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AD OGNI UCCELLO SUO NIDO Č BELLO,
"TO EVERY BIRD ITS OWN NEST IS CHARMING."
WHEN Rungeāh awoke on the following morning, it seemed to her that she had just thrown off some wondrous and powerful spell that had somehow girt its strong and mysterious illusions about her heart. A new soul from within that inmost chamber had started into life. She faltered, hesitated, and dropped on her knees and raised her eyes towards heaven, and felt as she had never done before.
In her visions strange contradiction of human nature and in her holiest thoughts of the beloved Mother and her Son, the face of the priest of Buddha would intrude.
Her prayers finished, she put on her most faded and meanest robe, laid aside all her customary adornments and jewels, save only her veil and her rosary, and, attended by a host of fond relatives and slaves, and among them the priest her brother, and Maha Sāp in a layman's dress, went her way barefooted to the chapel, where she solemnly recanted the errors of Buddhism, and was baptized into the church of Christ.
Again the merry bells were rung, and on the dark face of the priest of Tāmsčng might be seen
"The slow wise smile, that round about
His dusty forehead dryly curled,
Seemed half within and half without,
And full of dealings with the world."
A month after her baptism, Mariā, as Rungeāh was now named, was selected, on account of her great piety and devotion, to be one of the female wardens of the chapel.
This distinction she enjoyed with six other girls, whose duty it was to dust and sweep the chapel, clean the lamps and the gold and silver candlesticks, and to dress the altar with fresh flowers.1
Saturday was the day appointed to Mariā to serve in the chapel, and a lovely warden was the gentle Cambodian girl. She had given up the dangerous book to her father confessor. But the handful of crumpled flowers still nestled under her pillow, and her secret preference for Maha-Sāp was deeply hidden in her heart; and yet it proved an impenetrable barrier, as long as she lived, between her and her confessor.
It was touching to see this girl at her duties in the chapel. After the floor had been swept, and the candlesticks polished and replenished with fresh candles, and the flowers arranged in the vases in the niches, and the garlands hung over the images of the gods and the saints, she would kneel at the foot of the sad Christ, after having touched with her lips the nailed and bleeding feet, praying to him to make her as noble and as self-sacrificing as himself, and to the tender Mother to intercede for her at the throne of grace.
One Saturday evening, Mariā, having spent a comfortless day within herself, repaired to the chapel as usual, attended only by the oars-women, to open it for the evening service. She opened wide the doors, and sat herself down under the cross. There were rays of comfort emanating from that figure nailed on it forever, that had now become very precious to her.
Long after the congregation had dispersed, she knelt on the floor of the sanctuary. All the religion of the place and the hour came over her, and a strange yearning Borrow, for which she could not account. And as she knelt there she fancied that a shadow darkened the lights that streamed down from the altar upon her, but only for a moment, for the next found the shadow gone, and tears gathering in her eyes. "Alas! what is it that steals my thoughts from Thee to Buddha, and the temple in which I once loved to worship?" muttered the girl, conscience-stricken at her own depravity.
The chapel bell suddenly "flung out" the hour of five, i. e. ten o'clock. She rose from her knees, put out the lights, and, locking the doors, turned into the dark deserted street; but somehow a sudden fear overcame her, and a feeling that somebody was watching her, perhaps following her. She drew her veil over her face and ran breathlessly towards the river, where she gained her boat and returned home for the night.
The Roman Catholic Missionary Society at Bangkok consisted of one bishop and from fifteen to twenty priests, besides a number of proselytes from the Siamese and the Chinese, who also were admitted into the priesthood. Of the former, most of the priests were endowed with every talent that a strict collegiate education could furnish; but the latter were particularly useful, because, besides being professing and, some of them, sincere Christians, they possessed the power of expounding the doctrine of the Church to their native brethren in a language natural to themselves from their birth. Nor was this all: they were nearly all well skilled in medicine and surgery, which gave them more power than the French priests in winning over the discontented followers of the Buddha to lend a willing ear to the marvellous farts of the Christian faith. And, moreover, as the teachings and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church are in many respects almost identical with the Buddhist teachings and ceremonies, the Roman Catholic priests are more successful in making proselytes than their Protestant colaborers in the same field.
