THE KING’S FAVORITE
King Narai was proud of his Ayutthaya, his splendid capital on the Menam River, and he took great delight when foreign dignitaries praised its greatness and its beauty. In truth, Ayutthaya was the greatest city of the east and envied by the cities of Europe. Yet, despite its splendor and all its glory, King Narai was still troubled. He knew Ayutthaya was vulnerable and he was fearful for its preservation. A hundred years before, the Burmese had invaded and for thirty years they had occupied the city as foreign conquerors, reaping its profits and gains, and carting off Siamese men and their young women, too, for slave labor. It was only after Prince Naresuan drove them out that his people were free again. And when Prince Naresuan became king he labored to protect the realm from further invasion, digging more klongs to improve not only transportation but to serve as protecting moats as well. He had the walls fortified and kept a well-trained militia. Still, the threat from the marauding Burmese was always present. In his own younger years, King Narai, with General Phetracha at his side, had fought the Burmese in the north and drove them from Chiang Mai. King Narai knew battle, and he knew what it was to face death.
And there were the Khmers, another constant worry. They had been, over the years, the more formidable foe. Khmers had ruled over much of Siam for two centuries. Their center was Louvo and their realm was known as the Kingdom of Lavo, a vassal of Angkor. It existed as an empire until the end of the 13th century when the Siamese fought them, battle after battle, and finally succeeded in driving them out. The Siamese then declared their independence and became known as the Kingdom of Sukhothai. The Khmer were expelled but they left behind as a legacy, their powerful style of imposing architecture. These threats from the Burmese, and to a lesser extent the Khmers, were real, but no threat was ever greater than that of the Europeans. King Narai came to realize that his capital had become too easily accessible from the sea. Europeans with their mighty ships could come upriver much easier than in. days past. There was no stopping them. And indeed they did come. They came in many disguises: as missionaries bringing their gods with them, as merchants wanting to engage in trade, and as military men with guns and arms to sell. But when these European became frustrated and couldn’t get what they wanted, they took out their guns. These powers were what troubled King Narai more than his neighbors. For this reason, for the vulnerability of Ayutthaya, he turned his attention to Louvo, a day’s journey north of the capital, a city much easier to defend.
The year before he became king, missionaries had arrived in the kingdom and they returned again when he ascended to the throne. He had no objection to their coming for they were learned men. They did their missionary work by healing the sick, caring for the poor and establishing schools for the children. They brought with them science and the latest technology, including astronomy, a field of science that fascinated King Narai immensely. But what was even more important to the kingdom was that among their numbers were architects and builders. He knew he could make use of their skills and knowledge to better his kingdom.
In 1664, after sitting on the throne for eight years, King Narai concentrated on making Louvo the second capital of the realm, and there he spent much of his time. He turned to the missionaries, the architects and builders, for assistance. Father Thomas, a Jesuit, became his close advisor. He was Portuguese Catholic and when he wasn’t designing palaces and fortresses he ran a school for children. One of his loyal helpers was Marie Gimard, the daughter of Mr. Fanique. The Catholic Jesuits and the Catholic French missionaries did not get along. However, with Father Thomas close to the king, he was treated with respect by the French, and envied by them as well.
With the helping hand of Father Thomas, European-style architecture began to appear in Louvo. Nowhere was this more evident than in structures like the Royal Palace and the Royal Reception House. King Narai ordered the construction of the palace to be in the very center of town surrounded by a wall and four gates. It took a thousand workers twelve years for its completion. They made use of terra-cotta pipes to supply the palace with water from the “Sub-Lek” basin on the hill outside the town. While the palace was of European design, much like the Palace of Versailles, King Narai had the Suthra Sawan Pavilion of his royal residence built in pure Siamese style with multi-tiered roofs adorned with naga heads. He had the Royal Reception House constructed to be used as an audience hall for high-ranking foreign visitors and ambassadors. The doors and windows were square shaped in Thai style, and dome shaped in Western style. The building had a multi-tiered roof with a tall pointed spire. It was set in the royal garden, surrounded by a small moat, flanked with twenty fountains brought from France. Elephant stables for keeping the royal elephants had private residences for their mahouts. King Narai raised numerous elephants which he rode for ceremonies and when he went hunting.
It was into this world of might and magnificence that Phaulkon, the Greek sailor, had entered. King Narai had completed construction on Louvo the year before Phaulkon arrived in the kingdom.
