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MAY-PEÂH, THE LAOTIAN SLAVE-GIRL.
ON the evening of the 10th of August, 1866, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly, and almost without being aware of it, involved in a conflict with the king, who thenceforth regarded me with distrust and suspicion, because I declined to affix my own signature to a certain letter which he had required me to write for him.
I began heartily to wish myself out of Siam, though still deeply interested and absorbed in my work of educating the prince, — the present King of Siam, — for I felt that, with regard to foreigners, there existed no laws and customs to restrain and limit the capricious temper and extravagant demands of the king, and I had everything, too, to fear from the jealousy with which certain royal courtiers and judges watched my previously growing influence at court. The heat of the day had been intense, the atmosphere was sultry and oppressive, and every now and then a low, rumbling sound of distant thunder reached my ears, while the parched trees and leaves drooped and hung their heads as if impatient of waiting for the promised rain. Nervous, and undecided what to do, I returned home, where I remained prostrated with a sense of approaching danger. From time to time I had had similar conflicts with the king, which very greatly disturbed my already too much impaired health. All manner of fears which the mind so prodigally produces on such occasions came crowding upon me that evening, and I felt, as I had never before, weighed down by the peculiar sadness and isolation of my life in Siam.
In this frame of mind I sat and pondered over and over again the only course remaining open to me, — to withdraw from the court, — when I was suddenly recalled to what was passing around me by what I at first imagined must be an apparition or some delusion of my own mind. I started up from the spot where for hours I had been seated like a statue, and, looking more attentively, perceived a pair of bright black eyes watching me with the fixedness of a basilisk, through the leaves of some flowering shrubs that grew over my window. My first impulse was to scream for help; but I was soon ashamed of my fears, and, summoning all my courage, I demanded, "Who is there?"
"It is only me, your ladyship," said a strange, low voice. "I have been waiting here a long while, but your servants would not let me in; they say you have forbidden them to let any Siamese person enter your house after sunset."
"It is true," said I; "I don't want to see any one this evening; I am ill and tired. Now go away, and, if you have any business with me, come to me in the morning."
"P'hoodth tho!" said the woman, speaking still in the same low tones; "l am not a Siamese, and you do not know that I have rowed thirty miles against the tide to come and see you, or else you could not have the heart to send me away."
"I don't want to know anything," I said a little impatiently; "you must go now, and you know it is not safe for you to be away from home at this late hour in the day."
"O lady! do let me in; I only want to say one word to you in private; please do let me in," whispered the woman, more and more pleadingly.
"Then say what you have to tell me at once, and from where you are" I replied; "there is no one here to overhear you; for I cannot let you in."
"Alas!" said the voice, plaintively, as if speaking to herself, "I would not have come all this long distance but that I heard she was a good and brave woman, — some people indeed said she was not so, — still, I thought I would try her, and now she says she cannot let me in, a poor fugitive and desolate slave-girl like me! dear! O dear:"
"But I am afraid I cannot help you, whatever your trouble may be," I said more gently, touched by the woman's despairing tones. "The king is offended with me, and the judges know it, and I have no more influence with them now."
As I said this, the girl sprang through the window and came forward, and exhibited not only her bright eyes but her full figure and somewhat singular dress, for she was, as she had stated, not a Siamese, but a Laotian. She held her head erect, though her hands were clasped in the attitude of wild supplication. The symmetry of her form was enhanced by a broad English strap or belt which was buckled round her waist, and which had the effect of showing off her beautiful figure to the best advantage. She was unusually tall, and altogether a most pleasing-looking young woman.
The moment she stood before me she commenced talking with a volubility and an amount of action which it would be almost impossible to describe. Her face became so animated, and her tears and sobs flowed so spontaneously, that I stood bewildered, for, in truth, I had rarely seen so interesting and so natural a woman in Siam.
She watched my countenance during the whole time she was speaking, with the quickness of the native character, and I began at length to suspect that she prolonged her statements for the sole purpose of forming an idea of her success, so that she might vary her line of action according as circumstances revealed themselves; and even while I had a glimmering perception of this, and also that perhaps she was only acting, my interest in her increased so rapidly that she became convinced in her own mind, I think, of having gained my entire sympathy.
