Hugh Charles Clifford.

In court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula online

. (page 16 of 17)
Online LibraryHugh Charles CliffordIn court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula → online text (page 16 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

East Coast are closed to traffic by the North-East Monsoon.


into the house thinking I might be able to do some-
thing for the poor, wretched mother. She did not
seem to see it, however, for she bit and snarled at me
like a wounded animal, so I let her be, and Juggins and
I took up our quarters in a smaller hut near by, which
seemed fairly new, and was not so filthy dirty as most
Sakai lairs.

'Presently, when the beggars who had run away
found out who it was, they began to come back again.
You know their way. First a couple of men came
and looked at us. Then I gave them some baccy, and
spoke a word or two to them in Se-noi^ that always
reassures them. Then they went back and fetched the
others, and presently we were as comfortable as possible,
though we had a dozen Sakai to share our hut with
us. J u gg' ns complained awfully about the uneven
flooring of boughs, which you know is pretty hard
lying, and makes one's bones ache as though they were
coming out at the joints, but we had had a tough day
of it and I slept in spite of our hosts. I wonder why
it is that Sakai never sleep the whole night through
like Christians. I suppose it is their animal nature,
and that, like the beasts, they are most awake by night.
You know how they lie about in the warm ashes of
the fireplaces till they are black as sweeps, and then
how they jabber. It is always a marvel to me what
they find to yarn about. Even we white men run
short of our stock of small -talk unless something
happens to keep things going, or unless we have a
beggar like you to jaw to us. They say that English-
men talk about their tubs, when they run dry on all
other subjects of conversation, but the Sakai cannot


talk about washing, for they never bathe by any chance,
it makes that filthy skin disease they are covered with
itch so awfully. It had rained a bit that night, when
they were hiding away in the jungle, and I could hear
their nails going on their dirty hides whenever I woke,
and Juggins told me afterwards that they kept him
awake by their jabber, and that each time he thought
they had settled down for the night, he was disgusted
to find that it was only another false start. Juggins
tried to get a specimen of the bacillus that causes the
skin disease, but I don't know whether he succeeded.
I fancy it is due to want of blood. The poor brutes
have never had enough to eat for a couple of hundred
generations, and what food they do get is bloating
beastly stuff. They do not get enough salt either, and
that generally leads to skin disease. I have seen little
brats, hardly able to stand, covered with it, the skin
peeling off in flakes, and I used to frighten Juggins
out of his senses by telling him that he had caught it,
when his nose peeled with the sun.

c Well, in the morning we got up just in time to
see the poor little dead baby, that I told you about, put
into a hole in the ground. They fitted it into a piece
of bark, and stuck it in the grave they had made for it
on the edge of the clearing, and they put a flint and
steel, and a wood-knife, and some food and things in
with it, though no living baby could have had any use
for half of them, let alone a dead one. Then the old
medicine man of the tribe recited the ritual over the
grave. I took the trouble to translate it once. It
goes something like this :

t a Q Xhou who hast gone forth from among those


who dwell upon the surface of the earth, and hast taken
for thy dwelling-place the land which is beneath the
earth ! Fire have we given thee to light thy fires,
raiment wherewith thou mayest be clothed, food to fill
thy belly, and a knife to clear thy way. Go then and
make unto thyself friends among those who dwell
beneath the earth, and come back no more to trouble
or molest those who live upon the earth's surface."

c It was short and sweet, and then they stamped
down the soil, while the mother whimpered about the
place like a cat that has lost its kittens. A mangy,
half starved dog came and smelt hungrily about the
grave, until it was sent howling away by a kick
from one of the human animals near it ; and a poor
little brat, who set up a piping song, a few minutes
later, was kicked, and cuffed, and knocked about, by
every one who could reach him, with hand, foot, or
missile. The Sakai think it unlucky to sing or dance
for nine days after a death, so the tribesmen had to give
the poor little urchin, who had done the wrong, a
fairly bad time of it to propitiate the dead baby.

