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MY RETIREMENT FROM THE PALACE.
IN 1864 I found that my labors had greatly increased; I had often to work till ten o'clock at night to accomplish the endless translations required of me. I also began to perceive how continually and closely I was watched, but how and by whom it seemed impossible to discover. Among the inducements to me to accept the position of teacher to the royal family was his Majesty's assurance, that, if I gave satisfaction, he would increase my salary after a year's trial. Nearly three years had passed when I first ventured to remind the king of this promise. To my astonishment he bluntly informed me that I had not given satisfaction, that I was "difficult" and unmanageable, "more careful about what was right and what was wrong than for the obedience and submission." And as to salary, he continued: "Why you should be poor? You come into my presence every day with some petition, some case of hardship or injustice, and you demand your Majesty shall most kindly investigate, and cause redress to be made '; and I have granted to you because you are important to me for translations, and so forth. And now you declare you must have increase of salary Must you have everything in this world? Why you do not make them pay you? If I grant you all your petition for the poor, you ought to be rich, or you have no wisdom."
At a loss what answer to make to this very unsympathetic view of my conduct, I quietly returned to my duties, which grew daily in variety and responsibility. What with translating, correcting, copying, dictating, reading, I had hardly a moment I could call my own; and if at any time I rebelled, I brought down swift vengeance on the head of the helpless native secretary.
But it was my consolation to know that I could befriend the women and children of the palace, who, when they saw that I was not afraid to oppose the king in his more outrageous caprices of tyranny, imagined me endued with supernatural powers, and secretly came to me with their grievances, in full assurance that sooner or later I would see them redressed. And so, with no intention on my part, and almost without my own consent, I suffered myself to be set up between the oppressor and the oppressed. From that time I had no peace. Day after day I was called upon to resist the wanton cruelty of judges and magistrates, till at last I found myself at feud with the whole "San Luang." In cases of torture, imprisonment, extortion, I tried again and again to excuse myself from interfering, but still the mothers or sisters prevailed, and I had no choice left but to try to help them. Sometimes I sent Boy with my clients, sometimes I went myself; and in no single instance was justice granted from a sense of right, but always through fear of my supposed influence with the king. My Siamese and European friends said I was amassing a fortune. It seemed not worth my while to contradict them, though the inference was painful to me, for in truth my championship was not purely disinterested; I suffered from continual contact with the sufferings of others, and came to the rescue in self-defence and in pity for myself not less than for them.
A Chinaman had been cruelly murdered and robbed by a favorite slave in the household of the prime minister's brother, leaving the brother, wife, and children of the victim in helpless poverty and terror. The murderer had screened himself and his accomplices by sharing the plunder with his master. The widow cried for redress in vain. The ears of magistrates were stopped against her, and she was too poor to pay her way; but still she went from one court to another, until her importunity irritated the judges, who, to intimidate her, seized her eldest son, on some monstrous pretext, and cast him into prison. This double cruelty completed the despair of the unhappy mother. She came to me fairly frenzied, and "commanded" me to go at once into the presence of the king and demand her stolen child; and then, in a sudden paroxysm of grief, she embraced my knees, wailing, and praying to me to help her. It was not in human nature to reject that maternal claim. With no little trouble I procured the liberation of her son; but to keep him out of harm's way I had to take him into my own home and change his name. I called him Timothy, which by a Chinese abbreviation became Ti.
When I went with this woman and the brother of the murdered man to the palace of the premier, we found that distinguished personage half naked and playing chess. Seeing me enter, he ordered one of his slaves to bring him a jacket, into which he thrust his arms, and went on with the game; and not until that was finished did he attend to me. When I explained my errand he seemed vexed, but sent for his brother, had a long talk with him, and concluded by warning my unhappy protιgιs that if he heard any more complaints from them they should be flogged. Then turning to me with a grim smile, he said: "Chinee too much bother. Good by, sir!"
