The Betrothed Children
Introductory Note: This short story appeared in Household Words, a publication by Charles Dickens. Written as a fairy tale or perhaps a fable, “The Betrothed Children” appeals to the trend of exoticism in literature during the Victorian era by setting itself in the foreign land of Egypt, and is meant to engage with general audiences with its simple story and its moral lessons of humility, integrity, and charity. This piece goes uncredited in the original publication.
Advisory: This story contains mention of slavery.
It is not uncommon in Egypt, both among Christians and Mohammedans, when children of opposite sexes are born to friends near about the same time, for the parents to betroth them, either by a verbal promise or by binding ceremonies. From that time forth they are looked upon by all the world as belonging to one another, almost as part of the same being; and the female marriage-brokers, the professional match-makers of the East, never feel any interest in the beauty of the girl or the accomplishments of the boy. The maiden, however, is esteemed to be especially fortunate. The probabilities of the future are in her favour. At any rate, she is protected from the chance of being sold to some man five or six times her age. She has a reasonable expectation that what happiness can be secured by parity of years and conformity of education it is in her power to enjoy. There are plenty of chances of misery left.
Ideas of this kind formed the staple of the conversation of Zacharias and Mathias, two Levantine merchants established in Cairo, when they resolved, as they smoked a friendly pipe together, that Yazir, who had been born about a year previously, and Lulu, who was then only a month old, should in process of time be united. The proposal came from Zacharias, the father of the boy. He was a widower, and could therefore venture to form an energetic resolution, and carry it into effect, without crossing his threshold in the interval. Mathias was not so free; but his companion’s eloquence persuaded him into giving a sacred promise in the name of Lulu, the Pearl. It is true that in his own mind he said, “If my wife has any reason to urge against this, and abuses me, I can retract and lay the sin of falsehood at her door.”
He returned home in a timid mood. The gate of his courtyard was shut, and it was only by battering it with a stone, and making a great noise, that he succeeded in obtaining admission. He found his wife sitting in the courtyard in company with an ill-looking woman. A black girl, squatting near, held Lulu on her knees, and sometimes put her lips to its cheek. The heart of Mathias swelled with delight; and, lifting up his great moustaches with both hands, he stooped to kiss it.
“Verily, O my lord,” said his wife, looking pleased, “thou hast reason to be proud of thy offspring.”
“She is indeed beauteous as a pearl, and will resemble thee.”
“That is not it,” quoth the mother, who was occupied with other thought. “There are many beautiful children; but few are destined, like ours, to be won in marriage by a prince—a ruler of many lands and of much people.”
Mathias glanced from his wife to the ill-looking woman, and from the ill-looking woman to his child, and back again to his wife; and, being of confined intellect, remained puzzled.
“Thou must learn,” quoth the mother, “that this woman is one who knows things, who can dive into the mysteries of the past and of the future, who can see what is invisible, and sound what is fathomless.”
The merchant made a sort of curtesy of respect towards the learned lady; but an ironical suppleness about his knees displeased her.
“Yes, unbeliever,” she exclaimed, “all these things and much more am I able to accomplish; and I have foreseen that the child Lulu will, within fifteen summers, become the wife of a powerful sultan.”
“Then what shall I say to my friend Zacharias, to whose son Yazir I have this day betrothed her?”
The ambitious mother became pale with rage; and, not having the prudence of her western sisters, did not content herself with uttering sharp words, that pierce so deep and sting so sharply, but took off her slipper, and threw it in Mathias’s face. Then she began using all the descriptive epithets that were disparaging with which her memory was stored; so that the young slave girl, who had only just come from the uncivilised parts of Africa, opened her mouth so wide that she might almost have swallowed the object of dispute. Perhaps because she thought she would do it, the mother seized Lulu, and, running to a well in the corner of the courtyard, held her babe over it, and declared that if Mathias did not promise instantly to go, quarrel with his friend, and break off the arrangement—her gestures expressed the consequence. The worthy man promised anything.
He was quite right, say those who tell this story, to get the child out of the angry mother’s hands at any cost; for, although at first there was only a threat, there is no knowing how far she might have been provoked by contradiction. A tolerable number of “I will’s” and “You shant’s” rapidly interchanged (for they are expressions as current in Arabic as in English), may irritate a passionate woman to murder. But when Zara had taken the child out of reach, up-stairs, and was stilling its cries by putting her great black thumb in its mouth, why did not Mathias seize a stout palm branch, and administer a little wholesome correction? That is what the narrators want to know; because, if he had, a great deal of misfortune might have been averted.
