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PAK LAUT, OR THE MOUTH OF THE OCEAN.
PAK LAT, or, more properly, Pak Laut, is situated a few miles above Pak Nam, and is in itself a picturesque village containing from six to seven thousand inhabitants. The most important portion of the town faces a beautiful bend of the great river Mèinam, and is rather irregularly built, and surrounded by a great many rude houses and shops, some of them quite old, and others quite new.
A magnificent new Buddhist temple is seen gradually raising its head close by the side of an ancient one which has so far crumbled to decay that the bright sun pours down unchecked a flood of golden light on the tapering crown of a huge brass image of the Buddha, which sits with its hands folded in undisturbed and profound contemplation on its glittering altar. On the other side, as far as the eye can reach, stretch unlimited groves of bananas and extensive plantations of cocoanut and betel-nut palms. The mango, tamarind, banyan, and boh, or bogara, trees here are of wonderful size and beauty, ponderous and overshadowing, as if they had weathered a thousand summers and winters, and would live unimpaired through a thousand more; and as you wander through the deep cool shade which they afford, you find that many of them must have served hundreds of years ago — before Buddhism was introduced into Siam, and at a period when both the "Tree" and "Serpent" worship prevailed here, as in other parts of the Old World — as altars to a generation long gone by.
Many of their huge old trunks have been hollowed out and carved in the form of oriel chapels or windows, in the inmost recesses of which may still be traced the faint remains of what was intended to represent the cobra-de-capello, or hooded snake of India, now covered over with tender leaves and brilliant flowers, and forming at once the cosiest and most delicious of couches for the weary traveller to rest upon.
Pak Laut, with all its ancient splendor and attractiveness, had one drawback, and that was a very serious one. Among the village edifices was an open sala, or hall, which had long been the favorite place of rendezvous for all the rough and riotous seamen, English and American, the crews of the merchant vessels trading to Bangkok; and it was in consequence set down in the code of etiquette observed by the dozen or so of the élite of the English and American foreigners who resided at Bangkok "as a dreadfully improper place for a lady to visit alone."
Thus it was quite out of the question that I should go there without an escort, and not be tabooed by those good people as one utterly outside of the pale of their society.
Luckily, at this time Monsieur M——, an attaché to the French consulate, had been sent by Dr. Campbell to Pak Laut for change of air, and Monsieur L——, the commander of the king's guard, and his wife, were going to see him. Being acquainted with the invalid, I obtained their permission to make one of the party.
Notwithstanding the perplexity of friends, who could not imagine my motive for going there, and who made themselves quite merry at my expense, I found myself in a boat, with the blue letter pinned in my pocket, my boy at my side, and Monsieur and Madame L—— opposite me, at five o'clock one morning, sailing down with the tide to Pak Laut.
When I arrived there, I made a hasty breakfast with the Bick man and his friends, and leaving my boy at play in charge of the lady, I hurried off in the direction of the governor's palace.
Phaya Keean, the governor, was a Peguan prince by birth, and the father of my dear friend, whose name, translated into English is "Hidden Perfume."
He received me so kindly and looked so benevolent that I fell encouraged to tell him the object of my visit at once.
Taking my hand in his, and keeping the smile of appreciation on his honest face, he led me through several long halls and corridors, which brought us at length to a very queer-looking old tower, covered with moss and black with age, with narrow loopholes for windows, and surrounded by a deep moat or ditch full of stagnant water.
From the roof of this extraordinary building descended two nights of steps built in the wall, and leading directly to two ruinous old drawbridges that spanned the moat. The one communicated with the governor's palace, while the other led to a low arched gateway which opened immediately on a canal, and thus had access to the river.
What the moat was intended for I could in no wise imagine, unless it were especially designed to connect the tower, independent of the bridges, with the river, and thus, in cases of necessity, afford the inmates an opportunity of immediate flight by water. There were two boats on the moat, ready for any such emergency.
