The Digital Adventures

Love of Siam-CH47

Chapter 27A

One morning, while Phaulkon was playing with his son before going to his office, a servant announced two visitors were at the door. Phaulkon said to bring them in. Abu Omar appeared and with him was a Muslim boy. Phaulkon learned the boy was a Makassar, hired by Abu to spy for him.

The boy informed Phaulkon that the rebels were concerned that their camp might be discovered and they saw the need to recruit more followers as soon as possible and strike while time was in their favor. Phaulkon knew rebel tactics. Unlike the Siamese and the Burmese who liked to amass their army in full view of the enemy and put fright into them, rebels used the hide tactic and charged when least expected. Phaulkon was certain the boy was telling the truth.

“What about a man named Mosafat? Is he there in the camp?” Phaulkon asked.

“He is there, with Mohammed Bakar. They are both there. They argue a lot,” the boy replied. “Mosafat says he will fight to his death.” Phaulkon didn’t need the boy to tell him that. The boy had little else to report. Phaulkon took some coins from his desk, handed them to Abu and thanked them both. He saw them to the door.

Phaulkon went immediately to see the king and found His Majesty surrounded by young musicians and dancers performing a play. It was nothing unusual. The king often surrounded himself with artists, poets and writers. Phaulkon was rushed but he soon found himself mesmerized as he watched a group of young players performing for the king. He soon forgot his mission and, unnoticed by the king, he sat with a group of players and watched the rehearsals. A dancer wearing a pagoda-like conical silver headpiece leaped to center stage. He was marvelous to watch and his performance brought great pleasure to the king. He wore a necklace of many-stranded beads of silver and ivory that fell across his naked torso. The beaten-silver epaulets on his biceps were so designed that they clanged with the slightest movement of his arms, and hollow silver anklets filled with silver beads rattled with each step he took. He spun about with sudden leaps, twisting and turning as he did, creating splendid geometric patterns. The sudden right and left turns of his head made Phaulkon dizzy to watch him. He was a storyteller. He would stop abruptly and begin telling his story by singing descriptive passages which he enacted with spurts of dancing.

The king was not a mere spectator wanting to be entertained. He liked to interact with the players, asking them questions, offering them advice. Often, when Phaulkon went to see the king, he had to wait for the king, usually surrounded by poets and orators. At times, there were artists too who had their works spread out over the floor, creating drawings of temple scenes from everyday life. Phaulkon then had to step lightly to cross the hall.

There were the architects, many of them missionaries, and they came too, addressing the king with their foreign designs for bridges and riverside forts and glittering new palaces. Sometimes the king had a dozen projects going on at the same time, all which needed his attention. No project for him was too small for consideration or too big. He worshipped challenges; he thrived on them. He took on such tasks as improving the Tai script. He worked with monk scribes to improve the King Li Thai alphabet that was begun by King Ramkhamhaeng four centuries before into what became the King Narai script. He toiled with the idea of Romanizing the Tai script when the French missionaries set up a printing press to publish their own books and documents but in the end he dismissed the idea for fear it might compromise the Tai language altogether. He spent much of his time working over details with French engineers over the construction of a canal across the Kra Peninsula. He was convinced it was possible and, when completed, it would eliminate the need for ships to round the southern tip of the peninsula to reach Mergui.

The king was most interested in the training of the Khon dancers, the classical masked dance, and his favorite. The Khon dance was the most difficult of all Siamese dances and students needed encouragement, and this the king enthusiastically gave them. To become proficient in the art of Khon dance, students had to study for at least five to seven years. Along with the king, Phaulkon enjoyed watching them practice. A student needed many skills to be a good Khon performer. He or she had to have strong and flexible muscles and had to be able to hold a position with knees bent and heels turned out completely for a very long time. Leg strength was essential in order to create a powerful stamp with the foot during the military marching scene. The military mark was the only aspect of His Majesty’s dabbling in the arts that interested General Phetracha. The general thought the king was wasting his time with the arts and was annoyed every time he came to the Audience Hall only to be delayed due to a dance or musical rehearsal that was in progress.

