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A short story by Rounsevelle Wildman


Title:     Amok!
Author: Rounsevelle Wildman [More Titles by Wildman]

A Malayan Story

If you run amok in Malaya, you may perhaps kill your enemy or wound your dearest friend, but you may be certain that in the end you will be krissed like a pariah dog. Every man, woman, and child will turn his or her hand against you, from the mother who bore you to the outcast you have befriended. The laws are as immutable as fate.

Just where the great river Maur empties its vast volume of red water across a shifting bar into the Straits of Malacca, stands the kampong of Bander Maharani.

The Sultan Abubaker named the village in honor of his dead Sultana, and here, close down to the bank, was the palace of his nephew--the Governor, Prince Sulliman.

A wide, red, well-paved road separated the village of thatch and grass from the palace grounds, and ended at a wharf, up to which a steam-launch would dash from time to time, startling the half-grown crocodiles that slept beneath the rickety timbers.

Sometimes the little Prince Mat, the son of the Governor, came down to the wharf and played with the children of the captain of the launch, while his Tuan Penager, or Teacher, dozed beneath his yellow umbrella; and often, at their play, his Excellency would pause and watch them, smiling kindly.

At such times, the captain of the launch would fall upon his face, and thank the Prophet that he had lived to see that day. "For," he would say, "some day he may speak to me, and ask me for the wish I treasure."

Then he would go back to his work, polishing the brass on the railings of his boat, regardless of the watchful eyes that blinked at him from the mud beneath the wharf.

He smiled contentedly, for his mind was made up. He would not ask to be made master of the Sultan's marvellous yacht, that was sent out from Liverpool,--although the possibility made him catch his breath: he would ask nothing for himself,--he would ask that his Excellency let his son Noa go to Mecca, that he might become a hadji and then some day--who knows--Noa might become a kateeb in the attap-thatched mosque back of the palace.

And Noa, unmindful of his father's dreaming, played with the little Prince, kicking the ragga ball, or sailing miniature praus out into the river, and off toward the shimmering straits. But often they sat cross-legged and dropped bits of chicken and fruit between the palm sleepers of the wharf to the birch-colored crocodiles below, who snapped them up, one after another, never taking their small, cruel eyes off the brown faces that peered down at them.

Child-life is measured by a few short years in Malaya. The hot, moist air and the fierce rays of the equatorial sun fall upon child and plant alike, and they grow so fast that you can almost hear them!

The little Prince soon forgot his childhood companions in the gorgeous court of his Highness, the Sultan of Johore, and Noa took the place of his father on the launch, while the old man silently mourned as he leaned back in its stern, and alternately watched the sunlight that played along the carefully polished rails, and the deepening shadows that bound the black labyrinth of mangrove roots on the opposite shore. The Governor had never noted his repeated protestations and deep-drawn sighs.

"But who cares," he thought. "It is the will of Allah! The Prince will surely remember us when he returns."

On the very edge of Bander Maharani, just where the almost endless miles of betel-nut palms shut from view the yellow turrets of the palace, stood the palm-thatched bungalow in which Anak grew, in a few short years, from childhood to womanhood. The hot, sandy soil all about was covered with the flaxen burs of the betel, and the little sunlight that found its way down through the green and yellow fronds drew rambling checks on the steaming earth, that reminded Anak of the plaid on the silken sarong that Noa's father had given her the day she was betrothed to his son.

Up the bamboo ladder and into the little door,--so low that even Anak, with her scant twelve years, was forced to stoop,--she would dart when she espied Noa coming sedately down the long aisle of palms that led away to the fungus-covered canal that separated her little world from the life of the capital city.

There was coquetry in every glance, as she watched him, from behind the carved bars of her low window, drop contentedly down on the bench beneath a scarred old cocoanut that stood directly before the door. She thought almost angrily that he ought to have searched a little for her: she would have repaid him with her arms about his neck.

From the cool darkness of the bungalow came the regular click of her mother's loom. She could see the worker's head surrounded by a faint halo of broken twilight. Her mind filled in the details that were hidden by the green shadows--the drawn, stooping figure, the scant black hair, the swollen gums, the syrah-stained teeth, and sunken neck. She impulsively ran her soft brown fingers over her own warm, plump face, through the luxuriant tresses of her heavy hair, and then gazed out at the recumbent figure on the bench, waiting patiently for her coming.

