“Mother! Oh, mother, will you come up for a moment, please?” It was Prisna's voice, and Mrs. Samorn laid down the book she had been reading to call up to the girl that she was coming. She immediately did so, too, but in a movement as slow and leisurely as was her wont. Before she quite reached the top of the stairs, Prisna, who had been waiting impatiently for her, shot out an eager hand to grasp her wrist, saying, “I want you to see my room, mother. I've re-arranged it. It looks wonderful!”
Good-naturedly, Mrs. Samorn allowed herself to be led into the room.
“So you've re-arranged it?” she asked with a smile.
“Oh, you're not supposed to look at the floor,” Prisna cried. I'll put those empty trunks and cases away in a moment. I've taken everything out of them and put it away neatly in these cabinets. Now, how do you like the way I've placed the beds? Doesn't it make the room look more spacious? We're going to get more breeze, too, I think. What about those chairs – they're all right where they are, don't you think? And this desk – it now serves a dual purpose, as you may have gathered. I'll use it for writing and Anong for sewing. That big chest over there – I couldn't get rid of it – it's full of the stuff I couldn't possibly put anywhere else. So I'll find a nice piece of silk to cover it with. Well, do you approve, mother?”
“I do,” her mother said, “but what about Anong? She's the one who counts – she has to live in this room too. Has she seen it?”
“Not yet, but I think she'll like it. She appointed me sole decorator of this room, to do with it whatever might seem best to me. So I did.” And with that she dismissed the topic of the room and went on to another. “Please come and sit here, mother, I have something to show you.”
Mrs. Samorn sat down on the bed as she was told, while Prisna lifted a suit-case – evidently the only one that was not empty – from the floor on to the bed, and seated herself between it and her mother. Next she opened the suit-case, took out a big package, and presented it to her.
“Gifts from America. For you, mother. I made a trip to New York especially for them.”
In the box were a handbag, a pair of shoes, a dress, all dark blue in colour and all tastefully smart-looking, and, as an extra touch, a dressy white lace collar that could be worn with practically everything.
Mrs. Samorn looked at the gifts and then at her youngest daughter. The girl had been watching her, head tilted to one side, eyes shining with love and tenderness, pleased because she was pleased with the gifts. The two pairs of eyes met, and then for a few silent seconds Prisna remained tightly clasped in her mother's arms.
Those seconds passed. Prisna now turned once again to the suitcase, picking up and putting down the assortment of boxes and packages inside, giving a running commentary on them as she did so, “… And here is a most marvelous sewing case. I meant to give it to Siri, but now I think it's more suitable for Anong. This is a piece of material for an evening dress, exclusively designed – there's not another piece like it in the world. It's from Paris, wouldn't you have known? There's also this perfume to go with it; Guerlain's Violette. Frightfully expensive. Uncle Viraj did the choosing, and he has expensive tastes. Now, shall I give the material and perfume to Siri? Or to Ubol? What do you think mother? I also have a lovely make-up kit, guaranteed to make any girl a thousand times more beautiful.”
“Anong would love the sewing case,” Mrs. Samorn offered her opinion, “and the make-up kit would make a nice present for Ubol.”
“Then the material-perfume set could go to Siri. Good! I also have a darling box for grandmother – for her betel buts, you know. Tieng will like this umbrella I bought in Hawaii, I'm sure. And there's a very pretty brooch for Chamnien.”
“I certainly have a generous daughter.”
“I'm not through yet,” Prisna laughed. “These binoculars are for Khun Sak. I didn't know how old or young he was, so I thought I'd play safe with these – they're sort of ageless. The only one I don't have a present for is Som. I was so out of touch with you all that I didn't even know I had a nephew.”
“What's in this big box?” asked Mrs. Samorn.
“Toy trains. I bought them for myself. Oh yes, I could give them to Som, I suppose. I'll miss them, but… never mind.” She paused, remembering something else. “I must go and see Grandmother Devasuttha soon. When are you going to take me there, mother? Can we make it soon?”
“Why must it be soon?” Mrs. Samorn's voice was cold.
“Because I have a few things for her from Uncle.” Prisna was not aware of the coldness. “Not for her alone, but for the other uncle and all those aunts as well. Uncle Viraj said I was not to send the stuff but to go and call on them personally.”
