The President’s Ball

by T.B.G.

It was the President’s Ball. The place was some three-and-a-half miles from Raffles Square, and the house, which was the President’s country seat, was large and commodious. The grounds on which it stood were laid out as a flower-garden containing specimens of many varieties of flowering plants, and were intersected at regular points by fine straight walks. Here and there under the shadows of the big trees a garden seat was placed. The house itself was perched on a little eminence right in the centre of the grounds, and its unique situation added not a little to its grand and commanding appearance. A glance at the house and grounds would fully convince a visitor of the exquisite taste and judgment which must have guided the architect in building the house and the gardener in laying out the grounds, and would also assure him of the wealth of the owner. The furniture again was of the most expensive kind. Obviously money had been spent lavishly, yet with a nice perception of order and discrimination.

All around the grounds, strange and rare animals and birds were caged in little houses made of wood and wire and painted in all the colours of the rainbow. On one side of the house, was a large pond in which various kinds of foreign fishes disported themselves, and in the centre of the pond, a summer-house nicely furnished and decorated with Japanese lanterns, stood on stone pillars, while a sort of drawbridge gave visitors access to it.

Japanese lanterns of different shapes and sizes lit the long gravelled drive which led from the main entrance to the house, while the flood of light which burst forth from innumerable lamps and lanterns within the house made the scene one of fairy-like splendour. As if to share in rendering the evening a success, the moon shed a clear and silvery brightness from an unclouded sky.

Other entertainments had been given there at different times, but this was the President’s Ball, and it was decided to make this occasion the grandest and most successful of them all. The Baba Club, whose president’s ball we are now describing, had a membership of forty-five, which included office-bearers. Invitations had been sent to some fifty persons, and it was understood that members and guests alike were to be each accompanied by a companion of the opposite sex.

The function was to commence at nine o’clock. The first couple to arrive on the scene was the President and his female companion. His carriage and pair drove up the broad entrance, and on reaching the house, the couple got out and walked up the grand staircase amidst the strains of soft music from the St. Cecilia band which had been quartered on the lawn in front of the house.

Soon after, the members and guests began to arrive, each one with his partner and were received in a lordly fashion by the President. When the clock struck the hour of nine, all who were expected were there, and the President, whose appearance and personal qualities we shall treat of hereafter, with his partner opened the ball with a polka. As the President’s partner was a girl of Dutch extraction and was conversant with European dances, the couple glided round the polished ballroom very gracefully. The other members of the Club then joined in, those who could dance to the strains of European music being given the preference. When the bandsmen showed signs of exhaustion, the Malay fiddle and drum were called into action, and the adepts in the art of Malay dancing then had their innings to their hearts’ content.

We will now introduce to our readers the hero of the occasion, the President. He was a man of average height with well-made features. His name is Lang Um Chye, but he is better known among his more intimate friends as Bachik. He wore a dress shirt with gold links and studs set with diamonds, and the Hyde Park collar and white silk vest which suited him well led people at first to take him to be one of the “reform party.” There was one thing however which went against this assumption, for his queue still depended from the back of his head. This at once pointed him out as a person of strong individuality, with ideas of his own in regard to the propriety and fitness of things, which form the distinguishing characteristics of the Straits Chinese “Reform Party.” Although agreeing with this reform party on many points, there were one or two things on which his views were pronounced, and he was able to hold his own against the persuasions and arguments which had been advanced verbally and in print by the reform movement.

In his younger days the President had travelled in many foreign lands where European culture and refinement find readier acceptance than they do here; and the fair education he had received, together with his experience of society ways and etiquette, made his friends look up to him as the type of the accomplished gentleman.[1]

It is customary at such social functions to engage dancing girls who sang and danced for the amusement of all present. At this Ball, the President had intimated that no dancing girls would be hired, but all who accepted his invitation were to attend with female companions whom they knew and liked best. The “partners” therefore who were present at this particular ball were the cream of the dancing-girl class, and both in appearance and in accomplishments there never was a better gathering. It so happened that the President’s partner was the best looking of the crowd, and it was readily conceded that she was the belle of the ball as the President was the hero thereof.

