Read ‘HIS HEART’S DESIRE’ of In Court and Kampong Being Tales and Sketches of Native Life in the Malay Peninsula , free online book, by Hugh Clifford, on

They wrench my back on a red-hot rack,
They comb my nerves with wire,
They poison with pain the blood of my brain
Till the Devils of Devilry tire;
They spit from Above on the name of my Love,
They call my Love a liar;
But they can’t undo the joy I knew
When I knew my Heart’s Desire.

The Song of the Lost Soul. ANON.

Where and when these things happened does not signify at all. The East Coast is a long one, and the manners of the Malay Rajas who dwell thereon have suffered but little change for centuries. Thus, both in the matter of time and of space, there is a wide choice, and plenty of exercise may be given to the imagination. The facts anyway are true, and they were related, in the watches of the night, to a White Man whose name does not matter by two people, with whose identity you also have no concern. One of the latter was a man whom I will call Awang Itam, and the other was a woman whose name was Bedah, or something like it. The place in which the tale was told was an empty sailing boat which lay beached upon a sandbank in the centre of a Malay river, and, as soon as the White Man had scrambled up the side, the dug-out, which had brought him, sheered off and left him.

He had come to this place by appointment, but he did not know precisely whom he was to meet, as the assignation had been made in the secret native fashion, which is as different from the invitation card of Europe as most things in the East are different from white men’s gear. Twice that day his attention had been very pointedly called to this deserted sailing boat; once by an old crone who was selling sweetstuff from door to door, and once by a young chief who had stopped to speak to him, while passing up the street of the native town. By both of these some reference had been made to the moon-rise and to ‘a precious thing’; and this was enough to show the White Man that something was to be learned, seen, or experienced by going to the deserted sailing boat at the rising of the moon.

The Malays who were with him feared a trap, and implored him not to go alone; but the White Man did not fancy that treachery was likely just then, and, in any case, he was anxious for the adventure, and could not afford to let his people think that he was afraid. The man who, dwelling alone among Malays in an unsettled country, shows the slightest trace of fear, signs his own death-warrant. No people are more susceptible to ‘bluff,’ and, given a truculent bearing, and a sufficiency of bravado, a coward may pass for a brave man in many a Malay State.

The decks of the boat were wet with dew and drizzle, and she smelt abominably of ancient fish cargoes which she had carried before she was beached. A light rain was falling, and the White Man crept along the side until he reached the stern, which was covered with a roofing of rotten palm-leaf mats. Through the rents at the stern he could see the moon rising like a great red ball, throwing a broad wave of dancing light along the reaches of the river. Then he squatted down, rolled a cigarette, and awaited developments.

Presently the soft splish, whisp! splash, whisp! of a single paddle came to his listening ear; and, a moment later, a girl’s form, standing erect on the vessel’s side, showed distinctly in the growing moonlight. She called softly to know if anybody was aboard, and the White Man answered equally cautiously. She then turned and whispered to some unseen person in a boat moored alongside, and, after some seconds, she came towards the White Man and said:

’There is one who would speak with thee, Tuan, but he cannot climb up the ship’s side. He is like a dead man unless one lifts him, how can he move? Will the Tuan, therefore, aid him to ascend into the ship?’

The White Man loosened his pistol in its holster, covertly, that she might not see, and stepped cautiously to the place where the boat appeared to be moored, for he, too, began to fear a trap. What he saw over the side reassured him. The dug-out was of the smallest, and it had only one occupant. He was a man who, even in the dim moonlight, showed the sharp angles of his bones. He had a peculiarly drawn and shrunken look, and the skin was stretched across his hollow cheeks like the goat-hide on a drum-face. The White Man leaped down into the boat, and, aided by the girl, he lifted the man on board. Then, painfully and very slowly, the latter crept aft, going on all fours like some unclean animal, until he had reached the shelter in the stern. The girl and the White Man followed, and they all three squatted down on the creaking bamboo decking. The man sat, all of a heap, moaning at short intervals, as Malays moan when the fever holds them. The girl sat unconcernedly preparing a quid of betel-nut from its four ingredients, and the White Man inhaled his cigarette and waited for them to speak. He was trying to get the hang of the business, and to guess what had caused two people, whom he did not know, to seek an interview with him in this weird place, at such an untimely hour.

The girl, the moonlight told him, was pretty. She had a small, perfectly shaped head, a wide smooth forehead, neat, glossy hair, bright, laughing eyes, with eyebrows arched and well-defined, ’like the artificial spur of a fighting cock,’ and the pretty little hands and feet which are so common among all well-born Malay women. The man was hideous. His shrunken and twitching face with its taut skin, and his utterly broken, degraded, and decrepit appearance were indescribably horrible, and the flickering of the moonlight, through the torn mat overhead, only added to the grotesqueness of his figure.

