THE King of Persia, Abe-lan-fui, was sitting one day with his august feet in a basin of rose-water, an ingenious method which he employed in order to cause happy ideas to occur to him when he was troubled. Half slumbering by reason of the sublime thoughts which crowded to his brain, he nodded two or three times, rubbed his eyes, and reclining his head on a cushion, fell asleep. The court with silent respect contemplated the gentle sleep of his majesty, when a loud sneeze filled the courtiers with horror and suddenly awakened his majesty.
"Who was it?" asked the monarch.
"Sire!" exclaimed a youth, "it was I. I could not help it."
"Shall I hang him?" asked the grand vizier.
"Not yet; wait. You have just interrupted the sweetest dream of my life. I was just thinking how to marry Princess Chan-ta-lan to a prince of her rank when your tempestuous sneeze caused it all to go out of my head. Your duty now is to guess my dream. If you can remind me of it, I forgive you; but if not, I will have your nose shortened so that you will never sneeze again as long as you live."
"Sire!" answered the unhappy courtier, seizing his nose as if to bid it a last farewell, "my nose and my person belong to your majesty, but no doubt, if you grant me five minutes’ reflection, with the help of God I will make you remember your dream."
When the brief respite granted by the king had expired, the courtier daringly approached the steps of the throne and spoke as follows:
"Mighty monarch! here is the only dream worthy of your illustrious talent. You dreamed that twelve princes solicited the white hand of the august Princess Chan-ta-lan; that eleven of them were graceful, but one had a defect; the former were powerful, and the latter of meagre fortune; however, your majesty chose the defective candidate as hereditary prince."
"If you tell me why I chose him," interrupted the monarch, "the nose is yours."
"You chose him, your majesty, for his surpassing genius, and for having vanquished his rivals in tests to which your majesty submitted them."
"Excellent. Now I remember it perfectly. May God preserve your nose for centuries and centuries, and my treasurer shall give you a thousand pieces of gold as a reward for your extraordinary understanding."
The court greeted this act of the monarch with a murmur of approval, and, at once, all those who a few minutes before fled from the young courtier as from a plague approached and felicitated him.
"Well, then," exclaimed the monarch, "I wish to follow the inspirations of the dream, whose description you have heard. From now on, the competition for aspirants to the hand of Chan-ta-lan is open. Proclaim it, grand vizier, to all my ambassadors, and let all courts know what my decision is. A necessary condition for the princes who aspire to be my successor is to send their portraits without delay.
"And now," he added, addressing the minstrels of the palace, "I permit you to sing my praises; and you," he said, facing his courtiers, "I tolerate to applaud me for the great talent that God has given me."
"Bravo! Bravo!" exclaimed the courtiers all together.
"You are half-hearted!" said the king. "Applaud with more enthusiasm, then I promise you not to get angry even when you shock my modesty."
"Hurrah! Splendid! Wonderful!" cried the people of the court, applauding as if they were the claque of a theatre. "What genius! What penetration! What a pity if it should fail us!"
"Don’t be afraid, it will continue to be your pride and the rejoicing of this land of fools and brutes."
"Oh, what a good lord! What a delicate compliment!"
The ambassadors announced the wish of their lord in all the capitals of the neighbouring kingdoms, and very soon letters and portraits of princes in all imaginable attitudes began to arrive. Some were twirling their moustaches with a martial air; others scratched their chins as if they were irritated; and others with one hand on the hilt of their swords but wearing a magnanimous air, as if they would spare everybody’s life. So the King of Persia gathered a varied collection. But amongst them one excelled for his awful simplicity, that of the Prince of Tokay, who appeared in full profile, showing such a deformed nose as had never been seen, not only in that town, but if you searched for ten leagues around you would not find another to approach it. And saying it is different from seeing it. For that immense, colossal nose measured from the base to the tip nearly a yard in the measure of that country, which is equal to two in Castilian measure. It was as thick as it was large, which almost caused the other features of the countenance to disappear. The painter, who undoubtedly was very clever, had expressed the air of weariness which that badly balanced weight produced in the prince, and which cried aloud for a counter weight at the back of his head.
The king laughed very much to see this phenomenon, and on seeing him laugh the courtiers also dared to laugh at the prince; but the princess, called to see the portrait of that aspirant to marriage, far from laughing, commenced to cry disconsolately and nearly fainted.
"I do not wish to see the man with the nose!" she cried. "What great folly! With this face he dares to ask for my hand! Papa, declare war against him, take him prisoner, and do him the favour of trimming his nose, if only to oblige me!"
The court also laughed at the remarks of the princess; for to some people there is nothing more amusing than to laugh at others.
The king did not dare to disregard the Prince of Tokay, and, moreover, greatly wished to see closely that elephant’s trunk; so it was that he authorised his ambassador to invite him to come to Persia to the place arranged for the other aspirants.
All Teheran was burning with desire to know the princes, and especially the big-nosed one: and so on the day of his arrival all the town crowded to the gate by which he was to enter the capital. The Prince of Tokay, accompanied by his inseparable nose and a modest escort, entered the city and proceeded directly to the palace.
"What beauty!" cried the people. "With such a nose, well distributed, there would be an end to all the pug-nosed people in the world."
