“There you are mistaken, Mr Vizier, for I have suffered both the bastinado and the bowstring.”
“And the bowstring! Holy Prophet! what a lying old hag!” exclaimed the pacha.
“No lie, pacha, no lie!” screamed the old woman in her wrath. “I have said it—and the bowstring. Yes, the time has been, when I was young and beautiful; and do you know why I suffered? I’ll tell you—because I would not hold my tongue—and do you think that I will now that I’m an old piece of carrion? Yes—yes—the time has been.”
“Fortunately, then,” replied Mustapha, “you are not required by the pacha to hold your tongue. You are required to do the very contrary, which is, to speak.”
“And do you know why I received the bowstring?” screamed the old hag. “I’ll tell you—because I would not speak; and I do not intend so to do now, since I find that you wish that I should.”
“Then it appears,” said the pacha, taking the pipe out of his mouth, “that the bastinado was as ill-managed as the bowstring. We do these things better at Cairo. Hear me, old mother of Shitan! I wish to know what you mean by that expression which is ever in your mouth—’time has been.’”
“It means a great deal pacha, for it refers to my life—you want the story.”
“Exactly,” replied Mustapha, “so begin.”
“You must pay me for it—it is worth twenty pieces of gold.”
“Do you presume to make conditions with his sublime highness the pacha?” exclaimed Mustapha. “Why, thou mother of Afrits and Ghouls, if thou commencest not immediately, thy carcass shall be thrown over the walls for the wild dogs to smell at, and turn away from in disgust.”
“Vizier, I have lived long enough to trust nobody. My price is twenty pieces of gold counted out in this shrivelled hand before I begin; and without they are paid down—not one word.” And the old beldam folded her arms, and looked the pacha boldly in the face.
“God is great!” exclaimed the pacha. “We shall see.” At his well-known signal the executioner made his appearance, and holding up the few scattered gray hairs which still remained upon her head, he raised his scimitar, awaiting the nod which was to be succeeded by the fatal blow.
“Strike, pacha, strike!” cried the old woman, scornfully. “I shall only lose a life of which I have long been weary; but you will lose a story of wonder, which you are so anxious to obtain. Strike—for the last time, I say, ’Time has been’—before time shall be no more!”
“That is true, Mustapha,” observed the pacha. “I forgot the story. What an obstinate old devil; but I must hear the story.”
“If it appears good to your absolute wisdom,” said Mustapha, in a low voice, “would it not be better to count down to this avaricious old hag the twenty pieces of gold which she demands? When her story is ended, it will be easy to take them from her, and her head from her shoulders. Thus will be satisfied the demands of the old woman, and the demands of justice.”