When a poor ignorant Buddhist goes into his temples he sees the images of the Buddha, and he sees certain forms and prostrations practised, the burning of incense, the bowing before the well-lit shrines, and hears prayers uttered in an unknown tongue, and he knows also that the most heinous sin that can be committed by the Buddhist priest is the violation of his oath of celibacy. And if from idle curiosity he should be induced to enter a Roman Catholic chapel or church, to his surprise and delight he observes not only forms and ceremonies very nearly approaching to those used in his own temple, but also images and pictures far more beautiful and attractive than those of his own gods. On inquiring he finds that the priests of this faith also do not marry, that they have the marvellous power to absolve the transgressor from the consequences of his deadly sins, and that the only thing necessary to escape the irresistible "wheel of the law" is faith in Christ. So the poor, timorous, trembling soul, that feels a certain consciousness of a fearful retribution awaiting his sins, and yet knows not where or to whom to fly, hails with joy the name of Christ, the all-atoning sacrifice, as a rock on which to rest his weary wings, and fears no more the inexorable "wheel" of the Divine vengeance.
It is not to be wondered at, then, that the Siamese, Peguans, and Cambodians readily give ear to the native Catholic priests, and particularly when even the French and Portuguese priests adapt themselves, in many instances, to the usages and customs of the natives themselves, the most striking of which are in employing the children of the rich as wardens and keepers of the churches, and of never wearing any covering on their heads.
On the morning following the night on which Mariā had lingered bo late in the chapel, Khoon Jethamas had risen at daybreak; forever since the day of the eventful thunder-storm. She had troubled dreams accompanied with as and omens that foretold approaching calamity; and now she sat alone on the doorstep, meditating sadly on the future of her dear child.
It had been predicted by a wise old man, in the days of Rungeāh's infancy, that she was born under the fatal star Sathimara, who would assume the form of a fair and beautiful angel to lead her on to her own destruction."
The pagan mother could not discern between the heavenly and the earthly church of Christ, nor between the true and the false ministers of the gospel. And now the prophecy seemed in a way of being fulfilled, but, like all prophecies, in the most unlooked-for manner.
Suddenly the dark priest of Tāmsčng with a band of officers appeared on the gravel walk. The lady gave a cry of alarm that brought nearly the whole household to her side, and, as the priest with the officers persisted in forcing an immediate entrance into the house, there ensued a violent scuffle between the officers of the law and the slaves of P'hagunn.
"Very good," said the padre, doggedly; "it is certain however, that the chapel of Tāmsčng has been plundered by Mariā and a vile pagan who was seen lurking in its vicinity last night."
On hearing this the blood rushed violently to the mother's temples, and she fell back in a death-like swoon. P'hagunn and his numerous attendants were also stupefied by horror and dismay at this dreadful accusation; and the officers, headed by the padre, proceeded coolly to search the house for the missing jewels and the gold and silver candlesticks, censers, and vases that had ornamented the altar of the chapel of Tāmsčng.
At last they reached Mariā's chamber. She had just risen, and was now on her knees before the open window. The door was burst open, and she turned, still kneeling and holding her breath, her fixed and terrified gaze upon the intruders.
The chapel and the convent bells struck six. It was the hour when she usually set out to perform her small round of sacred offices and to open the church doors. But she had no power to move. She saw the padre dash aside her pillow and then her mattress, and with it her crumpled flowers. One of the men came towards her and demanded the key of the chapel. But she could not open her lips to speak; she knelt there petrified in the morning sunlight.
"To think that you should have connived at such an outrageous sacrilege upon the altar of God!" said the padre; and he ordered the men to handcuff her and carry her away to the prison at Tāmsčng.
She made no resistance, but let them do whatever they wished with her; she seemed even to have lost the power of comprehension. She sees the trees, the thatched roofs, the plantations, the fields, the tapering spires of the Temple of the Infinite, and a thousand small objects; she hears voices and cries that would have escaped her at another time, as she is dragged from the home of her parents to the prison cell of the doomed, but she cannot speak, or cry, or even think where she put the key. She knows that her mother is seated outside of the prison door, wailing and crying, and protesting that her child is innocent of the dreadful crime of which she is accused; and this is all that is clear to the stricken girl.
Twilight was falling just as I was coming out of the palace, for I had been detained there all day helping the secretary to despatch the royal mail, when Khoon Jethamas came running up to me, took both my hands in hers, and told me the story of her daughter's imprisonment.
What was to be done? The woman was frantic with grief, and I was almost as much confounded as she.
"You must come with me to-night, dear lady, this very evening. I cannot rest till I get her out of that dreadful place."
I at last persuaded her to come to my house and take a cup of tea, and when I had soothed her so that she could make herself intelligible, I thought the affair did not look quite so hopeless as she supposed, and I tried to make her take a more cheerful view of the matter. The only thing that seemed strange was that Mariā could give no account of what she had done with the key of the chapel door.