The king, who came out to receive him, wished to embrace him as etiquette required, but knocked against his nose and nearly tore out his eye. At last a courtier held carefully aside the nose and he was able to accomplish the palatine ceremony.
"His nose is tremendous," said the king, putting wet cloths on his injured eye; "but it does not seem to me so large as the one in the portrait."
"I am of the same opinion," added the princess. "It seems to me three or four inches shorter than that the painter represented. If an artist here had done the same to me as he did to the Prince of Tokay I am sure that I should order him to receive a sound thrashing!"
"Then, to blow his nose how many handkerchiefs are wanted!" said a courtier.
"He blows his nose on a sheet," added another.
The following day all the princes were summoned to give proof of their talents. All went about very thoughtfully except he of Tokay, who arrived with a most natural and quiet demeanour.
"My lord princes," said the sovereign, taking his seat on the throne, "in order to decide who is the son-in-law who suits me best I have arranged to put your knowledge to a test, now that your personal charms are to be seen."
All the spectators looked at the big-nosed prince, who seemed as tranquil as if he were not the object of general curiosity.
"Here are the questions that you have to answer. Which is the most valuable thing in the world? How many baskets full of earth could be taken from the mountain which is to be seen from the palace? And who is the most treacherous companion that we all have?"
He granted them an hour in which to think out the answers, each being shut up separately. He formed a tribunal composed of the wisest men of his kingdom, and afterwards compared the aspirants to his daughter’s hand one with the other.
Some stated that these questions were too difficult for such rapid answers; others said what they thought about them in such a stupid way that the tribunal and the court could not refrain from laughter.
At length it came to the turn of the Prince of Tokay, who, bowing respectfully, answered, "The most valuable thing in the world is life, because it is God’s most wonderful work. The mountain which is to be seen from the palace has exactly two baskets full of earth, provided a basket is made large enough to hold half the mountain. And the most treacherous companion is time, which is our friend in youth, our companion in middle age, and finally kills us treacherously in old age."
The king smiled, the tribunal approved, and the court applauded. The princess herself appeared enchanted.
"Without any doubt," said the monarch, "you are the the victor in this contest of intelligence; now it remains for you to vanquish in strength and skill."
A stand was erected in the public place for the king, the judges, and the court, and shortly afterwards the princes, bearing their arms and mounted on superb horses, rode into the lists.
Each one was given a lance and the struggle began. The first of the princes fought with the second, the conqueror with the third, and so on.
The Prince of Muscovy, who was a robust man, won the greater part of the contest, wounding his adversaries seriously by lance-thrusts, throwing them from their horses, and making them declare themselves vanquished under the threat of finishing them off like lambs. When the last one appeared, the feeble Prince of Tokay, a murmur of pity went round the spectators. He of Muscovy had nothing even to start on! Moreover, as that nose could not be covered by any known helmet, the prince kept it outside with his visor raised. This was a manifest disadvantage, for the other was cased in armour from top to toe.
He of Muscovy approached the stand where the princess was and said to her:
"Beautiful Chan-ta-lan, I know that you have a whim to have the Prince of Tokay’s nose shortened, and I intend to pull it out by the roots and offer it to you as a wedding gift."
And saying this, he attacked his adversary, who was quietly awaiting him. Their lances struck against their shields and broke into splinters; the horses reared, but neither one nor the other moved from the saddle. The lances being broken, they seized their swords and struck at each other furiously until the blades were broken also. The Prince of Tokay approached his adversary, and with only one hand—incredible strength!—took him from the saddle and threw him rolling on the ground.
Tremendous applause followed, and the Prince of Tokay was cheered on all sides. The latter alighted from his horse, and drawing near to his enemy, who was not yet able to rise, made him admit his defeat. The princess looked at him in amazement and confusion, and the king said to her: "So you have got to have the big-nosed one! However, console yourself, we will give him a case for it."
The prince approached the stand, and after receiving the king’s congratulations, the princess said to him:
"I confess, Prince of Tokay, that you are not handsome, that you lack something, or rather that you have something too much, but such proofs have you given of your ingenuity and strength that I will be your wife without feeling any repugnance."
"My beautiful princess," exclaimed the knight, "I am so grateful for your kindness that I do not wish to embitter your happiness without making you a present which I think will be very much to your taste. My adversary offered to give you my nose, the cause of your past antipathy, and now that he has not succeeded in his project, may I be permitted to present it to you myself."
So saying, to the great surprise of every one, he gave a sharp tug at his nose, tearing it off at one stroke. The crowd gave a shout, believing that the man was going to die, when to the general astonishment it was seen that under that cardboard nose he wore his own natural nose, which was so delicate and well proportioned that he had no need to envy even the best shaped of noses. The Prince of Tokay was none other than the courtier of the sneeze.
"I appealed to this expedient," he said, "because I wished you to know and love me only for my qualities, and not for my face, for beauty passes away quickly, and talent is a divine gift and much more lasting."
The princess nearly died of joy on seeing her sweetheart so clever, and the rare event formed the conversation of all the city.
The wedding was celebrated with great pomp, and the new couple were very happy, according to what the chronicles of Persia say.
In one of the princess’s rooms, under a pretty lantern, was the cardboard nose of the false Prince of Tokay. Under it was the following inscription: "Physical defects count as nothing when the heart is generous and noble and the understanding clear."