Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 5 Mishap on the River

A few days later we entered a high gorge bracketed by towering walls of rock on both sides, the river frothing white and swift. The punters had to strain hard against the current to keep the barges moving against the current, with Petch’s barge about fifty yards in the lead. The punters, besides submerged rocks, also had to beware of branches and tree trunks that were swirling hell-bent to reach the great mother of waters.

For the passengers it was like hurtling along in a runaway carriage, or being tossed like a cork in the ocean. The women sat huddled together in the cabin, white-faced in terror, while I stood on the bow keeping lookout.

Suddenly a large tree trunk with scraggly branches loomed ahead on a collision course with our flotilla. The punters on the leading barge shouted a warning to the steersman, who leaned on the tiller with all his might to avoid a collision, veering the barge away from the log just in time to scrape through without mishap.
The second barge, in which we were traveling, was not so lucky. There was a loud thud as the whirling trunk slammed into the barge, the great log continuing to swirl past us, raking us with its branches. The barge shuddered and started taking in water through a hole ripped in the bow. The women screamed as one, scrambling out of the cabin onto to the deck and jumping into the water, though none of them could swim. They began floundering about in the churning bath, the air filled with their cries, trying to save themselves by clinging onto anything afloat.

I hesitated for a second, determined that the barge had had it, shucked off my coat, and dived into the water. I saw Anne Taylor floundering around, swam to her and grabbed hold of her by the waist.

“Be still, or we’ll both drown!” I shouted. She was terrified and kept flailing around. I shook her hard, bringing her to her senses, and dragged her to one of the Moors’ barges which had come level to us. The punters pulled us up onto the barge.

Petch had also dived into the water and swam back to rescue Maria Osaki. She had swallowed several mouthfuls of water and was failing about. He dragged her towards another barge and the punters hauled them up to safety. The bargemen had also succeeded in fishing out the other women and pulling them on board.

When everyone had been accounted for, we decided to set up camp and attempt to recover the baggage from the hold of the sunken barge, which took several hours and much effort, and then set up camp for the night.

The next day Petch made room for the women and me on his barge. As we set off the women were still nervous because of dunking in the river.

“I thought I was going to die,” Ann Taylor said. “When we panicked and jumped into the river, I felt rushing cold water envelop me, swallowing me, sucking me under, and twisting me in circles, then propelling me up to the surface. I could only gulp a single breath of air. A gasp and I was under again.”

“I apologize for having slapped you,” I said.

“You did? I don’t even remember. Anyway, if you hadn’t come to my aid, I would have drowned.” She didn’t remember the slap, but I remembered it vividly.

“I could feel the undertow dragging me down,” Hanna said. “My arms and feet felt leaden against the pressure of the whirlpool. I was afraid, yet strangely felt resigned to a watery grave.”

“I owe my life to Luang Petch,” Maria Osaki said. “When I jumped into the water, panic gripped me. I felt my body chilled to the bone, as if my legs and chest were filled with ice. All I could think was that I was going to drown.”

“It was lucky that I was able to catch onto one of the punter’s poles,” Mrs. Tuttie said. “I was praying so hard...”

“Where did you learn to speak French and Portuguese?” Mrs. Tuttie asked Petch.

“My parents sent me to serve Pra Narai as a royal page. When I was thirteen the King chose me as one of the boys to attend the Catholic seminary at Louvo to learn the religion of the foreigners. Here I studied Latin and Portuguese.”

“A few years later, Pra Narai again selected me and five other boys to attend the College of Louis the Great in Paris, to be educated as Frenchmen. We were boarded at the homes of affluent French families, and all our expenses were paid for by the French missionaries. When I returned to Siam after completing my studies, Pra Narai appointed me a third class mandarin with the title Luang. My duties were to train Siamese troops in the French model and in the use of their latest weaponry.”

“My French father, Monsieur Bailly, was a successful Paris merchant. I lived with him and his family for several years. They christened me Jean Baptiste, and showered on me nothing but kindness. They had a sixteen year old daughter, Catherine, very beautiful and very devout. She was tall, slender, fair and blue-eyed. I fell in love with her at first sight, but she didn’t even know I was alive. One day, after I had been living in her house for two years and spoke French quite well, I caught her alone in the upstairs corridor.

“I love you madly.” I blurted, in my schoolboy way, blocking her passage with outstretched arms. “Won’t you even say good day to me?”

“Good day,” Catherine said. “Now, please let me proceed, or I shall report your abominable behavior to Monsieur Bailly.”

“I demand a kiss from you before I’ll let you proceed,” I said, bringing my face close to hers. I could smell the rosewater she wore.

“If you insist on behaving childishly and forcing your kiss on me as the price of letting me go, I should have to comply, under protest,” she said softly.