"Soon my teeth, which the American lady that was visiting his Excellency said were so strong and beautiful, will be filed and blackened, and I will be weaving sarongs for Noa."

She shuddered, she knew not why, and went slowly across the elastic bamboo strips of the floor and down the ladder.

Noa watched the trim little figure with its single covering of cotton, the straight, graceful body, and perfectly poised head and delicate neck, the bare feet and ankles, the sweet, comely face with its fresh young lips, free from the red stains of the syrah leaf, and its big brown eyes that looked from beneath heavy silken lashes. He smiled, but did not stir as she came to him. He was proud of her after the manner of his kind. Her beauty appealed to him unconsciously, although he had never been taught to consider beauty, or even seek it. He would have married her without a question, if she had been as hideous as his sister, who was scarred with the small-pox. He would never have complained if, according to Malayan custom, he had not been permitted to have seen her until the marriage day. He must marry some one, now that the Prince had gone to Johore, and his father had given up all hope of seeing him a hadji; and besides, the captain of the launch and the old punghulo, or chief, Anak's father, were fast friends. The marriage meant little more to the man.

But to Anak,--once the Prince Mat had told her she was pretty, when she had come down to the wharf to beg a small crocodile to bury underneath her grandmother's bungalow to keep off white ants, and her cheeks glowed yet under her brown skin at the remembrance. Noa had never told her she was beautiful!

A featherless hen was scratching in the yellow sand at her feet, and a brood of featherless chicks were following each cluck with an intensity of interest that left them no time to watch the actions of the lovers.

"Why did you come?" she asked in the soft liquid accents of her people.

There was an eagerness in the question that suggested its own answer.

"To bring a message to the punghulo," he replied, not noticing the coquetry of the look.

"Oh! then you are in haste. Why do you wait? My father is at the canal."

"It is about you," he went on, his face glowing. "The Prince is coming back, and we are to be married. My father, the captain, made bold to ask his Excellency to let the Prince be present, and he granted our prayer."

She turned away to hide her disappointment. It was the thought of the honor that was his in the eyes of the province, and not that he was to marry her, that set the lights dancing in his eyes! She hated him then for his very love; it was so sure and confident in its right to overlook hers in this petty attention from a mere boy, who had once condescended to praise her girlish beauty.

"When is the Prince coming?" she questioned, ignoring his clumsy attempt to take her hand.

"During the feast of Hari Raya Hadji," he replied, smiling.

She kicked some sand with her bare toes, amongst the garrulous chickens.

"Tell me about the Prince."

Her mood had changed. Her eyes were wide open, and her face all aglow. She was wondering if he would notice her above the bridesmaids,--if it was not for her sake he was coming?

And then her lover told her of the gossip of the palace,--of the Prince's life in the Sultan's court,--of his wit and grace,--of how he had learned English, and was soon to go to London, where he would be entertained by the Queen.

Above their heads the wind played with the tattered flags of the palms, leaving openings here and there that exposed the steely-white glare of the sky, and showed, far away to the northward, the denuded red dome of Mount Ophir.

The girl noted the clusters of berries showing redly against the dark green of some pepper-vines that clambered up the black nebong posts of her home; she wondered vaguely as he talked if she were to go on through life seeing pepper-vines and betel-nut trees, and hot sand and featherless hens, and never get beyond the shadow of the mysterious mountains.

Possibly it was the sight of the white ladies from Singapore, possibly it was the few light words dropped by the half-grown Prince, possibly it was something within herself,--something inherited from ancestors who had lived when the fleets of Solomon and Hiram sought for gold and ivory at the base of the distant mountains,--that drove her to revolt, and led her to question the right of this marriage that was to seal her forever to the attap bungalow, and the narrow, colorless life that awaited her on the banks of the Maur. She turned fiercely on her wooer, and her brown eyes flashed.

"You have never asked me whether I love!"

