The Story of Shakrak and the Magician of Constantinople; Being a Subject for a Melo-drama
NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.
Introductory Note: “The Story of Shakrak and the Magician of Constantinople” was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in June 1818. In this story, we get a tale full of magic, monsters, melodrama, and wizardry. Oriental tales such as this one became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century as the British empire expanded and became more and more fascinated with eastern culture. The appeal of a foreign culture, land, and people is evident in such literature. This piece was written for the purpose of stage-adaptation.
Advisory: This story depicts slavery.
Being fond of melo-dramas and fine spectacles, I regularly attend the theatres when any thing of that kind is going forward. On these occasions I have observed, that although the children seemed to feel some interest in the rational and natural parts of the story, the grown-up persons felt none. They waited with impatience for scenes which revolted probability, and were calculated to scatter the lethargic associations of ordinary life; for before evening arrives, most busy people are heartily tired of the real world.
Hence it occurred to me, that in these pieces the tastes of the graver part of the audience (such as judges and members of parliament) had not been sufficiently consulted, and that melo-dramas were not in general sufficiently absurd. I therefore resolved to take up the pen myself, and attempt something for the “deeper sort,” as Lord Bacon calls them; and I accordingly produced the following tale, to serve as the foundation of a brilliant after-piece. Before throwing it into a dramatic form, I shewed it to different managers in London, whose names I will not particularize, but found them as deaf as adders, and cold as stones. They rejected my proposals. After having been so shockingly used, I was going to throw the shining morsel into the fire, when it occurred to me, that if it were printed, the public could not fail to perceive what treasures of stage-effect it contained, and thrust it down the throats of the managers by main force. Trusting to the friendly efforts of persons in high station upon the bench and elsewhere, I am, sir, yours, &c.
London, St. Paul’s,
24th May 1818.
CHAP. I.—Of the Magician Nakoonar and his Pastimes.—Shakrak is carried off.
ONCE, in Constantinople, there lived a very skilful magician, whose name was Nakoonar. This man was of a cruel and proud disposition, and nourished in his bosom a sullen scorn of mankind. His appearance was ugly and frightful; and the rapid additions which, by means of hard study, he every day made to his power, were employed in executing the most wanton, wicked, and absurd tricks he could think of.
After it was dark, his hour of recreation came on. He had constructed one of those wooded horses which were at one time so much used by magicians, and so much celebrated over all the East. He mounted it every night, and shot from a window, to gallop about in the murky vacuity above Constantinople. He delighted to see the city stretched below him, while he was taking violent exercise in all directions; sometimes shooting straight up the firmament, sometimes skimming close to the smoke of the city.
These exertions used to put the old fellow into good humour, and make him quite frolicsome, so that he would occasionally dip down with his horse, and pick up from the streets some lonely individual, to carry home and frighten with strange sights and enchanted entertainments.
One night he saw a slave gazing about in a very stupid manner, and carried off the poor fellow, who uttered loud howls of terror as he rose in the atmosphere. Nakoonar had invited some other magicians to partake of a sumptuous entertainment. He accordingly ushered Shakrak, the slave, into a superb banqueting-room, where there were sitting five figures, with great white beards, and a mock severity of countenance; as also an huge evil genius, with six horns, and an aspect otherwise unpromising. The five magicians rose from their chairs, and affected to receive Shakrak with ceremonious politeness. Each, in his turn, embraced him, in spite of his struggles to avoid the compliment: but more than all the rest, the genius with the six horns seemed studious of grace and gentility in his deportment, as if to palliate the disagreeableness of his person, and saluted him with a bow to the very ground. When they had placed themselves at table, they found it loaded with a variety of fruits, whose juice exuded like amber through their golden rinds. Other articles were intermixed: of course there was wood of aloes burning, and every sort of finery. Shakrak, who now began to suspect in what sort of company he was, could hardly be prevailed upon to touch any thing. He resolved to confine himself to the fruits, as having the closest resemblance to nature, and being probably the most innocent in their composition.
Nakoonar then told him to rise and fetch a vessel of sherbet which was on the sideboard. While his back was turned, the magicians made use of the opportunity to change their faces into the appearance of elephants and rhinoceroses. Shakrak gave a great roar, and let fall the sherbet; upon which they immediately resumed their old shapes, and joined in a hearty laugh.
