By Bertie Armstrong
It was a cool and pleasant evening that my old friend, Wilson Beaton, sat in a lounging chair enjoying a quiet chat with me on the verandah of the Rest House at Ipoh. I was spending a few days in that town, –one of the mining centres of Perak, and situated about fifty miles from the sea-board. That afternoon I had sauntered leisurely to the railway station which was within a stone’s throw from the Rest House to see the 2.15 train come in from Enggor en route for Telok Anson. The station was crowded with the usual complement of passengers and their luggage and the friends of the people who were leaving or expected to come into Ipoh.
Suddenly, there was a friendly tap on my shoulder. I turned round and there facing me was old Wilson Beaton, whom I had not met for some years. He had arrived at Ipoh by the morning train, and had called at the Rest House to see if there was a room vacant. The lessee of that hotel, ¾a low, one-storied building which could accommodate but six boarders—had to turn him away. I happened to learn that one of my fellow-boarders was leaving by the afternoon train, and I suggested that Wilson should at once take the vacated room. Thus it came about that we dined together that night at the Rest House, and after dinner, on the verandah outside my bedroom, we conversed long and pleasantly about old times over our cigars.
One experiences a feeling of real restfulness and joy when brought face to face with an old friend—a friend in the best sense of the word, a friend who had been one’s colleague and partner in a profession in one’s younger days and with whom one had shared the work of an office without ever a quarrel or a disagreement. Naturally, it is hard to find the realisation of that friendship. Nevertheless, not only had Wilson and I realised it but we felt that a few years’ separation had, if anything, intensified that friendship, and we were happier than ever in each other’s company.
Wilson Beaton had retired from practice as a solicitor some years before, having accumulated a moderate fortune sooner than he had expected, and had taken to sugar planting with a fair measure of success. On several occasions before this meeting, he had come into Ipoh in the interests of a syndicate which had secured from the Perak Government a concession to quarry marble from some hills in the neighbourhood of Ipoh.
We talked of many things, and as our conversation proceeded, Wilson reminded me of a particular furlough of six months’ duration which I took in Europe. “Well” I replied, “I have taken more than one holiday to Europe.” “That is so,” was his rejoinder “but surely you can recall the time when you left Singapore as a bachelor after a long spell of hard work, and returned to Singapore with your old sweetheart as your bride.” I smiled. Yes, it was pleasant to recall that holiday in England when I was welcomed and entertained right royally by one after another of my old ’Varsity friends and when I saw my beloved Maida once again face to face, and could tell her that she had no need to wait any longer but that I was ready to claim her as my wife. Though it is well nigh thirty years ago since then, Maida and I still love each other with as thrilling a passion as in the old university days when I periodically left my rooms in College on a Friday for London to eat my three dinners and so keep a term at the Middle Temple as a law student and returned to my rooms by the last train on the Sunday evening. I enjoyed the three days’ respite from College tutors and ‘Varsity rules and regulations, for was I not then within visiting distance of Maida, and who shall blame us if each of my visits to her abode during that stay in London lasted several hours?
“Well, you know,” said Wilson, “when you returned to Singapore, you were so taken up with Mrs. Armstrong that I did not think it worth while narrating to you one or two strange cases that were put into my hands. There is time for me to tell you of one of them, if you like to hear it”. “Oh, please do so,” I said eagerly, for I knew Wilson’s good nature too well—a characteristic which on more than one occasion to my knowledge had led an unscrupulous client to take advantage of it at Wilson’s expense.
“You will perhaps remember Mr. Dickson, the Assistant Protector of Chinese who was on friendly terms with us. One day, a young Straits Chinese widow came to me with a letter from Mr. Dickson asking me if I could do anything for her. Her husband had died a year before, leaving the widow and an only daughter of about ten years of age wholly unprovided for, save in one respect. She was being supported by a married sister who was herself in poor circumstances, and she had no money to engage a solicitor to take up her case.
Her husband had fortunately during his lifetime effected an insurance in the sum often thousand francs with a French Life Insurance Company not in his own name, but in that of his infant daughter and this amount was payable on the child attaining majority. The widow had raised some little money on her jewellery, and had gone to Saigon to realise the money on the Insurance policy, but the legal difficulties placed in her way by the Insurance agent seemed insurmountable. Thus she had spent all in vain.
In that condition she was sent on to me as a client. I entered into negotiations with the Insurance Company at Saigon, and I can tell you it was a tedious and slow affair. Week after week did that young widow appear in my chambers to hear the result of the negotiations, until she became quite a familiar figure there. After four months’ correspondence, I felt as if nothing could be done for her.
