My Project Gutenberg Logo

For information on Project Gutenberg and their affiliates, and tips on using these files on your reading device, please refer to my Newsletter: My NEXT Step in Technology.

New Arabian Nights

Robert Louis Stevenson

Click the title for your free ebook!

    This collection of two novellas, a short story with nine chapters and one with six chapters, and two single-chapter stories, was a very early work of Stevenson, published in 1882, the year before his most famous Treasure Island. Stevenson had a way with creepy thrillers, as we discover when we read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which rates right up there along with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He named the collection after the "collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age," (8th to 14th> centuries), known as One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights' Entertainment. Wikipedia says, "Common to all the editions of the Nights is the framing device of the story of the ruler Shahryār being narrated the tales by his wife Scheherazade." She actually tells them to keep from being executed. You can read about them at the link above, and many of the stories are well-known, although some were added later. It was translated into English from 1706-1721. I own a very old hardback copy of the entire work, but it is 1,500 pages, and have not tackled it yet. It is, however, one of my goals. I have read, Kai Lung's Golden Hours by the English author, Ernest Bramah—a Chinese imitation of the above, and it too involves the story-teller saving his own hide! Bramah wrote a whole set of them.
    In this collection, however, no one's life is at stake except the characters in the first two novellas. However, they (vaguely) follow the theme of an Arabian storyteller. The other stories are just plain stories. The first one is The Suicide Club, an edge-of-the-seat thriller in three short stories that I read as an independent Dover edition back in 2014, so I won't include it here. Here is my original review.
    The next one, The Rajah's Diamond, is made up of four short stories, and the last one includes the star of the previous set, Prince Florizel. This set, however, is more of a humorous nature; actually what could be referred to as "slapstick," and I really did not like the ending! I will tell just a bit about each story. In the first, ""The Story of the Bandbox," we meet Mr. Harry Hartley, a young, educated screw-up totally unfit for work, who ends up getting a job as private secretary to Major-General Sir Thomas Vandeleur, C.B..

   Sir Thomas was a man of sixty, loud-spoken, boisterous, and domineering. For some reason, some service the nature of which had been often whispered and repeatedly denied, the Rajah of Kashgar had presented this officer with the sixth known diamond of the world. The gift transformed General Vandeleur from a poor into a wealthy man, from an obscure and unpopular soldier into one of the lions of London society; the possessor of the Rajah's Diamond was welcome in the most exclusive circles; and he had found a lady, young, beautiful, and well-born, who was willing to call the diamond hers even at the price of marriage with Sir Thomas Vandeleur. It was commonly said at the time that, as like draws to like, one jewel had attracted another; certainly Lady Vandeleur was not only a gem of the finest water in her own person, but she showed herself to the world in a very costly setting; and she was considered by many respectable authorities, as one among the three or four best dressed women in England.

    Ok, so the young lady married the General for his money, then proceeded to spend it all. As for Harry, being allergic to work, he ends up getting fired, but by this time, being so much better at attending to the Lady's needs (and being enamored of her), she hires him to—well—do her dirty work, which in this particular case involves delivering a bandbox containing her husband's jewels including The Rajah's Diamond. He is not aware of the crime in which he's involved, however, until he has a little accident in an attempt to escape from a chase, the result of a brawl between the General, who demands the box, and Lady Vandeleur's brother, who just "happens to show up." He fears them both, and leaps over a garden fence, accidentally crushing the box, spilling the contents in the garden. Things get quite wild from here on, with Harry now being accused of theft by the landlord of the house whose garden he has defiled with a bandbox filled with jewels. The landlord says he won't tell, if they divide the loot equally, which he proceeds to do, despite Harry explaining he did not steal them. There is a young clergyman also present, who recognizes Harry (which would have proved he was telling the truth), but Harry denies it is he.
    The young man in holy orders, however, catches a glimpse of the jewels, and later realizes The Rajah's Diamond still lies there. He suddenly loses track of his vocation, and steals it. He is the subject of the second tale, "Story of the Young Man in Holy Orders." Incidentally, the Lady and the General end their marriage from hell, and both are disgusted with Harry, who actually is believed when he tells his story to the police and assists in recovering the scattered lost jewels, ending up marrying a maid and living happily ever after, I guess.
    So we pick up the activities of The Reverend Mr. Simon Rolles.

