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NANG RUNGEĀH, THE CAMBODIAN PROSELYTE.
TĀMSČNG presented a picture of the sea at the moment when the tide is on the turn: there is always a lull, and sometimes a profound calm, before the mighty currents shift and set in another direction. The eager child who is piling up castles of sand one upon another on its shores pauses in wonder and astonishment at the sight. That strong angel, the tide, that he had watched in breathless delight advancing resistlessly, ever onward, nearer and nearer, rushing on to kiss with its foaming mouth his wayward feet, then rolling back, and "laughing from its lips the audacious brine," is suddenly arrested. The dull, surging roar that filled his ear, as if it were the voice of some mysterious sea-god, is hushed; the great sea has become silent and still, and the strong tide has expired. His last faint effort, and his feeble dying moan, fall upon the child's attentive eye and listening ear like a death-knell, for he has been told that this "tide" keeps the salt sea fresh and its shores healthful. He sets up a shout of despair, and prays the strong angel to return and trouble again the still waters, to renew the life which has passed away, and prevent that in-setting of stagnation that must bring with it mortal disease to the earth.
Religions have their tides as well as the ocean, and all life has its grand cyclical currents, whether in the church, the state, the individual, or the nation. Thus this little village of Tāmsčng seemed long since to have arrived at the period of that reaction which marks the diSāppearance of the tide from the sea, and the influx of that sluggish in sensibility which foretells the beginning of the stagnation, which, if not removed, must inevitably end in mortification and death.
But now, after the torpor of nearly half a century, and through the death-like stagnation of the decaying village, there is heard a voice of general rejoicing. The main features of the place undergo a slight change; a gentle flow of life stirs its corpse-like visage; a beautiful and wealthy Cambodian heiress, the Lady Nang Rungeāh is a candidate for baptism in the Roman Catholic Church.
On the 25th of June, it being the morning of her first confessional, the bells are set in motion and ring all day till sunset, as is the custom for a new convert, resounding in the glens and hollows and amid the spires of the Buddhist and Roman Catholic temples.
The chamber into which I had looked at a young girl reading with her heart and eyes a copy of the New Testament translated, not by a Roman Catholic, but by an American Presbyterian missionary, the Rev. Mr. Mattoon is now the centre of a most animated scene. Khoon P'hagunn and his wife Jethamas are seated in the little room in earnest conversation. They are interrupted by their daughter Rungeāh, who comes quietly in, throws her arms around her mother, kneels before her and lays her head in her lap. The mother folds her arms tenderly around her child, and caresses her lovingly, smoothing her soft hair.
"Ah! Rungeāh, art thou dressed already? Thou dost not need much adornment." And the old man's eyes brightened with pride and love as they lighted on the pleasant beauty and the graceful proportions of his daughter.
Nang Rungeāh, the bright lotus-flower, was indeed pleasant to look upon. Hers was the half Indian and half Cambodian beauty so rare in Siam, the large, long, drooping eye, round, oval fare, and clear complexion, with a touch of healthful ruddiness in her cheeks, purple-black hair, soft and rich, falling loosely in long curls over her shoulders. The charms of her face and feature, however, naught to the brightness and kindliness that played over them like a sunny gleam. Her figure was remarkable, tall and lithe, yet perfectly rounded, and swelling fairly beneath the graceful bodice and the full skill that fell in soft folds to her sandalled feet. The pin by which her veil was fastened was set off with a number of brilliants; her arms were ornamented with gold bangles, and on her neck she wore a new chain, a gift from her sad and loving mother, a rosary of gold and black coral beads, to which was attached a massive gold figure of the Christ on the cross.
"Alas! my child," said the mother at length, "I pray P'hra Buddh the Chow that no harm will come to thee through this new religion."
"I wonder to hear you speak thus, dear mother," replied the young girl, lifting her eyes reproachfully to her mother's face. "O, I wish you could be brought to see how much more beautiful this religion of P'hra Jesu is than that of Buddha; and then think of the beautiful ' Marie/ his Holy Mother, who is ever at his side, ready to whisper words of tender love and pity in behalf of such poor sinners as we are. I feel as if I should never go astray, or do any evil thing, now that I have the good priest to pray for me, and the Holy Mother and her Son to be my gods."
"P'hra Buddha forbid that I should mistrust your gods, my child; but I do mistrust the priests and my own heart," said the anxious mother.
In spite of her love and her faith, Rungeāh's cheek grew pale and her eyes filled with tears as she reached the chapel of Tāmsčng. With a palpitating heart she knelt at the confessional-box, waiting for the priest to take his place within, and open the small window through which he heard the confessions of the congregation.
She hears a footstep on the other side. The priest enters, he shuts the door upon himself and takes his place; he then pulls a cord which opens the little window of the confessional-box, and shuts at the same time the door which she had left ajar as she came into the chamber.
The confessional window is open, and the priest coughs a slight cough; but Rungeāh kneels there with her heart beating and her hands folded, gazing on that ideal and perfect manhood who has given up his life to save hers.
After a long interval of silence, the voice of the priest breaks upon her ear, like the boom of a cannon amid a garden of flowers.
"My daughter," said the voice, "confess your sins."
"My father," replies Rungeāh, her love and joy breathing from her heart and struggling for utterance on her lips, "whenever I think of Him, His goodness and His love, of which I never tire reading, I am filled with gladness and praise; I am now never weary, never cast down, never afflicted, nor does my heart or my pulse ever fail me in loving and adoring Him."
