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ABOUT seven o'clock on the following morning I was in the Sala or San Shuang, which is within the second enclosure of the palace, but outside of the third or inner wall, which is that of the harem. This building is of one story only, and totally unlike that occupied for similar purposes in the interior of the grand palace. The main entrance was through a long, low corridor, on both sides of which opened apartments of different dimensions, so dilapidated as to be scarcely habitable, looking out upon the barracks, the magazine, and the fantastic grounds of the palace gardens. On entering the hall one was at once struck by the incongruities that met the eye; the windows were large and lofty, and might have served for the casements of a royal residence, while the doors were very narrow and mean, and the floor merely a collection of worm-eaten boards roughly nailed down. One interesting and picturesque peculiarity was the monstrous size of the spiders, who must have had undisturbed possession of the walls and ceiling for at least a century. Altogether, it was very dark, dull, and dreary, even depressing and sepulchral, when not illumined by the direct rays of the sun. Several of the men and women judges were already there, interchanging greetings and offerings of the contents of their betel-boxes. P'hayaprome Baree Rak, the chief of the men, and Khoon Thow App, chief of the women judges, sat apart, the latter with her head bowed in an attitude of reflection and sadness. Before them were low tables, on which lay dark rolls of laws, Siamese paper, pens, and ink. Some lower officials and clerks crouched around. They all eyed me with curiosity as I entered and took a seat at the end of the hall, near the two priests who were present as witnesses; but no one made any objection to my stay.
I had not been there long when a file of Amazons appeared, bringing in Tuptim and the two other girls under guard. These were Maprang and Simlah, Tuptim's most intimate friends, whom I had always seen with her when she came to the school-room.
But was that Tuptim? I sat stupefied at the transformation that had been wrought in the Tuptim I had known. Her hair was cut close to her head, and her eyebrows had been shaved off. Her cheeks were hollow and sunken. Her eyes were cast down. Her hands were manacled, and her bare little feet could hardly drag along the heavy chains that were fastened to her ankles. Her scarf was tied tightly over her bosom, and under it her close-fitting vest was buttoned up to the throat. Her whole form was still childlike, but she held herself erect, and her manner was self-possessed. When she spoke, her voice was clear and vibrating, her accent firm and unflinching.
The Amazons laid before the judges some priests' garments and a small amulet attached to a piece of yellow cord. The vestments, such as are worn by a nain (young priest), were those in which Tuptim had been arrested, and in which she had probably escaped from the palace; the amulet, in appearance like those worn by all the natives of the country, had been taken from her neck. On opening the yellow silk which formed the envelope of the latter, a piece of paper was found stitched inside, with English letters written thereon. Khoon Thow App was sufficiently versed in English to spell out and read aloud the name of "Khoon P'hra Bâlât."
Tuptim was then ordered to come forward. She dragged herself along as well as she could, and took her place in the centre of the hall. She made no obeisance, no humble, appealing prostration, but neither was there any want of modesty in her demeanor. She sat down with the air of one who suffered, hut who was too proud to complain. I caught a glance of her eyes; they were clear and bright, and an almost imperceptible melancholy smile Bitted across her face as she returned my greeting. I was more astonished than before; the simple child was transfigured into a proud, heroic woman, and, as she sat there, she seemed so calm and pure, that one might think she had already crystallized into a lovely statue.
Simlah and Maprang were examined first, and, without apparent reluctance, confessed all that poor Tuptim had ever confided to them, and a great many other irrelevant matters. But when Simlah spoke of her friend's escape from the palace as connected with Khoon P'hra Bâlât's coming in for alms,1 Tuptim interrupted her, telling her to stop, and saying: "That's not true. You are wrong, Simlah, you know nothing about it. You know you don't And it was not at that time." Then, as if recollecting herself, she added, proudly: "No matter. Go on. Never mind me. Say all that you want to say"; and resumed her former position.
"Well!" said P'hayaprome Baree Rak, the chief man judge; "if your companions know nothing about it, perhaps you will tell us exactly how it was."
"If I tell you the whole truth, will you believe me and judge me righteously?" asked the girl.
"You shall have the bastinado applied to your bare back if you do not confess all your guilt at once," replied the judge.
Tuptim did not speak immediately; but by the expression of her eyes and the alternate flushing and paling of her face it was evident that she was debating in her own mind whether she should make a full confession or not. Finally, with an air of fixed determination she turned towards Khoon Thow App, and, addressing her exclusively, said: "Khoon P'hra Bâlât has not sinned, my lady, nor is he in any way guilty. All the guilt is mine. In the stillness of the nights, when I prostrated myself in prayer before Somdetch P'hra Buddh, the Chow, thoughts of escaping from the palace often and often would distract me from my devotions and take possession of my thoughts. It seemed to me as if it were the voice of the Lord, and that there was nothing for me to do but to obey. So I dressed myself as a priest, shaved off my hair and my eyebrows — "
"Now," interrupted P'hayaprome Baree Rak, "that s just what we want to hear. Tell us who it was got the priest's dress for you, and shaved off your hair and your eyebrows. Speak up louder."
