A SHORT TALE OF SAMUT KOTE
When the get-together at Phaulkon’s house ended, Burnaby and White retired to their own quarters. Phaulkon saw them to the door. The guard outside, who had been dozing, jumped to his feet and bowed. Phaulkon locked the door and then dragged himself to his bedroom. He slipped off his clothes and stepped into the wash stall. Taking a coconut shell dipper from the wall he doused himself with water from the elephant jar and gave a sigh of relief Home at last! He replaced the dipper on its rack, dried off and put on a robe. He started toward his bed, to get some much needed rest. The window in his bedroom was open and he glanced out across the way to Fanique’s house in the Portuguese quarter. The lane was dimly lighted by oil lamps that flickered casting a mosaic in patches of light upon the buildings and trees that lined the lane. At the far end of the lane he thought he saw movement. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. There was someone there. Two men were walking briskly down the lane. When they drew closer, he saw that they were young men. He recognized them. They were from the palace-Marie’s suitors-and had been at Fanique’s house when he saw them presenting gifts to Marie. The younger of the two was the suitor who had read poetry to her. They were back but Sorasak was not with them. They stopped at Fanique’s door and knocked. Presently the door opened and the two boys entered. Through a window that opened onto the lane, Phaulkon could see lights go on in the inner courtyard. He was mildly disturbed. Young men from the court visiting Marie when it should be him. At least Sorasak wasn’t with them, he reasoned, easing his discontent a bit. He lay down on his bed but he could not sleep. He was tired from the long trip up the river but sleep was impossible. His thoughts were about Marie and the two suitors.
After tossing and turning and unable to sleep, he got out of bed. Perhaps he could find out what was happening at Fanique’s. He put on a shirt, slipped into his trousers, and as quietly as possible, in his bare feet, went to the front door. Through an observation slit in the door he looked out. The guard was asleep on the bench. He slid back the bolt on the door and opened it enough to squeeze by. He quietly dosed the door behind him and stepped out into the lane. It was empty. Gingerly, so as not to be seen, he crossed to the other side, and following along the ridge of buildings, he ducked into the shadows beneath the courtyard window at Fanique’s house. He could hear voices from within, and ever so slowly drew himself up to where he could peer into the courtyard without being seen. Marie was sitting on a couch with her maid at her side. The two young men stood facing them, both trying to speak at the same time. It was nearly comical to watch them, each trying to outdo the other while doting over her. The maid seemed amused.
Marie was asking about life in the palace. “Is it true no one can look upon the face of the king?”
The boys nodded.
Marie then asked, “Does that mean no one in the palace can look upon him either?”
“No, it is much different inside the palace,” the first suitor said.
“We live in the golden age of literature,” the second suitor, the boy who recited poetry, spoke up. “The king loves poetry, and music. Each evening he forms a circle around him, poets, musicians, court dancers and performers. They recite poetry together, and they make up verses and songs. His queen was a poet too. Even the palace gatekeeper speaks in poetry.”
Marie asked about his court and his other wives. “He has no other wives,” the first suitor added. “He lives in the memory of his beloved wife who died giving birth, and there are no others. He lives with his daughter and sister and young adopted son. He loves his daughter very much and protects her. She is a lovely princess.”
“A princess,” Marie exclaimed in wonder. “I always wanted to be a princess.”
Phaulkon pressed his ear harder against the windowsill. He wanted desperately to hear what she had to say.
”And the princesses in the palace,” Marie continued, “do they live the beautiful life that we hear so much about, like the story of Samut Kote?”
“So you like the story of Samut Kote?” the first suitor asked. “Yes, but I can’t remember why, except that it was very romantic, and Samut Kote was very brave,” Marie said. “Tell me the story again. I would like to hear it from you.”
The poet suitor, pleased at the request, began telling the story of Samut Kote with the second suitor giving animation to the tale by jumping about, waving his arms and mimicking like an actor on stage. The poet told how Samut Kote went into the forest to hunt for elephants, and the gods led him to meet Princess Pintumavadi with whom he fell in love, and she in turn fell in love with him. The poet then raised his voice and holding his arms across his face as though to protect himself said, ”And then an evil, wicked god kidnapped Samut Kote while he was asleep. When he awoke, the princess was gone. He desperately looked for her everywhere but it seemed hopeless. The god of heaven, seeing the princess crying and miserable, took pity her and helped her find Prince Samut Kote, The god of heaven overcame the wicked god that had kidnapped Samut Kote and freed the prince. The two are joined together in marriage. End of story, and everyone was happy.”
Marie sighed with content.
“But alas,” the poet shouted and raised up to his feet, “that is not the end.”
Marie gasped. “It’s not?” she cried.
“No, not at all,” the suitor said. “You see, the other princes are jealous of Samut Kote and battle with him. But he has a magic sword, which he got from a wounded magician who he helped cure, and is able to defeat them all.”
“Then what happens?” asked Marie.
