TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT

No one who has had the good or bad fortune to alight in the
northeastern portion of the city of Bangkok can ever forget the temples
and monasteries of Brahmanee Wade. They are situated by themselves,
at the northeastern extremity of the city walls, where not a modern
building is to be seen, for even the few houses which were erected
as lately as yesterday have been fashioned after the ancient model
prescribed by the Hindoo architect; and in no part of the world is
there seen so perfect an historical picture of the ancient Brahminical
architecture as in this part of the city of Bangkok. The varied gables,
the quaint little windows, the fantastic towers and narrow doorways,
with the endless effects of color, make this spot a perpetual delight
to the curious traveller; and the Brahmins who occupy this part of the
city, allotted to them from time immemorial by the kings of Siam, still
preserve the ancient costume of their forefathers, which makes the
picture complete.

On the morning of the 20th of November, 1866, three women, half
stupefied by the foul air of the damp cells in which they had been
immured, were conducted through the silent, sleeping streets of the
palace and city to a small room or “black hole” adjoining the great
court-hall of the temple of Brahmanee Wade, and locked up therein,
while the file of Amazons and the troop of soldiers in charge took
their places around it.

While the Invincible City was being disenchanted by one set of Brahmins
to be purified by another set of Buddhist priests, I set off on
horseback, attended only by my Hindostanee syce, or groom, to the scene
of the trial.

November here is the pleasantest month in the year; and the morning
sun shone brightly, but not too warmly, as we approached the walls of
the temples and monasteries of Brahmanee Wade,–so wild, so isolated,
so set in contrast by oddness of architectural effects to the general
order and appearance of the rest of the town, as to seem, indeed, to
belong to another age and another world. The dark walls and huge trees
were covered with parasitic plants. A deep, narrow valley, through
which a tiny streamlet runs, over a stony bed, betwixt sloping sides of
grass and furze-clad steeps, is crossed by a stone bridge, black with
time, which leads to the portals of Brahminism. The little mad stream
roared and fled darkly on, as it will perhaps forever.

There was a dreadful loneliness about the place, and a sort of
darkness, too, whether in my mind or in the place I cannot say, but it
spoke of all kinds of magic and witchcraft, and even of devilcraft.

Deep in the glen, sloping down to the stream, amid picturesque and
romantic surroundings, stood the old temple of Kalee Durga; and running
along, like a huge, jagged shadow, dark even in the brightest sunlight,
rose the roofs of the monastic dwellings of the Brahmin ascetics, from
which the place is named.

I alighted, and told my syce to wait outside for me; but he, being a
pious Hindoo, bestrode the pony and rode off, to return in a quarter of
an hour with oil and fresh flowers and sweetmeats enough to propitiate
a great many dark goddesses.

There was not a soul to be seen anywhere, whether of Brahmanic or
Buddhistic faith. So I followed my syce into the temple, and while he
prostrated himself at full length before each one of his gods, I took
out my note-book and occupied myself in making sketches and memoranda
of the strange scene before me.

Vishnu, Siva, Krishna, and the goddess Kalee, were the chief deities of
the place, and figured as the heroes and heroines among the numerous
grotesque and monstrous myths sculptured on the walls.

Here was Vishnu lying comfortably on the thousand-headed snake Shesha,
or sporting as a fish, or crawling as a tortoise, or showing his fangs
as a wild boar, or shaking his head in his last and fifth _avatar_ as
a dwarf, all admirably executed. Here too was Krishna, like another
Apollo, whipped out of heaven for playing tricks on the lovely
shepherdesses of Muttra, whose tender hearts he stole away, and whose
butter he found so tempting that he perpetually ran off with it in
secret, and whose jars of milk it was this madcap’s pleasure roguishly
to upset. In another compartment, crumbling with age, he is seen again
in his last mad prank, perched on a stony tree with the milkmaids’
stony habiliments under his arm, and an unmistakable grin on his stony,
greasy[35] face, while the owners of the dresses are standing below in
various attitudes of bashfulness imploring their restoration. Before
them in different places stands the Lingam. Here was also a beautiful
sculpture of Siva and his wife Parvati, with the sacred bull Nandi
lying at their feet, and Kalee in combat with the monster Mahashasura;
and close by again she is seen caressing a Nylghau,[36] that is looking
up to her.

The figures of the goddesses are wonderfully spirited, and of exquisite
symmetry, conveying the idea of perfect and beautiful womanhood. And
yet Kalee is represented elsewhere in the same temple as a black and
terrible being, covered with symbols of the most ferocious cruelty.

