Fiction > Montesquieu > Persian Letters
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Montesquieu (1689–1755).  Persian Letters.  1901.
 
Letter IX
The Chief Eunuch to Ibbi, at Erzeroum
 
YOU 1 follow your old master on his travels; you wander through provinces and kingdoms; no grief can make any impression on you; you see new sights all day long; everything you behold entertains you, and you are unconscious of the flight of time.  1
  It is not so with me. Shut up in a hideous prison, I am always surrounded by the same objects; there is no change even in what vexes me. Weighed down by fifty years of care and annoyance, I lament my wretched case: all my life long I have never passed a single untroubled day, or known a peaceful moment.  2
  When my first master formed the cruel design of intrusting his wives to my care, and induced me by flattering promises, supplemented by a thousand threats, to separate myself forever from my manhood, tired of the toilsome service in which I was engaged, I calculated that the sacrifice of my passions would be more than repaid by ease and wealth. How unfortunate was I! Preoccupied with the thought of the ills I would escape, I had no idea of the others to which I fled: I expected that the inability to satisfy love would secure me from its assaults. Alas! although passion had been rendered inefficient, its force remained unabated; and, far from being relieved, I found myself surrounded by objects which continually whetted my desires. When I entered the seraglio, where everything filled me with regret for what I had lost, my agitation increased each moment; a thousand natural charms seemed to unfold themselves to my sight only to tantalize me; and to crown my misery, I had constantly before me their fortunate possessor. While this wretched time lasted, I never led a woman to my master’s bed without feeling wild rage in my heart, and despair unutterable in my soul.  3
  And thus I passed my miserable youth, with no confidant but my own bosom. Wearied with longing and sad as night, there was nothing left but to endure in silence. I was forced to turn the sternest glances on those very women whom I would fain have regarded with looks of love. It would have undone me had they read my thoughts: how they would have tyrannized over me! I remember one day, as I attended a lady at the bath, I was so carried away that I lost command of myself, and dared to lay my hand where I should not. My first thought was that my last day had come. I was, however, fortunate enough to escape a dreadful death; but the fair one, whom I had made the witness of my weakness, extorted a heavy price for her silence: I entirely lost command of her, and she forced me, each time at the risk of my life, to comply with a thousand caprices.  4
  At length, the fire of youth burnt out, I grow old and become, in that particular, at peace with myself. Women I regard with indifference, I pay them back for all their contempt, and all the torments which I suffered through them. I never forget that I was born to command them, and in the exercise of my authority I feel as if I had recovered my lost manhood. I hate women now that I can regard them without passion, and detect and discuss all their weaknesses. Although I guard them for another, I experience a secret joy in making myself obeyed. When I take all their pleasures from them, I feel as if it were at my behest alone; and that always gives me satisfaction more or less direct. The seraglio is my empire; and my ambition, the only passion left me, finds no small gratification. I mark with pleasure that all depends on me, and that my presence is required at all times: I willingly incur the hatred of all these women, because that establishes me more firmly in my post. And they do not hate me for nothing, I can tell you: I interfere with their most innocent pleasures; I am always in the way, an insurmountable obstacle; before they know where they are they find their schemes frustrated; I am armed with refusals, I bristle with scruples; not a word is heard from me but duty, virtue, chastity, modesty. I make them desperate by dinning them with the weakness of their sex, and the authority of our master. Then I lament the necessity which requires me to be so severe, and lead them to believe that my only motives are their truest interests and my profound attachment to them.  5
  Do not suppose that in my turn I have not to suffer endless unpleasantness. Every day these women seek occasions to repay me with interest, and their reprisals 2 are often terrible. Between us there goes on a constant interchange of ascendancy and obedience. They are always putting me upon the meanest services; they affect a sublime contempt; and, regardless of my age, they force me to rise ten times during the night for the merest trifle. I am worn off my feet with endless commissions, orders, employments, and caprices; one would think that they take turn about in inventing occupations for me. They often amuse themselves by making me doubly vigilant; they give me imaginary confidences. Sometimes I am told that a young man has been seen prowling around the walls, or a startling noise has been heard, or some one is about to receive a letter. All this bothers me, and amuses them; they are delighted when they see me tormenting myself. Sometimes they station me behind the door, and keep me standing there night and day. They well know how to pretend to be ill, to swoon away, to be frightened out of their wits: they are never at a loss to work their will on me. When they are in this mood, implicit obedience, unquestioning compliance are my only resources: a refusal from such a man as I am would be a thing unheard of; and if I were to hesitate in obeying them, they would punish me at their discretion. I would sooner die, my dear Ibbi, than submit to such humiliation.  6
  But this is not all. I am never for an instant sure of my master’s favor; for each of his wives is an enemy who never ceases to hope for my ruin. They take advantage of certain snatches of time when I cannot be heard, when he can refuse them nothing, and when I am always in the wrong. I conduct to my master’s bed women whose spite is roused against me: do you imagine that they will move a finger in my behalf, or say a single word in my favor? I have everything to fear from their tears, their sighs, their embraces, from their very pleasures; it is their time of triumph; their charms are arrayed against me: their present services obliterate in a moment all those rendered by me in the past; and nothing can plead for me with a master who is no longer himself.  7
  Many a time I lie down high in my master’s favor, and awake to find myself disgraced. The day on which they whipped me so ignominiously round the seraglio, what had I done? I leave a woman in my master’s arms: when she sees him impassioned she bursts into a torrent of tears, and pours out complaints so skillfully that they become more anguished in proportion as the love she causes grows vehement. What could I do to defend myself at a crisis of that kind? When I least expected it, ruin overtook me; I was the victim of an amorous intrigue, of a treaty sealed with sighs. Behold, dear Ibbi, the wretched plight in which I have always lived.  8
  What happiness is yours! Your duties are confined to attendance on Usbek. It is easy for you to please him, and to retain his favor to your dying day.

  THE SERAGLIO AT ISPAHAN, the last day of the moon of Saphar, 1711.
  9
 
Note 1. This is the only letter to Ibbi, and there is only one FROM him, the XXXIX. He must not be confounded with Ibben, to whom many letters are addressed. [back]
Note 2. Revers in the original. M. Laboulaye asserts that Montesquieu is the only writer who uses revers in the sense of revanche; but Littré gives examples of a similar use of the word in Molière and Bossuet. [back]
 
 
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