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HIS EXCELLENCY'S HAREM AND HELPMEET.
WHEN the Senabawdee, or Royal Council, by elevating to the throne the priest-prince Chowfa Mongkut, frustrated the machinations of the son of his predecessor, they by the same stroke crushed the secret hopes of Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse, the present premier. It is whispered to this day — for no native, prince or peasant, may venture to approach the subject openly — that, on the day of coronation, his Excellency retired to his private chambers, and there remained, shut up with his chagrin and grief, for three days. On the fourth, arrayed in his court robes and attended by a numerous retinue, he presented himself at the palace to take part in the ceremonies with which the coronation was celebrated. The astute young king, who in his priestly character had penetrated many state secrets, advanced to greet him, and with the double purpose of procuring the adherence and testing the fidelity of this discontented and wavering son of his stanch old champion, the Duke Somdetch Ong Yai, appointed him on the spot to the command of the army, under the title of Phya P'hra Kralahome.
This flattering distinction, though it did not immediately beguile him from his moodiness, for a time diverted his dangerous fancies into channels of activity, and he found a safe expression for his annoyance in a useful restlessness. But after he had done more than any of his predecessors to remodel and perfect the army, he relapsed into morbid melancholy, from which he was once more aroused by the call of his royal master, who invited him to share the labors and the honors of government in the highest civil office, that of prime minister. He accepted, and has ever since shown himself prolific in devices to augment the revenue, secure the co-operation of the nobility, and confirm his own power. His remarkable executive faculty, seconding the enlightened policy of the king, would doubtless have inaugurated a golden age for his country, but for the aggressive meddling of French diplomacy in the quarrels between the princes of Cochin China and Cambodia; by which exasperating measure Siam is in the way to lose one of her richest possessions,1 and may in time become, herself, the brightest and most costly jewel in the crown of France.
Such was Chow Phya Sri Sury Wongse when I was first presented to him: a natural king among the dusky forms that surrounded him, the actual ruler of that semi-barbarous realm, and the prime contriver of its arbitrary policy. Black, but comely, robust, and vigorous, neck short and thick, nose large and nostrils wide, eyes inquisitive and penetrating, his was the massive brain proper to an intellect deliberate and systematic. Well found in the best idioms of his native tongue, he expressed strong, discriminative thoughts in words at once accurate and abundant. His only vanity was his English, with which he so interlarded his native speech, as often to impart the effect of levity to ideas that, in themselves, were grave, judicious, and impressive.
Let me conduct the reader into one of the saloons of the palace, where we shall find this intellectual sensualist in the moral relaxation of his harem, with his latest pets and playthings about him.
Peering into a twilight, studiously contrived, of dimly lighted and suggestive shadows, we discover in the centre of the hall a long line of girls with skins of olive, — creatures who in years and physical proportions are yet but children, but by training developed into women and accomplished actresses. There are some twenty of them, in transparent draperies with golden girdles, their arms and bosoms, wholly nude, flashing, as they wave and heave, with barbaric ornaments of gold. The heads are modestly inclined, the hands are humbly folded, and the eyes droop timidly beneath long lashes. Their only garment, the lower skirt, floating in light folds about their limbs, is of very costly material bordered heavily with gold. On the ends of their fingers they wear long "nails" of gold, tapering sharply like the claws of a bird. The apartment is illuminated by means of candelabras, hung so high that the light falls in a soft hazy mist on the tender faces and pliant forms below.
Another group of maidens, comely and merry, sit behind musical instruments, of so great variety as to recall the "cornet, flute, sackbut, harp, psaltery, and dulcimer" of Scripture. The "head wife" of the premier, earnestly engaged in creaming her lips, reclines apart on a dais, attended by many waiting-women.
From the folds of a great curtain a single flute opens the entertainment with low tender strains, and from the recesses twelve damsels appear, bearing gold and silver fans, with which, seated in order, they fan the central group.
Now the dancers, a burst of joyous music being the signal, form in two lines, and simultaneously, with military precision, kneel, fold and raise their hands, and bow till their foreheads touch the carpet before their lord. Then suddenly springing to their feet, they describe a succession of rapid and intricate circles, tapping the carpet with their toes in time to the music. Next follows a miracle of art, such as may be found only among pupils of the highest physical training; a dance in which every motion is poetry, every attitude an expression of love, even rest but the eloquence of passion overcome by its own fervor. The music swelling into a rapturous tumult preludes the choral climax, wherein the dancers, raising their delicate feet, and curving their arms and fingers in seemingly impossible flexures, sway like withes of willow, and agitate all the muscles of the body like the fluttering of leaves in a soft breeze. Their eyes glow as with an inner light; the soft brown complexion, the rosy lips half parted, the heaving bosom, and the waving arms, as they float round and round in wild eddies of dance, impart to them the aspect of fair young fiends.