'Then they began to pack up all their household
gods, and in about an hour the last of the laden women,
who was carrying so many babies, and cooking pots, and
rattan bags and things, that she looked like the outside
of a gipsy's cart at home, had filed out of the clearing,
and Juggins and I, with our three or four Malays, were
left in possession. The Sakai always shift camp like
that when a death occurs, because they think the ghost
haunts the place where the body died, though what
particular harm the ghost of a mite of a baby could do,
I cannot pretend to say. When there is an epidemic


among the Sakai, they are so busy shifting camp, and
building new huts, that they have not time to get
proper food, and half those who do not die of the disease
die of semi-starvation. They are a queer lot.

4 Well,' continued young Middleton, whose pipe had
gone out, and who was fairly into his stride now,
4 Well, Juggins and I were left alone, and all that day
we hunted through the jungle to try and get a shot at
a seladangj- but we saw nothing, and we came back to
the empty Sakai camp at night, my Malays fairly
staggering under the weight of the rubbish that
Juggins used to call his botanical specimens. We got
a meal of sorts, and I was lying off smoking, and
thinking how lucky it was that the Sakai had cleared
out, when suddenly old Juggins sat up with his eyes
fairly snapping at me.

4 " I say," he said, " I must have that baby. It would
make a ripping specimen."

'"It would make a ripping stink," I answered.
" Go to sleep, Juggins, old man, the tapioca has gone
to your head."

4 " No, but I am serious," said Juggins, " I mean
to have that baby whether you like it or no, and that
is flat."

4 "Yes," said I, "that is flat enough in all
conscience, but I wish you would give it up. People
do not like having their dead tampered with."

4 " No," said Juggins again, rising as he spoke, and
reaching for his shoes, " No, I am going to dig it up

4 "Juggins," said I sharply, "sit down! You are

1 Seladang = wild buffalo.


a lunatic of course, but I was another to bring you
up here with me, knowing as I did the particular
species of crank you are ; and if you really are set on
this beastly thing, I suppose I must not leave you in
the lurch ; though upon my word I do not like the
notion of turning resurrection man in my old age."

' " You are a brick ! " cried Juggins, jumping up
again and fumbling at his boot laces, " Come along ! "

1 " Sit down, man ! " said I in a tone which cooled
his enthusiasm for the moment. u I have said that
I will see you through, and that is enough. But
mind this, you have to do what I tell you. I know
more about the people and the country than you do,
and I am not going to lose caste with my Malays,
and perhaps get stranded in this god-forsaken jumping-
off place, just because you choose to do a fool's deed
in a fool's own way. These Malays of mine here
have no particular love for the exhumed bodies of
dead babies, and they would not understand what any
sane man could want fooling about with such a thing.
They have not been educated up to that pitch of
interest in the secrets of science which seems to have
made a lunatic of you. If they could understand what
we are saying now, they would think that you wanted
the kid's body for some devilry or witchcraft business,
and we should as like as not get left by them. Then
who would carry your precious specimens back to the
boats ? I would not lift a finger to help you, and I
am not over sure that I could even guide you back,
if it came to that. No, this thing cannot be done
until my people are all asleep, so lie still and wait till
I give you the word."


1 Juggins groaned, and tried to persuade me to let
him go at once, but I replied that nothing would
induce me to go before one o'clock, and, so saying, I
turned over on my side, and lay reading and smoking,
while Juggins fumed and fretted, as he watched the
slow hands creeping round the dial of his watch.

4 1 always take books with me, as you know, when
I go into the jungle, and I remember that that
evening I lay reading Miss Florence Montgomery's
Misunderstood^ with the tears running down my nose.
When at last Juggins whispered that time was up,
that pretty story of child life had made me more
sick with Juggins and his disgusting scheme than

c I never felt so like a criminal in all my life as I
did that night as Juggins and I crept out of the hut,
over the sleeping bodies of my Malays ; nor did I
know before, how hard it is to walk on an openwork
flooring of sticks and boughs, if one is anxious to
do it without making a noise. We got out of the
house at last, without waking any of my fellows, and
then began to creep along the edge of the jungle that
lined the clearing. Why did we think it necessary
to creep ? I do not know, but somehow the long
wait, and the uncanny sort of work we were after,
had set our nerves going a bit. The night was as
still as most nights are in real pukka jungle, that is to
say it was as full of noises little quiet beast and tree
noises as an egg's full of meat, and every one of
them made me jump like a half broken gee shying.
There was not a breath of air blowing in the clearing,
but the clouds were racing across the moon miles up


above our heads, and the moon looked as though it
was scudding through them in the opposite direction
like a great white fire balloon. It was dark along
the edge of the clearing, for the jungle threw a
heavy shadow, and Juggins kept knocking those
great clumsy feet of his against the stumps, and
swearing softly, under his breath.

c When we got near the grave, the moon came out
suddenly into a thinner cloud, and the slightly in-
creased light showed me something which made me
clutch Juggins by the arm.

