1. THE MERCHANT AND THE ROBBER.
A merchant, having charge of a very valuable jewel, was
travelling for safety in the garb of a beggar, when he was set
upon by three robbers who demanded of him the stone.
Perceiving that his assailants were aware of his secret, he
said to them “Why should three of you wish to be hanged
for a robbery that a single one of you could accomplish; or
why should three of you come to take that which can only
make one of you happy?”
They answered him “We are not going to be hanged:
we shall sell the jewel and divide the proceeds equally between
“You seem to be very honest fellows,” said the merch-
ant, “but you are none the less fools! This jewel belongs to
my master, the Emperor; and assuredly I shall inform him of
how you have robbed me.”
“You will not!” they replied, “for before we part you
will be dead.”
“Whether I am to die or not will be presently revealed,”
answered the merchant, “for that is in the hands of Allah:
but it grieves me that all three of you should seek to stain
your souls with the crime of killing me. Therefore I will
give up this jewel to that one of you alone who will refrain
from adding my murder to the list of his iniquities.”
As he said this, the merchant perceived the gentlest of the
robbers twitching an open palm towards him. Throwing to
him the jewel, he said: “Take it and run, and may Allah
reward you for your mercy!”
The robber having the jewel in possession fled, pursued
by the other two, who presently came up with him. The con-
flict which ensued was watched by the merchant with interest.
Many hard blows were exchanged ere the gentle robber came
off exhausted but victorious leaving the other two dead upon
Then the merchant advanced towards him with a bold
front and demanded the restoration of the jewel. The gentle
robber, seeing himself now weakened by wounds, and the
merchant strong, made no difficulty about returning the
“Your shameless greed has saved my life,” said the
merchant, “but it is not well in the eyes of Allah that you
should go unpunished.” Having said so, he bound his pre-
server to a tree and bastinadoed him unsparingly. “One
feels no gratitude,” he added, “to those who benefit us by the
exercise of ill-gotten power.”
“I should think,” wept the gentle robber as the merchant
was departing, “that you must be an Emperor yourself to
play such a high and mighty mean trick on one whom you
yourself led into temptation!”
2. THE KING AND THE PHILOSOPHER.
A certain King happening to be bound on a private adven-
ture which required not only secresy and discretion, but two
persons to handle it with ease and comfort, took with him a
learned slave, in whose fidelity and sagacity he had the utmost
confidence. The King having instructed his companion as
to the affair in hand, the philosophic one perceived that his
presence and assistance were absolutely necessary for
the King’s comfort and safety.
Therefore, as they were crossing by a narrow footbridge a
torrent, considerably swollen by rains, the slave folded his
arms, committed himself to the favour of God, and projected
v himself into the flood below.
The King perceiving his slave about to be snatched from
him at a time highly inconvenient for his own person, and
learning by hasty enquiry that the Philosopher had only a
book-knowledge of swimming, plunged selfishly to the rescue.
To his surprise he found that all the rudiments of swimming
which the Philosopher possessed, were being employed by him
to escape the life-saving clutches which his master was direct-
ing towards him. As often as the monarch caught hold of a
garment, the Philosopher quitted it with the agility of an
acrobat. “Your majesty,” said he, “may succeed in undress-
ing me, but you shall not succeed in saving me!”
How is this?” asked the King, “have you no gratitude
for the efforts I am making on your behalf?”
“I am your majesty’s property” said the Philosopher, “and
the efforts you make interest me, but do not excite my gratitude.
Yet I am flattered to see the value you put upon the head of
one so unworthy.” “What” cried the King, “is the object
you have behind your present evasion of my wishes?”
I am determined,” answered the other, “that death is
ferable to slavery, even to the kindest of masters; and I will
only give myself up into your majesty’s hands on condition
that you restore to me my liberty.”
The King, having no other course open, consented to the
Philosopher’s terms, and ratified the same with an oath. The
Philosopher then committed himself to the King’s arms, and
they presently came to land in safety at a point some five
miles further down the stream, than that at which the con-
troversy between them had begun.
Without any further dispute they continued their adventure
together, in the course of which the Philosopher proved him-
self many times essential to the King’s comfort and safety.
On their return to the capital the King caused a document
to be drawn up restoring to the Philosopher his liberty. But
the next day, the monarch, who had caught a violent cold
from his long immersion in the water, gave orders for the
head of his new freeman to be cut off. By which it may be
seen that with kings an oath is an instrument which may
easily lose its point, whereas freedom is a weapon which
kings also can handle, cutting both ways.
