It was late February 1767 when we finally reached the outskirts of that city close to its final agony. The besiegers were engaged in undermining the walls and smelling already their imminent loot were determined not to let a new rainy season arrive which would make them suffer the same hardships of the previous year. A siege, however, is never as tight as it seems, because an army itself never is, and after some handing out money inside and outside the walls we could finally contact our friends and organize a rescue.
(go to the first part of this tale here)
I’ll spare you the details of how, after a month of bribing, and while we were formally negotiating a new sale of weapons for the Burmese, we reached an understanding with a group of officers. I will tell you only that it really helped us the fact that the invaders had recently recruited new troops among Siamese peasants.
My story could perfectly end like the following: taking the most of the confusion of that day in April when the attackers finally knocked down large sections of the wall and stormed the city, three small boats, covered in the darkness of night, slipped into the city across a much quieter point of the wall´s perimeter. On board, and along with several bribed Burmese soldiers, there were some Europeans, including Laurent and I, to look after the happy conclusion of our audacious operation. After crossing the river and entering quietly into the city through a small hidden door, we reached a point previously agreed with a large group of people, among which there were several missionaries and Portuguese and French citizens, like Monsieur Marechal himself, as well as several Thai women and some mestizo children. After effusive greetings and hugs, and after noticing on their expression the sufferance of many months of hunger and deprivation, we all embarked, leaving behind the killing and the firestorm that had just been unleashed on the unfortunate city, and crossed the river back to the Burmese positions and beyond, taking a day for a short rest and heading south to Petchaburi, a journey during which we could catch up with each other, and that we concluded without too many complications after a month, when we finally reached this city from which I’m writing you now.
However, there’s something else I want to tell you: imagine, dear Alphonse, my indescribable surprise when, after so many months of various misfortunes, after the stress of crossing the waters and getting into a sacked city in the middle of the dark, after the anxiety caused by the screaming, the fighting and the carnage that had just been unleashed everywhere around us, after the joy and relief we felt by meeting so many old friends and acquaintances, and the sorrow of noticing their sad condition, imagine how could I feel when I found, among all those fugitives, beautiful Narissara, to whom I felt so much distressed when I had to say goodbye, and who I had already thought was completely and forever lost.
At first I thought I was wrong: It was dark, there was a huge commotion, shadows were frantically moving because of the fires that had already been unleashed throughout the whole city, and there was even something in her expression I did not know and which so much confused me. Stunned, I came closer, thinking that my imagination was certainly playing me a trick, and I was not really sure about what I saw until she herself recognized me. She looked, like everyone, thinner and gaunt, but something else, something between fragile and absent in her eyes, got me baffled. She, meanwhile, smiled me back, at first with astonishment, and then as a child, with sincerity and tenderness. She even hugged me, Alphonse, something women of this land never do in public, much less to a man. But which shocked me more was the fact that she did not say a word.
I thought it was because of the horrors of the moment. You should have been there, Alphonse, to see how the flames rose into the night eerily illuminating the facades of the buildings, creating a grotesque spectacle of shadows and illuminating too the ferocious faces of Burmese warriors who darted like jackals to the slaughter! You should have been there to hear the cries of thousands of people fleeing and dying, to feel inside your own head that horrendous cry, that terrible and heartbreaking roar of fear and despair that accompanied the destruction of one of the greatest cities in Asia!
But it was not only that: once we had already crossed back the river, rested, departed, and even left behind the bloodbath that took place in that place, she kept being in silence. I did not force her to speak, and it was father Martinho who eventually put me up to date, telling me the story of her misfortunes, which added to the siege itself were not few indeed: It happened that apparently, as everyone else, Hong Xian also hurried to leave that city once the siege was a menacing reality. As a subject of the Middle Kingdom’s, at war with Burma for two years, his fear increased at the thought of those reprisals the Burmese would most probably inflict on his countryman so, as almost all Chinese from that city did, hastily organized his escape, problem is he did so in rather peculiar way: Consumed by greed, first waited until the very last minute to go, obsessed with saving as much treasure as possible and, when he finally left, my dear Alphonse, he left his wife behind, miserably abandoned in that doomed city!
Nobody knew why he behaved in that way, said the priest, no one could ever ask for, once his escape took place, he was never seen again. To my visible concern and indignation, and knowing or perhaps sensing my sympathy for her, Father Martinho simply suggested me to be kind and patient with the unfortunate, and to excuse her silence, silence that had lasted for an entire year because, after having protected her, and because she suddenly found herself alone and ruined, she had helped the priests a lot assisting and caring for wounded and sick throughout the whole siege, behaving, he told me, as you would expect from an exemplary Christian. And I think it can be, for God knows people who had never been indoctrinated in the faith of the Lord can sometimes be perfectly comparable to the most pristine ones in terms of Christian piety. An exemplary Christian and, in this case, mute as well.
