The Miracle Of Zobeide
: VILLIERS DE L'ISLE ADAM
Always wise and prudent, Zobeide cautiously put aside the myrtle
branches and peeped through to see who were the persons talking by the
fountain in the cool shadow of the pink sandstone wall. And when she
saw that it was only the Rev. John Feathercock, her lord and master,
discoursing as usual with Mohammed-si-Koualdia, she went toward them
frankly but slowly.
When she was quite near she stopped, and from
the light that played in
her deep black eyes you would have thought that surely she was
listening with the deepest attention. But the truth is that with all
her little brain, with all her mouth, and with all her stomach, she was
craving the yellow and odorous pulp of a melon which had been cut open
and put on the table near two tall glasses half filled with snowy
sherbet. For Zobeide was a turtle of the ordinary kind found in the
grass of all the meadows around the city of Damascus.
As she waited, Mohammed continued his story:
"And, as I tell you, O reverend one abounding in virtues, this lion
which still lives near Tabariat, was formerly a strong lion, a
wonderful lion, a lion among lions! To-day, even, he can strike a camel
dead with one blow of his paw, and then, plunging his fangs into the
spine of the dead animal, toss it upon his shoulders with a single
movement of his neck. But unfortunately, having one day brought down a
goat in the chase by simply blowing upon it the breath of his nostrils,
the lion was inflated with pride and cried: 'There is no god but God,
but I am as strong as God. Let him acknowledge it!' Allah, who heard
him, Allah, the All-powerful, said in a loud voice, 'O lion of
Tabariat, try now to carry off thy prey!' Then the lion planted his
great teeth firmly in the spine of the animal, right under the ears,
and attempted to throw it on his back. Onallahi! It was as though he
had tried to lift Mount Libanus, and his right leg fell lamed to the
ground. And the voice of Allah still held him, declaring: 'Lion,
nevermore shalt thou kill a goat!' And it has remained thus to this
day: the lion of Tabariat has still all his old-time power to carry off
camels, but he can never do the slightest harm to even a new-born kid.
The goats of the flocks dance in front of him at night, deriding him to
his face, and always from that moment his right leg has been stiff and
"Mohammed," said the Rev. Mr. Feathercock contemptuously, "these are
stories fit only for babies."
"How, then!" replied Mohammed-si-Koualdia. "Do you refuse to believe
that God is able to do whatever he may wish, that the world itself is
but a perpetual dream of God's and that, in consequence, God may change
this dream at will? Are you a Christian if you deny the power of the
"I am a Christian," replied the clergyman with a trace of
embarrassment; "but for a long time we have been obliged to admit, we
pastors of the civilized Church of the Occident, that God would not be
able, without belying himself, to change the order of things which he
established when he created the universe. We consider that faith in
miracles is a superstition which we must leave to the monks of the
Churches of Rome and of Russia, and also to your Mussulmans who live in
ignorance of the truth. And it is in order to teach you this truth that
I have come here to your country, and at the same time to fight against
the pernicious political influence exerted by these same Romish and
Greek monks of whom I have just been speaking."
"By invoking the name of Allah," responded Mohammed with intense
solemnity, "and by virtue of the collar-bone of the mighty Solomon, I
can perform great miracles. You see this turtle before us? I shall
cause it to grow each day the breadth of a finger!"
In saying these words he made a sudden movement of his foot toward
Zobeide, and Zobeide promptly drew her head into her shell.
"You claim to be able to work a miracle like that!" said the clergyman
scornfully. "You, Mohammed, a man immersed in sin, a Mussulman whom I
have seen drunk!"
"I was drunk," replied Mohammed calmly, "but not as drunk as others."
"So you think yourself able to force the power of Allah!" pursued Mr.
Feathercock, disdaining the interruption.
"I could do it without a moment's difficulty," said Mohammed.