At length the girl looked up at the White Man, and spoke:

‘The Tuan knows Awang Itam?’ she asked. Yes, the White Man knew him well, but had not seen him for some months.

‘This is he,’ she said, pointing to the abject figure by her side, and her listener felt as though she had struck him across the face. When last he had seen Awang Itam, he was one of the best favoured of the King’s Youths, a fine, upstanding youngster, dressed in many-coloured silks, and with an amount of side and swagger about him, which would have amply sufficed for a regiment of Her Majesty’s Guards. Now he half lay, half sat, on the damp decking, the most pitiful wreck of humanity that the White Man had ever seen. What had befallen him to cause so fearful a change? I will tell you the tale, in my own words, as the White Man learned it from him and Bedah, as they sat talking during the watches of that long night.

In every Independent Malay State, there is a gang of fighting men, which watches over the person of the King and acts as his bodyguard. It is recruited from the sons of the chiefs, nobles, and men of the well-bred classes; and its members follow at the heels of the King whenever he goes abroad, paddle his boat, join with him in the chase, gamble unceasingly, do much evil in the King’s name, slay all who chance to offend him, and flirt lasciviously with the girls within the palace. They are always ready for anything from ’pitch-and-toss to manslaughter,’ and no Malay king has to ask twice in their hearing ’Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Their one aim in life is to gain the favour of their master, and, having won it, to freely abuse their position. As the Malay proverb has it, they carry their master’s work upon their heads, and their own under their arms, and woe betide those who are not themselves under the immediate protection of the King, that chance throws in their way. Sometimes they act as a kind of irregular police force, levying chantage from those whom they detect in the commission of an offence; and, when crime is scarce, they often exact blackmail from wholly innocent people by threatening to accuse them of some ill-deed, unless their goodwill is purchased at their own price. They are known as the Budak Raja or King’s Youths and are greatly feared by the people, for they are as reckless, as unscrupulous, as truculent, and withal as gaily dressed and well born a gang of young ruffians, as one would be like to meet in a long summer’s cruise.

Awang Itam had served the King for several years as one of the Budak Raja, but his immediate chief was Saiyid Usman, a youngster who was also one of the King’s Youths, and was usually spoken of as Tuan Bangau. Awang had been born and bred in the house of which Tuan Bangau’s father was the head, and, though in accordance with the immutable Malay custom, Awang always spoke of himself as ‘thy servant’ when he addressed Tuan Bangau, the relations which subsisted between them more nearly resembled those of brothers, than those which we recognise as being proper to master and servant. They had crawled about the floor of the women’s apartments in company, until they were old enough to play in the open air; they had played porok and tuju lubang, and all the games known to Malay children, still in company; they had splashed about in the river together, cooling their little brown bodies in the running water; they had often eaten from the same plate, and had slept side by side on the same mat spread in the verandah. Later, they had been circumcised on the same day, and, having thus entered upon man’s estate, they had together begun to participate in the life of dissipation which every court-bred Malay boy regards as his birth-right. Thus they had gone astraying after strange women, gambling and quarelling with the other youths, but still in company, and with their old love for one another unaltered. They had been duly entered as members of the King’s Youths, and had proved themselves not to be the least reckless and truculent of those who form that ruffianly gang, but they had chiefly used their position to carry on their love intrigues with greater freedom and daring. Both were handsome, dashing, fearless, swaggering, gaily-dressed boys, and many were the girls within the palace, and the town which lay around it, who cast loving eyes upon them. Awang, however, cared little for this, for, by the irony of that Fate which always directs that men should fall in love with the wrong women, and vice versa, his heart was eaten up with a fiery desire for a girl who was a jamah-jamah-an, or casual concubine of the King, and who resolutely declined to have ought to do with him. Nevertheless, the moth still fluttered around the candle, and Awang never missed an opportunity of catching a passing glimpse of the object of his longing. It was an evil day for both Awang Itam and Tuan Bangau, however, when, as they swaggered past the palace-fence, seeking to peep at this girl, they were seen by the King’s daughter, Tungku Uteh, and a desire was straightway born in her breast for the young and handsome Saiyid.

In the East, love affairs develop quickly; and that very day Awang Itam again saw Iang Munah, the girl whom he had loved so long and so hopelessly, and by a flash of an eye-lid was informed that she had that to tell him which it concerned him to know. When both parties desire a secret interview many difficulties may be overcome, and that evening Awang whispered into the ear of Tuan Bangau that ’the moon was about to fall into his lap.’

‘I dreamed not long since,’ said Tuan Bangau, ’that I was bitten by a very venomous snake!’ And then Awang knew that his friend was ready for any adventure.

To dream of a snake bite, among any of the people of the Far East, means that ere long the dreamer will receive generous favours from some lady who is either of exalted rank, or of most surpassing beauty. The greater the venom of the snake, the brighter, it is believed, are the qualities with which the dreamer’s future mistress is endowed. It is not only in Europe, that venom enters into the soul of a man by reason of a woman, and this is, perhaps, the explanation of how this dream comes to bear this peculiar interpretation.

