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The Governess at the Siamese Court
THE ENGLISH GOVERNESS AT THE SIAMESE COURT.
ON THE THRESHOLD.
MARCH 15, 1862. — On board the small Siamese steamer Chow Phya, in the Gulf of Siam. I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil; and presently the welcome face shines boldly out, glad, glorious, beautiful, and aureoled with flaming hues of orange, fringed with amber and gold, wherefrom flossy webs of color float wide through the sky, paling as they go. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.
The captain told us we must wait for the afternoon tide to carry us over the bar. I lingered on deck, as long as I could dodge the fiery spears that flashed through our tattered awning, and bear the bustle and the boisterous jests of some circus people, our fellow-passengers, who came by express invitation of the king to astonish and amuse the royal household and the court.
Scarcely less intelligent, and certainly more entertaining, than these were the dogs of our company, — brutes of diverse temperament, experience, and behavior. There were the captain's two, Trumpet and Jip, who, by virtue of their reflected rank and authority, held places of privilege and pickings under the table, and were jealous and overbearing as became a captain's favorites, snubbing and bullying their more accomplished and versatile guests, the circus dogs, with skipper-like growls and snarls and snaps. And there was our own true Bessy, — a Newfoundland, great and good, — discreet, reposeful, dignified, fastidious, not to be cajoled into confidences and familiarities with strange dogs, whether official or professional. Very human was her gentle countenance, and very loyal, I doubt not, her sense of responsibility, as she followed anxiously my boy and me, interpreting with her heart the thoughts she read in our faces, and responding with her sympathetic eyes.
In the afternoon, when we dined on deck, the land was plainly visible; and now, as with a favoring tide we glided toward the beautiful Meinam ("Mother of Waters"), the air grew brighter, and the picture lived and moved; trees grew on the banks, more and more verdure, monkeys swung from bough to bough, birds flashed and piped among the thickets.
Though the reddish-brown water over the "banks" is very shallow at low tide, craft of moderate burden, with the aid of a pilot, cast anchor commonly in the very heart of the capital, in from ten to twelve fathoms of water.
The world has few rivers so deep, commodious, and safe as the Meinam; and when we arrived the authorities were contemplating the erection of beacons on the bar, as well as a lighthouse for the benefit of vessels entering the port of Bangkok. The stream is rich in fish of excellent quality and flavor, such as is found in most of the great rivers of Asia; and is especially noted for its platoo, a kind of sardine, so abundant and cheap that it forms a common seasoning to the laborer's bowl of rice. The Siamese are expert in modes of drying and salting fish of all kinds, and large quantities are exported annually to Java, Sumatra, Malacca, and China.
In half an hour from the time when the twin banks of the river, in their raiment of bright green, seemed to open their beautiful arms to receive us, we came to anchor opposite the mean, shabby, irregular town of Paknam, or Sumuttra P'hra-kan ("Ocean Affairs"). Here the captain went ashore to report himself to the Governor, and the officials of the custom-house, and the mail-boat came out to us. My boy became impatient for couay (cake); Moonshee, my Persian teacher, and Beebe, my gay Hindostanee nurse, expressed their disappointment and disgust, Moonshee being absurdly dramatic in his wrath, as, fairly shaking his fist at the town, he demanded, "What is this!"
Near this place are two islands. The one on the right is fortified, yet withal so green and pretty, and seemingly so innocent of bellicose designs, that one may fancy Nature has taken peculiar pains to heal and hide the disfigurements grim Art has made in her beauty. On the other, which at first I took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, with a lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows in the limpid waters below, Add to these the fitful ripple of the coquettish breeze, the burnished blazonry of the surrounding vegetation, the budding charms of spring joined to the sensuous opulence of autumn, and you have a scene of lovely glamour it were but vain impertinence to describe. Earth seemed to have gathered for her adorning here elements more intellectual, poetic, and inspiring than she commonly displays to pagan eyes.
These islands at the gateway of the river are, like the bank in the gulf, but accumulations of the sand borne down before the torrent, that, suddenly swollen by the rains, rushes annually to the sea. The one on which the temple stands is partly artificial, having been raised from the bed of the Meinam by the king P'hra Chow Phra-satthong, as a work of "merit." Visiting this island some years later, I found that this temple, like all other pyramidal structures in this part of the world, consists of solid masonry of brick and mortar. The bricks made here are remarkable, being fully eight inches long and nearly four broad, and of fine grain, — altogether not unlike the "tavellae" brick of the Egyptians and ancient Romans. There are cornices on all sides, with steps to ascend to the top, where a long inscription proclaims the name, rank, and virtues of the founder, with dates of the commencement of the island and the shrine. The whole of the space, extending to the low stone breakwater that surrounds the island, is paved with the same kind of brick, and encloses, in addition to the P'hra-Chadei ("The Lord's Delight"), a smaller temple with a brass image of the sitting Buddha. It also affords accommodation to the numerous retinue of princes, nobles, retainers, and pages who attend the king in his annual visits to the temple, to worship, and make votive offerings and donations to the priests.