And there sits the Kralahome, like the idol of ebony before the demon had entered it! while around him these elfin worshippers, with flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, tossing arms and panting bosoms, whirl in their witching waltz. He is a man to be wondered at, — stony and grim, his huge hands resting on his knees in statuesque repose, as though he supported on his well-poised head the whole weight of the Maha Mongkut2 itself, while at his feet these brown leaves of humanity lie quivering.
Is it all maya, — delusion? I open wide my eyes, then close them, then open them again. There still lie the living puppets, not daring to look up to the face of their silent god, where scorn and passion contend for place. The dim lights, the shadows blending with them, the fine harmony of colors, the wild harmony of sounds, the fantastic phantoms, the overcoming sentiment, all the poetry and the pity of the scene, — the formless longing, the undefined sense of wrong! Poor things, poor things!
The prime minister of Siam enjoys no exemption from that mocking law which condemns the hero strutting on the stage of the world to cut but a sorry figure at home.
Toward these helpless slaves of his nod his deportment was studiously ungracious and mean. No smile of pleased surprise or approbation ever brightened his gloomy countenance. True, the fire of his native ardor barns there still, but through no crevice of the outward man may one catch a glimpse of its light. Though he rage as a fiery furnace within, externally he is calm as a lake, too deep to be troubled by the skipping, singing brooks that flow into it. Rising automatically, he abruptly retired, bored. And those youthful, tender forms, glowing and panting there, — in what glorious robes might not their proper loveliness have arrayed them, if only their hearts had looked upward in freedom, and not, like their trained eyes, downward in blind homage.
Koon Ying Phan (literally, "The Lady in One Thousand") was the head wife of the Premier. He married her, after repudiating the companion of his more grateful years, the mother of his only child, a son — the legitimacy of whose birth he doubted, and so, for a grim jest, named the lad My Chi, "Not So." He would have put the mother to death, but finding no real grounds for his suspicion, let her off with a public "putting away." The divorced woman, having nothing left but her disowned baby, carefully changed the My Chi to Ny Chi ("Not So" to "Master So"), — a cunning trick of pride, but a doubtful improvement
Koon Ying Phan had neither beauty nor grace; but her habits were domestic, and her temper extremely mild. When I first knew her she was perhaps forty years old, — stout, heavy, dark, — her only attraction the gentle expression of her eyes and mouth. Around her pretty residence, adjoining the Premier's palace, bloomed the most charming garden I saw in Siam, with shrubberies, fountains, and nooks, designed by a true artist; though the work of the native florists is usually fantastic and grotesque, with an excess of dwarfed trees in Chinese vases. There was, besides, a cool, shaded walk, leading to a more extensive garden, adorned with curious lattice-work, and abounding in shrubs of great variety and beauty. Koon Ying Phan had a lively love for flowers, which she styled the children of her heart; "for my lord is childless," she whispered.
In her apartments the same subdued lights and mellow half-tints prevailed that in her husband's saloons imparted a pensive sentiment to the place. There were neither carpets nor mirrors; and the only articles of furniture were some sofa-beds, low marble couches, tables, and a few arm-chairs, but all of forms antique and delicate. The combined effect was one of delicious coolness, retirement, and repose, even despite the glaring rays that strove to invade the sweet refuge through the silken window-nets.
This lady, to whom belonged the undivided supervision of the premier's household, was kind to the younger women, of her husband's harem, in whose welfare she manifested a most amiable interest, — living among them happily, as a mother among her daughters, sharing their confidences, and often pleading their cause with her lord and theirs, over whom she exercised a very cautious but positive influence.
I learned gladly and with pride to admire and love this lady, to accept her as the type of a most precious truth. For to behold, even afar off, "silent upon a peak" of sympathy, the ocean of love and pathos, of passion and patience, on which the lives of these our pagan sisters drift, is to be gratefully sensible of a loving, pitying, and sufficing Presence, even in the darkness of error, superstition, slavery, and death.
Shortly after her marriage, goon Ying Phan, moved partly by compassion for the wrongs of her predecessor, partly by the "aching void" of her own life, adopted the disowned son of the premier, and called him, with reproachful significance, P'hra Nah Why, "the Lord endures." And her strong friend, Nature, who had already knit together, by nerve and vein and bone and sinew, the father and the child, now came to her aid, and united them by the finer but scarcely weaker ties of habit and companionship and home affections.
THE TEMPLE OF THE SLEEPING IDOL.
2 "The Mighty Crown."