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THE CHRISTIAN VILLAGE OF TÂMSÈNG, OR OF THOMAS THE SAINT.
IT was on a bright Sunday morning in the month of May that a handsome boat with four young women at the oars conveyed me and my boy to the residence of Mrs. Rosa Hunter, situated in the village of Tâmsèng.
My friend Mrs. Hunter was a native of Siam, but of Portuguese parentage. Her husband, Robert Hunter, was private secretary to the supreme king. She had two sons, who had been taken away from her in their infancy by their Protestant father, — lest they should be brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, — and shipped off secretly to Scotland, in order that they might be educated under the influences of the Free Church of Scotland, in which he had himself been brought up. This occasioned a breach between the husband and wife which led to their ultimate separation, and Rosa returned all but heartbroken to the home of her childhood, where I visited her at short intervals to write the long, loving letters which she dictated to me in Siamese, and which I wrote in English to her absent boys.
A day at her house was always a pleasant change. On one of these visits, which I remember well, the table had been spread by the window that looked up the river, and lost it amid high banks and the projecting spires of the Roman Catholic and the Buddhist temples adjoining.
I had finished and sealed her loving messages to her absent children; the moon was rising, and we needed no other light, as the conversation between us, often shifting and often pausing, had gradually become grave, and we fell into confiding talk of what we hoped and what we feared, as we saw the future of our children stretched before as in deep shadows.
"There is so much power in faith," said Rosa, "even in relation to earthly things, that I am surprised you are not a Roman Catholic. I believe in my church; when I go to confession and receive the holy communion, I am idled with peace and trust, and have no fears for the future."
"There is a great deal in what you say, Rosa," I replied; "but I am afraid that I should not make a good Catholic, since I am disposed to question everything that does not accord with my own perceptions of the right and the true."
"Well, I suppose," said Rosa, "that our natures differ; all my life has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church. I never doubt, therefore I never question. The Holy Virgin and her Son are sufficient for me, and the good priest who absolves me from my sins. My only one sorrow is that my children are cast out of the pale of salvation by the foolish prejudices of their father."
This was said in a voice of much feeling, and tears gathered to her eyes. I moved to her side, and tried to comfort her by saying, "After all, Rosa, you seem to let your fears for your children cloud your faith in that Saviour who died for them as well as for you."
While I was speaking, my eyes fell upon a long, narrow canoe, called by the natives Rua Keng, in which was seated a tall, slender, and shapely young girl, who was slowly, with the aid of two short paddles, making her way towards us through the water, while her face was raised to the moonlight that fell brightly upon her. It was nearly high tide; a fleet of canoes, boats, and barges moving in all directions over the broad waters.
We watched the girl as her paddles rose and fell softly and slowly, silver-tipped by the moonlight, now dipping into the water, now rising above it, like the white wings of some lazy bird. Nearer and nearer came the long boat, and clearer shone the fair face that was still uplifted, and reflected back the moonlight, till it almost looked as if divinely inspired. It is impossible to do any kind of justice to this beautiful moonlight picture. Gently the boat shot under our window, and was lost to our sight.
I bade my friend adieu, and hastened to the pier, where I met the girl again. She had fastened her canoe to one of the posts that supported the quay, and was crossing the street: in one hand she held a bunch of lilies, and in the other a lotus-shaped vase full of flowers.
Yielding to the impulse of the moment, instead of stepping into my boat I took my boy's hand and followed her graceful figure.
It was not yet seven o'clock. A number of people were in the squalid, dirty streets of Tâmsèng. The twinkling evening lights were stealing out one by one, and the girl drew over her face a veil or covering which was attached to her hair by a large and beautiful pin. A dozen or more steps, and we stood in the porch of the Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to "Tomas the Saint."