But the story does not end here, my dear friend! After several days heading south one afternoon we stopped in the shade of some palm trees seeking for cover from the heat and for drinking and cooling off in a nearby brook. There was, in that place, a small pagoda recently destroyed by Burmese, burned and partially demolished, with its serene Buddhas stripped of all its ornaments and beheaded, as it has probably happened to the thousands who lined the streets of the ancient capital. Everyone did what they could to evade the merciless rays of the sun, and I myself ventured inside the ruined building accompanied by Narissara who, despite the fact that she had not said a word yet, normally used to look for my company.
In the cool shade of those bare and blackened walls of what it had once been a holy place there was a quiet and melancholy atmosphere, and perhaps for that reason, or because the tension was fading as we traveled south, the widow broke her silence, and there, alone with me, she finally spoke. A torrent of words came out of her sweet lips on her candid Portuguese, sometimes while sobbing, sometimes while sighing, and sometimes in such a cold tone that made me shiver. At first I was glad to hear her voice, but what she told me, Alphonse, floored me, so much I still do not know if I should tell you, but I want you to understand why I’m taking her to Malacca, because I feel I must protect her, and I know why, and I told you repeatedly, I know why she is a widow Alphonse, and that I certainly know she is, a fact I ignored until that very day, as everyone else probably do even now.
She began asking me for forgiveness, mine and the missionaries´ too, for not having spoken to us despite the fact we behaved so well with her. She said, almost in tears, she did not speak because she felt sad and impure and that since I had offered her a passage to Malacca, she should tell me at least the reason for her silence, because she considered it fair, but she was afraid also that I might repudiate her after knowing her creepy secret. Then, without letting me answer, almost as if she had decided to break free from that insufferable remorse whichever the cost was, she explained me she did not know why her husband had abandoned her, because even if they did not professed so much love to each other, she had been for him a loyal and worthy wife. Perhaps, she said, he was already planning to start over somewhere else, and he might start seeing in his Siamese wife more a hindrance rather than a help, given the circumstances. Whichever the case was, she knew he was about to leave, she said, and she thought he would take her with him, but he cheated her at the very last moment and vanished in the middle of the night, leaving her alone in their big house with no money and almost no resources.
But even most surprisingly, and what nobody else knows, is that he came back! In the midst of despair, she kept telling me, and when she had already been crying her miserable fate for hours, going here and there moving across the many empty rooms of their large house, Hong Xian suddenly burst into his house at dawn, wet, lonely, almost naked and with a bleeding wound on his temple. He had waited so much, that despicable creature, that a Burmese patrol had finally intercepted the boat in which he fled, and had lost everything, everything and everyone who were with him, all except his own miserable life!
Until that moment she looked at me as if imploring compression, maybe searching for affection, but at this point, Alphonse, she adopted a harsh and monotone voice, with her wide, dark eyes narrowed as they scarcely drew two thin horizontal lines on her delicate face. And then she told me, somewhat confusingly, how her husband, both frightened and angry, not even looking at her face, did nothing but complain obsessively about having lost his fortune and nearly his life. She felt angry and humiliated, she said, and in her clouded mind could not do other than repeating “you have forsaken me”, “you have forsaken me”, shouting to him several times, while he continued ignoring her, stirring the house looking for clothes and money. She could not remember how long did it take, she said, he ignoring her and she rebuking him his miserable betrayal, just that, at a certain moment, she thought “you were dead to me, and so you must remain.” She did not remember when did she grabbed the knife, but she remembered nailing it on her husband’s neck, and staring at him while he was shaking on the floor of their empty house until he died. Then she remembered having dragged his body to the cellar, cleaning the blood, changing clothes, washing herself, taking the little money and jewels he had left behind and, like in a strange dream, leaving the house and never coming back, heading toward the Portuguese mission, the only family she had in the entire city. And with that she sighed, she closed her eyes, then opened them, then looked at me with a pained but steady gaze, then she fell silent again and went outside.
And that, my friend is her confession, the icing on the cake so to say, the tragedy within the tragedy! I’m not sure what will happen now but so far we will go together to Malacca. I can see her feeling better day after day since her confession, she laughs and talks, even if little and shyly, as if ashamed, carefully. I think she fears I might be scared, she might even expect me to abandon her in this place before embarking. I, from my side, did not talk about it again. You might think I’m crazy but, despite everything she told me then, I trust her so much I would be able to sleep peacefully at her side after putting a knife in her hands before closing my eyes.
I’ll write you soon to tell you more stories Alphonse, and to keep you abreast of our business. Be glad that in the end everything turned out well, find some delight with these stories from Siam, fear not anymore for me, and drink a little wine to my health, mine and that unhappy city of Ayutthaya, where the body of the infamous Hong Xian lies who, like the unhappy city, no one will ever see again.
(lee el relato en Español aquí)