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TUPTIM: A TRAGEDY OF THE HAREM.
THOSE of my readers who may recur to my late work, "The English Governess at the Siamese Court," will find on the 265th page mention of "a young girl of fresh and striking beauty, and delightful piquancy of ways and expression, who, with a clumsy club, was pounding fragments of pottery — urns, vases, and goblets — for the foundation of the Watt (or Temple) Rajah Bah ditt Sang. Very artless and happy she seemed, and as free as she was lovely; but the instant she perceived that she had attracted the notice of the king, — who presided at the laying of the foundation of the temple, and flung gold and silver coins among the workwomen, — she sank down and hid her face in the earth, forgetting or disregarding the falling vessels that threatened to crush her; but the king merely diverted himself with inquiring her name and parentage, and some one answering for her, he turned away." This is all that is there said of her.
A week later I saw the girl again, as I was passing through the long enclosed corridor within the palace on my way to my school-room in the temple. She was lying prostrate on the marble pavement among the offerings which were placed there for the king's acceptance, and which he would inspect in his leisurely progress towards his breakfast-hall.
I never went that way without seeing something lying there, — bales of silk on silver trays, boxes of tea, calicoes, velvets, fans, priests' robes, precious spices, silver, gold, and curiosities of all kinds, in fact, almost anything and everything that money could purchase, or the i abject sycophancy could imagine as likely to gratify the despot. Every noble, prince, and merchant sought to obtain the royal favor by gifts thus presented, it being fully understood between the giver and receiver that whoever gave the most costly presents should receive the largest share of royal patronage and support But the most precious things ever laid upon that pavement were the young hearts of women and children.
Two women were crouching on either side of the young girl, waiting for the entrance of the king, in order to present her to him. I was hardly surprised to see her there. I had grown accustomed to such sights. But I was surprised at the unusual interest she appeared to excite in the other women present, who were all whispering and talking together about her, and expressing their admiration of her beauty in the most extravagant language.
She was certainly very beautiful by nature, and those who sent her there had exhausted all the resources of art to complete, according to their notions, what nature had begun, and to render her a fitter offering for the king. Her lips were dyed a deep crimson by the use of betel; her dark eyebrows were continued in indigo until they met on her brow; her eyelashes were stained with kohl; the tips of her fingers and her nails were made pink with henna; while enormous gold chains and rings bedizened her person. Already too much saddened by the frequency of such sights, I merely cast a passing glance upon her and went my way; but now, as I see in memory that tiny figure lying there, and the almost glorified form in which I beheld it for the last time, I cannot keep the tears from my eyes, nor still the aching of my heart.
About three months or so later we met again in the same place I was passing through to the school-room, when I saw her joyously exhibiting to her companions a pomegranate which she held in her hand. It seemed to be the largest and finest fruit of the kind I had ever seen, and I stopped to get a closer view both of the girl and of the fruit, each perfect in its kind. I found, however, that the fruit was not real, only an imitation. It was a casket of pure gold, the lids of which were inlaid with rubies, which looked exactly like the seeds of the pomegranate when ripe. It was made to open and shut at the touch of a small spring, and was most exquisitely moulded into the shape and enamelled with the tints of the pomegranate. It was her betel-box.
"Where did you get this box?" I inquired.
She turned to me with a child's smile upon her face, pointed to the lofty chamber of the king, and said, "My name, you know, is Tuptim" (Pomegranate). I understood the gift.
Afterwards I saw her frequently. On one occasion she was crying bitterly, while the head wife, Thieng, was reproving her with unusual warmth for some fault. I interrupted Thieng to ask for some paper and ink for the school-room, but she paid no attention to my demands. Instead of complying with them at once, as usual, she inquired of me, "What shall I do with this Tuptim? She is very disobedient. Shall I whip her, or starve her till she minds?"
"Forgive her, and be good to her," I whispered in Thieng's ear.
"What!" said the offended lady in an angry tone, "when she does wrong all the time, and is so naughty and wilful? Why, when she is ordered to remain up stairs, she runs away, and hides herself in Maprang's or Simlah's rooms, and we are taken to task by his Majesty, who accuses us of jealousy and unkind treatment towards her. Then we have to search all the houses of the Choms (concubines) until we find her, either in hiding or asleep, and bring her to him. The moment she comes into his presence she goes down upon her knees, appearing bo very bashful and innocent that he is enraptured at the Bight, and declares that she is the most perfect, the most fascinating of women. But as soon as she can get away, she does the same thing again, only finding some new hiding-place, and so she makes an infinity of trouble. Now, she says she is ill, and cannot wait upon the king, while the physicians declare that there is nothing whatever the matter with her. I really don't know what to do or what to say, for I don't dare to tell the truth to the king, and I 'm in constant fear that she will come to a bad end, if she doesn't follow my advice and make up her mind to bear her life here more patiently."