King Narai knew how to placate the general. “You see,” the king said, “when an army marches, the whole ground should vibrate. Khon dancers do that. They would make good soldiers. They have a fine sense of balance since they have to stand unmoving for long periods of time and, when they stomp down, they stomp hard, putting fright into the enemy.”

General Phetracha listened but he did not agree. He argued that the vision of Khon dancers is limited by the small eyeholes on their Khon masks. He dismissed the dance as folly. It was too mythical. He was not interested in the classical arts as the king was. He did not like the slow pace of the dancers, declaring that soldiers must move quickly. Nor did he like the battle where Vishnu defeated Nontuk because Vishnu had to call on the Monkey Army for assistance. “It’s only myth, a monkey army,” the general scoffed. He did not care for the war between Rama and Ravana. Ravana was known as Tossagun, a ten-headed demon. No, the general thought that the king had more important things to do than play-act. He did not think it was the king’s responsibility to preserve the kingdom’s heritage.

On this particular day that Phaulkon went to see King Narai, the king, seeing him sitting to one side, called him to sit by his side. Phaulkon disliked interrupting His Majesty with matters of state that were disturbing when the king was in such a jubilant mood, as he was this morning, but he had no other choice than to bring up the matter. It was urgent.

“Your Majesty,” Phaulkon said when he was seated, “I would like to settle this Makassar issue once and for all. It has raised its ugly head again.”

King Narai looked squarely at Phaulkon. “My actors make me laugh with their humor but I never thought my King’s Favorite would do the same.”

“But Your Majesty, I speak the truth,” Phaulkon said. “The Makassar are restless and they are a threat to the kingdom.”

“And tell me, how do you intend to settle the Makassar problem?” the king asked.

“Diplomacy.” Phaulkon said. “Diplomacy first, and then if diplomacy does not work, we must resort to force. But only if diplomacy fails.”

“Diplomacy! Do you seriously believe that diplomacy will work with Muslims?” he asked but didn’t want an answer. “And you say if talk does not work, then and only then we will use force. Do you think you can do this alone, without the help of General Phetracha?” Phaulkon was about to speak but the king raised his arm for him to listen. “What do the Makassars want? When they fled their own country, after the Dutch took possession of their lands, I granted them asylum in Siam. I received these proud people honorably and gave them their own quarter outside Ayutthaya, among other quarters reserved for foreign residents. I treated them just like other foreigners. You know that. You were here. Why are they revolting? What do they want from us? What more can we give them?”

“I cannot answer that,” Phaulkon said, “but I do not believe all the Muslims are rebellious. The Makassars are a warlike clan but they don’t represent all Muslims. Nevertheless, I can attempt to find out, only with your permission.”

“And in the meantime what does General Phetracha and his army do? Stand idly by? You know he won’t stand for interference,” the king said. “We can’t aggravate him more than we already have.”

“But this is not war. He must understand that this is only a skirmish to rout out the rebels,” Phaulkon replied. “To get General Phetracha involved might stir up not only the Makassars but all Muslims as well and make for an uprising that would spread like a grass fire throughout the land. No, I say, Your Majesty, the presence of Phetracha and Sorasak ready for battle might ignite something we have been trying to avoid ever since the incident at the elephant hunt. I will attempt to bring the rebel chief Bakar to negotiations.”

The king pondered over Phaulkon’s words for a few moments and then gave voice to his thoughts. ”As for General Phetracha,” he finally said, “I could tell him that his soldiers are needed to guard the palace.” King Narai finally agreed that Phaulkon should investigate the Makassar problem. He told him to proceed, wished him luck and turned to the dancer with the ankle brackets that jangled when he danced. He was praising the dancer for his performance as Phaulkon was leaving.

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