Arabian Nights Stories – The Story of Ali Colia, Merchant of Bagdad
In the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid, there lived in Bagdad a merchant named Ali Cogia, who, having neither wife nor child, contented himself with the modest profits produced by his trade. He had spent some years quite happily in the house his father had left him, when three nights running he dreamed that an old man had appeared to him, and reproached him for having neglected the duty of a good Mussulman, in delaying so long his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali Cogia was much troubled by this dream, as he was unwilling to give up his shop, and lose all his customers. He had shut his eyes for some time to the necessity of performing this pilgrimage, and tried to atone to his conscience by an extra number of good works, but the dream seemed to him a direct warning, and he resolved to put the journey off no longer.
The first thing he did was to sell his furniture and the wares he had in his shop, only reserving to himself such goods as he might trade with on the road. The shop it-self he sold also, and easily found a tenant for his private house. The only matter he could not settle satisfactorily was the safe custody of a thousand pieces of gold which he wished to leave behind him.
After some thought, Ali Cogia hit upon a plan which seemed a safe one. He took a large vase, and placing the money in the bottom of it, filled up the rest with olives. After corking the vase tightly down, he carried it to one of his friends, a merchant like himself, and said to him:
“My brother, you have probably heard that I am staffing with a caravan in a few days for Mecca. I have come to ask whether you would do me the favour to keep this vase of olives for me till I come back?”
The merchant replied readily, “Look, this is the key of my shop: take it, and put the vase wherever you like. I promise that you shall find it in the same place on your return.”
A few days later, Ali Cogia mounted the camel that he had laden with merchandise, joined the caravan, and arrived in due time at Mecca. Like the other pilgrims he visited the sacred Mosque, and after all his religious duties were performed, he set out his goods to the best advantage, hoping to gain some customers among the passers-by.
Very soon two merchants stopped before the pile, and when they had turned it over, one said to the other:
“If this man was wise he would take these things to Cairo, where he would get a much better price than he is likely to do here.”
Ali Cogia heard the words, and lost no time in following the advice. He packed up his wares, and instead of returning to Bagdad, joined a caravan that was going to Cairo. The results of the journey gladdened his heart. He sold off everything almost directly, and bought a stock of Egyptian curiosities, which he intended selling at Damascus; but as the caravan with which he would have to travel would not be starting for another six weeks, he took advantage of the delay to visit the Pyramids, and some of the cities along the banks of the Nile.
Now the attractions of Damascus so fascinated the worthy Ali, that he could hardly tear himself away, but at length he remembered that he had a home in Bagdad, meaning to return by way of Aleppo, and after he had crossed the Euphrates, to follow the course of the Tigris.
But when he reached Mossoul, Ali had made such friends with some Persian merchants, that they persuaded him to accompany them to their native land, and even as far as India, and so it came to pass that seven years had slipped by since he had left Bagdad, and during all that time the friend with whom he had left the vase of olives had never once thought of him or of it. In fact, it was only a month before Ali Cogia’s actual return that the affair came into his head at all, owing to his wife’s remarking one day, that it was a long time since she had eaten any olives, and would like some.
“That reminds me,” said the husband, “that before Ali Cogia went to Mecca seven years ago, he left a vase of olives in my care. But really by this time he must be dead, and there is no reason we should not eat the olives if we like. Give me a light, and I will fetch them and see how they taste.”
“My husband,” answered the wife, “beware, I pray, of your doing anything so base! Supposing seven years have passed without news of Ali Cogia, he need not be dead for all that, and may come back any day. How shameful it would be to have to confess that you had betrayed your trust and broken the seal of the vase! Pay no attention to my idle words, I really have no desire for olives now. And probably after all this while they are no longer good. I have a presentiment that Ali Cogia will return, and what will he think of you? Give it up, I entreat.”
The merchant, however, refused to listen to her advice, sensible though it was. He took a light and a dish and went into his shop.
