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THE KING CHANGES HIS MIND.
ABOUT two o'clock that very afternoon I was startled to see two scaffolds set up on the great common in front of my windows, opposite the palace. A vast crowd of men, women, and children had already collected from every quarter, in order to see the spectacle, whatever it might happen to be. A number of workmen were driving stakes and bringing up strange machines, under the hurried instructions of several high Siamese officials. There was an appearance of great and general excitement among the crowd on the green, and I became sufficiently aroused to inquire of my maid what was the reason of all this preparation and commotion. She informed me that a Bādachit (guilty priest) and a Nangharm (royal concubine) were to be exposed and tortured for the improvement of the public morals that afternoon. It was afternoon already.
As I afterwards learned, I had no sooner left the king than the woman judge I had met at the head of the staircase laid before him the proceedings of both the trials, of Bālāt and Tuptim. On reading them he repented of his promised mercy, flew into a violent rage against Tuptim and me, and, not knowing how to punish me except by showing me his absolute power of life and death over his subjects, ordered the scaffolds to be set up before my windows, and swore vengeance against any person who should again dare to oppose his royal will and pleasure. To do justice to the king, I must here add that, having been educated a priest, he had been taught to regard the crime of which Tuptim and Bālāt were accused as the most deadly sin that could be committed by man.
The scaffolds or pillories on which the priest and Tuptim were to be exposed were made of poles, and about five feet high; and to each were attached two long levers, which were fastened to the neck of the victim, and prevented his falling off, while they were so arranged as to strangle him in case this was the sentence.
All the windows of the long antechamber that filled the eastern front of the palace were thrown open, and I could see the hurried preparations making for the king, the princes and princesses, and all the great ladies of the court, who from there were to witness the exquisite torture that awaited the hapless Tuptim.
Paralyzed by the knowledge that the only person who could have done anything to mitigate the barbarous cruelty that was about to be perpetrated her Britannic Majesty's Consul, T. G. Knox, now Consul-General was then absent from Bangkok, I looked in helpless despair at what was going on before me. I longed to escape into the forest, or to take refuge with the missionaries, who lived several miles down the river; but so dense was the crowd and so horrible the idea of deserting poor Tuptim and leaving her to suffer alone, that I felt obliged to stay and sympathize with her and pray for her, at the least. I thus compelled myself to endure what was one of the severest trials of my life.
A little before three o'clock the instruments of torture were brought, and placed beside the scaffolds. Soon a long, loud flourish of trumpets announced the arrival of the royal party, and the king and all Ins court were visible at the open windows; the Amazons, dressed in scarlet and gold, took their post in the turrets to guard the favored fair ones who were doomed to be present and to witness the sufferings of their former companion.
Suddenly the throng sent up a thrilling cry, whether of joy or sorrow I could not comprehend, and, the moment after, the priest was hoisted upon the scaffold to the right, while Tuptim tranquilly ascended that to the left, nearest my windows. I thought I could see that the poor priest turned his eyes, full of love and grief, towards her.
I need not attempt to depict the feelings with which I saw the little lady, with her hands, which were no longer chained, folded upon her bosom, look calmly down upon the heartless and abandoned rabble who, as usual, flocked around the scaffold to gloat upon the spectacle, and who usually greet with ferocious howls the agonies of the poor tortured victims. But, on this occasion, the rabble were awed into silence; while some simple hearts, here and there, firm believers in Tuptim's innocence, were so impressed by her calm self-possession, that they even prostrated themselves in worship of that childish form.
My windows were closed upon the scene; but that tiny figure, with her scarlet scarf fluttering in the breeze, had so strong a fascination for me, that I could not withdraw, but leaned against the shutters, an unwilling witness of what took place, with feelings of pain, indignation, pity, and conscious helplessness which can be imagined.
Two trumpeters, one on the right and one on the left, blared forth the nature of the crime of which the helpless pair were accused. Ten thousand eyes were fixed upon them, but no sound, no cry, was heard. Every one held his breath, and remained mute in fixed attention, in order not to lose a single word of the sentence that was to follow. Again the trumpets sounded, and the conviction of the accused, with the judgment that had been passed upon them, was announced. Then the spell was broken, and some of the throng, as if desirous to propitiate the royal spectator at the window, made the air ring with their shouts; while others, going still further, showered all manner of abuse upon the poor girl, as she stood calmly awaiting her fate upon those shaking wooden posts.
Nothing could surpass the dignity of demeanor with which the little lady sustained the storm of calumny from the more mercenary of the rabble around her; but the rapidity with which the color came and went in her cheeks, which were now of glowing crimson and now deadly pale, and the astonishment and indignation which flashed from her eyes, showed the agitation within.
The shrill native trumpets sounded for the third time. The multitude was again hushed into a profound silence, and the executioners mounted a raised platform to apply the torture to Tuptim. For one moment it seemed as if the intense agony exceeded her power of endurance. She half turned her back upon the royal spectator at the window, her form became convulsed, and she tried to hide her face in her hands. But she immediately raised herself up as by a supreme effort, and her voice rang out, like a clear, deep-toned silver bell: "Chān my di phit; Khoon P'hra Bālāt ko my me phit; P'hra Buddh the Chow Sāp möt." She had hardly done speaking when she uttered an agonized cry, wild and piercing. It was peculiarly touching; the cry was that of a child, an infant falling from its mother's arms, and she fell forward insensible upon the two poles placed there to support her.
