The English Governess at the Siamese Court

The author recounts her adventures with the King of Siam

In 1825, a royal prince of Siam (his birthright wrested from him, and his life imperilled) took refuge in a Buddhist monastery and assumed the yellow garb of a priest. His father, commonly known as Phen den-Klang, first or supreme king of Siam, had just died, leaving this prince, Chowfa Mongkut, at the age of twenty, lawful heir to the crown; for he was the eldest son of the acknowledged queen, and therefore by courtesy and honored custom, if not by absolute right, the legitimate successor to the throne of the Phra-batts (the Golden-footed). But he had an elder half-brother, who, through the intrigues of his mother, had already obtained control of the royal treasury, and now, with the connivance, if not by authority, of the Senabawdee, the Grand Council of the kingdom, proclaimed himself king, under the title of Phra-chow-Phra-sat-thong. He had the grace, however, to promise his plundered brother—such royal promises being a cheap form of propitiation in Siam—to hold the reins of government only until Chowfa Mongkut should be of years and strength and skill to manage them. But, once firmly seated on the throne, the usurper saw in his patient but proud and astute kinsman only a hindrance and a peril in the path of his own cruder and fiercer aspirations. Hence the forewarning and the flight, the cloister and the yellow robes. And so the usurper continued to reign, unchallenged by any claim from the king that should be, until March,1851, when, a mortal illness having overtaken him, he convoked the Grand Council of princes and nobles around his couch, and proposed his favorite son as his successor. Then the safe asses of the court kicked the dying lion with seven words of sententious scorn,—“The crown has already its rightful owner”; whereupon Phra-chow-Phra-sat-thong literally cursed himself to death; for it was almost in the convulsion of his chagrin and rage that he came to his end, on the 3d of April.

In Siam there is no such personage as an heir apparent to the throne, in the definite meaning and positive value which attaches to that phrase in Europe,—no prince with an absolute and exclusive title, by birth, adoption, or nomination, to succeed to the crown. And while it is true that the eldest living son of a Siamese sovereign by his queen or queen consort is recognized by all custom, ancient and modern, as the probable successor to the high seat of his royal sire, he cannot be said to have a clear and indefeasible right to it, because the question of his accession has yet to be decided by the electing voice of the Senabawdee, the Grand Council of the realm, in whose judgment he may be ineligible, by reason of certain physical, mental, or moral disabilities,—as extreme youth, effeminacy, imbecility, intemperance, profligacy. Nevertheless, the election is popularly expected to result in the choice of the eldest son of the queen, though an interregnum or a regency is a contingency by no means unusual.

It was in view of this jurisdiction of the Senabawdee, exercised in deference to a just and honored custom, that the voice of the oracle fell upon the ear of the dying monarch with a disappointing and offensive significance; for he well knew who was meant by the “rightful owner” of the crown. Hardly had he breathed his last when, in spite of the busy intrigues of his eldest son (whom we find described in the Bangkok Recorder of July 26, 1866, as “most honorable and promising”), in spite of the bitter vexation of his lordship Chow-Phya Sri Surry Wongse, so soon to be premier, the prince Chowfa Mongkut doffed his sacerdotal robes, emerged from his cloister, and was crowned, with the title of Somedtch-Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut.*(Duke, and royal bearer of the great crown)

For twenty-five years had the true heir to the throne of the Phra-batts, patiently biding his time, lain perdu in his monastery, diligently devoting himself to the study of Sanskrit, Bali, theology, history, geology, chemistry, and especially astronomy. He was a familiar visitor at the houses of the American missionaries, two of whom (Dr. House and Mr. Mattoon) were, throughout his reign and life, gratefully revered by him for that pleasant and profitable converse which helped to unlock to him the secrets of European vigor and advancement, and to make straight and easy the paths of knowledge he had started upon. Not even the essential arrogance of his Siamese nature could prevent him from accepting cordially the happy influences these good and true men inspired; and doubtless he would have gone more than half-way to meet them, but for the dazzle of the golden throne in the distance, which arrested him midway between Christianity and Buddhism, between truth and delusion, between light and darkness, between life and death.

