THE HEAD WIFE AND SUPERINTENDENT OF THE ROYAL CUISINE

FOR some time afterwards the mysterious letter remained locked up in my
drawer, as nobody whom I knew seemed to be aware even of the existence
of such a person as the Princess Sunartha Vismita, much less of her
imprisonment in the palace, and I was afraid to open my lips on the
subject before a stranger, lest I should inadvertently say something
that might still more imperil her health and safety.

The king was once more reconciled to me, and had taken me into greater
confidence than ever. Just at this time he was laid up with an illness
which confined him to his topmost chamber, where I was summoned every
day to write notes, or translate, with the help of the native female
secretary, English documents into Siamese.

On one occasion, as I was at work in a room adjoining the royal
bedchamber over a mass of perplexing manuscripts in the king’s own
handwriting, to be arranged for publication in the “Bangkok Recorder,”
the chief of the Amazons brought in the intelligence that the prisoner,
Princess Sunartha Vismita, was very ill; and, his Majesty being in
the best possible humor, having just finished the above-mentioned
manuscript, which completely refuted, as he fondly believed, Dr.
Bradley’s theory of Original Depravity, gave orders that the princess
should take an airing in the palace gardens, and be removed to another
cell, and that the chief lady physician should attend her without delay.

The Amazon made haste to carry out her instructions, and I quietly left
my desk to follow her.

I shall not attempt to enter into a particular description of the
prison in the interior of this strange city. Indeed, it would be
impossible to describe with any degree of accuracy so irregular and
rambling an edifice. The principal features consisted of a great
hall and two courts or enclosures, one behind the other, in which
the prisoners were permitted to walk at stated times. Three vaulted
dungeons occupied three sides of the enclosures; immediately below
these were the cells already described in my former book.[30]

The upper cells were used more or less for the reception of women
convicted of petty crimes, such as gambling, stealing, immodest
language, etc. Besides these, there were other dungeons under the floor
in various parts of the prison, some of them quite dark, and closed
by huge trap-doors, designed for those whom it might be expedient to
treat with peculiar severity. The prison was approached by two long
corridors, opening into the courts; here were several small secret
apartments, or cells, in which prisoners condemned to death, either by
the Supreme Court or by the still more supreme will of the king, passed
the last days of their existence. It was in one of these that the
princess was confined.

The opening of the prison doors attracted, as usual, a crowd of idle
slave women and girls, who hailed the slightest event that broke the
monotony of their lives with demonstrations of the liveliest joy;
and as I stood there a guard of Amazons appeared, marching in file,
and in the centre was the Laotian princess, followed by two of her
countrywomen. She did not seem to notice the general sensation which
her appearance created, nor the eager curiosity with which she was
regarded, but walked on wearing the depressed and wearied look of one
who sought to meditate on her sorrows in silence and privacy. Her
features were remarkably stern, however, and she moved along with a
firm and steady step.

I followed with the crowd, who kept at a respectful distance.

When the procession arrived at one of the nearest gardens, laid out in
the Chinese style, the princess, with a proud intimation that she could
go no farther, took her seat on the edge of an artificial rock beside
a small pond of water in which gold and silver fish sported merrily
together. She hung down her head, as if the fresh air had no power to
remove the smallest portion of her sorrows and sufferings.

A deep murmur of compassion now rose, not only from the idle crowd
of women and girls, who gazed awe-stricken into her face, but from
the “Amazonian Guard,” those well-disciplined automatons of the royal
palace of Siam.

I could see that she just raised her dark, sad eyes to us, and then
cast them down again; and that their expression, as well as that of her
whole attitude, was one of mute and touching appeal against this most
ungenerous usage.

After the lapse of an hour the procession resumed its course, and
the crowd, who had by this time exchanged looks and whispers of
sympathy to their hearts’ content,–while some poor half-palsied and
aged slave-women had lifted up their hands and prayed aloud for the
happiness of the ill-fated princess,–brought up the rear, till they
saw the same prison doors open and close once more on the noble lady
and her attendants, when they dispersed to their various abodes.

When I returned home, the scene would constantly reproduce itself, and
my thoughts would unceasingly revert to those sad eyes of which I had
only caught a hasty glance; and that utter friendlessness, expressed in
a few brief, slight actions, dwelt in my memory like the impressions of
childhood, never to be wholly forgotten.

I could not help picturing to myself how those eyes would brighten if I
could but put that letter into her hands, and tell her of one earnest
friend at least whose love and sympathy knew no bounds.

This feeling at length urged me, now that with the restored favor of
the king there could be no real danger to myself and my boy, to find
some means of gaining access to the poor, sad prisoner.

I immediately put the letter into my pocket, and pinned it carefully
there, and determined that after my school duties were over I would
advise with my good friend Lady Thieng, of whom mention has already
been made. Only one circumstance troubled my mind greatly, and it was
how to broach the subject to her in the presence of the number of women
who always attended her at all times and in all places.

Lady Thieng was a woman of about thirty, fair even to whiteness, with
jet black hair and eyes; by nature enthusiastic, clever, and kind, but
only partially educated when compared to many other of the cultivated
and intellectual women of the royal harem.

She was the first mother,–having brought his Majesty four sons and
eight daughters,–for which reason she was regarded with peculiar
veneration and ranked as the head wife in the palace, the queen consort
being dead. All these considerations combined entitled her to the
lucrative and responsible position of superintendent of the royal
cuisine.