“If you will be so obstinate,” said his wife, “I cannot help it; but do not blame me if it turns out ill.”
When the merchant opened the vase he found the topmost olives were rotten, and in order to see if the under ones were in better condition he shook some out into the dish. As they fell out a few of the gold pieces fell out too.
The sight of the money roused all the merchant’s greed. He looked into the vase, and saw that all the bottom was filled with gold. He then replaced the olives and returned to his wife.
“My wife,” he said, as he entered the room, “you were quite right; the olives are rotten, and I have recorked the vase so well that Ali Cogia will never know it has been touched.”
“You would have done better to believe me,” replied the wife. “I trust that no harm will come of it.”
These words made no more impression on the merchant than the others had done; and he spent the whole night in wondering how he could manage to keep the gold if Ali Cogia should come back and claim his vase. Very early next morning he went out and bought fresh new olives; he then threw away the old ones, took out the gold and hid it, and filled up the vase with the olives he had bought. This done he recorked the vase and put it in the same place where it had been left by Ali Cogia.
A month later Ali Cogia re-entered Bagdad, and as his house was still let he went to an inn; and the following day set out to see his friend the merchant, who received him with open arms and many expressions of surprise. After a few moments given to inquiries Ali Cogia begged the merchant to hand him over the vase that he had taken care of for so long.
“Oh certainly,” said he, “I am only glad I could be of use to you in the matter. Here is the key of my shop; you will find the vase in the place where you put it.”
Ali Cogia fetched his vase and carried it to his room at the inn, where he opened it. He thrust down his hand but could feel no money, but still was persuaded it must be there. So he got some plates and vessels from his travelling kit and emptied out the olives. To no purpose. The gold was not there. The poor man was dumb with horror, then, lifting up his hands, he exclaimed, “Can my old friend really have committed such a crime?”
In great haste he went back to the house of the merchant. “My friend,” he cried, “you will be astonished to see me again, but I can find nowhere in this vase a thousand pieces of gold that I placed in the bottom under the olives. Perhaps you may have taken a loan of them for your business purposes; if that is so you are most welcome. I will only ask you to give me a receipt, and you can pay the money at your leisure.”
The merchant, who had expected something of the sort, had his reply all ready. “Ali Cogia,” he said, “when you brought me the vase of olives did I ever touch it?”
“I gave you the key of my shop and you put it yourself where you liked, and did you not find it in exactly the same spot and in the same state? If you placed any gold in it, it must be there still. I know nothing about that; you only told me there were olives. You can believe me or not, but I have not laid a finger on the vase.”
Ali Cogia still tried every means to persuade the merchant to admit the truth. “I love peace,” he said, “and shall deeply regret having to resort to harsh measures. Once more, think of your reputation. I shall be in despair if you oblige me to call in the aid of the law.”
“Ali Cogia,” answered the merchant, “you allow that it was a vase of olives you placed in my charge. You fetched it and removed it yourself, and now you tell me it contained a thousand pieces of gold, and that I must restore them to you! Did you ever say anything about them before? Why, I did not even know that the vase had olives in it! Yon never showed them to me. I wonder you have not demanded pearls or diamonds. Retire, I pray you, lest a crowd should gather in front of my shop.”
By this time not only the casual passers-by, but also the neighbouring merchants, were standing round, listening to the dispute, and trying every now and then to smooth matters between them. But at the merchant’s last words Ali Cogia resolved to lay the cause of the quarrel before them, and told them the whole story. They heard him to the end, and inquired of the merchant what he had to say.
The accused man admitted that he had kept Ali Cogia’s vase in his shop; but he denied having touched it, and swore that as to what it contained he only knew what Ali Cogia had told him, and called them all to witness the insult that had been put upon him.
“You have brought it on yourself,” said Ali Cogia, taking him by the arm, “and as you appeal to the law, the law you shall have! Let us see if you will dare to repeat your story before the Cadi.”