3. THE POET AND HIS MISTRESS.
In hell, amongst all the company of gallants and gay ladies
there tossing and turning to get rid of the torment of their
hot bodies, one woman sat alone and smiled. She bore herself
with the air of a listener, lifting her head now and then as
though some voice from above attracted her.
“Who is yonder woman?” enquired a new-comer, dazzled
by her exceeding beauty, “the one with smooth ivory limbs and
red hair falling through her arms and on to her lap? She is the
only soul here whose eyes are ever looking aloft; what
skeleton does she keep in the cupboard of God up yonder?”
“They say,” one made haste to answer, “that she was a
great singer in her day, with a voice like a falling star in a clear
sky; and that when she came here to meet her doom, God
took her voice from her and cast it to the eternal echoes of the
spheres, finding it too beautiful a thing to let die. So now
she hears it with recognition, and shares still the pleasure that
God takes in it. Do not speak to her, for she believes that
she is in Heaven.”
“No, that is not her story,” said another.
“It is this: On earth a poet made his song of her, so that
her name became eternally wedded to his verse, which still
rings on the lips of men. Now she lifts her head and hears
his praise of her eternally going on wherever language is
“Did she love him well?”
“So little that here and now she passes him daily, and
does not recognise his face!”
The other laughed and answered: “It is he who just now
told you that tale concerning her voice, continuing here the
lies which he used to make about her when they two were
4. THE KING AND HIS WORD.
A certain King became greatly enamoured of a lady whose
beauty was such that it dazzled all beholders. Therefore he
desired to make her his wife.
She, however, would have none of him. “I know too
well,” said she, “what fate awaits all beautiful women who
marry kings; for a while they are loved with trust, then they
are loved with jealousy; then, for no cause at all, their
beautiful heads are taken off them and piled on a dish before
the King to be regarded merely as the fruits of experience.”
The King was ready to protest all faith in her, but she
stopped his lips. “Nay,” said she, “unless you swear to me by
Heaven and by Hell, by your honour among men, and your
soul’s safety hereafter, also by the tombs of your ancestors,
that you will do me no hurt except you yourself discover me
in an act of unfaithfulness towards you, I will not accept the
peril of this honour which you thrust on me.”
So the King swore by Heaven and by Hell, by his honour
and by his soul, and by the tombs of his ancestors, giving her
the oath in writing sealed with the royal signet. And she, for
her part gave him her promise that she would be faithful to
him while life lasted.
So they were married, and in no long time the King began
to be devoured by the pangs of jealousy, eating daily the bread
of doubt, and drinking the waters of suspicion. Never dared
he let himself go from her side, save it were when he went
yearly to worship and fast at the tombs of his ancestors, to
which no woman, not the Queen herself, might go.
In vain did he surround her with guards, and set spies of
his most trusted servants to bring him word of her doings, no
slur or stain could any of them cast on the Queen’s honour;
and all the more did the absence of rumour inflame his jealousy.
He believed that her beauty had beguiled all men into her
service against him; nay, at last he suspected that every man
who failed to bring word crediting her with dishonour must
be himself a partner in the offence; so there were many
executions done in those days in solemn sacrifice to the
Forty-nine times he bore to the verge of madness the
weight of jealousy that came at each time of ceremonial
absence; for the passing of years made no diminution in the
On the fiftieth anniversary, when the days of sacred fast-
ing and seclusion called for him, beseeching forgiveness of
Heaven, he turned back secretly from the tombs of his ancestors,
nor stayed the set time; for now his will mounted to madness
that he would have proof for his jealousy and release from his
royal oath which made him refrain from the word for her
death. Therefore, with great subtlety, the King put on the
disguise of a merchant, staining his face and hands, and letting
no mark on his person show by which he might be known.
Then he took with him jewels of great price, and coming to
the palace caused himself to be led into the presence of the
She, seeing such wonders, was willing to give all the
wealth she had to get possession of them. But the King had
left her with a small purse, and the price he now asked was
fabulous. When she informed him that this was beyond her,
he answered softly, “There is another price, 0 fairest of all
fair women, that can only be asked in secret.”
Then she put all forth from her and said, “Thou would’st
come into my chamber to ask me that?” “Even so,” said he.
And she answered, “Give me the jewels: whatever it is I
grant it before the asking.” Then she retired from him for
a while, but afterwards returned, and she led him in; and they
were together, and all doors closed.
About midnight she said to him, “My lord,
times thou hast returned to me in disguise; yet is it only at this
fiftieth time that I have discovered thee!”
