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THE HEROISM OF A CHILD.
IT was morning. All were assembled once more in the great hall, eager for a termination of their work.
Fresh troops of men to be enrolled and branded arrived every moment.
Then came Nai Dhamaphat; the Kromathan, or overseer; and lastly the Grand Duke, followed by an army of slaves, attendants, scribes, and cup and punka bearers. As he looked about him he saw, with a gleam of satisfaction, the veiled figure seated at her post, guarded by Amazons.
After a few minutes of conversation with the scribe who sat at his side, he ordered the prisoner Rama Singalee to be brought in.
No one remembered when the old, white-headed stranger was ushered in. But every one heard the wild cry of joy that seemed to die away on the lips of the strange girl, as, throwing off her saree, she sprang across the hall, and clasped the old man about the neck. After the first paroxysm of joy was over, she realized that her father was a prisoner; she looked still hopefully into his face, but, seeing no light there, laid her head upon the fetters that bound his feet, as if the iron had entered into her very soul.
Dhamaphat started, as if struck, and gazed sadly at the girl and her father.
Never scene so touching had been presented in that hall before. It arrested every eye, and filled every heart with sympathy; and it was no wonder, ó the girl was a creature such as that country had never before produced.
Her beauty was of the purest Indo-European type, rich blown complexion, delicate almond-shaped eyes, finely arched eyebrows, nose almost Greek in the purity of its outlines. Her feet, which had never worn either sandals or shoes, were large and perfect in shape; her arms, slender as those of a very young girl, were set off to great advantage by the metallic and glass bangles she wore; her rich black hair hung in long braids over a coarse blue bodice, which revealed a form of faultless proportions; on her breast, suspended by a yellow cord, was a flat silver ring, on which some mystic characters were inscribed.
The wondrous beauty of the prostrate girl filled the father and the son first with pleasure, then with fascination, afterwards with rapture; drawn on by irresistible steps, they both arrived, unknown to the other, at that stage of passion which blinds the sensibilities to everything else.
But the desire of one was to possess, the other to rescue.
The old soldier did not attempt to raise his daughter, but, taking off Ms turban, buried his face in it.
The duke was transported, stupefied; he paused, hesitated, then, suddenly, without knowing what moved him, he said, in a gentle, tender voice: "Why, girl? Raise up your head. See! your father is now going to be set free."
Sm‚yŠtee lifted up her head, and looked at the speaker with an expression of childlike gladness and trust that brought to the heart of the wretch before her the long-lost sense of shame, and he could not for the moment give utterance to the iniquity he was about to perpetrate against her; he beckoned to an attendant, however, a sort of treasurer, with a heavy box, who approached, crawling, and at Ins instructions counted upon the floor forty pieces of gold, ó sixteen times the value of an ordinary slave-woman.
Rama still covered his face with his turban, so that none could have told what was passing within him. His daughter laid her hand upon his arm, saying: "O, my father, the good duke gives us all this gold and promises us freedom! take it, and thank him, that he may permit us to return home."
The unhappy Rajpoot turned a look full of mournful tenderness upon his child. At the same moment the scribe, who had been industriously writing, laid a paper before him, and said, in rather an authoritative manner: "Tham Khai khat thedeo" (make the sale good, i. e., sign the paper).
Even now it did not occur to the girl what the paper and the forty pieces of gold meant.
To her mind they brought visions of freedom, as her heart yearned for the hills and groves of her native land. She once more whispered to her father to "take the money, and thank the duke, that he may let us go back home."
But the old man looked at her in silence, seemingly unable to utter a single word; his breathing came quick and hard, and all at once he gasped out: "The gods forbid me to sell my daughter to thee, my lord. Indra, Agni, and the Maruts, at whose roaring every dweller upon earth trembles, forbid me. O, pardon thy servant, my lord, and let us depart hence in peace."
The duke was doubly enraged, because of his last night's promise and the forty pieces of gold with which he had hoped to bribe him into an easy parting with his child. He turned to the bewildered Sm‚yŠtee, and said: "Come hither, girl" But as she only looked at him, and made no attempt to go nearer, he added: "One thing is certain; this old fool, thy father, is still drunk, and knows not his mind; he sold you to me last night, and now he refuses, saying the gods forbid it."
A YOUNG SIAMESE NOBLEMAN
Sm‚yŠtee turned from the duke to her father, her look changing from incredulity to surprise, from surprise to anguish, while the duke continued: "Now it is you who must decide for him; shall I hand him over to the royal judges to be tried and executed for the crime he is accused of, or will you consent to be my slave for life? I will make you rich and happy, and I will give him this gold, and he shall return in safety to his home."
He uttered these sentences in a loud, harsh voice, very different from that in which he had spoken to her a few minutes before.
When he had finished, the crowd cheered the speech.
The girl looked at them, and, not knowing why, began to cry.
This exasperated the duke.
He blew a small silver whistle; instantly a band of armed men entered the hall, and he gave orders that the prisoner should be conveyed to the supreme court to be tried for attacking the chief officer of the royal guard, with intent to murder him, while he was on duty.
At this instant the girl seemed to take her resolution; she crawled up to the savage duke's feet, laid her head down upon them and kissed them, saying: "I consent to be thy slave, my lord. O, give not my father up to the king's officers."
The duke countermanded his orders.
"Yes," said she, her face suddenly transfigured, beaming with the twofold radiance of beauty and nobility of soul, "strike off his chains, and let him go free, dear, good lord."
There were no longer any arms being pricked with lancet-shaped needles. There were no longer any scribes enrolling the people's names. There were only fixed eyes, listening ears, and beatings of sympathetic hearts. The crowd was dimly conscious of the sublimity of the act; they were thrilled, awed, as much by her beauty as by the simplicity of her heroic self-sacrifice.
But Dhamaphat, who felt more deeply than the rest, noted how suddenly she had overcome her horror, how readily she had sacrificed herself for her father, and thought he saw in her face the effulgence of a heavenly light.
The order was given, and the Rajpoot was free. One final embrace, one look of triumph and despair from the girl, and she was led away by some female attendants.
Rama disappeared in the crowd, regardless of the gold, and the paper which his daughter had signed.
The work of branding and enrolling went on again, and the red light of the noonday sun shone upon the walls of the palace as if no young heart had been broken within its halls that day.
Dhamaphat left his work and went away, cursing the old priest, his tutor, and himself, in the impotency of his rage and sorrow.