Laarni – A Dream
By Loreto Paras – Sulit
Tell a story, my children? Yes, my dears, there is no better thing in the world than to corner Grandmother on a rainy day like this and make her tell a story. When the sun is out and life is warm, youth scarcely heeds old age; but when skies are grey and the day is cold, it seeks a corner and demands a tale of love from old lips. I know my dears. I was young once, and I did these things. I laughed and loved like you? You smile? You wonder how a face so withered, a figure so bent could ever have known love? Ah me, the conceit of youth.
Close the window, my dears, the wind is cold – it chills my bones. Nearer, my dears, and listen to a tale of love and fierce hearts. Don’t smile and look at each other. It is not my story I shall tell. It would be hard to efface the wrinkles from my face and imagine me young and beautiful.
There, soften the glares of lights and turn them low. Now listen, my dears: You have heard many tales and legends of other lands. You have been thrilled over stories of kings and queens of faraway countries, but you never heard of such tales about this land of ours. Listen, my dears, and I shall tell you a story of old Philippines – the story of old Laarni and brave Maharlika.
Once, this country of ours was a vast wild space ruled by men who knew no law but their wills. Your history tells you of rajas, of freemen and slaves. Among the rulers of the barangays, none was more fierce, none more powerful than Maginoo Mataas. He was known widely, not for his prowess nor for his wisdom, but for the beauty of his daughter, the Princess Laarni. She was not called by the name of princess of course, but we shall give her that name – she deserves it. Maginoo Mataas’ barangay was bordered by the sea and by the mountains, but these were naught compared to his daughter.
Ah, my dears, I am sure you would wish you had her beauty. Girls though you are, you would have fallen in love with her ahd you seen her coming from her bath in one of her father’s rivers. Her hair trailing down her back was the night without stars; her eyes – no deeper darkness could you find them, her lashes – thick enough to capture sunbeams and keep them in her eyes; her mouth, my dears, adorable in its haughty curves, exquisite in its crimson softness. Grace and beauty incarnate was this imperious daughter of Maginoo Mataas.
You are murmuring, my dears? I am flowery? You laugh at the way I talk, products of this cold, materialistic age, but you like what I say.
Many were the young men who had thrusts their spears into her father’s staircase, asking for her hand. But they asked in vain. They cold not offer anything to tempt Maginoo Mataas to give up his daughter. Yearly, in the months of March and April, came trading junks from China bringing silks and jewels to give to the fair Laarni. The owner of these junks, Mandarin Li Ho Weng, came with his ships to pay court to Laarni, but even his wealth could not tempt her father. Thus Laarni lived, her heart whole and free.
One afternoon, as she was wont to do she started with her slaves for the river to take her to daily bath. She was in an irritated mood, for the heat could not be driven away by even huge fans of the slaves. Now as she reached the river, she motioned them aside and they cringed low before their angry mistress.
Laarni walked down the bank to her favorite spot. A surprised awaited her. A boat with a solitary occupant sat lightly on the water. Laarni regarded the intruder haughtily. She saw a very bronzed man in the garb of a freeman. The lordly air of his still figure matched her imperious stare.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“I am Maharlika,” he answered.
“ A maharlika?” she inquired, frowning.
“Yes, I am a freeman,” he replied smiling.
“And I am known by the name of Maharlika to tell all that I am a freeman, slave to none but myself. I am Maharlika, Princess Laarni,” he repeated.
“You know me?” was Laarni’s question.
“Who would not know you?” was his answer, “you most beautiful of creatures? Who has not heard of you, most lovely of beings? I heard afar in my land across the mountains, and I came to see the Princess Laarni. I saw her and she fired my blood; naught will satisfy me till I have won her.”
“Who are you that dare speak thus to me, Laarni, daughter of Rajah Mataas? Know you not the penalty for such an offense is death?
“I know, most exquisite woman, and I dare,” he answered unafraid, the quiet smile still on his face.
“You dare!” she stamped her feet angrily.
Ah, my dears, the proud Laarni had never known such impudence. “You, a mere freeman, to address me in that language, as if I were a slave! You, only a maharlika, daring to woo the daughter of Rajah Mataas! You , a nobody, to transgress our laws and customs!”
“I am a freeman – a noble one,” he answered equally proud. “I have a heart so I dare to love; I have a tongue, so I dare speak.”
Laarni could make no reply. Never in her life had she been treated that way. Her eyes glittered with wrath and her voice trembled with great anger as she said, “My father shall hear of this and his warriors will scour the rivers for you.”
Maharlika brought his boat near the bank and then he jumped ashore. A splendid man he was, my children. Laarni, even in her anger, could not help admiring the splendid cast of his head and the easy swing of his powerful figure.
“I go to your father, Princess Laarni. I am an emissary of Rajah Bayani.” Laarni recognized in the name her father’s greatest ally, who dwelt across the mountains.
At this moment a slave came running toward them. “Your father summons you,” he told Laarni. “The Chinese junks have arrived and with them comes Li Ho Weng.” Laarni called her slaves and walked away. When she reached her father’s house she saw that Maharlika had followed her. She climbed the bamboo staircase and paused for a moment to look back. The young man had stopped and then raised the spear he was carrying and thrust it into the staircase. Her father, lordly in his crimson silk robe, huge gold armlets, and jeweled anklets, came out.
“Who is it that comes?” he asked loudly.
“Maharlika,” the freeman answered. “I come to ask for the hand of Laarni for my master, Rajah Bayani.” Laarni fled to her chamber and vented her anger on her slaves. That man there on the staircase had been entrusted to ask her for his master, and had dared address his love to her.