Shakrak began to persuade himself that they intended no serious mischief, but was again annoyed by his friend the evil genius, who wished to pledge him with a cup of wine. The cups were filled, and the evil genius, with an ironical cough, drank “To our better acquaintance.” Shakrak found the wine very pleasant, but could not empty the cup, which seemed to replenish as fast as he gulped at it. The gentleman with the six horns winked to the rest, and insisted upon his seeing the bottom. Then it was that Shakrak, after a violent effort, uttered his first words. “Most noble sir,” said he, tremulously, “the wine increases upon me, insomuch that I cannot hold it. Your excellent worship knows that, and is pleased to be merry.” “Come, come,” said the genius, “I perceive you are a wag, and wish to play upon us.” Whereupon there was another loud roar of merriment. Shakrak being now somewhat elevated, ventured to put in a good-natured bray of his own; but they immediately stopped and erected their eyebrows, so that he was obliged to set the cup again to his head, to conceal his confusion.
Nakoonar then told him again to rise and fetch another bottle. While Shakrak was stretching forth his hand to do so, the bottle changed into a beautiful young woman, who ran away. “Never mind these accidents,” cried Nakoonar; “catch her, and she will resume her old shape again.” The slave, with a good-humoured smile, pursued her round the table, but all in vain. She was graceful and light of foot, and looked back upon him, over her shoulder. Shakrak followed, panting and smiling, and thought this was the best joke of the whole. In the meantime, the magicians encouraged him to increase his speed, which he did with sparkling eyes and outstretched arms. But unfortunately, when passing behind the chair of the gentleman with six horns, something caught his foot. He fell, the vision disappeared, and he rose from the floor with a wounded nose. The magicians affected great concern; but having got as much sport as they wished, they took a short leave, and went off through the window.
Nakoonar searched the pockets of Shakrak, under pretence of looking for something to staunch the wound, and he found a letter written as follows:—“To-morrow night I will speak to you from the window, at a quarter from twelve. You are to behave with the utmost discretion, or never expect to see me again.”
Nakoonar put on a stern countenance, and made Shakrak follow him to another chamber, where there was nothing but a small lamp burning. “Vile slave!” said he, “disclose to me the history of this note, for my curiosity is excited. If you falsify, I shall immediately know by that lamp’s going out; after which I have only to push you into the next passage, where there is a monster, who will make his supper of you.” Shakrak declared that the note was addressed to his master, a young merchant in Constantinople, and that it was written by the daughter of a certain emir in the city. The lamp continued to burn. The magician withdrew, and bolted the door after him, resolving to have a finger in the concern; a resolution which boded no good to the lovers.
CHAP.II.—The Monster and the Bar of Iron.—Shakrak is engaged in an extraordinary Adventure.
SHAKRAK, being now left alone, said unto himself, “Woe’s me! I fear some evil is intended to my mistress. Stupid wretch that I was, to loiter so long on the streets with her note! But who would have thought of a wooden horse? Woe’s my heart! what shall I do?” So saying, he looked round the apartment, and saw no window or outlet—nothing but the door of the passage wherein there was a monster.
Shakrak was impelled by irresistible curiosity to take a peep into the closet. He found that the door had a small glass window in it, through which some light proceeded. Upon looking in, he perceived that the passage led off into a spacious lighted gallery. The monster’s head, somewhat resembling that of an enormous crocodile, projected from the wall of the passage, and lay across the floor, close behind the door.
This was a shocking sight, but Shakrak was desperate. He found a large bar of iron lying in the room; and having opened the door, presented himself before the eyes of the monster. Its pupils dilated, and it opened its scaly jaws, which were about two yards long. Shakrak immediately placed his bar upright within its mouth. The upper jaw descended upon it, and was unable to close; leaving an enormous hiatus, and shewing its rows of polished teeth on both sides. The monster seemed astonished, but was too stupid to know how to relieve itself; being in the habit of leading a pampered life, without ever exercising its faculties. Shakrak therefore prepared for a very bold attempt. He took hold of the bar with one hand, and nimbly sprung through between its jaws, leaving the horrid animal utterly astonished at not being able to swallow him.
He found himself alone in a stately gallery, at one end of which a door appeared, over which was inscribed, in large letters, “The stable of the wooden horse;” for it is well known that magicians take great care of their unnatural machinery, however unfeeling they may be towards human beings.
