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THE INTERIOR OF THE DUKE CHOW P'HAYA MANDTREE'S HAREM.
EVERY harem is a little world in itself, composed entirely of women, ó some who rule, others who obey, and those who serve. Here disinterestedness vanishes out of sight. Each one is for herself They are nearly all young women, but they have the appearance of being slightly blighted Nobody is too much in earnest, or too much alive, or too happy. The general atmosphere is that of depression. They are bound to have no thought for the world they have quitted, however pleasant it may have been; to ignore all ties and affections; to have no care but for one individual alone, and that the master. But if you became acquainted with some of these very women under favorable conditions, ó very rare, however, ó you might gather glimpses of recollections of the outer world, of earlier life and strong affections, of hearts scarred and disfigured and broken, of suppressed sighs and unuttered sobs, that would dispose you to melancholy reflections and sad forebodings, and, if you were by nature tender, to shedding of tears. Their dress and manners often betray all sorts of peculiarities, and yet all is harmonious outwardly. They are unconscious of the terrible defacement they have undergone. Yet it sometimes happens that this same little world has its greatness, and always when a woman becomes a mother her life changes; she passes from the ignoble to the noble; then she becomes pure, worthy, honorable.
The wall that surrounded the duke's palaces and temples enclosed also about five hundred houses, with gardens and artificial lakes and fountains and aviaries. Most of the houses were built of solid masonry, with here and there a theatre of carved wood; the streets were narrow, and the covered bazaars in no way remarkable except for the shops of female jewellers, gold and silversmiths. All the palaces and temples faced the river. The oldest Hindoo temple stood here, beside a Buddhist temple and monastery, from which the priests who officiated in the duke's household were supplied. The most remarkable edifice, however, was the duke's tower, or summer-house, of four lofty stories, opening all round into arches, made entirely of carved wood, and richly gilt. It commanded a magnificent view of the river, and overlooked more than one half of the city of Bangkok. When you mount the highest chamber, you open your eyes upon a scene too solemnly and mysteriously beautiful to be adequately described. You seem to be midway in the air, looking down upon a city of temples and palaces, gardens, lakes, minarets, pagodas and p'hra-chai-dees; thousands of boats glide noiselessly over the silver floor that winds on forever. The great height hushes out even the joyous voices that are hushed nowhere else. In the gloom at the upper end of the river many a boatman, perched on the prow of his boat, seems like the Angel of Death guiding some helpless passenger to the silent shore. And overhead the sky looks like some blue door, such as must lead straight into heaven.
In every ducal or royal harem there are a great many buildings designed and built for the express purpose of training and educating the women, and every girl has to go through certain forms and observances before she is admitted among the favored ones.
The female teachers, physicians, and judges, who are placed over them, generally receive a careful professional education, ó the best the country can supply. Mere children are often taken into these places and trained to be actresses, dancers, musicians, and singers.
Every department has a superintendent, who is generally a lady of high rank, and is responsible to the duke only.
The mode of teaching in the schools is peculiar; no books are used by the pupils, who are placed in rows, with female officers in attendance to administer the rattan in all cases of inattention. The teacher either reads or sings the first line of a poem, or plays the first bar of an air; the head pupil repeats it after her, and so on to the last girl in the class; then all together, until they have learned it by heart. Dancing and gymnastics are taught in the same way.
Often a hundred different airs and poems are committed to memory by very young girls, who are thus converted into walking libraries.
Sm‚yŠtee was led into the adytum of the duke's palace, conducted to a small chamber, and left there; while her guards betook themselves to their dinner. Very soon, the rumor of her great beauty having spread, nearly all the lovely girls in the harem rushed in to get a glimpse of her; but finding her closely veiled, and that no persuasion could prevail with her to uncover her face, they gradually departed, one young woman only remaining behind, sitting apart in silent sympathy.
After a while two female physicians came in, talking in low tones one to the other. They then proceeded to question the girl, and to all of their questions she returned modest replies; after they were satisfied they bade her unrobe, which she did with some little hesitancy. When she laid aside her veil, her eyes met those of her silent visitor; an indescribable something beamed from every feature of the stranger, and they became friends. The physicians then examined the girl, just as if she were an animal; having finished their inventory of her perfections and imperfections, they dropped a few pleasant words, and departed. Sm‚yŠtee had no sooner dressed herself and taken her place close to her new friend, and they had in the brief moment exchanged names, when another batch of women appeared, and told her to follow them. She rose, and went out, holding her new friend's hand. After passing through a dark and silent street, they brought her to a marble building, with baths and fountains all round it. Here she was again told to undress, and take her place on a marble couch. With her eyes she pleadingly besought her friend to stay, who did so, seated, leaning against a pillar. The bathers then anointed Sm‚yŠtee's person with a fragrant preparation; when she was completely besmeared they suspended their labors, in order to let the stuff dry on the poor girl, who knew no more what was going to be done to her than if she had been a little kitten; and as she sat there, her skin glowing and her heart palpitating, she heard herself discussed by the bathers, whose language she only partially understood. But she heard enough to realize the life in store for herself. After half an hour they seized her again, rubbed off briskly the dried paste, and showered buckets of hot and cold water upon her. Another set of women now took charge of the poor girl, and dressed her in beautiful silk robes, like those worn by the Loatian women of high rank. Her hair was combed, perfumed, and ornamented with flowers, finally she was conducted to a pretty little house, luxuriously fitted up, and left in the charge of a number of female slaves.
Sm‚yŠtee now wore a new veil of Indian gauze, but she would rather have kept the old one. She cowered down in a corner, and laid her tired head in the lap of her new friend, who began patting and soothing her, without uttering a single word.
Most girls, as soon as they have overcome the horror which such a life must naturally inspire in the young and enthusiastic, begin to calculate on their chances of promotion to the highest place in the harem.
As for Sm‚yŠtee, no thought but of escape presented itself to her mind; her nature was too wild and untamed to be flattered by the luxuries that now surrounded her; she looked upon them only as so many fetters. All kinds of wild plans for running away took violent possession of her brain; but the soothing influence of the bath, combined with the exhaustion of the day, overcame her, and she was soon sound asleep.