     In the Oriental tongues this progressive king was eminently proficient; and toward priests, preachers, and teachers, of all creeds, sects, and sciences, an enlightened exemplar of tolerance. It was likewise his peculiar vanity to pass for an accomplished English scholar, and to this end he maintained in his palace at Bangkok a private printing establishment, with fonts of English type, which, as may be perceived presently, he was at no loss to keep in “copy.” Perhaps it was the printing-office which suggested, quite naturally, an English governess for the elite of his wives and concubines, and their offspring,—in number amply adequate to the constitution of a royal school, and in material most attractively fresh and romantic. Happy thought! Wherefore, behold me, just after sunset on a pleasant day in April,1862 on the threshold of the outer court of the Grand Palace, accompanied by my own brave little boy, and escorted by a compatriot.

     A flood of light sweeping through the spacious Hall of Audience displayed a throng of noblemen in waiting. None turned a glance, or seemingly a thought, on us, and, my child being tired and hungry, I urged Captain B to present us without delay. At once we mounted the marble steps, and entered the brilliant hall unannounced. Ranged on the carpet were many prostrate, mute, and motionless forms, over whose heads to step was a temptation as drolly natural as it was dangerous. His Majesty spied us quickly, and advanced abruptly, petulantly screaming, “Who? Who? Who?

     Captain B— (who, by the by, is a titled nobleman of Siam) introduced me as the English governess, engaged for the royal family. The king shook hands with us, and immediately proceeded to march up and down in quick step, putting one foot before the other with mathematical precision, as if under drill. “Forewarned, forearmed,” my friend whispered that I should prepare myself for a sharp cross-questioning as to my age, my husband, children, and other strictly personal concerns. Suddenly his Majesty, having cogitated sufficiently in his peculiar manner, with one long final stride halted in front of us, and, pointing straight at me with his forefinger, asked, “How old shall you be?”

     Scarcely able to repress a smile at a proceeding so absurd, and with my sex’s distaste for so serious a question, I demurely replied, “One hundred and fifty years old.”

     Had I made myself much younger, he might have ridiculed or assailed me; but now he stood surprised and embarrassed for a few moments, then resumed his quick march, and at last, beginning to perceive the jest, coughed, laughed, coughed again, and then in a high, sharp key asked, “In what year were you borned?”

     Instantly I “struck” a mental balance, and answered, as gravely as I could, “In 1788.”

     At this point the expression of his Majesty’s face was indescribably comical. Captain B slipped behind a pillar to laugh; but the king only coughed, with a significant emphasis that startled me, and addressed a few words to his prostrate courtiers, who smiled at the carpet,—all except the prime minister, who turned to look at me. But his Majesty was not to be baffled so: again he marched with vigor, and then returned to the attack with Elan.

     “How many years shall you be married?”

     “For several years, your Majesty.”

     He fell into a brown study; then suddenly rushed at me, and demanded triumphantly—

     “Ha! How many grandchildren shall you now have? Ha! ha! How many? How many? Ha! ha! ha!”

     Of course we all laughed with him; but the general hilarity admitted of a variety of constructions.

     Then suddenly he seized my hand, and dragged me, nolens volens, my little Louis holding fast by my skirt, through several sombre passages along which crouched duennas, shrivelled and grotesque, and many youthful women, covering their faces, as if blinded by the splendor of the passing Majesty. At length he stopped before one of the many-curtained recesses, and, drawing aside the hangings, disclosed a lovely, childlike form. He stooped and took her hand (she naively hiding her face), and placing it in mine, said: “This is my wife, the Lady T. She desires to be educated in English. She is as renowned for her talents as for her beauty, and it is our pleasure to make her a good English scholar. You shall educate her for me.”