Shakrak had never seen so fine a stable. The door was ornamented with marble pillars; its valves were covered with crimson velvet, and studded with large golden nails; so that he thought he was going into the antichamber of a princess. Upon entering, he found it was a noble saloon, with the wooden horse standing at one end. Two grooms, also carved out of wood, were beside him. One of them knelt with a basket full of pearls, by way of offering him food, although the magician probably knew well enough that his pearls were quite safe, and would never be tasted. The other held a curry-comb, as if about to apply it to his back, which had already been made smooth enough by the rider’s own body. Perhaps these vain appearances might be necessary, according to the rules of magic; but if they were not, I think the magician must have been making a mock of his horse; which was the more unmanly, on account of its being unable to see his drift. Yet let us pause before we condemn him. It is impossible for us to decide whether the wooden grooms formed an indispensable concomitant or not. In all arts and mysteries there are certain particulars, which, to the ignorant, appear superfluous, and perhaps foolish; but which, at the same time, form necessary links, or quasi vincula, without which the whole would be void and inept.
The rest of the apartment was fitted up with a sort of remote but magnificent resemblance to a stable; and in a corner Shakrak found as many different kinds of switches, as if they had belonged to a lad of fifteen. From a table he took up a small pocket volume, entitled, “Rules for managing the Wooded Horse;” and after reading a few pages, the principles began to open upon him in a much clearer manner than he expected; insomuch, that, being eager to escape, and tenderly anxious for the safety of his mistress, he resolved to mount and take his chance.
In the room there was a large window reaching down to the floor, and unfolding upon hinges. It was evidently meant for letting out persons on horseback. Shakrak opened it, and found a small platform without, from which he had a prospect of the starry sky, and the whole of Constantinople at an immense distance below him. There he shed a flood of tears on account of his hapless condition, saying, “Oh, my dear young lady! do not vex your soft bosom, nor allow the peach-bloom to steal out of your cheeks. Your lover is as true as the stars, which keep the courses whether they be seen or not, come cloud or clear sky. I am going to ride a very strange sort of horse; but if I break my neck, it will be for your sake. So here goes.”
So saying, he went in trembling; whereupon the wooden groom laid down his curry-comb, and held the stirrup. Shakrak gave a great cry, and again consulted the book, where he found these words, page 15, “The wooden groom will hold your stirrup, and do any thing you wish in mounting.” Perceiving that this procedure was quite regular, Shakrak was again summoning up resolution, when he caught the sound of steps advancing towards a different door from that by which he had entered; and presently Nakoonar’s voice was heard asking, “Who cried out a little while ago? Was it Mephistopheles wanting me? Open the door.” One of the wooden grooms immediately went to open the door, and Shakrak, in attempting to stop him, was thrown down, for there is no possibility of stopping contrivances of that sort; but he immediately recovered his feet, and scampered off along the gallery, darted through the jaws of the monster, and got back to his own apartment.
CHAP.III.—Nakoonar watches in the Garden.—The result.
Next night, about half an hour from twelve, Nakoonar came to the stable, saying, “I have heard that this Safie is a very choice young damsel, and of rare beauty; but if she merely shews herself at the window, I shall not be able to seize her. An holy dervis has placed in her apartment so powerful an amulet, that nothing wicked dare enter. However, I shall repair to the spot, and if her lover comes, I may perhaps overhear some conversation that will suggest to me by what means I may bear away the prize.”
He mounted, took several turns, and perceiving that the emir’s garden was silent and solitary, dropt down, and concealed himself and horse in an arbour. The night was extremely beautiful. The full moon shone brightly over the garden wall. The walks were adorned on each side with long rows of lilies, which, although the air felt somewhat cold, did not cease to pour forth a fragrant smell. The blossoms of the arbour also enchanted him with their odour; and the long tendrils of climbing plants, glittering with moisture, trembled at the least breath of wind. Nakoonar was visited with the remembrance of his earlier days, when the passion of love had visited him for the first time, and made the blood tingle in his veins with a sweetness to which he had for long been a stranger.