' " Hold hard ! " I whispered as I squatted down.
" What is that on the grave ? "

'Juggins hauled out his six-shooter with a tug,
and, looking at his face, I saw, what I had not
noticed before, that he too was a trifle jumpy, though
why I cannot say. He squatted down quietly enough
by my side, and pressed up against me, a bit closer, I
fancied, than he would have thought necessary at any
other time. I whispered to Juggins telling him not
to shoot, and we sat there for nearly a minute, I
should think, peering through the darkness, trying to
make out what was the black thing on the grave,
that was making that scratching noise.

1 Then the moon came out into a patch of open
sky, and we saw clearly at last, and what it showed
me did not make me feel better. The creature we
had been looking at was kneeling on the grave facing
us. It, or rather she, was an old, old Sakai hag. She
was stark naked, and in the clear moonlight I could
see her long pendulous breasts, and the creases all over
her withered old hide, which were wrinkles filled with


dirt. Her hair hung about her face in great matted
locks, falling forward as she bent above the grave, and
her eyes glinted through the elf-locks like those of
some unclean animal. Her long ringers, with nails
like claws to them, were tearing at the dirt of the
grave, and the exertion made her sweat so that her
body shone in the moonlight.

4 "Juggins," whispered I, "here is some one else
who wants this precious baby of yours for a speci-

1 1 felt him jump to his feet, but I clutched at him,
and pulled him back.

' " Keep still, man ! " I whispered. " Let us see
what the old hag is doing. It is not the brat's
mother, is it ? "

4 " No," whispered Juggins, " this is an older
woman. What a ghoul it is ! "

c Then we were silent again. Where we squatted
we were hidden from the hag by a few tufts of rank
lalang grass, and the shadow from the jungle also
covered us. Even if we had been in the open, I
doubt whether that old woman would have seen us,
she was so eagerly intent upon her work. For five
minutes or more I know it seemed an age to me at
the time we sat there watching her scrape, and tear,
and scratch at the earth of the grave, and all the
while her lips kept going like a shivering man's teeth,
though no sound, that I could hear, came from them.
At length she got down to the corpse, and I saw her
draw the bark wrapper out of the grave, and take the
baby's body out of it. Then she sat back on her
heels, and threw her head up, just like a dog, and


bayed at the moon. She did it three times, and I do
not know what there was in the sound that jangled
up one's nerves, but each time I heard it my hair
fairly lifted. Then she laid the little body down in
a position that seemed to have something to do with
the points of the compass, for she took a long time
arranging it before she was satisfied with the direction
of its head and feet.

4 Then she got up and began to dance round and
round the grave. It was not a pretty sight, out there
in the semi-darkness, and miles away from every one
and everything, to watch this abominable old hag
capering uncleanly, while those restless, noiseless lips
of hers called upon all the devils in Hell, in words
that we could not hear. Juggins pushed harder
against me than ever, and his hand on my arm gripped
tighter and tighter. I looked at his face, and saw
that it was as white as chalk, and I daresay mine
was not much better. It does not sound much, as
I tell it to you here, in a civilised house, but at
the time the sight of that weird figure dancing in
the moonlight, with its ungainly shadow, fairly
scared me.

' She danced silently like that for some minutes ;
setting to the dead baby, and to her own uncouth
capering shadow, till the sight made me feel sick. If
anybody had told me that morning, that I should ever
be badly frightened by an old woman, I should have
laughed j but I saw nothing to laugh at in the idea,
while that grotesque dancing lasted.

