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KHOON THOW APP, THE CHIEF OF THE FEMALE JUDGES.
NEXT morning, as if some invisible power were working to aid my plans, I was summoned early to the palace. I carried my petition and a small book entitled "Curiosities of Science" with me.
The king was very gracious, and so pleased with the book that I took the opportunity of handing in my petition. He read it carefully, and then gave it back to me, saying, "Inquiry shall be made by me into this case."
On the day after I received the following little note from the king: —
LADY LEONOWENS: — I have liberty to do an inquiry for the matter complained, to hear from the Princess P'hra Ong Brittry, the daughter of the Chow Chom Manda Ung, who is now absent from hence. The princess said that she knows nothing about the wife of Naikodah, but that certain children were sent her from her grandfather maternal, that they are offspring of his maid-servant, and that these children shall be in her employment. So I ought to see the Chow Chom Manda Ung, and inquire from herself.
S. P. P. MAHA MONGKUT, Rx.
His Majesty was as good as his word, and when the Chow Chom Manda Ung returned, he ordered the chief of the female judges of the palace, her ladyship, Khoon Thow App, to investigate the matter.
Khoon Thow App was a tall, stout, dark woman, with soft eyes, but rather a heavy face, her only beauty being in her hands and arms, which were remarkably well formed She was religious and scrupulously just, had a serious and concentrated bearing. Everything she said or did was studied, not for effect, but from discretion. A certain air of preoccupation was natural to her. She knew everything that took place in the harem, and concealed everything within her own breast. By dint of attention and penetration she had attained to her high office, and she retained it by virtue of her supreme but unassuming fitness for the position. She was like a deaf person whose sight is quickened, and like one blind whose sense of hearing is intensified. That hideous symbolical Sphinx, with a sword drawn through her mouth, babbled all her secrets and sorrows in her ear. She inspired confidence, and she never decided a case in private. She lived alone, in a small house at the end of the street, with only four faithful female slaves. The rest she had freed. It was before this woman that, by order of the king, I brought my complaint in behalf of L'ore; she raised her eyes from her book, or rather roll, and said, "Ah! it is you, mam. I wish to speak to you."
"And for my part," said I, with a boldness at which I was myself astonished, "I have something to say to your ladyship."
"O, I know that you have a communication to make, which has already been laid before his Majesty. Your petition is granted."
"How!" said I, "is L'ore really free to leave the palace?"
"O no; but his Majesty's letter is of such a character that we have the power to proceed in this matter against the Chow Chom Man. la Tug. Though we are said to have the right to compel any woman in the palace to come before us, these great ladies will not appear personally, but send all manner of frivolous excuses, unless summoned by a royal mandate such as this."
She then turned to one of the female sheriffs, and despatched her for the Chow Chom Manda Ung, P'hra Ong Brittry, and the slave-woman L'ore.
After a delay of nearly two hours, Chow Chom Manda Ung and her daughter, the Princess P'hra Ong Brittry, made their appearance, accompanied by an immense retinue of female slaves, bearing a host of luxurious appendages for their royal mistresses' comfort during the trial, with the sheriff bending low, and following this grand procession at a respectful distance.
The great ladies took their places on the velvet cushions placed for them by their slaves, with an air of authority and rebellion combined, as if to say, "Who is there here to constrain us?"
The chief judge adjusted her spectacles, and as she looked fixedly at the great ladies she asked, "Where is the slave-woman L'ore?"
The old dowager cast a malicious glance at the judge; but there was still the same silence, the same air of defiance of all authority.
All round the open sala, or hall, was collected a ragged rabble of slave women and children, crouching in all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of costumes, but with eyes fixed on the chief judge in startled astonishment and wonder at her calm, immovable countenance. Superciliousness and apparent contempt prevailed everywhere, yet in the midst of all the consciousness of an austere and august presence was evident; for not one of those slave-women, lowly, untaught, and half clad as they were, but felt that in the heart of that dark, stern woman before them there was as great a respect for the rights of the meanest among them as for those of the queen dowager herself.
The chief judge then read aloud in a clear voice the letter she had received from the king, and, when it was finished, the dowager and her daughter saluted the letter by prostrating themselves three times before it.
Then the judge inquired if the august ladies had aught to say why the slave-woman Lore should not have been emancipated when she offered to pay the full price of her freedom.
The attention of all was excited to the highest degree; every eye concentrated itself on the queen dowager.
She spoke with difficulty, and answered with some embarrassment, but from head to foot her whole person defied the judge.
"And what if every slave in my service should bring me the price of her freedom?"