This surprised me exceedingly, for I had often known the premier to award justice in spite of the king. That same evening, as I sat alone in my drawing-room, making notes, as was my custom, I heard a slight noise, as of some one in the room. Looking round, I saw, to my amazement, one of the inferior judges of the prime minister's court crouching by the piano. I asked how he dared to enter my house unannounced. "Mani," said he, "your servants admitted me; they know from whom I come, and would not venture to refuse me. And now it is for you to know that I am here from his Excellency Chow Phya Kralahome, to request you to send in your resignation at the end of this month."
"By what authority does he send me this message?" I asked.
"I know not; but it were best that you obey."
"Tell him," I replied, unable to control my anger at the cowardly trick to intimidate me, "I shall leave Siam when I please, and that no man shall set the time for me."
The man departed, cringing and crouching, and excusing himself. This was the same wretch at whose instigation poor Moonshee had been so shamefully beaten.
I did not close my eyes that night. Again and again prudence advised me to seek safety in flight, but the argument ended in my turning my back on the timid monitor, and resolving to stay.
About three weeks after this occurrence, his Majesty was going on an excursion "up country," and as he wished me to accompany my pupils, the prime minister was required to prepare a cabin for me and my boy on his steamer, the Volant. Before we left the palace one of my anxious friends made me promise her that I would partake of no food nor taste a drop of wine on board the steamer, an injunction in the sequel easy to fulfil, as our wants were amply provided for at the Grand Palace, where we spent the whole day. But I cite this incident to show the state of mind which led me to prolong my stay, hateful as it had become.
After this, affairs in the royal household went smoothly enough for some time; but still my tasks increased, and my health began to fail. When I informed his Majesty that I needed at least a month of rest, and that I thought of making a trip to Singapore, he was so unwilling that I should rate highly the services I rendered him, that he was careful to assure me I had not "favored" him in any way, nor given him satisfaction; and that if I must be idle for a month, he certainly should not pay me for the time; and he kept his word. Nevertheless, while, I was at Singapore he wrote to me most kindly, assuring me that his wives and children were anxious for my return.
After the sad death of the dear little princess, Chow Fβ-ying, the king had become more cordial; but the labor he imposed upon me was in proportion to the confidence he reposed in me. At times he required of me services, in my capacity of secretary, not to be thought of by a European sovereign; and when I declined to perform them, he would curse me, close the gates of the palace against me, and even subject me to the insults and threats of the parasites and slaves who crawled about his feet. On two occasions first for refusing to write a false letter to Sir John Bowring, now Plenipotentiary for the Court of Siam in England; and again for declining to address the Earl of Clarendon in relation to a certain British officer then in Siam he threatened to have me tried at the British Consulate, and was so violent that I was in real fear for my life. For three days I waited, with doors and windows barred, for I knew not what explosion.
After the death of the Second King, his Majesty behaved very disgracefully. It was well known that the ladies of the prince's harem were of the most beautiful of the women of Laos, Pegu, and Birmah; above all, the Princess of Chiengmai was famed for her manifold graces of person and character. Etiquette forbade the royal brothers to pry into the constitution of each other's sιrail, but by means most unworthy of his station, and regardless of the privilege of his brother, Maha Mongkut had learned of the acquisition to the subordinate king's establishment of this celebrated and coveted beauty; and although she was now his legitimate sister-in-law, privately married to the prince, he was not restrained by any scruple of morality or delicacy from manifesting his jealousy and pique.1 Moreover, this disgraceful feeling was fostered by other considerations than those of mere sensuality or ostentation. Her father, the tributary ruler of Chiengmai, had on several occasions confronted his aggressive authority with a haughty and intrepid spirit; and once, when Maha Mongkut required that he should send his eldest son to Bangkok as a hostage for the father's loyalty and good conduct, the unterrified chief replied that he would be his own hostage. On the summons being repeated in imperative terms, the young prince fled from his father's court and took refuge With the Second King in his stronghold of Ban Sitha, where he was most courteously received and entertained until he found it expedient to seek some securer or less compromising place of refuge.