"My lord, I am telling what I did myself, and not what any one else did. Hear me, and I will speak the truth, so far as it relates to myself; beyond that I cannot go," replied Tuptim, a sudden flush covering her face, and making her look lovelier than ever.
"Go on," said the dreadful man, with a scornful smile at the childish form before him; "we shall find a way to make you speak."
"Dčck nak" (she is very young), said Khoon Thow App, gently.
Tuptim was silent for some moments. The sunlight, streaming across the hall, fell just behind her, revealing the exquisite transparency of her olive-colored skin, as, with a look more thoughtful and an expression more serenely simple still, she continued: —
"At five o'clock in the morning, when the priests were admitted into the palace, I crawled out of my room and joined the procession as it passed on to receive the royal alms. No one saw me but Simian, and even she, has told me herself, did not recognize me, but wondered why a priest came so near to my door."
"That is true!" broke in Simlah; "I never even knew that Tuptim had run away until Khoon Yai (one of the chief ladies of the harem) sent to inquire why she was absent from duty so long, and then I began to think that the young priest I had seen had something to do with it. But I was afraid to say anything of this to the women who searched the houses, lest we should be accused of having helped her to escape."
When Simlah had done speaking, Tuptim continued: —
"I know not why, but, when I found myself outside of the palace walls, I went straight to the temple of Rajah Bah ditt Sang, and sat down at the gate. Towards evening the good priest, Chow Khoon Sah, came out, and, on seeing me, asked me why I sat there. I did not know what else to say, and so I begged him to let me be his disciple and live in his monastery. 'Whose disciple art thou, my child?' he asked. At which I began to cry, for I did not wish to deceive the holy man. Seeing my distress, he turned to P'hra Bâlât, who was following him with other priests, and bade him take me under his charge and instruct me faithfully in all the doctrines of Buddha. Then P'hra Bâlât took me to his cell; but he did not recognize in the young priest I seemed to be the Tuptim he had known in his boyhood, and who had once been his betrothed wife."
At this part of Tuptim's recital, the women held up their hands in profound astonishment, and the men judges grinned maliciously, displaying their hateful gums, red with the juice of the betel-nut.
The poor girl's pale lips quivered, and her whole face testified to the immensity of her woe, as with simple, truthful earnestness she asseverated: "P'hra Bâlât, whom you have condemned to torture and to death, has not sinned. He is innocent. The sin is mine, and mine only. I knew that I was a woman, but he did not. If I had known all that he has taught me since I became his disciple, I could not have committed the great sin of which I am accused. I would have tried, indeed and truly, I would have tried to endure my life in the palace, and would not have run away. O lady dear! believe that I am speaking the truth. I grew quiet and happy because I was near him, and he taught me every day, and I can say the whole of the Nava d'harma (Divine Law) by heart. You can ask his other disciples who were with me, and they will tell you that I was always modest and humble, and we all lay at his feet by night. Indeed, dear lady, I did not so much want to be his wife after he became a p'hra (priest), but only to be near him. On Sunday morning, those men," pointing to the two priests who sat apart, "came to the cell to see P'hra Bâlât, and it so happened that I had overslept myself. I had just got up and was arranging my dress, thinking that I was alone in the cell, when I heard a low chuckling laugh. In an instant I turned and faced them, and felt that I was degraded forever.
"Believe me, dear lady," continued Tuptim, growing more and more eloquent as she became still more earnest in her recital. "I was guilty, it is true, when I fled from my gracious master, the king, but I never even contemplated the sin of which I am accused by those men. I knew that I was innocent, and I begged them to let me leave the temple, and hide myself anywhere, telling them that P'hra Bâlât did not know who I was, or that I was a woman; but they only laughed and jeered at me. I fell on my knees at their feet, and implored them, entreated them in the name of all that is holy and sacred, to keep my secret and let me go; but they only laughed and jeered at me the more; they would not be merciful," — here the poor girl gasped as if for breath, while two large tears coursed down her cheeks, — "and then I defied them, and I still defy them," she added, shaking her manacled hands at them.
The two priests looked at the girl unmoved, chewing their betel all the while; the judges listened in silence, with an air of amused incredulity, as to a fairy-tale. She continued: —
"Just then P'hra Bâlât and his other disciples returned from their morning ablutions. I crawled to his feet, and told him that I was Tuptim. He started back and recoiled to the end of the cell, as if the very earth had quaked beneath him, leaving me prostrate and overwhelmed with horror at what I had done. In a moment afterwards he came back to me, and, while weeping bitterly himself, begged me that I would cry no more. But the sight of his tears, and the grief in my heart, made me feel as if I were being swallowed up in a great black abyss, and I could not help crying more and more. Then he tried to soothe me, and said, 'Alas! Tuptim, thou hast committed a great sin. But fear not. We are innocent; and for the sake of the great love thou hast shown to me, I am ready to suffer even unto death for thee.' This is the whole truth. Indeed, indeed, it is!"
