THE ENGLISH GOVERNESS AT THE SIAMESE COURT
BEING RECOLLECTIONS OF SIX YEARS IN THE ROYAL
IN THE ROYAL PALACE AT BANGKOK
ANNA HARRIETTE LEONOWENS.
With Illustrations, FROM PHOTOGRAPHS PRESENTED TO THE AUTHOR BY THE KING OF SIAM.
TO MRS. KATHERINE S. COBB.
I have not asked your leave, dear friend, to dedicate to you these pages of my experience in the heart of an Asiatic court; but I know you will indulge me when I tell you that my single object in inscribing your name here is to evince my grateful appreciation of the kindness that led you to urge me to try the resources of your country instead of returning to Siam, and to plead so tenderly in behalf of my children.
I wish the offering were more worthy of your acceptance. But to associate your name with the work your cordial sympathy has fostered, and thus pleasantly to retrace even the saddest of my recollections, amid the happiness that now surrounds me,—a happiness I owe to the generous friendship of noble-hearted American women,—is indeed a privilege and a compensation.
I remain, with true affection, gratitude, and admiration,
Your friend, A. H. L.
26th July, 1870.
His Majesty, Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the Supreme King of Siam, having sent to Singapore for an English lady to undertake the education of his children, my friends pointed to me. At first it was with much reluctance that I consented to entertain the project; but, strange as it may seem, the more I reflected upon it the more feasible it appeared, until at length I began to look forward, even with a glow of enthusiasm, toward the new and untried field I was about to enter.
The Siamese Consul at Singapore, Hon. W. Tan Kim-Ching, had written strongly in my favor to the Court of Siam, and in response I received the following letter from the King himself:—
"ENGLISH ERA, 1862, 26th February. GRAND ROYAL PALACE, BANGKOK.
"To MRS. A. H. LEONOWENS:—
"MADAM: We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English, call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.
"We beg to invite you to our royal palace to do your best endeavorment upon us and our children. We shall expect to see you here on return of Siamese steamer Chow Phya.
"We have written to Mr. William Adamson, and to our consul at Singapore, to authorize to do best arrangement for you and ourselves.
"Your faithfully, (Signed)
"S. S. P. P. MAHA MONGKUT."
About a week before our departure for Bangkok, the captain and mate of the steamer Rainbow called upon me. One of these gentlemen had for several years served the government of Siam, and they came to warn me of the trials and dangers that must inevitably attend the enterprise in which I was embarking. Though it was now too late to deter me from the undertaking by any arguments addressed to my fears, I can nevertheless never forget the generous impulse of the honest seamen, who said: "Madam, be advised even by strangers, who have proved what sufferings await you, and shake your hands of this mad undertaking." By the next steamer I sailed for the Court of Siam.
In the following pages I have tried to give a full and faithful account of the scenes and the characters that were gradually unfolded to me as I began to understand the language, and by all other means to attain a clearer insight into the secret life of the court. I was thankful to find, even in this citadel of Buddhism, men, and above all women, who were "lovely in their lives," who, amid infinite difficulties, in the bosom of a most corrupt society, and enslaved to a capricious and often cruel will, yet devoted themselves to an earnest search after truth. On the other hand, I have to confess with sorrow and shame, how far we, with all our boasted enlightenment, fall short, in true nobility and piety, of some of our "benighted" sisters of the East. With many of them, Love, Truth, and Wisdom are not mere synonyms but "living gods," for whom they long with lively ardor, and, when found, embrace with joy.
Those of my readers who may find themselves interested in the wonderful ruins recently discovered in Cambodia are indebted to the earlier travellers, M. Henri Mouhot, Dr. A. Bastian, and the able English photographer. James Thomson, F. R. G. S. L., almost as much as to myself.
To the Hon. George William Curtis of New York, and to all my other true friends, abroad and in America, I feel very grateful.
And finally, I would acknowledge the deep obligation I am under to Dr. J. W. Palmer, whose literary experience and skill have been of so great service to me in revising and preparing my manuscript for the press. A. H. L.
I. ON THE THRESHOLD II. A SIAMESE PREMIER AT HOME III. A SKETCH OF SIAMESE HISTORY IV. HIS EXCELLENCY'S HAREM AND HELPMEET V. THE TEMPLES OF THE SLEEPING AND THE EMERALD IDOLS VI. THE KING AND THE GOVERNESS VII. MARBLE HALLS AND FISH-STALLS VIII. OUR HOME IN BANGKOK IX. OUR SCHOOL IN THE PALACE X. MOONSHEE AND THE ANGEL GABRIEL XI. THE WAYS OF THE PALACE XII. SHADOWS AND WHISPERS OF THE HAREM XIII. FA-YING, THE KING'S DARLING XIV. AN OUTRAGE AND A WARNING XV. THE CITY OF BANGKOK XVI. THE WHITE ELEPHANT XVII. THE CEREMONIES OF CORONATION XVIII. THE QUEEN CONSORT XIX. THE HEIR-APPARENT.—ROYAL HAIR-CUTTING XX. AMUSEMENTS OF THE COURT XXI. SIAMESE LITERATURE AND ART XXII. BUDDHIST DOCTRINE, PRIESTS, AND WORSHIP XXIII. CREMATION XXIV. CERTAIN SUPERSTITIONS XXV. THE SUBORDINATE KING XXVI. THE SUPREME KING: HIS CHARACTER AND ADMINISTRATION XXVII. MY RETIREMENT FROM THE PALACE XXVIII. THE KINGDOM OF SIAM XXIX. THE RUINS OF CAMBODIA.—AN EXCURSION TO THE NAGHKON WATT XXX. THE LEGEND OF THE MAHA NAGHKON
Amarinde Winschley Palace Bangkok March 6th 1869
Mrs. A. H. Leonowens New York
I have great pleasure in condescending to answer your sympathising letter of 25th November last wherein the sorrowful expressions of your heart in relation to my most beloved Sovereign Father in demise which is a venerated burden and I have left to this day and ever more shall bear this most unexpressable loss in mind, with the deepest respect and lamentation, and resignation to the will of divine Providence;—are very loyal to you too to ful, and share your grief in behalf the affection you have for your royal pupils, and the kind remembrances you have made of them in your letter, loves you too with that respect and love your are held in ther esteem, for such disinterestioness in imparting knowledge to them during your stay here with us. I have the pleasure also, to mention you that our Government in counsel has elected me to assume the reins of Government notwithstanding my juvenility; and I am pleased to see the love the people have for me, most undoubtedly arising from the respect and veneration they have had for my beloved royal Father and I hope to render them prosperity and peace, and equal measure, they have enjoyed since the last reign in return.
May you and your beloved children be in the peace of the divine Providence.
I beg to remain,
Somdetch Phra Chulalonkorn Klou Chow-yu Hua Supreme King of Siam on 114th day of reign
I. ON THE THRESHOLD.
MARCH 15, 1862.—On board the small Siamese steamer Chow Phya, in the Gulf of Siam.
I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil; and presently the welcome face shines boldly out, glad, glorious, beautiful, and aureoled with flaming hues of orange, fringed with amber and gold, wherefrom flossy webs of color float wide through the sky, paling as they go. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.
The captain told us we must wait for the afternoon tide to carry us over the bar. I lingered on deck, as long as I could dodge the fiery spears that flashed through our tattered awning, and bear the bustle and the boisterous jests of some circus people, our fellow-passengers, who came by express invitation of the king to astonish and amuse the royal household and the court.
Scarcely less intelligent, and certainly more entertaining, than these were the dogs of our company,-? brutes of diverse temperament, experience, and behavior. There were the captain's two, Trumpet and Jip, who, by virtue of their reflected rank and authority, held places of privilege and pickings under the table, and were jealous and overbearing as became a captain's favorites, snubbing and bullying their more accomplished and versatile guests, the circus dogs, with skipper-like growls and snarls and snaps. And there was our own true Bessy,—a Newfoundland, great and good,—discreet, reposeful, dignified, fastidious, not to be cajoled into confidences and familiarities with strange dogs, whether official or professional. Very human was her gentle countenance, and very loyal, I doubt not, her sense of responsibility, as she followed anxiously my boy and me, interpreting with her heart the thoughts she read in our faces, and responding with her sympathetic eyes.
In the afternoon, when we dined on deck, the land was plainly visible; and now, as with a favoring tide we glided toward the beautiful Meinam ("Mother of Waters"), the air grew brighter, and the picture lived and moved; trees grew on the banks, more and more verdure, monkeys swung from bough to bough, birds flashed and piped among the thickets.
Though the reddish-brown water over the "banks" is very shallow at low tide, craft of moderate burden, with the aid of a pilot, cast anchor commonly in the very heart of the capital, in from ten to twelve fathoms of water.
The world has few rivers so deep, commodious, and safe as the Meinam; and when we arrived the authorities were contemplating the erection of beacons on the bar, as well as a lighthouse for the benefit of vessels entering the port of Bangkok. The stream is rich in fish of excellent quality and flavor, such as is found in most of the great rivers of Asia; and is especially noted for its platoo, a kind of sardine, so abundant and cheap that it forms a common seasoning to the laborer's bowl of rice. The Siamese are expert in modes of drying and salting fish of all kinds, and large quantities are exported annually to Java, Sumatra, Malacca, and China.