To cut the matter short Mrs. Samorn said, “All right, we'll do it soon,” and got up. “It's almost time. Your sisters will be here any minute now, Prisna. Why don't you go and have a bath?”
Tea time was gift-distributing time that day. Those lovely presents Prisna has mentioned to her mother were by no means the only ones she intended to give her family. They turned out to be merely the main items in the big lot, which included some lingerie, scarfs, handkerchiefs, belts, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and brooches. Prisna laid them all out and asked the others to choose whatever happened to take their fancy.
Anong, however, did not get to know about the sewing case until the next morning when she went to the closet for her clothes. She had chosen half a dozen handkerchiefs, a belt, and a charming bracelet, and had been happy and contented with them. The sewing case was a most delightful surprise. There it stood, among her clothes, conspicuously large and beautiful. The card inside said: To Anong with love – Prisna. Anong had never seen anything like it in her life. Everything connected with sewing was there, couched in those partitions, layers and layers of them. Why, the scissors alone took her breath away. Six of them, of varying sizes and purposes, waiting to be used.
Holding the case in her hands, which had turned cold with excitement, Anong went over to her sister to hank her with all the love and warmth from her heart. But Prisna was still asleep, or at least she appeared so to Anong. It would have be inconsiderate to wake her up just for that, so Anong carefully and tenderly put down the case on the dressing table and tiptoed out of the room.
As soon as she was gone, Prisna sat up and burst out laughing.
My trunks arrived the day before yesterday. About time they did! I've been busy fixing up my room – shifting furniture around, adding a few more pieces here and there, and so forth, and it does look superb. I'm very proud, too, since this is the first time I've accomplished anything without your help.
Your picture is now standing on the small table beside my bed. Everyone here agrees you look too handsome and young really to be our uncle. How do you like that?
Those presents were a great success. The make-up kit was just right for Ubol and nothing would have suited Siri more than the silk and perfume. Anong was simply mad about that sewing case. It was so very clever of you to have chosen all those things. But, remember, I did the shopping for mother's shoes, etc., all by myself. I think she cried a little when I gave them to her. I almost did too.
Those other letters I've written you – I hope you didn't mind their being so short and businesslike. The reason was that I had yet to get my bearing in this 'new world' of mine. And, another thing, I wasn't feeling too well. Stomach troubles from eating too much Siamese food. I knew I should have gone easy on it those first days, but I just couldn't resist it. I'm all right now. It's only a matter of getting acclimatized. And while I'm on this subject, let me tell you about the mosquito net and me. At first it was sheer torture to have to sleep under it night after night. I thought I'd suffocate. But now I'm so used to it that if you should want to recall me to the States I'd have to take the net along with me!
I haven't told you about our house, have I? You would like it, uncle. It's a cute frame house, painted white and green. The compound isn't terribly large – only a rai and a half, but enough to give us two nice lawns, one in front of the house and none in the back, the house being in the middle of the ground. And there are flowers everywhere. A drive-way circles the front lawn, but you can also take a branch off it and drive straight to the garage. Our car is an Austin of a most ancient vintage. Next to the garage you have the kitchen and servants' quarters. These units are small like the house itself, and like the house, they're kept spotlessly clean.
So much for the house. Now let me tell you about its inhabitants. I'll skip mother and grandmother, of course, since you already know them very well. (And what a good thing that is, because I should have found it very hard to try and describe them in a few words.) Ubol's married and has a house of her own behind ours, but we might as well include her since she comes here every day or almost. She's awfully nice, uncle, every inch what an eldest sister should be. It's very easy to love her. Her name means “lotus”, did you know? Khun Sak told me that. Khun Sak's her husband – his full name's Somsak, and he's very nice too, and intelligent, and lots of fun. He's thirty-ish, and in case you've forgotten, Ubol is six years older than I. (I hope you appreciate my telling you all this, seeing how little you know about your other three nieces.) Siri looks like me, so everybody says. She's really much prettier, and much more soigné than I can ever hope to be. She changes her hair-do every other week or so, and her wardrobe is full of exquisite clothes which she makes herself. She has a job as a dressmaker. Now, a few lines about Anong. (Are you wondering about her age? If so, she's two years older than I.) Anong is small and dainty, and quiet in a shy, innocent way. She's also goodness itself, an angel, a gem. I could be quite lyrical about her, as you can see. All in all, I have three wonderful, marvelous sisters, and we're one of the happiest families, and should have no complaints whatsoever.
