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Chapter 12 – The Adventures of the Old Woman Continued

VoltaireNov 03, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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Astonished and delighted to hear my native language, and no less
surprised at the young man’s words, I told him that there were far
greater misfortunes in the world than what he complained of. And to
convince him of it, I gave him a short history of the horrible
disasters that had befallen me; and as soon as I had finished, fell
into a swoon again.

“He carried me in his arms to a neighboring cottage, where he had me
put to bed, procured me something to eat, waited on me with the
greatest attention, comforted me, caressed me, told me that he had
never seen anything so perfectly beautiful as myself, and that he
had never so much regretted the loss of what no one could restore to
him.

“‘I was born at Naples,’ said he, ‘where they make eunuchs of
thousands of children every year; some die of the operation; some
acquire voices far beyond the most tuneful of your ladies; and
others are sent to govern states and empires. I underwent this
operation very successfully, and was one of the singers in the
Princess of Palestrina’s chapel.’

“‘How,’ cried I, ‘in my mother’s chapel!’

“‘The Princess of Palestrina, your mother!’ cried he, bursting
into a flood of tears. ‘Is it possible you should be the beautiful
young princess whom I had the care of bringing up till she was six
years old, and who at that tender age promised to be as fair as I
now behold you?’

“‘I am the same,’ I replied. ‘My mother lies about a hundred yards
from here cut in pieces and buried under a heap of dead bodies.’

“I then related to him all that had befallen me, and he in return
acquainted me with all his adventures, and how he had been sent to the
court of the King of Morocco by a Christian prince to conclude a
treaty with that monarch; in consequence of which he was to be
furnished with military stores, and ships to destroy the commerce of
other Christian governments.

“‘I have executed my commission,’ said the eunuch; ‘I am going to
take ship at Ceuta, and I’ll take you along with me to Italy. Ma che
sciagura d’essere senza coglioni!’

“I thanked him with tears of joy, but, not withstanding, instead
of taking me with him to Italy, he carried me to Algiers, and sold
me to the Dey of that province. I had not been long a slave when the
plague, which had made the tour of Africa, Asia, and Europe, broke out
at Algiers with redoubled fury. You have seen an earthquake; but
tell me, miss, have you ever had the plague?”

“Never,” answered the young Baroness.

“If you had ever had it,” continued the old woman, “you would own an
earthquake was a trifle to it. It is very common in Africa; I was
seized with it. Figure to yourself the distressed condition of the
daughter of a Pope, only fifteen years old, and who in less than three
months had felt the miseries of poverty and slavery; had been
debauched almost every day; had beheld her mother cut into four
quarters; had experienced the scourges of famine and war; and was
now dying of the plague at Algiers. I did not, however, die of it; but
my eunuch, and the Dey, and almost the whole seraglio of Algiers, were
swept off.

“As soon as the first fury of this dreadful pestilence was over, a
sale was made of the Dey’s slaves. I was purchased by a merchant who
carried me to Tunis. This man sold me to another merchant, who sold me
again to another at Tripoli; from Tripoli I was sold to Alexandria,
from Alexandria to Smyrna, and from Smyrna to Constantinople. After
many changes, I at length became the property of an Aga of the
Janissaries, who, soon after I came into his possession, was ordered
away to the defense of Azoff, then besieged by the Russians.

“The Aga, being very fond of women, took his whole seraglio with
him, and lodged us in a small fort, with two black eunuchs and
twenty soldiers for our guard. Our army made a great slaughter among
the Russians; but they soon returned us the compliment. Azoff was
taken by storm, and the enemy spared neither age, sex, nor
condition, but put all to the sword, and laid the city in ashes. Our
little fort alone held out; they resolved to reduce us by famine.
The twenty janissaries, who were left to defend it, had bound
themselves by an oath never to surrender the place. Being reduced to
the extremity of famine, they found themselves obliged to kill our two
eunuchs, and eat them rather than violate their oath. But this
horrible repast soon failing them, they next determined to devour
the women.

“We had a very pious and humane man, who gave them a most
excellent sermon on this occasion, exhorting them not to kill us all
at once. ‘Cut off only one of the buttocks of each of those ladies,’
said he, ‘and you will fare extremely well; if you are under the
necessity of having recourse to the same expedient again, you will
find the like supply a few days hence. Heaven will approve of so
charitable an action, and work your deliverance.’

“By the force of this eloquence he easily persuaded them, and all of
us underwent the operation. The man applied the same balsam as they do
to children after circumcision. We were all ready to give up the
ghost.

“The Janissaries had scarcely time to finish the repast with which
we had supplied them, when the Russians attacked the place by means of
flat-bottomed boats, and not a single janissary escaped. The
Russians paid no regard to the condition we were in; but there are
French surgeons in all parts of the world, and one of them took us
under his care, and cured us. I shall never forget, while I live, that
as soon as my wounds were perfectly healed he made me certain
proposals. In general, he desired us all to be of a good cheer,
assuring us that the like had happened in many sieges; and that it was
perfectly agreeable to the laws of war.

“As soon as my companions were in a condition to walk, they were
sent to Moscow. As for me, I fell to the lot of a Boyard, who put me
to work in his garden, and gave me twenty lashes a day. But this
nobleman having about two years afterwards been broken alive upon
the wheel, with about thirty others, for some court intrigues, I
took advantage of the event, and made my escape. I traveled over a
great part of Russia. I was a long time an innkeeper’s servant at
Riga, then at Rostock, Wismar, Leipsic, Cassel, Utrecht, Leyden, The
Hague, and Rotterdam. I have grown old in misery and disgrace,
living with only one buttock, and having in perpetual remembrance that
I am a Pope’s daughter. I have been a hundred times upon the point
of killing myself, but still I was fond of life. This ridiculous
weakness is, perhaps, one of the dangerous principles implanted in our
nature. For what can be more absurd than to persist in carrying a
burden of which we wish to be eased? to detest, and yet to strive to
preserve our existence? In a word, to caress the serpent that
devours us, and hug him close to our bosoms till he has gnawed into
our hearts?

“In the different countries which it has been my fate to traverse,
and at the many inns where I have been a servant, I have observed a
prodigious number of people who held their existence in abhorrence,
and yet I never knew more than twelve who voluntarily put an end to
their misery; namely, three Negroes, four Englishmen, as many
Genevese, and a German professor named Robek. My last place was with
the Jew, Don Issachar, who placed me near your person, my fair lady;
to whose fortunes I have attached myself, and have been more concerned
with your adventures than with my own. I should never have even
mentioned the latter to you, had you not a little piqued me on the
head of sufferings; and if it were not customary to tell stories on
board a ship in order to pass away the time.

“In short, my dear miss, I have a great deal of knowledge and
experience in the world, therefore take my advice: divert yourself,
and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story, and if there is one
of them all that has not cursed his existence many times, and said
to himself over and over again that he was the most wretched of
mortals, I give you leave to throw me headfirst into the sea.”

 

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