I pitied the poor girl, who really looked either sick or unhappy. Child as she was, there was a great deal of quiet dignity about her, as, with eyes filled with tears, she protested that she was utterly sick at heart, and could not go up stairs any more. I was sure that Thieng's sweeping reproof did not indicate any malice or real anger towards the girl, and, putting my arms around the elder lady, I succeeded in soothing her indignation, and at length obtained permission for Tuptim to be absent from duty for a few days. A grateful smile lit up the girl's tearful face as she crept away.
"That girl is too artless," said kind-hearted Thieng to me, as soon as the child was out of sight; "and she will not even try to like her life here. I pity her from my very heart, mam dear, but it would not do to show it She would take advantage; of my kindness, and keep away from the king altogether, as Marchand does; and in all such cases we head wives have to bear the brunt of the king's displeasure, and are thought to be jealous and intriguing, when the holy Buddh in heaven knows that there is only kindness in our hearts."
Not long after the above conversation, Tuptim began to come to school. She wanted to learn to write her name in English, she said, and she came to me once or twice a week until she had acquired that accomplishment, which seemed to give her immense satisfaction. After she had done this, she asked me if I would write the name "Khoon P'hra Bâlât" for her in English. I wrote it for her at once, without asking her why she wanted it or whose name it was. I did not even know if it was the name of a man or a woman, as the Siamese have no masculine and feminine terminations to their names and titles. She immediately began to trace the letters for herself, and I could see a world of tenderness in her large dreamy eyes as she copied and recopied the name in its English characters. I cannot rightly remember how often or how long she came to the school, for she was but one among many; but, whenever she found me engaged with the princes and princesses, she would sit for hours on the marble floor, and listen to our simple exercises of translating English into Siamese or Siamese into English, with increasing interest and delight expressed in her pure, guileless face. I do remember that she was never alone, but always accompanied by two or three young companions of about her own age, who were as listless and idle as she was absorbed and interested.
Perhaps this was the reason — with her extreme youth, for she was still but a child, and seemed even younger than she really was — why I never attempted to enter into conversation with her, or to learn anything about her history and her feelings. If I had done this, I might have succeeded in winning her confidence, and perhaps have been the means of reconciling her to her life in the palace. That I did not, will ever be a source of poignant regret to me.
One afternoon, as I was about leaving the palace after school, she came running up to me, took a scrap of paper from under her vest, and held it silently before my eyes, while I read what was written upon it. It was the name "Khoon Phra Bâlât," carefully written in English characters, and she seemed delighted with the praise I bestowed on the writing.
"Whose name is it, Tuptim?" I asked
She cast down her eyes and hesitated for a moment; then, raising them to mine, she replied: "It is the name of the favorite disciple of the high-priest, Chow Khoon Sah; he lives at the temple of Rajah Bah ditt Sang, and sometimes preaches to us in the palace."
The expression of deep reverence that animated her face as she spoke revealed to me a new phase in her character, and I felt strongly attracted towards her. I nevertheless left the palace without further conversation, but, on my way home, formed a vague resolution that I would endeavor to become better acquainted with her, and attempt to win her confidence.
My half-formed resolve was without result, however, since, for some reason unknown to me, she never came to the school-room again; and, as I did not chance to meet her on my visits to the palace, she soon passed from my thoughts, and I forgot all about her.
Some nine months, or perhaps a year, after my last encounter with Tuptim, I became conscious of a change in the demeanor of my elder pupils; they were abstracted, and appeared desirous to get away from their studies as soon as possible. It seemed as if there were some secret they had been ordered to conceal from my boy and ma My imagination immediately took the alarm, and I became possessed with the idea that some grave calamity was impending.
One day, when breaking up school for the afternoon, T heard one of the princes say to the others in Siamese: "Come, let 's go and hunt for Tuptim."
"Why! where has she gone?"
As soon as I asked the question, Princess Ying Yonwalacks angrily seized him by the arm and hurried him away. I had no wish to inquire further. What I had heard was enough to excite my imagination afresh, and I hurried home full of anxiety about poor little Tuptim, thus suddenly brought back to my remembrance.
On the following evening, it being Sunday, one of my servants informed me that a slave-girl from the palace wished to speak with me in private. When she came in, her face seemed familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her or whose slave she was. She crawled up close to my chair, and told me in a low voice that her mistress, Khoon Chow Tuptim, had sent her to me. "You know," she added, "that my mistress has been found."
"Found!" I exclaimed; "what do you mean?"
She repeated my question, and in great astonishment asked: "Why! did you not know that my mistress had disappeared from the palace; that his Majesty had offered a reward of twenty caties (about fifteen hundred dollars) to any one who would bring any information about her; and that no trace of her could be discovered, though everybody had been searching for her far and near?"
"No, I have never heard a word about it. But how could she have got out of the palace, through the three rows of gates that are always bolted, and not be seen by the Amazons on guard?"
"Alas! my lady, she did get out," replied the girl, who looked very wan and weary, whose eyes seemed to have been shedding tears for a long time, and who was on the point of breaking down again. She then went on to tell me that two priests had that morning discovered her mistress in the monastery attached to the temple of Rajah Bah ditt Sang, and had brought the information to the king, by whose order she had been arrested and imprisoned in one of the palace dungeons.