"My daughter," interrupted the priest, suddenly, "this is not confession; you must tell me of your secret sins, the guilty thoughts, words, and acts you have cherished, spoken, or committed, when you were still a believer in the false and horrible doctrines of the Buddha."
A deep flush of pride, which the girl herself does not quite understand, overspreads her beautiful face, and her lips, still quivering, remain parted in surprise. Her secret sins and guilty thoughts! Why blame her for not remembering them?
She was as pure as the snow-flake upon the mountaintop.
She turned her thoughts upon herself, and tried to recall some sin; she would have given the world to find some grave fault which she could justly own as hers, to pour into the ears of the impatient priest. But she could not recall a single one.
"My memory is treacherous, good father," said she; "I cannot now recall any one of my sins in particular, though I must have done many, many wrong things, unless, indeed, it is the one I have committed in forsaking my dear old god Buddha, whom I did truly love and reverence until I heard and read of the beautiful P'hra Jesu."
"This is not satisfactory," said the priest, dryly; "you will have to do penance for such thoughts as these; and where did you read of P'hra Jesu?"
"Ah!" said the girl, "I have a beautiful book which tells me all about him."
"But who gave it to you?" persisted the priest.
"I found it in the temple of Adi Buddha Annando, where it was left for my brother by an American priest."
The priest of Tāmsčng turned uneasily in his seat, and coughed a low cough preparatory to what he was going to say.
"My daughter," said he at length, in a voice of grave reproof, "this last is a dreadful sin. That book is dangerous, and those American priests are our enemies. They lie in wait to deceive the children of the true Church. They deny the divinity of the Holy Mother of God, and they go about the country preaching their false doctrines and giving away their books only to delude the simple-hearted natives. Be sure that you never listen to them, and that you abstain from looking into that book again. Bring the book to me, and you will be saved from this great temptation."
The girl listened, abashed, hanging down her head, and with tears of repentance in her eyes.
He then proceeded to state the penance she would have to perform.
To repeat fifty paternosters, walk, on the following Sabbath morning, barefooted, and dressed in her meanest garb, to the chapel of Tāmsčng, and be admitted thus by baptism into the true Church.
The priest again pulled the cord; the window was shut, the door stood ajar, and the girl rose and passed out to join her attendants. Her bright face was overcast, unbidden tears were in her eyes, and all her love and joy in the beautiful Saviour she had found blighted like autumn leaves before the wind. When she gained her boat, great black clouds lowered in the sky, the winds rose into a squall, and the waves tossed and tumbled and rolled high upon the banks. It was one of those sudden hurricanes that are so common in Siam. The boat proved unmanageable, and, in spite of all the combined efforts of the three women, she was capsized in the middle of the angry, surging waters. Long and desperately the women struggle for life, again and again they try to swim towards the bank, but the stronger waters carry them away in their irresistible grasp.
The high-priest of the temple of Adi Buddha Annando has taken shelter beneath the porch of his temple. He sees the empty boat and the struggling women; he hesitates. His vows forbid him to touch a woman, even his own mother, and still hold his office as a priest of Buddha. He sees the women throw up their arms as if imploring his aid. He casts aside his upper yellow robe, and plunges in to their rescue, regardless of his vows, his office, of everything else.
And now a sudden dizziness veils the eyes of the Nang Rungeāh; while her companions are safe on the bank, she relaxes her efforts; a sickness like that of death overcomes her, and she sinks. But again the strong man plunges and dives deeper and deeper, and at last holds her firmly in his herculean anus. She hears, or she thinks she hears, the voice of the priest reproving her, and the jubilant chimes of Tāmsčng clang at her fainting heart as she is borne out of the dark waters and laid upon the flowery bank; but at length she opens her eyes on Maha Sāp, the chief priest of the temple of Adi Buddha Annando, her brother's tutor and guide. A slight shudder, and then a blush of shame passes over her as she recognizes her early religious teacher. But he, stooping, gathers a handful of flowers, hands them to her, and says: "Sadly and heavily did my heart ache to see thee in the grasp of the strong demons of the storm, and to save thee I have violated the vows of my order. But if thou wilt return to me one of these flowers as a token, I will neither regret the loss of my sanctity nor yet of my priestly office, but rejoice in the fates that have blessed me with a new life."
To the sonorous rushing and wild dash of the waters is joined the deep melodious voice of the priest, urging her to give him a token from Ins flowers; and the chimes now seem to swell into joyful choruses of jubilant anthems as she gives him the sweet token.
After the fury of the storm had abated, the priest left them and set off to confess himself to the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Court; and the women returned home.
The first thing Nang Rungeāh did was to relate to her mother all that had befallen her from the time she entered the chapel of Tāmsčng to her return home, she then took the "dangerous book" from under her pillow and laid it on a high shelf out of her reach, but put in its place her crumpled flowers Then she knelt down and repeated her fifty paternosters with lessening fervor, and tried to believe that she was a better woman. But how was it that her thoughts would stray from the morrow's bright vision, when she would publicly be baptized into the Church of Christ, to the dark face of Maha Sāp and the tenderness she had seen in his eyes.
She shut herself up in her chamber to weep and pray in agonizing doubts and fears, because of that something which has come between her and her beautiful P'hra Jesu.