guides, do we track the fugitive through paths by which she is inaccessible, and which defy our most ingenious efforts? Such, it is to be feared, is the real fact; and the following tale, however fanciful, will be found to contain some important truths exhibited under the veil of fiction, that may serve to illustrate the object we have in view.
An Arabian shepherd, whose name was Alimek, as he stood one day idly watching his flocks or wandering amidst the green pastures, chanced to espy, under the side of a mountain, a deep grotto, half hidden in the surrounding trees and bushes; and impelled by curiosity, with some difficulty approached the entrance, which he found very wild and dismal, though a ray of light descending from above broke upon him as he advanced. Pursuing its direction, he discovered in the farther recesses of the cave, carefully deposited on one side, a purse, a ring, and a sheet of old parchment. Seizing the purse with the utmost avidity, the poor shepherd had the misfortune to find it empty, and exclaimed in a tone of vexation:
“Now a plague upon thee! I thought thou hadst been 194 something better than a mere outside. Thou canst not even boast a single piece, be it more or less, so even lie and rot where I found thee!” and he flung it indignantly upon the ground.
As it fell upon the rock, a sound was heard that bore a great resemblance to the chinking of gold, and Alimek as hastily snatched it up again as he had parted with it before. What was his astonishment to find it full!
“Heavens!” he cried, “what is this? By our prophet, there is some enchantment here, and I will take care to turn it to good account!”
Then, having secured the gold, he next took the ring and parchment, and hastened as fast as possible out of the grot.
“Farewell, O ye ancient woods!” he cried; “no more shall you behold me sporting in your pleasant shades. The favorite of Fortune, I must now forsake you for the busy city, for the splendor and delights of Mecca.”
The next moment he found himself transported thither, and, gazing around in the greatest confusion and surprise, he had recourse to the parchment, where the following directions met his eye: “The purse will fill again with gold as often as you please, and the ring will not fail to transport you whithersoever you think proper.”
Delighted at these tidings, Alimek’s first wish was to visit different countries, and this he speedily sought to indulge. Owing to the facility of his conveyance, he was enabled to traverse a variety of regions in a short space of time, and at first he felt much interested in observing the diversity of climates, inhabitants, and natural productions, comparing customs and manners, as well as the people, with each other.
Soon, however, he began to grow weary of this, and he found upon a nearer view that the apparent varieties, with which he had been in the outset so much pleased, began to vanish on a nearer inspection; that art and nature are far more uniform in the objects they present to our view than he had supposed; and that all the usages and customs of mankind trace their origin to the same human passions, 195 and are merely characterized by the most trivial differences. The desire of novelty at length ceased altogether, his curiosity being satiated, and he found traveling so very irksome that he became glad to enjoy a little repose, as affording far superior gratification.
With this view, he selected the city of Constantinople for the scene of his future repose and pleasure, being enabled by his unfailing wealth to gratify his tastes to what extent he pleased; while the concourse of such a variety of nations would supply him, at the same time, with all the novelty he had coveted in his different travels. Here he adopted a regular system of epicurism, indulging himself in every species of pleasure and caprice that he thought at all likely to conduce to his happiness. Much sooner than he expected, however, he became weary of reveling and rioting in the luxuries of the East: not only the edge of every pleasure was blunted, but his very appetites palled and failed, in spite of the most ingenious artifices to renew their zest.
Reduced to this condition, he was seized with such intolerable ennui as to feel life a burden to him wherever he went. A violent fever, the effect of his excesses, was alone sufficient to rouse him from this torpid state, convincing him how little a soft and voluptuous life is calculated to bestow happiness; and he vowed, in future, to devote himself earnestly to business and incessant occupations of some kind.
His prodigious wealth quickly procured him friends and patrons in abundance, while his superior knowledge and accomplishments, acquired during his travels, enabled him to discharge some of the highest offices with great credit and success. In this career he gradually continued to rise until he at length attained the rank of Grand Vizier, when he found his avocations so numerous, besieged as he was by petitions on all sides, and charged with the orders of the Sultan, that he hardly possessed a moment for repose. What with the caprices of an effeminate monarch, the intrigues among the ladies of his seraglio, the conspiracies and 196 cabals of rebels and rivals, he not only found sufficient business to keep him alive, but was kept in a continued state of fear and agitation.