Having finished my notes, I passed out by another entrance, and
tried to quiet my fears for May-Peâh by continuing my rambles and
explorations until breakfast-time. Instead of returning home for that
meal, I despatched the syce to buy from the small Hindoo village close
by an earthen lota of milk and a flat cake of Bâjree bread, of which I
made a pleasant repast, sitting under the deep shadows of the temples
and trees dedicated to Brahma, of whom there is rarely, if ever, any
representation.

Very soon I was repaid for my patient waiting, for I heard the sound
of drums beating and martial music playing; and, rushing to the side
whence it proceeded, the queerest and most weird-looking procession
met my astonished eyes,–old women dressed in scarlet and yellow, and
old gray headed men in every variety of costume, combining all the
known and unknown fashions of the past, some on foot and others on
horseback, with embroidered flags of the same multiplicity of colors
flying before the wind; and in the centre of all, clad in black and
crimson vestments, riding on white mules, a band of about twenty men
and women, some quite young and others extremely old, advancing with
slow and solemn steps. These were the royal astrologers, wizards, and
witches who, incredible as it may seem, are supported by the supreme
king of Siam, and receive from the crown large and handsome salaries.
I observed that the whole procession was composed of persons of the
Hindoo religion.

In the rear came some Chinese coolies hired for the occasion, carrying
two boxes and two long planks, which excited my curiosity. As they drew
near they were joined by large numbers of well-dressed Siamese and a
host of ragged slaves, which completed the motley scene.

I stepped out of the solemn shade of the boh and peepul trees, and took
my seat on a broken stone pillar, still under shelter, and commanding a
view of the grand hall. The roof, which was fast crumbling away, was an
inferior imitation of that of the wondrous temple of Maha Nagkhon Watt,
and had scarcely been touched for centuries, for there still figured
the inevitable Siva and Kalee, and all the rest of the Hindoo gods and
goddesses, dismantled and broken, but still in sufficient preservation
to show the wild grotesqueness of the Hindoo imagination, which seems
to have grown riotous in the effort to embody all its imperfect
conceptions of the Divinity.

When this strange and solemn procession entered the portal of Brahmanee
Wade they suddenly halted, threw up their arms and folded their hands
above their heads, and repeated one of the most magnificent utterances
of Krishna: “O thou who art the life in all things, the eternal seed of
nature, the understanding of the wise and the weakness of the foolish,
the glory of the proud and the strength of the strong, the sacrifice
and the worship, the incense and the fire, the victim and the slayer,
the father and the mother of the world, gird thy servants with power
and wisdom to-day to slay the slayer and to vanquish the deceiver,”[37]
etc. After which they marched to the sound of music into the temple,
and offered sacrifices of wine and oil, and wheaten cakes and fresh
flowers, and with their eyes lifted to the dark vaulted roof they again
prayed, calling upon Brahma the father, the comforter, the creator,
the tender mother, the holy way, the witness, the asylum, the friend
of man, to illumine with the light of his understanding their feeble
intellects to discern the devil and to vanquish him.

At length the astrologers, wizards, and witches took their places
in the hall, with eager crowds all round them, standing in rows on
all the steps of the building. Then came two officers from the king
with a royal letter,–one was the chief judge of the Supreme Court,
and the other his secretary to report the trial. After this lordly
personage had taken his seat, the prisoners–the two handmaids of the
princess and my friend May-Peâh, who, as I feared, was the deaf and
dumb “changeling”–were brought in. She was deadly pale, and there
was a wild light as of madness or intense suffering in her eyes. They
were placed at the end of the hall, strongly guarded by as many as
fifty Amazons, while the soldiers scattered themselves all round about
the building. Not a word was spoken, and the strange assembly looked
into one another’s faces, as if each knew his neighbor’s thoughts. I
trembled for the unhappy prisoners; and the crowd, who seemed to look
upon poor May-Peâh as a veritable witch, were silent in breathless
expectation.

It was a frightful spot, and a still more indescribably terrifying
scene, where one might indeed say with Hassan of Balsora, “Lo! this is
the abode of genii and of ghouls and of devils.” I had half a mind to
slip down from my rocky perch and run away. But very soon my anxiety
for poor May-Peâh absorbed every other feeling.

The three prisoners sat profoundly silent, waiting in sadness to hear
their doom.

But why did they not begin the trial? There were the boxes and the
planks with little niches cut into them, deep enough to enable any
nimble person to climb with the tips of their toes, and scale any wall
against which they might be placed. I turned to a soldier who was
standing close by, and asked him why they still delayed the trial.

