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t the commencement of the English and Burmese war of 1824, all the Christians (called “hat-wearers,” in contradistinction from the turbaned heads of the Orientals) residing at Ava were thrown unceremoniously into the death-prison. Among them were both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries; some few reputable European traders; and criminals shadowed from the laws of Christendom “under the sole of the golden foot.” These, Americans, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Armenian, were all huddled together in one prison, with villains of every grade,—the thief, the assassin, the bandit, or all three in one; constituting, in connection with countless other crimes, a blacker character than the inhabitant of a civilized land can picture. Sometimes stript of their clothing, sometimes nearly starved, loaded with heavy irons, thrust into a hot, filthy, noisome apartment, with criminals for companions and criminals for guards, compelled to see the daily torture, to hear the shriek of anguish from writhing victims, with death, death in some terribly detestable[150] form, always before them, a severer state of suffering can scarcely be imagined.
The Burmese had never been known to spare the lives of their war-captives; and though the little band of foreigners could scarcely be called prisoners of war, yet this well-known custom, together with their having been thrust into the death-prison, from which there was no escape, except by a pardon from the king, cut off nearly every reasonable hope of rescue. But (quite a new thing in the annals of Burmese history), although some died from the intensity of their sufferings, no foreigner was wantonly put to death. Of those who were claimed by the English at the close of the war, some one or two are yet living, with anklets and bracelets which they will carry to the grave with them, wrought in their flesh by the heavy iron. It may well be imagined that these men might unfold to us scenes of horror, incidents daily occurring under their own shuddering gaze, in comparison with which the hair-elevating legends of Ann Radcliff would become simple fairy tales.
The death-prison at Ava was at that time a single large room, built of rough boards, without either window or door, and with but a thinly thatched roof to protect the wretched inmates from the blaze of a tropical sun. It was entered by slipping aside a single board, which constituted a sort of sliding-door. Around the prison, inside the yard, were ranged the huts of the under-jailers, or Children of the Prison, and outside of the yard, close at hand, that of the head-jailer. These jailers must necessarily be condemned criminals, with a ring, the sign of outlawry, traced in the skin of the cheek, and the name[151] of their crime engraved in the same manner upon the breast. The head-jailer was a tall, bony man, with sinews of iron; wearing, when speaking, a malicious smirk, and given at times to a most revolting kind of jocoseness. When silent and quiet, he had a jaded, careworn look; but it was at the torture that he was in his proper element. Then his face lighted up,—became glad, furious, demoniac. His small black eyes glittered like those of a serpent; his thin lips rolled back, displaying his toothless gums in front, with a long, protruding tusk on either side, stained black as ebony; his hollow, ringed cheeks seemed to contract more and more, and his breast heaved with convulsive delight beneath the fearful word Man-Killer. The prisoners called him father, when he was present to enforce this expression of affectionate familiarity; but among themselves he was irreverently christened the Tiger-cat.
One of the most active of the Children of the Prison was a short, broad-faced man, labelled Thief, who, as well as the Tiger, had a peculiar talent in the way of torturing; and so fond was he of the use of the whip, that he often missed his count, and zealously exceeded the number of lashes ordered by the city governor. The wife of this man was a most odious creature, filthy, bold, impudent, cruel, and, like her husband, delighting in torture. Her face was not only deeply pitted with smallpox, but so deformed with leprosy, that the white cartilage of the nose was laid entirely bare; from her large mouth shone rows of irregular teeth, black as ink; her hair, which was left entirely to the care of nature, was matted in large black masses about her head; and her[152] manner, under all this hideous ugliness, was insolent and vicious. They had two children,—little vipers, well loaded with venom; and by their vexatious mode of annoyance, trying the tempers of the prisoners more than was in the power of the mature torturers.
As will readily be perceived, the security of this prison was not in the strength of the structure, but in the heavy manacles, and the living wall. The lives of the jailers depended entirely on their fidelity; and fidelity involved strict obedience to orders, however ferocious. As for themselves, they could not escape; they had nowhere to go; certain death awaited them everywhere, for they bore on cheek and breast the ineffaceable proof of their outlawry. Their only safety was at their post; and there was no safety there in humanity, even if it were possible for such degraded creatures to have a spark of humanity left. So inclination united with interest to make them what they really were,—demons.
The arrival of a new prisoner was an incident calculated to excite but little interest in the hat-wearers, provided he came in turban and waistcloth. But one morning there was brought in a young man, speaking the Burmese brokenly, and with the soft accent of the North, who at once attracted universal attention. He was tall and erect, with a mild, handsome face, bearing the impress of inexpressible suffering; a complexion slightly tinted with the rich brown of the East; a fine, manly carriage, and a manner which, even there, was both graceful and dignified.
“Who is he?” was the interpretation of the inquiring glances exchanged among those who had no liberty to[153] speak; and then eye asked of eye, “What can he have done?—he, so gentle, so mild, so manly, that even these wretches, who scarcely know the name of pity and respect, seem to feel both for him?” There was, in truth, something in the countenance of the new prisoner which, without asking for sympathy, involuntarily enforced it. It was not amiability, though his dark, soft, beautiful eye was full of a noble sweetness; it was not resignation; it was not apathy; it was hopelessness, deep, utter, immovable, suffering hopelessness. Very young, and apparently not ambitious or revengeful, what crime could this interesting stranger have committed to draw down “the golden foot” with such crushing weight upon his devoted head? He seemed utterly friendless, and without even the means of obtaining food; for, as the day advanced, no one came to see him; and the officer who brought him had left no directions. He did not, however, suffer from this neglect, for Madam Thief (most wonderful to relate!) actually shared so deeply in the universal sympathy, as to bring him a small quantity of boiled rice and water.