Now as a good Mussulman the merchant was forbidden to refuse this choice of a judge, so he accepted the test, and said to Ali Cogia, “Very well; I should like nothing better. We shall soon see which of us is in the right.”
So the two men presented themselves before the Cadi, and Ali Cogia again repeated his tale. The Cadi asked what witnesses he had. Ali Cogia replied that he had not taken this precaution, as he had considered the man his friend, and up to that time had always found him honest.
The merchant, on his side, stuck to his story, and offered to swear solemnly that not only had he never stolen the thousand gold pieces, but that he did not even know they were there. The Cadi allowed him to take the oath, and pronounced him innocent.
Ali Cogia, furious at having to suffer such a loss, protested against the verdict, declaring that he would appeal to the Caliph, Haroun-al-Raschid, himself. But the Cadi paid no attention to his threats, and was quite satisfied that he had done what was right.
Judgment being given the merchant returned home triumphant, and Ali Cogia went back to his inn to draw up a petition to the Caliph. The next morning he placed himself on the road along which the Caliph must pass after mid-day prayer, and stretched out his petition to the officer who walked before the Caliph, whose duty it was to collect such things, and on entering the palace to hand them to his master. There Haroun-al-Raschid studied them carefully.
Knowing this custom, Ali Cogia followed the Caliph into the public hall of the palace, and waited the result. After some time the officer appeared, and told him that the Caliph had read his petition, and had appointed an hour the next morning to give him audience. He then inquired the merchant’s address, so that he might be summoned to attend also.
That very evening, the Caliph, with his grand-vizir Giafar, and Mesrour, chief of the eunuchs, all three disguised, as was their habit, went out to take a stroll through the town.
Going down one street, the Caliph’s attention was attracted by a noise, and looking through a door which opened into a court he perceived ten or twelve children playing in the moonlight. He hid himself in a dark corner, and watched them.
“Let us play at being the Cadi,” said the brightest and quickest of them all; “I will be the Cadi. Bring before me Ali Cogia, and the merchant who robbed him of the thousand pieces of gold.”
The boy’s words recalled to the Caliph the petition he had read that morning, and he waited with interest to see what the children would do.
The proposal was hailed with joy by the other children, who had heard a great deal of talk about the matter, and they quickly settled the part each one was to play. The Cadi took his seat gravely, and an officer introduced first Ali Cogia, the plaintiff, and then the merchant who was the defendant.
Ali Cogia made a low bow, and pleaded his cause point by point; concluding by imploring the Cadi not to inflict on him such a heavy loss.
The Cadi having heard his case, turned to the merchant, and inquired why he had not repaid Ali Cogia the sum in question.
The false merchant repeated the reasons that the real merchant had given to the Cadi of Bagdad, and also offered to swear that he had told the truth.
“Stop a moment!” said the little Cadi, “before we come to oaths, I should like to examine the vase with the olives. Ali Cogia,” he added, “have you got the vase with you?” and finding he had not, the Cadi continued, “Go and get it, and bring it to me.”
So Ali Cogia disappeared for an instant, and then pretended to lay a vase at the feet of the Cadi, declaring it was his vase, which he had given to the accused for safe custody; and in order to be quite correct, the Cadi asked the merchant if he recognised it as the same vase. By his silence the merchant admitted the fact, and the Cadi then commanded to have the vase opened. Ali Cogia made a movement as if he was taking off the lid, and the little Cadi on his part made a pretence of peering into a vase.
“What beautiful olives!” he said, “I should like to taste one,” and pretending to put one in his mouth, he added, “they are really excellent!”
“But,” he went on, “it seems to me odd that olives seven years old should be as good as that! Send for some dealers in olives, and let us hear what they say!”
Two children were presented to him as olive merchants, and the Cadi addressed them. “Tell me,” he said, “how long can olives be kept so as to be pleasant eating?”