Nor was it long before he felt to his cost that such state, dignity, and honors are only a more illustrious species of slavery, and all his thoughts became bent upon a decent and safe retreat from office. But just as he was on the point of soliciting his discharge, tidings of a warlike nature came from Persia, which compelled him to issue instant orders for the reënforcement of the Sultan’s armies, for the purpose of chastising the growing pride and insolence of his enemies. It was now that he felt a thirst of glory first animate his bosom, and he prepared with alacrity for the combat.
In the opening of the campaign two brilliant victories rewarded his efforts; the enemy was discomfited on all sides, and driven once more beyond the limits of Turkestan. The name of Alimek resounded throughout the empire; he was crowned with honors and applauses by the great, while the grand signior was preparing to receive him in his capital with the most sumptuous display of pomp and power, the better to grace his triumph. But the vizier, too much elated with his successes, had the imprudence to advance incautiously into the enemy’s territories, and unluckily fell into an ambush, from which it became impossible to rescue his army without very considerable loss. From that moment the magic of his name was gone; the scene was changed, and his praises were turned into threats and execrations, while instead of his promised triumphs, he found himself saluted by certain death in the form of the bowstring.
It was now that he experienced the benefit of his ring as well as of his purse, by virtue of which he disappeared, and after traversing various regions of India, still accompanied by anxiety and ennui, he finally took up his residence in the city of Golconda. Here there chanced to reign a princess of such surpassing beauty that she was regarded as the wonder of all Asia. Alimek became deeply enamored 197 of her at first sight, and eagerly sought an introduction to the court, which he as easily obtained. The magnificence in which he there appeared arrayed, his highly polished and agreeable manners, together with the elegance and wit of his conversation, failed not to attract the regard of the Princess Selima, who soon began to take singular pleasure in his society, inviting him to all her parties, and requesting him to take up his residence some time in Golconda. Here he engaged with equal ardor in the feast, the chase, and the joust, giving the most sumptuous entertainments, and surpassing the proudest and most ambitious in his pomp of dress, his jewels, and the richness of his train.
Thus by degrees he insinuated himself into the confidence of the fair Selima, who soon conceiving a violent passion for him, held out hopes of conferring upon him her hand. At length Alimek imagined he had reached the summit of happiness, of which he has so long been in search, when the other courtiers, whose jealousy took the alarm at the superior influence of a mere stranger, so effectually combined against him that, by aid of the blackest calumnies, they not only effected his disgrace with the princess, but obtained a warrant for his execution, which would doubtless have taken place, had he not made a speedy appeal to the mercy of his ring.
Again Alimek took his departure with feelings of regret and indignation proportioned to the insult and disappointment he had suffered. Happiness had thus vanished when in his very grasp, and he now felt himself alone, a wanderer on the earth, comfortless and discontented with everything, and careless whither he directed his steps. In this mood, he approached the confines of China; and as he was traversing, immersed in thought, the dreary solitudes before him, he suddenly heard not far from him sounds of festive mirth and triumph. Curious to learn whence the voice of revelry and song proceeded, he succeeded in tracing the sound until he arrived at a rural hamlet, where he found a group of villagers celebrating the customary games and sports of the season, all vying with each other in the ardor 198 of their joyous spirit. So pure and heartfelt, indeed, did it appear, even when depicted upon the face of age, as to induce our hero to approach a venerable figure, whose aspect retained a degree of life and spirit that apparently bade defiance to the weight of years. The old man gazed upon the merry scene before him with sympathetic pleasure, and he received the inquiries of the stranger with an air of intelligence and courtesy that won his regard.
“This is by no means an unusual sight with us,” he replied; “this day is one of our holidays, consecrated to the worship of our gods and to innocent pastimes and repose. It makes the hours at least pass pleasantly, and that is not a small thing gained.”
“True,” said Alimek, “it must be a delightful reward of your late toils, and the wretched lot you are in general condemned to suffer, earning your scanty fare.”
The old man smiled. “I have passed my sixtieth year,” he continued, “in the state of life you allude to, and I have only to offer up my prayers to the gods for having spent it so pleasantly. I was never unhappy; though I am well aware that you great ones of the world imagine that true felicity can by no means exist unaccompanied with store of gold and silver, diamonds, and other precious gems, which are quite unnecessary, and never enter into the calculation of us villagers, who are rather inclined, whenever we behold the distressing sights, the tumult, and disquietude of your cities, to indulge sentiments of compassion, not of envy and admiration. You are strangers to peace; avarice, ambition, or strife effectually banishes repose; and where content dwells not happiness can have no place. Yet are not we simple villagers as rich as the proudest citizens in the world? All that they attempt to enjoy by means of their precious metals becomes ours without the toil and inconvenience attending such a transfer. Our flocks and herds, together with the fruits of the earth, supply us with everything needful, and we can want no more while we are content.”