The friendship thus founded between two proud and daring princess soon became strong and enduring, and resulted in the marriage of the Princess Sunartha Vismita (very willingly on her part) to the Second King, about a year before his death.
The son of the King of Chiengmai never made his appearance at the court of Siam; but the stout old chief, attended by trusty followers, boldly brought his own "hostage" thither; and Maha Mongkut, though secretly chafing, accepted the situation with a show of graciousness, and overlooked the absence of the younger vassal.
With the remembrance of these flouting still galling him, the Supreme King frequently repaired to the Second King's palace on the pretext of arranging certain "family affairs" intrusted to him by his late brother, but in reality to acquaint himself with the charms of several female members of the prince's household; and, scandalous as it should have seemed even to Siamese notions of the divine right of kings, the most attractive and accomplished of those women were quietly transferred to his own harem. For some time I heard nothing more of the Princess of Chiengmai; but it was curious, even amusing, to observe the serene contempt with which the "interlopers" were received by the rival incumbents of the royal gynecium, especially the Laotian women, who are of a finer type and much handsomer than their Siamese sisters.
Meantime his Majesty took up his abode for a fortnight at the Second King's palace, thereby provoking dangerous gossip in his own establishment; so that his "head wife," the Lady Thieng, even made bold to hint that he might come to the fate of his brother, and die by slow poison. His harem was agitated and excited throughout, some of the women abandoning themselves to unaccustomed and unnatural gayety, while others sent their confidential slaves to consult the astrologers and soothsayers of the court; and by the aid of significant glances and shrugging of shoulders, and interchange of signs and whispers, with feminine telegraphy and secret service, most of those interested arrived at the sage conclusion that their lord had fallen under the spells of a witch or enchantress.
Such was the domestic situation when his Majesty suddenly and without warning returned to his palace, but in a mood so perplexing as to surpass all precedent and baffle all tact. I had for some time performed with surprising success a leading part in a pretty little court play, of which the well-meant plot had been devised by the Lady Thieng. Whenever the king should be dangerously enraged, and ready to let loose upon some tender culprit of the harem the monstrous lash or chain, I at a secret cue from the head wife was to enter upon his Majesty, book in hand, to consult his infallibility in a pressing predicament of translation into Sanskrit, Siamese, or English. Absurdly transparent as it was, perhaps the happier for its very childishness, under cover of this naive device from time to time a hapless girl escaped the fatal burst of his wrath. Midway in the rising storm of curses and abuse he would turn with comical abruptness to the attractive interruption with all the zest of a scholar. I often trembled lest he should see through the thinly covered trick, but he never did. On his return from the prince's palace, however, even this innocent stratagem failed us; and on one occasion of my having recourse to it he peremptorily ordered me away, and forbade my coining into his presence again unless sent for. Daily, after this, one or more of the women suffered from his petty tyranny, cruelty, and spite. On every hand I heard sighs and sobs from young and old; and not a woman there but believed he was bewitched and beside himself.
I had struggled through many exacting tasks since I came to Siam, but never any that so taxed my powers of endurance as my duties at this time, in my double office of governess and private secretary to his Majesty. His moods were so fickle and unjust, his temper so tyrannical, that it seemed impossible to please him; from one hour to another I never knew what to expect. And yet he persevered in his studies, especially in his English correspondence, which was ever his solace, his pleasure, and his pride. To an interested observer it might have afforded rare entertainment to note how fluently, though oddly, he spoke and wrote in a foreign language, but for his caprices, which at times were so ridiculous, however, as to be scarcely disagreeable. He would indite letters, sign them, affix his seal, and despatch them in his own mail-bags to Europe, America, or elsewhere; and, mouths afterward; insist on my writing to the parties addressed, to say that the instructions they contained were my mistake, errors of translation, transcription, anything but his intention. In one or two instances, finding that the case really admitted of explanation or apology from his Majesty, I slyly so worded my letter, that, without compromising him, I yet managed to repair the mischief he had done. But I felt this could not continue long. Always, on foreign-mail days, I spent from eight to ten hours in this most delicate and vexatious work. At length the crash came.