'When it was over she squatted down again with
her back towards us, and took up the baby. She



nursed it as a mother might nurse her child. I could
see the curve of the thing's head beyond her thin left
arm, and its little legs dangled loosely near her right
elbow. Then she began to croon to it, swinging it
gently from side to side. She rocked it slowly at first,
but gradually the pace quickened, until she was
swaying her body to and fro, and from side to side, at
such a pace, that to me she looked as though she was
falling all ways at once. And all the time that queer
crooning kept getting faster and faster, and more
awful to listen to. Then suddenly she changed the
motion. She seized the thing she was nursing by its
arms, and began dancing it up and down, still moving
at a fearful pace, and crooning worse than ever. I
could see the little puckered face of the thing above
her head, every time she danced it up, and then, as
she danced it down again, I lost sight of it for a
second, until it reappeared once more. I kept my
eye fixed on the thing's face every time it came
up, and do not believe me if you had rather not it
began to be alive. Its eyes seemed to me to be open,
and its mouth was working like a little child's when
it tries to laugh and is too young to do it properly.
Juggins saw it too, for I could hear him drawing his
breath harder, and shorter than a healthy man should.
Then, all in a moment, she did something. It looked
to me as though she bent forward and kissed it, and
at that very instant a cry went up like the wail of a
lost soul. It may have been something in the jungle,
but I know my jungles pretty thoroughly, and I
swear to you that I have never heard any cry like it
before or since. Then, before we knew what she


was doing, that old hag threw the body back into the
grave, and began dumping down the earth, and
jumping on it, while the cry grew fainter and fainter.
It all happened so quickly, that I had not time to
think of doing anything, till I was startled back into
action by the sharp crack of Juggin's pistol in my ear
as he fired at the hag.

4 " She's burying it alive ! " cried Juggins, which
was a queer thing for a man to say, who had seen the
baby lying stark and dead more than thirty hours
earlier, but the same thought was in my mind too,
and we started forward at a run. The hag had
vanished into the jungle like a shadow. Juggins had
missed her, he was always a shocking bad shot, but
we did not trouble about her. We just threw
ourselves upon the grave, and dug at it with our hands
until the baby lay in my arms. It was cold and
stiff, and putrefaction had already begun its work. I
forced open its mouth, and saw something that I
expected. The tip of its tongue was missing. It had
been bitten off by a set of very bad teeth, for the edge
of it was like a saw.

' " The thing is quite dead," I said to Juggins.

'"But it cried! it cried!" sobbed Juggins, "I
can hear it now. Oh to think that we let that hag
kill it."

'Juggins sat down with his head in his hands.
He was utterly unmanned. Now that the fright was
over, I was beginning to be quite brave again. It is
a way I have.

' " Never mind," I said. " Here is your specimen
if you want it." I had put the thing down, and now


pointed at it from a distance. It was not pleasant to
touch. But Juggins only shuddered.

c "Bury it in Heaven's name!" he said. "I
would not have it for all the world. Besides it was
alive. I saw and heard it." '

1 Well, we put it back in the grave, and next day
we left the Sakai country. We had seen quite as
much of it as we wanted for a bit, I tell you.

'Juggins and I swore one another to secrecy, as
neither of us fancied being told we were drunk or
lying. You, however, know something of the un-
canny things of the East, and to-night I have told
the story to you. Now I am going to turn in. Do
not give me away.'

Young Middleton went off to bed, and last year he
died of fever and dysentery somewhere up country.
His name was not Middleton, of course, so I am not
really 4 giving him away,' as he called it, even now.
As for his companion, though he is still alive, I have
called him Juggins, and, since the family is a large
one, he will not, perhaps, be identified.


The days are hot and damp, and my legs are stiff with cramp,

And the office punkahs creak !
And I'd give my tired soul, for the life that makes man whole,

And a whiff of the jungle reek !
Ha' done with the tents of Shem, dear boys,

With office stool and pew,
For it's time to turn to the lone Trail, our own Trail, the far Trail,

Dig out, dig out on the old trail

The trail that is always new.

A Parody.