The attendant physicians soon restored her to consciousness, and, after a short interval, the torture was again applied. Once more her voice rang out more musical still, for its quivering vibrations were full of the tenderest devotion, the most sublime heroism: "I have not sinned, nor has the priest my lord Bālāt sinned. The sacred Buddh1 in heaven knows all." Every torture that would agonize, but not kill, was employed to wring a confession of guilt from the suffering Tuptim; but every torture, every pang, every agony, failed, utterly and completely foiled, to bring forth anything but the childlike innocence of that incomparable pagan woman. The honor of the priest Bālāt seemed inexpressibly more precious to her than her own life, for the last words I heard from her were: "All the guilt was mine. I knew that I was a woman, but he did not."
After this I neither heard nor saw anything more. I was completely exhausted and worn out, and had no strength left to endure further sight of this monstrous, this inhuman tragedy. Kind nature came to my relief, and I fainted.
When I again looked from my window the scaffolds were removed, the crowd had departed, the sun had set. I strained my eyes, trying if I could distinguish anything on the great common before the house. There was a thick mist loaded with sepulchral vapors, a terrifying silence, an absolute quiet that made me shudder, as if I were entombed alive. At last I saw one solitary person coming towards my house through the gathering darkness. It was the slave-girl, Phim, whose life had been saved by the resolute bravery of her mistress; for it was she who had bought the priest's dress and aided her mistress to escape from the palace. She came to me in secret to tell me that the most merciful and yet the most dreadful doom, death by fire, which is the punishment assigned by the laws of Siam to the crime of which they were accused, had been pronounced upon the priest and Tuptim by that most irresponsible of human beings, the King of Siam; that they had suffered publicly outside of the moat and wall which enclose the cemetery Watt Sah Katč; and that some of the common people had been terribly affected by the sight of the priest's invincible courage and of Tuptim's heroic fortitude. With her low, massive brow, her wild, glistening eyes, and her whole soul in her face, she spoke as if she still beheld that fragile form in its last struggle with the flaming fire that wrapped it round about, and still heard her beloved mistress's voice, as she confronted the populace, holding up her mutilated hands, and saying: "I am pure, and the priest, my lord Bālāt, is pure also. See, these fingers have not made my lips to lie. The sacred Buddh in heaven judge between me and my accusers!"
The slave-girl's grief was as deep and lasting as her gratitude. Every seventh day she offered fresh flowers and odoriferous tapers upon the spot where her mistress and the priest had suffered, firmly believing that their disembodied souls still hovered about the place at twilight, bewailing their cruel fate. She assured me that she often heard voices moaning plaintively through the mellow evening air, growing deeper and gathering strength as she listened, and seeming to draw her very soul away with them; now tenderly weeping, now fervently exulting, until they became indistinct, and finally died away in the regions of the blessed and the pure.
I afterwards learned that the fickle populace, convinced of the innocence of Bālāt and Tuptim, would have taken speedy vengeance on the two priests, their accusers, had they not escaped from Bangkok to a monastery at Paknam; and that the twenty caties offered for the capture of Tuptim had been expended in the purchase of yellow robes, earthen pots, pillows, and mats for the use of the bonzes at Watt Rajah Bah ditt Sang, no priest being allowed to touch silver or gold.
The name Bālāt, which signifies "wonderful," had been given to the priest by the high-priest, Chow Khoon Sah, because of his deep piety and his intuitive perception of divine and holy truths. The name which his mother bestowed upon him, and by which Tuptim had known him in her earlier years, was Dang, because of his complexion, which was a golden yellow. On being bereft of Tuptim, to whom he was tenderly attached, he entered the monastery, and became a priest, in order that, by austere devotion and the study of the Divine Law, he might wean his heart from her and distract his mind from the contemplation of his irreparable loss.
For more than a month after Tuptim's sad death I did not see the king. At last he summoned me to his presence, and never did I feel so cold, so hard, and so unforgiving, as when I once more entered his breakfast-hall. He took no notice of my manner, but, as soon as he saw me, began with what was uppermost in his mind. "I have much sorrow for Tuptim," he said; "I shall now believe she is innocent. I have had a dream, and I had clear observation in my vision of Tuptim and Bālāt floating together in a great wide space, and she has bent down and touched me on the shoulder, and said to me, 'We are guiltless. We were ever pure and guiltless on earth, and look, we are happy now.' After discoursing thus, she has mounted on high and vanished from my further observation. I have much sorrow, mam, much sorrow, and respect for your judgment; but our laws are severe for such the crime. But now I shall cause monument to be erected to the memory of Bālāt and Tuptim."
Any one who may now pass by Watt Sah Kale will see two tall and slender P'hra Chadees, or obelisks, erected by order of the king on the spot where those lovely Buddhists suffered, each bearing this inscription: 'Suns may set and rise again, but the pure and brave Bālāt and Tuptim will never more return to this earth."
1 The Siamese in their prayers and invocations abbreviate the titles of the Buddha; the more educated using the word "Buddh," and the common people "P'huth."