Taking Zobeide in his hand he lifted her to the table. The frightened
turtle had again drawn in her head. Nothing could be seen but the
black-encircled golden squares of her shell against a background of
juicy melon pulp. Mohammed chanted:
"_Thou thyself art a miracle, O turtle! For thy head is the head of a
serpent, thy tail the tail of a water rat, thy bones are bird's bones
and thy covering is of stone; and yet thou knowest love as it is known
by men. And from thy eggs, O turtle of stone, other turtles come
"_Thou thyself art a miracle, O turtle! For one would say that thou
wert a shell, naught but a shell, and behold! thou art a beast that
eats. Eat of this melon, O turtle, and grow this night the length of my
nail, if Allah permit!_
"_And when thou hast grown by the breadth of a finger, O turtle, eat
further of this melon, or of its sister, another melon, and grow
further by the breadth of a finger until thou hast reached the size of
a mosque. Thou thyself art a miracle, O shell endowed with life!
Perform still another miracle, if Allah permit, if Allah permit!_"
Zobeide, reassured by the monotony of his voice, decided at last to
come out of her shell. First she showed the point of her little horny
nose, then her black eyes, her flat-pointed tail, and finally her
strong little claw-tipped feet. Seeing the melon, she made a gesture of
assent, and began to eat.
"Nothing in the world will happen!" remarked the Rev. John Feathercock
"Wait and see," answered Mohammed gravely. "I shall come back
The next morning he returned, measured Zobeide with his fingers and
"She has grown!"
"Do you imagine you can make me believe such a thing?" cried Mr.
"It is written in the Koran," answered Mohammed: "'I swear by the rosy
glow which fills the air when the sun is setting, by the shades of the
night, and by the light of the moon, that ye shall all change, in
substance and in size!' Allah has manifested himself; the size of this
turtle has changed. It will continue to change. Measure it yourself and
you will see."
Mr. Feathercock did measure Zobeide, and was forced to admit that she
had indeed grown the breadth of a finger. He became thoughtful.
Thus day by day Zobeide grew in size, in vigor and in appetite. At
first she had only been as big as a saucer, and took each day but a few
ounces of nourishment. Then she reached the size of a dessert plate,
then of a soup plate. With her strong beak she could split the rind of
a melon at a blow; distinctly could be heard the sound of her heavy
jaws as she crunched the sweet pulp of the fruits which she loved, and
which she devoured in great quantities. In one week she had grown so
tremendously that she was as big as a meat platter. The Rev. Mr.
Feathercock no longer dared to go near this monster, from whose eyes
seemed to glisten a look of deviltry. And, always and forever,
apparently devoured by a perpetual hunger, the monster ate.
The members of Mr. Feathercock's flock came to hear that he was keeping
in his house a turtle that had been enchanted in the name of Allah and
not by the power of the Occidental Divinity: this proved to be anything
but helpful to the evangelical labors of the clergyman. But he himself
refused steadily and obstinately to believe in the miracle, although
Mohammed-si-Koualdia had never set foot in the house since the day when
he had invoked the charm. He remained outside the grounds, seated at
the door of a little cafe, plunged in meditation or in dreams, and
consuming hashish in large quantities. At the end of some time Mr.
Feathercock succeeded in persuading himself that what he was witnessing
was nothing more nor less than a perfectly simple and natural
phenomenon, perhaps not well understood hitherto, and due entirely to
the extraordinarily favorable action of melon pulp on the physical
development of turtles. He decided to cut off Zobeide's supply of
Finally there came a day when Mohammed, drunk with hashish, saw Hakem,
Mr. Feathercock's valet, returning from market with a large bunch of
fresh greens. He rose majestically, though with features distorted by
the drug, and followed the boy with hasty steps.
"Miserable one!" cried he to Mr. Feathercock. "Wretched worm, you have
tried to break the charm! Rejoice then, for you have succeeded and it
is broken. But let despair follow upon the heels of your rapture, for
it is broken in a way that you do not dream. Henceforth your turtle
shall _dwindle away_ day by day!"