Lights were burning on the altar, over which were two figures of the Christ: one suspended above it with a crown of thorns, bleeding, and nailed to the cross; the other, of magnificent stature, was enveloped in a costume as gorgeous as the coronation robes of an emperor, the vestment being a sort of Indian brocade of woven gold arabesqued with jewels and scented with spikenard; a diadem lavishly adorned with emeralds and diamonds pressed its forehead, in some measure confining the hair which streamed down in abundant tresses upon the shoulders, and mingled with a beard no darker than the glossy hue of the chestnut. On either side of the altar were two other figures, one of the Virgin Mother, in the same regal attire, and crowned as the queen of heaven; while the other was the patron saint, with a flowing beard and a benevolent face. Suspended over the altar was a grand Japanese lamp.
The priest, a dark, heavily built man, a native, but of Portuguese parentage, was standing before it, with his cap on his head and his back to the congregation.
The moment the girl beheld the glory of the altar and the lights that shot up and quivered and were reflected in a thousand beautiful tints upon the magnificent figure of the Christ, she dropped on her knees and held down her head in mute adoration. After a little while she rose, and, advancing a few steps nearer, placed her golden lotus-shaped vase of flowers on the bare floor, dropped on her knees again, and, holding the white lilies between her folded hands, seemed absorbed in her devotions.
In her attitude and bearing there was a depth of feeling which, harmonizing with her beautiful figure, arrested the eye of the observer, and cast every other object in the shade.
I withdrew reluctantly and returned to my boat, wondering who she could be. On my way home I gathered from the women at the oars that she was known by the name of Nang Rungeâh (Lady Rungeâh);1 that her parents were Buddhists and Cambodians, proprietors of a large plantation east of Tâmsèng. Her father, Chow Suah Phagunn, was a distinguished noble, and her mother a Cambodian lady of high birth, who claimed to be descended from the rulers of that ancient and almost unknown kingdom, and that her only brother was a Buddhist priest. But the Nang Rungeâh had become deeply impressed with the beauty of the Christian religion, and was at this moment the only candidate who had offered herself, for a number of years, for baptism into the Roman Catholic Church.
"Tomas Saint," the founder of the beautiful church around which had grown up this Christian village, was a Portuguese gentleman renowned for his piety and his wealth. He had obtained the title of "saint," even in his lifetime; but the good people, fearing to arouse the jealousy of the Apostle of Christ, after whom he was named, placed the title after, instead of before, his name, and out of it had grown the name of "Tâmsèng."
On the very next Saturday following, it being the first holiday that offered itself to me, I set out with my boy very early in the morning to explore the village of Tâmsèng.
We chose for our head-quarters one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the neighborhood, the grounds and monasteries bounded the Catholic village on the northeast side of the river.
This temple, called Adi Buddha Annando, i. e. The First Buddha, or The Infinite, was embowered in a grove of trees of luxuriant growth, affording a delicious shade. It must have been, in its best clays, a magnificent building; for even now, though much of its beauty was obliterated, it was covered from its massive base to its tapering summits with sculptures, and frescoed within and without with marvellous effect, so that wherever you turned your eyes the impression of a more subtle and a finer spirituality dawned upon you, as it was meet it should, in a temple dedicated to One whom the pious Buddhists will never even name, so great is their reverence for the First or Supreme Intelligence.
After a simple breakfast of fruit and milk, we strolled about the village and its surroundings, making notes and sketches of all that could be seen.
It was surprising to me that it looked so well in the early sunshine. The places that had struck me as foul and repulsive in the dim twilight now wore a different aspect, as if bent on looking their brightest and best in acknowledgment of the prodigal sunlight
But the farther we penetrated into the heart of the village the more we were disappointed, and my first impressions were more than realized. We soon came upon scenes of the most squalid misery and filth, poverty and destitution, amid heaps of refuse and puddles of mud that caused us to shrink aside with disgust.
