His Majesty Defends the Foreigner
When everyone was settled, King Narai explained that the Barcalon had made him an offer of the services of his new assistant, the Greek foreigner called Phaulkon. The court was immediate taken back. They had believed that the king had called them together to seek their advice. Now they fell into limbo when the king announced he had already made the decision and accepted the Barcalon’s offer. It had been done.
The response was slow coming. “Your Majesty,” the chief court official finally began, proceeding cautiously, while all eyes turned to him to hear what he had to say, “There is the uncertainty that employing a foreigner might stir up complaints about the ability of the king’s court.”
General Phetracha spoke up. “The minister is right,” he said. He was not alone. Others in the court sided with him. The official thanked them all with a nod and now feeling bolstered with backing from the general he continued: “Your Majesty already has many intelligent people around him, those who love him. Have we done badly? Look at our great prosperous city. Look at the many ships from abroad that come to trade. There is hardly room enough for them all to anchor in the Menam. Have we not already kept the French and the British at bay? Do we not already have good counsel that has kept the enemy away from our door?”
“You are right,” King Narai said, “but this is a time when I need someone who can do more than love their king. I need someone who can represent Siam to the world.”
Choosing each word carefully and slowly, the king explained his position. He used General Phetracha, seated at his side, as an example. The general, he said, has outstanding courage and unequaled loyalty, but he cannot speak the language of the world. “Siam needs someone to talk for us, on our behalf, so that we are understood,” the king said. “Then we won’t need to fight and have our people slaughtered by these foreigners. We will have peace and prosperity. Just because we have gallant soldiers ready to defend the kingdom does not mean we have to fight. A wise kingdom must not rely alone on its ability to fight an enemy with arms. A wise kingdom must also rely on its ability to keep peace through other means. Peace cannot always be achieved by guns and swords, but sometimes by words. Who among us has such words? No one!”
The king continued, explaining that court officials might be skillful in keeping the people of the kingdom together, and that they could solve their everyday problems, but they did not know how to deal with the outside world that threatened to gnaw away at the kingdom. “Buddhist monks at the temple may teach us how to love one another, and how to live in harmony,” he said, “but the world beyond the kingdom does not have the same beliefs and the same culture as we do. The world does not care about our teachings. We must not fool ourselves into thinking this is so. If we want to continue to be a great kingdom, envied by all, we must understand the culture of the West. To learn this culture we must have someone to teach us, someone we can trust, someone who lives amongst us. We need someone whose mind knows the world but whose heart is with Siam. Where can we find such a man? This is the duty of a king, a responsible king, to find such a man. And when he finds such a man, the king must be able to see through this man. This is the duty of a king: to find what his kingdom needs. You, my ministers, do your duty and I shall do mine. Your duty is to tell me what my people need, and my duty is to get them what they need.”
No one said a word. The king continued: “Every kingdom around us is falling. They are falling into the hands of these greedy European powers. No, Siam will not end up like them. Siam will be free; my people will be free, forever. We must know how to talk; we must be heard. Swords and lances won’t do the job. They have bigger weapons, they have guns that are more powerful than steel. For this reason I have called upon you to understand why I have taken on this foreigner to help us deal with our adversaries. This is why I take him into our confidence.”
The court fell into silence. They remained in silence even after the king had gone.
A week before the birthday ball, when all was finally organized and guests had been invited, Phaulkon went to visit the house of Fanique. He arrived in a carriage escorted by a full honor guard. Marie was the first to meet him at the door. Given her shy, taciturn manner, she lowered her eyes, but beneath her demureness she was thrilled to see him. It was most difficult for her to put on airs of indifference. She would like to have greeted him with open arms. But she dared not. She and her father, of course, had heard, like everyone else in Ayutthaya, about Phaulkon’s appointment by the king, but they spoke little about him between themselves, almost as though the mention of his name was taboo. Nevertheless, it was all her maids could do hold Marie back and quell her excitement.
