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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 déshabillé, and scarcely so pretty as at our first meeting, but for her smile, remarkable for its subtle, 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.
THE PRIME MINISTER
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 façade; 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 reconnoitered 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-chewitt.1
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-chewitt, 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 sale, 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 Medusæ 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.
1 Chow-che-witt, — "Prince of life," — the supreme king.