As it was, Mathias went another way to work. He approached his wife, and fondled her, and repeated his promise, and took a great many unnecessary oaths, in hearing of the ill-looking woman, and went out again to find Zacharias, at first with the resolution of explaining the whole matter to him, and begging his indulgence. However, he could not make up his mind to admit his weakness in so straightforward a manner. Weak people never can do such a thing; otherwise, indeed, they would be strong.
“Zacharias,” said he, entering his friend’s warehouse, “I come to repeat my promise and hear you repeat yours; but I have remembered a foolish prophecy that I once heard, namely, that if ever I betrothed a child before the age of ten years it would surely die. This is nonsense; but were my wife to learn what has happened she would be unhappy. Let us agree, therefore, to keep it to ourselves; or, if thou hast mentioned it to anybody already, thou must deny it. I ask this for the sake of our friendship.”
Zacharias looked very hard at his friend; and, seeing him blush, suspected that he was not telling the truth. However, not having attached much importance to the betrothal, and being occupied with matters of business, he easily agreed to what was required of him. Mathias went away in delight, saying to himself, “In ten years who knows what may happen? Perhaps my wife may be in Paradise.”
Time passed away, and every year the Pearl became more beautiful; so that when she had reached the age of nine, already the marriage-brokers, from whom the betrothal had been kept a secret, began to come to the house and compliment the mother, and suggest that foresight was a great virtue, and that it would be well to look round for a good match. They had seen the child at the bath, and had turned the heads of five old gentlemen, three wealthy merchants, and a good many youths, with descriptions of her charms. In three years more, they said, she would be worthy to be the bride of a prince.
When they repeated these compliments to the mother, that ambitious woman smiled proudly. They were not accustomed to this, and redoubled their efforts to open negotiations. One of them especially came almost every day on behalf of Sidi Yusuf, who was said to be the richest, and was certainly the oldest, merchant in all Egypt. But all was in vain. The wife of Mathias waited patiently for the appearance of a prince.
Meanwhile, Yazir also grew, and became the pride of his parent. Before he was ten years of age he could read like an Effendi, and was capable in accounts. One day in the bazaar, during the absence of his father, he concluded a bargain for a bale of goods as if he had been a merchant all his life. The excellent Zacharias was never weary of boasting of Yazir’s cleverness and beauty. He still remained desirous of uniting him to the daughter of his friend; and, when he heard much talk of Lulu’s perfections among his fellow merchants, some of whom openly, and others secretly, had determined to ask her in marriage, he smiled to think how certain their disappointment was. Occasionally he reminded Mathias on the subject, to that worthy man’s extreme annoyance; for there was no sign that the mother of the Pearl had for the present any longing to be admitted into Paradise, and no hope that the coming prince would be forgotten.
When the ten years were fulfilled Zacharias, taking his son by the hand, went to Mathias and said before witnesses, “There is no longer need of concealment. It is fitting that the ceremony of betrothal between my boy and thy daughter should now publicly take place.”
The bystanders opened their eyes till they became as round as the eyes of owls; and exclaimed “Yeh!” in token of astonishment. Mathias stammered, and turned red and pale, and twitched his cloak with his hands. There was no escaping. So, making up his mind to be courageous, he frankly confessed that his wife would not betroth Lulu to any one, because she was destined to be the bride of a prince. When he had told all, the auditors laughed heartily from various causes. Some of them had been paying a marriage broker for years, to plead their cause with the mother of Lulu, and they laughed to hide their vexation. Others were delighted to observe the angry face of Zacharias, and the deprecating posture of Mathias: and all were amused at the idea of a Christian prince coming from some unknown kingdom in search of this Pearl. The fact is, as they knew, that there is no princely family existing whose theological tenets do not distinctly differ from those of their people; so that, as they could not conceive the possibility of Lulu taking a husband from another race, the whole affair appeared to them infinitely comic. These Levanites intermarry until it is a wonder they retain any respectable qualities, mental or physical.
A good sturdy quarrel, perhaps a little beard-pulling, seemed likely to take place; but suddenly Yazir, who, though only eleven years of age, fancied he had some right to an opinion in this matter, stepped boldly forward and said, “O my father, what is there in this Lulu that we should be unhappy on her account? Let her wait until her prince comes to ask for her. Perhaps the sun may one day rise and shine upon her in beggar’s rags. Then she will fall at my feet, and ask me to have pity on her.”
“And then—what then?” said an old man with a long white beard, who had watched the scene with interest.