In half an hour from the time when the twin banks of the river, in their raiment of bright green, seemed to open their beautiful arms to receive us, we came to anchor opposite the mean, shabby, irregular town of Paknam, or Sumuttra P'hra-kan ("Ocean Affairs"). Here the captain went ashore to report himself to the Governor, and the officials of the custom-house, and the mail-boat came out to us. My boy became impatient for couay (cake); Moonshee, my Persian teacher, and Beebe, my gay Hindostanee nurse, expressed their disappointment and disgust, Moonshee being absurdly dramatic in his wrath, as, fairly shaking his fist at the town, he demanded, "What is this?"
Near this place are two islands. The one on the right is fortified, yet withal so green and pretty, and seemingly so innocent of bellicose designs, that one may fancy Nature has taken peculiar pains to heal and hide the disfigurements grim Art has made in her beauty. On the other, which at first I took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, its lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows in the limpid waters below. Add to these the fitful ripple of the coquettish breeze, the burnished blazonry of the surrounding vegetation, the budding charms of spring joined to the sensuous opulence of autumn, and you have a scene of lovely glamour it were but vain impertinence to describe. Earth seemed to have gathered for her adorning here elements more intellectual, poetic, and inspiring than she commonly displays to pagan eyes.
These islands at the gateway of the river are, like the bank in the gulf, but accumulations of the sand borne down before the torrent, that, suddenly swollen by the rains, rushes annually to the sea. The one on which the temple stands is partly artificial, having been raised from the bed of the Meinam by the king P'hra Chow Phra-sat-thong, as a work of "merit." Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consists of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain,—altogether not unlike the "tavellae" brick of the Egyptians and ancient Romans. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank, and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to the P'hra-Cha-dei ("The Lord's Delight"), a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha. It also affords accommodation to the numerous retinue of princes, nobles, retainers, and pages who attend the king in his annual visits to the temple, to worship, and make votive offerings and donations to the priests. A charming spot, yet not one to be contemplated with unalloyed pleasure; for here also are the wretched people, who pass up and down in boats, averting their eyes, pressing their hard, labor-grimed hands against their sweating foreheads, and lowly louting in blind awe to these whited bricks. Even the naked children hush and crouch, and lay their little foreheads against the bottom of the boat.
His Majesty Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the late Supreme King, contributed interesting souvenirs to the enlargement and adornment of this temple.
The town, which the twin islands redeem from the ignominy it otherwise deserves, lies on the east bank of the river, and by its long lines of low ramparts that face the water seems to have been at one time substantially fortified; but the works are now dilapidated and neglected. They were constructed in the first instance, I am told, with fatal ingenuity; in the event of an attack the garrison would find them as dangerous to abandon as to defend. Paknam is indebted for its importance rather to its natural position, and its possibilities of improvement under the abler hands into which it is gradually falling, than to any advantage or promise in itself; for a more disgusting, repulsive place is scarcely to be found on Asian ground.
The houses are built partly of mud, partly of wood, and, as in those of Malacca, only the upper story is habitable, the ground floor being the abode of pigs, dogs, fowls, and noisome reptiles. The "Government House" was originally of stone, but all the more recent additions have been shabbily constructed of rough timber and mud. This is one of the few houses in Paknam which one may enter without mounting a ladder or a clumsy staircase, and which have rooms in the lower as well as in the upper story.
The Custom-House is an open sala, or shed, where interpreters, inspectors, and tidewaiters lounge away the day on cool mats, chewing areca, betel, and tobacco, and extorting moneys, goods, or provisions from the unhappy proprietors of native trading craft, large or small; but Europeans are protected from their rascally and insolent exactions by the intelligence and energy of their respective consuls.
The hotel is a whitewashed brick building, originally designed to accommodate foreign ambassadors and other official personages visiting the Court of Siam. The king's summer-house, fronting the islands, is the largest edifice to be seen, but it has neither dignity nor beauty. A number of inferior temples and monasteries occupy the background, and are crowded with a rabble of priests, in yellow robes and with shaven pates; packs of mangy pariah-dogs attend them. These monasteries consist of many small rooms or cells, containing merely a mat and wooden pillow for each occupant. The refuse of the food, which the priests beg during the day, is cast to the dogs at night; and what they refuse is left to putrefy. Unimaginable are the stenches the sun of Siam engenders in such conditions.
A village so happily situated might, under better management, become a thriving and pleasing port; but neglect, cupidity, and misrule have shockingly deformed and degraded it. Nevertheless, by its picturesque site and surroundings of beauty, it retains its hold upon the regretful admiration of many Europeans and Americans, who in ill health have found strength and cheer in its sea-breezes.
We heartily enjoyed the delightful freshness of the evening air as we glided up the Meinam, though the river view at this point is somewhat marred by the wooden piers and quays that line it on either side, and the floating houses, representing elongated A's. From the deck, at a convenient height above the level of the river and the narrow serpentine canals and creeks, we looked down upon conical roofs thatched with attaps, and diversified by the pyramids and spires and fantastic turrets of the more important buildings. The valley of the Meinam, not over six hundred miles in length, is as a long deep dent or fissure in the alluvial soil. At its southern extremity we have the climate and vegetation of the tropics, while its northern end, on the brow of the Yunan, is a region of perpetual snow. The surrounding country is remarkable for the bountiful productiveness of its unctuous loam. The scenery, though not wild nor grand, is very picturesque and charming in the peculiar golden haze of its atmosphere. I surveyed with more and more admiration each new scene of blended luxuriance and beauty,—plantations spreading on either hand as far as the eye could reach, and level fields of living green, billowy with crops of rice and maize, and sugar-cane and coffee, and cotton and tobacco; and the wide irregular river, a kaleidoscope of evanescent form and color, where land, water, and sky joined or parted in a thousand charming surprises of shapes and shadows.
The sun was already sinking in the west, when we caught sight of a tall roof of familiar European fashion; and presently a lowly white chapel with green windows, freshly painted, peeped out beside two pleasant dwellings. Chapel and homes belong to the American Presbyterian Mission. A forest of graceful boughs filled the background; the last faint rays of the departing sun fell on the Mission pathway, and the gentle swaying of the tall trees over the chapel imparted a promise of safety and peace, as the glamour of the approaching night and the gloom and mystery of the pagan land into which we were penetrating filled me with an indefinable dread. I almost trembled, as the unfriendly clouds drove out the lingering tints of day. Here were the strange floating city, with its stranger people on all the open porches, quays, and jetties; the innumerable rafts and boats, canoes and gondolas, junks, and ships; the pall of black smoke from the steamer, the burly roar of the engine, and the murmur and the jar; the bewildering cries of men, women, and children, the shouting of the Chinamen, and the barking of the dogs,—yet no one seemed troubled but me. I knew it was wisest to hide my fears. It was the old story. How many of our sisters, how many of our daughters, how many of our hearts' darlings, are thus, without friend or guide or guard or asylum, turning into untried paths with untold stories of trouble and pain!
We dropped anchor in deep water near an island. In a moment the river was alive with nondescript craft, worked by amphibious creatures, half naked, swarthy, and grim, who rent the air with shrill, wild jargon as they scrambled toward us. In the distance were several hulks of Siamese men-of-war, seemingly as old as the flood; and on the right towered, tier over tier, the broad roofs of the grand Royal Palace of Bangkok,—my future "home" and the scene of my future labors.
The circus people are preparing to land; and the dogs, running to and fro with anxious glances, have an air of leave-taking also. Now the China coolies, with pigtails braided and coiled round their low, receding brows, begin their uncouth bustle, and into the small hours of the morning enliven the time of waiting with frantic shouts and gestures.
Before long a showy gondola, fashioned like a dragon, with flashing torches and many paddles, approached; and a Siamese official mounted the side, swaying himself with an absolute air. The red langoutee, or skirt, loosely folded about his person, did not reach his ankles; and to cover his audacious chest and shoulders he had only his own brown polished skin. He was followed by a dozen attendants, who, the moment they stepped from the gangway, sprawled on the deck like huge toads, doubling their arms and legs under them, and pressing their noses against the boards, as if intent on making themselves small by degrees and hideously less. Every Asiatic on deck, coolies and all, prostrates himself, except my two servants, who are bewildered. Moonshee covertly mumbles his five prayers, ejaculating between, Mash-Allah! A Tala-yea kia hai? [Footnote: "Great God! what is this?"] and Beebe shrinks, and draws her veil of spotted muslin jealously over her charms.
The captain stepped forward and introduced us. "His Excellency Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Siam!"
Half naked as he was, and without an emblem to denote his rank, there was yet something remarkable about this native chief, by virtue of which he compelled our respect from the first glance,—a sensibly magnetic quality of tone or look. With an air of command oddly at variance with his almost indecent attire, of which he seemed superbly unconscious, he beckoned to a young attendant, who crawled to him as a dog crawls to an angry master. This was an interpreter, who at a word from his lord began to question me in English.
"Are you the lady who is to teach in the royal family?"
On my replying in the affirmative, he asked, "Have you friends in Bangkok?"
Finding I had none, he was silent for a minute or two; then demanded: "What will you do? Where will you sleep to-night?"