Barring the short intervals during which members and guests took their partners to the bar for some light refreshments, the dancing went on without flagging, and as there were quite enough dancers of both sexes, there was time for all in turn to rest or have a quiet chat or smoke in the airy verandah. The demeanour of the dancers would have satisfied the most fastidious moral critic, for every one behaved with decorum and propriety.

The President, whose company was sought by all, and who felt that he had to divide his attention among those present, did very little dancing himself. Now here, now there in the ballroom and the verandah was he seen speaking a welcome word to one and all. He was a thoroughly popular president, and his cordial manner and kindheartedness were well known. His friends were numerous and sincere, and even his enemies, if he had any, could not deny the genuine warmth of his heart.

The deep tones of the gong brought the dancers to a stop, and they gay company slowly moved down the staircase into the dining room where a sumptuous supper had been spread for them. The table was profusely decorated with flowers in glass epergnes,[2] and the silver bowls and trays and other glittering things on and around the table were indications of the affluence of the host.

Every one enjoyed the good things that were prepared for them, and when justice had been done to all, speeches were made by the President and the Secretary as well as by some of the guests, and were in turn well received. Supper ended, the party went out for a moonlight stroll in the brilliantly lighted garden. It was a sight to see the many happy couples that walked hither and thither arm in arm, and all in smiles and laughter. The moon herself seemed to smile down upon the happy faces of those that flitted about over the extensive velvety lawn; and of the sweet repose that filled the breast of most, if not all, in that company who could tell? It was like glimpse of paradise, where all sorrows and cares were for the moment banished from the weary brain and bleeding heart.

Although the President showed no signs of discontent nor any sense of unhappiness in his face, yet he was not so light-hearted as the rest of the party. It was true that his partner was hanging on his arm, and now and again a kind word dropped from his lips into eagerly listening ears, still in his heart of hearts he felt that the happiness which the company enjoyed fell far short of that which they might have enjoyed under different conditions. He was a man of ideals, and the idealistic happiness which he would fain afford the company was the happiness they would find under like circumstance but with their own wives and families! The society of ladies is at all times pleasant, and a man is in his best mood and form when he is in the presence of the opposite sex. It is then that he feels the need of curbing his passions, and his every word and deed must first be thoroughly weighed and considered before they are uttered or accomplished.

It is marvellous what influence women can exercise on men for good or for evil, how many brilliant careers and successful lives have been due to the all potent influence of some women—themselves perhaps weak and unhappy; on the other hand what energy, love and life have been wasted through the wayward tendency of some feminine influence. A man’s highest and best qualities are drawn out by woman, and by the same means is his worst nature brought into play.

The sound of the fiddle and drum within the house recalled the happy couples from their wanderings, and one after another they marched up the staircase again. The dancing then recommenced, and those not actually engaged in dancing or waiting for their turn, formed into groups of three and four and conversed on various topics of interest.

The President had quietly sought the cool air on the verandah, and as usual the Secretary, Swee Tong by name, his chum and confidant, was sitting close by his side. After a brief silence in which Swee Tong could see that the President was in a brown study, he said “Well, President a cent for your thoughts!”

Bachik moved uneasily in his chair and tried to collect his thoughts. Slowly he opened his mouth, and said “Old boy, I was just thinking whether after all we did right in having all these women about us.”

The Secretary was greatly startled to hear such sentiment from Bachik’s lips. He had always known him to be a jovial, gay sort of fellow—a man who would not stick at trifles when there was any enjoyment to be got out of them. It was therefore with great surprise that he said “Halloa, what’s up? What is wrong with you? You are not yourself to-night! What in the name of goodness could have put it into your head to find fault with such an ordinary and customary proceeding, only grander and more enjoyable on this occasion than we usually have it!”

Bachik looked thoughtfully into his friend’s face and said “Ah well, my friend, there are many stoppages in a man’s life; they are called the milestones of life, and when we reach these landmarks, some very serious thoughts enter our minds and make us ponder over our actions, and more often than not we feel condemned by our own acts. When our eyes are thus opened, we see things in a different light, and there is a something within us which urges us to leave off the error of our ways and seek for a more wholesome mode of life. I feel like that to-night. This association with dancing girls and loose women has been an incident of almost everyday life, and I did not feel the slightest pang of remorse for intermixing with them, but to-night I feel differently. There seems to be something very wrong about it, and I cannot get over the thought that the society of such women must inevitably prove detrimental to a man’s best interests socially and morally.”