But I have, uncle. This doesn't have anything to do with other people, mind you. I'm perfectly satisfied with everything and everybody here. Everybody except myself. I feel so superfluous, living on them the way I'm doing now. Why did you send me back? To you, at least, I was of some use – you always like my typing. Here, I'm not doing anything for anybody, although they keep saying that I cheer them up just by sticking around, but how can that be enough to justify my existence?
Sorry! I won't grumble any more. It just comes over me once in a while, this awful feeling of being the useless member of the house. A job that I can be good at – that's what I need.
Now, let me introduce to you the rest of the people living here. Meet our night-watchman, uncle. He's Indian. He lives here at night only, making his appearance when it gets dark and falling asleep when it gets late. Where he goes to in the daytime no one seems to know. Next, may I present to you Chum, who drives our car, does the gardening and helps Tieng, with whome he fights occasionally, is our cook and nursemaid for grandmother. Their daughter's name is Chub. And guess what her last name is! Chum and Tieng have no last name, you see, but Chub does, and it's Chumtieng. That's how some of the family names came into being. Convenient, don't you think? Chub's duty in the house is to lend a helping hand to everybody.
We come now to Chamnien, 22, very pretty and very competent. She serves at the table, washes the dishes, does the cleaning and the laundry and a few hundred other things for us. She's also a good cook (trained by mother). And that's all about the people in the house. Now I can go on to something else.
I've been to see Grandmother Devasuttha. What an enormous place she's got! About thirty times the size of ours. And so many houses – the Big House, the Front House, the Middle House and so on. There were a lot of people around and about, and yet it was not lively and gay as it should have been. In fact, the whole place looked so old and cold and eerie to me I was sure it must have been haunted. It's anything but homelike, and I quite sympathize with you for not liking it. Poor uncle!
But I forgot to ask. Where did you use to live – the Middle House? That's the largest and gloomiest of all, and that's where Grandmother D. and our three aunts, your three sisters, are living now. Uncle Suttha and his family have the other big house to themselves. The rest of the buildings are occupied by – I'm not sure about their names or their positions in the house, but mother said they might be Grandfather D.'s lesser wives and their children. Mother wasn't sure either. She hasn't been to the house for nineteen years. I don't blame her too much.
I said there were a lot of people. Well, I should have said a lot of gaping people. They were gaping especially at me as I trotted along on my best behaviour behind mother, carrying your parcels in my arms and dressed in Siri's most presentable skirt-and-blouse. But you wouldn't have thought I was a normal human being by the way they were staring at me.
Some of them talked to us, or rather we were stopped four or five times and asked whom we wanted to see. Finally we did arrive at the Middle House. We went up and were greeted by a couple of young maids who came out of a room on their hands and knees and asked us to wait in the front porch. We sat down on a rug and the maids departed, still on their hands and knees. After some time four more maids, also young, appeared with two more rugs which they laid out not far from where we sat. Then more maids crawled out, posted themselves in inconspicuous corners and started to concentrate on staring at us.
After a while, the three Aunties entered the scene one by one. Betel-nut paraphernalia were brought in by still another maid and placed in front of them. The two older Aunties sulked the whole time, but Auntie Parn, the youngest, seemed nice. She smiled and said I looked like father, and asked about you. She even told one of the maids to fetch us something to drink. This turned out to be coloured and perfumed water. Nice smell, and the colour was pink! Several long minutes went by, then Grandmother D. made her entrance. My, was she a sullen old lady! She didn't look once at me. She said a few words to mother, but did it so grudgingly she might as well not have spoken at all.
So then I gave them your presents, Grandmother D. snapped out, “Good, thank you!” And that was that. The three Aunties didn't say anything; probably scared to death of their mother. In a way, the three reminded me of the Three Grey Women in a Greek mth, with only one eye between them, you know. That's not fair really, because Auntie Parn, as I said before, did try to make it pleasant for us. She smiled again when we said goodbye. It wasn't a very enjoyable visit, but I must say it was an interesting experience for me. I have to desire to taste more of same, however!
Time to say goodbye to you now, darling. Be kind and write to me. I miss you so.
All my love,
“What's happened to Siri, I wonder,” Mrs. Samorn was saying. “She should have been home hours ago.” Her other three daughters, her son-in-law and grandchild were all there with her on the front lawn. Everyone had finished eating but the tea things still remained on the table waiting for Siri.