It is natural to demand that beautiful ideas should be clothed with beautiful forms. It was therefore to me an outrage on the name of Christianity to find that while all around lay scenes of luxuriant beauty which brightened the eye and cheered the heart, the only Christian village in the vicinity of Bangkok, which should have been an embodiment of all that is pure and lovely, had been transformed by the greed and oppression of the local officers to a pestilential spot to fester and poison the pure air of heaven. Some few native Christian women were about milking their goats, others were seated oh their doorsteps, unwashed and uncombed; they seemed even to have lost the virtue of personal cleanliness, which with the Indian covers a multitude of sins. Stray packs of pariah dogs and herds of swine were barking and grunting in the ill-kept streets, and all kinds of poultry were picking a scanty breakfast from the heaps of garbage. Every now and then we were compelled to cross a stagnant pool or a muddy gutter alive with insects.
I never saw anything like the mud; it was a black liquid, sticky, slimy, and yet hard, hurting like hail when it struck the flesh.
And now we reached the quaint little chapel of "Tomas Saint." Its glories were sadly obscured by wet and damp, and the painting and gilding on the outside looked cold and dull.
A colored priest, a descendant of the renowned Tomas, was officiating. It was some saint's day. An assemblage of men, women, and children was seated on the floor, some in groups and some on rude benches. The priest bends over his missal, and pours forth in execrable Latin the exquisite prayers of the Church of Rome; and all the congregation, in their silks, and in their rags and wretchedness, are hushed and silent, with bent heads and folded hands, while the sound of the prayers — which they do not understand, beyond that it is the voice of prayer — fills their unenlightened but reverent hearts with mysterious dread and worship.
On quitting the chapel, we were at once beset by a numerous horde of beggars. It was not food or money that they craved, but, strange to say, it was justice. They followed us all the way back to the temple, importuning me to redress their wrongs and find a remedy for their grievances. Some of the poor wretches were half-witted, and not a few were crazed. An elderly lady, evidently once of superior rank, came crawling up to me, and clasped my feet, making a painful noise in a language that I could not understand, and piteously gesticulating some incomprehensible request. The people of the place denied all knowledge of her. At last she insisted on my giving her a leaf out of my note-book full of writing, which she apparently considered as a charm, for she attached it to a cord round her neck, and seemed to be perfectly happy in its possession. God only knows what the poor thing wanted to tell me, but likely enough her story was one of some great wrong, of some cruel injustice. If the smallest details of what I heard that day might be credited, the wrongs of these people were of the most harrowing nature, and altogether without hope of remedy under the twofold and inveterately vicious system of Siamese and Portugo-Siamese administration that prevailed there.
I was alarmed when I found that my visit was thought to be one secretly intended "to spy out the land," in the service of the king of Siam, and that I was expected to wipe away the tears from all eyes. In vain I protested to the contrary; no one would listen to me, but the crowds kept coining and going, and pleading and praying, and promising me fabulous sums of money if I would only see their wrongs redressed.
Many a heart-rending tale was told to me that day, with quivering lips and streaming eyes, as I rested beneath the porch of the temple of Adi Buddha Annando, by women who had been plundered of all they once possessed, their children sold into slavery or tortured to death, their habitations despoiled, merely because they happened to have property, and presumed to live independently upon lands which their more powerful neighbors coveted.
The greater number of these depredators were Siamese of influence, who had enrolled themselves as Christians under the French or the Portuguese flags, and unless the sufferer could claim the protection of either the one or the other, it seemed a cruel mockery to refer them for redress to any existing local authority, so long as P'haya Visate, a high but unprincipled Roman Catholic dignitary, was the governor of this district; and the saddest part of it all was, that the sufferers themselves felt there was no use in applying for justice to him.
In talking with some Buddhist men and women who were land proprietors in the vicinity, they told me that they were afraid of their Christian brethren, and would not, if they could prevent it, permit them to lease farms on their estates.
"Why?" I asked
"Because, if they once get hold of a house or a farm, they manage in time to turn us out."
"Well, they lease small bits of land, year after year, expend money on it, and then, when they have a sufficiently large plantation to settle upon, they refuse to pay rent, go to law, and bring false witnesses to prove they have purchased the land of the owners, while the local authorities either take the part of the wrong-doers or imprison both parties until they have squeezed all they can out of them. The Buddhist does not dare," said they, "to lay his hand upon the sacred tree2 and swear falsely, because the god who lives in it sees all, and he dreads his vengeance. But the Christian may swear to as many lies as he pleases, for the priests of the P'hra Jesu will give him absolution for them. Where, then, is the harm to him?"