"Indeed I cannot tell," I said. "I am a stranger here. But I understood from his Majesty's letter that a residence would be provided for us on our arrival; and he has been duly informed that we were to arrive at this time."
"His Majesty cannot remember everything," said his Excellency; the interpreter added, "You can go where you like." And away went master and slaves. I was dumfoundered, without even voice to inquire if there was a hotel in the city; and my servants were scornfully mute. My kind friend the captain was sorely puzzled. He would have sheltered us if he could; but a cloud of coal-dust and the stamping and screaming of a hundred and fifty Chinamen made hospitality impracticable; so I made a little bed for my child on deck, and prepared to pass the night with him under a canopy of stars.
The situation was as Oriental as the scene,—heartless arbitrary insolence on the part of my employers; homelessness, forlornness, helplessness, mortification, indignation, on mine. Fears and misgivings crowded and stunned me. My tears fell thick and fast, and, weary and despairing, I closed my eyes, and tried to shut out heaven and earth; but the reflection would return to mock and goad me, that by my own act, and against the advice of my friends, I had placed myself in this position.
The good captain of the Chow Phya, much troubled by the conduct of the minister, paced the deck (which usually, on these occasions, he left to the supercargo) for more than an hour. Presently a boat approached, and he hailed it. In a moment it was at the gangway, and with robust, hearty greetings on both sides, Captain B——, a cheery Englishman, with a round, ruddy, rousing face, sprang on board; in a few words our predicament was explained to him, and at once he invited us to share his house, for the night at least, assuring us of a cordial welcome from his wife. In the beautiful gondola of our "friend in need" we were pulled by four men, standing to their oars, through a dream-like scene, peculiar to this Venice of the East. Larger boats, in an endless variety of form and adornment, with prows high, tapering, and elaborately carved, and pretty little gondolas and canoes, passed us continually on the right and left; yet amid so many signs of life, motion, traffic, bustle, the sweet sound of the rippling waters alone fell on the ear. No rumbling of wheels, nor clatter of hoofs, nor clangor of bells, nor roar and scream of engines to shock the soothing fairy-like illusion. The double charm of stillness and starlight was perfect.
"By the by," broke in my cheery new friend, "you'll have to go with me to the play, ma'm; because my wife is there with the boys, and the house-key is in her pocket."
"To the play!"
"O, don't be alarmed, ma'm! It's not a regular theatre; only a catchpenny show, got up by a Frenchman, who came from Singapore a fortnight since. And having so little amusement here, we are grateful for anything that may help to break the monotony. The temporary playhouse is within the palace grounds of his Royal Highness Prince Krom Lhuang Wongse; and I hope to have an opportunity to introduce you to the Prince, who I believe is to be present with his family."
The intelligence was not gratifying, a Siamese prince had too lately disturbed my moral equilibrium; but I held my peace and awaited the result with resignation. A few strokes of the oars, seconded by the swift though silent current, brought us to a wooden pier surmounted by two glaring lanterns. Captain B—— handed us out. My child, startled from a deep sleep, was refractory, and would not trust himself out of my fond keeping. When finally I had struggled with him in my arms to the landing, I saw in the shadow a form coiled on a piece of striped matting. Was it a bear? No, a prince! For the clumsy mass of reddish- brown flesh unrolled and uplifted itself, and held out a human arm, with a fat hand at the end of it, when Captain B—— presented me to "his Royal Highness." Near by was his Excellency the Prime Minister, in the identical costume that had disgraced our unpleasant interview on the Chow Phya; he was smoking a European pipe, and plainly enjoying our terrors. My stalwart friend contrived to squeeze us, and even himself, first through a bamboo door, and then through a crowd of hot people, to seats fronting a sort of altar, consecrated to the arts of jugglery. A number of Chinamen of respectable appearance occupied the more distant places, while those immediately behind us were filled by the ladies and gentlemen of the foreign community. On a raised dais hung with kincob [Footnote: Silk, embroidered with, gold flowers.] curtains, the ladies of the Prince's harem reclined; while their children, shining in silk and ornaments of gold, laughed, prattled, and gesticulated, until the juggler appeared, when they were stunned with sudden wonder. Under the eaves on all sides human heads were packed, on every head its cherished tuft of hair, like a stiff black brush inverted, in every mouth its delicious cud of areca-nut and betel, which the human cattle ruminated with industrious content. The juggler, a keen little Frenchman, plied his arts nimbly, and what with his ventriloquial doll, his empty bag full of eggs, his stones that were candies, and his candies that were stones, and his stuffed birds that sang, astonished and delighted his unsophisticated patrons, whose applauding murmurs were diversified by familiarly silly shrieks—the true Siamese Did-you-ever!—from behind the kincob curtains.
But I was weary and disheartened, and welcomed with a sigh of relief the closing of the show. As we passed out with our guide, the glare of many torches falling on the dark silent river made the swarthy forms of the boatmen weird and Charon-like. Mrs. B—— welcomed us with a pleasant smile to her little heaven of home across the river, and by the simplicity and gentleness of her manners dispelled in a measure my feeling of forlornness. When at last I found myself alone, I would have sought the sleep I so much needed, but the strange scenes of the day chased each other in agitating confusion through my brain. Then I quitted the side of my sleeping boy, triumphant in his dreamless innocence, and sat defeated by the window, to crave counsel and help from the ever-present Friend; and as I waited I sank into a tumultuous slumber, from which at last I started to find the long-tarrying dawn climbing over a low wall and creeping through a half-open shutter.
II. A SIAMESE PREMIER AT HOME.
I started up, arranged my dress, and smoothed my hair; though no water nor any after-touches could remove the shadow that night of gloom and loneliness had left upon my face. But my boy awoke with eager, questioning eyes, his smile bright and his hair lustrous. As we knelt together by the window at the feet of "Our Father," I could not but ask in the darkness of my trouble, did it need so bitter a baptism as ours to purify so young a soul?
In an outer room we met Mrs. B—— en deshabille, and scarcely so pretty as at our first meeting, but for her smile, remarkable for its subtile, evanescent sweetness. At breakfast our host joined us, and, after laughing at our late predicament and fright, assured me of that which I have since experienced,—the genuine goodness of the Prince Krom Lhuang Wongse. Every foreign resident of Bangkok, who at any time has had friendly acquaintance or business with him, would, I doubt not, join me in expressions of admiration and regard for one who has maintained through circumstances so trying and under a system so oppressive an exemplary reputation for liberality, integrity, justice, and humanity.
Soon after breakfast the Prime Minister's boat, with the slave interpreter who had questioned me on the steamer, arrived to take us to his Excellency's palace.
In about a quarter of an hour we found ourselves in front of a low gateway, which opened on a wide courtyard, or "compound," paved with rough-hewn slabs of stone. A brace of Chinese mandarins of ferocious aspect, cut in stone and mounted on stone horses, guarded the entrance. Farther on, a pair of men-at-arms in bass-relief challenged us; and near these were posted two living sentries, in European costume, but without shoes. On the left was a pavilion for theatrical entertainments, one entire wall being covered with scenic pictures. On the right of this stood the palace of the Prime Minister, displaying a semicircular facade; in the background a range of buildings of considerable extent, comprising the lodgings of his numerous wives. Attached to the largest of these houses was a charming garden of flowers, in the midst of which a refreshing fountain played. His Excellency's residence abounded within in carvings and gildings, elegant in design and color, that blended and harmonized in pleasing effects with the luxurious draperies that hung in rich folds from the windows.
We moved softly, as the interpreter led us through a suite of spacious saloons, disposed in ascending tiers, and all carpeted, candelabraed, and appointed in the most costly European fashion. A superb vase of silver, embossed and burnished, stood on a table inlaid with mother-of-pearl and chased with silver. Flowers of great variety and beauty filled the rooms with a delicious though slightly oppressive fragrance. On every side my eyes were delighted with rare vases, jewelled cups and boxes, burnished chalices, dainty statuettes,— objets de virtu, Oriental and European, antique and modern, blending the old barbaric splendors with the graces of the younger arts.
As we waited, fascinated and bewildered, the Prime Minister suddenly stood before us,—the semi-nude barbarian of last night. I lost my presence of mind, and in my embarrassment would have left the room. But he held out his hand, saying, "Good morning, sir! Take a seat, sir!" which I did somewhat shyly, but not without a smile for his comical "sir." I spied a number of young girls peeping at us from behind curtains, while the male attendants, among whom were his younger brothers, nephews, and cousins, crouched in the antechamber on all fours. His Excellency, with an expression of pleased curiosity, and that same grand unconsciousness of his alarming poverty of costume, approached us nearly, and, with a kindly smile patting Boy on the head, asked him his name. But the child cried aloud, "Mamma, come home! Please, mamma, come home!" and I found it not easy to quiet him.
Presently, mustering courage for myself also, I ventured to express my wish for a quiet house or apartments, where I might be free from intrusion, and at perfect liberty before and after school-hours.
When this reasonable request was interpreted to him—seemingly in a few monosyllables—he stood looking at me, smiling, as if surprised and amused that I should have notions on the subject of liberty. Quickly this look became inquisitive and significant, so that I began to fancy he had doubts as to the use I might make of my stipulated freedom, and was puzzled to conjecture why a woman should wish to be free at all. Some such thought must have passed through his mind, for he said abruptly, "You not married!"
