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LADY THIENG, THE HEAD WIFE AND SUPERINTENDENT OF THE ROYAL CUISINE.
LADY THIENG was a woman of about thirty, fair even to whiteness, with jet black hair and eyes; by nature enthusiastic, clever, and kind, but only partially educated when compared to many other of the cultivated and intellectual women of the royal harem.
She was the first mother, — having brought his Majesty four sons and eight daughters, — for which reason she was regarded with peculiar veneration and ranked as the head wife in the palace, the queen consort being dead All these considerations combined entitled her to the lucrative and responsible position of superintendent of the royal cuisine.
She contrived to be always in favor with the king, simply because she was the only woman among all that vast throng who really loved him; though at no period of her life had she ever enjoyed the unenviable distinction of being the "favorite."
Her natural enthusiasm and kindliness of disposition made her generally loved, however; while, despite her immense wealth and influence, no woman's life had a truer and deeper purpose. She was always ready to sympathize with and help her suffering sisters, whatever their shortcomings might have been, or whatever the means she was obliged to resort to in order to render them the smallest assistance.
She reconciled all her little plots, intrigues, and deceptions to herself by saying: "Surely it is better for him not to know everything; he knows too much already, what with his Siamese and his English and his Pali and his Sanscrit. I wonder he can ever get to sleep at all with so many different tongues in his head."
It was after school that I accompanied one of my most promising pupils, the Princess Somawati, one of Thieng's daughters, to her mother's house. Being the head of the royal cuisine, Thieng had two houses. One was her home, where her children were born and brought up, — a quaint, stately edifice with stuccoed fronts, situated in the ladies' or fashionable part of the inner city, and in the midst of a pleasant garden. In the other, adjoining the royal kitchen, she spent the greater part of each day in selecting, overlooking, and sometimes preparing with her own fair hands many of the costly dainties that were destined to grace the royal table.
Thieng received me with her usual bright, pleasant smile and hearty embrace; to give me the latter, she put down her youngest baby, a boy about two years old, to whom I had, during my repeated visits to her house, taught a number of little English rhymes and sentences, and who always accosted me with, "Mam, mam, how do do?" or "Mam, make a bow, make a bow"; while he bobbed his own little head, and blinked his bright eyes at me, to the infinite delight of his mother and her handmaids.
Little "Chai" settled himself in my lap, as usual, and the host of women, like children eager to be amused, gathered around to listen to our baby-talk; and great was the general uproar when Chai would mimic me in singing scraps of baby-songs, or thrust an orange into my mouth, or put on my hat and cloak to promenade the chamber, and say "How do do?" like a veritable Englishman; then his fond mother, in ecstasies of joy, would snatch him to her arms and cover him with kisses, and the delighted spectators would whisper that that boy was as clever as his father, and must surely come to the throne some day or other.
In the midst of these fascinating employments one of the Lady-physicians was announced.
Thieng retired at once with her into an inner chamber, carrying her beloved Chai in her arms, and beckoning me to follow her. Here she consigned Chai to me for further instruction in English, and laid herself down to be shampooed.
I felt that now was my opportunity; but I waited a little in order to make sure whether the doctor was to be trusted
The ladies were silent for a little while; no word was spoken, with the exception of a sigh that now and then escaped from poor Thieng, partly to indicate the responsibilities of her position, and partly to show that the particular number which was being manipulated was the one most affected. Whatever might have been the question between the ladies, the doctor waited for Thieng to give the word, and Thieng evidently waited for the termination of my visit. But seeing that I made no attempt to go, she at length turned to the doctor, and said: "My pen arai, phöt thöe, yai kluâ" (Never mind, speak out, don't be afraid), all of which I understood as perfectly as I did English.
The doctor ceased her manipulations, and, after having cast a cautious glance round the room and shaken her head sorrowfully, remarked: "I don't think she'll live many weeks Longer."
Thieng sat bolt upright, and, clasping her hands together, said, "Phoodth thô!"1
"It is impossible," added the doctor, very earnestly.
"It were better to put her to death at once than to kill her by inches, as they are now doing."
"P'hra Buddh the Chow,2 help us!" cried Thieng, still more agitated. "What shall I do? What can I do to save her?"
"Something must be done, and at once," replied the doctor, suggestively.
"Well," said Thieng, "why don't you draw up a paper and give it to Mai Ying Thaphan?" (the chief of the Amazons.) "And now mind that you say she cannot live a day longer unless she is removed from that close cell and allowed to take an airing every day."
"Poor child! poor child!" repeated Thieng, tenderly, to herself. "With such a noble heart to perish in such a way! I wish I could find some means to help her to live a little longer, till things begin to look more bright."
"He has forgotten all about her by this time," rejoined the doctor.
The physician then took her leave of Thieng, and I inquired if they had been speaking of the Princess Sunartha Vismita. The good lady started and looked at me as if she supposed me to be supernaturally endowed with the art of unravelling mysteries.
"Why! how do you know the name," said she, "when we never even mentioned it?"
I then told her of the visit I had had from May-Peâh, and begged of her to help me to deliver the letter to the dying princess as soon as possible.
"We are all prisoners here, dear friend," said Thieng, "and we have to be very careful what we do; but if you promise never to say a word on this subject to any one, and in case of discovery to bear all the blame, whatever that may be, yourself, I'll help you."
I gave her the required promise gladly, and thanked her warmly at the same time.
"You must not think me weak and selfish, dear mam," said she, after a little reflection. "You are a foreigner, he has not the same power over you, and you can go away whenever you like; but we who are his subjects must stay here and suffer his will and pleasure, whatever happens."
With that she told me to come to her after sunset, and I bade her a grateful adieu and returned home.
1 An ejaculation in frequent use among the Buddhists, and which means, "dear Buddha," or "dear God."
2 One of the names of the Buddha.