The king had promised to Sir John Bowring the appointment of Plenipotentiary to the Court of France, to negotiate, on behalf of Siam, new treaties concerning the Cambodian possessions. With characteristic irresolution he changed his mind, and decided to send a Siamese Embassy, headed by his Lordship P'hra Nah Why, now known as his Excellency Chow Phya Sri Sury-wongse. No sooner had he entertained this fancy than he sent for me, and coolly directed me to write and explain the matter to Sir John, if possible attributing his new views and purpose to the advice of her Britannic Majesty's Consul; or, if I had scruples on that head, I might say the advice was my own, or "anything I liked," so that I justified his conduct.
At this distance of time I cannot clearly recall all the effect upon my feelings of so outrageous a proposition; but I do remember that I found myself emphatically declining to do "anything of the kind." Then, warned by his gathering rage, I added that I would express to Sir John his Majesty's regrets, but to attribute the blame to those who had had no part in the matter, that I could never do. At this his fury was grotesque. His talent for invective was always formidable, and he tried to overpower me with threats. But a kindred spirit of resistance was aroused in me. I withdrew from the palace, and patiently abided the issue, resolved, in any event, to be firm.
His Majesty's anger was without bounds; and in the interval so fraught with anxiety and apprehension to me, when I knew that a considerable party in the palace judges, magistrates, and officers about the person of the king regarded me as an eminently proper person to behead or drown, he condescended to accuse me of abstracting a book that he chanced just then to miss from his library, and also of honoring and favoring the British Consul at the expense of his American colleague, then resident at Bangkok. In support of the latter charge, he alleged that I had written the American Consul's name at the bottom of a royal circular, after carefully displaying my own and the British functionary's at the top of it.
The circular in question, which had given just umbrage to the American official, was fortunately in the keeping of the Honorable2 Mr. Bush, and was written by the king's own hand, as was well known to all whom it concerned. These charges, with others of a more frivolous nature, such as disobeying, thwarting, scolding his Majesty, treating him with disrespect, as by standing while he was seated, thinking evil of him, slandering him, and calling him wicked, the king caused to be reduced to writing and sent to me, with an intimation that I must forthwith acknowledge my ingratitude and guilt, and make atonement by prompt compliance with his wishes. The secretary who brought the document to my house was accompanied by a number of the female slaves of the palace, who besought me, in the name of their mistresses, the wives of the "Celestial Supreme," to yield, and do all that might be required of me.
Seeing this shaft miss its mark, the secretary, being a man of resources, produced the other string to his bow. He offered to bribe me, and actually spent two hours in that respectable business; but finally departed in despair, convinced that the amount was inadequate to the cupidity of an insatiable European, and mourning for himself that he must return discomfited to the king.
Next morning, my boy and I presented ourselves as usual at the inner gate of the palace leading to the school, and were confronted there by a party of rude fellows and soldiers, who thrust us back with threats, and even took up stones to throw at us. I dare not think what might have been our fate, but for the generous rescue of a crowd of the poorest slaves, who at that hour were waiting for the opening of the gate. These rallied round us, and guarded us back to our home. It was, indeed, a time of terror for us. I felt that my life was in great danger; and so difficult did I find it to prevent the continual intrusion of the rabble, both men and women, into my house, that I had at length to bar my doors and windows, and have double locks and fastenings added. I became nervous and excited as I had never been before.
My first impulse was to write to the British Consul and invoke his protection; but that looked cowardly. Nevertheless, I did prepare the letter, ready to be despatched at the first attempt upon our lives or liberty. I wrote also to Mr. Bush, asking him to find without delay the obnoxious circular, and bring it to my house. He came that very evening, the paper in his hand. With infinite difficulty I persuaded the native secretary, whom I had again and again befriended in like extremities, to procure for him an audience with the king.