"Then where will you go in the evening?"
"Not anywhere, your Excellency. I simply desire to secure for myself and my child some hours of privacy and rest, when my duties do not require my presence elsewhere."
"How many years your husband has been dead?" he asked.
I replied that his Excellency had no right to pry into my domestic concerns. His business was with me as a governess only; on any other subject I declined conversing. I enjoyed the expression of blank amazement with which he regarded me on receiving this somewhat defiant reply. "Tam chai!" ("Please yourself!") he said, and proceeded to pace to and fro, but without turning his eyes from my face, or ceasing to smile. Then he said something to his attendants, five or six of whom, raising themselves on their knees, with their eyes fixed upon the carpet, crawled backward till they reached the steps, bobbed their heads and shoulders, started spasmodically to their feet, and fled from the apartment. My boy, who had been awed and terrified, began to cry, and I too was startled. Again he uttered the harsh gutturals, and instantly, as with an electric shock, another half-dozen of the prostrate slaves sprang up and ran. Then he resumed his mysterious promenade, still carefully keeping an eye upon us, and smiling by way of conversation. It was long before I could imagine what we were to do. Boy, fairly tortured, cried "Come home, mamma! why don't you come home? I don't like that man." His Excellency halted, and sinking his voice ominously, said, "You no can go!" Boy clutched my dress, and hid his face and smothered his sobs in my lap; and yet, attracted, fascinated, the poor little fellow from time to time looked up, only to shudder, tremble, and hide his face again. For his sake I was glad when the interpreter returned on all fours. Pushing one elbow straight out before the other, in the manner of these people, he approached his master with such a salutation as might be offered to deity; and with a few more unintelligible utterances, his Excellency bowed to us, and disappeared behind a mirror. All the curious, peering eyes that had been directed upon us from every nook and corner where a curtain hung, instantly vanished; and at the same time sweet, wild music, like the tinkling of silver bells in the distance, fell upon our ears.
To my astonishment the interpreter stood boldly upright, and began to contemplate his irresistible face and figure in a glass, and arrange with cool coxcombry his darling tuft of hair; which done, he approached us with a mild swagger, and proceeded to address me with a freedom which I found it expedient to snub. I told him that, although I did not require any human being to go down on his face and hands before me, I should nevertheless tolerate no familiarity or disrespect from any one. The fellow understood me well enough, but did not permit me to recover immediately from my surprise at the sudden change in his bearing and tone. As he led us to the two elegant rooms reserved for us in the west end of the palace, he informed us that he was the Premier's half-brother, and hinted that I would be wise to conciliate him if I wished to have my own way. In the act of entering one of the rooms, I turned upon him angrily, and bade him be off. The next moment this half-brother of a Siamese magnate was kneeling in abject supplication in the half-open doorway, imploring me not to report him to his Excellency, and promising never to offend again. Here was a miracle of repentance I had not looked for; but the miracle was sham. Rage, cunning, insolence, servility, and hypocrisy were vilely mixed in the minion.
Our chambers opened on a quiet piazza, shaded by fruit-trees in blossom, and overlooking a small artificial lake stocked with pretty, sportive fish.
To be free to make a stunning din is a Siamese woman's idea of perfect enjoyment. Hardly were we installed in our apartments when, with a pell-mell rush and screams of laughter, the ladies of his Excellency's private Utah reconnoitred us in force. Crowding in through the half-open door, they scrambled for me with eager curiosity, all trying at once to embrace me boisterously, and promiscuously chattering in shrill Siamese,—a bedlam of parrots; while I endeavored to make myself impartially agreeable in the language of signs and glances. Nearly all were young; and in symmetry of form, delicacy of feature, and fairness of complexion, decidedly superior to the Malay women I had been accustomed to. Most of them might have been positively attractive, but for their ingeniously ugly mode of clipping the hair and blackening the teeth.
The youngest were mere children, hardly more than fourteen years old. All were arrayed in rich materials, though the fashion did not differ from that of their slaves, numbers of whom were prostrate in the rooms and passages. My apartments were ablaze with their crimson, blue, orange, and purple, their ornaments of gold, their rings and brilliants, and their jewelled boxes. Two or three of the younger girls satisfied my Western ideas of beauty, with their clear, mellow, olive complexions, and their almond-shaped eyes, so dark yet glowing. Those among them who were really old were simply hideous and repulsive. One wretched crone shuffled through the noisy throng with an air of authority, and pointing to Boy lying in my lap, cried, "Moolay, moolay!" "Beautiful, beautiful!" The familiar Malay word fell pleasantly on my ear, and I was delighted to find some one through whom I might possibly control the disorderly bevy around me. I addressed her in Malay. Instantly my visitors were silent, and waiting in attitudes of eager attention.
She told me she was one of the many custodians of the harem. She was a native of Quedah; and "some sixty years ago," she and her sister, together with other young Malay girls, were captured while working in the fields by a party of Siamese adventurers. They were brought to Siam and sold as slaves. At first she mourned miserably for her home and parents. But while she was yet young and attractive she became a favorite of the late Somdetch Ong Yai, father of her present lord, and bore him two sons, just as "moolay, moolay" as my own darling. But they were dead. (Here, with the end of her soiled silk scarf she furtively wiped a tear from her face, no longer ugly.) And her gracious lord was dead also; it was he who gave her this beautiful gold betel-box.
"But how is it that you are still a slave?" I asked.
"I am old and ugly and childless: and therefore, to be trusted by my dead lord's son, the beneficent prince, upon whose head be blessings,"—clasping her withered hands, and turning toward that part of the palace where, no doubt, he was enjoying a "beneficent" nap.
"And now it is my privilege to watch and guard these favored ones, that they see no man but their lord."
The repulsive uncomeliness of this woman had been wrought by oppression out of that which must have been beautiful once; for the spirit of beauty came back to her for a moment, with the passing memories that brought her long-lost treasures with them. In the brutal tragedy of a slave's experience,—a female slave in the harem of an Asian despot,—the native angel in her had been bruised, mutilated, defaced, deformed, but not quite obliterated.
Her story ended, the younger women, to whom her language had been strange, could no longer suppress their merriment, nor preserve the decorum due to her age and authority. Again they swarmed about me like bees, plying me pertinaciously with questions, as to my age, husband, children, country, customs, possessions; and presently crowned the inquisitorial performance by asking, in all seriousness, if I should not like to be the wife of the prince, their lord, rather than of the terrible Chow-che-witt. [Footnote: Chow-che-witt,—"Prince of life,"—the supreme king.]
Here was a monstrous suggestion that struck me dumb. Without replying, I rose and shook them off, retiring with my boy into the inner chamber. But they pursued me without compunction, repeating the extraordinary "conundrum," and dragging the Malay duenna along with them to interpret my answer. The intrusion provoked me; but, considering their beggarly poverty of true life and liberty, of hopes and joys, and loves and memories, and holy fears and sorrows, with which a full and true response might have twitted them, I was ashamed to be vexed.
Seeing it impossible to rid myself of them, I promised to answer their question, on condition that they would leave me for that day. Immediately all eyes were fixed upon me.
"The prince, your lord, and the king, your Chow-che-witt, are pagans," I said. "An English, that is a Christian, woman would rather be put to the torture, chained and dungeoned for life, or suffer a death the slowest and most painful you Siamese know, than be the wife of either."
They remained silent in astonishment, seemingly withheld from speaking by an instinctive sentiment of respect; until one, more volatile than the rest, cried, "What! not if he gave you all these jewelled rings and boxes, and these golden things?"
When the old woman, fearing to offend, whispered this test question in Malay to me, I laughed at the earnest eyes around, and said: "No, not even then. I am only here to teach the royal family. I am not like you. You have nothing to do but to play and sing and dance for your master; but I have to work for my children; and one little one is now on the great ocean, and I am very sad."
Shades of sympathy, more or less deep, flitted across the faces of my audience, and for a moment they regarded me as something they could neither convince nor comfort nor understand. Then softly repeating Poot-thoo! Poot-thoo! "Dear God! dear God!" they quietly left me. A minute more, and I heard them laughing and shouting in the halls.
Relieved of my curious and exacting visitors, I lay down and fell into a deep sleep, from which I was suddenly awakened, in the afternoon, by the cries of Beebe, who rushed into the chamber, her head bare, her fine muslin veil trampled under her feet, and her face dramatically expressive of terror and despair. Moonshee, her husband, ignorant alike of the topography, the language, and the rules of the place, had by mistake intruded in the sacred penetralia where lounged the favorite of the harem, to the lively horror of that shrinking Nourmahal, and the general wrath of the old women on guard, two of whom, the ugliest, fiercest, and most muscular, had dragged him, daft and trembling, to summary inquisition.
I followed Beebe headlong to an open sala, where we found that respectable servant of the Prophet, his hands tied, his turban off, woe-begone but resigned; faithful and philosophic Moslem that he was, he only waited for his throat to be cut, since it was his kismut, his perverse destiny, that had brought him to such a region of Kafirs, (infidels). Assuring him that there was nothing to fear, I despatched a messenger in search of the interpreter, while Beebe wept and protested. Presently an imposing personage stalked upon the scene, whose appearance matched his temper and his conduct. This was the judge. In vain I strove to explain to him by signs and gestures that my servant had offended unwittingly; he could not or would not understand me; but stormed away at our poor old man, who bore his abuse with the calm indifference of profound ignorance, having never before been cursed in a foreign language.