Whoever robbed the chapel had got possession of the key. The locks on the chapel were of European manufacture, and there were only two keys that could open them, one in the possession of the padre Tomas, and the other in the keeping of the young wardens, who transferred it to the next person on duty after the morning service.
In a short time Khoon Jethamas and I were rowing against the tide for the village of Tāmsčng. On cross-questioning the lady, I discovered that the late priest Maha-Sāp had been seen prowling about the chapel when Rungeāh, as the mother still called her, was at her devotions, and that on the following morning he was going towards the same spot when he was taken prisoner.
I confess that now I began to feel anxious, for the value of the jewels, etc., that were stolen was fixed at several laks or millions of (deals, an incredible sum which no person could pay. I hardly knew what to think.
Amid hopes and fears, and innumerable plans, which were abandoned as soon as formed for new ones that seemed equally impracticable, we reached the prison of Tāmsčng.
What a dreadful spot it was in the night-time! And the very darkness was aggravated by the people around, who looked more savage and fiercer than wild beasts. Before and behind and on all sides there were rags and filth and wretchedness crowding upon us with the double darkness of night and misery. Some hideous women were jailers; for a few ticals and a promise not to tell upon them, they allowed us to go in and see the girl.
Rungeāh sat as one entranced, with her eyes fixed upon the ground, as if she expected Jesus or the Mother to rise up out of it to vindicate her cause. We could not get her to say a word, to utter a cry or even a moan. We were almost as much overwhelmed at her grief as she was by the padre's accusation.
What was to be done?
Leaving Rungeāh, we set off for the convent of Tāmsčng.
The clock had long before struck eight, when we came to the convent gate, and we were full of hope. But no light was to be seen, and a high wooden fence ran all round the house. Groping our way, we came to a gate at last, but it was locked. We began to knock, and we knocked loudly for a quarter of an hour, and then we waited to see if any one would come to open it. No one came. We were uncertain what to do, the night came on full of clouds, clothing with darkness even the star-filled depths. The convent clock struck nine, and the thought of poor Rungeāh struggling with her anguish came with redoubled force upon the mother's heart, and again we both knocked together more and more loudly. At length lights appeared amid the gloom, and three women with lanterns approached and demanded who we were and what we wanted. On hearing that I was a Christian woman, they opened the gate, and after surveying us carefully, passing their lanterns up and down our persons from head to foot, they led the way to the apartments of the Lady Abbess. When we entered, we found a morose-looking old lady of Portuguese descent seated on a tall high-backed chair, with nine or ten young women, mostly Siamese, sewing scapulars. All round the room were dreadful pictures of the Christ and the Mother in all kinds of agonizing attitudes.
We proceeded to make our business known, which was only to go bail for Rungeāh until the trial should come oil', and to ask the Abbess's influence with the padre Tomas in urging our request.
The old lady coolly replied that it was her duty to wait upon the Lord Jesus, and not to rush about the country, as some folks did, intermeddling with other people's business.
We left her with clouded hearts, and set out for the house of the padre. As we were women, which we in our distress of mind had quite forgotten, the servants or slaves of this holy individual drove us from the doorstep with scorn and contemptuous language for our indelicacy in going there at all.
We then, but less hopefully, turned our almost fainting steps to the house of the Governor P'haya Visate. Khoon Jethamas was afraid to enter, but I was not going away without seeing him. I climbed the steps and entered the veranda; two slaws went before to report our arrival. I saw the great man seated on a cushion in a room adjoining; with women and men crouching in all sorts of abject attitudes before him. I walked in, ready, at the mother's request, to double and treble the bail if necessary. As soon as he saw me approaching, the governor rose, retired to his bedchamber, and shut the door violently in my face.
I came away completely cast down and defeated; as for the poor mother, she wrung her hands and wept piteously. It was now nearly eleven o'clock, and we went back to the prison. The unhappy Khoon Jethamas took up her abode near the only window of the cell where her daughter was immured. I left her sitting on a strip of matting, with her hands over her face, shutting out the outer darkness, in order to realize the utter darkness that had fallen upon her life and upon the light of her home.
Nights and days succeeded each other in regular succession, and day after day I went to the prison to find the patient, loving mother riving under the shadow of its roof, so as to be ever near her child, and once a day she was admitted to see her loved one visibly wasting away. The only change that had taken place in the prisoner, that was hopeful, was, that now it was she who comforted her mother every day, by relating to her her bright visions, and assuring her that she felt the time was not far distant when the Mother and her Son would come down from heaven to proclaim her innocence; that the holy angels descended at night to bless and comfort her with loving promises of speedy justice, and that now the prison-house had been transformed by them into a paradise.