“They are waiting,” said he, as if he knew all about it, and had
witnessed many such scenes before, “for the ‘sage,’ or holy man of the
woods; it is for him that they have blown the conch-shells these three
times.” There was, to me, nothing improbable in the soldier’s story.
He told me that this holy man, or yogi,[38] lived in a cave, in the
rocks adjoining, all alone, and that he rarely issued from his unknown
retreat during the day, but that pious Hindoos, while performing their
ablutions in the stream after the close of their labors, could see
him moving in the moonlight, and hear him calling upon God. Feeding
on tamarinds and other wild fruits, he slept during the day like a
wild animal, and prayed aloud all night, oppressed by his longing and
yearning after the Invisible, as by some secret grief that knew no
balm. Even the cool evening air brought him no peace; for,

“At night the passion came,
Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream;
And shook him from his rest, and led him forth
Into the darkness, to pray and pray forevermore.”

By and by a man appeared on the opposite banks of the stream, plunged
into it, and emerged on the hither side; shook the wet from his hair
like a veritable beast, and made his way towards the hall, where he
sat himself shyly down near the prisoners. This strange mortal, who
lived the life of an “orang-outang,” had a remarkably fine, sensitive
face, and a noble head, around which his long, matted, unkempt hair
fell like dark clouds. He was meagrely clad, and his wiry frame gave
evidence of great muscular power. There was, to my thinking, a gleam
of a better and higher humanity in his fine, dark face, that shot out
in irrepressible flashes, and convinced me, in spite of his filth and
nudity, of a noble and impressive nature.

The soldier assured me, in a tone of the utmost reverence, “that
this man’s eyes were opened, that he could see things which the paid
mercenaries of the court could not begin even to comprehend; and that
therefore they always made it a point to invite him to aid them in
their spiritual examinations.”

I somehow drew comfort from the yogi’s shy and fascinating face.

And now the trial commenced by the judge reading the king’s letter,
which spoke of the mysterious and important nature of the accusation
made against some unknown person for the abduction of a state prisoner,
a lady of high rank and unflinching integrity, and called upon the
assembly to do their utmost to unravel the inexplicable affair.

After the royal letter had received its customary salutations, and
at the command of the judge, the two Amazons who were on duty on the
night of the abduction of the princess testified to the following
facts: “That on the night of the 12th, on a sudden a strong wind arose
that extinguished their lanterns, leaving them in utter darkness, and
immediately afterwards they were sensible that a tall, dark figure
enveloped in a black veil entered the hall, and that as she approached
them they saw, somewhat indistinctly, that she held a short dagger
in one hand and a ponderous bunch of keys in the other; that never
before having known themselves liable to any illusion of the senses,
the horror which fell upon them at the moment deprived them of all
power of speech or action; that, as the strange being stood over them
brandishing her glittering knife, there flashed all round about her a
hideous light; that by this light they saw her proceed to the cell in
which the Princess Sunartha Vismita was confined, open it with one of
her mysterious keys, and lead the princess forth, pulling her forcibly
along by the hand, and as the flashes died away a double darkness fell
upon them; that after an interval of nearly two hours, as they were
still paralyzed and unable to move from the spot, the strange figure
reappeared, pallid, and more ghastly than before, but without the veil,
or the dagger, or the bunch of keys; that she passed quickly by them
into the cell, and drew the prison door so forcibly that it closed upon
her with a dismal cry of pain.”

Then the two Laotians stated “that on the night of the 12th they
were awakened by the slamming of the cell door, and, on looking in
the darkness towards the bed on which the princess slept, they saw a
figure sitting on it; on which they lit the lamp, and found it was not
their mistress, but a dumb slave-woman in her place, and that they
instinctively shrank away from her in fear and horror lest she should
metamorphose them also into some unnatural beings.”

As for the Amazons, it could readily be seen that their imaginations
had been so vividly impressed that they were prepared to swear solemnly
to their having seen a supernatural being twice the size and altogether
unlike the deaf and dumb creature before them. The unnatural light
of pain or madness or frenzy, or whatever it was, burned still more
brightly in May-Peâh’s eyes. Her reddish-brown dress seemed to be
stained here and there with darker spots, as if of blood, and her face
grew more and more colorless every moment. But to all the numberless
questions put to her by every one of the crafty wizards and witches,
she returned no reply. Her lips were of an ashy whiteness, and they
really seemed to have been closed by a supernatural power.

I recalled her volubility of speech when I first met her, and her
impassioned song, by which she won for her mistress the acknowledgment
of a deep and undying love; and I asked myself the question over and
over again, “Is it possible that she can be acting?” At a signal, an
alarm-gong was struck, and so suddenly and immediately behind her that
the whole assembly started, and May-Peâh, taken by surprise, turned to
see whence the sound came. “Now,” shouted the wily judges, “it is plain
that you can speak, for you are not deaf.”