“The two lovers are in the forest and come upon a river spanned by two logs,” the poet continued. Phaulkon outside the window edged closer. “They start across, each on a separate log, but the logs drift apart, and the princess is separated from her husband once again. She searches and searches but cannot find him. In great sadness and grief, and feeling defeated, she dropped out of society and became a nun. Artists painted her life story on the walls of the monastery for all to see. Meanwhile, Prince Samut continued to wander, relentlessly, for many, many years in search for his loving wife, refusing to give up.” The poet’s voice became more and more convincing as he spoke. He continued: “One day Prince Samut came to a monastery where a crowd was looking at a painting on a wall. He pushed through the crowd and was astonished at what he found. He recognized the drawing at once. Without hesitating, like a steed that has lost its rider, he dashed into the monastery, and there found his lost love. At last, with great joy and happiness, the two were reunited never to be parted again.”
Everyone in the room fell silent. “Marie, are those tears in your eyes that I see?” the poet suitor asked.
She wiped away the tears. “When I marry my prince one day,” she began, speaking softly and in earnest, “I will never, never be parted from him. No man, not even kings and gods, not even death, will ever part us. That I will promise you.”
Phaulkon leaned closer and closer, not caring now if he was detected, and then heard her ask, “Do you think I will be a princess one day?”
“You already are,” said the first suitor. “You may not have the blood of a princess, but you surely have the heart of one.”
“I know a man who does not have the blood of a prince,” she said, lamenting the thought, “but he does have the soul of a king. But-” she sighed, loud enough for Phaulkon to hear- “he thinks that I am too young.” There was a long pause, and finally she said: “Oh, what does he wait for? Certainly he must know how I feel. He must.”
The poet suitor asked, “This man you speak about, you say he has the soul of a king, but why him above all others? Why is he so special?”
Had Phaulkon gotten any closer to those talking in the courtyard, he would have fallen through the window. He listened, asking himself who was this man that Marie loved so much?
“He is gallant and brave,” he heard Marie say. Phaulkon felt the beating of his heart might give him away. Who was this gallant man she spoke of?
“And how is that, that he is so brave?” the first suitor asked. “Does he fight the evil dragon and demons of the forest?”
“Oh, no, not that,” Marie cried. “Bur he is the only man I know who has been brave enough to stand up to my father.”
Phaulkon no longer cared if he fell off his perch. Were his ears deceiving him? Was she referring to him?
“Oh, that’s a relief,” the poet suitor replied. “Then he cannot be Prince Sorasak, this man you are talking about?”
“Sorasak,” she replied in dismay. “No, not at all, not Sorasak.” “Not Sorasak. But why?” the first suitor asked. “Is he not a prince?” He didn’t wait for Marie to answer. “Sorasak does have the blood of a prince, that is true, and perhaps he may not have the soul to be a king. Still, he would fight dragons in the forest, and he trains elephants.”
“What do you mean, he has the blood of a prince?” Marie asked. “His father is a general, not a king.”
“Is that what you think?” the first suitor asked.
“Be quiet,” the poet suitor said. “We are forbidden to discuss such matters.”
“Discuss what matters?” Marie asked again.
The first suitor explained what he meant, at the objection of the poet. “Sorasak is only an adopted son of the general,” he said. “His real father is King Narai himself who had an affair with a princess in Chiang Mai during the time when he and the general conquered Chiang Mai more than twenty years ago. He was too embarrassed to let it be known. He gave the boy to his General to raise.”
“We don’t really know if it’s true,” the poet interrupted in a hushed voice, a voice that Phaulkon could hardly hear. “It could just be a rumor, but then Sorasak gets away with things only a spoiled prince can do.”
“You know it’s true,” the first suitor said. “We just don’t talk about it.”
The conversation stopped abruptly. Fanique’s voice rang through the courtyard, calling for his daughter.
“In a minute,” she replied to her father. Then to her suitors she said, “I wouldn’t marry Sorasak if he was the last prince on earth!” The suitors expressed their delight to hear that Sorasak was out of the picture, and the poet suitor asked, “Then tell me, who is this man who does not have the blood of a prince but has the soul of a king. Perhaps it is me. Then you shall marry me one day.” He got down on his knees and spread out his arms. Even from where Phaulkon hid, he could see the smile upon his face.
Marie replied with laughter in her voice, “That would not be possible,” she said. “You see, you are very special, and a fine poet, but I could never marry you. You are not a Catholic.”
Fanique called again to his daughter as he stepped into the courtyard. Seeing the suitors there he reminded them it was late and time for them to leave. The suitors thanked Fanique for his kindness, and as they were about to leave, the poet quietly asked Marie, so her father couldn’t hear, “This man, is he a Catholic?”
The expression on Marie’s face changed, and she dared not answer, as if she had been reminded of an impossible dream. All she could do was smile, a beguiling smile. She waved good-bye to her suitors from her window. Phaulkon glanced through the window once more before he departed and there he saw her in the courtyard, with her father at her side, holding with one hand the sapphire necklace around her neck.
The guard was still asleep when Phaulkon sneaked back into his house. Later, in the quietness of his room, he pondered the question whether is it better to know, the night before your execution, that someone loves you, or is it better not to know at all?