The Digital Adventures

Love of Siam-CH24

Chapter 16B
New Foreign Trade Minister

The following day, after disrupting the king’s party and causing him embarrassment, Sorasak hurriedly left Ayutthaya, until things cooled off as General Phetracha insisted. It was then that Phaulkon told Marie and her father about his appointment to serve the king.

The swearing in ceremony took place two weeks after the birthday party. It was held at the Royal Reception House in Louvo. The Barcalon did the honors of presenting Phaulkon to the king who sat behind a shuttered window on a balcony at one end of the hall. Guests arrived first through an inner courtyard and then a second courtyard, both of which were flanked by white tiled walls with niches that held delicately sculpted Chinese porcelains. Guests included George White and his brother Samuel White who came up especially for the occasion from Mergui, Richard Burnaby, French and Portuguese missionaries, officers from both EiC and VOC, and ministers and court officials. It was early morning and still cool within the palace walls. The entire assembly lay prostrate on a carpeted floor beneath the balcony. The foreign officers wore white uniforms of their rank, the Barcalon and Siamese in their rich robes, and Phaulkon in the official costume of the Court of Siam, a brocade robe and a conical hat with gold rings on it, denoting his new rank.

Trumpets and gongs sounded and the shuttered window above slowly opened. King Narai was disclosed in full view. A court officer, on hands and knees, approached the king from the side. In his hand was a scroll which he presented to His Majesty. The king unrolled the scroll, scanned it quickly and with his ring affixed his mark at the bottom of the scroll. Then the officer came down from the balcony via a narrow stairway and in a loud voice for all to hear read from the scroll. “The tide of nobility is hereby bestowed upon Constantine Phaulkon,” he read. “You now have the tide of Nobility of Luang Wijawendra, Superintendent of Foreign Trade.”

The shutters dosed, the officer rolled up the scroll, and as everyone was departing he told Phaulkon to follow him. He led Phaulkon to the king’s private chambers. For the first time Phaulkon met His Majesty, King Narai of Siam, face to face. The king sat on a carved bench trimmed in gold with a servant at each side fanning him. Phaulkon fell to the floor, prostrated himself before the king, his arms stretched out before him, palms up, his forehead touching the floor, He did exactly as his teacher Thamnon taught him to do. The king then ordered Phaulkon to rise. He did, to a kneeling position. He looked up upon the king.

How much different the king appeared than he did that first time when Phaulkon saw him and General Phetracha astride their elephants returning from a hunt in the forest. Phaulkon was taken aback by his kindly face, not as stern as he expected. His jaws were firmly set, his hair very dark and thick. But it was his eyes that caught Phaulkon’s attention. They were piercing and Phaulkon found it hard, if not impossible, to stare directly at him. The king quickly put him at ease. He explained to Phaulkon that this position of Luang Wijawendra gave him control over all the royal monopolies. “In other words,” the king said, speaking in royal court language, “all commercial transactions with foreigners now have to pass through your hands, as Superintendent of Foreign Trade.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” Phaulkon replied, in the same royal tongue.

King Narai was satisfied. The expression on his face registered his pleasure. He asked Phaulkon a few general questions, a few mundane things, things that he probably already knew. He explained to Phaulkon that he was to report to him every afternoon and then dismissed him.

The first chance Phaulkon had he went to visit his teacher, Thamnon. He wanted so badly to be the one to tell his teacher the news. But there was no need. Thamnon already knew, “The whole kingdom knows,” he said to Phaulkon. When he saw the sad look on his star pupil’s face, he continued. “I can see your disappointment. You wanted to tell me. I laud you. And I congratulate you. The news of your appointment has reached all corners of the kingdom. Your worthiness precedes you.”

“And how do the people feel about this, me a farang being given such an important position in the king’s court?” Phaulkon asked. “The people are not opposed, since their king decreed it, but foreigners in Ayutthaya are uncertain. They fear you might be a traitor to them and to the West.”

“I knew this would happen,” Phaulkon replied. “To the English I will always be that upstart cabin boy.” He then laughed it off and quickly brought up the subject of the Chinese in Ayutthaya. It was something that puzzled him ever since he stepped foot in the kingdom. “Why is it that foreigners are called farangs and yet the Siamese don’t call Chinese farangs?”