The little rift in the dark cloud however eventually made its appearance, and I was able to tell the young widow that the Company was prepared to take the policy up at once at five thousand six hundred and twenty five francs. It was a real pleasure to me to see the face of my client lose its usual hopeless look and light up with a radiant smile. Head I known then what I discovered afterwards, I should have had no hesitation, and no compunction either, in keeping her waiting for a good while longer for her own sake: or I would have had the money invested and thus benefitted the widow and the fatherless girl.
The young widow was quite overcome by the liberality of the Company’s offer. And so was I in a measure. Other Insurance Companies would probably have declined to enter into negotiations until the infant had attained her twenty first year, or, in the alternative, would not have placed such a high surrender value on the policy. However, that is neither here nor there. My client at once closed with the offer, an din due course of time, the draft for five thousand six hundred and twenty five francs came. It was veritable godsend. I had instructions to pay to the widow unconditionally.
Taking pity on her, I only deducted a small sum for costs and handed her something like two thousand dollars in bank notes. I confess I had some misgiving as I paid this large sum of money out to her. She was in a feverish state of excitement. I feared that being young and inexperienced and the possessor of rather pleasant features, she might fall into the clutches of some unscrupulous man who might marry her for her money and squander it away before the child would be of age to enjoy it.”
“To say that I thought nothing more about my client and her infant daughter would have been untrue. My conscience would not let me rest satisfied that I had done all I could do safeguard the interests of the child. I tried to calm the whisperings of the ‘still, small voice’ within me by saying that I had paid out the insurance money to the widow with a grave warning to be prudent and discreet with her newly-acquired wealth, for such good fortune would never come her way again; and she had assured me that she was no simpleton. Nevertheless the fact was patent that the money was the daughter’s fortune. You know too well how shabbily the wealthy Chinese make provision for their daughters in their wills.”
“Yes,” was my reply, for I remembered how in the old days when we were in practice together we used to make more than one Chinese testator do something like justice to their daughters. “I can never forget our old client Lee Bin Seah. His only legitimate daughter was to receive one thousand dollars legacy while some five or six sons who were either adopted or the offspring of concubines were to be left to wallow in his millions.”
“Ah, I remember Mr. Bin Seah very well,” said Wilson. “That daughter of his had good reason to thank you most sincerely when you eventually persuaded him into changing that legacy into a life annuity of one thousand dollars. And that was really the least he should have done for her. But to go back to my narrative. I felt that I would to a certain extent be morally responsible if the plan of the deceased father should be frustrated by any unwise or imprudent action of his widow. And yet what was I to do? Several times did I send for her with a view of ascertaining what she had already done or intended to do with the money I had paid her, but she did not deign to favour me with her presence.
\Judge of my surprise and annoyance when a week or so after she had received the money, I learnt that she had suddenly developed a mania for gambling, and that she was making daily visits to the well-known ‘Women’s Art Club’ in Mala Vista Road,1] –a misnomer for the biggest gambling den of the Straits Chinese women. The wide acquaintance which I had with the Straits Chinese people gave me exceptional opportunities for finding out all I wanted about this ‘Women’s Art Club.’ There were ugly rumours about the doings of the women who resorted thither. I was not primarily concerned with the morals of the widow, although a bad woman could scarcely be expected to bring her daughter up in the path of virtue and honour. I was more concerned about the diverting of the money which the deceased had intended as his daughter’s portion.”
“The employment of a female detective was then quite a novel thing in our part of the world. I thought of various plans by which I might save the infant’s ‘portion’ from being utterly dissipated, but I found that the widow was quite mad on gambling and cold not be persuaded to break off the habit. She had lost heavily too, but, like all losing gamblers, she staked more largely in the false hope that she would recover her losses. When I first set Beek Puan, an old hand at gambling herself, on the track of the widow, the bulk of the insurance money had disappeared. There sat the young widow, with dishevelled hair and a haggard look in her eyes and face, grasping the small roll of bank notes that still remained to her as if unwilling to part with them, and yet, with trembling hands, taking out the notes one by one to stake, with a half-muttered prayer that the tide of fortune would turn and sweep back into her purse some part of her losses. But still her prayer was unanswered; and still the ‘po-kua’ or ‘banker’ at the game of ‘poh’ continued to sweep into his capacious bags the stakes of old and young women, of millionaires’ widows or mistresses and of women on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin.
In order to allay suspicion, I had provided Beek Puan with some money to enable her to make her appearance at he ‘Women’s Art Club’ in the rôle of a gambler. When she brought me information that the young widow she had been shadowing was getting to the end of her tether, I had a presentiment that a crisis was imminent. I saw a glimpse of hope that my efforts to save the infant would not be wholly futile when Beek Puan told me she believed she had made an important discovery. She had her theory on gambling at ‘poh’. She showed me some calculations of hers whereby she had always won at this game, but at ‘Women’s Art Club,’ her calculations did not appear to have been of much service. This led her to suspect that something was wrong; and after a very close observation, which extended over several days, of the banker’s manipulation of the ‘poh’, she was at last convinced that the ‘poh’ used in the game was a false one.
