SIAM AT LAST
On the morning of the fourth day, the captives awoke to find the sea had calmed. Gerakis was certain they were nearing the mouth of the great river. He remembered hearing about a sandbar far out at sea that served as the first line of defense for the Siamese capital. Ships had to negotiate a narrow passage through the bar, a passage which only experienced pilots could navigate with certainty. If a ship ran aground, it might take weeks before a rising tide could set it free and there was always the chance that the ship might break up before that happened, especially when sudden storms swept down from the China Sea.
Gerakis saw it all before him in his mind’s eye. He had listened, over and over, to sailors tell tales about their passage upriver to Ayutthaya, a voyage that carried them for thirty leagues through a dazzling world of temples and spiral domes that sparkled in the sun, and where elephants came down by the hundreds to the water’s edge to cool off in the river. He wondered if there were Dutch gunboats still blockading the river. The Dutch had first arrived in 1604, built factories and warehouses, and, for nearly a half century, controlled a lucrative, flourishing trade, until the British and French made their way up the river to the capital. The Dutch believed they had the sole right to the trade, but when the king refused them special commercial privileges, they blockaded the river. That was a dozen years before Gerakis arrived and he now wondered who had control of the river.
Gerakis had never traveled the river, and yet he knew it well. He knew that the mouth was as wide as a lake, making it difficult for the Siamese to guard the kingdom against foreign intrusion. To counteract the threat, the Siamese loaded junks and barges with stones and sank them at marked locations in the river, forcing ships to enter a narrow passageway which they could control with their batteries of cannons on the shore. There was a fort there too, at a place called Pak Nam. Gerakis, with his head buried in his knees, listened intently for a sound he knew would come. With each dip of their paddles, they came closer and closer, and then, sure enough, the sound he waited for was clear and certain. It was the rattle of a chain. The seamen whose tales he had listened to were right. The Siamese placed huge chains across the entrance, and these they could lower and raise at will. He was certain now that cannons on the shore were trained at them as they passed.
The boat arrived at a dockside and Gerakis could hear shouting and movement from a gathering crowd above.
Finally the three captives were led ashore and their blindfolds removed. Gerakis had his first real glimpse at a Siamese town, but only briefly. Unaccustomed to the glaring sun, he had to keep his head lowered. Soon more prisoners, a mob of unruly ruffians, all shackled together, were brought to the dock and Gerakis and his two shipwrecked mates were shoved with them aboard a large riverboat. They were placed amidships, and forced to keep their heads down. Without further delay, their voyage upriver continued. Gerakis lost count of how many times they changed crews. Judging by the sun’s rays that bore down on them, he was aware that the river snaked around numerous bends and more than once nearly came back upon itself. It was, as he had been told, a winding river. Huddled in the bottom of the boat, he could hear sounds from the shore as they passed villages; he heard elephants trumpeting along the riverbanks where their mahouts brought them to bathe; he listened to the crew calling out to other crews as their vessels passed one another on the river. Everywhere there was activity of some sort, most of it strange and unfamiliar. Although he was bound, and feared raising this head for want of another beating, he still found it exciting. As uncomfortable as he was, he was very much at ease. He felt confident he would have no difficulty explaining his circumstances to the authorities and they would grant him permission to remain in the capital. After all, he reasoned, he had done nothing wrong.
Even confined as he was, he put his time to use. He picked up words from the crew and put them to memory. It would take him no time to master the Siamese language, he thought. The excitement of the voyage, with the thought of arriving in the Siam capital, enabled him to endure the pain. He tried not to think of the rattan cords that bound his hands and cut deeply into his flesh, nor about his body that ached from the cramped position he was forced to keep. For two nights the captives slept in the bottom of the boat, slouching in water. On the third day they reached their destination. Finally they were permitted to sit upright when soldiers boarded the boat and removed their blindfolds. They had arrived at the walls of Ayutthaya. Beyond was the great Eastern city, claimed by sailors and merchants to be greater than Genoa and Venice. The truth was at hand.
Things happened quickly now. Soldiers pulled the prisoners from the boat and shoved them onto the dock, forcing them down to their knees. But they were not alone. All about them other boats were crowding the dock and their crews and passengers too-men, women and children-hurried frantically to get ashore, and they, like the prisoners, fell to their knees. No one moved; they uttered not a sound. Everyone faced in the same direction, away from the city, and down a wide unpaved road flanked by towering shade trees whose branches formed a kind of tunnel. Gerakis glanced in the other direction toward the city. A massive arched portal, with a drawbridge that was lowered over a moat, was opened by troops of soldiers guarding the entrance.
Then, from down the road, came the sound of a trumpet and, at the signal, every person along the roadside and on the waterfront threw himself or herself down, prostrate to the ground, their arms stretched out before their bodies, their foreheads touching the ground. For a moment Gerakis remained with his body upright, baffled, uncertain what to do. Diego quickly came to his aid, and with a hand on his shoulder, cried, “Down, my friend, get down.”
Reluctantly Gerakis lowered his head. As he did he could see armed soldiers approaching the crowd with their lances at port arms. Gerakis had hardly lowered his head when he felt the earth beneath him tremble, ever so slightly at first, and then more violently. It was more than he could endure. His curiosity got the best of him. He slowly raised his head, and then his body to a half-sitting position to where he could see over the crowd. A sight befell him that he never, not in his wildest imagination, expected. It was a sudden explosion of color and grandeur. And he alone was the only one among the mass of people to witness it. All others, as far as he could see, remained with their bodies prostrate and their heads down.
Coming toward him was a magnificent elephant procession. It was dazzling beyond his comprehension. Dozens of elephants, no, hundreds, all brightly painted from their trunks to their backsides, and adorned with fancy ornaments and garlands of flowers, and upon these magnificent beasts were carved carriages fringed with gold filigree, shaded from the sun by bright canopies with trailing silk banners. The procession of elephants wobbled forward in a column of twos, shaking the earth beneath their feet as they trod ever so slowly and effortlessly along.
Astride one of the leading elephants rode a bejeweled noble of high rank, and Gerakis knew instantly he had to be His Majesty the King, the ruler of Siam. So splendid was his raiment, so regal did he appear, that there could be no mistaking who he was. Indeed, he was King Narai himself. On another elephant at his side sat an officer of high rank, which Gerakis learned later was General Phetracha, King Narai’s close friend since childhood. They were coming from the field and about to enter the city.
The procession drew closer, and was about to pass but a few meters away from the prisoners, when the king caught sight of one prisoner who stood out from all the others, one whose head that was not lowered. It was Gerakis. For a brief moment their eyes met-the king in his entire fine splendor, and the prisoner, a white man, unkempt and in torn rags. That glimpse of the king, and their eye-to-eye contact, would be the last thing that Gerakis would remember. So engrossed was he in seeing the king that he took no notice of the soldier approaching from behind with his lance raised high above his head. The solider brought the butt-end of the weapon down hard on the prisoner’s head.
All the rest was blanked out from his memory. When he next awoke, he was in prison.