There are mysteries in all religions, which the uninitiated cannot penetrate, and we stood abashed and silent on the other side of the veil that was lifted for the spiritual consolation of this strange girl.
The burning July sun shone daily on the tiled roof of the prison of Tāmsčng. The ground on one side was full of muddy pools, and the river on the other was the cesspool of the village, a liquid mass of poison from which rose the pestilence and the cholera that brooded with their deathlike wings over the inhabitants of Tāmsčng. The evening air was either heavy with noxious vapors or it came in fitful burning gusts across the river, and brought no balm to the suffering prisoners within.
Rungeāh languished day after day, for the ease was to be tried before the International Court of Siam, and the days and the weeks and the months passed away like
"A stream whose waters scarcely seem to stray,
And yet they glide like happiness away."
With them poor Rungeāh's bright faith began to grow dim, and her nightly prayers to the Mother and her holy Son were less and less hopeful, but yet she still strove with each returning day to revive her drooping spirits, and with sweet self-deceit "to paint elysium" upon the darkness of her prison-walls.
The mother bribed the jailers to take to her daughter some little delicacies every day, for the coarse prison food disgusted the girl, and she was gradually being starved to death; and now a low cough and a hectic fever had set in.
The judicial courts of Siam, one and all included, were neither better nor worse than that of other Oriental and despotic kingdoms; and the judges of the outer city, with the exception, as far as I know, of only one man, his Highness Mom Kratai Rajoday, were very far from being model judges. They aimed no higher than the traditional policy of the empire, "the good old rule'' that "might makes right," which had guided the rulers of Siam ever since Siam began to exist as a kingdom and a nation; so that everybody preyed upon his weaker neighbor, and everybody was obliged to suffer, without hope of redress, the wrongs which one stronger than himself could inflict.
Meanwhile the mother grew more and more impatient for her daughter's trial, which seemed to her as if purposely delayed, and in an unguarded moment she accused the padre Tomas of having secreted the jewels and ornaments of the altar of Tāmsčng, and of having made a false accusation against her daughter for the sole purpose of laying claim to her estate. The padre became exasperated and brought a charge of libel against the mother; and poor Rungeāh was more and more hopelessly a prisoner.
The timid P'hagunn shut himself up in his house, and left it to his brave wife to threaten the Christian officials, and to haunt the courts with her complaints, expending large sums of money, but without result.
At length, as Rungeāh was really very ill, and I feared she would die, I accompanied Khoon Jethamas on a private visit to his Highness Mom Kratai Rajoday, the chief judge of the International Court, taking with me a private letter from' the king, which simply stated that I wished to be made personally acquainted with him.
The judge received us very cordially indeed, and the unhappy Jethamas threw herself at his feet, and with tears and sobs implored of him to hasten the trial of her child, which he most kindly promised to do.
It was now December, and three days after our visit to the chief, judge the trial came on.
I could not attend on the two first days, but on Saturday, the 10th of December, 1864, I accompanied Khoon Jethamas and the feeble and wasted Rungeāh to the court, where I was rejoiced to see his Highness Mom Kratai Rajoday presiding in person. All the preliminaries had been gone through with on the two previous days. The court-house was crammed with native Christians, Buddhists, and Cambodians, so that there was not even standing room to be had anywhere.
After going through a great many forms and ceremonies, such as laying the right hand on a branch of the boh-tree, and thence on his left side, and taking the Buddhist's oath, Maha-Sāp's innocence was clearly proved. He confessed, however, that he was in the habit of repairing to the chapel morning and evening, but that his sole motive was to be near by to protect Rungeāh from any danger that might threaten her.
The judge then turned and asked Rungeāh to relate again all that she had done on the night of the robbery.
All her natural grace of feature, all her excellence mind and soul, shone out as she calmly repeated her story; the only thing she could not account for was where she had dropped the key. "But," said she, "my soul and my conscience acquit me of this sin. How then shall I plead guilty to that which I have not done? Will it not be accounted a sin against myself by P'hra Jesu and his Holy Mother in heaven?"
The beating hearts of the crowd were suspended in breathless expectation; some being interested for and some against the prisoners. The next moment the judge declared that Rungeāh and Maha-Sāp had been imprisoned on insufficient grounds; that their innocence was quite apparent, even without or rather before the trial, and that the case was dismissed.