   The Reverend Mr. Simon Rolles had distinguished himself in the Moral Sciences, and was more than usually proficient in the study of Divinity. His essay "On the Christian Doctrine of the Social Obligations" obtained for him, at the moment of its production, a certain celebrity in the University of Oxford; and it was understood in clerical and learned circles that young Mr. Rolles had in contemplation a considerable work—a folio, it was said—on the authority of the Fathers of the Church. These attainments, these ambitious designs, however, were far from helping him to any preferment; and he was still in quest of his first curacy when a chance ramble in that part of London, the peaceful and rich aspect of the garden, a desire for solitude and study, and the cheapness of the lodging, led him to take up his abode with Mr. Raeburn, the nurseryman of Stockdove Lane.

    Alas, he chooses a life of crime rather than a life a divinity. But he knows little of the world. He is advised that he should be in a certain club at a certain time, where he will encounter Prince Florizel and a former dictator, who is a scoundrel and also a collector of diamonds. It turns out it is the General's brother who equally wants to steal the diamond (though the Reverend is unaware at first). He embarks on an adventure, actually he flees, but, to his dismay, who should he find as a traveling companion but Vandeleur. Of course, he fears for his life until he spies on the man, and realizes he has something equally secret and he is equally anxious. The two team up for a life of crime, and we meet them in the next story.
    In "Story of the House with the Green Blinds," we meet a young gentleman of high regard, who has risen in his profession with high prospects.

   Francis Scrymgeour, a clerk in the Bank of Scotland at Edinburgh, had attained the age of twenty-five in a sphere of quiet, creditable, and domestic life. His mother died while he was young; but his father, a man of sense and probity, had given him an excellent education at school, and brought him up at home to orderly and frugal habits. Francis, who was of a docile and affectionate disposition, profited by these advantages with zeal, and devoted himself heart and soul to his employment. A walk upon Saturday afternoon, an occasional dinner with members of his family, and a yearly tour of a fortnight in the Highlands or even on the continent of Europe, were his principal distractions, and, he grew rapidly in favour with his superiors, and enjoyed already a salary of nearly two hundred pounds a year, with the prospect of an ultimate advance to almost double that amount. Few young men were more contented, few more willing and laborious than Francis Scrymgeour. Sometimes at night, when he had read the daily paper, he would play upon the flute to amuse his father, for whose qualities he entertained a great respect.

    However, one day he receives an invitation from a reputable firm, to which he submits. He is told an offer has been made to him which includes 500 pounds a year, with only two provisions. He "must be in Paris by the afternoon of Sunday, the 15th; there you will find, at the box-office of the Comédie Française, a ticket for admission taken in your name and waiting you. You are requested to sit out the whole performance in the seat provided, and that is all." And the second is that a bride has been chosen for him. The lawyer of the firm says that had the person who had delivered this request not been one of high reputation, he would not have taken it seriously. When Francis asks the lawyer if he has any idea who is behind it, the reply is that it is probably his father. And it is here that he learns the man he had called "Father" all his life is not his biological father.
    So, he agrees to go to Paris to investigate, and though he doesn't take up a life of crime, his attitude, like that of Reverend Rolles, also changes. His investigations lead him to a certain man—the General's brother, who lives in the house with the green blinds with his beautiful daughter. But it is not he that made the marriage arrangements, it is the General himself, and I don't want to give any more away, but I will just mention that Francis sticks his nose into business that would have been better left alone, and soon finds himself being pursued for the purpose of murder. Oh, and, the daughter finds that she likes him, and, em, slips something into his hand as he flees. He has no idea what it is, but we do, eh?
    And the in the last story, "The Adventure of Prince Florizel and a Detective" the Prince himself gets involved and now finds he has the object of value, and knows not what to do with it. He wants to do the right thing, but gosh, this object has a lot of power over people!
    In the next story, which has nine chapters, we encounter a very strange and dangerous situation. The Pavilion on the Links, though not part of the "Arabian Nights" theme, is still written in the form of story-telling, in this case, an elderly widower telling his son how he met his mother. And it doesn't take place on a golf course! It takes place on the estate of Graden Easter, in Scotland, owned by R. Northmour, Esquire.

   The country, I have said, was mixed sand-hill and links; links being a Scottish name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf. The Pavilion stood on an even space; a little behind it, the wood began in a hedge of elders huddled together by the wind; in front, a few tumbled sand-hills stood between it and the sea. An outcropping of rock had formed a bastion for the sand, so that there was here a promontory in the coast-line between two shallow bays; and just beyond the tides, the rock again cropped out and formed an islet of small dimensions but strikingly designed. The quicksands were of great extent at low water, and had an infamous reputation in the country. Close in shore, between the islet and the promontory, it was said they would swallow a man in four minutes and a half; but there may have been little ground for this precision. The district was alive with rabbits, and haunted by gulls which made a continual piping about the pavilion. On summer days the outlook was bright and even gladsome; but at sundown in September, with a high wind, and a heavy surf rolling in close along the links, the place told of nothing but dead mariners and sea disaster. A ship beating to windward on the horizon, and a huge truncheon of wreck half buried in the sands at my feet, completed the innuendo of the scene.