A total silence pervaded the garden as well as the house, which was quite near. The walls were white, and reflected the moonshine strongly. The lowest row of windows was not more than a yard from the ground. While Nakoonar sat looking and listening, one of the sashes was thrown open, and the beautiful Safie put out her head cautiously, as if to see whether any person was there. Finding that nothing stirred, she withdrew. Her mind was probably in a state of sanguine restlessness and expectation, which would not allow her to suppose that any thing could detain her lover, although she had not heard from him, and which overcame her with sweet throes of tenderness, intermingled with anxiety.
Shortly afterwards she appeared a second time. She leant out over the roses which grew beside the window, and listened attentively. In the meantime, Nakoonar had an opportunity of observing the beauty of her neck, which was very white and smooth, and of her cheek, which did not appear to have much red, but only a gentle and modest crimson, set off by two or three dark curls. Her hands were also very white; and it grieved Nakoonar to consider the roughness of the stone before her, which, in her thoughtfulness, she was grasping and rubbing unconsciously. Cruel and unworthy wretch! whose mind was, at the same time, filled with the most sinister intentions.
When she could not hear any steps, she opened the window a little more. At this juncture, the cunning magician made a rattling with the bridle of his horse; and the idea occurred to her, that perhaps her lover was not far off, but, owing to the negligence or stupidity of her slave, had not been instructed how to lift the latch of a certain wicket. This idea came, and went, and came again. Could she venture out at the window? No, no, no. Only a few steps? No, no. Yet there was no great impropriety. She would only tell him how to come in. She would immediately return; and by the time he had unfastened the wicket, she would be safe within the window.
So she reasoned, and found, that, in her present mood, she could not withdraw contentedly and go to sleep. She endeavoured to remember the advices of the holy dervis; but they passed over her mind without bringing back good resolutions.
The fair Safie, believing that no eye observed her, put forth her slender foot upon a stone seat beneath the window, and took what might be called a very improper step, of which she soon felt the consequences. Nakoonar, perceiving that all obstacles were removed, got hold of her immediately. He mounted his horse, and away they few.
CHAP. IV.—Shakrak falls in with the Gentleman with the Six Horns.—He again sees his Mistress.
IN the meantime, Shakrak having spent the whole day in a most disconsolate manner, without tasting any food, except a few dates which were brought him by the magician, resolved, when night came on, to make a second attempt to escape. He accordingly passed once more through the jaws of the monster, and repaired to the stable, but found the horse gone. Upon opening the door at which Nakoonar had knocked on a former occasion, he found it led into another suite of apartments, which probably served Nakoonar as a workshop for carrying on the different branches of his art. They were full of very extraordinary articles. In the last room, Shakrak found the gentleman with the six horns pounding at a huge mortar, and venting, from time to time, lamentable groans and complaints against the absent magician; for, by means of spells, he had been forced to become Nakoonar’s servant, and was kept very closely at work.
No sooner did he perceive Shakrak, than, throwing down his pestle, he ran to detain him. “My dear friend,” said the evil genius, “you see how I am used. Whatever may be Nakoonar’s politeness to me before company, I can assure you, that in private he treats me no better than a dog. I have worked to him for twenty years, and would fain escape from my bondage; which, if I had some assistance from others, I could easily accomplish. I know several of his talismanic secrets. I am an evil genius myself, no doubt, and many things therefore lie out of my reach; but if some holy and pious person could be introduced into this palace, and persuaded to act according to my directions, Nakoonar might be destroyed, much for the good of Constantinople.
“Perhaps,” replied Shakrak, “my help might be somewhat in this matter; but how can I be sure of your sincerity?”
“Never doubt that,” said the genius, striking his palm upon that of Shakrak with a loud noise. “Come along with me into a neighbouring apartment, and I shall give you convincing proofs.”
They proceeded into a fair chamber, spread with the richest carpets, and scented by orange trees and other plants, which grew in vases. It likewise contained many sofas and musical instruments, and was altogether a delightful place, but had no windows, and was lighted only by globular lamps, finely painted.
“How do you like this?” asked the genius.
“Exceedingly well,” replied Shakrak.
“Oh, the magician! the magician! I hear him coming!” cried the gentleman with the six horns, and was off in an instant, leaving poor Shakrak to creep under a sofa.
