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From Arabian nights Entertainments by Andrew Lang.
Start of Story
Age Rating 8 Plus.
When all was ready the merchant was brought from prison and led to the
foot of the gallows. The executioner knotted the cord firmly round the
unfortunate man's neck and was just about to swing him into the air,
when the Sultan's purveyor dashed through the crowd, and cried,
panting, to the hangman,
"Stop, stop, don't be in such a hurry. It was not he who did the
murder, it was I."
The chief of police, who was present to see that everything was in
order, put several questions to the purveyor, who told him the whole
story of the death of the hunchback, and how he had carried the body to
the place where it had been found by the Christian merchant.
"You are going," he said to the chief of police, "to kill an innocent
man, for it is impossible that he should have murdered a creature who
was dead already. It is bad enough for me to have slain a Mussulman
without having it on my conscience that a Christian who is guiltless
should suffer through my fault."
Now the purveyor's speech had been made in a loud voice, and was heard
by all the crowd, and even if he had wished it, the chief of police
could not have escaped setting the merchant free.
"Loose the cords from the Christian's neck," he commanded, turning to
the executioner, "and hang this man in his place, seeing that by his
own confession he is the murderer."
The hangman did as he was bid, and was tying the cord firmly, when he
was stopped by the voice of the Jewish doctor beseeching him to pause,
for he had something very important to say. When he had fought his way
through the crowd and reached the chief of police,
"Worshipful sir," he began, "this Mussulman whom you desire to hang is
unworthy of death; I alone am guilty. Last night a man and a woman who
were strangers to me knocked at my door, bringing with them a patient
for me to cure. The servant opened it, but having no light was hardly
able to make out their faces, though she readily agreed to wake me and
to hand me the fee for my services. While she was telling me her story
they seem to have carried the sick man to the top of the staircase and
then left him there. I jumped up in a hurry without waiting for a
lantern, and in the darkness I fell against something, which tumbled
headlong down the stairs and never stopped till it reached the bottom.
When I examined the body I found it was quite dead, and the corpse was
that of a hunchback Mussulman. Terrified at what we had done, my wife
and I took the body on the roof and let it down the chimney of our
neighbour the purveyor, whom you were just about to hang. The
purveyor, finding him in his room, naturally thought he was a thief,
and struck him such a blow that the man fell down and lay motionless on
the floor. Stooping to examine him, and finding him stone dead, the
purveyor supposed that the man had died from the blow he had received;
but of course this was a mistake, as you will see from my account, and
I only am the murderer; and although I am innocent of any wish to
commit a crime, I must suffer for it all the same, or else have the
blood of two Musselmans on my conscience. Therefore send away this
man, I pray you, and let me take his place, as it is I who am guilty."
On hearing the declaration of the Jewish doctor, the chief of police
commanded that he should be led to the gallows, and the Sultan's
purveyor go free. The cord was placed round the Jew's neck, and his
feet had already ceased to touch the ground when the voice of the
tailor was heard beseeching the executioner to pause one moment and to
listen to what he had to say.
"Oh, my lord," he cried, turning to the chief of police, "how nearly
have you caused the death of three innocent people! But if you will
only have the patience to listen to my tale, you shall know who is the
real culprit. If some one has to suffer, it must be me! Yesterday, at
dusk, I was working in my shop with a light heart when the little
hunchback, who was more than half drunk, came and sat in the doorway.
He sang me several songs, and then I invited him to finish the evening
at my house. He accepted my invitation, and we went away together. At
supper I helped him to a slice of fish, but in eating it a bone stuck
in his throat, and in spite of all we could do he died in a few
minutes. We felt deeply sorry for his death, but fearing lest we
should be held responsible, we carried the corpse to the house of the
Jewish doctor. I knocked, and desired the servant to beg her master to
come down as fast as possible and see a sick man whom we had brought
for him to cure; and in order to hasten his movements I placed a piece
of money in her hand as the doctor's fee. Directly she had disappeared
I dragged the body to the top of the stairs, and then hurried away with
my wife back to our house. In descending the stairs the doctor
accidentally knocked over the corpse, and finding him dead believed
that he himself was the murderer. But now you know the truth set him
free, and let me die in his stead."
The chief of police and the crowd of spectators were lost in
astonishment at the strange events to which the death of the hunchback
had given rise.
"Loosen the Jewish doctor," said he to the hangman, "and string up the
tailor instead, since he has made confession of his crime. Really, one
cannot deny that this is a very singular story, and it deserves to be
written in letters of gold."
The executioner speedily untied the knots which confined the doctor,
and was passing the cord round the neck of the tailor, when the Sultan
of Kashgar, who had missed his jester, happened to make inquiry of his
officers as to what had become of him.
"Sire," replied they, "the hunchback having drunk more than was good
for him, escaped from the palace and was seen wandering about the town,
where this morning he was found dead. A man was arrested for having
caused his death, and held in custody till a gallows was erected. At
the moment that he was about to suffer punishment, first one man
arrived, and then another, each accusing themselves of the murder, and
this went on for a long time, and at the present instant the chief of
police is engaged in questioning a man who declares that he alone is
the true assassin."
The Sultan of Kashgar no sooner heard these words than he ordered an
usher to go to the chief of police and to bring all the persons
concerned in the hunchback's death, together with the corpse, that he
wished to see once again. The usher hastened on his errand, but was
only just in time, for the tailor was positively swinging in the air,
when his voice fell upon the silence of the crowd, commanding the
hangman to cut down the body. The hangman, recognising the usher as
one of the king's servants, cut down the tailor, and the usher, seeing
the man was safe, sought the chief of police and gave him the Sultan's
message. Accordingly, the chief of police at once set out for the
palace, taking with him the tailor, the doctor, the purveyor, and the
merchant, who bore the dead hunchback on their shoulders.
When the procession reached the palace the chief of police prostrated
himself at the feet of the Sultan, and related all that he knew of the
matter. The Sultan was so much struck by the circumstances that he
ordered his private historian to write down an exact account of what
had passed, so that in the years to come the miraculous escape of the
four men who had thought themselves murderers might never be forgotten.
The Sultan asked everybody concerned in the hunchback's affair to tell
him their stories. Among others was a prating barber, whose tale of
one of his brothers follows.