IT has been said that a white man, who has lived
twelve consecutive months in complete isolation,
among the people of an alien Asiatic race, is never
wholly sane again for the remainder of his days.
This, in a measure, is true ; for the life he then learns
to live, and the discoveries he makes in that unmapped
land, the gates of which are closed, locked, barred, and
chained against all but a very few of his countrymen,
teach him to love many things which all right-minded
people very properly detest. The free, queer, utterly
unconventional life has a fascination which is all its
own. Each day brings a little added knowledge of
the hopes and fears, longings and desires, joys and
sorrows, pains and agonies of the people among whom
his lot is cast. Each hour brings fresh insight into


the mysterious workings of the minds and hearts of
that very human section of our race, which ignorant
Europeans calmly class as c niggers.' All these things
come to possess a charm for him, the power of which
grows apace, and eats into the very marrow of the
bones of the man who has once tasted this particular
fruit of the great Tree of Knowledge. Just as the
old smugglers, in the Isle of Man, were wont to hear
the sea calling to them ; go where he may, do what
he will, the voice of the jungle, and of the people who
dwell in those untrodden places, sounds in the ears of
one who has lived the life. Ever and anon it cries to
him to come back, come back to the scenes, the people,
the life which he knows and understands, and which,
in spite of all its hardships, he has learned to love.

The great wheel of progress, like some vast snow-
ball, rolls steadily along, gathering to itself all manner
of weird and unlikely places and people, filling up the
hollows, laying the high hills low. Rays of searching
garish light reflected from its surface are pitilessly
flashed into the dark places of the earth, which have
been wrapped around by the old-time dim religious
light, since first the world began. The people in
whose eyes these rays beat so mercilessly, reel and
stumble blindly on in their march through life, taking
wrong turnings at every step, and going woefully
astray. Let us hope that succeeding generations will
become used to the new conditions, and will fight
their way back to a truer path ; for there is no blink-
ing the fact that the first, immediate, and obvious
effects of our spirit of progress upon the weaker races,
tend towards degeneration.


Ten years ago the Peninsula was very different
from what it has since become, and many places
where the steam-engine now shrieks to the church
bells, and the shirt-collar galls the perspiring neck,
were but recently part and parcel of that vast c up
country,' which is so little known but to the few who
dwell in it, curse it, and love it.

I sent my soul through the invisible,

Some Letter of the After-Life to spell,

And Presently my Soul returned to me

And whispered ' Thou thyself art Heaven or Hell.

So sings the old Persian poet, lying in his rose
garden, by the wine-cup that robbed him of his Robe
of Honour, and his words are true j though not quite
in the sense in which he wrote them. For this wisdom
the far-away jungles also teach a man who has to rely
solely upon himself, and upon his own resources, for
the manner of his life, and the form which it is to
take. To all dwellers in the desolate solitude, which
every white man experiences, who is cast alone among
natives, there are two ' up countries ' his Heaven and
Hell, and both are of his own making. The latter is
the one of which he speaks to his fellow race-mates
if he speaks at all about his solitary life. The former
lies at the back of his heart, and is only known to him-
self, and then but dimly known till the time comes for
a return to the Tents of Shem. Englishmen, above
all other men, revel in their privilege of being allowed
to grumble and c grouse ' over the lives which the Fates
have allotted to them. They speak briefly, roughly,
and gruffly of the hardships they endure, making but


little of them perhaps, and talking as though their lives,
as a matter of course, were made up of these things
only. The instinct of the race is to see life through
the national pea-soup fog, which makes all things dingy,
unlovely, and ugly. Nothing is more difficult than
to induce men of our race to confess that in their lives
hard though they may have been good things have
not held aloof, and that they have often been quite
happy under the most unlikely circumstances, and in
spite of the many horrors and privations which have
long encompassed them about.

Let us take the Hell first. We often have to do
so, making a virtue of necessity, and a habit is a habit ;
moreover, our pains are always more interesting than
our pleasures to our neighbours. Therefore, let us
take the dark view of up-country life to start upon.
In the beginning, when first a man turns from his
own people, and dwells in isolation among an alien
race, he suffers many things. The solitude of soul
that terrible solitude which is only to be experienced
in a crowd the dead monotony, without hope of
change ; the severance from all the pleasant things of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16

Online LibraryHugh Charles CliffordIn court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula → online text (page 16 of 17)