THE MOUTH OF THE OCEAN

AN hour after dark I again sought the good and tender-hearted Thieng,
who not only hurried me off, telling me in a voice of great exultation
that the physician’s report had in a great measure ameliorated the
rigorous confinement to which the royal prisoner had hitherto been
subjected, but bravely sent two of her women to tell the Amazons to
show me the apartment to which the sick princess had been removed.

The small apartment into which I was ushered was dimly lighted by
a wick burning in an earthen vessel. The only window was thrown
wide open. Immediately beneath it, on a pair of wooden trucks which
supported a narrow plank, covered with a flowered mat and satin pillow,
lay the wasted form of the Princess Sunartha Vismita. Her dress was
that of a Laotian lady of high rank. It consisted of a scarlet silk
skirt falling in firm folds to her feet, a black, flowered silk vest,
and a long veil or scarf of Indian gauze thrown across her shoulders;
some rings of great value and beauty and a heavy gold chain were her
only ornaments. Her hair was combed smoothly back, bound in a massive
knot behind, and confined by a perfect tiara of diamond-headed pins.
She was not beautiful; but when you looked at her you never thought of
her features, for the defiant and heroic pride that flashed from her
large, dark, melancholy eyes fixed your attention. It was a face never
to be forgotten. At her feet were two other truckle-beds; on these
were seated the two young Laotian women who shared her captivity,
and who looked very wan and sad.

[Illustration: LADIES OF THE ROYAL HAREM AT DINNER.]

Advancing unannounced close to this mournful group, I sat down near
them, while the dark, depressing influence of the place stole upon my
spirits and filled me with the same dismal gloom.

The princess, who had been gazing at the little bit of sky, of which
she could only get a glimpse through the iron bars of the open window,
turned upon me the same quiet, self-absorbed look, manifesting neither
surprise nor displeasure at seeing me enter her apartment.

It was a look that spoke of utter hopelessness of ever being extricated
from that forlorn place, and a quiet conviction that she was very ill,
perhaps dying, yet without a trace of fear or anxiety.

The air was heavy and difficult to breathe, and for a moment or two I
was silent, confounded by the unexpected bravery and fortitude evinced
by the prisoner. But, quickly recovering my self-possession, I inquired
about her health.

“I am well,” said the lady, with a proud and indifferent manner. “Pray,
why have you come here?”

With a sense of infinite relief I told her that my visit was a private
one to herself.

“Is that the truth?” she inquired, looking rather at her women for some
confirmation than at me for a reply.

“It is indeed,” I answered, unhesitatingly; “I have come to you as one
woman would come to another who is in trouble.”

“But how may that be?” she rejoined, haughtily. “You must know, madam,
that all women are not alike; some are born princesses, and some are
born slaves.” She pronounced these words very slowly, and in the court
language of the Siamese.

“Yes, we are not all alike, dear lady,” I replied, gently; “I have not
come here out of mere idle curiosity, but because I could not refuse
your foster-sister May-Peâh’s request to do you a service.”

“What did you say?” cried the lady, joyfully rising, and drawing me
towards her, putting her arms ever so lovingly round my neck, and
laying her burning cheek against mine. “Did you say May-Peâh, May-Peâh?”

Without another word, for I could not speak, I was so much moved, I
drew out of my pocket the mysterious letter, and put it into her hands.

I wish I could see again such a look of surprise and joy as that which
illuminated her proud face. So rapid was the change from despair to
gladness, that she seemed for the moment supremely beautiful.

Her bps trembled, and tears filled her eyes, as with a nervous movement
she tore open the velvet covering and leaned towards the earthen lamp
to read her precious letter.

I could not doubt that she had a tender heart, for there was a
beautiful flush on her wan face, which was every now and then faintly
perceptible in the flickering lamp-light.

A smile half of triumph and half of sadness curved her fine lip as she
finished the letter and turned to communicate its contents to her eager
companions in a language unknown to me.

After this the three women talked together long and anxiously, the two
attendants urging their mistress to do something to which apparently
she would not consent, for at last she threw the letter away angrily,
and covered her face with her hands, as if unable to resist their
arguments.

The elder of the women quietly took up the letter and read it several
times aloud to her companion. She then opened a betel-box and drew out
of it an inkhorn, a small reed, and long roll of yellow paper, on
which she began a lengthy and labored epistle, now and then rubbing out
the words she had written with her finger, and commencing afresh with
renewed vigor. When the letter was finished, I never in my life saw a
more unsightly, blotted affair than it was, and I fell to wondering if
any mortal on earth would have skill and ingenuity enough to decipher
its meaning. But she folded it carefully, and put it into a lovely blue
silk cover which she took from that self-same box,–which might have
been Aladdin’s wonderful lamp turned inside out, for aught I knew to
the contrary,–and, stitching up the bag or cover, she sewed on the
outside a bit of paper addressed in the same mysterious and unknown
letters, which bore a strong resemblance to the Birmese characters
turned upside down, and were altogether as weird and hieroglyphic as
the ancient characters found in the Pahlavi and Deri manuscript. When
all her labors were completed, she handed it to me with a hopeful smile
on her face.

Meanwhile the princess, who seemed to have been plunged in a very
profound and serious meditation, turned and addressed me with an air of
mystery and doubt: “Did May-Peâh promise you any money?”

On being answered in the negative, “Do you want any money?” she again
inquired.

“No, thank you,” I replied. “Only tell me to whom I am to carry this
letter, for I cannot read the address, and I’ll endeavor to serve you
to the best of my ability.”

When I had done speaking she seemed surprised and pleased, for she
again put her arms round about my neck, and embraced me twice or thrice
in the most affectionate manner, entreating me to believe that she
would always be my grateful friend, and that she would always bless
me in her thoughts, and enjoining me to deliver the letter into no
other hands but those of May-Peâh, or her brother, the Prince O’Dong
Karmatha, who was concealed for the present, as she said, in the house
of the Governor of Pak Lat.

I returned her warm embraces, and went home somewhat happier; but I
seemed to hear throughout the rest of the night the creaking of the
huge prison door which had turned so reluctantly on its rusty hinges.

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 sick 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.

P’haya 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 felt
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 flights
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 rain-water, 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.

[Illustration: A LAOTIAN.]

“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 delighted.
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.