The English Governess at the Siamese Court

The author recounts her adventures with the King of Siam

     About a year later, when I had been permanently installed in my double office of teacher and scribe, I was one day busy with a letter from his Majesty to the Earl of Clarendon, and finding that any attempt at partial correction would but render his meaning more ambiguous, and impair the striking originality of his style, I had abandoned the effort, and set about copying it with literal exactness, only venturing to alter here and there a word, such as “I hasten with wilful pleasure to write in reply to your Lordship’s well-wishing letter,” etc. Whilst I was thus evolving from the depths of my inner consciousness a satisfactory solution to this conundrum in King’s English, his Majesty’s private secretary lolled in the sunniest corner of the room, stretching his dusky limbs and heavily nodding, in an ecstasy of ease-taking. Poor Phra-Alack! I never knew him to be otherwise than sleepy, and his sleep was always stolen. For his Majesty was the most capricious of kings as to his working moods,—busy when the average man should be sleeping, sleeping while letters, papers, despatches, messengers, mail-boats waited. More than once had we been aroused at dead of night by noisy female slaves, and dragged in hot haste and consternation to the Hall of Audience, only to find that his Majesty was, not at his last gasp, as we had feared, but simply bothered to find in Webster’s Dictionary some word that was to be found nowhere but in his own fertile brain; or perhaps in excited chase of the classical term for some trifle he was on the point of ordering from London,—and that word was sure to be a stranger to my brain.

     Before my arrival in Bangkok it had been his not uncommon practice to send for a missionary at midnight, have him beguiled or abducted from his bed, and conveyed by boat to the palace, some miles up the river, to inquire if it would not be more elegant to write murky instead of obscure, or gloomily dark rather than not clearly not clearly apparent. And if the wretched man should venture to declare his honest preference for the ordinary over the extraordinary form of expression, he was forthwith dismissed with irony, arrogance, or even insult, and without a word of apology for the rude invasion of his rest.

     One night, a little after twelve o’clock, as he was on the point of going to bed like any plain citizen of regular habits, his Majesty fell to thinking how most accurately to render into English the troublesome Siamese word phi, which admits of a variety of interpretations. *(Ghost, spirit, soul, devil, evil angel) After puzzling over it for more than an hour, getting himself possessed with the word as with the devil it stands for, and all to no purpose, he ordered one of his lesser state barges to be manned and despatched with all speed for the British consul. That functionary, inspired with lively alarm by so startling a summons, dressed himself with unceremonious celerity, and hurried to the palace, conjecturing on the way all imaginable possibilities of politics and diplomacy, revolution or invasion. To his vexation, not less than his surprise, he found the king seated in dishabille, with a Siamese-English vocabulary, mentally divided between “deuce” and “devil,” in the choice of an equivalent. His preposterous Majesty gravely laid the case before the consul, who, though inwardly chafing at what he termed “the confounded coolness” of the situation, had no choice but to decide with grace, and go back to bed with philosophy.

     No wonder, then, that Phra-Alack experienced an access of gratitude for the privilege of napping for two hours in a snuggery of sunshine.

     “Mam-Kha,” *(Kha, your slave) he murmured drowsily, “I hope that in the Chat-Nah (The next state of existence) I shall be a freed man.”

     “I hope so sincerely, Phra-Alack,” said I. “I hope you’11 be an Englishman or an American, for then you’11 be sure to be independent.”

     It was impossible not to pity the poor old man,—stiff with continual stooping to his task, and so subdued!—liable not only to be called at any hour of the day or night, but to be threatened, cuffed, kicked, beaten on the head, in every way abused and insulted, and the next moment to be taken into favor, confidence, bosom-friendship, even as his Majesty’s mood might veer.

     Alack for Phra-Alack! though usually he bore with equal patience his greater and his lesser ills, there were occasions that sharply tried his meekness, when his weak and goaded nature revolted, and he rushed to a snug little home of his own, about forty yards from the Grand Palace, there to snatch a respite of rest and refreshment in the society of his young and lately wedded wife. Then the king would awake and send for him, whereupon he would be suddenly ill, or not at home, strategically hiding himself under a mountain of bedclothes, and detailing Mrs. Phra-Alack to reconnoitre and report. He had tried this primitive trick so often that its very staleness infuriated the king, who invariably sent officers to seize his trembling accomplice and lock her up in a dismal cell, as a hostage for the scribe’s appearance. At dusk the poor fellow would emerge, contrite and terrified, and prostrate himself at the gate of the palace. Then his Majesty (who, having spies posted in every quarter of the town, knew as well as Phra-Alack himself what the illness or the absence signified) leisurely strolled forth, and, finding the patient on the threshold, flew always into a genuine rage, and prescribed “decapitation on the spot,” and “sixty lashes on the bare back,” both in the same breath. And while the attendants flew right and left,—one for the blade, another for the

thong,—the king, still raging, seized whatever came most handy, and belabored his bosom-friend on the head and shoulders. Having thus summarily relieved his mind, he despatched the royal secretary for his ink-horn and papyrus, and began inditing letters, orders, appointments, before scymitar or lash (which were ever tenderly slow on these occasions) had made its appearance. Perhaps in the very thick of his dictating he would remember the connubial accomplice, and order his people to “release her, and let her go.”

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In