Surprised at the old man’s language, and desirous of 199 ascertaining in what manner he contrived amidst so many labors and privations to be far happier than he had ever felt himself in all the variety of pomp and splendor, of luxury and of power, which he has so long enjoyed, Alimek adopted the resolution of sojourning for some time near him, and of solacing his sorrows with the contemplation of the harmless sports and pastimes of the children of the hamlet.
“It appears extremely singular,” he said, addressing the old man, “that compelled, as you appear to be, to suffer continual toils and hardships, you should yet feel any degree of satisfaction, and even be enabled to converse of happiness.”
“Labor,” replied the aged man, “may indeed appear a dreadful punishment to a man sunk in abject sloth and effeminacy; but to us, who are habituated to it, it is rather a pleasure, affording variety and relief. And never did I spend so many weary and irksome hours as when, disabled by indisposition, I was no longer equal to the discharge of my former duties and avocations; to do nothing was to me a real grievance, an intolerable evil. Moments then appeared as if converted into years, and that period was the most unhappy, I think, of all my days. But as soon as I resumed my former occupations, the evening always surprised me ere I was aware; the tedium and anxiety I had felt vanished I knew not how; though I am at no loss to recognize them again, whenever I visit the crowded streets of your great cities, depicted on the features of the idle and the vain, the avaricious, the dissipated, and the bad.”
“Yet the perpetual recurrence of fatigue,” interrupted Alimek, “which you endure, must be more intolerable, I think, than the life you here describe.”
“As to fatigue,” returned the old man, “it is certainly a great hardship upon a slave who is compelled to exert himself beyond his powers, but not upon free agents like ourselves, who can take our needful refreshments and repose; thus being enabled to resume our labors with fresh vigor 200 and alacrity. Nor did I ever desire my fellow-laborers and assistants to perform heavier tasks than they were equal to, or than I was willing to undertake myself. Upon such conditions labor ceases to be an evil; it is, on the contrary, a wholesome and pleasant exercise, calculated to promote cheerfulness and banish idle and uneasy thoughts. By the same means the body, becoming more firm and vigorous, is better enabled to resist disease, to which indolent and dissipated people are so frequently liable. Then how sweet is the taste of food, how sound the repose that follows a due exercise of the corporeal powers; besides the noble consciousness of independence, supporting ourselves and families, and deriving these advantages from the labor of our own hands — a species of pleasure of which the great ones of the earth can form no adequate idea. Every fresh furrow drawn in my field seems to me another promise of the joyous harvest season, and it is a pleasure to observe the result of our labors gradually arriving at full maturity.”
“Yet the fruit of your exertions, after all,” said Alimek, “is but a little matter, more especially when compared with all that the wealthy are enabled to enjoy without any anxiety or trouble.”
“However little,” returned the old man, “it matters not, provided it be sufficient; and when I slake my thirst at this transparent stream, why should it concern me that any other may have it in his power, if he please, of quaffing up the whole of the great River Hoang? Or let him possess the same measure of land: my field and my flock are enough to furnish me with everything needful to my support, my raiment, and my repose. Now, happiness does not consist in much beyond these, beyond the tranquil enjoyment of the fruits of our own industry, satisfied with what Fortune is pleased in addition to bestow. In truth, such as lie buried in sloth, sunk in luxury and effeminacy, are far more poor and more to be pitied than we are, inasmuch as their desires, still craving for more, can never be gratified, while Nature herself is careful to draw the 201 limits of our wants, which she as easily and kindly satisfies.
“With you it is different, caprice being the only law which the fashionable, the wealthy, and the worldly-minded choose to obey; and hence arise a thousand absurd wishes and wants, which, as they cannot all be gratified, become the fruitful source of disquietude and woe. If you will deign, then, to afford credit to the experience of age, and I have enjoyed ample opportunities of judging, no less amidst the busy haunts of cities then the silent and solitary scenes of Nature, you will agree that three things only are requisite to happiness, though these are indispensable — namely, tranquillity, occupation, and content. Take heed to preserve your mind in peace by keeping enmity and discord at a distance, by restraining the more unruly passions, and by supporting with firmness the unavoidable evils of life, while you may effectually banish ennui by constant and regular employment: make use of the blessings bestowed by Heaven with wisdom and moderation: finally, try to be content, and you will not be unhappy.”