Then the King rose, and drawing forth his sword, cried,
“Now out of thine own mouth hast thou released me, and
given me back my royal word, to do to thee as thou deservest.”
And so saying he struck off her head.
On the morrow when the King sat in state, and the
Queen’s death was noised in whispers through the palace,
there came to him a slave that had been in the Queen’s service,
bearing a small coffer and weeping. “Oh, my lord,” said the
slave, “yesterday while you were yet absent, the Queen gave
me this, and bade me lay it before the King’s feet on his
return, telling him how great was her sorrow that she had not
herself power now to be its bearer.”
Wondering, the King took the casket. In it lay his own
written word sealed and signed, and beside it another scroll,
which, opening, he read: “0 Lord, to kill and to make alive,
when thou receivest this thou art without honour on earth
and without soul in Heaven, for I shall be dead by thy hand,
not having been found by thee in any act of unfaithfulness
soever. For neither in body or in spirit was there deceit in me,
seeing that I beheld thee through thy disguise. As for that
which I told thee, truly thou hast returned to me forty-nine
times disguised as a King; only this fiftieth time have I known
thee certainly for the dust thou art. And since my beauty,
through thy jealousy brought death to many, it is better that
I only should die, who have become over-weary of my bond-
age to such an one as thee. So now I beg thee, who art without
honour or soul, for the little time that is left thee, have pity
upon others whose life thou would’st cut in half.”
The King read: and straightway he ordered to be struck
off, the head of the slave who had brought him the Queen’s
message; for though by his oath he had neither honour nor
soul left, he remembered that he was still a King.
5. THE ROSE AND THE THORN.
A certain Commander of the Faithful, had as the
Favourite of his harem, a lady more beautiful than all the
stars and their moons about them,—but with a shrew’s tongue.
The pathway to her favour lay through torrents of abuse,
which cast him without dignity and crownless before her im-
perious feet. But, none the less, love of her mastered him so
greatly that he looked on no other woman with any concern.
After many sleepless nights and days without rest, he
hardly knew whether he were the most cursed or the most
blessed of mortals for truly his vigils gave him the continual
consciousness of her charms, though all the while her mouth
was like the crater of a volcano in eruption pouring out lava
of vituperation upon his head.
One day his chief chamberlain, beholding him nursing a
sick headache, said, “Why, 0 shadow of God, dost thou con-
tinue to endure this evil, seeing that He hath made thee the
master of all things? If the Light of the harem were tongueless,
she were perfect. Therefore give orders, 0 Commander of
the Faithful, and it shall be seen to!”
So presently the counsel of the chief chamberlain took
effect, and the Favourite’s mouth became as a dove’s for
quietness. But now the Sultan found that his love for her
was altogether flown; her beauty seemed to him flavourless
and insipid; and all desire for her favours grew drowsy for
lack of the naggings wherewith she had been wont so con-
stantly to assail him.
Then he saw that her way with him had been one of pure
reason and beneficence. Seeing that Kings, having through
their high estate to be left uncorrected in other matters, have
need to be corrected to their appetites, by goadings and thwart-
ings which are not necessary for the less spoiled children of
And because of his deep grief, the Sultan sacked the chief
chamberlain, and sought through all his dominions till he
found another woman less fair, but gifted in like measure
with a shrewishness of tongue to take the place of his lost
6. THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SOUL.
A certain traveller, passing through the slums of a great
city, came there upon a man whose countenance indicated a
grief which he could not fathom. The traveller, being a
curious student of the human heart, stopped him and said:
“Sir, what is this grief which you carry before the eyes of all
men, so grievous that it cannot be hidden, yet so deep that it
cannot be read?
The man answered: “It is not I who grieve so greatly, it
is my soul, of which I cannot rid me. And my soul is more
sorrowful than death, for it hates me, and I hiate it.”
The traveller said “If you will sell your soul to me you
can be well rid of it.” The other answered: “Sir, how can I
sell you my soul?” “Surely,” replied the traveller, “you
have but to agree to sell me your soul at its full price, then,
when I bid it, it comes to me. But every soul has its true
price; and only at that, neither at more nor at less, can it be
Then said the other: “At what price shall I sell you this
horrible thing, my soul?”
The traveller answered: “When a man first sells his own
soul he is like that other betrayer; therefore its price should
be thirty pieces of silver. But after that, if it passes to other
hands, its value becomes small for to others the souls of their
fellow-men are worth very little.”