The President was about to say something more when Swee Tong exclaimed, “I say, Boss, you are shooting over my head. I can never understand such fine speaking. I am not a confirmed blackguard—no, not by a long way but yet I cannot possibly see any reason for your objection to the company of these poor harmless creatures. Think for a moment what our ball would have been without them. Why, in the first place, there would have been no dancing, and then it would have been so dull to be left all to ourselves with no women to see and to be seen! Besides, just consider what fun we are having with them; all the jokes and laughter draw their inspiration from them, and I should feel so wretched not to be allowed to do a bit of love-making with one and all of them!”

Bachik shook his head and replied, “That is just it. We are so dependent upon them for our enjoyment, that we are willing to hug them with all their faults. We embrace them so closely that we cannot see the blackness of their faces. We are so blinded by their false allurements that we cannot discern their wickedness and treachery. Ah, it is this that makes me feel sick at heart, and again I repeat that a man does not serve his best interests by keeping the company of these false and traitorous creatures.”

Swee Tong was quite moved by the serious tone and harsh words in which Bachik denounced his “poor harmless creatures.” He felt hurt that these pretty entertaining girls should be criticised in such unmerciful terms. His own idea was that these pretty girls are part and parcel of man’s enjoyment and that no fun or amusement could be complete without the presence of some of them.

Some little time elapsed before he could make an answer. At length with a forced laugh, he said “Now just look at these pretty faces in general, and at the belle of the ball in particular, and say, Bachik, if they are not nice and captivating? Can you possibly find fault with such fascinating faces and graceful carriage? Nay, nay, think again, old boy, and you will find that you have been too severe on them. In justice to them say that they are pretty and that they are the source of all our enjoyment.”

Bachik looked steadily at his friend with a sad countenance; he felt that he had no right to force his convictions on any one, and he could only hope that in time, his friend would share his opinion.

He therefore simply said, “They are like graves that have been whitewashed white and clean outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones.”

Swee Tong felt the truth of Bachik’s words. He had kept the company of thee women too long not to understand the force of Bachik’s remarks. Yes, these women are very enchanting and diverting and are good company for a picnic or a ball, but their society is also fraught with very disagreeable consequences. They suck the life-blood of a man once within their clutches, and often send him home only to die!

These thoughts crossed Swee Tong’s mind and he felt that Bachik was quite right in his denunciation of these women.

“I say, Bachik,” he said, “I am afraid you have made me a convert to your views. I am sorry that I had at all championed the cause of these women; but you know I felt more pity than love for them, and one must always speak a kind word for the opposite sex.” Bachik answered, “I know you would see things in their true light if you would only open your eyes a bit. Hitherto you and I have been too willing to be led by practices and customs, and we have never dared question anything, which has been accepted by those around us as the right thing. Now, however, the scales have fallen off our eyes, and we see the good from the bad, and our tongues are loosened to preach those things which are good and condemn those that are bad. You know, Swee Tong, it is only because I am a bachelor that I have ever been able to endure the society of these women, and my bachelorhood is the only plea I can find for my intercourse with them. If I were a married man like you, Swee Tong, I should feel so guilty that I would rather throw myself into the sea, than confront the honest unsuspecting face of a wife! And yet how many married men we have here, who are doing what you call a bit of love making at this minute, and perhaps in half-an-hour or so will walk up and face their wives with such an innocent countenance as if they had not done the least wrong. Oh! It is horrible to think of the duplicity and hypocrisy which are being carried on by these married men. The thought of their wives and children ought to be an all sufficient deterrent against this, and they ought to pay more respect to the sacred ties of matrimony. But how different things are!”

Swee Tong could not resist the thought that Bachik was getting too philosophical, and the allusion to himself made him feel uncomfortable. What is the use, he thought, of sifting matters so fine? It is best to leave them alone, and enjoy ourselves as best we can. There are enough troubles already that force themselves upon our notice, and it is unnecessary for us to dig up and look for more.

