The Digital Adventures

Love of Siam-CH09

Chapter 7A

Richard Burnaby, officer of the English East India Company, and George White, free trader and interloper, were at the dockside outside the south gate to Ayutthaya when White’s trading schooner Alicia arrived from Songkau. Among the few passengers who stepped ashore there came their friend from days past, but a friend they hardly recognized. Both men had to take a hard second look to make sure their eyes weren’t deceiving them. The man who stepped ashore was clean-shaven, his hair clipped short, his sideburns trimmed. He wore seaman clothes, those of an officer-a long blue waist coat, peaked blue cap and soft leather boots. Indeed, he looked quite debonair. Not even the devil himself would have recognized him for the man he had once been.

“Mr. Phaulkon, I assume,” George White said when the man stood before them. Phaulkon nodded and gave a customary salute. White continued: “My name is George White and this is Mr. Richard Burnaby from the East India Company.” It was all that he and Burnaby could do to keep a serious composure as they shook hands. They had to be commended. They had accomplished a remarkable feat and, beneath their exterior, they were quite proud. Mr. Phaulkon was even more respectable than they had ever imagined he could be. He carried his role smartly. He remained stern, his jaws set, and calmly he acknowledged he was their man. It was almost a bit unnerving that he had carried it out so well.

Their greeting at the dock was short, and with the turbaned Sikh guards in the lead, they started out for the city on foot. For Burnaby and White it was an ordinary walk. White had made it daily over the years, and some days several times. And Burnaby, too, in the six months that he had been in Ayutthaya, knew the walk well. But for Gerakis, now known as Phaulkon, it was something else. It had been a dream and now a dream had come true. He was alive, bursting inside with excitement. He was finally walking through the streets of the very city he had longed to visit for so many years. Beneath his long blue jacket his heart pounded, and not in fear this time but in joy. He wanted to shout at the top of his voice, and it was all he could do to act nonchalantly, like there was nothing unusual about him walking the streets of Ayutthaya. He gave the impression to those who watched the three men pass that he was none other than an officer reporting for duty. Nevertheless, his dream had come true and he wasn’t about to let anything pass without his noticing. Burnaby and White had to constantly pull at his arm to keep him moving.

Ayutthaya was everything that Phaulkon had envisioned and even more. Of course, he was fascinated by the splendor of the city, but it was not so much by the temples and their glitter, for that he had expected, as much as it was the trading that was going on, trading in the shops, in the alleyways, in the streets, in the open. In every direction he looked people were either buying or selling. The entire city was a grand bazaar shopping center. Everyone, man, woman and child were engaged in trade of one form or another. Never had he seen anything like it, neither in the streets of Calicut nor in the bazaars in Arab ports of the Middle East, or even in the bustling ports back in Genoa or Venice in Europe. Nowhere could compare to Ayutthaya. It was shopping unequalled anywhere in the world. The open-fronted shops were bulging with wares. He couldn’t help stopping, despite the other two trying to resist his interest from checking the merchandise. Bolts of fine silks from China, fine porcelain from Japan, bags of tea from the hills, sacks of spices that rendered up magnificent aromas, scented wood, elephant tusks in bundles and so many strange things he did not even know. There were woven mats and carpets, brass pots and trays, candlestick holders and hanging oil lamps. There were animal hides of deer and buffalo, stacked as high as one could reach. White saw him looking puzzled at the hides. “Everything that has a market is here in Ayutthaya, everything is that is, that’s saleable. All things saleable pass through Ayutthaya,” White said with pride.

“But hides-“

“Hides, you want to know why all the hides? It’s the Japanese,” he said. “The samurai in Japan make their armor from hides, everything. They buy up all the hides the Siamese can produce. The cows of Siam contribute to the Japanese war effort.”

Phaulkon was curious to hear more about the sale of hides but their conversation was cut short by a commotion up the street ahead of them. People on the street had moved back against the walls and into doorways to get out of the way. When the three men drew nearer they could see two Siamese soldiers holding an Arab by his outstretched arms while a third man was beating upon his back and head with a leather whip. Phaulkon was alarmed, and White could sense it. “Never mind,” White said. “The man standing in the background is the Phra Klang.’; Phaulkon took notice of the man. He was a big, heavy-set man with a protruding belly. He wore a silk penang with a fancy vest and a bright red sash that girded his waist.

“The Phra Klang?” Phaulkon asked. “Does that give him the right to whip a man?”

“With the Phra Klang, yes,” White answered stoically, and then in a calmer voice explained who the Phra Klang was. “Phra Klang is a tide granted to the king’s Minister of Trade. But the Portuguese have corrupted the name, and it became Barcalon.”

White turned to a bystander and asked why the Arab was being whipped.

“Phra Klang was inspecting goods being unloaded from ships, and he caught the Arab stealing,” the man said.

“It was probably the king’s goods, which makes it worse,” White added. “It seems the Barcalon ordered his guards to admonish him. It could be worse. That’s the price for getting caught.”

“He has to do it publicly?” Burnaby questioned.

“Yes, especially publicly,” White said. “Cruel, yes, but unjust, no. The Barcalon is a fair and a just man, especially with foreigners, and his own people respect him. Take a look at him-” they watched the Barcalon walk away followed by his retinue of assistants-“see how the people bow down as he passes. He’s just, but he doesn’t like to be crossed or cheated.”

The men had gone only a few paces when a white man accosted the Barcalon. By the looks of his dress, the man was obviously the captain of a vessel in port. They were close enough to hear the conversation. The Barcalon worked himself into an uproar. He spoke in Portuguese, clear and precise. “No, no, no,” he ranted. “No barter, only cash. And no loans. That’s final.” The captain backed off, threatened by the sight of the Barcalon’s men who took up positions at their master’s side. The captain stepped back and bowed.

“No offense, Sir,” he said. “No offense.” He watched as the Barcalon marched away followed by his men.

Rum flowed freely the night Phaulkon came to Ayutthaya. Every foreigner in the community, and many Siamese as well, came to meet the newest member of the English East India Company. Phaulkon greeted everyone warmly, addressing them in Greek and Italian, in Malay and Portuguese, and even in Siamese. He was graced with charm, and he spoke amicably well of the company he was about to work for. He joked that he reckoned in time he would have enemies among the gathered guests, and he hoped they would not be many. His jest brought laughter to the room. Phaulkon was pleased with himself, not with pride, but with satisfaction, like the trickster standing on a street corner who removed his hat and let a white dove fly away. Still, he couldn’t help feeling that this might not be real, that it might end as strangely as it began. There was the thought that someone out there might recognize him, and this bothered him. It may have been preposterous that he would feel this way, for who could possibly remember a ragged shipwrecked sailor, one of a crowd of men amongst the countless hundreds of drifters that descended upon the city. But he had his reason to feel the way he did. Buried deep in his breast was the memory of that dreadful, god-awful prison, and he wanted no part of it again. He studied with caution each face that came before him. They came singly and in pairs, some with handshakes, others with cupped hands, and still others who bowed graciously. He had to form assessments quickly. McManus he had already met, but with men like Samuel Potts whom he had heard so much about, he had to be discreet. He was cautious of the French officers in uniform, and the Dutch merchants with their air of superiority. He knew the manners and foibles of the Arabs in their long robes. He spoke kindly to the Catholic priests, lauded the Chinese merchants and praised the Japanese men in their splendid silk robes. Phaulkon would hardly remember all their names let alone their faces, but among all those people he met that night, he was most intrigued by one man in particular. He was Japanese. He stood out like a goldfish in a pond of guppies. He was dressed as a samurai, with a scowl upon his face like he had just beheaded his enemy, but he was without his sword.

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