A charming spot, yet not one to be contemplated with unalloyed pleasure; for here also are the wretched people, who pass up and down in boats, averting their eyes, pressing their hard, labor-grimed hands against their sweating foreheads, and lowly louting in blind awe to these whited bricks. Even the naked children hush and crouch, and lay their little foreheads against the bottom of the boat.
His Majesty Somdetch P'hra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, the late Supreme King, contributed interesting souvenirs to the enlargement and adornment of this temple.
The town, which the twin islands redeem from the ignominy it otherwise deserves, lies on the east bank of the river, and by its long lines of low ramparts that face the water seems to have been at one time substantially fortified; but the works are now dilapidated and neglected. They were constructed in the first instance, I am told, with fatal ingenuity; in the event of an attack the garrison would find them as dangerous to abandon as to defend. Paknam is indebted for its importance rather to its natural position, and its possibilities of improvement under the abler hands into which it is gradually falling, than to any advantage or promise in itself; for a more disgusting, repulsive place is scarcely to be found on Asian ground.
The houses are built partly of mud, partly of wood, and, as in those of Malacca, only the upper story is habitable, the ground floor being the abode of pigs, dogs, fowls, and noisome reptiles. The "Government House" was originally of stone, but all the more recent additions have been shabbily constructed of rough timber and mud. This is one of the few houses in Paknam which one may enter without mounting a ladder or a clumsy staircase, and which have rooms in the lower as well as in the upper story.
The Custom-House is an open sala, or shed, where interpreters, inspectors, and tidewaiters lounge away the day on cool mats, chewing areca, betel, and tobacco, and extorting moneys, goods, or provisions from the unhappy proprietors of native trading craft, large or small; but Europeans are protected from their rascally and insolent exactions by the intelligence and energy of their respective consuls.
The hotel is a whitewashed brick building, originally designed to accommodate foreign ambassadors and other official personages visiting the Court of Siam. The king's summer-house, fronting the islands, is the largest edifice to be seen, but it has neither dignity nor beauty. A number of inferior temples and monasteries occupy the background, and are crowded with a rabble of priests, in yellow robes and with shaven pates; packs of mangy pariah-dogs attend them. These monasteries consist of many small rooms or cells, containing merely a mat and wooden pillow for each occupant. The refuse of the food, which the priests beg during the day, is cast to the dogs at night; and what they refuse is left to putrefy. Unimaginable are the stenches the sun of Siam engenders in such conditions.
A village so happily situated might, under better management, become a thriving and pleasing port; but neglect, cupidity, and misrule have shockingly deformed and degraded it. Nevertheless, by its picturesque site and surroundings of beauty, it retains its hold upon the regretful admiration of many Europeans and Americans, who in ill health have found strength and cheer in its sea-breezes.
We heartily enjoyed the delightful freshness of the evening air as we glided up the Meinam, though the river view at this point is somewhat marred by the wooden piers and quays that line it on either side, and the floating houses, representing elongated A's. From the deck, at a convenient height above the level of the river and the narrow serpentine canals and creeks, we looked down upon conical roofs thatched with attaps, and diversified by the pyramids and spires and fantastic turrets of the more important buildings. The valley of the Meinam, not over six hundred miles in length, is as a long deep dent or fissure in the alluvial soil. At its southern extremity we have the climate and vegetation of the tropics, while its northern end, on the brow of the Yunan, is a region of perpetual snow. The surrounding country is remarkable for the bountiful productiveness of its unctuous loam. The scenery, though not wild nor grand, is very picturesque and charming in the peculiar golden haze of its atmosphere. I surveyed with more and more admiration each new scene of blended luxuriance and beauty, — plantations spreading on either hand as far as the eye could reach, and level fields of living green, billowy with crops of rice and maize, and sugar-cane and coffee, and cotton and tobacco; and the wide irregular river, a kaleidoscope of evanescent form and color, where land, water, and sky joined or parted in a thousand charming surprises of shapes and shadows.
