Rodney’s Salvation

Nobody would have thought that there was any thing romantic about John Rodney.  I never did though I had known him for fifteen years.  I simply regarded him as one of the thousands of Englishmen who make their “pile” in the East and come home to live on it.  If there was any distinction in my friend’s case, it lay in the fact that he had evidently at some period of his life got a paralytic stroke which slightly affected his limbs.  The first time that I entertained any curiosity as to Rodney’s past was when Dr. Teck the great specialist in nervous diseases corrected me for speaking of his having received a stroke.  “Impossible,” he said, “it must have been poison.”  That happened over five years ago; and it was only last Wednesday, after the wedding party had left, that Rodney first alluded to the matter himself.

He and I were talking over our punch late that night; and naturally the conversation was mainly about Miss Comte.  Rodney proposed to tell me how he came to be her guardian; but as the earlier part of his narrative contains much irrelevant information about his own career I shall condense it somewhat.

John Rodney was the son of the well-known Colonel Rodney who fell in the Indian Mutiny; and, when an accident to one of his eyes made him leave the army, family influence secured him an important post in the “Chinese and North of England Trading Corporation.”  He joined it at a time when the Directors had determined to extend its operations to Siam; and Rodney was at once dispatched to Bangkok as their representation.  But to quote Rodney himself:–

“In spite of a constitutional tendency to devilment I was animated by the best possible resolves until the day I reached my destination.  But Bangkok was too much for me; and to this day I shudder when I think of it.  The ugliness of the natives, the houses, the women, the public buildings, the bonzes, and the dogs made me sick the very first day; while the smells in the streets were enough to knock down whole droves of elephants.  When I came to know the place better I disliked it more.  In the first place my military training in India wholly unfitted me for dealing gracefully with the native “nobility and gentry.”  They were in one of their periodical war-fevers when I arrived, and all the talk was about the annihilation of France.  I asked one of the princes if he thought that a rapid march overland on Paris was not within the limits of possibility.  ‘No, I don’t think so, he returned quite gravely, ‘you see we only mean to drive the scoundrels out of Indo-China.’  Then, said I, ‘you had better let them take Bangkok.  The smells alone will kill them all off in a week.’

There were seven semi-educated English people, –four males and three females–engaged in writing books on Siam at the time of my arrival; and the Government had ordered seven hundred copies of each work–on condition that the tone was ‘favourable.’  As for the foreign population, it made me blush for my race.  You know with what a haughty and proper contempt the English conquerors of India treat their Aryan relative, how the British officer will practically on no condition give his hand to the man and brother though he favours him pretty frequently with is toe.  Well, in Siam let me tell you, the English are, on the whole, toadies of the most contemptible description, just as they were in India before they had discarded the role of the meek tradesman.  The noble Briton will cheerfully grovel on his belly, in native fashion, before the king and his princes; while the noble Briton’s wife will weep with pleasure if she is graciously allowed to kiss the betel-stained hand of any of those women about the Palace who call themselves princesses.  Even among themselves the “Farangs”[1] keep up a transparent show of bon ton.

Is it any wonder that this sort of thing speedily drove me to drink, and that the business went rapidly to the dogs?  Drink introduced me to a different style of society, but one which had at least the merit of being frank; and this frank section of the population made known to me, after a time, the mysterious and dreadful causes which have led to the decline of Oriental peoples.  As I have solemnly sworn to the High Priest of Wat Cleeliphia to keep secret all he has revealed to me, I can never disclose the nature of the terrible and unheard-of practices which are carried on in Buddhist monasteries; and this is perhaps to be regretted as I am the only European who has ever been initiated into those strange and awesome rites.

I am breaking no one’s confidence, however, in assuring you that Bangkok is the centre of a great slave-trade in young women.  In my time it was a large European firm that controlled the traffic.  Their agents were in all parts of the country, and continually forwarded hundreds of the prettiest Siamese, Laos, Shan, Annamite, Burmese and other girls to the central offices which were situated in the deserted palace of a prince on the west bank of the Menam.  As the prince in question had been tortured to death some years before, his premises were carefully avoided by the natives.  To make assurance doubly sure, bribery was very largely resorted to.  The girls thus collected were sold to the brothel-owners or to private individuals, and from the latter source enourmous profits were often made.

Well, I need hardly say that in due course I followed the universal custom of the country and invested in a Siamese girl.  She was a remarkably pretty specimen.  Plump, dark-eyed, and youthful, she had the perfect pose of a Greek statue, and the luxurious lissomness which belongs to the Oriental maiden alone.  What connoisseurs prized most in her, however, was her complexion, on the beauties of which they used to hold forth with as much enthusiasm as if she were a great work of art.  As the real teinte Siamoise is rapidly disappearing now on account of frequent intermarriage between the Chinese and the natives, I may mention that it consists principally in bronze of a slightly deeper tint than that which you find on the cheek of a Neapolitan peasant girl.  Under the hair it is whitish, it is very light on the temples, while on the cheeks it gradually darkens towards the centre.  On the smooth and lustrous face of a young woman this soft gradation of colour has the most charming effect possible, ¾much the same effect, indeed, as is produced by the lilies and roses of an English girl’s complexion.  I was enjoying the fascinations of this Diana of the Klongs when my happiness was brought to a sudden termination by the firm.  It is unnecessary for me now to say how it happened.  The whole business was an exceedingly unpleasant one for me, especially as I emerged from it as a mere clerk in the firm I had for some time controlled.  There was one bright spot, however, in the gloom that enveloped me, and that was¾my Siamese girl!  The news of misfortunes seemed to bind her closer to me; and though jealous persons talked about large sums of money that she had invested in Singapore I refused to listen to any accusation against the dear creature until¾she poisoned me, and left me the cripple that I am!