The day of the birthday celebration for Princess Yothatep, King Narai’s daughter, finally arrived. The celebration was held in Ayutthaya rather than Louvo, mainly for its convenience for the foreigners who lived in the capital. They all came: ambassadors, men of rank, military officers, missionaries, and with them their ladies, all bearing gifts for the beloved princess, daughter of King Narai.
With everyone assembled in the Banquet Hall, with the king in his balcony above the hall where he could look out over the gathering, the Barcalon opened the grand ceremony by announcing the king’s gratitude to all the guests for all their support and loyalty to His Majesty and to his Kingdom of Siam.
When Marie, as lovely as any princess could be, and Phaulkon, in his splendid Siamese robes richly trimmed with gold filigree, stepped out of the shadows into the opening, all eyes turned to them. With a flourish of showmanship, Phaulkon took Marie by the hand and, with the audience parting way to let them pass, he led her to the center of the floor. He bowed toward the king, Marie curtsied, and the musicians on loan from foreign ships anchored on the river struck up a chord with music from the Court of Louis XIY. Phaulkon and Marie stood for a moment, posed in silence, and after a warm smile to the audience, they began to dance the minuet, the dance that had become popular at the court of Louis XIV. Soon they were joined by others. Phaulkon and Marie danced elegantly and beautifully, one dance after another. Phaulkon cherished the moment that he could be close to Marie. And she too felt the same. When they came together and touched hands, they whispered to one another, the first time they could talk without speaking through an intermediary. They parted company only when the French ambassador interrupted and asked Marie for a dance. Phaulkon reluctantly, but with a smile and a bow, surrendered her to the ambassador.
The Barcalon had awaited this chance to get Phaulkon aside, and now came the propitious moment. “I have some wonderful news for you,” he said with great pride and joy.
”And what is so important that it can’t wait?” Phaulkon asked with uncertain curiosity.
“I want to tell you that you are no longer to remain as my assistant,” the Barcalon said, his voice lowered.
Phaulkon tightened up like a fighter who is waiting to be hit. “That is what you call good news?” he said bewildered. “Is this what you want to tell me, that I have been relieved of my duties? That I’ve been fired!”
“No,” the Barcalon said, “not fired. Promoted. It is the best of news. You will no longer be serving me. You will now serve our king.”
“The king?” he stammered. “What do you mean, our king?”
Phaulkon was completely confused now. He thought he was already serving the king.
“His Majesty, King Narai, has graciously elevated your position to be the king’s counselor. You will move your office to the palace and he will bestow upon you a new tide. You, Mr. Phaulkon, are now the King’s Favorite.”
Phaulkon was dazed. He could only stare in disbelief at the Barcalon. Before he could ask more questions, Marie was again at his side. She was beaming with happiness and Phaulkon realized this was not the time to tell her his surprise. They danced again. Still he could not break the news to her. It would have to wait. Instead he danced with his love, hands touching, to the right, to the left, exchanging courtly gestures, bows and curtsies. They danced with others at their sides but all eyes were upon them. They made a splendid couple.
The ball was about to end. Phaulkon called for his carriage and was preparing to lead Marie from the hall when a hush came over the room. All heads turned toward the main door that had suddenly swung open creating a loud noise. Sorasak stood there. He was in disarray. He was covered with mud and grime. His fine silk clothing was soiled and had it not been for the sword hanging from his side he could have passed as a bullock driver rather than the prince that he was. Everyone saw that he was in a rage, as wild as a beast of the jungle freed from his cage. They backed away. The music stopped and the hall fell silent. Sorasak saw a bench and jumped up upon it. He scanned the hall and when he saw Phaulkon with Marie at his side, he leaped from the bench and charged across the hall directly towards them. There was fire in his eyes. The gathering hastily moved out of his way to let him pass. Phaulkon saw him coming and stood fast. Marie’s chaperons pulled her to one side. Phaulkon prepared himself for the worst. He placed his hand on his dagger tucked away in his vest coat. Sorasak struck with full force, like a charging bull in the wild. He knocked Phaulkon from his feet, withdrew his sword and prepared to strike a finishing blow, but by now the king’s guards rushed to Phaulkon’s defense. Sorasak froze. He looked at the guards and then up at the king’s balcony He had disrupted the king’s private ceremony. He looked around the hall and seeing all the faces staring at him, he suddenly came to his senses. He turned, lowered his sword and fled from the hall.
The ceremony was over. The king was not pleased.