No sooner was this said than the feeling against the accused ran high,
on account of her obstinacy, and she was forthwith condemned to all
the tortures of the rack. But the humane yogi, on hearing this, raised
his bare arms on high, and uttered the wild cry of “Yah” (forbear) so
commandingly that it rang through the temple, and arrested the cruel
process.

He then turned to the poor girl, and, placing his huge, bony hands upon
her shoulders, tenderly whispered in her ear something which seemed
to move the prisoner for she raised her burning eyes, now filled with
tears, to his face, and, shaking her head solemnly and sadly to and
fro, laid her finger on her mouth to indicate that she could not speak.

A tender light kindled the dark face of the yogi, as he informed the
assembly that “the woman was not a witch, nor even obstinate, but
powerless to speak, because under the influence of witchcraft.”

The tide of feeling was again turned in the prisoner’s favor. “Let
her be exorcised,” said the chief judge of the Supreme Court, whose
secretary was making minutes of all that took place during the trial.

On which the queerest-looking woman of the party, an old and toothless
dame, drew out a key from her girdle and opened the wooden boxes,
from which she took a small boat, a sort of coracle,[39]–such as are
still found in some parts of Wales, made by covering a wicker frame
with leather,–a long gray veil of singular texture, an earthen stove,
whereon to kindle a charcoal fire, and some charcoal; out of the second
box she produced some herbs, pieces of flint, cast skins of snakes,
feathers, the hair of various animals, with dead men’s bones, short
brooms, and a host of other queer things.

At any other time I should have been highly amused at the grotesqueness
of the figure, and the comically ludicrous manner in which she drew,
one after another, her mysterious ingredients out of her boxes; but now
I was too anxious, and too much pained by the situation of May-Peâh,
and by what seemed to me diabolical jugglery, to think of the comical
side of the scene.

With the charcoal the old woman proceeded to light a fire in her
earthen stove; when it was red-hot she opened several jars of water,
and, muttering some strange incantations, threw into them portions of
her herbs, repeating over each a mystic spell, and waving a curious
wand which looked like a human bone, and might have been once the arm
of a stalwart man. This done, she seated the prisoner in the centre
of the motley group, covered her over with the veil of gray stuff,
and handing the short hand-brooms to a number of her set, she, to my
intense horror, began to pour the burning charcoal over the veiled
form of the prisoner, which the other women, dancing around, and
repeating with the wildest gestures the name of Brahma, as rapidly
swept off. This was done without even singeing the veil or burning a
hair of May-Peâh’s head. After this they emptied the jars of water upon
her, still repeating the name of Brahma. She was then made to change
her clothes for an entirely new dress, of the Brahminical fashion.
Her dressing and undressing were effected with great skill, without
disclosing her person in the least. And once more the yogi laid his
hands upon her shoulders, and whispered again in her ears, first the
right, and then the left. But May-Peâh returned the same intimation,
shaking her head, and pointing to her sealed lips.

Then the old wizard, Khoon P’hikhat,–literally, the lord who drives
out the devil,–prostrated himself before her, and prayed with a wild
energy of manner; and, rising suddenly, he peremptorily demanded,
looking full into the prisoner’s face, “Where did you drop the bunch of
keys?”

The glaring daylight illuminated with a pale lustre the fine face of
the Laotian slave, as for the third time she moved her head, in solemn
intimation that she could not or would not speak.

To see her thus, no one would believe but that, if she willed, she
could speak at once.

“Open her mouth, and pour some of the magic water into it,” suggested
one of the “wise women.”

But they who opened her mouth fell back with horror, and cried,
“Brahma, Brahma! an evil fiend has torn out her tongue.” And
immediately the unhappy woman passed from being an object of fear and
dread to one of tender commiseration, of pity, and even of adoration.

So sudden was the transition from fear and hate to love and pity, that
many of the strong men and women wept outright at the thought of the
dreadful mutilation that the fiend had subjected her to.

Now came the last and most important question, “Was the exorcism
effectual?” To prove which a small taper was lighted and put into
the witches’ boat; and the whole company betook themselves to the
borders of the stream to see it launched. The boat swept gallantly
down the waters, and the feeble lamp burned brightly, without even a
flicker,–for it was a calm day,–till it was brought to a stand by
some stones that were strewn across the stream.

Then the yogi raised a shout of wild delight, and all the company
re-echoed it with intense satisfaction and pleasure. And, in accordance
with the king’s instructions, being fully acquitted of any complicity
with the devil in the abduction of the princess, the prisoners received
each a sum of money, and were set at liberty.



The planks, which in any other court would have been one of the most
tangible evidences that some person had thereby scaled the palace
walls, were never even thought of during this singular trial. So
irrational and so superstitious is the native character, that they
preferred to believe in the supernatural rather than in any rational
cause for the disappearance of the princess; and for once in my life I
was led to rejoice in their ignorance.