At that propitious moment Fanique entered the room, and without hesitation, Phaulkon addressed him directly. “Sir,” he said, boldly, “I request the honor of escorting your daughter, Marie, to the king’s ball.”
“Ah ha! What an impertinent young man you are. I am pleased to announce to you that you are too late, far too late,” Fanique boasted. He didn’t mince words and came directly to the point, stating emphatically that he had already promised Prince Sorasak, the son of General Phetracha he emphasized, that he could escort Marie to the birthday ball.
Upon hearing her father’s announcement, Marie cried out in dismay. Despite her maid’s efforts to control her, she broke away and stood between her father and Phaulkon. She began pleading, and when that did little good, she turned to tears. “How could you have not consulted me first?” she cried. “How could you not asked me if she wanted to go with Sorasak?” It was the wrong thing for her to say.
Fanique flared up in anger. “Consult you!” he shouted. “It is I, not you, who makes decisions.”
He turned to face Phaulkon, ready to denounce him, expecting a rebuttal, but Phaulkon instead bowed from the waist, holding the up of his saber so that it did not touch the floor and politely asked to be pardoned. Gaining his composure, Fanique said to both him and Marie that the proposal for Marie to attend the ball came from official channels. Sorasak had accepted.
Phaulkon remained calm, something not expected of him. He told Fanique that he understood, and that perhaps he, Phaulkon, should have been more considerate and proper. Upon leaving, he spoke politely to Fanique and Marie. He said that in the event that Sorasak could not make it, Marie could always call upon him. He then quietly departed. It bothered him to hear Marie’s sobbing but once outside the door he smiled to himself.
Back at his residence, Phaulkon dispatched Diego to go fetch Abu Umar. He hardly had time enough to change his clothes when Abu appeared. Now that Phaulkon had risen to his lofty position, Abu was more obsequious than ever. Taking the advantage, Phaulkon said he had a request to make. Abu bowed deeply, and then lifting his head remarked that any request made by the respected Phaulkon was his honor. Phaulkon asked him if he would send his most loyal men to the elephant camp at the northern edge of the city the night of the birthday ball, and for the men to single out Sorasak’s elephants. At exactly one hour before the ball was to begin, they were to agitate the elephants, to get them into frenzy, anything short of a stampede. “Sorasak will kill a man who does harm to his elephants,” Phaulkon said. “He prizes his elephants more than anything, or anyone. You must make him forget the ball and go to the camp instead. Instruct your men to be careful and use caution.” Phaulkon explained that at the same time, Abu had to send another man with a message to Sorasak announcing that his elephants are in great danger. After going over the details and assuring all was understood, Abu Umar agreed. He not only agreed but he was very much pleased for he could not have had a more opportune time to win the favor of Phaulkon, the Minister of Trade. He left Phaulkon’s residence elated.
On the eve of the ball, Phaulkon sent a rose with an anonymous card saying “Be ready, my princess, I shall send my carriage for you at dusk.” Marie, of course, thought the note was from Sorasak and threw the card and the rose away.
A half hour before the ball began, a carriage arrived at Fanique’s house. The servants announced its arrival to Marie and her father who were waiting in the inter courtyard. Marie looked beautiful, dressed in a western gown like the ladies of Europe wear. But she did not appear to be happy. Her chaperons went out to the carriage and immediately came running back into the house, shouting at the top of their voices. “It’s not Prince Sorasak; it’s not Sorasak,” they cried. “It’s Mr. Phaulkon.”
Phaulkon didn’t wait to be announced. He followed at the heels of the chaperons and entered the house. “I regret,” he said, for all to hear, “word has come that Prince Sorasak has business at the elephant camp and cannot attend the ball.” Then handing Marie a rose, he said joyfully, “I am at your service, Princess.”
“The card and the rose, it was from you,” she cried.
“Yes, from me, my fair lady,” he replied.
Before Fanique could utter a word, Marie had kissed him on the forehead, run through the open door with her chaperons close behind, and climbed aboard the carriage as Phaulkon gave her a helping hand. “Goodbye, father,” she sang and waved as they drove way.