Chapter 12 Summary

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“The continuation of the old woman’s misfortunes”

The old woman was surprised to hear her own language being spoken and even more surprised to hear the words the man spoke. She told him there are worse things than what he complained of and explained briefly the trials she had suffered before fainting. The man carried her to a nearby house where he cared for her and praised her beauty, again ruing his inability to function as a true man.

He explained that he was born in Naples where several thousand boys are castrated each year. Some die, some develop voices more beautiful than a woman’s, and some become politicians. This man became a great singer in the chapel of Her Highness the Princess of Palestrina. The old woman was stunned, as that was her mother’s chapel, and the man began to weep as he realized that she must be the young girl he tutored when she was six.

She told him everything that had happened to her and he shared his adventures. He had been sent to the Sultan of Morocco by a Christian nation in order to sign a treaty which would provide his king with gunpowder, cannons, and ships to help destroy the commerce of other Christian nations. The treaty has been signed, and the man was now preparing to return and offered to take her back to Italy. She wept with gratitude; however, the man took her to Algiers and sold her to the dey (governor) of the province.

The plague which had been sweeping through Africa, Asia, and Europe arrived in Algiers. The plague is much worse than an earthquake, and the old woman contracted it. It was a vile predicament for the daughter of a pope to, in only three months, endure poverty, slavery, being raped nearly every day, seeing her mother die, and hunger—only to be struck with the plague in Algiers. She did not die, but the eunuch and the dey both did, and almost the entire harem perished, as well.

After the first ravages of the plague passed, the dey’s slaves were sold. The old woman was bought by a trader who took her to Tunis where he sold her to another trader who resold her in Tripoli. In Tripoli she was sold as a slave to Smyrna and then to Constantinople where she became the property of an aga (commander) of the janissaries who soon had to lead his men in a battle against the Russians. The aga brought his harem with him, putting them in a safe position with twenty soldiers and two eunuchs to guard them.

The battle was fierce, and soon only the little fort of the harem was safe. The Russians laid siege, trying to starve them into surrendering. But the twenty soldiers had sworn to guard the women and never surrender. The soldiers grew so starved that they ate the eunuchs, and they determined to begin eating the women in a few more days. An imam, a “very kind and compassionate man,” gave a sermon in which he persuaded the soldiers not to eat the women. Instead, he suggested they chop off one buttock from each woman, enough to have a fine feast; if they need more food later, than could do the same thing again. Heaven would applaud their charity and they would be saved from damnation.

The sermon worked. The women underwent the horrifying ordeal, and then the imam smeared them with the same balm used when baby boys were circumcised. All of the women were nearly dead. Just as the soldiers finished their...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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feast, the Russians arrived and killed every soldier but paid no attention at all to the dire condition of the women. A French surgeon helped the women, and he offered the old woman some advice once her wounds were healed.

The rest of the women were sent to Moscow, but the old woman ended up as the gardener to a Russian nobleman who gave her twenty lashes a day. Two years later the nobleman was killed on the rack, and she took the opportunity to flee. She worked many years as a maid, wending her way across the country and “growing old in misery and disgrace.” She never forgot she was the daughter of a pope and, though she wanted to end her life many times, she was still in love with life, a foolish thing for one in her dire position, for she continued in her suffering.

She ended up as a maid to Don Issacar who appointed her as Cunégonde’s servant. She grew more connected to Cunégonde’s future than her own and only spoke of her misfortunes now because she was asked. She then reminds Cunégonde that everyone in life suffers.


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