It was sunset before this inconceivably grotesque and self-deluded and
deluding set of maniacs dispersed. The yogi went back to the solitude
of his unknown cave to sleep by day and pray alone by night. And I sent
my syce home, and remained behind under a jamoon-tree, to which my pony
was tied, in the hope of getting an opportunity of speaking alone with
the women who still lingered with May-Peâh in the hall.

When May-Peâh at length saw me, she rushed into my arms, and laid her
head upon my shoulder, uttering the most doleful and piteous of cries;
they were not cries of sorrow, but of the wildest joy! I embraced her
with something of the tenderness and sorrow with which a mother takes a
brave but reckless child to her heart.

May-Peâh’s friends then told me, what I had all along surmised, that
it was she who scaled the walls by means of the two planks, terrified
the Amazons, opened the prison doors with the keys she had provided,
and led her mistress forcibly out. After assisting her to climb the
walls on the inner side, she sat on the top of the outer wall until she
saw her safely on the other side. She then dropped the keys to her, to
be flung into the river. Here the prince and his two friends received
the princess, and led her to a small craft that was ready to convey
them to Maulmain. In vain they entreated May-Peâh to come down from
the wall and join their flight. She resolutely refused to leave the
companions of her beloved mistress in peril, and, full of dread lest,
by the dreadful torture which she knew awaited her, she might be forced
to betray those who were dearer to her than her own life, she with one
stroke of her sharp dagger deprived herself forever of the power of
uttering a single intelligible sound.

“O, but why did you not all go off with the princess?” I inquired.

“Because we were too many, and we should have only delayed and
perhaps imperilled the success of the enterprise,” said the women;
“and May-Peâh had promised not to leave us to bear the penalty of her
doings.”

It was difficult to tear myself away from her. I was at once proud to
be loved by her, and heart-broken to think that she would never speak
again.

But at length we parted, and she, raising her hands high above her
head, waved them to and fro, and smiled a joyful adieu, in spite of the
pain she still suffered from her cruel mutilation.

They took the way to the river to hire a boat for Pak Laut, whence they
were to sail to Maulmain to join the fugitive prince and princess.

Assuredly, so long as men and women shall hold dear human courage and
devotion in what they believe to be a just cause, so long will the
memory of this brave and self-sacrificing slave-girl be cherished.

It was on a bright Sunday morning in the month of May that a handsome
boat with four young women at the oars conveyed me and my boy to the
residence of Mrs. Rosa Hunter, situated in the village of Tâmsèng.

My friend Mrs. Hunter was a native of Siam, but of Portuguese
parentage. Her husband, Robert Hunter, was private secretary to the
supreme king. She had two sons, who had been taken away from her in
their infancy by their Protestant father,–lest they should be brought
up in the Roman Catholic faith,–and shipped off secretly to Scotland,
in order that they might be educated under the influences of the Free
Church of Scotland, in which he had himself been brought up. This
occasioned a breach between the husband and wife which led to their
ultimate separation, and Rosa returned all but heart-broken to the home
of her childhood, where I visited her at short intervals to write the
long, loving letters which she dictated to me in Siamese, and which I
wrote in English to her absent boys.

A day at her house was always a pleasant change. On one of these
visits, which I remember well, the table had been spread by the
window that looked up the river, and lost it amid high banks and the
projecting spires of the Roman Catholic and the Buddhist temples
adjoining.

I had finished and sealed her loving messages to her absent children;
the moon was rising, and we needed no other light, as the conversation
between us, often shifting and often pausing, had gradually become
grave, and we fell into confiding talk of what we hoped and what we
feared, as we saw the future of our children stretched before us in
deep shadows.

“There is so much power in faith,” said Rosa, “even in relation to
earthly things, that I am surprised you are not a Roman Catholic. I
believe in my church; when I go to confession and receive the holy
communion, I am filled with peace and trust, and have no fears for the
future.”

“There is a great deal in what you say, Rosa,” I replied; “but I am
afraid that I should not make a good Catholic, since I am disposed to
question everything that does not accord with my own perceptions of the
right and the true.”

“Well, I suppose,” said Rosa, “that our natures differ; all my life
has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church. I never doubt, therefore I
never question. The Holy Virgin and her Son are sufficient for me, and
the good priest who absolves me from my sins. My only one sorrow is
that my children are cast out of the pale of salvation by the foolish
prejudices of their father.”

This was said in a voice of much feeling, and tears gathered to her
eyes. I moved to her side, and tried to comfort her by saying, “After
all, Rosa, you seem to let your fears for your children cloud your
faith in that Saviour who died for them as well as for you.”