Nakoonar entered, bearing the fair Safie in his arms, and placed her upon a seat. Her eyes were full of tears, and she seemed quite exhausted with terror and astonishment at her journey through the air, insomuch that she did not even attempt to speak or inquire where she was. The magician thought it would be best to leave her to repose for some time; and accordingly, having laid her gently upon a sofa, he went away, locking the door after him.
Shakrak now peeped out. He saw his sweet mistress lying languidly, with her dark hair shaken out of her turban, and her silken robes disordered. The small ribbons which tied her sandals were half unloosed, and shewed that, before she made the fatal step out of the window, she had just been preparing to retire to sleep. Now drooping with her tulip cheek over the sofa, she seemed slowly to recover the regularity of her breathing, and uttered from time to time heavy sighs.
It would be unnecessary to describe her astonishment, when the faithful Shakrak presented himself before her view. “Ah, my dear mistress!” said he, “you know not what terrible things I have gone through since we parted. This is a magician’s house; but do not despair, for I am here to guard you, and hope soon to accomplish our escape. The magician carried me off as I was going to Haslan with your letter.”
“Now I begin to understand my situation,” said Safie. “What a frightful looking man that is, with his shaggy hair! Oh, Shakrak, you must certainly have been loitering, or doing something wrong, when you was carried off.”
“No, no,” replied Shakrak, “I protest that I was doing nothing wrong. But where did the magician get hold of you, madam?”
“We shall speak of that afterwards,” replied Safie, blushing; and they entered into a conversation, in the course of which Shakrak related all that he knew, disclosing also what prospects had been held out to him by the gentleman with the six horns. “But, alas!” cried Shakrak, “although this room is beautifully decorated, I perceive it is a prison, from which there is no other outlet except the door, of which the magician has the key; and I can do nothing while I remain here.” So saying, he knocked loudly at the door, and then hid himself under a sofa.
Safie did not perceive the meaning of this; but presently Nakoonar entered, and came up to her with as sweet an expression of countenance as he could assume, saying, “Fair lady, behold your humblest slave. This palace is yours, with all its delights; and you see before you one who would rather follow your steps on all fours, and kiss the floor where you have been walking, than be admitted at once to the third heaven.”
“Impious and abominable man!” cried Safie, “how dare you come near me? Are you not ashamed to use this language to her whom you have so cruelly snatched away from her friends? Your appearance testifies that you cannot be far from sixty, an age at which there is no longer any excuse for wanton outrages: nevertheless, you conduct yourself like a green and giddy reprobate. I am sure your head exhibits gray hairs enough to make you pass for a dervis or a philosopher.”
“Ah, madam!” cried Nakoonar, kneeling, “you see what a philosopher I am.”
“Begone, for I wish to repose myself,” cried Safie, who now perceived that Shakrak had crept out of the room unobserved.
“For what purpose did you make such a noise lately?” asked Nakoonar.
“I know nothing about these noises,” replied Safie. “It must have been some of your own wicked genii; from whom, as well as yourself, I trust that our holy Prophet will defend me. In the mean time, you would oblige me very much by retiring, and locking the door after you.”
“Sweet lady,” replied Nakoonar, “I will obey; but you must ultimately have pity on me.” And accordingly he withdrew.
CHAP. V.—Nakoonar prepares an Exhibition for Safie.
NAKOONAR, in coming away, heard some stir in the stable of the wooden horse, and was proceeding in that direction, when he was stopped by the six-horned genius, who wished to have his directions about mixing certain preparations in the workshop. Nakoonar went to look at the mortar. Finding that very little had been pounded, he turned furiously round upon the genius, and asked him what he had been doing for two hours. The genius replied, sheepishly, that he had been working as hard as he could; whereupon Nakoonar, taking the pestle out of his hands, belaboured him dreadfully, and concluded by knocking off three of his horns. This was too much to be endured; and the spirit sternly folded his arms, muttering threats of revenge.
“Let me have no sulkiness,” cried Nakoonar, “else you shall fare worse than you have done. Bestir yourself, and decorate the banqueting-room as superbly as possible. Spread forth my talismans upon the table, and prepare my books; for there is a fair lady before whom I wish to make a grand display of my art. I shall grudge no pains to please her. As for you, make your outside as decent as possible, and be ready to execute whatever I may command. To improve my appearance, I think I shall lay aside my usual safeground of the enchanted doublet, and shall content myself with the staff of cedar which I received from that old magician who now lives in retirement among the ruins of Dendera.”
