PLEASING HIS MAJESTY THE KING
The Barcalon prided himself in having direct access to the king, but that didn’t mean he felt comfortable in His Majesty’s presence. He didn’t mind it so much when the king was alone, but when ministers and advisors were present it was different. He was especially uncomfortable when General Phetracha was with the king. This day when he went to see the king to tell him about Phaulkon and his daughter’s birthday party arrangements, the general was there. The Barcalon saw instantly he had chosen the wrong time to approach the king. He knew when he entered he would have to do some fast talking and get out as quickly as possible. The king and the general were in an altercation of some sort apparently over military matters, judging by the tone of their voices and the map on the floor before them. Whatever the disagreement was, the subject was immediately dropped when the Barcalon entered. General Phetracha was not pleased with the intrusion. The Barcalon prostrated himself before the king, something he didn’t do when the king was alone.
“Yes, yes, what is it?” King Narai asked.
The Barcalon rose to his knees. He was taken aback by how very tired the king looked. Something was troubling him. Two servants had been fanning the two men by pulling the ropes of an overhead fan suspended from the ceiling, but the king motioned for them to leave. The room suddenly became warm and like a weight the heat seemed to descend upon them.
“I came to discuss the arrangements for the birthday, Your Majesty,” the Barcalon said, taking his kerchief and wiping his brow. The general seemed pleased in seeing the Barcalon swelter before them.
“Yes, the birthday party,” King Narai replied. “And more problems. At a time like this I have to divert my energies to my daughter’s birthday. And now you come to tell me the costs are more than we expected and that the Arabs want more money. Is that not right?”
The Barcalon knew these were empty words for the king took great satisfaction in pleasing his daughter, and at any cost. “On the contrary, Your Majesty,” the Barcalon said. “It’s quite the opposite.
I have turned the matter over to my new assistant, the foreigner.” He gave a quick glance towards General Phetracha who snarled at the mention of the new foreigner. The general was opposed to any foreigner involved in official matters of the state. The general did nothing to mask his feeling and everyone was aware of his attitude about foreigners. The king usually made some attempt to appease the general when the matter came up but now he let it pass. He was more interested in what the Barcalon had to say than how the general felt.
“I have heard about this man, a Greek I am told,” the king said.
“Tell me about him. What has he done?”
“My assistant, Khun Phaulkon, has arranged it all,” the Barcalon said. “And as you requested, Your Majesty, a Western-style celebration has been prepared.” He took a moment to bow, like an actor looking for praise, and then added, “It will be the most grand celebration ever staged.” He knew his words would bring a quick response.
General Phetracha did not want to hear more and rose to his feet to leave.
“Wait,” the king spoke up before the Barcalon could continue. “This is not a royal coronation. It’s my daughter’s birthday party.” The general hesitated.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the Barcalon began. “It will be costly, more than the treasury intended to spend. But it will cost the treasury nothing.”
“It will cost nothing,” General Phetracha interrupted.
“Yes, cost nothing and yet be a grand celebration not seen for a long time in the kingdom,” the Barcalon proudly stated.
“What, this man of yours, is he a magician?” the general said, half laughing. He stood with his feet apart, his hands at his hips, like a boxer ready for a fight.
“It will cost nothing,” the Barcalon said, “and the treasury will make money at the same time.”
“Enough, enough.” Said the king. “Now tell me what is going on.” The Barcalon explained Phaulkon’s motives, and his method of operation. He told how Phaulkon had not only kept the costs down, but how he had also collected proceeds from previous entertainment functions that had been overcharged by the Arabs. The general remained silent but very much agitated.
The king, after contemplating what the Barcalon had to say, asked if this foreigner was clever, or was he simply quick-witted.
“Both, Your Majesty,” the Barcalon replied. “He is very clever, that is certain, but he is also a man with experience and knowledge far beyond any other man of his young age.”
“Then tell me about this man who serves the Barcalon well,” the king said. He wanted to know if it was true what people were saying about him, that a bright new star had emerged in the shipping business. The Barcalon wasted no words to expound upon the merits of Phaulkon. He praised him highly.
The king then turned to General Phetracha and asked him what he knew about this Greek. The general admitted that he had heard about him, and that he was very feared by merchants and traders due to the fact that he speaks all their languages. He also admitted that what he heard was that the Greek had the keen ability to detect fraud. He then cast the aspersion that thieves know thieves.
“But from what I gather,” General Phetracha concluded, “he is not liked by most people.”
“You are so right, General Phetracha,” the Barcalon acknowledged. “Virtue untested is always questionable. This man of whom we speak will prove his worth, as he has already done.”
In spite of the General Phetracha’s indifference, the king congratulated the Barcalon for having such a fine man in his employ, and said that it takes a wise man to recognize greatness in another man. He continued to expound upon his thoughts, speaking to the Barcalon but obviously intending for the general to hear. “The kingdom needs someone like him, a man with his experience. You have made a wise decision in hiring this foreigner.” The Barcalon dared not look at the general but kept focused upon the king.
“I am grateful for such praise,” the Barcalon said. “And for your gratitude, Your Majesty, I would like to offer His Majesty a present-the most prized possession I could give.” Both King Narai and General Phetracha paused in animation, like two mime performers waiting for a cue. “I offer His Majesty the service of this man, Khun Phaulkon.”
The Barcalon expected King Narai to deliberate on the matter.
He expected him to say he would have to consult with the advisors but it was not like that at all. The king did not have to ponder the offer. “I am happy to accept,” he said. “Now you may leave and attend to this matter of informing everyone about your offer.”
The Barcalon had hardly left the king’s chamber when the king summoned the court officials. They came presently, gave their salutations and waited for the king’s words. General Phetracha sat sullenly to the left of the king. All the time he and the king had waited the arrival of the court officials, they had not addressed the matter. It was an awkward silence. General Phetracha amused himself by withdrawing his sword from the scabbard and wiping the blade with delicate care with a cloth he kept for that purpose tucked in his sash. He knew, perhaps, that it made the king nervous.