“I will say, ‘Sister, the misfortune is not thy fault.’ I will clothe her, and feed her; and perhaps God may reward me.”
Few noticed these childish words, except as an evidence of amiability; but they served to prevent any further dispute between Mathias and Zacharias. The old man with the white beard patted the boy on the head, and muttered a prediction of good fortune. In the East the words of the aged are believed to be prophetic. The verge of the grave is there regarded as the verge of all future time—the point at which the mists of life begin to thin away, and let in the beams of eternity. All the bystanders, therefore, were satisfied that whether Yazir ultimately possessed the Pearl or not, he was destined to happiness.
As the prediction was founded on an evidence of goodness, perhaps this confidence of theirs was not altogether ill-founded. It is a common thing to say that the strokes of ill-fortune fall with impartiality upon the evil and the virtuous. But this is not quite true; for many mishaps are the consequence of our own bad passions, which have their origin within and not without. The Orientals firmly believe that all disasters that have merely external causes are compensated even in this life.
The two merchants did not trouble themselves much about what the old man in the white beard said. They were both angry, although the child’s words put a stop to further conflict. Zacharias went away resolved to look out for a bride for his son, if possible, fifty times more beautiful that Lulu; and Mathias returned home to quarrel with his wife, and then to humble himself before her. Age had rendered her more fierce than ever, and more confirmed in her superstitious belief.
Retribution, however, soon came. Not many days afterwards, news was brought to Mathias, that a caravan which he had dispatched to Syria laden with precious merchandise, had been attacked by the Bedowins, and robbed. This was a heavy blow, for he had not only embarked all his disposable capital in the venture, but had borrowed money to speculate on a grand scale. It is true that he expected one or two more caravans to return about this time; their arrival would have enabled him to meet all the demands that would be made upon him. But no news of them came; and Mathias began to fear that Providence had determined to punish him by utter ruin. At another time he would have gone to his friend Zacharias, certain of assistance; but now he knew that he would be repulsed with derision.
The news of his disaster spread through the city; and the shroffs or bankers who had lent money to him began to press for payment. He begged them to wait until the arrival of his caravan from Soudan, which was expected every day; but the more he prayed for time, the more fierce they grew, and menaced at last to cite him before the Shah Bander, and send him to prison.
That was an uncomfortable season for the wife of Mathias. Even had he been unable to trace his misfortune to her, it is probable that she would have still borne the chief brunt of his ill-humour. We often profess to envy women because they are exempt from all pecuniary cares; but in truth there is not a loss nor a disappointment of any kind which men suffer, that does not embitter some hour of family life. When the Eastern merchant has failed in a speculation he generally finds the meat ill done, and the house out of order. Mathias felt that he could reproach his wife without injustice; and of course he made the most of the opportunity. The poor woman’s sin after all, was merely misplaced anxiety for her daughter’s welfare; but this had led her to disregard her husband’s honour, to diminish his respect, to separate him from his friends, and to endanger the fortune of Lulu herself,—for the little girl had been brought up with ambitious notions. Already she began to talk with contempt of her companions, and even of her parents, saying, “I am born to be a princess, and this is sufficient for the happiness of all those who belong to me. It is necessary that my wishes should be satisfied. I must have finer dresses than any one else—even than my mother.”
Mathias, therefore, had much to say, and the fame of his domestic dissensions spread abroad. The poor women of the neighbourhood, whose husbands brought them home a few piastres daily, and contented them, were not sorry to talk of the fine lady who never went out except on the back of a high ass, with two slaves to attend her,—one to clear the way with a whip, the other with his hand on the saddle, to prevent her falling,—and who now, it was rumoured, passed her days in weeping and wailing. It soon became known, indeed, that Mathias, when too late, had asserted his right of authority; and had become master of his own house, just as he was about to abandon it. The creditors were eager; and there remained salvation only in flight. One day, therefore, Mathias collected some household property, sold it to a broker, made a parcel of a few valuables, and when sunset came, started with his wife and daughter, leaving Cairo by the iron gate. He intended to take boat for Damietta, and that way escape to Syria, where he had some relations.
He had not gone far before a rapid step was heard behind; and a soft voice called his name. He pressed on hastily; but soon Yazir came running up out of breath. The wife of Mathias recognized him, and began to curse him; but the boy said: “Be not angry, O mother. This is a misfortune which cannot be avoided. But behold, father Mathias, thou shalt not go forth without assistance. My father has heard of thy departure, and sends this purse for thy expense on the way.”