“Bachik”, said he, “you know that saying ‘where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.’ I am of opinion that it is better to remain ignorant of all that you have said, than to have our eyes opened and be made unhappy. Of course, to know a thing is wrong, and persist in doing it would be too outrageous; but many things have been done, and can still be done, without our troubling ourselves to find out whether they are right or wrong. If we are to look for an approving conscience for our every act you will agree with me that our lives would become an awful burden.” Bachik leaned back in his chair, and watched the columns of smoke that curled out of his mouth, and rose into the ceiling.

The wonderful amount of inspiration that could be got from a choice Havana could only be appreciated by those who have tried the weed. A good cigar is one of Bachik’s indispensables, and this was not the first time that he had to look to his cigar for some help.

Bachik was still moodily contemplating his friend’s last answer, when some of the guests came to wish him good-bye. He was therefore prevented from replying to his friend’s last words; but he said however, “Swee Tong, please bear in mind our conversation of to-night, and at some other convenient time we shall hope to discuss the matter further.”

Swee Tong laughed assent at this postponement, and they both returned to the ball-room to bid the departing friends good-bye.

———–

 The departure of the guests gave the ball-room a quieter and more homely air, but as all the members remained in a body, the ball-room was still full though not cramped.

Being somewhat tired of dancing, some one suggested that they should start singing; hence the “rebanas” (or tambours) were brought out and the usual tune for accompanying Malay songs struck up.

Bachik was pacing up and down the long verandah. Once again being left alone, his thoughts went back to the subject of his conversation with Swee Tong. He was thus occupied when his partner came to look for him. His first impulse was to excuse himself and ask her to leave him alone, but that sweet smiling face was too captivating for him and he had not the heart to hurt her feelings by making such a request. He therefore allowed her to take his arm, and they walked about together for some little time.

He talked to her of different things, —of the bright moon in the heavens and the gentle breeze that blew softly on their faces. She looked up to him as an innocent child would to its protector, and drank in all the interesting things which fell from his lips. He then led her into the ball-room to hear the “pantun” contest.[3] Together they sat on a sofa so placed by the side of a large venetian window with coloured panes that they were partly hidden from view by the window curtains, which waved in graceful folds, as the gentle midnight breeze played on them. Bachik took his companion’s left hand in his right, while with her other hand she fanned him with her large and richly-embroidered fan. Some sweet remark lightly whispered escaped her lips, and a broad smile spread over Bachik’s fair face.

The other members were seated all round the ball-room, while the musicians were located in a prominent position, and around these latter several of the dancing girls sat with “rebanas” on their laps.

The tune which the fiddler was playing was the usual ‘dongdang sayang’[4] and the voices of the singers were sweet and melodious. The songs contained sentiments of an appropriate character; they were in praise of the benevolence and amiable qualities of the President and host. Some of the singers alluded in very choice words, extemporaneously composed, to the pretty scene before them, to wit, Bachik and his partner as they sat entwined in each other’s arms.

There was abundant proof that Bachik was doing what his confidential friend had characterised as ‘a bit of love-making’, and it was well for both parties perhaps that Swee Tong was nowhere near to witness this little love scene, which might have shaken his confidence in Bachik’s sincerity when he denounced Swee Tong’s “poor harmless creatures.”

Swee Tong’s absence was due to the departure of the guests, for as Secretary he had to see them off. That function would not however have taken so long a time, were it not that each guest was persuaded into having a last “strength” before bidding adieu, and these stengahs[5] were followed by lengthy chats and complimentary blandishments.

When the last guest had driven away, Swee Tong ascended the ballroom again, and took a seat in a remote corner. The soft strains of the fiddle now and again accompanying a singer soon lulled him into a calm repose, and he was wavering between wakefulness and sleep, when a clear and exceptionally rich voice broke forth into song:-

“Kalau tidak panggang slangat,

Panggang kekek lada muda;

Kalau tidak kenang banyak,

Kenang sedikit ada juga.”[6]

He was roused from his reverie, and to his surprise found that Bachik’s partner was the owner of that voice which had called him from dreamland into the consciousness of the stern reality of life.