On coming into the presence of his Majesty, Mr. Bush simply handed him the circular, saying, "Mam tells me you wish to see this." The moment the caption of the document met his eye, his Majesty's countenance assumed a blank, bewildered expression peculiar to it, and he seemed to look to my friend for an explanation; but that gentleman had none to offer, for I had made none to him.
And to crown all, even as the king was pointing to his brow to signify that he had forgotten having written it, one of the little princesses came crouching and crawling into the room with the missing volume in her hand. It had been found in one of the numerous sleeping-apartments of the king, beside his pillow, just in time
Mr. Bush soon returned, bringing me assurances of his Majesty's cordial reconciliation; but I still doubted his sincerity, and, for weeks did not offer to enter the palace. When, however, on the arrival of the Chow Phya steamer with the mail, I was formally summoned by the king to return to my duties, I quietly obeyed, making no allusion to my "bygones."
As I sat at my familiar table, copying, his Majesty approached, aud addressed me in these words:
Mam! you are one great difficulty. I have much pleasure and favor on you, but you are too obstinate. You are not wise. Wherefore are you so difficult? You are only a woman. It is very bad you can be so strong-headed. Will you now have any objection to write to Sir John, and tell him I am his very good friend?"
"None whatever," I replied, "if it is to be simply a letter of good wishes on the part of your Majesty."
I wrote the letter, and handed it to him for perusal. He was hardly satisfied, for with only a significant grunt he returned it to me, and left the apartment at once, to vent his spite on some one who had nothing to do with the matter.
In due time the following very considerate but significant reply (addressed to his Majesty's "one great difficulty") was received from Sir John Bowring:
CLAREMONT, EXETER, 30 June, 1867.
DEAR MADAM: Your letter of 12th May demands from me the attention of a courteous reply. I am quite sure the ancient friendship of the King of Siam would never allow a slight, or indeed an unkindness, to me; and I hope to have opportunities of showing his Majesty that I feel a deep interest in his welfare.
As regards the diplomacy of European courts, it is but natural that those associated with them should be more at home, and better able to direct their course, than strangers from a distance, however personally estimable; and though, in the case in question, the mission of a Siamese Ambassador to Paris was no doubt well intended, and could never have been meant to give me annoyance, it was not to be expected he would be placed in that position of free and confidential intercourse which my long acquaintance with public life would enable me to occupy. In remote regions, people with little knowledge of official matters in high quarters often take upon themselves to give advice in great ignorance of facts, and speak very unadvisedly on topics on which their opinions are worthless and their influence valueless.
As regards M. Aubaret's offensive proceedings, I doubt not he has received a caution1 on my representation, and that he, and others of his nation, would not be very willing that the Emperor an old acquaintance of mine should hear from my lips what I might have to say. The will of the Emperor is supreme, and I am afraid the Cambodian question is now referred back to Siam. It might have been better for me to have discussed it with his Imperial Majesty. However, the past is past. Personal influence, as you are aware, is not transferable; but when by the proper powers I am placed in a position to act, his Majesty may be assured as I have assured himself that his interests will not suffer in my hands.
I am obliged to you for the manner in which you have conveyed to me his Majesty's gracious expressions
And you will believe me to be
Yours very truly,
No friend of mine knew at that time how hard it was for me to bear up, in the utter loneliness and forlornness of my life, under the load of cares and provocations and fears that gradually accumulated upon me.
But ah! if any germ of love and truth fell from my heart into the heart of even the meanest of those wives and concubines and children of a king, if by any word of mine the least of them was won to look up, out of the depths of their miserable life, to a higher, clearer, brighter light than their Buddha casts upon their path, then indeed I did not labor in vain among them.
In the summer of 1866 my health suddenly broke down, and for a time, it was thought that I must die. When good Dr. Campbell gave me the solemn warning all my trouble seemed to cease, and but for one sharp pang for my children, one in England, the other in Siam, I should have derived pure and perfect pleasure from the prospect of eternal rest, so weary was I of my tumultuous life in the East; and though in the end I regained my strength in a measure, I was no longer able to comply with the pitiless exactions of the king. And so, yielding to the urgent entreaties of my friends, I decided to return to England.