I observed among the crowd a highly respectable looking and handsomely dressed woman, who sat apart, taking no share in the conversation, but listening with apparent interest to all that was said. Her eyes were very dark and very fine, but filled with rather a sad expression.
Towards evening she rose to go away, but, as if on second thought, she turned to me and greeted me in a peculiarly sweet voice, that sounded like music to my ears after all the voices of the crowd, inviting us to go and take our evening meal at her house, to which she at once led the way.
A narrow, gravelled walk led to the house, situated in a lovely garden, and separated by a wilderness of wild plants and prickly-pears from the neighboring Christian village. A long veranda with stone steps led down to the gravelled path. Just in front stood an old banyan-tree, lusty and burly in the full strength of its gnarled trunk, and vigorous, long boughs and branches forming arched and leafy bowers all round it.
The pathway ran through a shrubbery luxuriant with oleanders, jessamine, roses, laurel, and the Indian myrtle. Beneath these small wild rabbits had formed a colony, and it was curious to see a leaf moved upwards mysteriously, a head and ears protrude themselves, or a tail and legs, and then disappear as suddenly. This road ran to a great distance behind the house, and led through nearly three miles of ground, laid out in sugar, rice, cocoanut, and tobacco plantations. A small stream trickled through these, stagnating here and there into deep, green pools.
In passing near one of these pools I noticed that my hostess turned away her face, and in answer to my questions, she told me that it w T as once a large tank, but was now called Tâlataie, the Pool of Death. On further inquiry, I learned that this name had been given it from a tragic circumstance which had happened in her family; that shortly after her eldest daughter's engagement to a young Siamese Christian, the betrothed pair went out for a ramble along the banks of the streamlet. Night descended, and the shadows deepened into midnight, but her daughter and her lover did not return. At length her fears were aroused, and the whole household set out with lanterns to search the grounds; but nowhere could they find a trace of the absent couple until morning dawned upon their fruitless search, when her daughter was found lying on her face in the dark pool, stripped of all the beautiful jewels in which she had arrayed herself on the previous evening; and her Christian lover was never seen or heard of again. "But her spirit still haunts the spot," said the sad mother to me, "and on moonlight nights I see her pale form floating in the pool and crying to us for help."
The lady then wiped away her tears with her black p'ha horn, or scarf, and led us into the house. Her husband, a much older and more melancholy-looking person, now appeared, and the slaves brought us a great many delicacies on silver trays.
While we partook of them, our hostess asked me a number of questions about my home, friends, children, and relatives. She then informed me that her family now consisted of one son and a daughter, and that the former was a Buddhist priest, serving in the very temple where she had met me.
"Where is your daughter now?" I inquired.
She pointed to a window which opened into an inner chamber. I looked in, and to my glad surprise saw seated on a low stool, holding an open book in which she seemed wholly absorbed, the same girl who had so attracted me on the Sunday evening previous.
Her face was very fine and seemingly full of spiritual beauty, and her figure surpassingly beautiful. While we stood gazing at her, some sudden and apparently painful emotion flitted rapidly across her face as she read in the book, like the shadow of a dark cloud over the quiet water.
The mother was silent, evidently making an effort to master the feelings which this sight occasioned in her breast, so as to speak calmly about it.
I sat down again, and inquired the name of the book in which her daughter was so absorbed.
"It is a book called Beeble," said the woman. "What kind of a book is it?"
I assured her that it was a very good book, the Book above all others ever printed; that her daughter did well to read it, and that it would help to develop her into a lovely and beautiful character.
I then left my kind hostess, satisfied and yet saddened by my trip to Tâmsèng.
1 Rungeâh, a sort of magenta-colored lotus, found in the pools and marshes of Siam.
2 Boh, or bogara-tree.