That voice was delightful, and the words that had fallen from those pretty lips certainly invited a fitting response. He was yet contemplating the sentiment as conveyed by these words, when, to make his surprise still greater, Bachik in his strong and powerful voice sang these words;-

“Deri Langkat pergi ka-Klang,

Orang bermain disawa padi,

Tuan ingat, sahya pun kenang,

Sama terbebat didalam hati.”[7]

After this, all thought of sleep forsook Swee Tong’s eyes, and sitting up in an upright position he strained his cars to catch the songs which followed, now from Bachik, and now from his partner, each trying to vie with the other in the expression sentiment and tenderness.

The other singers had ceased singing but continued to beat their “rebanas”, and the fiddler exercised special energy in the manipulation of his bow to show his real appreciation of the tender feeling expressed in Bachik’s songs and in his partner’s responses.

Thus the singing went on, waxing sweeter and tendered in sentiment as one song succeeded another, until at last the fiddle string snapped and the singers felt it was a good time to stop.

When the musicians had put by their various instruments, Swee Tong quietly stole round to Bachik’s side and standing opposite him as he sat there with his lady friend he darted him a look which meant mischief with just a touch of reproach!

Bachik felt that he must enter into some explanation with Swee Tong, and as a friend had come up and joined the trio, Bachik consigned his partner to the care of that friend, and took Swee Tong out into the verandah again.

“My dear Swee Tong”, he began, “I am afraid you think that I have been playing you fast and loose. Certainly my conduct just now was hardly in keeping with the opinion which I had so forcibly tried to impress upon you, and to which I had all but gained you over. Indeed I had almost taken some pride to myself for the victory I thought I had achieved.”

“Oh bother!” replied Swee Tong. “Pray do not trouble yourself in the least about that; I was indeed glad, if anything at all, that you should have so soon found out your old self again with the girls. I was really pleased to find you so cosily seated on that sofa with your lady-love beside you. Wouldn’t you both have made a beautiful subject for the painter’s brush, and by Jove! the pantuns you sang were really capital and to the point.”

“Please give me time to explain, Swee Tong,” pleaded Bachik, “all that you have just said makes my duty all the harder for me. I owe you and explanation for my conduct, and let me hasten to fulfil my duty, for it pains me greatly to find myself misunderstood. You are most generous in not expecting some sort of explanation from me for my apparent inconsistency, but you mistook my situation when you said that I was my old self again with the girls. I can only express my very sincere regret in having placed myself so near your conception of a love scene, but I plead extenuating circumstances. I am constrained to offer the same excuse which Adam employed in the garden of Eden, the woman whom I brought with me, tempted me and I fell! I am sure you will despise me more for this excuse, but it is the only possible one—and the real one—that I can give, and to my shame let it be recorded that I fell as Adam had done, and all on account of a woman too!

“When you left me, I was going over the subject of our conversation and was particularly thinking of your last remark and the answer that I should give thereto; but my thoughts were cut short by the appearance of her whom you call my lady-love, and although I had at first intended to get out of her way, yet by some unaccountable reason I was drawn towards that which I most dreaded. When a foot slips, it is easy for the whole body to fall; hence from a want of resolution I was carried into doing a host of things which are now standing in judgment against me!”

Swee Tong looked intently into his friend’s face and a shade of sadness passed over his own. He had meant to have a little joke at Bachik’s expense, but found that he was the cause of his friend’s grief.

“Oh Bachik” said he with a sigh, “I little thought when I approached you that I would break the spell which your partner had thrown over you. If I had had the remotest idea that this pang of remorse would have been the result I would have kept in the background and left you to enjoy yourself. You do not comprehend how my heart was gladdened at the sight of both of you sitting so lovingly together like two cooing doves! The position looked so natural to you and she played her part so well.”

“Pray stop, my good old friend” cried Bachik, “I have never had any occasion to ask you to stop talking to me; your voice and your conversation have always been the greatest grief your talk has been my solace and comfort. In this particular instance, however, I must implore you not to speak, because every word you utter pierces my heart like a two-edged sword. I have been guilty of the greatest indiscretion, and now let me endeavour to rectify my error, and atone for my sins. Oh, how frail is human resolution and how powerless we feel in times of temptation! ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’; I cry for a stronger and more lasting sense of determination, so that in the hour of trial I shall withstand all appearance of evil.”