"Well, well!" said P'hayaprome Baree Rak, "you have told your story beautifully, but nobody believes you. Now will you tell us who shaved off your hair and your eyebrows, and brought you that priest's dress you had on yesterday?"
The simple grandeur of that fragile child, as she folded her chained hands across her bosom, as if to still its tumultuous heaving, and replied, "I will not!" defies all description.
I had drawn quite near to Tuptim when she began her simple narrative, and was so much absorbed in attention to what she said, and in admiration of the fearlessness as well as of the beauty and majesty of that little figure, that I had remained rooted to the spot, standing there mechanically, and hardly noting what was going on around me. But the effect of that reply was startling; it brought me suddenly to my senses and to a full appreciation of the scene before me.
There was a child of barely sixteen years hurling defiance, at her own risk and peril, at the judges who appeared as giants beside her. To make such a reply to those executors of Siam's cruel laws was not only to accept death, but all the agonies of merciless torture. As her refusal fell like a thunderbolt upon my startled ears, she seemed a very Titan among the giants.
"Strip her, and give her thirty blows," shouted the infuriated P'hayaprome Baree Rak, in a voice hoarse with passion; and Khoon Thow App looked calmly on.
Presently the crowd opened, and a litter borne by two men was brought into the hall. On it lay the mutilated form of the priest Bâlât, who had just undergone the torture, in order to make him confess his guilt and that of his accomplice, Tuptim; but as the minutes of the ecclesiastical court stated, "it had not been possible to elicit from him even an indication that he had anything to confess." His priestly robes had been taken from him, and he was dressed like any ordinary layman, except that his hair and eyebrows were closely shaven. They laid him down beside Tuptim, hoping that the sight of her under torture would induce him to confess.
The next moment Tuptim was stripped of her vest and bound to a stake, and the executioners proceeded to obey the orders of the judge. When the first blow descended on the girl's bare and delicate shoulders, I felt as if bound and lacerated myself, and losing all control over my actions, forgetting that I was a stranger and a foreigner there, and as powerless as the weakest of the oppressed around me, I sprang forward, and heard my voice commanding the executioners to desist, as they valued their lives.
A SIAMESE SLAVE-GIRL.
The Amazons at once dropped their uplifted bamboos, and "Why so?" asked the judge. "At least till I can plead for Tuptim before his Majesty," I replied. "So be it," said the wretch; "go your way; we will wait your return."2 Tuptim was unbound, and the moment she was released she crouched down and concealed herself under the folds of the canvas litter in which the priest lay motionless and silent.
I forced my way through the curious crowd, who stood on tiptoe and with necks outstretched, trying to get a sight of the guilty pair. On leaving the hall, I met the slave-girl Phim, who followed me into the palace, wringing her hands and sobbing bitterly. The king was in his breakfast-hall, and the smell of food made me feel sick and dizzy as I climbed the lofty staircase, for I had eaten nothing that day. Nevertheless, I walked as rapidly as possible up to the chair in which the king was seated, fearing that I might lose my courage if I deliberated a moment, "Your Majesty," I began to say, in a voice that seemed quite strange to me, "I beg, I entreat your pity on poor Tuptim. I assure you that she is innocent. If you had known from the beginning that she was betrothed to another man, you would never have taken her to be your wife She is not guilty; and the priest, too, is innocent. Oh! do be gracious to them and forgive them both! I pray your Majesty to give me a scrap of writing to say that she is forgiven, and that the priest, too, is pardoned, through your goodness; only let me —" My voice failed me, and I sank upon the floor by the king's chair. "I beg your Majesty's pardon —" "You are mad," said the monarch; and, fixing a cold stare upon me, he burst out laughing in my face. I started to my feet as if I had received a blow. Staggering to a pillar, and leaning against it, I stood looking at him. I saw that there was something indescribably revolting about him, something fiendish in his character which had never struck me before, and I was seized with an inexpressible horror of the man. Stupefied and amazed quite as much at finding myself there as at the new development I witnessed, thought and speech alike failed me, and I turned to go away.
"Madam," said that man to me, "come back. I have granted your petition, and the woman will be condemned to work in the rice-mill. You need not return to the court-house. You had better go to the school now."
I could not thank him; the revulsion of feeling was too great. I understood him perfectly, but I had no power to speak. I went away without a word, and at the head of the stairs met one of the women judges bringing some papers in her hand to the king. Instead of going to the school I went home, utterly sick and prostrated.
1 "The English Governess at the Siamese Court," p. 95.
2 I cannot account for the regard paid to my words on this and other occasions by the officers of the court, except from the fact of the general belief that I had great influence with the king, and the supposition entertained by many that I was a member of the Secret Council, which is, in reality, the supreme power in Siam.