The loafers of the yards and porches shook off their lazy naps and gathered round us; and among them came the interpreter, insolent satisfaction beaming in his bad face. He coolly declined to interfere, protesting that it was not his business, and that the judge would be offended if he offered to take part in the proceedings. Moonshee was condemned to be stripped, and beaten with twenty strokes. Here was an end to my patience. Going straight up to the judge, I told him that if a single lash was laid upon the old man's back (which was bared as I spoke), he should suffer tenfold, for I would immediately lay the matter before the British Consul. Though I spoke in English, he caught the familiar words "British Consul," and turning to the interpreter, demanded the explanation he should have listened to before he pronounced sentence. But even as the interpreter was jabbering away to the unreasonable functionary, the assembly was agitated with what the French term a "sensation." Judge, interpreter, and all fell upon their faces, doubling themselves up; and there stood the Premier, who took in the situation at a glance, ordered Moonshee to be released, and permitted him at my request to retire to the room allotted to Beebe. While the slaves were alert in the execution of these benevolent commands, the interpreter slunk away on his face and elbows. But the old Moslem, as soon as his hands were free, picked up his turban, advanced, and laid it at the feet of his deliverer, with the graceful salutation of his people, "Peace be with thee, O Vizier of a wise king!" The mild and venerable aspect of the Moonshee, and his snow-white beard falling low upon his breast, must have inspired the Siamese statesman with abiding feelings of respect and consideration, for he was ever afterward indulgent to that Oriental Dominie Sampson of my little household.
Dinner at the Premier's was composed and served with the same incongruous blending of the barbaric and the refined, the Oriental and the European, that characterized the furniture and adornments of his palace. The saucy little pages who handled the dishes had cigarettes between their pouting lips, and from time to time hopped over the heads of Medusae to expectorate. When I pointed reproachfully to the double peccadillo, they only laughed and scampered off. Another detachment of these lads brought in fruits, and, when they had set the baskets or dishes on the table, retired to sofas to lounge till we had dined. But finding I objected to such manners, they giggled gayly, performed several acrobatic feats on the carpet, and left us to wait on ourselves.
Twilight on my pretty piazza. The fiery sun is setting, and long pencils of color, from palettes of painted glass, touch with rose and gold the low brow and downcast eyes and dainty bosom of a bust of Clyte. Beebe and Moonshee are preparing below in the open air their evening meal; and the smoke of their pottage is borne slowly, heavily on the hot still air, stirred only by the careless laughter of girls plunging and paddling in the dimpled lake. The blended gloom and brightness without enter, and interweave themselves with the blended gloom and brightness within, where lights and shadows lie half asleep and half awake, and life breathes itself sluggishly away, or drifts on a slumberous stream toward its ocean of death.
III. A SKETCH OF SIAMESE HISTORY.
Before inducting the reader to more particular acquaintance with his Excellency Chow Phya Sri-Sury Wongse Samuha-P'hra Kralahome, I have thought that "an abstract and brief chronicle" of the times of the strange people over whom he is not less than second in dignity and power, would not be out of place.
In the opinion of Pickering, the Siamese are undoubtedly Malay; but a majority of the intelligent Europeans who have lived long among them regard the native population as mainly Mongolian. They are generally of medium stature, the face broad, the forehead low, the eyes black, the cheekbones prominent, the chin retreating, the mouth large, the lips thick, and the beard scanty. In common with most of the Asiatic races, they are apt to be indolent, improvident, greedy, intemperate, servile, cruel, vain, inquisitive, superstitious, and cowardly; but individual variations from the more repulsive types are happily not rare. In public they are scrupulously polite and decorous according to their own notions of good manners, respectful to the aged, affectionate to their kindred, and bountiful to their priests, of whom more than twenty thousand are supported by voluntary contributions in Bangkok alone. Marriage is contracted at sixteen for males, and fourteen for females, and polygamy is the common practice, without limit to the number of wives except such as may be imposed by the humble estate or poverty of the husband; the women are generally treated with consideration.
The bodies of the dead are burned; and the badges of mourning are white robes for those of the family or kinfolk who are younger than the deceased, black for those who are older, and shaven heads for all who are in inferior degrees connected with the dead, either as descendants, dependents, servants, or slaves. When a king dies the entire population, with the exception of very young children, must display this tonsorial uniform.
Every ancient or famous city of Siam has a story of its founding, woven for it from tradition or fable; and each of these legends is distinguished from the others by peculiar features. The religion, customs, arts, and literature of a people naturally impart to their annals a spirit all their own. Especially is this the case in the Orient, where the most original and suggestive thought is half disguised in the garb of metaphor, and where, in spite of vivid fancies and fiery passions, the people affect taciturnity or reticence, and delight in the metaphysical and the mystic. Hence the early annals of the Siamese, or Sajamese, abound in fables of heroes, demigods, giants, and genii, and afford but few facts of practical value. Swayed by religious influences, they joined, in the spirit of the Hebrews, the name of God to the titles of their rulers and princes, whom they almost deified after death. But the skeleton sketch of the history of Siam that follows is of comparatively modern date, and may be accepted as in the main authentic.
In the year 712 of the Siamese, and 1350 of the Christian era, Phya-Othong founded, near the river Meinam, about sixty miles from the Gulf of Siam, the city of Ayudia or Ayuthia ("the Abode of the Gods"); at the same time he assumed the title of P'hra Rama Thibodi. This capital and stronghold was continually exposed to storms of civil war and foreign invasion; and its turreted battlements and ponderous gates, with the wide deep moat spanned by drawbridges, where now is a forest of great trees, were but the necessary fences behind which court and garrison took shelter from the tempestuous barbarism in the midst of which they lived. But before any portion of the city, except that facing the river, could boast of a fortified enclosure, hostile enterprises were directed against it. Birman pirates, ascending the Meinam in formidable flotillas, harassed it. Thrice they ravaged the country around; but on the last of these occasions great numbers of them were captured and put to cruel death by P'hra Rama Suen, successor to Thibodi, who pursued the routed remnant to the very citadel of Chiengmai, then a tributary of the Birman Empire. Having made successful war upon this province, and impressed thousands of Laotian captives, he next turned his arms against Cambodia, took the capital by storm, slew every male capable of bearing arms, and carried off enormous treasures in plate gold, with which, on his return to his kingdom, he erected a remarkable pagoda, called to this day "The Mountain of Gold."
P'hra Rama Suen was succeeded by his son Phya Ram, who reigned fourteen years, and was assassinated by his uncle, Inthra Racha, the governor or feudal lord of the city, who had snatched the reins of government and sent three of his sons to rule over the northern provinces. At the death of Inthra Racha, in 780, two of these princes set out simultaneously, with the design of seizing and occupying the vacant throne. Mounted on elephants, they met in the dusk of evening on a bridge leading to the Royal Palace; and each instantly divining his brother's purpose, they dismounted, and with their naked swords fell upon each other with such fury that both were slain on the spot. The political and social disorganization that prevailed at this period was aggravated by the vulnerable condition of the monarchy, then recently transferred to a new line. Princes of the blood royal were for a long time engaged, brother against brother, in fierce family feuds. Ayuthia suffered gravely from these unnatural contentions, but even more from the universal license and riot that reigned among the nobility and the proud proprietors of the soil. In the distracted and enfeebled state of all authority, royal and magisterial, the fields around remained for many years untilled; and the only evidence the land presented of the abode of man was here and there the bristling den of some feudal chief, a mere outlaw and dacoit, who rarely sallied from it but to carry torch and pillage wherever there was aught to sack or burn.
In 834 the undisputed sovereignty of the kingdom fell to another P'hra Rama Thibodi, who reigned thirty years, and is famous in Siamese annals for the casting of a great image of Buddha, fifty cubits high, of gold very moderately alloyed with copper. On an isolated hill, in a sacred enclosure, he erected for this image a stately temple of the purest white marble, approached by a graceful flight of steps. From the ruins of its eastern front, which are still visible, it appears to have had six columns at either end and thirteen on each side; the eastern pediment is adorned with sculptures, as are also the ten metopes.
P'hra Rama Thibodi was succeeded by his son, P'hra Racha Kuman, whose reign was short, and chiefly memorable for a tremendous conflagration that devastated Ayuthia. It raged three days, and destroyed more than a hundred thousand houses.
This monarch left at his death but one son, P'hra Yot-Fa, a lad of twelve, whose mother, the Queen Sisudah-Chand, was appointed regent during his minority.
The devil of ambition has rarely possessed the heart of an Eastern queen more absolutely than it did that of this infamous woman,—infamous even in heathen annals. She is said to have graced her exalted station alike by the beauty of her person and the charm of her manner; but in pursuit of the most arbitrary and audacious purposes she moved with the recklessness their nature demanded, and with equal impatience trampled on friend and rival. Blind superstition was the only weak point in her character; but though her deference to the imaginary instructions or warnings of the stars was slavish, it does not seem to have deterred her from any false or cruel course; indeed, a cunning astrologer of her court, by scaring her with visionary perils, contrived to obtain a monstrous ascendency over her mind, only to plunge her into crime more deeply than by her own weight of wickedness she might have sunk. She ordered the secret assassination of every member of the royal household (not excepting her mother and sisters), who, however mildly, opposed her will. Besotted with fear, that fruitful mother of crime, she ended by putting to death the young king, her son, and publicly calling her paramour (the court astrologer, in whose thoughts, she believed, were hidden all the secrets of divination) to the throne of the P'hrabatts.