Swee Tong remained silent for a few minutes. He was contemplating the serious turn the conversation had taken, and he felt that Bachik was taking too serious a view of the matter. Nothing he thought was more genial and wholesome than that two hearts should be joined into one, and love was an important factor in a man’s life and happiness. What a sad illusion it must be to call such a spontaneous outburst of feeling by such terms as sins and the like!

In the meantime Bachik covered his face with his hands, but though he tried to conceal his emotion, his look betrayed the intense grief he was suffering. If he could only recall all his acts of the past hour, he would give half his life to redeem that which he felt was irretrievably lost.

The two friends remained seated close to one another, each engrossed with his own thoughts, and but for an occasional sigh, nothing disturbed them in their moody reflections.

Let us leave them awhile to their ruminations, and turn our attention to the fair one,— the cause of all this brooding.

Hia Ti, the friend in whose care Bachik had entrusted his partner, was a boisterous kind of a fellow; a man with plenty of cash and gas, as ready to part with the one as with the other, and the hearty laughs that he indulged in clearly showed to all around that he was making himself quite free and easy.

Bachik’s partner felt rather shy and uncomfortable in the company of such a man; it was like a drop from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the change was so sudden and abrupt! Bachik’s polished ways and manners met with a readier response from her than Hia Ti’s pompous though well-intentioned behaviour, and but for Bachik’s sake she would have shown her utter disgust for him.

Hence she hardly spoke to him, and though he tried his best to draw her into a conversation, still beyond a curt yes or no, she showed no inclination to prolong the interview. He tried to get her to express an opinion on various subjects, and thus obtain a reason for remaining by her side. When all his attempts had proved futile, he played what he knew was his trump card, feeling assured that he would gain his end. The trump card was Bachik himself; and he knew she would have a lot to say of him. So he quietly said, “Bachik is a long time away. I wonder what he is about. He looked a bit ruffled when Swee Tong came up to him just now, and his face wore a sorrowful look when he walked out into the verandah.”

She seemed to be roused from sleep at the mention of Bachik’s name, and turning round to the speaker, she replied, “I noticed the same change in Bachik. I have known him for some time past but I have never seen him so despondent and downcast. It is more than a matter of wonder to me to find him so, and I would sacrifice everything to know the cause of this change. I can only hope that I have not done anything to incur his displeasure. I have always studied to do all I could to promote his happiness, and he has never been a hard man to please. My smallest attention has always been well received, and he has invariably reciprocated my kind intentions. But to-night there seems to be something heavy on his mind, and I cannot but confess my fear that he has tried to avoid my society, although he has striven hard to hide it from me. Oh! I would now leave him and all this company if my presence here caused him any pain, though to part from him would be a heart-rending trial;—still I could endure anything for his sake.”

Hia Ti had anticipated that she would have something to say concerning Bachik, but he had not dreamt that it would take the direction it did. “You are far too sensitive,” he said after a while, “I do not think that Bachik could have found anything in you to occasion him any grief, indeed I never knew him to take offence at anything or anybody. It might after all be only a slight bilious attack or something of that kind that has made the noticeable change in him. Ha! Ha!”

Middy (this is the name of Bachik’s partner) looked down upon the foot-rug, and tried to persuade herself into believing that perhaps Hia Ti’s theory of Bachik’s silence was correct, but there was a lurking suspicion that her own fear was not without foundation. She remained silent for a little time, buried in her own thoughts, and Hia Ti could not help admiring her genuine regret for the slightest pain which Bachik might feel on her account. Hia Ti was man more inclined to laugh than to cry, and Middy’s sad face therefore was not much to his taste. He was all at sea with a person in tears, and glad of an opportunity to betake himself away from such surroundings, he said, “I think I had better go and fetch Bachik. When I accepted his charge I had no idea that he would require my services so long. Middy, shall I go?”

“Do please, Hia Ti” replied she, “and may you be the bearer of good tidings when you return.”