So saying he placed a leathern purse in the hands of the merchant, who stooped down towards him and kissed him. All hearts beat high. The mother of Lulu felt the tears run down her cheeks; and Lulu herself, wayward girl as she was, came to Yazir, and taking his hand, put it to her lips and said:
“O, prince,—may happiness encircle thee as the halo encircleth the moon!”
Her parents felt that this was a renewal of the betrothal; but they said nothing, and presently were pursuing their flight, whilst Yazir remined standing by the road-side.
The boy was now nearly twelve years of age, tall, strong, and handsome; and more intelligent and knowing than lads are at fifteen in western countries. He had already acquired all the instruments of knowledge necessary in the East. He could read, and write, and was capable at accounts. He already understood business, and his father had confidence in him. But the words of Lulu entered his mind. They had talked so much in his presence of the betrothal that he understood something of his father’s wishes, though he knew not their importance. It seemed to him that his life had an object, which was the possession of Lulu; and he was too young to debate much on the means. If he had spoken to Zacharias he would have learned that circumstances had altered; that he had now no longer any desire to promote this marriage, which had seemed so appropriate at a different time. But a certain shamefacedness withheld the boy; who, moreover, misinterpreted the import of his father’s generosity on the night of Mathias’s departure. A bias was given to his mind and increased every day.
Time passed; and the thoughts of Yazir dwelt always on the absent Lulu. At first he was influenced by filial affection. If he saw his father sad, he said to himself, “It is because I am not the husband of Lulu.” If he were urged to become wise and rich, he thought, “It is that I may be worthy of Lulu.” His soul ever aspired in one direction towards Lulu.
The time came, when everything in this outward world began from some mysterious cause to appear more beautiful in his eyes; when the majesty of the heavens at night, with all its throbbing stars, was revealed to him; when the breeze at eventide that had formerly been voiceless seemed full of magic eloquence; when the trill of birds and the hum of insects in the pomegranate and mulberry groves filled him with strange sensations; when the prattle of children smote his heart, and the glances of women pierced his brain like gleams of sunshine. Then it was that Lulu ceased to be a mere name, and was changed into a lovely form never absent from his dreams.
Zacharias, from whom propriety had not departed, seldom spoke of his absent friend; but talked frequently of finding a peerless bride for Yazir. This would have been easy; for all mothers noticed the youth in the street, and wished that their daughters might have the good fortune to please him. But the merchant was now in no hurry. If any one spoke to him on the subject he said, “There is a time for all things.” The truth was, that time, which destroys all passions—even love—had in him destroyed anger. Besides, it is no rare thing for the aged, when they feel life slipping from them, to return to some caprice they formerly cherished, which reminds them of younger days, and allows them, in fancy at least, to step back from the inevitable doom.
Zacharias had written recently to Syria, endeavouring to learn some tidings of Mathias; but his correspondents told him that they had searched in vain. Mathias had indeed arrived safely in Beyrout; but, after remaining there a year, had disappeared. Some speculations in which he had engaged had utterly failed; and it was believed that he had gone away in absolute poverty. This intelligence made Zacharias sick at heart; but there was no remedy, and he devoured his chagrin in secret.
One day Yazir, now a fine handsome youth, came to his father and said that a caravan was about soon to start for Bassora, by way of Damascus, and that he wished to take this opportunity to travel and see the world; for without experience of many countries what merchant can prosper? Zacharias was now old, and heard this wish with a deep-drawn sigh: but he knew it to be reasonable, and gave his consent, and collected a large amount of merchandise, and bought camels, and selected the most trustworthy servants, and made a present to the chief of the caravan. The old man with the white beard who had prophesied happiness to Yazir gave him fresh encouragement, and furnished him with a rule of conduct which he saw might be of use to him: “Never be astonished—neither at danger nor good fortune.”
Yazir parted with his father after both had wept, and went forth into the desert. In the recesses of his own mind there still lingered a hope that he might one day be united to Lulu; and it was to endeavour to ascertain her fate that he had wished to go by way of Damascus. On arriving in that city, instead of endeavouring to dispose of his merchandise, he occupied all his time in fruitless inquiries. After a stay of three months he deported for Bassora; but when the caravan had travelled for twenty days a cloud of Bedowins, mounted on camels and horses surrounded them and attacked them, slaying those who resisted and making prisoners of the rest. Yazir, remembering the advice that had been given him, and seeing that successful defence was impossible, sat down quietly and waited until the Bedowins came to him, and ordered him to follow them. They seemed surprised at the tranquillity of his demeanour; especially when they learned that he was one of the richest merchants of the company; and treated him far more favourably than the rest, abstaining from tying his hands, and promising to keep him well until such time as he could get friends to come with a ransom.
