Her One Redeeming Feature

by Chia Cheng Sit[1]

Kampong Tjina, Palembang,[2] is the name for that quarter of the town of Palembang in which the Chinese people reside. In a low two-storied house in one of the side streets of Kampong Tjina, two men were engaged in conversation. Their features bore a close resemblance to each other, for they were brothers. The tight-fitting pantaloons and peculiar cut of the jacket at once proclaimed one of them to be Dutch Chinese, while the loose trowsers and a jacket over a European vest and collar worn by the other with equal plainness showed that he had hailed from sunny Singapore. The conversation the two brothers appeared to be on no ordinary subject.  For nearly ten years, they had not seen each other, nor come in each other’s way, but as the conversation proceeded, the look of commiseration which had first appeared on the face of the Palembang brother gave place to one of intense terror.

“What have I done that you should put me in this awkward situation?” exclaimed the man of Palembang. “Do you not know that if you are discovered, I am a ruined man, with the prospect imprisonment before me for the crime of harbouring a fugitive criminal—even though the fugitive be my brother,” and he wrung his hands in despair.

“You can make the excuse that I  was seriously wounded, and that you were not aware of any offence committed by me against the law of any country,” suggested the man from Singapore.

“Being your own brother, I would be presumed to know the reason of your sudden appearance in this part of the world,” was the reply.

“I feel very faint,” came from the lips of the Singapore brother. “Will you put another pillow under my head, that I may breathe more freely?”

Having performed this kind office, the Palembang man drew his chair to a square folding table on which a brightly-lit lamp stood, and resting his elbows on the table he placed his head between the palms of his hands and was lost in anxious thought.

A sharp rap at his front door made him start from the chair as though he had been shot. “The police have come!” he muttered, “and my plans to save myself have not been thought out.”

“Do not worry yourself,” came the voice from the bed. “I am dying soon, yes, very soon, and the prosecution will not press the charge against you when they take all the circumstances into consideration. But do not, for the love of a brother, let the police carry me away at once from this house. After I am dead, they may do what they please with my corpse, but let me die under your roof.”

Another and a longer rap at the door caused the Palembang man again to start, and with a heavy heart, he left the bedroom. When he returned to his brother’s side, he was in a calmer state of mind. The dreaded officers of the law had not come after all: it was merely the messenger from the Telegraph Office.

“A telegram for you” he said excitedly, “what can it mean? Did you tell anybody you were coming here?”

“Only my girl knew of it, but I did not expect her to send me any message. She belongs to a class of Sirens who, after having fascinated you, suck your life-blood, and when you are dry, or rather your pockets, do not hesitate to cast you over. An hour before I took my departure, I went to see her and briefly related to her the life which I had lived as an adventurer on her account. I also told her of the last mean act I had committed that very evening on a young man who had befriended me in my evil days, and requested her to send me a message if she should learn that any steps should be taken for my arrest. I gave her $200 or one-third of the proceeds I realised from the pledge of my friend’s diamond ring. Whatever I have left, as I have told you, was stolen from me as we got into Palembang waters by the man who gave me this terrible wound which will prove fatal.”

The telegram was short but contained important news. It read:–“Dogs got scent. Sorry robbed. Draw on hundred dollars on chop Sam Pak. Siew.”

“Yes, Siew is my girl,” exclaimed the recipient of the message. “She has behaved nobly, and I am sorry I should have spoken ill of her. Still I spent all my earnings and other people’s money on her. I could not resist her appeals for more money to buy herself valuable jewels. Until the night of my departure, she must have foolishly believed that I was the son of a wealthy merchant, for I recollect she was startled when I explained that it was necessary for me to quit the place on account of my past crimes. She tried to induce me to remain in hiding in Singapore.”

“Why did you not do so, then?” queried the Palembang brother.

“I could not, for I had committed a fatal mistake. Our uncle, Poh, had unbounded confidence in me. He owned a spirit shop and gave me the entire management of the business. I became acquainted with a Malay land-broker who believing that the spirit shop was mine, lent me as much money as the shop was worth. Siew wanted the money and I had to get it for her. But she was insatiable, and a few days afterwards, asked for a large sum of money. I could not tear myself away from her clutches. The Malay friend happened to be away from Singapore, but I knew his wife. To her I quickly repaired, and asked for the hire of her gold jewellery, valued at $800, for three day at the rate of $3 a day and as I paid her $9 in cash at the time, she took the bait and never doubted my honesty. The jewels I need not tell you found their way into the pawnshop and I kept the tickets. Then I heard that my Malay friend had returned, and to allay suspicion, I wrote him a letter saying that the jewels were still being used and that he would continue to get $3 a day for their use. The letter was posted, and then I discovered that I had enclosed the pawn-tickets in it. I tried to recover the letter from the Post Office, but was baulked by the rules of the Department. I had nothing else to do but give the Malayman and my other too generous friends the slip, but the avenging sword came more swiftly than I had expected. I know I shall not open my eyes on the morrow’s sun, but you at least will not have much cause for complaint, as the remittance from Siew will be ample to pay for my funeral expenses.”

Notes

[1] Chia Cheng Sit was a prominent Straits Chinese community member, and contributed several stories to the Straits Chinese Magazine.

[2] Palembang is in Sumatra, then part of the Dutch East Indies. Dutch colonial policy in the Indies required Chinese people to reside in particular areas of towns.

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