This double crime filled the measure of her impunity. The nobility revolted. The strength of their faction lay, not within the palace, which was filled with the queen's parasites, but with the feudal proprietors of the soil, who, exasperated by the abominations of the court, only waited for a chance to crush it. One day, as the queen and her paramour were proceeding in a barge on their customary visit to her private pagoda and garden,—a paradise of all the floral wonders of the tropics,—a nobleman, who had followed them, hailed the royal gondola, as if for instructions, and, being permitted to approach, suddenly sprang upon the guilty pair, drew his sword, and dispatched them both, careless of their loud cries for help. Almost simultaneously with the performance of this tragic exploit, the nobles offered the crown to an uncle of the murdered heir, who had fled from the court and taken refuge in a monastery. Having accepted it and assumed the title of Maha-Charapat Racha-therat, he invaded Pegu with a hundred thousand men-at-arms, five thousand war elephants, and seven thousand horse. With this mighty host he marched against Henzawadi, the capital of Pegu, laying waste the country as he went with fire and sword. The king of Pegu came out to meet him, accompanied by his romantic and intrepid queen, Maha Chandra, and supported by the few devoted followers that on so short a notice he could bring together. In consideration of this great disparity of forces, the two kings agreed, in the chivalric spirit of the time, to decide the fortune of the day by single combat. Hardly had they encountered, when the elephant on which the king of Pegu was mounted took fright and fled the field; but his queen promptly took his place, and fighting rashly, fell, speared through the right breast. She was borne off amid the clash of cymbals and flourish of trumpets that hailed the victor.
Maha-Charapat Racha-therat was a great prince. His wisdom, valor, and heroic exploits supplied the native bards with inspiring themes. By his magnanimity he extinguished the envy of the neighboring princes and transformed rivals into friends. Jealous rulers became his willing vassals, not from fear of his power, but in admiration for his virtues. Malacca, Tenasserim, Ligor, Thavai, Martaban, Maulmain, Songkhla, Chantaboon, Phitsanulok, Look-Kho-Thai, Phi-chi, Savan Khalok, Phechit, Cambodia, and Nakhon Savan were all dependencies of Siam under his reign.
In the year 1568 of the Christian era the Siamese territory was invaded and laid under tribute by a Birman king named Mandanahgri, who must have been a warrior of Napoleonic genius, for he extended his dominion as far as the confines of China. It is remarkable that the flower of his army was composed of several thousand Portuguese, tried troops in good discipline, commanded by the noted Don Diego Suanes. These, like the famous Scotch Legion of Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War, were mercenaries, and doubtless contributed importantly to the success of the Birman arms. Theirs is by no means the only case of Portuguese soldiers serving for hire in the armies of the East. Their commander, Suanes, seems to have been a brave and accomplished officer, and to have been intrusted with undivided control of the Birmese forces.
Mandanahgri held the queen of Siam and her two sons as hostages for the payment of the tribute he had levied; but the princes were permitted to return to Siam after a few years of captivity in Birmah, and in 1583 their captor died. His successor struggled with an uncle for possession of the throne, and the king of Siam, seizing the opportunity, declared himself independent; wherefore a more formidable army was shortly sent against him, under command of the eldest son of the king of Birmah. But one of the young princes who had been led into captivity by Mandanahgri now sat on the throne of Siam. In his youth he had been styled "the Black Prince," a title of distinction which seems to have fitted his characteristics not less appropriately than it did those of the English Edward. Undismayed by the strength and fury of the enemy, he attacked and routed them in a pitched battle, killing their leader with his own hands, invaded Pegu, and besieged its capital; but was finally compelled to retire with considerable loss. The Black Prince was succeeded by "the White King," who reigned peacefully for many years.
The next monarch especially worthy of notice is P'hra Narai, who sent ambassadors to Goa, the most important of the Portuguese trading-stations in the East Indies, chiefly to invite the Portuguese of Malacca to establish themselves in Siam for mutual advantages of trade. The welcome emissaries were sumptuously entertained, and a Dominican friar accompanied them on their return, with costly presents for the king. This friar found P'hra Narai much more liberal in his ideas than later ambassadors, even to this day, have found any other ruler of Siam. He agreed not only to permit all Portuguese merchants to establish themselves anywhere in his dominions, but to exempt their goods and wares from duty. The Dominican monks were likewise invited to build churches and preach Christianity in Siam.
Soon after this extraordinary display of liberal statesmanship P'hra Narai narrowly escaped death by a strange conspiracy. Four or five hundred Japanese adventurers were secretly introduced into the country by an ambitious feudal proprietor, who had conceived the mad design of dethroning the monarch and reigning in his stead; but the king, warned of the planned attack upon the palace, seized the native conspirator and put him to death. The Japanese, on the contrary, were enrolled as a kind of praetorian guard, or janissaries; in this character, however, their pride and power became so formidable that the king grew uneasy and disbanded them.
P'hra Narai, from all accounts, was a man to be respected and esteemed. The events and the dramatis personae of his reign form a story so romantic, so exceptional even in Eastern annals, that, but for the undoubted authenticity of this chapter of Siamese history, it would be incredible. It was during his reign that the whimsical attempt was made by Louis XIV. to conquer Siam and proselyte her king. An extraordinary spectacle! One of the most licentious monarchs of France, who to the last breathed an atmosphere poisoned with scepticism, and more than Buddhism itself subversive of the true principles of Christianity, is suddenly inspired with an apparently devout longing to be the instrument of converting to the true faith the princes of the East. To this end he employs that wily, powerful, and indefatigable body of daring priests, the Jesuits, who were then in the very ardor of their missionary schemes.
Ostensibly for the purpose of propagating the Gospel, but with more reality aspiring to extend their subtile influence over all mankind, this society, with means the most slender and in the face of obstacles the most disheartening, have, with indomitable courage and supernatural patience, accomplished labors unparalleled in the achievements of mind. Now, in the wilds of Western America, taming and teaching races of whose existence the world of refinement had never heard; now climbing the icy steeps and tracking the wastes and wildernesses of Siberia, or with the evangel of John in one hand and the art of Luke in the other, bringing life to the bodies and souls of perishing multitudes under a scorching equatorial sun,—there is not a spot of earth in which European civilization has taken root where traces of Jesuit forethought and careful, patient husbandry may not be found. So in Siam, we discover a monarch of consummate acumen, more European than Asiatic in his ideas, sedulously cultivating the friendship of these foreign workers of wonders; and finally we find a Greek adventurer officiating as prime minister to this same king, and conducting his affairs with that ability and success which must have commanded intellectual admiration, even if they had not been inspired and promoted by motives of integrity toward the monarch who had so implicitly confided in his wisdom and fidelity.
Constantine Phaulkon was the son of respectable parents, natives of the island of Cephalonia, where he was born in 1630. The geography, if not the very name, of the kingdom whose affairs he was destined to direct was quite unknown to his compatriots of the Ionian Isles,—even when as a mariner, wrecked on the coast of Malabar, he became a fellow-passenger with a party of Siamese officials, his companions in disaster, who were returning to their country from an embassy. The facile Greek quickly learned to talk with his new-found friends in their own tongue, and by his accomplishments and adroitness made a place for himself in their admiration and influence, so that he was received with flattering consideration at the Court of P'hra Narai, and very soon invited to take service under government. By his sagacity, tact, and diligence in the management of all affairs intrusted to him, he rapidly rose in favor with his patron, who finally elevated him to the highest post of honor in the state: he was made premier.
The star of the Cephalonian waif and adventurer had now mounted to the zenith, and was safe to shine for many years with unabated brilliancy; to this day he is remembered by the expressive term Vicha-yen, "the cool wisdom." The French priests, elated at his success, spared no promises or arts to retain him secretly in their interest. Under circumstances so extraordinary and auspicious, the plans of the Jesuits for the conversion of all Eastern Asia were put in execution. From the Vatican bishops were appointed, and sent out to Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam, and Pegu, while the people of those several kingdoms were yet profoundly ignorant of the amiable intentions of the Pope. Francis Pallu, M. De la Motte Lambert, and Ignatius Cotolendy were the respective exponents of this pious idea, under the imposing titles of Bishops of Heliopolis, Borytus, Byzantium, and Metellopolis,—all Frenchmen, for Louis XIV. insisted that the glory of the enterprise should be ascribed exclusively to France and to himself.
But all their efforts to convert the king were of no avail. The Jesuits, however, opened schools, and have ever since labored assiduously and with success to introduce the ideas and the arts of Europe into those countries.
