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AN ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERY OF THE WHEREABOUTS OF THE PRINCESS SUNARTHA VISMITA1
FOR some time afterwards the mysterious letter remained locked up in my drawer, as nobody whom I knew seemed to be aware even of the existence of such a person as the Princess Sunartha Vismita, much less of her imprisonment in the palace, and I was afraid to open my lips on the subject before a stranger, lest I should inadvertently say something that might still more imperil her health and safety.
The king was once more reconciled to me, and had token me into greater confidence than ever. Just at this time he was laid up with an illness which confined him to his topmost chamber, where I was summoned every day to write notes, or translate, with the help of the native female secretary, English documents into Siamese.
On one occasion, as I was at work in a room adjoining the royal bedchamber over a mass of perplexing manuscripts in the king's own handwriting, to be arranged for publication in the "Bangkok Recorder," the chief of the Amazons brought in the intelligence that the prisoner, Princess Sunartha Vismita, was very ill; and, his Majesty being in the best possible humor, having just finished the above-mentioned manuscript, which completely refuted, as he fondly believed, Dr. Bradley's theory of Original Depravity, gave orders that the princess should take an airing in the palace gardens, and be removed to another cell, and that the chief lady physician should attend her without delay.
The Amazon made haste to carry out her instructions, and I quietly left my desk to follow her.
I shall not attempt to enter into a particular description of the prison in the interior of this strange city. Indeed, it would be impossible to describe with any degree of accuracy so irregular and rambling an edifice. The principal features consisted of a great hall and two courts or enclosures, one behind the other, in which the prisoners were permitted to walk at stated times. Three vaulted dungeons occupied three sides of the enclosures; immediately below these were the cells already described in my former book.2
The upper cells were used more or less for the reception of women convicted of petty crimes, such as gambling, stealing, immodest language, etc. Besides these, there were other dungeons under the floor in various parts of the prison, some of them quite dark, and closed by huge trap-doors, designed for those whom it might be expedient to treat with peculiar severity. The prison was approached by two long corridors, opening into the courts; here were several small secret apartments, or cells, in which prisoners condemned to death, either by the Supreme Court or by the still more supreme will of the king, passed the last days of their existence. It was in one of these that the princess was confined.
The opening of the prison doors attracted, as usual, a crowd of idle slave women and girls, who hailed the slightest event that broke the monotony of their lives with demonstrations of the liveliest joy; and as I stood there a guard of Amazons appeared, marching in file, and in the centre was the Laotian princess, followed by two of her countrywomen. She did not seem to notice the general sensation which her appearance created, nor the eager curiosity with which she was regarded, but walked on wearing the depressed and wearied look of one who Bought to medicate on her sorrows in silence and privacy. II features were remarkably stern, however, and she moved along with a firm and steady step.
I followed with the crowd, who kept at a respectful distance.
When the procession arrived at one of the nearest gardens, Laid out in the Chinese style, the princess, with a proud intimation that she could go no farther, took her seat on the edge of an artificial rock beside a small pond of water in which gold and silver fish sported merrily together. She hung down her head, as if the fresh air had no power to remove the smallest portion of her sorrows and sufferings.
A deep murmur of compassion now rose, not only from the idle crowd of women and girls, who gazed awestricken into her face, but from the "Amazonian Guard," those well-disciplined automatons of the royal palace of Siam.
I could see that she just raised her dark, sad eyes to us, and then cast them down again; and that their expression, as well as that of her whole attitude, was one of mute and touching appeal against this most ungenerous usage.
After the lapse of an hour the procession resumed its course, and the crowd, who had by this time exchanged looks and whispers of sympathy to their hearts' content, — while some poor half-palsied and aged slave-women had lifted up their hands and prayed aloud for the happiness of the ill-fated princess, — brought up the rear, till they saw the same prison doors open and close once more on the noble lady and her attendants, when they dispersed to their various abodes.
When I returned home, the scene would constantly reproduce itself, and my thoughts would unceasingly revert to those sad eyes of which I had only caught a hasty glance; and that utter friendlessness, expressed in a few brief, slight actions, dwelt in my memory like the impressions of childhood, never to be wholly forgotten.
I could not help picturing to myself how those eyes would brighten if I could but put that letter into her hands, and tell her of one earnest friend at least whose love and sympathy knew no bounds.
This feeling at length urged me, now that with the restored favor of the king there could be no real danger to myself and my boy, to find some means of gaining access to the poor, sad prisoner.
I immediately put the letter into my pocket, and pinned it carefully there, and determined that after my school duties were over I would advise with my good friend Lady Thieng, of whom mention has already been made. Only one circumstance troubled my mind greatly, and it was how to broach the subject to her in the presence of the number of women who always attended her at all times and in all places.
1 See "The English Governess at the Siamese Court," p. 233.
2 See "The English Governess at the Siamese Court," p. 107.