“My lord,” replied the merchants, “however much care is taken to preserve them, they never last beyond the third year. They lose both taste and colour, and are only fit to be thrown away.”
“If that is so,” answered the little Cadi, “examine this vase, and tell me how long the olives have been in it.”
The olive merchants pretended to examine the olives and taste them; then reported to the Cadi that they were fresh and good.
“You are mistaken,” said he, “Ali Cogia declares he put them in that vase seven years ago.”
“My lord,” returned the olive merchants, “we can assure you that the olives are those of the present year. And if you consult all the merchants in Bagdad you will not find one to give a contrary opinion.”
The accused merchant opened his mouth as if to protest, but the Cadi gave him no time. “Be silent,” he said, “you are a thief. Take him away and hang him.” So the game ended, the children clapping their hands in applause, and leading the criminal away to be hanged.
Haroun-al-Raschid was lost in astonishment at the wisdom of the child, who had given so wise a verdict on the case which he himself was to hear on the morrow. “Is there any other verdict possible?” he asked the grand-vizir, who was as much impressed as himself. “I can imagine no better judgment.”
“If the circumstances are really such as we have heard,” replied the grand-vizir, “it seems to me your Highness could only follow the example of this boy, in the method of reasoning, and also in your conclusions.”
“Then take careful note of this house,” said the Caliph, “and bring me the boy to-morrow, so that the affair may be tried by him in my presence. Summon also the Cadi, to learn his duty from the mouth of a child. Bid Ali Cogia bring his vase of olives, and see that two dealers in olives are present.” So saying the Caliph returned to the palace.
The next morning early, the grand-vizir went back to the house where they had seen the children playing, and asked for the mistress and her children. Three boys appeared, and the grand-vizir inquired which had represented the Cadi in their game of the previous evening. The eldest and tallest, changing colour, confessed that it was he, and to his mother’s great alarm, the grand-vizir said that he had strict orders to bring him into the presence of the Caliph.
“Does he want to take my son from me?” cried the poor woman; but the grand-vizir hastened to calm her, by assuring her that she should have the boy again in an hour, and she would be quite satisfied when she knew the reason of the summons. So she dressed the boy in his best clothes, and the two left the house.
When the grand-vizir presented the child to the Caliph, he was a little awed and confused, and the Caliph proceeded to explain why he had sent for him. “Approach, my son,” he said kindly. “I think it was you who judged the case of Ali Cogia and the merchant last night? I overheard you by chance, and was very pleased with the way you conducted it. To-day you will see the real Ali Cogia and the real merchant. Seat yourself at once next to me.”
The Caliph being seated on his throne with the boy next him, the parties to the suit were ushered in. One by one they prostrated themselves, and touched the carpet at the foot of the throne with their foreheads. When they rose up, the Caliph said: “Now speak. This child will give you justice, and if more should be wanted I will see to it myself.”
Ali Cogia and the merchant pleaded one after the other, but when the merchant offered to swear the same oath that he had taken before the Cadi, he was stopped by the child, who said that before this was done he must first see the vase of olives.
At these words, Ali Cogia presented the vase to the Caliph, and uncovered it. The Caliph took one of the olives, tasted it, and ordered the expert merchants to do the same. They pronounced the olives good, and fresh that year. The boy informed them that Ali Cogia declared it was seven years since he had placed them in the vase; to which they returned the same answer as the children had done.
The accused merchant saw by this time that his condemnation was certain, and tried to allege something in his defence. The boy had too much sense to order him to be hanged, and looked at the Caliph, saying, “Commander of the Faithful, this is not a game now; it is for your Highness to condemn him to death and not for me.”
Then the Caliph, convinced that the man was a thief, bade them take him away and hang him, which was done, but not before he had confessed his guilt and the place in which he had hidden Ali Cogia’s money. The Caliph ordered the Cadi to learn how to deal out justice from the mouth of a child, and sent the boy home, with a purse containing a hundred pieces of gold as a mark of his favour.