After some years P'hra Narai sent an embassy to the Court of Louis, who was so sensible of the flattery that he immediately reciprocated with an embassy of his own, with more priests, headed by the Chevalier De Chaumont and the Pere Tachard. The French fleet of five ships cast anchor in the Meinam on the 27th of September, 1687, and the Chevalier and his reverend colleague, attended by Jesuits, were promptly and graciously received by the king, who, however, expressed his "fears" that the chief object of their mission might not prove so easy of attainment as they had been led to believe. As for Phaulkon, he had adroitly deceived the Jesuits from the first, and made all parties instruments to promote his own shrewd and secret plans.
De Chaumont, disheartened by his failure, sailed back to France, where he arrived in 1688, in the height of the agitation attending the English Revolution of that year.
Phaulkon, finding that he could no longer conceal from the Jesuits the king's repugnance to their plans for his conversion, placed himself under their direction and control; for though he had not as yet conceived the idea of seizing upon the crown, it was plain that he aspired to honors higher than the premiership. Then rumors of disaffection among the nobles were diligently propagated by the French priests, who, although not sufficiently powerful to dethrone the king, were nevertheless dangerous inciters of rebellion among the common people.
Meanwhile the king of Johore, then a tributary of Siam, instigated by the Dutch, who, from the first, had watched with jealousy the machinations of the French, sent envoys to P'hra Narai, to advise the extermination or expulsion of the French, and to proffer the aid of his troops; but the proposition was rejected with indignation.
These events were immediately followed by another, known in Siamese history as the Revolt of the Macassars, which materially promoted the ripening of the revolution of which the French had sown the seeds. Celebes, a large, irregular island east of Borneo, includes a district known as Macassar, the ruler of which had been arbitrarily dethroned by the Dutch; and the sons of the injured monarch, taking refuge in Siam, secretly encouraged the growing enmity of the nobles against the French.
Meanwhile Phaulkon, by his address, and skilful management of public affairs, continued to exercise paramount influence over the mind of the king. He persuaded P'hra Narai to send another embassy to France, which arrived happily (the former having been shipwrecked off the Cape of Good Hope) at the Court of Louis XIV. in 1689. He also diligently and ably advanced the commercial strength of the country; merchants from all parts of the world were invited to settle in Siam, and factories of every nation were established along the banks of the Meinam. Both Ayudia and Lophaburee became busy and flourishing. He was careful to keep the people employed, and applied himself with vigor to improving the agriculture of the country. Rice, sugar, corn, and palm-oil constituting the most fruitful and regular source of revenue, he wisely regulated the traffic in those staples, and was studious to promote the security and happiness of the great body of the population engaged or concerned in their production. The laws he framed were so sound and stable, and at the same time so wisely conformable to the interests alike of king and subject, that to this day they constitute the fundamental law of the land.
Phaulkon designed and built the palaces at Lophaburee, consisting of two lofty edifices, square, with pillars on all sides; each pillar was made to represent a succession of shafts by the intervention of salient blocks, forming capitals to what they surmounted and pedestals to what they supported. The apartments within were gorgeously gilt and sumptuously furnished. There yet remains, in remarkable preservation, a vermilion chamber looking toward the east; though, otherwise, a forest of stately trees and several broken arches alone mark the spot where dwelt in regal splendor this foreign favorite of P'hra Narai.
He also erected the famous castle on the west of the town, on a piece of ground, near the north bank of the river, which formerly belonged to a Buddhist monastery.
Finally, to keep off the Birman invaders, he built a wall, surmounted along its whole extent by a parapet, and fortified with towers at regular intervals of forty fathoms, as well as by four larger ones at its extremities on the banks of the river, below the two bridges. Its gates appear to have been twelve or thirteen in number, and the extent of the southern portion is fixed at two thousand fathoms. Suburban villages still exist on both sides of the river, and, beyond these, the religious buildings, which have been restored, but which now display the fantastic rather than the grand style which distinguished the architecture of this consummate Grecian, whom the people name with wonder,—all marvellous works being by them attributed to gods, genii, devils, or the "Vicha-yen."
But the luxury in which the haughty statesman revelled, his towering ambition, and the wealth he lavished on his private abodes, joined to the lofty, condescending air he assumed toward the nobles, soon provoked their jealous murmurings against him and his too partial master; and when, at last, the king, falling ill, repaired to the premier's palace at Lophaburee, some of the more disaffected nobles, headed by a natural son of P'hra Narai and the two princes of Macassar, forced their way into the palace to slay the monarch. But the brave old man, at a glance divining their purpose, leaped from his couch and, seizing his sword, threw himself upon it, and died as his assassins entered.
In the picturesque drama of Siamese history no figure appears so truly noble and brilliant as this king, not merely renowned by the glory of his military exploits and the happy success of his more peaceful undertakings, but beloved for his affectionate concern for the welfare of his subjects, his liberality, his moderation, his modesty, his indifference to the formal honors due to his royal state, and (what is most rare in Asiatic character) his sincere aversion to flattery, his shyness even toward deserved and genuine praise.
Turning from the corpse of the king, the baffled regicides dashed at the luxurious apartment where Phaulkon slumbered, as was his custom of an afternoon, unattended save by his fair young daughter Constantia. Breaking in, they tore the sleeping father from the arms of his agonized child, who with piteous implorings offered her life for his, bound him with cords, dragged him to the woods beyond his garden, and there, within sight of the lovely little Greek chapel he had erected for his private devotions, first tortured him like fiends, and then, dispatching him, flung his body into a pit. His daughter, following them, clung fast to her father, and, though her heart bled and her brain grew numb between the gashes and the groans, she still cheered him with her passionate endearments; and, holding before his eyes a cross of gold that always hung on her bosom, inspired him to die like a brave man and a Christian. After that the lovely heroine was dragged into slavery and concubinage by the infamous Chow Dua, one of the bloodiest of the gang.
Even pagan chroniclers do not fail to render homage to so brave a man, of whom they tell that "he bore all with a fortitude and defiance that astounded the monsters who slew him, and convinced them that he derived his supernatural courage and contempt of pain from the miraculous virtues of his daughter's golden cross." After the death of the able premier, the Birmese again overran the land, laying waste the fields, and besieging the city of Ayuthia for two years. Finding they could not reduce it by famine, they tried flames, and the burning is said to have lasted two whole months. One of the feudal lords of Siam, Phya Tak, a Chinese adventurer, who had amassed wealth, and held the office of governor of the northern provinces under the late king, seeing the impending ruin of the country, assembled his personal followers and dependants, and with about a thousand hardy and resolute warriors retired to the mountain fastness of Naghon Najok, whence from time to time he swooped down to harass the encampments of the Birmese, who were almost invariably worsted in the skirmishes he provoked. He then moved upon Bangplasoi, and the people of that place came out with gifts of treasure and hailed him as their sovereign. Thence he sailed to Rajong, strengthened his small force with volunteers in great numbers, marched against Chantaboon, whose governor had disputed his authority, and executed that indiscreet official; levied another large army; built and equipped a hundred vessels of war; and set sail—a part of his army preceding him overland—for Kankhoa, on the confines of Cochin China, which place he brought to terms in less than three hours. Thence he pushed on to Cambodia, and arriving there on the Siamese Sabato, or Sabbath, he issued a solemn proclamation to his army, assuring them that he would that evening worship in the temple of the famous emerald idol, P'hra Keau. Every man was ordered to arm as if for battle, but to wear the sacred robe,—white for the laity, yellow for the clergy; and all the priests who followed his fortunes were required to lead the way into the grand temple through the southern portico, over which stood a triple-headed tower. Then the conqueror, having prepared himself by fasting and purification, clad in his sacred robes and armed to the teeth, followed and made his words good. Almost his first act was to send his ships to the adjacent provinces for supplies of rice and grain, which he dispensed so bountifully to the famishing people that they gratefully accepted his rule.
This king is described as an enthusiastic and indefatigable warrior, scorning palaces, and only happy in camp or at the head of his army. His people found in him a true friend, he was ever kind and generous to the poor, and to his soldiers he paid fivefold the rates of former reigns. But toward the nobles he was haughty, rude, exacting. It is supposed that his prime minister, fearing to oppose him openly, corrupted his chief concubine, and with her assistance drugged his food; so that he was rendered insane, and, imagining himself a god, insisted that sacrifices and offerings should be made to him, and began to levy upon the nobility for enormous sums, often putting them to the torture to extort treasure. Instigated by their infuriated lords, the people now rebelled against their lately idolized master, and attacked him in his palace, from, which he fled by a secret passage to an adjoining monastery, in the disguise of a priest. But the premier, to whom he was presently betrayed, had him put to death, on the pretext that he might cause still greater scandal and disaster, but in reality to establish himself in undisputed possession of the throne, which he now usurped under the title of P'hra-Phuthi-Chow-Luang, and removed the palace from the west to the east bank of the Meinam. During his reign the Birmese made several attempts to invade the country, but were invariably repulsed with loss.
This brings us to the uneventful reign of Phen-den-Klang; and by his death, in 1825, to the beginning of the story of his Majesty, Maha Mongkut, the late supreme king, and my employer, with whom, in these pages, we shall have much to do.