    The narrator, whose name we eventually learn is Frank Cassilis, is a loner, a wanderer, a misanthropist. He lives for a while with this man he knew from college, the only person with whom he was on "private terms." He, too, avoided society, and so the two got along, although they could hardly have been described as "friends." The big difference with Northmour was that he had a violent temper, which erupted once between the two of them. Frank left, and did not return to the area for nine years.
    He was camping with just his horse in a place where he could observe the pavilion, which seemed to be deserted. After a frugal meal of oatmeal and a few hours sleep, he awakened to see lights flickering from different windows in the pavilion. He at first wonders if thieves have broken in, but decides that Northmour has simply returned home. The next day he decides to surprise him, in fact to play a joke on him which was probably not wise. But he is once again perplexed to find that the place is deserted. He carefully breaks in and is even more curious to find that the table has been set for three.
    He returns to his camp to eat. I want to point out that the weather in this part of Scotland is brutal with cold rain and winds and dangerous seas, not to mention quicksand that is deadly to those unaware. Frank is able to notice two things: one is that the old deaf and silent nurse from the manor house has been taking care of preparations for Northmour's arrival. And he can see the yacht in the distance.

   Some time before eleven, while the tide was still dangerously low, a boat's lantern appeared close in shore; and, my attention being thus awakened, I could perceive another still far to seaward, violently tossed, and sometimes hidden by the billows. The weather, which was getting dirtier as the night went on, and the perilous situation of the yacht upon a lee shore, had probably driven them to attempt a landing at the earliest possible moment.

    Soon after, boats begin to arrive with heavy trunks. Then an old man and a beautiful young lady disembark from a boat, followed by Northmour. Frank makes the bad decision to startle Northmour, which nearly got him killed with a dagger. He escaped and ran.
    He decides to remain where he is camped, and observe—well, actually spy—on his former acquaintance, and he learns of the terrible situation the three people are in. This, not through Northmour, but through the young lady, whose name is Clara Huddlestone. The old man who was with her is her father, a corrupt banker who caused thousands of people to lose all their wealth. But it is the Italian "Carbonari" who are out for revenge. I looked that word up, and it is described as "secret revolutionary societies," by Wikipedia, but in the story they sounded more like the mafia. And to make matters worse, Mr. Huddlestone has escaped with some of his own wealth, unwilling to use it to pay back those he defrauded. Northmour has agreed to provide them with safety, being repaid with Clara for his wife.
     But none of it happens. She and Frank fall in love at first site, and from then on he refers to her as his wife. He eventually goes to the Pavilion to help guard them, but to no avail. And Huddlestone is not even remotely likeable. Northmour would just as soon see him dead, especially since he now realizes the deal with Clara is falling apart.

   "Oh, he!" cried the other; "he's a rancid fellow, as far as he goes. I should like to have his neck wrung to-morrow by all the devils in Italy. I am not in this affair for him. You take me? I made a bargain for Missy's hand, and I mean to have it too."

    In any case, this one is a thriller, quite equal to Stevenson's later works. Wikipedia says, "The story was considered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890 as "the high-water mark of [Stevenson's] genius" and "the first short story in the world". Along with a number of other stories it was collected in a volume entitled New Arabian Nights in 1882. This collection is seen as the starting point for the history of the English short story by Barry Menikoff. Below is an illustration from the 1913 edition by Gordon Browne.

An illustration by Gordon Browne

    I will just provide a short summary of the last three works. Two are single-chapter stories that take place in Medieval France. In A Lodging for the Night, we meet Francis (François) Villon, a poor poet who was also involved in criminal activity. According to Wikipedia, he was "the best known French poet of the Late Middle Ages. He was involved in criminal behavior and had multiple encounters with law enforcement authorities. Villon wrote about some of these experiences in his poems." This page mentions a "scuffle" in which Villon kills another man after the man attacked him first. In the story, the scuffle happens between two other men, but, having witnessed it, Villon flees. He finds refuge in the house of an elderly and honorable knight. Villon is fed and treated hospitably, telling the knight he is a thief (as he eyes up the valuables in the room). The knight tries to urge him to repent, but in the end realizes it is for naught.