     I replied that the office would give me much pleasure; for nothing could be more eloquently winning than the modest, timid bearing of that tender young creature in the presence of her lord. She laughed low and pleasantly as he translated my sympathetic words to her, and seemed so enraptured with the graciousness of his act that I took my leave of her with a sentiment of profound pity.

     He led me back by the way we had come; and now we met many children, who put my patient boy to much childish torture for the gratification of their startled curiosity.

     “I have sixty-seven children,” said his Majesty, when we had returned to the Audience Hall. “You shall educate them; and as many of my wives, likewise, as may wish to learn English. And I have much correspondence in which you must assist me. And, moreover, I have much difficulty for reading and translating French letters; for French are fond of using gloomily deceiving terms. You must undertake; and you shall make all their murky sentences and gloomily deceiving propositions clear to me. And, furthermore, I have by every mail many foreign letters whose writing is not easily read by me. You shall copy on round hand, for my readily perusal thereof.”

     Nil desperandum; but I began by despairing of my ability to accomplish tasks so multifarious. I simply bowed, however, and so dismissed myself for that evening.

     When next I “interviewed” the king, I was accompanied by the premier’s sister, a fair and pleasant woman, whose whole stock of English was, “Good morning, sir”; and with this somewhat irrelevant greeting, a dozen times in an hour, though the hour were night, she relieved her pent-up feelings, and gave expression to her sympathy and regard for me. We found his Majesty in a less genial mood than at my first reception. He approached us coughing loudly and repeatedly, a sufficiently ominous fashion of announcing himself, which greatly discouraged my darling boy, who clung to me anxiously. He was followed by a numerous “tail” of women and children, who presently prostrated themselves around him. Shaking hands with me coldly, but remarking upon the beauty of the child’s hair, half buried in the folds of my dress, he turned to the premier’s sister, and conversed at some length with her, she apparently acquiescing in all that he had to say. He then approached me, and said, in a loud and domineering tone,—

     “It is our pleasure that you shall reside within this palace with our family.”

     I replied that it would be quite impossible for me to do so; that, being as yet unable to speak the language, and the gates being shut every evening, I should feel like an unhappy prisoner in the palace.

     “Where do you go every evening?” he demanded.

     “Not anywhere, your Majesty. I am a stranger here.”

     “Then why you shall object to the gates being shut?”

     “I do not clearly know,” I replied, with a secret shudder at the idea of sleeping within those walls; “but I am afraid I could not do it. I beg your Majesty will remember that in your gracious letter you promised me ‘a residence adjoining the royal palace,’ not within it.”

     He turned and looked at me, his face growing almost purple with rage. “I do not know I have promised. I do not know former condition. I do not know anything but you are our servant; and it is our pleasure that you must live in this palace, and you shall obey.” Those last three words he fairly screamed.

     I trembled in every limb, and for some time knew not how to reply. At length I ventured to say: “I am prepared to obey all your Majesty’s commands, within the obligation of my duty to your family; but beyond that I can promise no obedience.”

     “You shall live in palace,” he roared,—“you shall live in palace. I will give woman slaves to wait on you. You shall commence royal school in this pavilion on Thursday next. That is the best day for such undertaking, in the estimation of our astrologers.”

     With that, he addressed, in a frantic manner, commands, unintelligible to me, to some of the old women about the pavilion. My boy began to cry; tears filled my own eyes; and the premier’s sister, so kind but an hour before, cast fierce glances at us both. I turned and led my child toward the oval brass door. We heard voices behind us crying, “Mam! Mam!” I turned again, and saw the king beckoning and calling to me. I bowed to him profoundly, but passed on through the brass door. The prime minister’s sister rushed after us in a distraction of excitement, tugging at my cloak, shaking her finger in my face, and crying, “My di! my di!” *(Bad, bad!) All the way back, in the boat, and on the street, to the very door of my apartments, instead of her jocund “Good morning, sir,” I had nothing but my di.

     But kings who are not mad have their sober second thoughts like other rational people. His Golden-footed Majesty presently repented him of his arbitrary “cantankerousness,” and in due time my ultimatum was accepted.

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