IV. HIS EXCELLENCY'S HAREM AND HELPMEET.
When the Senabawdee, or Royal Council, by elevating to the throne the priest-prince Chowfa Mongkut, frustrated the machinations of the son of his predecessor, they by the same stroke crushed the secret hopes of Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse, the present premier. It is whispered to this day—for no native, prince or peasant, may venture to approach the subject openly—that, on the day of coronation, his Excellency retired to his private chambers, and there remained, shut up with his chagrin and grief, for three days. On the fourth, arrayed in his court robes and attended by a numerous retinue, he presented himself at the palace to take part in the ceremonies with which the coronation was celebrated. The astute young king, who in his priestly character had penetrated many state secrets, advanced to greet him, and with the double purpose of procuring the adherence and testing the fidelity of this discontented and wavering son of his stanch old champion, the Duke Somdetch Ong Yai, appointed him on the spot to the command of the army, under the title of Phya P'hra Kralahome.
This flattering distinction, though it did not immediately beguile him from his moodiness, for a time diverted his dangerous fancies into channels of activity, and he found a safe expression for his annoyance in a useful restlessness. But after he had done more than any of his predecessors to remodel and perfect the army, he relapsed into morbid melancholy, from which he was once more aroused by the call of his royal master, who invited him to share the labors and the honors of government in the highest civil office, that of prime minister. He accepted, and has ever since shown himself prolific in devices to augment the revenue, secure the co-operation of the nobility, and confirm his own power. His remarkable executive faculty, seconding the enlightened policy of the king, would doubtless have inaugurated a golden age for his country, but for the aggressive meddling of French diplomacy in the quarrels between the princes of Cochin China and Cambodia; by which exasperating measure Siam is in the way to lose one of her richest possessions, [Footnote: Cambodia.] and may in time become, herself, the brightest and most costly jewel in the crown of France.
Such was Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse when I was first presented to him: a natural king among the dusky forms that surrounded him, the actual ruler of that semi-barbarous realm, and the prime contriver of its arbitrary policy. Black, but comely, robust, and vigorous, neck short and thick, nose large and nostrils wide, eyes inquisitive and penetrating, his was the massive brain proper to an intellect deliberate and systematic. Well found in the best idioms of his native tongue, he expressed strong, discriminative thoughts in words at once accurate and abundant. His only vanity was his English, with which he so interlarded his native speech, as often to impart the effect of levity to ideas that, in themselves, were grave, judicious, and impressive.
Let me conduct the reader into one of the saloons of the palace, where we shall find this intellectual sensualist in the moral relaxation of his harem, with his latest pets and playthings about him.
Peering into a twilight, studiously contrived, of dimly-lighted and suggestive shadows, we discover in the centre of the hall a long line of girls with skins of olive,—creatures who in years and physical proportions are yet but children, but by training developed into women and accomplished actresses. There are some twenty of them, in transparent draperies with golden girdles, their arms and bosoms, wholly nude, flashing, as they wave and heave, with barbaric ornaments of gold. The heads are modestly inclined, the hands are humbly folded, and the eyes droop timidly beneath long lashes. Their only garment, the lower skirt, floating in light folds about their limbs, is of very costly material bordered heavily with gold. On the ends of their fingers they wear long "nails" of gold, tapering sharply like the claws of a bird. The apartment is illuminated by means of candelabras, hung so high that the light falls in a soft hazy mist on the tender faces and pliant forms below.
Another group of maidens, comely and merry, sit behind musical instruments, of so great variety as to recall the "cornet, flute, sackbut, harp, psaltery, and dulcimer" of Scripture. The "head wife" of the premier, earnestly engaged in creaming her lips, reclines apart on a dais, attended by many waiting-women.
From the folds of a great curtain a single flute opens the entertainment with low tender strains, and from the recesses twelve damsels appear, bearing gold and silver fans, with which, seated in order, they fan the central group.
Now the dancers, a burst of joyous music being the signal, form in two lines, and simultaneously, with military precision, kneel, fold and raise their hands, and bow till their foreheads touch the carpet before their lord. Then suddenly springing to their feet, they describe a succession of rapid and intricate circles, tapping the carpet with their toes in time to the music. Next follows a miracle of art, such as may be found only among pupils of the highest physical training; a dance in which every motion is poetry, every attitude an expression of love, even rest but the eloquence of passion overcome by its own fervor. The music swelling into a rapturous tumult preludes the choral climax, wherein the dancers, raising their delicate feet, and curving their arms and fingers in seemingly impossible flexures, sway like withes of willow, and agitate all the muscles of the body like the fluttering of leaves in a soft breeze. Their eyes glow as with an inner light; the soft brown complexion, the rosy lips half parted, the heaving bosom, and the waving arms, as they float round and round in wild eddies of dance, impart to them the aspect of fair young fiends.
And there sits the Kralahome, like the idol of ebony before the demon had entered it! while around him these elfin worshippers, with flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, tossing arms and panting bosoms, whirl in their witching waltz. He is a man to be wondered at,—stony and grim, his huge hands resting on his knees in statuesque repose, as though he supported on his well-poised head the whole weight of the Maha Mongkut [Footnote: "The Mighty Crown."] itself, while at his feet these brown leaves of humanity lie quivering.
Is it all maya,—delusion? I open wide my eyes, then close them, then open them again. There still lie the living puppets, not daring to look up to the face of their silent god, where scorn and passion contend for place. The dim lights, the shadows blending with them, the fine harmony of colors, the wild harmony of sounds, the fantastic phantoms, the overcoming sentiment, all the poetry and the pity of the scene,—the formless longing, the undefined sense of wrong! Poor things, poor things!
The prime minister of Siam enjoys no exemption from that mocking law which condemns the hero strutting on the stage of the world to cut but a sorry figure at home. Toward these helpless slaves of his nod his deportment was studiously ungracious and mean. No smile of pleased surprise or approbation ever brightened his gloomy countenance. True, the fire of his native ardor burns there still, but through no crevice of the outward man may one catch a glimpse of its light. Though he rage as a fiery furnace within, externally he is calm as a lake, too deep to be troubled by the skipping, singing brooks that flow into it. Rising automatically, he abruptly retired, bored. And those youthful, tender forms, glowing and panting there,—in what glorious robes might not their proper loveliness have arrayed them, if only their hearts had looked upward in freedom, and not, like their trained eyes, downward in blind homage.
Koon Ying Phan (literally, "The Lady in One Thousand") was the head wife of the Premier. He married her, after repudiating the companion of his more grateful years, the mother of his only child, a son—the legitimacy of whose birth he doubted, and so, for a grim jest, named the lad My Chi, "Not So." He would have put the mother to death, but finding no real grounds for his suspicion, let her off with a public "putting away." The divorced woman, having nothing left but her disowned baby, carefully changed the My Chi to Ny Chi ("Not So" to "Master So "),—a cunning trick of pride, but a doubtful improvement.
Koon Ying Phan had neither beauty nor grace; but her habits were domestic, and her temper extremely mild. When I first knew her she was perhaps forty years old,—stout, heavy, dark,—her only attraction the gentle expression of her eyes and mouth. Around her pretty residence, adjoining the Premier's palace, bloomed the most charming garden I saw in Siam, with shrubberies, fountains, and nooks, designed by a true artist; though the work of the native florists is usually fantastic and grotesque, with an excess of dwarfed trees in Chinese vases. There was, besides, a cool, shaded walk, leading to a more extensive garden, adorned with curious lattice-work, and abounding in shrubs of great variety and beauty. Koon Ying Phan had a lively love for flowers, which she styled the children of her heart; "for my lord is childless," she whispered.
In her apartments the same subdued lights and mellow half-tints prevailed that in her husband's saloons imparted a pensive sentiment to the place. There were neither carpets nor mirrors; and the only articles of furniture were some sofa-beds, low marble couches, tables, and a few arm-chairs, but all of forms antique and delicate. The combined effect was one of delicious coolness, retirement, and repose, even despite the glaring rays that strove to invade the sweet refuge through the silken window-nets.
This lady, to whom belonged the undivided supervision of the premier's household, was kind to the younger women of her husband's harem, in whose welfare she manifested a most amiable interest,—living among them happily, as a mother among her daughters, sharing their confidences, and often pleading their cause with her lord and theirs, over whom she exercised a very cautious but positive influence.
I learned gladly and with pride to admire and love this lady, to accept her as the type of a most precious truth. For to behold, even afar off, "silent upon a peak" of sympathy, the ocean of love and pathos, of passion and patience, on which the lives of these our pagan sisters drift, is to be gratefully sensible of a loving, pitying, and sufficing Presence, even in the darkness of error, superstition, slavery, and death. Shortly after her marriage, Koon Ying Phan, moved partly by compassion for the wrongs of her predecessor, partly by the "aching void" of her own life, adopted the disowned son of the premier, and called him, with reproachful significance, P'hra Nah Why, "the Lord endures." And her strong friend, Nature, who had already knit together, by nerve and vein and bone and sinew, the father and the child, now came to her aid, and united them by the finer but scarcely weaker ties of habit and companionship and home affections.
V. THE TEMPLES OF THE SLEEPING AND THE EMERALD IDOLS.
The day had come for my presentation to the supreme king. After much preliminary talk between the Kralahome and myself, through the medium of the interpreter, it had been arranged that my straightforward friend, Captain B——, should conduct us to the royal palace, and procure the interview. Our cheerful escort arrived duly, and we proceeded up the river,—my boy maintaining an ominous silence all the while, except once, when he shyly confessed he was afraid to go.