"But what good can I do, Phim?" I asked, sorrowfully.
"O mam dear, if you don't help her, she's lost, she'll be killed!" cried the girl, bursting into a passion of tears. "Oh! do, do go to the king, and ask him to forgive her. He'll grant her life to you. I'm sure he will. Oh! oh! what shall I do! I've nobody to go to but you, and there's nobody but you can help her!" And her tears and sobs were truly heart-rending.
I tried to soothe her. "Tell me, Phim," I said, "why did your mistress leave the palace, and who helped her to get away?"
The girl would not answer my question, but kept repeating, "Oh! do come and see her yourself! Do come and see her yourself! You can go to the palace after dark, and the gate-keepers will let you in. Nobody need know that you are going to see my dear mistress."
As there was no other method of quieting the poor girl, I finally made the promise, though I did not see what good my going could do, and was fully convinced that Phim had abetted Tuptim in her wrong-doing, whatever that might have been.
After the slave-girl had left me, I sat by my window and watched the stars as they came out, one by one, and shone with unusual splendor in the cloudless sky. It was a lovely night, and I felt the soothing influence of the Christian Sabbath even in that pagan land; but the one idea that took possession of my mind was: "Poor little Tuptim, in that dreadful dungeon underground." Still, and notwithstanding my promise, I felt a strong reluctance to respond to the cry which had reached me from her, and wished that I had never heard it. I was tired of the palace, tired of witnessing wrongs I could not remedy, and half afraid, too, to enter that weird, mysterious prison-world after nightfall. So I sat still in dreamy uncertainty, till a warm hand was laid upon mine, and I turned my eyes from the stars above to the poor slave-girl's sad, tearstained face at my feet.
"The gates are open for the prime-minister, mam dear," said she, in a low, pleading voice, "and you can get in now without any difficulty."
I rose at once, resolutely cast my cowardly fears behind me, told my boy where and why I was going, put twenty ticals in my purse, wrapped my black cloak about me, and hurried towards the palace gate. Phim had run back at once, for fear of being shut out for the night. The women at the gates, who were all friendly to me, admitted me without question, and, as I passed, I dropped two ticals into the hand of the chief of the Amazons on guard, saying that I had been called into the palace on important business, and begging her to keep the inner gates open for my return.
"You must be sure and come back before it strikes eleven," said she, and I passed on. As soon as I entered the main street within the walls, the slave-girl joined me, and led the way, crouching and running along in the deep shadow of the houses, until we reached the gate of the prison in which Tuptim was immured, when she immediately disappeared.
The hall I entered was immense, with innumerable pillars, and a floor which seemed to be entirely made up of huge trap-doors, double barred and locked, while the lanterns by which it was dimly lighted were hung so high that they looked like distant stars. There were about a dozen Amazons on guard, some of whom were already stretched in sleep on their mats and leather pillows, their weapons lying within reach. The eyes of all the wakeful custodians of the prison were fixed upon me as I entered.
A courteous return was made to my polite salutation, and Ma Ying Taphan — Great Mother of War — addressed me kindly, inquiring what was my object in coming there at that time of night. I told her that I had just heard of Tuptim's having got into trouble and being imprisoned, and had come to ascertain if I could be of any assistance to her.
"The child is in trouble, indeed," replied Ma Ying Taphan; "and has not only got herself into prison, but her two young friends, Maprang and Simlah, who are confined with her."
"Can I not help them in any way?" I asked.
"No," said the Amazon, gently, "I fear you cannot. Her guilt is too great, and she must take the consequences."
"What has she been doing?"
To this question I could get no answer; and after vainly attempting to persuade Ma Ying Taphan to tell me, I tried to induce her to let me go down and visit poor Tuptim. "Myde" (impossible), was the reply, "without an express order from the king. When you bring us that, we will let you in, but without it we cannot." And "myde" was the only answer I could get to my repeated and urgent entreaties. I sat there, hopelessly looking at the Amazons, who, in the dim light of the distant lanterns overhead, seemed to me to be changed from tender-hearted women, as they were, into fierce, vindictive executioners, and at the huge trap-door at our feet, beneath which the three children, as the Amazon had rightly called them, were imprisoned, but from which no sound, no cry, no indication of life escaped, until, tired and despairing, I rose and left the place.
As soon as I was out of the building I saw Phim, the slave-girl, crouching in the shadows on the opposite side of the street, and keeping pace with me as I went towards the palace gate. When I turned into another street she joined me, and I found that she had been hidden under the portico of the prison, and had heard all my conversation with the Amazons. Prostrating herself till her forehead touched my feet, she implored me, in the name of the P'hra Chow in heaven, not to forsake her dear mistress. "She is to be brought before the court in the outside hall of justice to-morrow," she said. "Oh! do come early. Perhaps you can persuade Koon Thow App to be merciful to her." And, with a sickening sense of my utter powerlessness, I promised to be present at the trial.