The Malay half rose from his seat. The look of surprise and perplexity that had filled his face gave place to one of almost childish wonder.

"Of course you love me. Is it not so written in the Koran,--a wife shall reverence her husband?"

"Why?" she questioned angrily.

He paused a moment, trying dimly to comprehend the question, and then answered slowly,--

"Because it is written."

She did not draw away when he took her hand; he had chosen his answer better than he knew.

"Because it is written," that was all. Her own feeble revolt was but as a breath of air among the yellow fronds above their heads.

When Noa had gone, the girl drew herself wearily up the ladder, and dropped on a cool palm mat near the never ceasing loom. For almost the first time in her short, uneventful life she fell to thinking of herself. She wondered if the white ladies in Singapore married because all had been arranged by a father who forgot you the moment you disappeared within the door of your own house,--if they loved one man better than another,--if they could always marry the one they liked best. She wondered why every one must be married,--why could she not go on and live just as she had,--she could weave and sew?

A gray lizard darted from out its hiding-place in the attap at a great atlas moth which worked its brilliant wings; clumsily it tore their delicate network until the air was full of a golden dust.

"I am the moth," she said softly, and raised her hand too late to save it from its enemy.

The Sultan's own yacht, the Pante, brought the Prince back to Maur, and as it was low tide, the Governor's launch went out beyond the bar and met him.

The band played the national anthem when he landed on the pier, and Inchi Mohammed, the Tuan Hakim, or Chief Justice, made a speech.

The red gravel walk from the landing to the palace gate was strewn with hibiscus and alamander and yellow convolvulus flowers, and bordered with the delicate maidenhair fern.

Johore and British flags hung in great festoons from the deep verandas of the palace, and the brass guns from the fort gave forth the royal salute.

Anak was in the crowd with her father, the old chief, and her affianced, Noa. She had put on her silk sarong and kabaya, and some curious gold brooches that were her mother's. In her coal-black hair she had stuck some sprays of the sweet-smelling chumpaka flower. On her slender bare feet were sandals cunningly wrought in colored beads. Her soft brown eyes glowed with excitement, and she edged away from the punghulo's side until she stood close up in front, so near that she could almost touch the sarong of the Tuan Hakim as he read.

The Prince had grown so since he left that she scarcely knew him, and save for the narrow silk sarong about his waist, he was dressed in the English clothes of a Lieutenant of his Highness's artillery. In the front of his rimless cap shone the arms of Johore set in diamonds, exactly as his father, the Governor, wore them. He paused and smiled as he thanked the cringing Tuan Hakim.

The blood rushed to the girl's cheeks, and she nearly fell down at his feet. She realized but dimly that Noa was plucking at her kabaya, wishing her to go with him to see the bungalow that his father was building for them.

"The posts are to be of polished nebong" he was saying, "the wood-work of maranti wood from Pahang; and there is to be a cote, ever so cunningly woven of green and yellow bamboo, for your ring-doves, under the attap of the great eaves above the door."

She turned wearily toward her lover, and the bright look faded from her comely face. With a half-uttered sigh she drew off her sandals and tucked them carefully beneath the silver zone that held her sarong in place.

"Anak," he said softly, as they left the hot, red streets, filled with lumbering bullock-carts and omnipresent rickshas, "why do you look away when I talk of our marriage? Is it because the Koran teaches modesty in woman, or is it because you are over-proud of your husband when you see him among other men?"

But the girl was not listening.

He looked at her keenly, and as he saw the red blood mantle her cheek, he smiled and went on:--

"It was good of you to wear the sarong I gave you, and your best kabaya and the flowers I like in your hair. I heard more than one say that it showed you would make a good wife in spite of our knowing one another before marriage."

"You think that it was for you that I put on all this bravery?" she asked, looking him straight in the face. "Am I not to be your wife? Can I not dress in honor of the young Prince and--Allah?"

He turned to stammer a reply. The hot blood mounted to his temples, and he grasped the girl's arm so that she cried out with pain.

"You are to be my wife, and I your master. It is my wish that you should ever dress in honor of our rulers and our Allah, for in showing honor to those above you, you honor your husband. I do not understand you at all times, but I intend that you shall understand me. Sudah!"