Astonished at finding so much true philosophy and good sense in an old villager, Alimek was deeply affected by his reasoning, as well as with all that he saw and heard. On taking his leave, he continued to ponder over the past, and the more he considered the more true did the words of the old man appear.
“So the felicity I have so long been in search of,” he exclaimed, in a tone of chagrin, “was from the first within my grasp, while I have been wandering throughout the world in pursuit of it in vain. The familiar friend and companion of these villagers, it seems to have flown from my embraces the more earnestly I sought its aid. Of what service, then, has been the secret, the unhappy secret that I first discovered in the grot, and which I believed was fraught with blessing? Wearied and disgusted with all I have seen during my long and frequent travels, the strife, envy, and depravity of mankind, varied only as folly and 202 extravagance dictate, palled with repeated pleasures that never gave me any real satisfaction, and brought me to the brink of the grave, and tormented by vain ambition, anxiety, and intrigue, my best exertions rewarded only with a prospect of the bowstring; even betrayed by the woman I most loved on earth, who gave orders for my execution at the moment that she flattered me with the promise of her hand; why did I fear the lows of life, and why do I still bear the odious and insupportable burden of existence? Far better to have remained in my native fields, the child of nature and simplicity. There my food, though not artificial, was wholesome and refreshing; my raiment, though simple, was warm and suited to the seasons much better than the vain and capricious fashions I have since adopted.”
Revolving these thought during the whole of the ensuing night, he rose at the break of day, with the intention of requesting the old man’s permission to reside with him, in order to acquire some share of that independence and happiness he so much coveted. The old man smiled.
“I rejoice,” he said, “that our simple and peaceful way of life, so different from all you have before experienced, can possess any charms for you, though I fear you will hardly fancy it, particularly if you suppose happiness to be confined to any one place, even to the quiet retreats of the country. Without content of mind it will in vain be sought for anywhere, and with it happiness may be enjoyed in the crowded haunts of cities as well as in the wild. Moderation and government of the passions will insure it everywhere.”
“But, my old friend,” replied Alimek, “a country life is by no means so new to me as you seem to imagine; I dare say I should resume it with much pleasure.”
And here he acquainted the aged villager with his origin, his miraculous discovery in the grotto, and all his subsequent adventures. Then presenting him with the magic purse and ring, of which he had become heartily weary, he entreated, as the only return, that he would consent to 203 give him refuge from the stormy passions, the intrigues, and the vanities of the world.
“Very gladly,” replied the other; “and I will accept what you offer me, though I shall take care not to avail myself of their powers: just heavens forbid! I will retain them in case you should repent of the conditions you have just made; for, however wise, I think they are a little precipitate. In this way you will be enabled to resume you miraculous gift when you think proper, should you find our mode of life too little suitable to your feelings, and too great a contrast to your former adventures and exploits.
“Fear me not,” replied Alimek. “I have only to express my gratitude for your kind advice and your kinder reception of me. The days of my vanity are over; I have experienced the folly of riches, ambition, glory, and of all the boasted happiness that the world can afford.”
Strange as such a resolution may appear, Alimek firmly adhered to it; his perseverance produced content, and finding himself growing happier every day, he imagined he could pursue no better plan than to unite himself still more nearly and intimately with the old man’s family. With this view he cast his eyes upon one of his daughters, a beautiful woman, whose modesty and domestic virtues were still superior to her beauty, and whose conduct formed a pleasing contrast to that of the princess who so vilely betrayed our hero when on the eve of marriage. Having now possessed himself of that happiness which neither riches, nor pleasures, nor honors had it in their power to bestow, Alimek finally determined to bury the purse and the ring where they should never again be discovered, being well convinced that they only instigated their possessor to render himself miserable, by seeking for real bliss where it can least be found.
* Elf.Ed. — Thomas Roscoe is not credited as the translator, but this story is included in his book, The Italian Novelists, also here on Elfinspell. In this series, the spelling is Americanized and there are minor changes in punctuation and format, mostly more paragraphs than in Roscoe’s translation. To see the original version go [here].