"Ah! I knew you had a kind heart," said the woman, as she came forward with the graceful salutation of her country, and laid a thick Oriental letter, enveloped in velvet and fastened with silken cords and sealed with English sealing-wax, at my feet.
She then dropped on her knees, and knelt before me in an attitude of mute supplication.
I was never more embarrassed in my life, with that mysterious letter, enveloped in crimson velvet, and written on the outside in characters I had never before seen, lying at my feet, and this woman kneeling there with such strange, wild energy in her manner, such vehement pleading in her dark, passionate eyes, imploring my aid in a secret, daring scheme which I had neither the courage nor the ability to undertake, nor yet the stoutness of heart to refuse point-blank.
I therefore told the woman, with as much gentleness as I could summon, that it was impossible for me to aid her, and almost as much as my life was worth to become the bearer of her letter to any prisoner in the palace. "It is not for my own personal safety I fear so much, but for my son's, whose young life depends on mine."
As I was speaking, the woman's face grew still and cold, her features became rigid and fixed as stone, large, dewy drops of perspiration broke out on her forehead, and there fell upon her face such an expression of blankness and utter desolation that I thought she was absolutely dying from the pain of her disappointment.
This produced such a revulsion of feeling in me that I started from my seat in terror, and, taking her chilled, moist hands in mine, said, anxiously: "Does what I have said distress you so much? Why won't you speak? If there is any way by which I can help or comfort you, tell me. Please tell me, and I'll try to do my best for you."
The effect of this promise was immediate, but it was some time before the woman could recover her voice; then, Laying her hand upon my arm, she spoke hurriedly, but in the same soft, low tones and fervent manner.
"You have not asked me my name and who I am," she said. "But I'll tell you; I am sure you will not betray me, and it may be this is the last opportunity I shall have in serving my dear foster-sister."
As she uttered these words the hope and courage which had evidently been revived by the sympathy she saw in my face now seemed to forsake her; tears and sobs burst from her afresh, and she crouched at my feet as if utterly overwhelmed with her grief. At last, by a strong effort, she turned to me, and said: "My name is May-Peâh; my home is in the city of Zienmai, i. e. Chiengmai; my father, Manetho, is one of the most trusted councillors and friends, though a slave, of the Prince P'hra Chow Soorwang. My mother was a household slave in the family of the prince when my father obtained her for his wife, and I was only a month old when she was asked to be the wet-nurse and mother of the little infant daughter of the prince, whose wife had died in childbirth; and thus it was that I became the life-long companion and friend and foster-sister of the young Princess Sunartha Vismita. But alas: dear lady, she is now, and has been ever since the death of her husband, the second king, a prisoner in the palace of the supreme king, and neither does her brother nor any one else know whether she is alive or dead.
"This letter has nothing in it that will bring you into any trouble. It is only one of greeting from her brother, my master, the Prince O'Dong Karmatha. O, dear lady, don't say no! the gods will bless and reward you, if, sooner or later, you will put it into her hands; but it must be done with the greatest caution and secrecy, and it may be the means of saving her life. O, think of that, of saving her life! for, if alive, she must be dying of grief and pain to think that we have never yet replied to a letter she sent us almost a year ago." "And where is the prince, your master?" "He is on a visit to the governor of Pak-lat." Saying this, she almost instantaneously sprang out of the window, and fled towards the river, as if conscious of having delayed too long her return home; as she did so, I noticed that she wore in the folds of her skirt a small Laotian dagger attached to her English belt.
The storm which had been gathering in strength for hours now burst forth, and for full three hours the thunder and lightning and rain were the only things that could be seen or heard; and I sat in the same spot, lost in anxious fears for the safety of that solitary woman battling with the tremendous currents of the Mother of Waters.
It was an awful night. Sick at heart, and full of natural and unnatural fears, I locked up the letter at last in my drawer, and tried to forget in sleep the disturbing events of the day.