“It’s not a derogatory term,” Thamnon said. “Would you rather they called you ‘foreign devil’ as the Chinese call all Europeans.” Phaulkon preferred “farang.”

Phaulkon then asked Thamnon why the Chinese in Siam were so successful. “The Chinese make up an important segment of the community,” he said. “They are mostly engaged in trade between China and Siam. Every year they bring as many as twenty junks laden with all the finest goods of China and Japan. Chinese merchants have very well-established relationships with their clients.”

The answer didn’t satisfy Phaulkon. He asked again why they were successful. Thamnon smiled. “You are a keen observer. You asked and I will be frank. The secret is the Chinese do not look for fame like the Westerners do. For the Chinese, it’s fortune not fame they seek. They marry Siamese women, adopt the ways of the Siamese, and they blend into Siamese society. They do not find it necessary to stand out from the crowd as you Europeans do. Nor are they boastful. Asians respect Europeans for their knowledge of science and progress but not for their culture. They find Europeans are barbarians, hair-covered ‘foreign devils’; they are crude and unmannered. They wear the same garments day in and day out; they do not bathe and they smell. To the Asian, all foreigners look alike and Asians cannot tell them apart, and they read from the wrong side of the book.”

He continued like an alarm clock that wouldn’t stop ringing. “Europeans are merely tolerated,” he reiterated, “and because they are ignorant and don’t know any better, they are excused for their mistakes and misbehavior. As long as they remain foreigners, and do not try to emulate the Siamese, no one cares. When they try to become Siamese, their troubles will begin.”

“Then I can never be Siamese,” Phaulkon said sadly.

“Correct, you must not pretend, and that is most important,” he said. “You see, it as a matter of culture. European and Siamese cultures are so widely different that neither side really understands what they are experiencing. Certainly Europeans have no knowledge or even understanding at all about Siamese cultural concepts or how such concepts translate into the physical manifestations which they think they understand by mere observation rather than through experience. Europeans return home and write about the gilded finery of the king and his court, of riches and contrasts between the royalty and the nobility, about the differences among the commoners and slaves. It is quite plain, however, that the writers understand little of what they are writing about.”

Phaulkon had one final question he wanted to ask Thamnon before he left. He wanted his teacher’s advice about Marie. How could he win her favor?

“Now that you are a man of rank,” Thamnon began, “Mr. Fanique will accept you. But you must not take things for granted. You must go see him and state your desire.” He hesitated, and then said, “But you must be certain of that desire. Is Marie what you really want, or was she the unattainable that you desired?”

“I want her for what she is,” Phaulkon replied, “and not for what I am. I have not loved another woman as I do her.”

“Then do what you heart tells you,” Thamnon said. “If you were Asian I would not give you the same advice, but you are not Asian. You are what you were born and nothing can change that. But do not fret, my friend. We Asians can never fathom the Western concept of love. You love this woman, so do what you must, but beware.”

The next morning Phaulkon rode to the house of Fanique in a carriage from the royal court. A servant opened the door and led Phaulkon to the courtyard, and there stood Fanique, dressed as a Samurai, his legs were apart, and around his waist was a wide sash; his vest was open down the front exposing his chest. With both hands in a tight grip he clutched his sword. It appeared to be longer than he was tall. Its blade glistened. He said nothing, but stared coldly ahead, looking directly at Phaulkon. This time he didn’t let out a loud ear-piercing yell, nor did he leap forward toward Phaulkon, swishing the sword around above his head. He lowered the sword to his side, like a man defeated in battle. “You come to see me about Marie,” he said. “I expected you.”

“Yes, that is why I came,” he answered. “I ask for Marie’s hand in marriage.”

Fanique showed no anger this time. He gently placed his sword into its scabbard, and very politely addressed Phaulkon. “I am Marie’s father,” he began, “and as her father, and knowing her as I do, better than any man, I am the best judge of who she should and who she should not marry. I must explain that my family, of which Marie is a member, is very devout Catholics and because of our beliefs and refusal to change we were exiled from our own land. Never, as long as I am alive, will Marie marry a non-Catholic.”

Phaulkon realized at that moment he was confronted with an issue that Fanique would die defending, and there was no use trying to convince him otherwise. Fanique was aware that he could no longer offend Phaulkon, so he asked him if he would agree to become a Catholic. Phaulkon could not answer.

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