I pressed my burning lips to hers and felt ecstasy I’d never known before, or since. At that instant I heard soft footfalls and supposed it was the upstairs maid approaching, so let her go. Catherine quickly crossed herself and ran downstairs. But she didn’t snitch on me to her father, though I never caught her alone again. Several months later she got her wish and went to a convent.” Petch laughed heartily at the recollection.

“All I got from her was one kiss, which shall have to last for a lifetime,” Petch said, laughing. “And a crucifix, which she gave me as a memento before she left for the convent, as much as to say I had been forgiven.” He pulled out the crucifix from under his tunic and showed it to the ladies.

On the tenth day of the journey we finally reached Jalinga, where the river became too shallow for us to continue on the barges. The bargemen were dismissed and sedan chairs and bullock carts were hired to take us the remainder of the journey across the mountains down to the Gulf of Siam. Petch asked the governor of the town for a couple of elephants to transport the royal revenues. After a night’s rest, the governor providing accommodations for the European ladies while the rest of us slept in a temple, or wat, we set off along the jungle trail. Petch and Maria Osaki led the way seated in a howdah perched on the back of an elephant, the second elephant carrying the royal treasury chests, guarded by the Siamese soldiers. The ladies followed in sedan chairs, and last came the creaking, heavy-laden bullock carts of the Moorish merchants. Soon the usually quiet trail was filled with the groaning of the carts, the lowing of the bullocks, and mingled every now and then with the shouts of the Indian palanquin-bearers, who had the worst of it, urging each other on with: “Go on, brothers, we shall soon get there.”

We headed east through the mountains towards the Gulf of Siam. While Petch and Osaki led the way on an elephant, Anne Taylor and I shared the back of a cart where we made room to lie down among our baggage. And so the overland leg of the journey, which lasted several days, passed pleasantly enough.

At last the low mountains of the isthmus gave way to a fertile coastal plain and we soon reached Peranne, where we found a junk to take us the rest of the way to the capital. With a favorable blind blowing, we soon arrived at the mouth of the river Chao Praya, and, after waiting for high tide to cross the mud bar, proceeded to the royal custom house at Ban Chao Praya where the Moorish merchants were made to pay duties on their goods. We then proceeded up the river to Ayuttaya.

This river, twice as wide as the Thames, called the Menam by the Siamese, the Mother of Waters, rolled down from the far north of the country like the torrent of broken souls—bearing teak logs and mud and drowned bodies. The river was a wide and winding channel of clear, fresh water, both banks covered with thick vegetation. There were whole stretches of virgin forest, the haunt of tigers and deer, with no sign of human habitation. It took us the best part of a day to reach Bangkok, a settlement of houseboats and huts clustered around a white fortress where we stopped to buy fresh fruits and meat, and break our journey for the night. The capital was still another 20 leagues and half a day’s journey up river.

The next day, as we neared the capital, little communities clustered around brightly roofed temples and golden spires became increasingly more frequent. We often saw little boats rowed by talapoins in bright saffron robes collecting alms, and swift canoes carrying half naked men and women dipping their oars in unison. Both the men and women wore their hair short, making it difficult to differentiate between the two from a distance.

As we neared the city, the river banks were lined with rows of thatched bamboo huts built on piles. Boats of all types became more numerous; sometimes we passed a junk heading out to sea, or a heavily-laden Dutch carrack heading for Batavia. When we arrived at the Portuguese settlement Petch and I bade a fond farewell to the Portuguese ladies and promised to visit them at the first opportunity. The ladies and their baggage were then transferred to country boats which rowed them to their houses.

At the Dutch warehouse, within sight of the walls of the city, Hannah hired a boat to take her to her husband, a trader with the Dutch East Indies Company. It was here that I bade a fond adieu Anne Taylor, promising to look her up sometime.
I now had my first glimpse of the storied city of Ayuttaya, situated on an island in the Chao Praya River. Ocean-going three-masters and junks were berthed in the spacious pool formed by the commingling of the waters of two rivers at the southern side of the city. A forest of ships’ masts lined the wharfs; long rows of warehouses jostled cheek by jowl for every available space. To the left of the warehouses was a large white bastion, Petchra Fort, the parapets lined with cannons. And stretching all around the island we saw the pristine white walls of the city and the soaring golden spires and temple roofs glinting in the afternoon the sun.

Our junk had just berthed when the cannons of the fort began firing steadily, one loud roll of thunder following another in quick succession, sending black clouds of smoke billowing over the fort.

“What are they firing at?” I asked Petch. “Surely they can’t be firing at us. It’s hardly believable that I started and ended my journey to Ayuttaya accompanied by the thunderous roar of cannons!”

I had at last, I felt, arrived at my heart’s destination, a land of sunlit temples and palaces.

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