Frances Sheridan, from The History of Nourjahad

[Click on image to enlarge] Frances Sheridan (1724–1766), mother of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and several other memorable comedies, is remembered chiefly for The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), an epistolary "novel of sensibility" in the manner of her friend Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, and a highly successful sentimental comedy, The Discovery, produced by Garrick in 1763. Her one attempt in the genre of the Oriental tale, The History of Nourjahad, was published posthumously in 1767 and enjoyed considerable popularity in a succession of English editions as well as translations into French, Russian, and Polish. A musical version, Illusion, or the Trances of Nourjahad, staged at Drury Lane in November 1813, was attributed to Byron (whose Giaour was just then going into its seventh edition since initial publication in June).

The plot of Sheridan's highly moral tale is incredibly complicated. Young Schemzeddin, the new ruler of Persia, wishes to appoint his friend Nourjahad as First Minister but meets objections from his advisers, who consider Nourjahad too young, frivolous, and irreligious for the office. Nourjahad confirms their opinion by telling Schemzeddin that the things he most desires are inexhaustible riches and everlasting life — a statement that he retracts when he sees Schemzeddin's displeasure. Schemzeddin devises an elaborate trick to test Nourjahad's true character, giving him the riches that he wants and what is made to appear (by the use of drugs and some elaborate stagings by Nourjahad's household and harem) an endless life. A series of experiences teaches Nourjahad the vanity of his desire, and he is humbled — and restored to good standing with his ruler — at the end.

The paragraphs extracted here occur near the beginning of the story, when Nourjahad awakens to realize that he was foolish to tell Schemzeddin his desires but also that he does in fact crave the extravagances he described. The male "youth of more than mortal beauty," claiming to be his guardian genius, is in fact Mandana, his favorite woman among the harem, in disguise, and this encounter is the first of a long series of deceptions (of Nourjahad and the reader) by which he is taught his lesson.

 

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[Click on image to enlarge] Nourjahad awoke in agonies: "Oh heaven," cried he aloud, "that I could now inherit the secret wish I was fool enough to disclose to thee, how little should I regard thy threats!" "And thou shalt, Oh Nourjahad," replied a voice, "possess the utmost wishes of thy soul!" Nourjahad started up in his bed, and rubbed his eyes, doubting whether he was really awake, or whether it was not his troubled imagination which cheated him with this delusive promise; when behold! to his unutterable astonishment, he saw a refulgent light in his chamber, and at his bed's side stood a youth of more than mortal beauty. The lustre of his white robes dazzled his eyes; his long and shining hair was incircled with a wreath of flowers that breathed the odours of paradise.

Nourjahad gazed at him, but had not power to open his mouth. "Be not afraid," said the divine youth, with a voice of ineffable sweetness; "I am thy guardian genius, who have carefully watched over thee from thy infancy, though never till this hour have I been permitted to make myself visible to thee. I was present at thy conversation in the garden with Schemzeddin, I was a witness to thy unguarded declaration, but found thee afterwards awed by his frowns to retract what thou hadst said: I saw too the rigour of the sultan's looks as he departed from thee, and know that they proceeded from his doubting thy truth. I, though an immortal spirit, am not omniscient; to God only are the secrets of the heart revealed; speak boldly then, thou highly favoured of our prophet, and know that I have power from Mahomet to grant thy request, be it what it will. Wouldst thou be restored to the favour and confidence of thy master, and receive from his friendship and generosity the reward of thy long attachment to him, or dost thou really desire the accomplishment of that extravagant wish, which thou didst in the openness of thy heart avow to him last night?"

Nourjahad, a little recovered from his amazement, and encouraged by the condescension of his celestial visitant, bowed his head low in token of adoration.

"Disguise to thee, Oh son of paradise," replied he, "were vain and fruitless; if I dissembled to Schemzeddin it was in order to reinstate myself in his good opinion, the only means in my power to secure my future prospects: from thee I can have no reason to conceal my thoughts; and since the care of my happiness is consigned to thee my guardian angel, let me possess that wish, extravagant as it may seem, which I first declared."