Prisna looked up from the toy trains she and her nephew were playing with and said, “The car's here, mother.”
“I know, but I couldn't get anything from Chum except that Siri told him to come back without her, that she'd be late.”
“Maybe she's gone with Nonglak to her house,” was Ubol's guess.
“Then why didn't she say so? She usually does. I don't understand it at all.” Mrs. Samorn's eyes were directed toward the gate all this time and now she exclaimed, “Oh, good, here she is!”
Loaded down with several big bags, Siri walked up the lawn with brows wrinkled and lips tightened. She broke into a smile, however, at the sight of food. “Nonglak brought me home,” she explained, and without further ado put down everything and started to fill her plate. “I'm starving!”
“I was just going to have the table cleared,” Mrs. Samorn said. “Where have you been?”
“Nowhere, mother. I just got stuck at the shop. Oh, I was so mad!” And then to Ubol, “You know that little tin goddess, Ratee? She's back from the Philippines.”
“She came back several days ago,” said Ubol. “Why, has she got anything to do with your being mad?”
“Has she!” Siri cried. “You should have seen her ordering us about at the shop. She spent two years in the Philippines taking courses in dressmaking, but when she wants a dress to go dancing in, do you suppose she's going to make it herself? Of course not. She came to us today and she wanted to have it ready tomorrow afternoon. I was mad at Nonglak too. She didn't have to be that obliging. It wouldn't have been rude at all to turn her down flat. And who's going to sew up this dress? Me. Could you help me tonight, Anong?”
Anong was more than willing, and Siri went on, “It's a very complicated pattern, and this queen Ratee says that in the Philippines you don't have to have a fitting so she's not going to have one here either. And she's offering us three times what we usually charge if we get it done by tomorrow.”
“What's wrong with that?” Somsak spoke up.
“Nothing, except that she was showing off and it irritated me to no end.”
“I must say she's much prettier than she used to be,” Somsak said.
“Where did you see her?” his wife asked.
“At Rajavongs the other night. You were there with me, Ubol, don't you remember? She was in the car with Mom Chao Bojna.”
“Oh, really? I saw a girl with him but thought it must have been his sister.”
“Oh, no, his sister is a mere child.”
“Well, the reason I thought that was because everyone was always telling me Mom Chao Bojna was a woman-hater.”
“That can't be,” Siri interrupted, “because he's taking Ratee out tomorrow night.” She pointed to the paper bags. “And Ratee wants the dress for this occasion. You should have heard her brag about this date.”
But Ubol did not think her information had been entirely wrong. “Maybe he is giving up being a woman-hater.”
“He's never been one,” her husband said. “He'd looked the field over and didn't find any girl he could fall in live with, that's all.”
“And you think Ratee is the answer to his dreams? He can't be very choosy then.” This bit of sarcasm came from Siri.
“They're cousisn, you know,” said Mrs. Samorn.
“How, mother?” Siri asked. “He is a member of the Royal Family while Ratee is a commoner like us. Well, not exactly us – she's richer.”
“Khunying Chuen, Ratee's mother, and Mom Choy, Mom Chao Bojna's mother, are sisters, you see.”
“Ratee's mother is quite a clever woman,” Somsak stated. The others looked at him questioningly. “Didn't you know? Just before Mom Chao Bojna came back from Europe, Khunying Chuen sent her daughter away to the Philippines. Then His Serene Highness returned, searched around for a girl who would be worthy of his love; a long and fruitless search, as Khunying Chuen had expected it to be, knowing how particular he is. Then, when all these marriageable girls had been crossed off his list, she sent for Ratee to come home. No competition now. Perfect timing. I think it's going to work out too.”
“Is His Serene Highness very rich?” Anong asked her first question of the afternoon. “And handsome?”
“Richer than anyone I know,” Somsak replied, but not quite as handsome as I am!”
Ubol threw a “Don't be silly!” at her husband, then said, “He's really and truly rich, Anong. He owns that Tamnak Manorom at Hua Hin, and Tamnak Sukharom in Sriracha. All his resort houses have names ending in 'rom'. His house in Bangkok is on the river. I don't know how many boats or yachts he's got, but I can tell you he has at least four cars.”
