The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter xxiii

“Gang Murders” — Malay Nicknames — A Persecuted Infant — The Last of the Golden Chersonese

MR. JUSTICE WOOD’S, THE PEAK, PINANG, February 24.

However kind and hospitable people are, the process of “breaking in” to conventionalities again is always a severe one, and I never feel well except in the quiet and freedom of the wilds, though in the abstract nothing can be more healthy than the climate of this lofty Peak. The mercury has been down at 68 degrees for two nights, and blankets have been a comfort!

Shortly after finishing my last letter I left Taipeng with Mr. Maxwell, calling on our way to the coast at Permatang, to inquire if there were any scent of the murderers of the revenue officer, but there was none. The inspector said that he had seen many murdered bodies, but never one so frightfully mutilated. These Chinese “gang-murders” are nearly always committed for gain, and the Chinese delight in cruel hackings and purposeless mutilations. The Malay assassinations are nearly all affairs of jealousy — a single stab and no more.

The last part of the drive on a road causewayed through the endless mangrove swamp impresses the imagination strongly by its dolefulness. Here are hundreds of square miles all along the coast nothing but swamp and slime, loaded with rank and useless vegetation, which has not even beauty to justify its existence, teeming with alligators, serpents, and other vengeful creatures. There is a mournfulness in seeing the pointed fruit of the mangrove drop down through the still air into the slime beneath, with the rootlet already formed of that which never fails to become a tree.

A Sikh guard of honor of fifty men in scarlet uniforms lined the way to the boat as a farewell to Major Swinburne, whose feet they had embraced and kissed with every Oriental demonstration of woe two hours before. We asked him what his farewells were, and he says that he said, “You are a lot of unmitigated scoundrels; half of you deserve hanging; but keep out of scrapes if you can till I come back, that I may have the pleasure of hanging you myself.” He really likes them though, and called after Captain Walker, who is to act as his substitute, “Now, old man, don’t knock those fellows about!” The chief dread of the “fellows” is that they will be at the mercy of an interpreter under the new regime. The Malays give sobriquets to all Europeans, founded upon their physical or mental idiosyncrasies. Thus they call Major Swinburne “The Mad One” and “The Outspoken One.” Captain Walker they have already dubbed “The Black Panther.” They call Mr. Maxwell “The Cat-eyed One,” and “The Tiger Cub.”

Just before sailing I had the satisfaction of getting this telegram from Kwala Kangsa: “Eblis is a little better this morning. He has eaten two grasshoppers and has taken his milk without trouble, but he is very weak.”*

[*Those of my readers who have become interested in this most bewitching ape will be sorry to hear that, after recovering and thriving for a considerable time, he died, to the great grief of his friends.]

We embarked at 5:30 P.M. along with a swarm of mosquitoes, and after a beautiful night anchored at Georgetown at 2 A.M., but it was a ludicrously uncomfortable voyage. An English would-be lady, i.e., a “fine lady,” a product of imperfect civilization with which I have little sympathy, had demanded rather than asked for a passage in the Kinta, and this involved not only a baby, but an ayah and man-servant. The little cabin of the launch can hold two on two coaches, but the lady, after appropriating one, filled up most of the other with bags and impediments of various kinds. The floor was covered with luggage, among which the ayah and infant slept, and the man sat inside on the lowest rung of the ladder. Thus there were five human beings, a host of mosquitoes, and a lamp in the stifling den, in which the mercury stood all night at 88 degrees. Then a whole bottle of milk was spilt and turned sour, a vial of brandy was broken and gave off its disgusting fumes, and the infant screamed with a ferocious persistency, which contrasted with the patient wistfulness of the sick Eblis and his gentle murmur of “ouf! ouf!” Before we anchored the lady asked me to go and wake the gentlemen and get a teaspoonful of brandy for her, at which request, though made with all due gravity, they laughed so tremendously that I was hardly able to go back to her with it. Major Swinburne, who professes to be a woman and child hater, was quite irrepressible, and whenever the infant cried outrageously, called to his servant, “Wring that brat’s neck,” the servant, of course, knowing not a word of English, and at 2 A.M., when there was chocolate on deck, and the unfortunate baby was roaring and kicking, he called down to me, “Will you come and drink some chocolate to King Herod’s memory?” Mr. Maxwell, who has four children, did not behave much better; and it was a great exertion to me, by overdone courtesy and desperate attempts at conversation, to keep the mother as far as possible from hearing what was going on!

At 6 A.M., in the glory of the tropic sunrise, Mr. Maxwell and I landed in Province Wellesley, under the magnificent casuarina trees which droop in mournful grace over the sandy shore. The somberness of the interminable groves of cocoa-palms on the one side of the Strait, the brightness of the sun-kissed peaks on the other, and the deep shadows on the amber water, were all beautiful. Truly in the tropics “the outgoings of the morning rejoice.”

We found Mrs. Isemonger away, no one knew where, so we broke open the tea-chest, and got some breakfast, at the end of which she returned, and we had a very pleasant morning. At noon a six-oared gig, which was the last of the “Government facilities,” took us over to Georgetown, spending an hour in crossing against an unfavorable tide, under a blazing sun. This was the last of the Malay Peninsula.

S.S. Malwa, February 25. — We sailed from Pinang in glorious sunshine at an early hour this afternoon, and have exchanged the sparkling calms of the Malacca Straits for the indolent roll of the Bay of Bengal. The steamer’s head points northwest. In the far distance the hills of the Peninsula lie like mists upon a reddening sky. My tropic dream is fading and the “Golden Chersonese” is already a memory.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31