That evening she was requested to appear before her father. “My daughter,” he announced gently, “two proposals have come today. One is from my most esteemed friend Rajah Bayani, which I favor and hope you will accept. The other is from Li ho Weng. He has renewed his suit this year and desires a definite answer. I cannot give my daughter to a foreigner, rich though he may be.”
“I don’t want either of them,” answered Laarni. “Rajah Bayani is old and has had many wives. I loathe Li Ho Weng.”
“You will have to become the bride of Rajah Bayani,” decided her father, and he motioned her away. Laarni retired in vexation to her chamber.
You appear incredulous, my children? It is only in your time that you can say “no” to your elders. They were submissive in those days. Yes, my dears. I shall hasten on with the story.
The days passed uneventfully. Maharlika was often with Maginoo Mataas, arranging the dower. He attended the councils of the barangay and endeared himself to the heart of the old man by his wisdom and courtesy. He did not speak to Laarni; but his eyes pleaded eloquently. Try as she would, Laarni could not sufficiently hate the love – traitor.
One day Laarni was approached by a slave with a message. The Chinese junks leave on the morrow, and she had not been on board. Would she deign to visit them that day? They had brought their richest silks and satins this year, and they were waiting for her, so the slave announced. Laarni decided to go. It had been always the custom of her people to go aboard those junks and exchange their products of gold dust, wax and honey for goods brought by the Chinese traders.
Laarni took only one slave with her. The Mandarin Li Ho Weng met her life as she went with this stately Chinese trader. She looked at his gold – embroidered robe of heavy silk. She would have plenty like those and jewels galore.
Laarni was lost in ecstasy at the goods brought before her. All the wealth of the East seemed to spread out before her. She cried in admiration over a silk robe on which was embroidered a pagoda and a garden. Flowers seemed to arch in life from the stems.
“Would you not like to dwell in such a palace, beautiful Princess Laarni?” asked the low voice of Li Ho Weng. She was silent. “There is such a place waiting for you most gracious of women,” he continued.
Laarni shook her head and turned to go away, but Mandarin Li Ho Weng barred her away. He smiled slyly. “I have waited of you all these days, but you did not come. Now that you are here, shall I let you go?”
“Do you think that you can bear me away as if I were a piece of goods?” she questioned haughtily. “My father can raise a thousand warriors at the flick of a hand.”
The mandarin shrugged lightly, and motion caused the light to ripple over the gold embroidery of his robe.
“Can your spears and arrows avail against those?” he asked as he pointed to little cannons on the side of the junk. He came nearer to Laarni. “Across the seas where I dwell in a house of gold and recline on a couch of silk, your beauty haunts me. Year after year, I have come, seemingly to trade with your people, but it was a glimpse of the beautiful blossom of this wild land. Year by year my love grew until I decided that I would have her, cost what it might. You think all those junks are laden with goods? They are full of men and weapons.”
A commotion cut short his speech. Two Chinese came dragging a wet Maharlika before them. He looked defiantly at the master, glancing gently at Laarni.
“I heard all you said, thief of women.”
The mandarin, lord of where he stood, looked contemptuously at him. “Who are you?” he asked. Laarni could not help smiling. Everybody who saw Maharlika asked him that question.
The captive drew himself up rapidly. “I am Maharlika, son of Rajah Bayani. My father died just yesterday, so I am Rajah Maharlika.” Laarni started in surprise, “I have come to take the Princess Laarni,” he announced with easy confidence.
The mandarin laughed contemptuously. “If you had not told me that, I should have freed you.” Now, the imperious mandarin gave an order to a shrunken, shriveled Chinese. The latter disappeared and came back bearing a cage made of fine wire. Laarni shuddered. The cage contained a snake – a cobra.
The mandarin regarded the snake for some time. A cruel, little smile was on his lips. “Touch it,” he commanded and the Chinese seemed to shrivel in to a wrinkled mass. Fear, ugly fear, yellowed his seamed face.
“I cannot, I cannot, o heaven-born,” he whined.
“Touch it,” thundered the master.
“I cannot, I cannot, oh Celestial-being,” he moaned in fright. The master drew a dagger significantly. There was no alternative; the Chinese knew he would meet a more horrible death if he disobeyed. With hands that trembled mightily, he opened the door of the cage and thrust his hand. He pulled it out instantly with a terrible cry. He fell and rolled down dead.
“You shall die like that,” Li ho Weng told Maharlika grimly. Laarni made no protest; she knew it would be useless. Beside there was a savage desire in her breast to see that confident man tested.
Maharlika smiled at her, and then, without hesitation, he stepped near the cage and thrust in his hand. How he did it, I do not know. As his hand emerged from the cage, it bore a wriggling snake. It writhed fiercely and tried to reach the hand that choked it unmercifully.
Maharlika suddenly thrust it into the mandarin’s face. A terrible cry arose from the followers when they witnessed their master fall dead. But Maharlika kept them at the bay with the snake he held.
“Jump, jump, and swim to the shore,” he commanded Laarni. “My men are coming and they will rescue you.” A few minutes later he was splashing beside her. No men came, and together they reached the shore safely.
“Thrust your spear into my father’s staircase,” she whispered before she was led away by her frightened slaves. “Thrust it for yourself, and you will not thrust in vain.”
There my dear, is the story of the winning of the beautiful Laarni. You don’t believe such things happened in those days? Age confuses dreams with memories – I do not know. But who can tell – love always exists at all times and in all climes.
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