The sun was already sinking in the west, when we caught sight of a tall roof of familiar European fashion; and presently a lowly white chapel with green windows, freshly painted, peeped out beside two pleasant dwellings. Chapel and homes belong to the American Presbyterian Mission. A forest of graceful boughs filled the background; the last faint rays of the departing sun fell on the Mission pathway, and the gentle swaying of the tall trees over the chapel imparted a promise of safety and peace, as the glamour of the approaching night and the gloom and mystery of the pagan land into which we were penetrating filled me with an indefinable dread. I almost trembled, as the unfriendly clouds drove out the lingering tints of day. Here were the strange floating city, with its stranger people on all the open porches, quays, and jetties; the innumerable rafts and boats, canoes and gondolas, junks, and ships; the pall of black smoke from the steamer, the burly roar of the engine, and the murmur and the jar; the bewildering cries of men, women, and children, the shouting of the Chinamen, and the barking of the dogs, — yet no one seemed troubled but me. I knew it was wisest to hide my fears. It was the old story. How many of our sisters, how many of our daughters, how many of our hearts' darlings, are thus, without friend or guide or guard or asylum, turning into untried paths with untold stories of trouble and pain!
We dropped anchor in deep water near an island. In a moment the river was alive with nondescript craft, worked by amphibious creatures, half naked, swarthy, and grim, who rent the air with shrill, wild jargon as they scrambled toward us. In the distance were several hulks of Siamese men-of-war, seemingly as old as the flood; and on the right towered, tier over tier, the broad roofs of the grand Royal Palace of Bangkok, — my future "home" and the scene of my future labors.
The circus people are preparing to land; and the dogs, running to and fro with anxious glances, have an air of leave-taking also. Now, the China coolies, with pigtails braided and coiled round their low, receding brows, begin their uncouth bustle, and into the small hours of the morning enliven the time of waiting with frantic shouts and gestures.
Before long a showy gondola, fashioned like a dragon, with flashing torches and many paddles, approached; and a Siamese official mounted the side, swaying himself with an absolute air. The red langoutee, or skirt, loosely folded about his person, did not reach his ankles; and to cover his audacious chest and shoulders he had only his own brown polished skin. He was followed by a dozen attendants, who, the moment they stepped from the gangway, sprawled on the deck like huge toads, doubling their arms and legs under them, and pressing their noses against the boards, as if intent on making themselves small by degrees and hideously less. Every Asiatic on deck, coolies and all, prostrates himself, except my two servants, who are bewildered. Moonshee covertly mumbles his five prayers, ejaculating between, Mash-Allah! A Tala-yea kia hai?1 and Beebe shrinks, and draws her veil of spotted muslin jealously over her charms.
The captain stepped forward and introduced us. "His Excellency Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Siam!"
Half naked as he was, and without an emblem to denote his rank, there was yet something remarkable about this native chief, by virtue of which he compelled our respect from the first glance, — a sensibly magnetic quality of tone or look. With an air of command oddly at variance with his almost indecent attire, of which he seemed superbly unconscious, he beckoned to a young attendant, who crawled to him as a dog crawls to an angry master. This was an interpreter, who at a word from his lord began to question me in English.
"Are you the lady who is to teach in the royal family?"
On my replying in the affirmative, he asked, "Have you friends in Bangkok?"
Finding I had none, he was silent for a minute or two; then demanded: "What will you do? Where will you sleep to-night?"
"Indeed I cannot tell," I said. "I am a stranger here. But I understood from his Majesty's letter that a residence would be provided for us on our arrival; and he has been duly informed that we were to arrive at this time."
"His Majesty cannot remember everything," said his Excellency; the interpreter added, "You can go where you like." And away went master and slaves. I was dumfoundered, without even voice to inquire if there was a hotel in the city; and my servants were scornfully mute. My kind friend the captain was sorely puzzled. He would have sheltered us if he could; but a cloud of coal-dust and the stamping and screaming of a hundred and fifty Chinamen made hospitality impracticable; so I made a little bed for my child on deck, and prepared to pass the night with him under a canopy of stars.
The situation was as Oriental as the scene, — heartless arbitrary insolence on the part of my employers; homelessness, forlornness, helplessness, mortification, indignation, on mine. Fears and misgivings crowded and stunned me. My tears fell thick and fast, and, weary and despairing, I closed my eyes, and tried to shut out heaven and earth; but the reflection would return to mock and goad me, that by my own act, and against the advice of my friends, I had placed myself in this position.