So saying, he retired. The genius, still smarting with his wounds, went immediately to the wardrobe, where the staff of cedar was kept, and deposited another in its place.
CHAP. VI.—Shakrak gets the Assistance of a Dervis.—Safie is rescued.
IN the mean time, Shakrak, having mounted the wooden horse, shot boldly down into Constantinople. It was now day-light; and his first care was to find Haslan, the lover of Safie, who, after a short explanation with the panting and perspiring slave, mounted before him. Such persons as were abroad at that early hour stood gazing at the strange machine; and when it rose again, they saluted it with loud huzzas. The two riders, however, were determined to have a third, namely, the holy dervis Noodlegander, who had placed an amulet in Safie’s apartment. Upon repairing to the street where he lived, they found the venerable old man seated before his door, reading the Alcoran.1Koran. He was extremely thick-sighted, and also obtuse in his hearing, so that they could not make him understand what they wanted. Nevertheless, at their solicitations, the venerable old man, who was so completely sacred that nothing could come amiss to him, tucked his Koran under his arm, and mounted without hesitation. He felt quite at home everywhere, because he knew himself to be incapable of receiving any hurt; and accordingly the wooden horse ascended with its three riders.
When they were about half way from Nakoonar’s house, the venerable old man put his hand gently upon Haslan’s shoulder, and said, “My good friend, what is the meaning of this haste? Beware of the left side of the road, for I think I perceive a ditch there.”
“Never fear,” replied Haslan; “we are far above every thing of that sort. We want you to assist us against a great magician.”
“Music is a lascivious art,” replied the dervis, shaking his head. “I never assist in these things.”
“I do not say musician,” replied Haslan. “He is a great necromancer.”
“Romances are worse,” said the dervis, shaking his head a second time.
“Reverend father, you mistake me,” said Halsan. “I mean a great sorcerer.”
“Oh ho! a sorcerer!” cried the dervis. “My eyes have much failed me of late, but you shall see presently what an old man can do. To me a sorcerer is as pleasant as a hare to a greyhound.”
They landed on the platform, and passed through the stable, where the wooden grooms fell prostrate, as the dervis hobbled past with his Koran. According to the directions which Shakrak had received, they proceeded forthwith to the banqueting-room, where they beheld the utmost splendour of decoration. In one corner sat the evil genius, burning with rage and shame for the loss of his horns. He could scarcely look Shakrak in the face, but seemed rejoiced at their arrival. In the middle of the room stood a table covered with fine velvet, upon which were spread various jewels and curiosities. “Oh ho!” cried the dervis, “I perceive there are talismans here: we must secure these in the first place.” And he accordingly put the whole in his pocket.
At this juncture Nakoonar rushed into the room, flashing fire from his eyes, and uttering frightful imprecations. He lifted up what he supposed to be his cedar staff, and made a tremendous blow at the dervis, who very coolly warded it off with an old pair of spectacles. The staff flew in pieces.
Nakoonar being thus deprived of all personal power, was running to open a great iron door, and let loose his monster upon them, when the evil genius took hold of him, and threw him headlong from a window. His revenge was accomplished, and he disappeared.
They now repaired joyfully to the orange-tree apartment where Safie was confined. They found her asleep, with the roses mantling in her cheeks. She was muttering something about stepping out from a window by moonlight; and whenever Haslan touched her, she screamed and awoke. The utmost congratulations passed among all the parties; and the good-natured dervis promised to give a hint to the parents of the young people.
Shakrak would fain have been allowed to carry away the wooden horse for his own use; but to this the dervis would by no means consent, quoting a certain adage, which it is unnecessary here to repeat.
They left Nakoonar’s house by a great staircase which led down to the street; and next morning the dervis having revisited it, with the cadis of the district, had all the unlawful implements and monsters consumed and killed, which was a dreadful business for those who were engaged in it. But after these things were accomplished, there remained some very pretty apartments, ready for the reception of Safie and her husband.
Download PDF of original Text (validated PDF/A conformant)
How To Cite
An MLA-format citation will be added after this entry has completed the VSFP editorial process.
25 September 2020
16 October 2021
A version of this entry marked-up in TEI will be available for download after this entry has completed the VSFP editorial process.