As he was left at liberty Yazir found no difficulty, after spending two or three days in the Bedowin encampment, in selecting the best horse belonging to the tribe, and in riding away one night at full speed. From words that he had heard, he knew that the city of Ardesh was at no great distance, and he felt confident of being able to reach it. He rode all night, and expected to see palm-trees and green pastures by the morning. But a plain of sand stretched on every side. He had mistaken the direction, and entered a boundless desert, which even the Bedowins do not traverse. He did not know whether to advance or retreat, so he allowed the horse to gallop whither he would. Thus proceeded all day, until at length, just as he was about to give himself up to despair, he came in sight of a splendid city, built according to a style of architecture wholly unknown to him. He rode forward and entered the cultivated country that surrounded it. The roads were full of people, seemingly waiting for some arrival. When he approached they advanced with drawn swords and brandished spears, shouting:
“Wilt thou be king over us?”
Believing he had to do with a company of madmen, and remembering the advice that had been given him, he replied calmly:
“Certainly. I came with that intention.”
Upon this, there was a huge sound of human voices, and trampling of feet, and clanging of gongs; and Yazir was conducted into the city, amidst the acclamation of the populace. He was installed in a splendid palace, and requested to dispense justice, and execute the laws.
He soon learned that it was the custom in that city when a king died, for the population to sally forth in the direction of the desert, and to wait for the first wanderer who, separated from some caravan, had lost his way, and was expecting nought but death. According to their notion, a king raised to the throne from the extremity of despair would not be likely soon to acquire pride and ferocity. Sometimes they had found themselves mistaken; but they had a remedy in their hands. It was their practice to test the courage of the newcomers by running at them, as they did at Yazir, shouting and brandishing their weapons; and they continued for some time playing the same trick. If a monarch, therefore, showed a bad character, they soon contrived that an accident should happen; the throne became vacant, and the population went out again to the borders of the desert.
Yazir, though he would have preferred continuing his journey to Bassora, or returning to Cairo, consented to rule over this strange people; whose manners he found to be in many respects harsh and repulsive. When not in want of a king, they received all strangers roughly, and compelled them by ill-treatment to depart from their territory very quickly. Yazir, by an edict, ordered that this should no longer be, and contrived to instil hospitable views into the people of Gorân, for such was the name of the place. He made it a custom that all strangers who arrived should be led into a certain room of his palace, and kindly received and fed; and he used to go and look at them through a veiled window. All people celebrated his goodness; and the fame thereof spreading, travellers for the first time began to arrive at the city of Gorân.
One day it was told to Yazir that three persons, a man and two women, apparently beggars, had been taken to his reception-room. The strangers were no other than the merchant Mathias, his wife, and his daughter Lulu, reduced to the extreme of poverty. Lulu ripened into perfect womanhood, was more beautiful than ever. Yazir gazed at them with tears falling from his eyes. They were evidently worn with travel and suffering, and ate as if they had been long famished. When they were somewhat recovered, he called them before him, revealed his name and his condition; and before, from very wonder, they could find time to answer, he turned to Lulu, and said:
“O fair one, wilt thou have a prince for thy husband?”
Mathias hung his head; and his wife threw herself at Yazir’s feet. But, Lulu ran to his side, and seized her mother’s hand, and commanded her, in the tone of a queen, not to humble herself. The marriage was soon celebrated; and all the people were glad for three weeks.
Then, certain great families, who had hoped to raise one of their daughters to the throne, began to stir up dissatisfaction. A revolt was imminent. So, the prince making his preparations secretly, stole away one night, with his wife and Mathias, and the wife of Mathias, and they hastened in the direction of Ardesh: leaving the people of Gorân once more without a sovereign. On their way they met a cobbler escaping from his creditors, and informed him of the good fortune that awaited him if he arrived in time at Gorân. Whether he succeeded to the throne they never knew; for they hastened with all speed back to Damascus, and thence to Egypt, and gladdened the heart of Zacharias: who lived long to witness the happiness of his son, who had been a prince, and of his new daughter who had been a beggar.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
Frederick Bayle St. John. “The Betrothed Children.” Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 10, no. 235, 1854, pp. 124-9. Edited by Linde Fielding. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 21 February 2024, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-betrothed-children/.
4 April 2020
20 February 2024