The Caliph's Jester


On a musnud of state was reclining the Caliph, the Mighty Haroun;
His brow like the sun it was shining, his face it was like the full moon,
And his courtiers around him were standing, like stars in an indigo sky,
And the saki the wine-cup was handing—for the monarch, though pious, was dry.
And the poets their works were reciting in Arabic numbers divine,
The hearts of all hearers delighting with verses like Afdhal's or mine.
Then the Caliph glared round the assembly, as a lion glares round on the herd,
And the knees of the courtiers grew trembly, and their hearts fluttered e'en as a bird;
And cold drops were distilled from each forehead, and each tongue to its palate did cling,
For their fear of their Caliph was horrid—he was such a passionate king!
At length in a voice that with passion was shaking, it pleased him to speak:—
"Does he know whom he treats in this fashion? Did you e'er behold aught like his cheek?
"This poet, this jester, this chaffer, this pig's son, this bullock, this ass,
This black-hearted, black-visaged Kaffir, this Infidel, Abu Nuwas!"
"I bade him come hither to meet us, in this serious Council of State;
And this is the way he dares treat us. Ye dogs, he is five minutes late!"
Then the heart of his Highness relented; Rashid was of changeable mood;
"Maybe he's been somehow prevented; to get in a rage does no good.
"His jests, too, are always so pleasant, one somehow his impudence stands;
Besides, poor Mesrour just at present has plenty of work on his hands.
"But although I can't perfectly tame him till he goes to the Nita to school,
At least I can thoroughly shame him, and make him appear like a fool.
"Slaves, fetch me some eggs—not new laid—you can find some stale ones that will do.
Now execute quick what I bade you, or else I will execute you."
They brought him the eggs in a charger, all studded with many a pearl,
The same pattern—though just a bit larger—as that of Herodias' girl;
And the Caliph took one egg, and hid it away in his cushion, which done,
He bade them all do so. They did it; and sat down awaiting the fun.
With an air that was saucy and braggish, with a step that was jaunty and spruce,
With a smile that was merry and waggish, with a mien that was reckless and loose,
With a "How is your high disposition to-morrow, if God should so will?"
With a "Here in our ancient position, your Majesty seeth us still!"
With a face all be-chalked and be-painted, with a bound through the portal doth pass
One with whom we're already acquainted, the world-renowned Abu Nuwas!
"Right welcome! Right welcome! my brother!" his Majesty smilingly spake,
"We were just now in want of another, a nice game at forfeits to make.
"Whatever I do you must watch it, and each do precisely the same—
If I catch you chaps laughing you'll catch it! sit still and attend to the game.
"If you do just as I do, precisely, a dînâr apiece shall ye gain,
If you don't, won't I give it you nicely—Mesrour you stand by with the cane!"
He spake: and the smile on his features was mischievous, cunning and grim,
And the courtiers, poor awe-stricken creatures, smiled feebly and gazed upon him.
"Cluck, cluck, cluck aroo!" representing the note of a jubilant hen,
The Caliph arises, presenting an egg, to the sight of all men.
"Cluck, cluck, cluck aroo!" and the rabble are all at once up on their legs,
And with ornithological gabble display their mysterious eggs.
Then without in the least hesitating steps Abu Nuwas before all.
"Cock-a-doodle doo doo!" imitating a rooster's hilarious call.
"Now I know why it is that you cackle," said he, "when you're trying to talk!
And you find me a hard one to tackle, because I am Cock of the Walk!"