It was one the Queen’s birthday that she did it.  I remember the night well!  I had returned home rather exhilarated from the British Legation, and I have a dim recollection of her inducing me to drink something.  I recovered consciousness some days after, just in time to find myself as near death’s door as ever a man was.  As I slowly recovered I gradually got to know what had happened¾that I had been poisoned by my mistress, and that she and my Annamite ‘boy’ had disappeared after having cleared out the house, as house had never been cleared out before.  Everything was taken except my bed, two large tables, and a heavy office-desk.  Money, clothes, pictures, hair-brushes, chairs, books, door-mats, almeirahs,[2] and razors were among the spoil which must have been carried off by way of the river as my steam launch and cargo boats were also missing.  Doctor X, a regular Sherlock Holmes in his way, and an old friend of mine, did his best to track the runaways but in vain.

‘You’re deuced lucky, however,’ said he ‘in escaping with your life.  I presume that you were slightly inebr¾I mean that you were dining out on the night in question.  Lucky dog.  It saved your life.  You spilt most of that fatal brew all over your clothes.  I have found enough poison on your coat alone to have killed twenty persons.’

‘I’m sorry’ I retorted, ‘that I didn’t drink it all.  I don’t quite see what I have got to live for now.’  And as a matter of fact I had in my possession at that moment a dose of arsenic by means of which I meant to terminate my existence as soon as the doctor had left the room.

‘My dear sir,’ said Dr. X. ‘you must not lose courage.  You have got to live for your daughter of course.  I found her in your house yesterday, locked up in a filthy cellar and almost starving.  Perhaps you are not aware of how she was treated; but it strikes me as very strange that you should not have made any enquiries about her.’

Here the Doctor got up and began to walk about the room with a quick impatient step.  As for me I was speechless with amazement for I had never had a daughter, and had never seen a little girl in my house.

‘It was an awful affair,’ continued the doctor, ‘a disgusting business.  The unfortunate child was quite naked when we found her, and has never evidently worn clothes in her life before.  She is such a pretty child, too.  Her mother must have been a Frenchwoman.’

At this stage I became convinced that my mind was gone, and that, while the doctor was really talking about the weather or the club I seemed to imagine that he was accusing me of some extraordinary crime.  The horror of finding myself insane was so great that I must have swooned, for I next remember the doctor calling himself a cad and telling me to lie still till he could bring the little girl to me.  When he left I immediately sought for the arsenic but during my swoon the coat in which it was secreted had been taken off and hung at the other end of the room.  With the greatest difficulty I got out of bed and tried to cross the floor but my legs soon gave way and I tumbled on the ground.  The noise brought up a Siamese attendant who helped me into bed again, and brought me the coat.  He had hardly closed the door, however, when it was opened again by the doctor who entered the room leading a very pretty European girl of seven or eight by the hand.  The good man was very much dismayed at the change in my appearance but I paid no attention to what he said as all my faculties were bent on discovering whether the child was real or only the creature of a disordered imagination.  Never can I forgot the joy I experienced when I touched her peachy cheek and found there was no illusion, that I had really got something to live for, in short, that child was my salvation.  The contemplation of her beauty, grace, and innocence made a new man of me.  I went into business again as soon as I had left the hospital, and in three months I regained the position I had lost.

As to the history of the child, Doctor X. worked out the whole problem for me with the greatest ingenuity; and succeeded in discovering that she was the daughter of a French sea-captain whose vessel, containing himself, his child, and a cargo of contraband goods had fallen into the hands of Tonquin pirates some years before.  To my remember that on this occasion the French Government obtained an indemnity of 500,000 francs from the Tsungli-Yamen.[3]  How the child came into my girl’s possession it is not easy to tell; but I surmise that she must have been smuggled into the Menam and sold as a slave.  It is certainly the rule in Siam for mistresses of Europeans to invest in slaves; and if mine had bought a young white girl it is only natural that she should have carefully concealed her from me.

My mistress?  No, I never saw her since, though I lived twenty years after.  But when I sold out and returned to Europe, a very funny thing happened to me at Singapore.  Captain Gulf of the Scottish Oriental happened to dine with me in Raffles Hotel, and when he had stowed away a fairly large selection of liquors in dead silence he got suddenly drunk.  He afterwards grew pathetically pious, and began telling me with floods of tears what a wicked man he was, how he had murdered a coolie of the Opium Farmer at Bangkok and thrown the body into the river, and how…But the interesting part of his tale, so far as I am concerned, was that which dealt with his experience one Queen’s birthday in the year 18¾the very day I was poisoned.  Like Englishmen¾Scotsmen I should have said¾everybody on the board the s.s. Scorpion had tasted of something stronger than water that day and, to use the captain’s expressive phrase, ‘the auld steamer went tearing up the Menam like the very de’il without lights or look-out or any blessed thing.’  On turning a sudden curve in the river they ran down a steam-launch towing a number of cargo boats filled with something that looked like furniture.  Two natives¾a man and a woman¾were thrown into the water ‘and the deuce,’ said the captain, gripping my hand in a sudden burst of cheerfulness, ‘I let them drown.  Ten to one they had been robbing some house; and if they hadn’t been robbing some house they would have kept me lively for ten years to come with actions for damage and destruction in the British Consular Court.  Yes! Hooroo! I let them drown!’”


[1] Foreigner, Caucasian (Thai).

[2]Large, bulky items of furniture, such as chests of drawers or cupboards (Anglo-Indian, from Urdu).

[3]The Chinese Qing government’s Foreign Office.