So for thirty pieces of silver the man sold his soul, and
the traveller took it and departed.
Presently the man, having no soul, found that he could
do no sin. Though he stretched out his arms to sin, sin
would not come to him. “You have no soul,” said sin, and
passed him by. “Wherefore should I come to you? I have
no profit in a man that has no soul?”
Then the man without a soul became very miserable, for
though his hands touched what was foul they remained clean,
and though his heart longed for wickedness it remained pure;
and when he thirsted to dip his lips in fire they remained cool.
Therefore a longing to recover his soul took hold of him,
and he went through the world searching for the traveller to
whom he had sold it, that he might buy it back and again taste
sin in his own body.
After a long time the traveller met him, but hearing his
request he laughed and said: “After a while your soul wearied
me, and I sold it to a Jew for a smaller sum than I paid for it.”
“Ah!” cried the man, “if you had come to me I would
have paid more.” The traveller answered: “You could not
have done that; a soul cannot be bought or sold but at its
just price. Your soul came to be of small value in my keep-
ing, so to be rid of it I sold it to the first comer for considerably
less money than I paid in the beginning.”
So parting from him the man continued his quest, wander-
ing over the face of the earth and seeking to recover his lost
soul. And one day as he sat in the bazaar of a certain town
a woman passed him, and looking at him said: “Sir, why
are you so sad? It seems to me there can be no reason for
such sadness.” The man answered: “I am sad because I
have no soul, and am seeking to find it.”
The other said: “Only the other night I bought a soul
that had passed through so many hands that it had become
dirt-cheap; but it is so poor a thing I would gladly be rid of it.
Yet I bought it for a mere song; and a soul can only be sold
at its just price; how, then, shall I be able to sell it again—for
what is worth less than a song? And it was but a light song
that I sang over the wine-cup to the man who sold it me.”
When the other heard that he cried: “It is my own soul!
Sell it to me, and I will give you all that I possess!
The woman said: “Alas, I did but pay for it with a song,
and I can but sell it again at its just price. How then can I be
rid of it, though it cries and laments to be set free?”
The man without a soul laid his head to the womans’
breast, and heard within it the captive soul whimpering to be
set free, to return to the body it had lost. “Surely,” he said,
“it is my own soul! “If you will sell it to me I will give you
my body, which is worth less than a song from your lips.”
So, for his body, the other sold to him the soul that
whimpered to be set free to return to its own place. But so
soon as he received it he rose up aghast: “What have you
done?” he cried, “and what is this foul thing that has posses-
sion of me? For this soul that you have given me is not my
“The woman laughed and said: “Before you sold your
soul into captivity it was a free soul in a free body; can you
not recognise it now it comes to you from the traffic of the
slave-market? So, then, your soul has the greater charity,
since it recognises and returns to you, though you have sold
your body miserably into bondage!”
And thus it was that the man had to buy back at the cost
of his body the soul which he let go for thirty pieces of silver.
7. FATHER AND SON.
There was once a young man of left-handed parentage,
who, from his birth had been seized with an unnatural desire
to redress in the punishment of his father the wrong done to
his mother. She indeed had been the victim of a betrayal
cruel enough to arouse more than ordinary resentment. But
she was of a mild and forgiving disposition, and the only act
of self-assertion she allowed herself, was to die in giving her
With just so much assistance from her as that, the son
started on life equipped with all the passionate and unforgiving
qualities of his other parent.
From the days when he could first toddle, his aim was to
wreak vengeance on the man whose cruelty and neglect had
made him at once a bastard and an orphan.
So soon as he was grown up to independence, his years
of indiscretion began, and he started nosing among the garbage
of humanity for a clue to his father’s whereabouts.
Presently getting wind of him, the son almost had him in
hand had not his parent, pricked by a guilty conscience, got
himself hurriedly to a place of concealment and safety.
Again pursued, he took flight into the next hemisphere.
The world watching beheld a breathless hide-and-seek going
on between the pair, so that after a few years the weary life
his son caused him to lead, forced the father into a certain
measure of repentance which would not otherwise have
occurred to him. Thus it came about that finally he died in
something like the odour of sanctity, respectably attended by
priest and doctor.
His son arrived only in time to curse the doctor for
having precipitated a catastrophe which a lifetime of wrathful
sun-settings had taught him to regard as his own perquisite.
He returned home sadly and hanged himself to his mother’s
grave-stone, trusting to be permitted in the next world to carry
out the interrupted project of vengeance which was now his
In hell he was greatly delighted to find that the law still
permitted and encouraged the pursuit of vengeance; and for a
good while he found some enjoyment running about in search
of the man he wished to devour.