Ubol paused. Siri carried on for her, “And he's big and tall and wears a most wonderful moustache. He's a dream to look at. If only he wouldn't be so reserved andn so aloof.” And with that casual but enthusiastic analysis she abruptly dismissed His Serene Highness Mom Chao Bojna from the conversation. “I almost forgot to tell you, mother. Auntie Sanguan came to the shop today. She asked about you. She stayed a long time telling me her trouble.”
“Oh? What trouble?” Auntie Sanguan had been Mrs. Samorn's classmate. The friendship which had started in their school days so long ago had not waned. The 'Two Esses', as they had been called then, remained as close now as they had ever been.
“It's about her school, mother,” Siri continued. “Her English teacher has resigned to get married. Auntie hasn't been able to find anyoen to replace her.”
“But I thought she had two English teachers.”
“Oh, yes, but the one that's still with her is quite old. Anyway, one's not enough. Auntie was really depressed. I was so sorry for her.”'
Prisna had not been paying full attention to the talk, but now she quickly stood up. “What did you say, Siri?” she asked. “I didn't hear all of it.”
“Why this sudden interest?” Ubol said smilingly. “We thought you were lost to the world, what with Som and those toys.”
Prisna did not answer her, but repeated the question to Siri, “What did you say, Siri?”
“Why, I didn't say anything,” stammered the surprised and somewhat startled Siri, but after a pause she went on in an informative tone. “I only said I was sorry for Auntie Sanguan. Her English teacher quit, and she hasn't found anyone else to replace her. That's all.”
Prisna turned from Siri to Anong. “Did you hear that?”
No response from Anong, only another astonished look. So Prisna made another turn. “Who's this Auntie Sanguan, mother? Do you know her?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Samorn said. “You also know her. She came to see me often. The plump lady who loved to play with your hair, remember?”
“Oh, yes, I do. She's very kind. Oh, this is wonderful!”
“Everything! You're going to take me to see Auntie, aren't you, mother? Tomorrow morning? So I can apply for that teaching job.”
“You a teacher?” Siri said unbelievingly.
“Why not? I can teach English and drawing and shorthand and typing. What more do you want? What do you say, mother?”
Mrs. Samorn was agreeable. Prisna whirled around and, finding Ubol nearest at hand, threw her arms about her in a wild embrace. The eldest sister struggled for breath while her husband watched them with a grin. And with a grin he asked, “How old are you, Prisna?”
“Nineteen. Maybe I'm too young to be a teacher. But if I comb my hair another way and wear a slight frown, I'm sure I can pass for twenty-five or even thirty.”
“Anong! Anong! Oh, where are you, Anong?”
Anong had intended to rest for a while, but the call was so insistent and accompanied by such quick and excited footsteps running up the stairs, that she abandoned the idea and climbed out of bed. Before she knew what to do next, however, the door swing open, Prisna came tearing in and gave her such a violent hug that they both fell down on the bed.
“I've got the job,” she began breathlessly. “Look, Anong, here's the time-table and here are the school rules and regulations. I'm going to teach only English and I'm going to have only Mathayom V and Special Class I. I don't have to take on Special Class II. Ah, I'm so happy. But isn't it funny, Anong? I planned to become a secretary, and here I am – a teacher. What is today? Friday? Well, class begins on Monday. Three more days. I can hardly wait.”
Late that night, a sound woke Anong up. On closer listening, it turned out to be the sound of someone sobbing and it came from where Prisna's bed stood. Anong called out softly to her younger sister. No reply came, only more and louder sobbing. This terrified Anong and she switched on the small lamp beside the bed.
“Why did you turn on the light?” Prisna demanded sharply.
“What's wrong, dear? Why are you crying?”
“Nothing's wrong. I – I miss Uncle, that's all.” A pause and then in a much softer voice, “Turn off the light, Anong, I thought you were asleep, otherwise I wouldn't have… Well, I'm going to sleep. Goodnight!”
Bu Anong could not get back to sleep, not until it was almost morning. The next day everyone remarked about the dark rings under her eyes, but Anong didn't tell anybody how she had lain awake worrying about Prisna, feeling sad because Prisna had felt unhappy. They wouldn't have known what she was takling about in any case, because the next day Prisna was her usual self – all sunshine and laughter, fresh as the morning itself. And once again Anong could only gaze at her younger sister and wonder in silence. Prisna still remained a puzzle to her.