The governor left me standing outside of the low wall that skirted the moat, crossed one of the crumbling old bridges, and entered the tower through an arched doorway, solemn and ponderous as if it had withstood the storms of many a dreadful siege.
In a few minutes May-Peâh, the Laotian slave-girl, came running out, crying, "O, I love you dearly! I love you dearly! I am so happy. Come in, come in and see the prince!" So saying, she pulled me after her into that singular, toppling-down-looking old edifice, which I must confess inspired me with a dread that I could not overcome, nor could I divest myself of the feeling that I was under the influence of some wild, fantastic dream.
The only floor of the old tower (for there was but one) consisted of three rooms; one was rather large, and might have been in its best days of a vermilion color, but was now utterly discolored by great patches made by rainwater, which had changed it to a dull, yellowish, muddy hue. It was an ancient and gloomy-looking apartment, with all manner of rusty and antique Indian armor, shields, banners, spears, swords, bows and arrows, and lances ranged along the wall, which seemed to have been wielded by men of gigantic stature, and pointed to an epoch beyond the memory of the present race. Passing through this hall, we entered another and smaller room, the walls of which had also once been painted with gigantic flowers, birds, and beasts, among which the figure of the crocodile was most conspicuous. It contained a bed of state which looked like Indian, i. e. Bombay, workmanship, lifting to the ceiling a high, solemn canopy of that ponderous flowered silk called kinkaub.
I cannot depict the scene: how the glimmering light within and the changing lights without, reflected from the dark green waters, touched upon and singled out for a momentary illumination one after another the picturesque arms and the gigantic pictures on the walls, and diffused an air of mystery over the whole.
"Welcome, welcome, brave friend!" said one of the three dark young men I found seated within, who rose and came to meet me with a singular gesture of courtesy and respect, and whom I at once recognized, from his strong likeness to the Princess Sunartha Vismita, to be the Prince P'hra O'Dong Karmatha. The prince, for it was he, with an excitement he could not quite control, inquired If I had seen his sister. As I spoke, May-Peâh drew near and listened to what I said, with intense interest and anxiety expressed in her fine face. But when I handed the prince the letter, they were all inexpressibly lighted All the others waited anxiously, turning silent looks of sympathy and affection on him, as he read it first to himself, and then aloud to the party.
"May-Peâh" were the only two words I understood of its contents; but I saw two big drops like thunder-rain fall suddenly from the eyes of P'hra O'Dong on the blotted yellow paper, and his voice died away in a hoarse whisper as he concluded the strange epistle.
After which the party were silent, saying nothing for nearly a whole hour, as it appeared to me, and absorbed each with his own thoughts.
Then P'hra O'Dong cast an upward glance as if in prayer, and May-Peâh crept quietly to his side and looked at him with the calm, deep determination of high and noble resolve depicted on her fine face. The two faces presented the strongest contrast possible, — the one dark, troubled, impetuous, and weak; the other resolute, passionate, unchangeable, and brave. I wanted no further proof of the nature of the friendship which May-Peâh bore to the young prince and his sister. There are times when one almost knows what is passing in the mind of another. Thus it was that I was able to form some glimmering conception of the elevated character of the slave-woman before me.
It was time for me to go. The prince begged me to take something from him by way of compensation, but I declined, thanking him all the same, and carrying away with me only loving words of comfort and hope to his long-imprisoned sister and her companions.
May-Peâh followed me out, and her fine face — for the oftener I saw it the finer it looked — was never more expressive than when she thanked me, and bade me tell her beloved mistress to keep a stout heart, adding, in a whisper: "I do not know what I am going to do, but something shall be done to save her, even if I die for it."
It was in vain that I urged her to be patient, and not to do anything so rash as to attempt the rescue of the princess; nothing that I could say would move her from her purpose.
The day, though it commenced brightly, now began to be overcast, and the tide was turning for Bangkok, so I left her. As we parted, she was standing in one of the long corridors, with her hands folded and raised high above her head, and a flood of tender emotions brimming over into her eyes.