Hia Ti left her with the ostensible object of looking for Bachik, but in reality he was only anxious to get away from all crying scenes. Instead of going straight out into the verandah, where he knew Bachik was, he went up to the bar, and called for a stiff dose of brandy and soda. He had no felt so great a need for this stimulant as on this occasion; his usually high-strung nerves seemed at that moment to be quite unstrung, and the task which he had volunteered to undertake was not much in his line. If he had to deal with his male friends; he could manage it easily enough with a few loud and boisterous laughs, but Middy was so different. The few minutes’ conversation with her had already had the effect of sobering his manners a bit and he did not now laugh as freely as usual.

When sufficient time had elapse for the brandy to circulate in his system, and he felt a kind of daring sensation, he walked out into the verandah, but stopped all at once when he saw Bachik with his hands over his face and Swee Tong stretched at full length in his chair.

What does all this mean? he muttered to himself. There a crying face and here two people with faces fit for funeral party!

“Bachik”, cried he aloud, “What on earth are you up to? This is no time or place for such a long face! For goodness sake do cheer up, and act a manly part; crying is only good for women and children”.

Bachik put down his hands, and almost unconsciously he said, “Where is she; what has become of her?”

“Ha, ha; so it is she, is it? I thought as much she is at the bottom of it all”, laughed Hia Ti.

Bachik’s face flushed red, and he could almost have cursed himself for what he had unwittingly uttered! Why is she always so uppermost in his thoughts: why could he not forget her?

Swee Tong was looking on with half a smile on his lips.

“Look here old fellow,” he said “this affair is going too far. Come, come and let us be merry while we can. I think we have had enough of mournful thoughts for a whole month!”

Bachik rose from his chair, and at Hia Ti’s suggestion, they all went up to the bar and called for drinks.

Hia Ti clinked his glass all round, and his jovial face and witty remarks for a time dispelled Bachik’s gloomy thoughts. They then went round to where Middy sat, and while the two friends intentionally slackened their steps when they approached her, Bachik walked up and took his seat by Middy’s side once more.

Swee Tong and Hia Ti sat on a sofa opposite, and the former briefly narrated all that had transpired in the verandah. Hia Ti of course laughed all through, and when the story ended, he said, “What an old woman Bachik is! Fancy the idea of being upset by such trifles. Good gracious me, I would jump if I were in his shoes, for upon my word, Swee Tong, that girl is a rare jewel!” He then described in his own peculiar style his conversation with Middy, and it was Swee Tong’s turn to laugh at the recital.

When Bachik resumed his seat at Middy’s side, he had no fixed point to guide him,—everything seemed to be so unsettled. He therefore sat still for a few minutes, and tried to find a course to steer; but before he could find one, Middy put her arms round him, and said, “My dear Bachik, I think we had better part, perhaps to meet no more! You are sick and tired of me, and I cannot bear to think that I am the thorn in your side! But my dear love, I shall have my say before we are done with each other, and you will give me your attention, because these may be the last words that I shall utter to you. I am sick of life; I cannot outlive this disappointment and grief. You cannot understand a woman’s depth of feeling; —men are generally so superficial and whimsical. When I first saw you I knew that I had met with one for whom I could live and die! I know a good man when I see one, and you possess all the attributes that make up the sum total of my ideal husband.

“My past history was a dark one, —you knew that before we met; your loving attentions towards me in spite of this fact lent me courage to hope that my future career might be the reverse of all that it had been. I confess that I harboured the hope that we might marry and lead an exemplary conjugal life. This hope may seem to you preposterous; but be that as it may, I am making my confession, and I will speak the truth for what it is worth. You did nothing to rob me of this hope, and I have been living these few months in anxious expectation of the crisis when I shall make a clean breast of it to you, and offer my humble self as your devoted wife.

“It must be in the general view of things a mesalliance; but when I think of the happiness that we will enjoy in wedlock, all barriers seem to fade away. Love is one of the strongest agents that move human beings into action, and no obstacle is insurmountable when it is a question of gaining one’s heart’s desire. All trouble, pain and affliction become insignificant when suffered in the service of love, and even reason yields to the dictates of love and passion. When the heart speaks neither rank nor station, wealth or position is of any importance. Oh Bachik, must we really part?”

Middy spoke these words with a vehemence which surprised Bachik. She had always been a passive quiet woman, taking things as Bachik gave her, and never once setting out her own wishes. At this juncture however, her tongue seemed to have loosened, and she poured out the feelings which had long been pent up in her bosom. She would have said more, but for the sobs which overwhelmed her.