Toward evening, the Woon-bai, a governor, or rather Mayor of the city, entered the prison, his bold, lion-like face as open and unconcerned as ever, but with something of unusual bustling in his manner.
“Where is he?” he cried sternly,—“where is he? this son of Kathay? this dog, villain, traitor! where is he? Aha! only one pair of irons? Put on five! do you hear? five!”
The Woon-bai remained till his orders were executed, and the poor Kathayan was loaded with five pairs of fetters;[154] and then he went out, frowning on one and smiling on another; while the Children of the Prison watched his countenance and manner, as significant of what was expected of them. The prisoners looked at each other, and shook their heads in commiseration.
The next day the feet of the young Kathayan, in obedience to some new order, were placed in the stocks, which raised them about eighteen inches from the ground; and the five pairs of fetters were all disposed on the outer side of the plank, so that their entire weight fell upon the ankles. The position was so painful that each prisoner, some from memory, some from sympathetic apprehension, shared in the pain when he looked at the sufferer.
During this day, one of the missionaries, who had been honored with an invitation, which it was never prudent to refuse, to the hut of the Thief, learned something of the history of the young man, and his crime. His home, it was told him, was among the rich hills of Kathay, as they range far northward, where the tropic sun loses the intense fierceness of his blaze, and makes the atmosphere soft and luxurious, as though it were mellowing beneath the same amber sky which ripens the fruits, and gives their glow to the flowers. What had been his rank in his own land, the jailer’s wife did not know. Perhaps he had been a prince, chief of the brave band conquered by the superior force of the Burmans; or a hunter among the spicy groves and deep-wooded jungles, lithe as the tiger which he pursued from lair to lair, and free as the flame-winged bird of the sun that circled above him; or perhaps his destiny had been a humbler one, and he had but followed his goats as they bounded fearlessly from[155] ledge to ledge, and plucked for food the herbs upon his native hills. He had been brought away by a marauding party, and presented as a slave to the brother of the queen. This Men-thah-gyee, the Great Prince, as he was called, by way of pre-eminence, had risen, through the influence of his sister, from the humble condition of a fishmonger, to be the Richelieu of the nation. Unpopular from his mean origin, and still more unpopular from the acts of brutality to which the intoxication of power had given rise, the sympathy excited by the poor Kathayan in the breasts of these wretches may easily be accounted for. It was not pity or mercy, but hatred. Anywhere else, the sufferer’s sad, handsome face, and mild, uncomplaining manner, would have enlisted sympathy; but here, they would scarcely have seen the sadness, or beauty, or mildness, except through the medium of a passion congenial to their own natures.
Among the other slaves of Men-thah-gyee was a young Kathay girl of singular beauty. She was, so said Madam the Thief, a bundle of roses, set round with the fragrant blossoms of the champac-tree; her breath was like that of the breezes when they come up from their dalliance with the spicy daughters of the islands of the south; her voice had caught its rich cadence from the musical gush of the silver fountain, which wakes among the green of her native hills; her hair had been braided from the glossy raven plumage of the royal edolius; her eyes were twin stars looking out from cool springs, all fringed with the long, tremulous reeds of the jungle; and her step was as the free, graceful bound of the wild antelope. On the subject of her grace, her beauty, and her wondrous[156] daring, the jailer’s wife could not be sufficiently eloquent. And so this poor, proud, simple-souled maiden, this diamond from the rich hills of Kathay, destined to glitter for an hour or two on a prince’s bosom, unsubdued even in her desolation, had dared to bestow her affections with the uncalculating lavishness of conscious heart-freedom. And the poor wretch, lying upon his back in the death-prison, his feet fast in the stocks and swelling and purpling beneath the heavy irons, had participated in her crime; had lured her on, by tender glances and by loving words, inexpressibly sweet in their mutual bondage, to irretrievable destruction. What fears, what hopes winged by fears, what tremulous joys, still hedged in by that same crowd of fears, what despondency, what revulsions of impotent anger and daring, what weeping, what despair, must have been theirs! Their tremblings and rejoicings, their mad projects, growing each day wilder and more dangerous,—since madness alone could have given rise to anything like hope,—are things left to imagination; for there was none to relate the heart-history of the two slaves of Men-thah-gyee. Yet there were some hints of a first accidental meeting under the shadow of the mango and tamarind trees, where the sun lighted up, by irregular gushes, the waters of the little lake in the centre of the garden, and the rustle of leaves seemed sufficient to drown the accents of their native tongues. So they looked, spoke, their hearts bounded, paused, trembled with soft home-memories: they whispered on, and they were lost. Poor slaves!
Then at evening, when the dark-browed maidens of the golden city gathered, with their earthen vessels, about[157] the well,—there, shaded by the thick clumps of bamboo, with the free sky overhead, the green earth beneath, and the songs and laughter of the merry girls ringin............
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