   The old man stretched out his right arm. "I will tell you what you are," he said. "You are a rogue, my man, an impudent and a black-hearted rogue and vagabond. I have passed an hour with you. Oh! believe me, I feel myself disgraced! And you have eaten and drunk at my table. But now I am sick at your presence; the day has come, and the night-bird should be off to his roost. Will you go before, or after?
   "Which you please," returned the poet, rising. "I believe you to be strictly honourable." He thoughtfully emptied his cup. "I wish I could add you were intelligent," he went on, knocking on his head with his knuckles. "Age, age! the brains stiff and rheumatic."
   The old man preceded him from a point of self-respect; Villon followed, whistling, with his thumbs in his girdle.
   "God pity you," said the lord of Brisetout at the door.
   "Good-bye, papa," returned Villon with a yawn. "Many thanks for the cold mutton."
   The door closed behind him. The dawn was breaking over the white roofs. A chill, uncomfortable morning ushered in the day. Villon stood and heartily stretched himself in the middle of the road.
   "A very dull old gentleman," he thought. "I wonder what his goblets may be worth."

    The second single-chapter story is The Sire de Malétroit's Door. It takes place in Burgundy during the Hundred Years War, and is about a young cavalier who has already gained respect. Though it is dangerous, Denis de Beaulieu goes to visit a friend. He loses track of time, and when he finally leaves, it is late and dark and the streets are being patrolled. Not knowing the area, he gets lost and is in a panic. He jumps onto a porch, and to his surprise, the door noiselessly opens. He steps inside, but when he tries to leave, he discovers he is a prisoner. He follows a light, only to enter a room where Alain, Sire de Malétroit greets him, calls him "nephew," and says he has been expecting him.
    Thinking it is all a horrible mistake, Denis tries to explain. It does no good. Because Sire de Malétroit's niece has planned a clandestine meeting, and her uncle has found out. Therefore, when Denis shows up, there is nothing either she or he can say to convince the uncle it is all a mistake. It doesn't matter. He is given the choice of marrying his niece, Blanche, or being executed. He has two hours in which to decide. Fortunately, in those two hours the young couple fall in love . . . . Oh, my. I guess this was meant as very dark humor but it is a horrible story! I did not find reference to any of these characters being historical as the story above, but certainly the Hundred Years War was!
    The last story is in six chapters and is definitely humorous. In Providence and the Guitar, we meet Monsieur Léon Berthelini, a failed actor who takes to the streets with his guitar and comic song.

   Monsieur Léon Berthelini had a great care of his appearance, and sedulously suited his deportment to the costume of the hour. He affected something Spanish in his air, and something of the bandit, with a flavour of Rembrandt at home. In person he was decidedly small and inclined to be stout; his face was the picture of good humour; his dark eyes, which were very expressive, told of a kind heart, a brisk, merry nature, and the most indefatigable spirits. If he had worn the clothes of the period you would have set him down for a hitherto undiscovered hybrid between the barber, the innkeeper, and the affable dispensing chemist. But in the outrageous bravery of velvet jacket and flapped hat, with trousers that were more accurately described as fleshings, a white handkerchief cavalierly knotted at his neck, a shock of Olympian curls upon his brow, and his feet shod through all weathers in the slenderest of Molière shoes—you had but to look at him and you knew you were in the presence of a Great Creature. When he wore an overcoat he scorned to pass the sleeves; a single button held it round his shoulders; it was tossed backwards after the manner of a cloak, and carried with the gait and presence of an Almaviva. I am of opinion that M. Berthelini was nearing forty. But he had a boy's heart, gloried in his finery, and walked through life like a child in a perpetual dramatic performance. If he were not Almaviva after all, it was not for lack of making believe. And he enjoyed the artist's compensation. If he were not really Almaviva, he was sometimes just as happy as though he were.

    His wife, Madame Berthelini, who has a tendency to be melancholy, has a beautiful voice and joins him in their act. The two are deeply in love.

   Madame Berthelini, who was art and part with him in these undignified labours, had perhaps a higher position in the scale of beings, and enjoyed a natural dignity of her own. But her heart was not any more rightly placed, for that would have been impossible; and she had acquired a little air of melancholy, attractive enough in its way, but not good to see like the wholesome, sky-scraping, boyish spirits of her lord.

    Well it happens that their next gig is in a town in which Monsieur has "bad premonitions." "Elvira," said he to his wife, "mark my words: Castel-le-Gâchis is a tragic folly." And he is right, because absolutely everything goes wrong! However, Léon is not to be rattled and finds ways to make the best of a bad situation. And in the meantime, he meets up with other people, whose lives are possibly changed in positive ways. Or not.
    This is a highly entertaining set of stories and reading is a breeze! Stevenson was certainly a great storyteller. You can read all my reviews of his works on his Index Page.

Click here

All material on this site copyright © 2022 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.