The good captain of the Chow Phya, much troubled by the conduct of the minister, paced the deck (which usually, on these occasions, he left to the supercargo) for more than an hour. Presently a boat approached, and he hailed it. In a moment it was at the gangway, and with robust, hearty greetings on both sides, Captain B— , a cheery Englishman, with a round, ruddy, rousing face, sprang on board; in a few words our predicament was explained to him, and at once he invited us to share his house, for the night at least, assuring us of a cordial welcome from his wife. In the beautiful gondola of our "friend in need" we were pulled by four men, standing to their oars, through a dream-like scene, peculiar to this Venice of the East. Larger boats, in an endless variety of form and adornment, with prows high, tapering, and elaborately carved, and pretty little gondolas and canoes, passed us continually on the right and left; yet amid so many signs of life, motion, traffic, bustle, the sweet sound of the rippling waters alone fell on the ear. No rumbling of wheels, nor clatter of hoofs, nor clangor of bells, nor roar and scream of engines to shock the soothing fairy-like illusion. The double charm of stillness and starlight was perfect
"By the by," broke in my cheery new friend, "you'll have to go with me to the play, ma'm; because my wife is there with the boys, and the house-key is in her pocket"
"To the play!"
"O, don't be alarmed, ma'm! It's not a regular theatre; only a catchpenny show, got up by a Frenchman, who came from Singapore a fortnight since. And having so little amusement here, we are grateful for anything that may help to break the monotony. The temporary playhouse is within the palace grounds of his Royal Highness Prince Krom Lhuang Wongse; and I hope to have an opportunity to introduce you to the Prince, who I believe is to be present with his family."
The intelligence was not gratifying, a Siamese prince had too lately disturbed my moral equilibrium; but I held my peace and awaited the result with resignation. A few strokes of the oars, seconded by the swift though silent current, brought us to a wooden pier surmounted by two glaring lanterns. Captain B— handed us out. My child, startled from a deep sleep, was refractory, and would not trust himself out of my fond keeping. When finally I had struggled with him in my arms to the landing, I saw in the shadow a form coiled on a piece of striped matting. Was it a bear? No, a prince! For the clumsy mass of reddish-brown flesh unrolled and uplifted itself, and held out a human arm, with a fat hand at the end of it, when Captain B— presented me to "his Royal Highness." Near by was his Excellency the Prime Minister, in the identical costume that had disgraced our unpleasant interview on the Chow Phya; he was smoking a European pipe, and plainly enjoying our terrors. My stalwart friend contrived to squeeze us, and even himself, first through a bamboo door, and then through a crowd of hot people, to seats fronting a sort of altar, consecrated to the arts of jugglery. A number of Chinamen of respectable appearance occupied the more distant places, while those immediately behind us were filled by the ladies and gentlemen of the foreign community. On a raised dais hung with kincob2 curtains, the ladies of the Prince's harem reclined; while their children, shining in silk and ornaments of gold, laughed, prattled, and gesticulated, until the juggler appeared, when they were stunned with sudden wonder. Under the eaves on all sides human heads were packed, on every head its cherished tuft of hair, like a stiff black brush inverted, in every mouth its delicious cud of areca-nut and betel, which the human cattle ruminated with industrious content. The juggler, a keen little Frenchman, plied his arts nimbly, and what with his ventriloquial doll, his empty bag full of eggs, his stones that were candies, and his candies that were stones, and his stuffed birds that sang, astonished and delighted his unsophisticated patrons, whose applauding murmurs were diversified by familiarly silly shrieks — the true Siamese Did-you-ever! — from behind the kincob curtains.
But I was weary and disheartened, and welcomed with a sigh of relief the closing of the show. As we passed out with our guide, the glare of many torches falling on the dark silent river made the swarthy forms of the boatmen weird and Charon-like Mrs. B— welcomed us with a pleasant smile to her little heaven of home across the river, and by the simplicity and gentleness of her manners dispelled in a measure my feeling of forlornness. When at last I found myself alone, I would have sought the sleep I so 'much needed, but the strange scenes of the day chased each other in agitating confusion through my brain. Then I quitted the side of my sleeping boy, triumphant in his dreamless innocence, and sat defeated by the window, to crave counsel and help from the ever-present Friend; and as I waited I sank into a tumultuous slumber, from which at last I started to find the long-tarrying dawn climbing over a low wall and creeping through a half-open shutter.
1 "Great God! what is this?"
2 Silk, embroidered with gold flowers.