While I was speaking, my eyes fell upon a long, narrow canoe, called by
the natives Rua Keng, in which was seated a tall, slender, and shapely
young girl, who was slowly, with the aid of two short paddles, making
her way towards us through the water, while her face was raised to the
moonlight that fell brightly upon her. It was nearly high tide; a fleet
of canoes, boats, and barges was moving in all directions over the
broad waters.

We watched the girl as her paddles rose and fell softly and slowly,
silver-tipped by the moonlight, now dipping into the water, now rising
above it, like the white wings of some lazy bird. Nearer and nearer
came the long boat, and clearer shone the fair face that was still
uplifted, and reflected back the moonlight, till it almost looked as if
divinely inspired. It is impossible to do any kind of justice to this
beautiful moonlight picture. Gently the boat shot under our window, and
was lost to our sight.

I bade my friend adieu, and hastened to the pier, where I met the girl
again. She had fastened her canoe to one of the posts that supported
the quay, and was crossing the street: in one hand she held a bunch of
lilies, and in the other a lotus-shaped vase full of flowers.

Yielding to the impulse of the moment, instead of stepping into my boat
I took my boy’s hand and followed her graceful figure.

It was not yet seven o’clock. A number of people were in the squalid,
dirty streets of Tâmsèng. The twinkling evening lights were stealing
out one by one, and the girl drew over her face a veil or covering
which was attached to her hair by a large and beautiful pin. A dozen
or more steps, and we stood in the porch of the Roman Catholic chapel
dedicated to “Tomas the Saint.”

Lights were burning on the altar, over which were two figures of the
Christ: one suspended above it with a crown of thorns, bleeding, and
nailed to the cross; the other, of magnificent stature, was enveloped
in a costume as gorgeous as the coronation robes of an emperor, the
vestment being a sort of Indian brocade of woven gold arabesqued with
jewels and scented with spikenard; a diadem lavishly adorned with
emeralds and diamonds pressed its forehead, in some measure confining
the hair which streamed down in abundant tresses upon the shoulders,
and mingled with a beard no darker than the glossy hue of the chestnut.
On either side of the altar were two other figures, one of the Virgin
Mother, in the same regal attire, and crowned as the queen of heaven;
while the other was the patron saint, with a flowing beard and a
benevolent face. Suspended over the altar was a grand Japanese lamp.

The priest, a dark, heavily built man, a native, but of Portuguese
parentage, was standing before it, with his cap on his head and his
back to the congregation.

The moment the girl beheld the glory of the altar and the lights that
shot up and quivered and were reflected in a thousand beautiful tints
upon the magnificent figure of the Christ, she dropped on her knees and
held down her head in mute adoration. After a little while she rose,
and, advancing a few steps nearer, placed her golden lotus-shaped vase
of flowers on the bare floor, dropped on her knees again, and, holding
the white lilies between her folded hands, seemed absorbed in her
devotions.

In her attitude and bearing there was a depth of feeling which,
harmonizing with her beautiful figure, arrested the eye of the
observer, and cast every other object in the shade.

I withdrew reluctantly and returned to my boat, wondering who she could
be. On my way home I gathered from the women at the oars that she was
known by the name of Nang Rungeâh (Lady Rungeâh);[40] that her parents
were Buddhists and Cambodians, proprietors of a large plantation east
of Tâmsèng. Her father, Chow Suah P’hagunn, was a distinguished noble,
and her mother a Cambodian lady of high birth, who claimed to be
descended from the rulers of that ancient and almost unknown kingdom,
and that her only brother was a Buddhist priest. But the Nang Rungeâh
had become deeply impressed with the beauty of the Christian religion,
and was at this moment the only candidate who had offered herself, for
a number of years, for baptism into the Roman Catholic Church.

“Tomas Saint,” the founder of the beautiful church around which had
grown up this Christian village, was a Portuguese gentleman renowned
for his piety and his wealth. He had obtained the title of “saint,”
even in his lifetime; but the good people, fearing to arouse the
jealousy of the Apostle of Christ, after whom he was named, placed the
title after, instead of before, his name, and out of it had grown the
name of “Tâmsèng.”

On the very next Saturday following, it being the first holiday that
offered itself to me, I set out with my boy very early in the morning
to explore the village of Tâmsèng.

We chose for our head-quarters one of the most beautiful Buddhist
temples in the neighborhood, the grounds and monasteries bounded the
Catholic village on the northeast side of the river.

This temple, called Adi Buddha Annando, i.e. The First Buddha, or
The Infinite, was embowered in a grove of trees of luxuriant growth,
affording a delicious shade. It must have been, in its best days, a
magnificent building; for even now, though much of its beauty was
obliterated, it was covered from its massive base to its tapering
summits with sculptures, and frescoed within and without with
marvellous effect, so that wherever you turned your eyes the impression
of a more subtle and a finer spirituality dawned upon you, as it was
meet it should, in a temple dedicated to One whom the pious Buddhists
will never even name, so great is their reverence for the First or
Supreme Intelligence.