The Rev. Mr. Feathercock tried to laugh, but he did not feel entirely
happy. On Sundays, at the services, the few faithful souls who remained
in his flock looked upon him with suspicion. At the English consulate
they spoke very plainly, telling him unsympathetically that anyone who
would make a friend of such a man as Mohammed-si-Koualdia and who would
mingle "promiscuously" with such rabble, need look for nothing but harm
Zobeide, when she was first confronted with the fresh, damp greens,
showed the most profound contempt for them. Unquestionably she
preferred melons. Mr. Feathercock applauded his own acumen. "She was
eating too much; that was the whole trouble," he said to himself. "And
that was what made her grow so remarkably. If she eats less she will
probably not grow so much. And if she should happen to die, I shall be
rid of her. Whatever comes, it will be for the best."
But the next day Zobeide gave up pouting and began very docilely to eat
the greens, and when the boy Hakem carried her next bunch to her he
"Effendi, she is growing smaller!"
The clergyman attempted to shrug his shoulders, but it was impossible
to disguise the fact from himself--Zobeide had certainly shrunk! And
within an hour all Damascus knew that Zobeide had shrunk. When Mr.
Feathercock went to the barber shop the Greek barber said to him, "Sir,
your turtle is no ordinary turtle!" When he went to call on Mrs.
Hollingshead, a lady who was always intensely interested in all
subjects that she failed to understand and who discussed them with a
beautiful freedom, she said to him: "Dear sir, your turtle. How
exciting it must be to watch it shrink! I am certainly coming to see it
myself." When he went to the Anglican Orphanage, all the little
Syrians, all the little Arabs, all the little Armenians, all the little
Jews, drew turtles in their copy-books, turtles of every size and every
description, the big ones walking behind the little ones, the tail of
each in the mouth of another, making an interminable line. And in the
street the donkey drivers, the water-carriers, the fishmongers, the
venders of broiled meats, of baked breads, of beans, of cream, all
cried: "Mister Turtle, Mister Turtle! Try our wares. Buy something for
your poor stubborn beast that is pining away!"
And, in truth, the turtle continued to shrink. She became again the
size of a soup plate, then of a dessert plate, then of a saucer, till
finally one morning there was nothing there but a little round thing,
tiny, frail, translucent, a spot about as big as a lady's watch, almost
invisible at the base of the fountain. And the next day--ah! the next
day there was nothing there, nothing whatever, neither turtle nor the
shadow of turtle, or more trace of a turtle than of an elephant in all
Mohammed-si-Koualdia had stopped taking hashish, because he was
saturated with it. But he remained all day long, huddled in a heap at
the door of the little cafe immediately opposite the clergyman's house,
his eyes enlarged out of all proportion, set in a face the color of
death, gave him the look of a veritable sorcerer. At this moment the
Rev. Mr. Feathercock was returning from a visit to the English consul
who had said to him coldly:
"All that I can tell you is that you have made an ass of yourself or,
as a Frenchman would say, played the donkey to hear yourself bray. The
best thing you can do is to go and hunt up a congregation somewhere
The Rev. John Feathercock accepted the advice with deference, and took
the train for Bayreuth. That same evening Mohammed-si-Koualdia betook
himself to the house of one Antonio, interpreter and public scribe, and
ordered him to translate into French the following letter, which he
dictated in Arabic. Afterwards he carried this letter to Father
Stephen, prior to the monastery of the Greek Hicrosolymites:
"May heaven paint your cheeks with the colors of health, most venerable
father, and may happiness reign in your heart! I have the honor to
inform you that the Rev. John Feathercock has just left for Bayreuth,
but that he has had put upon his trunks the address of a city called
Liverpool, which, I am informed, is in the kingdom of England; and
also, everything points to the belief that he will never return.
Therefore, I dare to hope that you will send me the second part of the
reward you agreed upon as well as a generous present for Hakem, Mr.
Feathercock's valet, who carried every day a new turtle to the house of
the clergyman, and carried away the old one under his cloak.
"I also pray you to tell your friends that I have for sale, at prices
exceptionally low, fifty-five turtles, all of different sizes, the last
and smallest of which is no larger than the watch of a European
_houri_. I have been at infinite pains to find them, and they have
served to prove to me with what exquisite care Allah fashions the
members of the least of His creatures and ornaments their bodies with
the most delicate designs."