Scarcely were these words articulated, when a shout like that of a great hurricane broke from the excited masses of the people; the boarded floor seemed to thrill and ripple as with the throes of an earthquake, and the crowd staggered to and fro as if inebriated with the sudden paroxysm of joy. It was to them not so much the cause of a young and beautiful Cambodian lady of high rank, as the cause of Buddhism against Roman Catholicism.
I was stunned with their deafening roar. But poor Rungeāh was too feeble to bear the sudden and overwhelming joy of her acquittal; an exclamation of the wildest delight broke from her pale lips, and she fell back insensible.
The excited crowd unable to master their now as sudden agony at the sight of the apparently lifeless girl, were hushed, and a lull as profound as death succeeded. They bore her to the boat and laid her down in it, and her mother implored me to go home with them. In the fresh air, as we rowed slowly along, the girl soon revived, and, putting out her arms, drew her mother down to her, and held her firmly to her breast.
Maha-Sāp, her brother, both noble-looking men, and a crowd of people, followed in another boat.
As we approached the temple of Adi Buddha Armando, Rungeāh whispered to her mother to take her in there to rest; that she was weary, and that it would comfort her to enter its sacred precincts once more.
The sun is near his setting, and broad lights and shadows are lying upon and veiling the grand proportions of the temple of the "Infinite."
Now the boats are fastened to the pier, and a little group follows the women who are bearing the form of Rungeāh into the temple.
It is the hour of the Buddhists' evening prayer. They bring a small mat, and she is laid in the middle of the temple, while the bonzes are seated on either side, waiting for the high-priest to open the vesper service.
During the service the girl lies there with her eyes closed.
Sunshine is reflected in wonderful glory from the head of the great silver image of the Adi Buddh. Sunshine is flooding the temple, glorifying the stolid idols that are standing around, and streaming on the floor and over the quiet figure of the girl. Her face assumes an ashy hue, and she again puts out her arms and draws her mother down to her.
"O mother, pray to the Virgin Mother for me," says the girl, "to tell P'hra Jesu that I am innocent."
The pagan mother makes no reply, but bends an agonized look on her dear child's face, and the girl's face becomes grayer in the floods of sunlight. Her fingers twitch and quiver around her mother's neck.
The priests are hushed, and the temple is more and more flooded with light; and the faint, sweet, pleading voice of the girl is again heard: "Mother, dear mother, pray to P'hra Jesu that he shut not the heavenly gates upon me"; and the strong love of the mother conquers her religious scruples, and, lying there with her head cushioned on the bosom of her dying child, she raises her voice and prays:
"O thou who art called P'hra Jesu, free my child from sin. O forgive her, sacred One. She has loved thee to the last. She believes in none but thee. Be thou her God, and shut not, O shut not thy heavenly gates upon her, even though they shut her out forever from my sorrowing heart and eyes."
At the utterance of those strange syllables falling from the lips of a Buddhist mother in the most solemn of the temples of the Buddha, a marvellous change passed over the face of the dying girl; the gray pallor of death gave place to a heavenly light, and a faint but lovely smile irradiated her pale lips. She opened her eyes and gazed enraptured upon some vision that seemed to float before her. "O mother, mother," cried the exulting voice of the girl, "I see P'hra Jesu and P'hra Buddha; P'hra Jesu is above and P'hra Buddha is below, and the two mothers, Marie and Maia2 are sitting side by side, and they are all smiling and calling me upward, upward." And Rungeāh stretched out her arms and closed her eyes, the gray pallor returned; her spirit fluttered for a moment, and then was gone forever. But the smile never left her lips.
She was buried with the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, with her rosary and the golden image of Christ on her bosom, by a French priest from the other side of the village of Tāmsčng.
Two years after, a man was taken in the act of plundering the jewels of a princess of Siam, as she was travelling in her boat to Ayudia, and on his trial he confessed that he was a Christian, that he had been betrothed to Rungeāh's sister, whom he had murdered for the sake of her jewels, and then fled to Ayudia, whence having gambled away all the proceeds of his spoils, he once more returned to Bangkok and robbed the chapel of Tāmsčng. He offered to deliver up the jewels, etc., if his life should be spared. His request was granted, but he was condemned to lifelong imprisonment, while the crown and the diadem are once more to be seen on the brows of the figure of the Christ and the Virgin Mary, and the gold and silver candlesticks again light up the altar of the little chapel of Tāmsčng.
1 This is one of the Buddhist customs adopted by the Catholics for the purpose of securing the daughters of rich natives as servants of the Church.
2 One of the names of the mother of the Buddha.