Bachik was once more watching the curls of smoke as they issued out of his mouth, and the quick quivering movements of his lips clearly indicated the emotions of his heart. He hesitated making any answer, because his past made him realise that anything he might now wish to say should be well weighed and considered.

There was another reason which caused him to take a long pause; the new phase of life which Middy had opened up before his eyes was temptingly interesting. In the new light which she had thrown over all things, he was wondering whether it would not be practicable to put the matter to the test. What if she were wholly reformed and became a new being! Would there be any justifiable reason against his acceptance of her as his wife?

He felt certain, that her sense of true love was not extinct, as was generally the case with persons of her class, and he had ample proof that she loved him. His own heart also approved of the suggestion and if he could love her in sin, could he not all the more love her in wedlock?

These thoughts crossed Bachik’s mind, and he was passing in review the whole subject, when he remembered reading somewhere these beautiful lines, which he softly whispered in Middy’s ears—

‘Though thousand faults may love possess,

‘Nay millions more let world confess,

‘All arguments will keep behind

‘The eyes of love, for love is blind!’

“No, Middy darling”, said he “you shall not leave me; the whole world may shun you but I will not forsake you. I must be frank and honest with you in this matter; I love you as I have loved none else; I love you more than tongue can tell; I would risk all for your sake, but—, ah! but I dare not live in sin! I am willing to do all that mortals can do, but with the immortality of the soul, I cannot, dare not trifle! But for the possibilities which you have opened up before my eyes, I would not speak to you thus. You have spoken well, and given me a hope to which I would cling as a drowning man would cling to a life-buoy! Give me time to think the matter over, and when I shall have considered all things well, I will renew the subject again. For the present, I am afraid I have loved you ‘not wisely but too well.’”

Middy felt more calm and resigned when Bachik ceased talking, and looking up into his face, she said, “Yes, my dear love, you must face this matter with a clear and deliberate mind, so that whatever you may do may not have repentance following at its heel. I can wait for your answer; I can wait for time and eternity if you bid me thus to wait. I can live happily with you in my memory, and if you can but give me the faintest hope of calling you mine, I am more than satisfied.”

Bachik kissed her now with a feeling strangely different to what he had previously felt for her. He had a kind of reverence for her now, and his heart was glad within him for she had rolled away a load from his mind.

The sun was just tingeing the clouds in the eastern sky, and the fresh morning breeze was wafting sweet scent of roses and other flowers into the ball-room; the crowing in the poultry-yard behind and the general stir of the people in the neighbourhood announced the break of dawn. The members of the ball began to make ready to depart, and after partaking of some warm potations, they all shook hands with the President and his loving Middy, and betook themselves to their respective homes.

Bachik and Middy were the last to leave, and when they separated at Middy’s house in town, there was an embrace which made them feel that thenceforth would they begin to love one another with a love pure and holy, culminating in what they dared not at that moment conjecture.

Many were the days which followed when the members met and discussed the proceedings of that eventful night, and long would they remember the generous hospitality of Bachik, the kind sweet face of Middy, the indefatigable attention of Swee Tong, and the loud and boisterous laughter of Hia Ti, for it was the President’s Ball.

Notes

[1] The gentleman, as a bourgeois moral category, was an important figure in Victorian England. Here the story makes a claim for equality by demonstrating that the Straits Chinse, too, are gentlemen.

[2] Vases.

[3] The pantun is a type of Malay verse which often uses a question and answer format, and is performed by two people in dialogue. It is frequently allusive, and spontaneity is prized.

[4] Pantuns sung in an elaborate manner, accompanied by a band of largely Malay muscians. Now known as gunung sayang in Singapore.

[5]Whisky and soda water (from the Malay word for “half”), a popular drink among the British colonial elite in Malaya.

[6] If you don’t broil slangat fish

Broil kekek fish with young chillies.

If you don’t think a lot of me

There must still be a bit of feeling.

[7] From Langkat to Klang

People play in the paddy fields.

You remember and I also think of you;

Together this is kept in our heart.

[In both pantuns, the first two lines are there in order to encourage improvisation, but carry no meaning themselves: the latter two carry the meaning.]

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