"Tuan Allah Suka!" (The Lord Allah has willed it), she murmured, and they plodded on through the hot sand in silence.

After his return they saw the Prince often, and once when Anak came down to the wharf to bring a durian to the captain of the launch from her father, the old punghulo, she met him face to face, and he touched her cheek with his jewelled fingers, and said she had grown much prettier since he left.

Noa was not angry at the Prince, rather he was proud of his notice, but a sinister light burned in his eyes as he saw the flushed face and drooping head of the girl.

And once the Prince passed by the punghulo's home on his way into the jungle in search of a tiger, and inquired for his daughter. Anak treasured the remembrance of these little attentions, and pondered over them day after day, as she worked by her mother's side at the loom, or sat outside in the sand, picking the flossy burs from the betel-nuts, watching the flickering shadows that every breeze in the leaves above scattered in prodigal wastefulness about and over her.

She told herself over and over, as she followed with dreamy eyes the vain endeavors of a chameleon to change his color, as the shadows painted the sand beneath him first green and then white, that her own hopes and strivings were just as futile; and yet when Noa would sit beside her and try to take her hand, she would fly into a passion, and run sobbing up the ladder of her home. Noa became moody in turn. His father saw it and his mates chaffed him, but no one guessed the cause. That it should be for the sake of a woman would have been beyond belief; for did not the Koran say, "If thy wife displease thee, beat her until she see the sin of her ways"? One day, as he thought, it occurred to him, "She does not want to marry me!" and he asked her, as though it made any difference. There were tears in her eyes, but she only threw back her head and laughed, and replied as she should:--

"That is no concern of ours. Is your father, the captain, displeased with my father's, the punghulo's, dowry?"

And yet Noa felt that Anak knew what he would have said.

He went away angry, but with a gnawing at his heart that frightened him,--a strange, new sickness, that seemed to drive him from despair to a longing for revenge, with the coming and going of each quick breath. He had been trying to make love in a blind, stumbling way; he did not know it,--why should he? Marriage was but a bargain in Malaya. But Anak with her finer instincts felt it, and instead of fanning this tiny, unknown spark, she was driving it into other and baser channels.

In spite of her better nature she was slowly making a demon out of a lover,--a lover to whom but a few months before she would have given freely all her love for a smile or the lightest of compliments.

From that day until the day of the marriage she never spoke to her lover save in the presence of her elders,--for such was the law of her race.

She submitted to the tire-women who were to prepare her for the ceremony, uttering no protest as they filed off her beautiful white teeth and blackened them with lime, nor when they painted the palms of her hands and the nails of her fingers and toes red with henna. She showed no interest in the arranging of her glossy black hair with jewelled pins and chumpaka flowers, or in the draping of her sarong and kabaya. Only her lacerated gums ached until one tear after another forced its way from between her blackened lids down her rouged cheeks.

There had been feasting all day outside under the palms, and the youths, her many cousins, had kicked the ragga ball, while the elders sat about and watched and talked and chewed betel-nut. There were great rice curries on brass plates, with forty sambuls> within easy reach of all, luscious mangosteens, creamy durians and mangoes, and betel-nuts with lemon leaves and lime and spices. Fires burned about among the graceful palms at night, and lit up the silken sarongs and polished kris handles of the men, and gold-run kabayas of the women.

The Prince came as he promised, just as the old Kadi had pronounced the couple man and wife, and laid at Anak's feet a wide gold bracelet set with sapphires, and engraven with the arms of Johore. He dropped his eyes to conceal the look of pity and abhorrence that her swollen gums and disfigured features inspired, and as he passed across the mats on the bamboo floor he inwardly cursed the customs of his people that destroyed the beauty of its women. He had lived among the English of Singapore, and dined at the English Governor's table.

A groan escaped the girl's lips as she dropped back among the cushions of her tinsel throne. Noa saw the little tragedy, and for the first time understood its full import. He ground his teeth together, and his hand worked uneasily along the scabbard of his kris.