After weeks of a species of fiery slumming in the lowest
quarter of the infernal regions, he received from the Devil a
kindly word of enlightenment. “My poor child,” said he “do
you not know that, thanks to you, your father made a penitent
ending, and in consequence is receiving his reward in a better
place than this?”
For the first time the revengeful soul thirsted with despair,
perceiving the gulf fixed. “Now I know that I am in hell,”
said he with conviction, “since I cannot give that man of sin
the dubbing he deserves.”
Casting about in his mind—”And my mother?” he added
“Poor, forgiving little thing!” said the Devil
sionately, “I have not the heart to grudge her her present
happiness. While you were on earth threatening perdition to
the man she loved, she had a devil of a time of it, but your
arrival here transported her to the seventh heaven.”
8. THE PRINCE AND HIS TWO MISTRESSES.
A certain Prince had a mistress, of whom, after many
years he began to tire, finding her exceeding faithfulness to him
grow wearisome. So beginning to neglect his former passion,
and having lighted on a new love of deeper complexion and
more to his present taste, he made a song in praise of her
“After day” he sang, “comes night, and the moon lifts
up her face; after red locks dark locks have hold on me!”
Before long his former mistress observing that his ardour
slackened, found where her felicity had flown to; and without
haste took counsel with herself how to regain the lost place
which her jealousy and devotion still coveted.
Presently on his visits to his new mistress, the Prince
began to recognise certain jewels adorning her person, which
he had bestowed in other days on the one who had then
crowned his fancy. “Whence came these?” he began enquir-
ing, after searching vainly in his own mind for a solution.
For a while his new lady-love sought to evade his
questions; but when she could no more put him off (while
she needs must flaunt the trinkets as more and more of them
came into her possession), she answered: “There is a certain
skew-eyed and faded creature, a poor broken-down old troll,
who comes and drops these on me at times. And her tale is
of the strangest , but as I profit by her madness I let it go.
And what she says to me is this: ‘One of the many who
have long wearied me with their love is now your lover; and
that is well, since it leaves me free to follow my own liking.
Therefore, I pray you bind him close to you and keep him
from troubling me further; and every time that you receive
him I, in thankfulness to be rid of him, will bring you a token
of my gratitude, which I hold well earned, since then I can be
in the arms of the lover I love truly.’ This is her story, and
truly I have reaped profit out of it, for each time you visit me
she brings me a fresh jewel. Why, then, should I laugh in the
face of the poor thing who is happy in her folly?”
But when he had considered the matter well, the Prince
left her, and went back to his former mistress.
9. TWO KINGS AND THEIR QUEENS.
Two Kings, who bore rule over adjoining territories
having come together amicably, in state and with a great
retinue, for the settlement of a disputed question of boundaries,
became greatly enamoured each of the other’s consort.
While in public they were defining one boundary amicably
from day to day, each in secret was plotting how another
boundary might be over-stepped. The Queens, finding them-
selves royally pursued, remained demure, but put their heads
together for a friendly purpose by stealth, not wishing to
disturb the political situation.
So presently, by the aid of chamberlains and ladies of
honour, all ready to take bribes at cross-purposes, the game grew
hot; virtuous protestation died on the Queens’ lips, and
the monarchs came each to the belief that he had, without
knowledge of the other, secured an assignation which would
overwhelm his infelicity.
A hunting expedition, and a certain mis-arrangement of
the pavilions destined for the separated repose of royalty, gave
the occasion and the means; the Kings beheld a way pointed
to them, more plainly than by any star in the East, for the
consummation of their desires.
What was the chagrin of the two monarchs on awaken-
ing to the light of reason after an experience which had made
each believe himself the most blest of mortals, to find that they
had fallen into a lawful embrace, and had deceived themselves
with the decorous bonds of matrimony.
The ladies themselves put a quiet countenance on the
matter, and were astonished when presently they lost their
two heads for the crime of being found in the embraces of
their own true lords, time not being given them to make the
mathematical calculation by which their judges arrived at a
conviction of their intended guiltiness.
Whether, indeed, those lords signed their death-warrants as
thieves defrauded of their booty, or as owners finding their
possession threatened, only kings themselves can decide. But
it is sometimes more dangerous to force kings into the paths
of virtue, than to attract them into the ways of vice.
Housman, Laurence. “Proverbial Romances.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 1, 1903, pp.187-206. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021, https://1890s.ca/vv1-housman-romances