She contrived to be always in favor with the king, simply because she
was the only woman among all that vast throng who really loved him;
though at no period of her life had she ever enjoyed the unenviable
distinction of being the “favorite.”

Her natural enthusiasm and kindliness of disposition made her generally
loved, however; while, despite her immense wealth and influence, no
woman’s life had a truer and deeper purpose. She was always ready
to sympathize with and help her suffering sisters, whatever their
shortcomings might have been, or whatever the means she was obliged to
resort to in order to render them the smallest assistance.

She reconciled all her little plots, intrigues, and deceptions
to herself by saying: “Surely it is better for him not to know
everything; he knows too much already, what with his Siamese and his
English and his Pali and his Sanscrit. I wonder he can ever get to
sleep at all with so many different tongues in his head.”

It was after school that I accompanied one of my most promising
pupils, the Princess Somawati, one of Thieng’s daughters, to her
mother’s house. Being the head of the royal cuisine, Thieng had two
houses. One was her home, where her children were born and brought
up,–a quaint, stately edifice with stuccoed fronts, situated in the
ladies’ or fashionable part of the inner city, and in the midst of a
pleasant garden. In the other, adjoining the royal kitchen, she spent
the greater part of each day in selecting, overlooking, and sometimes
preparing with her own fair hands many of the costly dainties that were
destined to grace the royal table.

Thieng received me with her usual bright, pleasant smile and hearty
embrace; to give me the latter, she put down her youngest baby, a boy
about two years old, to whom I had, during my repeated visits to her
house, taught a number of little English rhymes and sentences, and
who always accosted me with, “Mam, mam, how do do?” or “Mam, make a
bow, make a bow”; while he bobbed his own little head, and blinked
his bright eyes at me, to the infinite delight of his mother and her
handmaids.

Little “Chai” settled himself in my lap, as usual, and the host of
women, like children eager to be amused, gathered around to listen to
our baby-talk; and great was the general uproar when Chai would mimic
me in singing scraps of baby-songs, or thrust an orange into my mouth,
or put on my hat and cloak to promenade the chamber, and say “How do
do?” like a veritable Englishman; then his fond mother, in ecstasies of
joy, would snatch him to her arms and cover him with kisses, and the
delighted spectators would whisper that that boy was as clever as his
father, and must surely come to the throne some day or other.

In the midst of these fascinating employments one of the
lady-physicians was announced.

Thieng retired at once with her into an inner chamber, carrying her
beloved Chai in her arms, and beckoning me to follow her. Here she
consigned Chai to me for further instruction in English, and laid
herself down to be shampooed.

I felt that now was my opportunity; but I waited a little in order to
make sure whether the doctor was to be trusted.

The ladies were silent for a little while; no word was spoken, with the
exception of a sigh that now and then escaped from poor Thieng, partly
to indicate the responsibilities of her position, and partly to show
that the particular member which was being manipulated was the one most
affected. Whatever might have been the question between the ladies, the
doctor waited for Thieng to give the word, and Thieng evidently waited
for the termination of my visit. But seeing that I made no attempt to
go, she at length turned to the doctor, and said: “My pen arai, phöt
thöe, yai kluâ” (Never mind, speak out, don’t be afraid), all of which
I understood as perfectly as I did English.

The doctor ceased her manipulations, and, after having cast a cautious
glance round the room and shaken her head sorrowfully, remarked: “I
don’t think she’ll live many weeks longer.”

Thieng sat bolt upright, and, clasping her hands together, said,
“Phoodth thô!”[31]

“It is impossible,” added the doctor, very earnestly. “It were better
to put her to death at once than to kill her by inches, as they are now
doing.”

“P’hra Buddh the Chow,[32] help us!” cried Thieng, still more agitated.
“What shall I do? What can I do to save her?”

“Something must be done, and at once,” replied the doctor, suggestively.

“Well,” said Thieng, “why don’t you draw up a paper and give it to Mai
Ying Thaphan?” (the chief of the Amazons.) “And now mind that you say
she cannot live a day longer unless she is removed from that close cell
and allowed to take an airing every day.”

“Poor child! poor child!” repeated Thieng, tenderly, to herself. “With
such a noble heart to perish in such a way! I wish I could find some
means to help her to live a little longer, till things begin to look
more bright.”

“He has forgotten all about her by this time,” rejoined the doctor.

The physician then took her leave of Thieng, and I inquired if they had
been speaking of the Princess Sunartha Vismita. The good lady started
and looked at me as if she supposed me to be supernaturally endowed
with the art of unravelling mysteries.

“Why! how do you know the name,” said she, “when we never even
mentioned it?”

I then told her of the visit I had had from May-Peâh, and begged of
her to help me to deliver the letter to the dying princess as soon as
possible.

“We are all prisoners here, dear friend,” said Thieng, “and we have
to be very careful what we do; but if you promise never to say a word
on this subject to any one, and in case of discovery to bear all the
blame, whatever that may be, yourself, I’ll help you.”

I gave her the required promise gladly, and thanked her warmly at the
same time.

“You must not think me weak and selfish, dear mam,” said she, after a
little reflection. “You are a foreigner, he has not the same power over
you, and you can go away whenever you like; but we who are his subjects
must stay here and suffer his will and pleasure, whatever happens.”

With that she told me to come to her after sunset, and I bade her a
grateful adieu and returned home.