After a simple breakfast of fruit and milk, we strolled about the
village and its surroundings, making notes and sketches of all that
could be seen.

It was surprising to me that it looked so well in the early sunshine.
The places that had struck me as foul and repulsive in the dim twilight
now wore a different aspect, as if bent on looking their brightest and
best in acknowledgment of the prodigal sunlight.

But the farther we penetrated into the heart of the village the more we
were disappointed, and my first impressions were more than realized. We
soon came upon scenes of the most squalid misery and filth, poverty and
destitution, amid heaps of refuse and puddles of mud that caused us to
shrink aside with disgust.

It is natural to demand that beautiful ideas should be clothed with
beautiful forms. It was therefore to me an outrage on the name of
Christianity to find that while all around lay scenes of luxuriant
beauty which brightened the eye and cheered the heart, the only
Christian village in the vicinity of Bangkok, which should have been
an embodiment of all that is pure and lovely, had been transformed
by the greed and oppression of the local officers to a pestilential
spot to fester and poison the pure air of heaven. Some few native
Christian women were about milking their goats, others were seated on
their doorsteps, unwashed and uncombed; they seemed even to have lost
the virtue of personal cleanliness, which with the Indian covers a
multitude of sins. Stray packs of pariah dogs and herds of swine were
barking and grunting in the ill-kept streets, and all kinds of poultry
were picking a scanty breakfast from the heaps of garbage. Every now
and then we were compelled to cross a stagnant pool or a muddy gutter
alive with insects.

I never saw anything like the mud; it was a black liquid, sticky,
slimy, and yet hard, hurting like hail when it struck the flesh.

And now we reached the quaint little chapel of “Tomas Saint.” Its
glories were sadly obscured by wet and damp, and the painting and
gilding on the outside looked cold and dull.

A colored priest, a descendant of the renowned Tomas, was officiating.
It was some saint’s day. An assemblage of men, women, and children
was seated on the floor, some in groups and some on rude benches. The
priest bends over his missal, and pours forth in execrable Latin the
exquisite prayers of the Church of Rome; and all the congregation, in
their silks, and in their rags and wretchedness, are hushed and silent,
with bent heads and folded hands, while the sound of the prayers–which
they do not understand, beyond that it is the voice of prayer–fills
their unenlightened but reverent hearts with mysterious dread and
worship.

On quitting the chapel, we were at once beset by a numerous horde of
beggars. It was not food or money that they craved, but, strange to
say, it was justice. They followed us all the way back to the temple,
importuning me to redress their wrongs and find a remedy for their
grievances. Some of the poor wretches were half-witted, and not a few
were crazed. An elderly lady, evidently once of superior rank, came
crawling up to me, and clasped my feet, making a painful noise in a
language that I could not understand, and piteously gesticulating
some incomprehensible request. The people of the place denied all
knowledge of her. At last she insisted on my giving her a leaf out of
my note-book full of writing, which she apparently considered as a
charm, for she attached it to a cord round her neck, and seemed to be
perfectly happy in its possession. God only knows what the poor thing
wanted to tell me, but likely enough her story was one of some great
wrong, of some cruel injustice. If the smallest details of what I heard
that day might be credited, the wrongs of these people were of the most
harrowing nature, and altogether without hope of remedy under the
twofold and inveterately vicious system of Siamese and Portugo-Siamese
administration that prevailed there.

I was alarmed when I found that my visit was thought to be one secretly
intended “to spy out the land,” in the service of the king of Siam,
and that I was expected to wipe away the tears from all eyes. In vain
I protested to the contrary; no one would listen to me, but the crowds
kept coming and going, and pleading and praying, and promising me
fabulous sums of money if I would only see their wrongs redressed.

Many a heart-rending tale was told to me that day, with quivering lips
and streaming eyes, as I rested beneath the porch of the temple of
Adi Buddha Annando, by women who had been plundered of all they once
possessed, their children sold into slavery or tortured to death, their
habitations despoiled, merely because they happened to have property,
and presumed to live independently upon lands which their more powerful
neighbors coveted.

The greater number of these depredators were Siamese of influence,
who had enrolled themselves as Christians under the French or the
Portuguese flags, and unless the sufferer could claim the protection of
either the one or the other, it seemed a cruel mockery to refer them
for redress to any existing local authority, so long as P’haya Visate,
a high but unprincipled Roman Catholic dignitary, was the governor of
this district; and the saddest part of it all was, that the sufferers
themselves felt there was no use in applying for justice to him.