All eyes turned again to the judge, seated so calmly there on her little strip of matting; every ear was strained to catch her reply.
"Then, lady, thou wouldst be bound to free every one of them."
"And serve myself?"
"Even so, my august mistress," said the judge, bowing low.
The dowager turned very pale and trembled slightly as the judge declared that L'ore was no longer the slave of the Chow Chom Manda Ung, but the property of the Crue Yai (royal teacher).
"Let her purchase-money be paid down," said the dowager, angrily, "and she is freed forever from my service." The judge then turned to me, and said, "You are now the mistress of L'ore. I will have the papers made out. Bring hither the money, forty ticals, and all shall be settled."
I thanked the judge, bowed to the great ladies, who simply ignored my existence, and returned perfectly happy for once in my life to my home in Bangkok. Next day, after school, I presented myself at the court-house. Only three of the female judges were present, with some of the p'ha khooms (sheriffs). Khoon Thow App handed me the dekah, or free paper, and bade one of the p'ha khooms go with me to see the money paid and L'ore liberated.
Never did my feet move so swiftly as when I threaded once more the narrow alley, and my heart beat quickly as I pushed open the ponderous brass door.
There was L'ore, chained as before. In the piazza sat the Princess P'hra Ong Brittry and her mother, surrounded by their sympathizing women.
The p'ha khoom was so timid and hesitating, that I advanced and laid the money before the great ladies.
The queen dowager dashed the money away and sent it rolling hither and thither on the pavement, but gave orders at the same time to release L'ore and let her go.
This was done by a female blacksmith, a dark, heavy, ponderous-looking woman, who filed the rivet asunder.
In the mean time a crowd had collected in this solitary place, chiefly ladies of the harem, with some few slaves.
So L'ore was free at last; but what was my amazement to find, that she refused to move; she persistently folded her hands and remained prostrate before her royal persecutors as if rooted to the spot. I was troubled. I turned to consult the p'ha khoom, but she did not dare to advise me, when one of the ladies — a mother, with a babe in her arms — whispered in my ear, "They have taken away the child."
Alas! I had forgotten the child.
The faces of the crowd were marked with sympathy and sadness; they exchanged glances, and the same woman whispered to me, "Go back, go back, and demand to buy the child." I turned away sorrowfully, hastened to Khoon Thow App, and stated my case. She opened a box, drew out a dark roll, and set out with me.
The scene was just as I had left it. There sat the august ladies, holding small jewelled hand-mirrors, and creaming their lips with the most sublime air of indifference. L'ore still lay prostrate before them, her face hidden on the pavement. The crowd of women pressed anxiously in, and all eyes were strained towards the judge. She bowed before the ladies, opened the dark roll, and read the law: "If any woman have children during her bondage, they shall be slaves also, and she is bound to pay for their freedom as well as her own. The price of an infant in arms is one tical, and for every year of his or her life shall be paid one tical." This declaration in terms so precise appeared to produce a strong impression on the crowd, and none whatever on the royal ladies. Ever so many betel-boxes were opened, and the price of the child pressed upon me.
I took four ticals and laid them down before the ladies. The judge, seeing that nothing was done to bring the child to the prostrate mother, despatched one of the p'ha khooms for the boy. In half an hour he was in his mother's arms. She did not start with surprise or joy, but turned up to heaven a face that was joy itself. Both mother and child bowed before the great ladies. Then L'ore made strenuous efforts to stand up and walk, and, failing, began to laugh at her own awkwardness, as she limped and hobbled along, borne away by the exulting crowd, headed by the judge. Even this did not diminish her happiness. With her face pressed close to her boy's, she continued to talk to herself and to him, "How happy we shall be! We, too, have a little garden in thy father's house. My Thook will play in the garden; he will chase the butterflies in the grass, and I will watch him all the day long," etc.
The keepers of the gates handed flowers to the boy, saying, "P'hoodh thŏ, dee chai nak nah, dee chai nak nan" (pitiful Buddha! we are very glad at heart, very, very glad).
The news had spread, and, before we reached the river, hosts of Malays, Mohammedans, and Siamese, with some few Chinese, had loosened their cumberbunds (scarfs) and converted them into flags.
Thus, with the many-colored flags flying, the men, women, and children running and shouting along the banks of the Mčinam, spectators crowding into the fronts of their floating houses, L'ore and her boy sailed down the river and reached their home.
next day her husband, Naikodah Ibrahim, refunded the money paid for
his wife and child, whose name was changed from Thook (Sorrow) to
Urbanâ (the Free).
GUARD OF AMAZONS