The Fountain of Bahchisaráy - extract from my translation

The Fountain of Bahchisaráy

Life in the palace harem, from pages 166-167:

        [The khan’s] timid wives did not venture a thought or a wish: they blossomed in melancholy passivity.  Under the cold and watchful eye of their guards, in a security that was monotonous and unstimulating, it did not occur to them to be unfaithful.  Their attractions were hidden away in the protective shadow of their prison, like exotic blooms growing behind the glass of a hothouse.  For them days, months, years passed in dismal succession, imperceptibly stealing away their youth and their love.  Every day was the same, its hours flowing sluggishly by.  It was idleness that governed life in the harem: the sparkle of enjoyment was rare.  The young wives tried to distract themselves in whatever ways they could: they kept changing gorgeous dresses; they started games; they struck up conversations; or they strolled in loose clusters by the clear streams, listening to the sound of flowing waters in the cool shade of the dense plane-trees. 

        Among them walked an embittered eunuch.  To evade him was pointless: every hour of the day he kept eye and ear jealously trained on all of them.  His task was to keep order at all times.  The khan’s wishes were his only law; he observed them as strictly as the holy precepts of the Koran.  He had no inner craving for love.  Impassive as a statue, he put up with jeers, tirades, reproaches, offensive and indecent jokes, contempt, entreaties, demure looks, stifled sighs and weary groans.  He well knew the ways of women: he had learned by experience how artful they were in freedom and captivity alike.  A tender look, a silent protest of tears, had no power to move his heart; he had ceased to give them any credence.

        When the young captives shook out their loose tresses and went for a bathe in the heat of the day, letting the freshly running water stream over the magical beauty of their figures, he was there, keeping constant watch over their recreations.  But he was indifferent to the sight of this hive of naked charmers. 

        In the dark of night he would wander through the harem with silent tread.  Stepping softly over the carpets, he crept up to doors that opened at his touch, and walked from bed to bed.  Forever on duty, he would observe the khan’s wives in sumptuous slumber and eavesdrop on their nocturnal murmurings.  A deep breath, a sigh, a faintest tremor – avidly he marked it all; and woe to anyone who whispered a stranger’s name in her sleep or who confided depraved thoughts to an attentive friend!