"Rash mortal," replied the shining vision, "reflect once more, before you receive the fatal boon; for once granted, you will wish perhaps, and wish in vain, to have it recalled." "What have I to fear," answered Nourjahad, "possessed of endless riches and of immortality?" "Your own passions," said the heavenly youth. "I will submit to all the evils arising from them," replied Nourjahad, "give me but the power of gratifying them in their full extent." "Take thy wish then," cried the genius, with a look of discontent. "The contents of this vial will confer immortality on thee, and tomorrow's sun shall behold thee richer than all the kings of the East." Nourjahad stretched his hands out eagerly to receive a vessel of gold, enriched with precious stones, which the angel took from under his mantle. "Stop," cried the aerial being, "and hear the condition, with which thou must accept the wondrous gift I am now about to bestow. Know then, that your existence here shall equal the date of this sublunary globe; yet to enjoy life all that while, is not in my power to grant." Nourjahad was going to interrupt the celestial, to desire him to explain this, when he prevented him, by proceeding thus: "Your life," said he, "will be frequently interrupted by the temporary death of sleep." "Doubtless," replied Nourjahad, "nature would languish without that sovereign balm." "Thou misunderstandest me," cried the genius; "I do not mean that ordinary repose which nature requires: The sleep thou must be subject to, at certain periods, will last for months, years, nay, for a whole revolution of Saturn at a time, or perhaps for a century." "Frightful!" cried Nourjahad, with an emotion that made him forget the respect which was due to the presence of his guardian angel. He seemed suspended, while the radiant youth proceeded; "It is worth considering, resolve not too hastily." "If the frame of man," replied Nourjahad, "in the usual course of things, requires for the support of that short span of life which is allotted to him, a constant and regular portion of sleep, which includes at least one third of his existence, my life, perhaps, stretched so much beyond its natural date, may require a still greater proportion of rest, to preserve my body in due health and vigour. If this be the case, I submit to the conditions; for what is thirty or fifty years out of eternity?" "Thou art mistaken," replied the genius; "and though thy reasoning is not unphilosophical, yet is it far from reaching the true cause of these mysterious conditions which are offered thee; know that these are contingencies which depend entirely on thyself." "Let me beseech you," said Nourjahad, "to explain this." "If thou walkest," said the genius, "in the paths of virtue, thy days will be crowned with gladness, and the even tenor of thy life undisturbed by any evil; but if, on the contrary, thou pervertest the good which is in thy power, and settest thy heart on iniquity, thou wilt thus be occasionally punished by a total privation of thy faculties." "If this be all," cried Nourjahad, "then I am sure I shall never incur the penalty; for though I mean to enjoy all the pleasures that life can bestow, yet am I a stranger to my own heart, if it ever lead me to the wilful commission of a crime." The genius sighed. "Vouchsafe then," proceeded Nourjahad, "vouchsafe, I conjur you, most adorable and benign spirit, to fulfil your promise, and keep me not longer in suspence." Saying this, he again reached forth his hand for the golden vessel, which the genius no longer withheld from him. "Hold thy nostrils over that vial," said he, "and let the fumes of the liquor which it contains ascend to thy brain." Nourjahad opened the vessel, out of which a vapour issued of a most exquisite fragrance; it formed a thick atmosphere about his head, and sent out such volatile and sharp effluvia, as made his eyes smart exceedingly, and he was obliged to shut them whilst he snuffed up the essence. He remained not long in this situation, for the subtle spirit quickly evaporating, the effects instantly ceased, and he opened his eyes; but the apparition was vanished, and his apartment in total darkness. Had not he still found the vial in his hands, which contained the precious liquor, he would have looked on all this as a dream; but so substantial a proof of the reality of what had happened, leaving no room for doubts, he returned thanks to his guardian genius, whom he concluded, though invisible, to be still within hearing, and putting the golden vessel under his pillow, filled as he was with the most delightful ideas, composed himself to sleep.

The sun was at his meridian height when he awoke next day; and the vision of the preceding night immediately recurring to his memory, he sprung hastily from his bed; but how great was his surprize, how high his transports, at seeing the accomplishment of the genius's promise! His chamber was surrounded with several large urns of polished brass, some of which were filled with gold coin of different value and impressions; others with ingots of fine gold; and others with precious stones of prodigious size and lustre.

Amazed, enraptured at the sight, he greedily examined his treasures, and looking into each of the urns one after the other, in one of them he found a scroll of paper, with these words written on it.

"I have fulfilled my promise to thee, Oh Nourjahad. Thy days are without number, thy riches inexhaustible, yet cannot I exempt thee from the evils to which all the sons of Adam are subject. I cannot screen thee from the machinations of envy, nor the rapaciousness of power: thy own prudence must henceforth be thy guard. There is a subterraneous cave in thy garden where thou mayst conceal thy treasure: I have marked the place, and thou wilt easily find it. Farewel, my charge is at an end."

"And well hast thou acquitted thyself of this charge, most munificent and benevolent genius," cried Nourjahad; "ten thousand thanks to thee for this last friendly warning; I should be a fool indeed if I had not sagacity enough to preserve myself against rapaciousness or envy; I will prevent the effects of the first, by concealing thee, my precious treasure, thou source of all felicity, where no mortal shall discover thee; and for the other, my bounty shall disarm it of its sting. Enjoy thyself, Nourjahad, riot in luxurious delights, and laugh at Schemzeddin's impotent resentment."

He hastened down into his garden, in order to find the cave, of which he was not long in search. In a remote corner, stood the ruins of a small temple, which in former days, before the true religion prevailed in Persia, had been dedicated to the worship of the Gentiles. The vestiges of this little building were so curious, that they were suffered to remain, as an ornament, where they stood. It was raised on a mount, and according to the custom of idolaters, surrounded with shady trees. On a branch of one of these, Nourjahad perceived hanging a scarf of fine white taffety, to which was suspended a large key of burnished steel.

Nourjahad's eager curiosity soon rendered his diligence successful, in finding the door, to which this belonged; it was within-side the walls of the temple, and under what formerly seemed to have been the altar. He descended by a few steps into a pretty spacious cavern, and by groping about, for there was scarce any light, he judged it large enough to contain his treasures.

Whether his guardian genius had contrived it purely for his use, or whether it had been originally made for some other purpose, he did not trouble himself to enquire; but glad to have found so safe a place, in which to deposite his wealth, he returned to his house; and having given orders that no visitors should approach him, he shut himself up in his chamber for the rest of the day, in order to contemplate his own happiness, and without interruption, to lay down plans of various pleasures and delights for ages to come. * * *


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