It took me half a year to get his Majesty's consent; and it was not without tiresome accusations of ingratitude and idleness that he granted me leave of absence for six months.
I had hardly courage to face the women and children the day I told them I was going away. It was hard to be with them; but it seemed cowardly to leave them. For some time most of them refused to believe that I was really going; but when they could doubt no longer, they displayed the most touching tenderness and thoughtfulness. Many sent me small sums of money to help me on the journey. The poorest and meanest slaves brought me rice cakes, dried beans, cocoanuts, and sugar. It was in vain that I assured them I could not carry such things away with me; still the supplies poured in.
The king himself, who had been silent and sullen until the morning of my departure, relented. when the time came to say good by. He embraced Boy with cordial kindness, and gave him a silver buckle, and a bag containing a hundred dollars to buy sweetmeats on the way. Then turning to me, he said (as if forgetting himself): "Mam! you much beloved by our common people, and all inhabitants of palace and royal children. Every one is in affliction of your departure; and even that opium-eating secretary, P'hra-Alβck, is very low down in his heart because you will go. It shall be because you must be a good and true lady. I am often angry on you, and lose my temper, though I have large respect for you. But nevertheless you ought to know you are difficult woman, and more difficult than generality. But you will forget, and come back to my service, for I have more confidence on you every day. Good by I" I could not reply; my eyes filled with tears.
Then came the parting with my pupils, the women and the children. That was painful enough, even while the king was present; but when he abruptly withdrew, great was the uproar. What could I do, but stand still and submit to kisses, embraces, reproaches, from princesses and slaves? At last I rushed through the gate, the women screaming after me, "Come back!" and the children, "Don't go!" I hurried to the residence of the heir-apparent, to the most trying scene of all. His regret seemed too deep for words, and the few he did utter were very touching. Taking both my hands and laying his brow upon them, he said, after a long interval of silence, "Mam cha klap ma thort!" "Mam dear, come back, please!" "Keep a brave and true heart, my prince!" was all that I could say; and my last "God bless you!" was addressed to the royal palace of Siam.
To this young prince, Chowfa Chulalonkorn, I was strongly attached. He often deplored with me the cruelty with which the slaves were treated, and, young as he was, did much to inculcate kindness toward them among his immediate attendants. He was a conscientious lad, of pensive habit and gentle temper; many of my poor clients I bequeathed to 'his care, particularly the Chinese lad Ti. Speaking of slavery one day, he said to me: "These are not slaves, but nobles; they know how to bear. It is we, the princes, who have yet to learn which is the more noble, the oppressor or the oppressed."
When I left the palace the king was fast failing in body and mind, and, in spite of his seeming vigor, there was no real health in his rule, while he had his own way. All the substantial success we find in his administration is due to the ability and energy of his accomplished premier, Phya Kralahome, and even his strength has been wasted. The native arts and literature have retrograded; in the mechanic arts much has been lost; and the whole nation is given up to gambling.
The capacity of the Siamese race for improvement in any direction has been sufficiently demonstrated, and the government has made fair progress in political and moral reforms; but the condition of the slaves is such as to excite astonishment and horror. What may be the ultimate fate of Siam under this accursed system, whether she will ever emancipate herself while the world lasts, there is no guessing. The happy examples free intercourse affords, the influence of European ideas, and the compulsion of public opinion, may yet work wonders.
On the 5th of July, 1867, we left Bangkok in the steamer Chow Phya. All our European friends accompanied us to the Gulf of Siam, where we parted, with much regret on my side; and of all those whose kindness had bravely cheered us during our long (I am tempted to write) captivity, the last to bid us God-speed was the good Captain Orton, to whom I here tender my heartfelt thanks.
1 See portrait, Chap. XXV.
2 Anbaret, French Consul at Bangkok, whose overbearing conduct has been described elsewhere.