In another moment the room was empty, and the bride and groom were left side by side on the gaudily bedecked platform, to mix and partake of their first betel-nut together. Mechanically Noa picked the broken fragments of the nut from its brass cup, from another a syrah leaf smeared with lime, added a clove, a cardamom, and a scraping of mace, and handed it to his bride. She took it without raising her eyes, and placed it against her bleeding gums. In a moment a bright red juice oozed from between her lips and ran down the corner of her distorted mouth. Noa extended his hand, and she gave him the half-masticated mass. He raised it to his own mouth, and then for the first time looked the girl full in the face.

There was no love-light in the drooping brown eyes before him. The syrah-stained lips were slightly parted, exposing the feverish gums, and short, black teeth. Her hands hung listlessly by her side, and only for the color that came and went beneath the rouge of her brown cheeks, she might have been dead to this last sacred act of their marriage vows.

"Anak!" he said slowly, drawing closer to her side. "Anak, I will be a true husband to you. You shall be my only wife--"

He paused, expecting some response, but she only gazed stolidly up at the smoke-begrimed attap of the roof.

"Anak--" he repeated, and then a shudder passed through him, and his eyes lit up with a wild, frenzied gleam,

A moment he paused irresolute, and then with a spring he grasped the golden handle of his kris and with one bound was across the floor, and on the sand below among the revellers.

For an instant the snake-like blade of the kris shone dully in the firelight above his head, and then with a yell that echoed far out among the palms, it descended straight into the heart of the nearest Malay.

The hot life-blood spurted out over his hand and naked arm, and dyed the creamy silk of his wedding baju a dark red.

Once more he struck, as he chanted a promise from the Koran, and the shrill, agonized cry of a woman broke upon the ears of the astonished guests.

Then the fierce sinister yell of "Amok! amok!" drowned the woman's moans, and sent every Malay's hand to the handle of his kris.

"Amok!" sprang from every man's lips, while women and children, and those too aged to take part in the wild saturnalia of blood that was to follow, scattered like doves before a hawk.

With the rapidity of a Malayan tiger, the crazed man leaped from one to another, dealing deadly strokes with his merciless weapon, right and left. There was no gleam of pity or recognition in his insane glance when he struck down the sister he had played with from childhood, neither did he note that his father's hand had dealt the blow that dropped his right arm helpless to his side. Only a cry of baffled rage and hate escaped his lips, as he snatched his falling knife with his left hand. Another blow, and his father fell across the quivering body of his sister.

"O Allah, the all-merciful and loving kind!" he sang, as the blows rained upon his face and breast. "O Allah, the compassionate."

The golden handle of his kris shone like a dying coal in the centre of a circle of flamelike knives; then with one wild plunge forward, into the midst of the gleaming points, it went out.

"Sudah!--It is finished," and a Malay raised his steel-bladed limbing to thrust it into the bare breast of the dying man.

The young Prince stepped out into the firelight and raised his hand. The long, shrill wail of a tiger from far off toward Mount Ophir seemed to pulsate and quiver on the weird stillness of the night.

Noa opened his eyes. They were the eyes of a child, and a faint, sweet smile flickered across the ghastly features and died away in a spasm of pain.

A picture of their childhood days flashed through the mind of the Prince and softened the haughty lines of his young face. He saw, through it all, the wharf below the palace grounds,--the fat old penager dozing in the sun,--the raft they built together, and the birch-colored crocodiles that lay among the sinuous mangrove roots.

"Noa," he whispered, as he imperiously motioned the crowd back.

The dying man's lips moved. The Prince bent lower.

"She--loved--you. Yes--" Noa muttered, striving to hold his failing breath,--"love is from--Allah. But not for--me;--for English--and--Princes."

They threw his body without the circle of the fires.

The tense feline growl of the tiger grew more distinct. The Prince's hand sought the jewelled handle of his kris. There was a swift rush in the darkness, a crashing among the rubber-vines, a short, quick snarl, and then all was still.

If you run amok in Malaya, you may kill your enemy or your dearest friend, but you will be krissed in the end like a pariah dog. Every man, woman, and child will turn his hand against you, from the mother who bore you to the outcast you have befriended.

The laws are as immutable as fate.

[The end]
Rounsevelle Wildman's short story: Amok!