The crisis, however, came at last. The banker had reaped a rich harvest, for the millionaires’ mistresses had staked considerable sums of money and had invariably lost. Suspicion gradually spread that the stakers had been cheated, and yet the offence could not be proved. The young widow had lost her all, but had managed to borrow a small sum with which she had hoped to retrieve her great loss. Her terrible misfortune was beginning to unhinge her mind, and yet she still hoped all would come out well. She staked the loan, and lost.
In the meanwhile, unobserved, Beek Puan had slipped out of the Club, and had repaired post-haste to my chambers. She gave me information that the truth was beginning to dawn on the minds of the stakers that they had been cheated, and that the banker, fearing detection, would probably, after that day, make himself scarce. I further gathered that something like thirty thousand dollars had passed into the possession of the banker as the result of that morning’s gambling; and I realised that the time had come for action.
A day or two before, I had interviewed Mr. Baldwin, the chief of the Gambling Suppression Department, on the subject of a raid, but had asked him to lie low until I supplied him with definite news. I therefore took Peek Puan along with me to Mr. Baldwin’s office, and in half an hour, her information had been laid and the warrant signed. To make a long story short, the raid was successful and the banker was arrested with forty thousand dollars in cash and bank notes and about twelve thousand dollars worth of jewellery and gold ornaments in his possession. Together with him there were some forty Chinese women taken in custody.
When the Police arrived, the banker did not lose his presence of mind, but coolly threw the ‘poh’ out of one of the windows, when he imagined none of the Police noticed the swift movement of his hand. Unfortunately for him, Beek Puan had accompanied the myrmidons of the law on this expedition. She was determined that the scoundrel should not escape punishment for his more serious offence of cheating with a false ‘poh,’ and hence had preceded the Police into the house so as to be able to watch the banker’s movements: and it was she who found the ‘poh’ in the garden. The banker was tried at the Assizes and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment while all the money found in his possession at the time of his arrest was paid into the Government treasury.”
“That was a very heavy sentence surely,” I remarked. “And what became of the young widow? Was she also arrested?”
“I am coming to that,” replied Wilson, “and to the end of my story. The banker was found to be an old offender and had several previous convictions against him. Now with regard to the young widow, I must repeat what I heard from Beek Puan.
It would seem that when she had gambled away the money she had borrowed, the young widow left the Club. She meant to borrow some more money outside as none of the stakers at the Club, seeing what bad luck she had had, would advance her any.
About two hours later she returned thither, accompanied by her daughter. As she got into the Mala Vista Road, she was a whole string of closed carriages leave the Club. When she arrived at the house, she met Beek Puan coming down the steps, and learnt from her lips of the arrest of the banker and the female stakers. Instantly a fierce, wild light shone in the young widow’s eyes, and Beek Puan read insanity in them.
She got into the ricksha with her daughter and directed the puller towards the town. There was no other ricksha to be had, and Beek Puan called out to the young widow to give her a lift; but her request fell on deaf ears. She therefore followed on foot until she found an empty ricksha, and told the puller to keep the ricksha ahead in sight. As the harbour came into view, Beek Puan at once guessed the intention of the young widow. Could she keep the poor woman back from her mad purpose? She was about a hundred yards behind. She urged her ricksha puller to run faster, she shouted herself hoarse; but all in vain! She saw the young widow and her daughter get into a sampan and out into the open sea. Would there be another sampan for her use? Yes, there was one fortunately. Into it she jumped, and directed the boatman to row after the first sampan.
As the second boat gradually crept up to the first, Beek Puan saw the young widow become restless. Suddenly, the mad woman stood erect on the prow, holding the wondering child by the hand; and commenced to dance and caper on that dangerous perch. The girl shrieked in terror, while the boatman called out to the mother to sit down, and Beek Puan swore to her boatman to row faster and prevent a tragedy. In the midst of the confusion, the young widow overbalanced herself, and fell into the sea with her daughter. Her boatman sprang forward and caught hold of the child, but the mother disappeared from sight and was never see again alive.
Beek Puan brought the girl to me and related the sad account of my unfortunate client’s death. I got her admitted into the Chinese Girls’ School where she remained till she was twenty one and married. As the result of my representations, the Government very generously paid into my hands two thousand dollars for my ward on her attaining majority. The money was invested: the income was devoted for her maintenance and education, and I had the satisfaction of seeing her become the wife of a good young man and of paying to her ‘a daughter’s portion’!”
A pun. There is an area in Singapore called “Buona Vista,” or beautiful view. “Mala vista,” in contrast, means bad or evil view.
A game played with dice. See “Ways and Means”, note 2.