In talking with some Buddhist men and women who were land proprietors
in the vicinity, they told me that they were afraid of their Christian
brethren, and would not, if they could prevent it, permit them to lease
farms on their estates.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because, if they once get hold of a house or a farm, they manage in
time to turn us out.”

“But how?”

“Well, they lease small bits of land, year after year, expend money on
it, and then, when they have a sufficiently large plantation to settle
upon, they refuse to pay rent, go to law, and bring false witnesses
to prove they have purchased the land of the owners, while the local
authorities either take the part of the wrong-doers or imprison both
parties until they have squeezed all they can out of them. The Buddhist
does not dare,” said they, “to lay his hand upon the sacred tree[41]
and swear falsely, because the god who lives in it sees all, and he
dreads his vengeance. But the Christian may swear to as many lies as he
pleases, for the priests of the P’hra Jesu will give him absolution for
them. Where, then, is the harm to him?”

I observed among the crowd a highly respectable looking and handsomely
dressed woman, who sat apart, taking no share in the conversation, but
listening with apparent interest to all that was said. Her eyes were
very dark and very fine, but filled with rather a sad expression.

Towards evening she rose to go away, but, as if on second thought, she
turned to me and greeted me in a peculiarly sweet voice, that sounded
like music to my ears after all the voices of the crowd, inviting us to
go and take our evening meal at her house, to which she at once led the
way.

A narrow, gravelled walk led to the house, situated in a lovely garden,
and separated by a wilderness of wild plants and prickly-pears from the
neighboring Christian village. A long veranda with stone steps led down
to the gravelled path. Just in front stood an old banyan-tree, lusty
and burly in the full strength of its gnarled trunk, and vigorous, long
boughs and branches forming arched and leafy bowers all round it.

The pathway ran through a shrubbery luxuriant with oleanders,
jessamine, roses, laurel, and the Indian myrtle. Beneath these small
wild rabbits had formed a colony, and it was curious to see a leaf
moved upwards mysteriously, a head and ears protrude themselves, or
a tail and legs, and then disappear as suddenly. This road ran to a
great distance behind the house, and led through nearly three miles of
ground, laid out in sugar, rice, cocoanut, and tobacco plantations. A
small stream trickled through these, stagnating here and there into
deep, green pools.

In passing near one of these pools I noticed that my hostess turned
away her face, and in answer to my questions, she told me that it was
once a large tank, but was now called Tâlataie, the Pool of Death.
On further inquiry, I learned that this name had been given it from
a tragic circumstance which had happened in her family; that shortly
after her eldest daughter’s engagement to a young Siamese Christian,
the betrothed pair went out for a ramble along the banks of the
streamlet. Night descended, and the shadows deepened into midnight,
but her daughter and her lover did not return. At length her fears
were aroused, and the whole household set out with lanterns to search
the grounds; but nowhere could they find a trace of the absent couple
until morning dawned upon their fruitless search, when her daughter was
found lying on her face in the dark pool, stripped of all the beautiful
jewels in which she had arrayed herself on the previous evening; and
her Christian lover was never seen or heard of again. “But her spirit
still haunts the spot,” said the sad mother to me, “and on moonlight
nights I see her pale form floating in the pool and crying to us for
help.”

The lady then wiped away her tears with her black p’ha hom, or
scarf, and led us into the house. Her husband, a much older and more
melancholy-looking person, now appeared, and the slaves brought us a
great many delicacies on silver trays.

While we partook of them, our hostess asked me a number of questions
about my home, friends, children, and relatives. She then informed me
that her family now consisted of one son and a daughter, and that the
former was a Buddhist priest, serving in the very temple where she had
met me.

“Where is your daughter now?” I inquired.

She pointed to a window which opened into an inner chamber. I looked
in, and to my glad surprise saw seated on a low stool, holding an open
book in which she seemed wholly absorbed, the same girl who had so
attracted me on the Sunday evening previous.

Her face was very fine and seemingly full of spiritual beauty, and
her figure surpassingly beautiful. While we stood gazing at her, some
sudden and apparently painful emotion flitted rapidly across her face
as she read in the book, like the shadow of a dark cloud over the quiet
water.

The mother was silent, evidently making an effort to master the
feelings which this sight occasioned in her breast, so as to speak
calmly about it.

I sat down again, and inquired the name of the book in which her
daughter was so absorbed.

“It is a book called Beeble,” said the woman. “What kind of a book is
it?”

I assured her that it was a very good book, the Book above all others
ever printed; that her daughter did well to read it, and that it would
help to develop her into a lovely and beautiful character.

I then left my kind hostess, satisfied and yet saddened by my trip to
Tâmsèng.