Tuan Bangau’s position was a curious one. He did not desire Tungku Uteh for herself; she was his King’s daughter, and the wife of a royal husband; and his duty and his interest alike forbade him to accept her advances. If his intrigue with her was discovered, he was a ruined, if not a dead man, and, moreover, he was at this time devoted to another girl, whom he had recently married. The challenge which had been conveyed to him, however, was one which, in spite of all these things, his code of honour made it impossible for him to refuse. The extreme danger, which lay in such an intrigue, gave him no choice but to accept it. That was his point of view, ‘His honour rooted in dishonour stood,’ and no self-respecting Malay, brought up in the poisonous atmosphere of an Independent Malay State, could admit of any other opinion.

With Awang Itam things were different. I have already said that he was passionately in love with Iang Munah, and he knew that he would at length win his Heart’s Desire. He would accompany his chief on his nocturnal visits to the palace, and, while Tuan Bangau wooed the Princess, the handmaiden would give herself to him. He felt the ’blood run redder in every vein’ at the bare thought, and he was the eager and impatient lover when the twain crept into the palace in the noon of the night.

They effected their entrance by a way known only to themselves, and left by the same means before the breaking of the dawn, passing to their quarters in the guard-house, through the slumbering town, and lay sleeping far into the day. For more than a month they paid their secret visits unobserved by any save those whom they sought, and by the old crone who unbarred the door for them to enter; but, upon a certain night, they narrowly escaped detection. The King, like many Malay Rajas, kept curious hours. Sometimes, he slept all day, sometimes he slept all night; some days he went to rest at noon, to awake at midnight; and, on such occasions, he often wandered about the palace alone, pouncing upon ill-doers, like the lion which seeketh whom it may devour. In this way he chanced upon Tuan Bangau and Awang Itam, but they had fled from the palace before he had learned who they were, and who were the girls whom they had come to seek.

After this the meetings ceased for a space, but Tungku Uteh was not to be so easily baulked, and a taunting message soon brought Tuan Bangau once more to her feet. The meetings, however, no longer took place within the palace itself, the lovers meeting and passing the night in a wood-shed within the fence of the royal enclosure.

Things had gone on in this way for some time when Tungku Uteh began to weary of the lack of excitement attending the intrigue. Like many Malay women she regarded it as a reproach to a girl if no man desired her, and the longing became greater and greater to show her partner and her immediate entourage that she also was wooed and loved. She had an affection for Tuan Bangau, and admired him as a lover and a man, but even this could not restrain the growing longing for notoriety. Perhaps she hardly realised how grave would be the consequences; perhaps she struggled against the impulse; who can say? The fact remains that her lover was sacrificed, as many a man has been before and since, upon the altar of a woman’s ungovernable vanity.

One night, when the yellow dawn was splashing the gray in the East, and the thin smoke-like clouds were hurrying across the sky, like great night fowls winging their homeward way, Tuan Bangau awoke and found Uteh sitting beside him with his kris and girdle in her hands. She had taken them from his pillow as he slept, and no persuasions on his part could induce her to return them. While he yet sought to coax her into foregoing her resolve, she leaped to her feet, and, with a sweet little laugh, disappeared in the palace, and Tuan Bangau returned homeward with Awang Itam, each knowing that now indeed their hour was come.

Once inside her own apartments, Tungku Uteh placed the kris ostentatiously at the head of her sleeping mat, and then composed herself calmly to enjoy the tranquil slumber, which in the West is erroneously supposed to be the peculiar privilege of the just. Next day, the kris had been seen and recognised, but her father and mother received nothing but taunts from Uteh in reply to their inquiries. What her object was is difficult for the European mind to appreciate, for it must be distinctly remembered that she had no quarrel with Tuan Bangau. A Malay woman, however, is very far from regarding the possession of a lover as a disgrace: in this case, Uteh’s vanity was gratified by the intrigue becoming known. To obtain this even the sacrifice of her lover did not seem too heavy a price to pay.

The King’s anger knew no bounds when he heard of what had occurred, and physical punishment was, of course, the only means of covering his shame, which occurred to his primitive and unoriginal imagination. His position, however, was a difficult one. Tuan Bangau was a member of a very powerful clan; he was also a Saiyid, and the King feared that the fanaticism of his people would be aroused if he openly slew a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Awang Itam, whose intrigue had also become known, was arrested, carried into the palace, and all trace was lost of him for months. Iang Munah also disappeared from among the women; but to Tuan Bangau not a word was said, and never by sign or gesture was he allowed to guess that his crime was known to the King.

One day the King went a hunting, and took his way up a small stream which was totally uninhabited. Tuan Bangau was of the party, and those who went with them were all men selected for their discretion, and their unwavering loyalty to the King. The hunting party travelled in boats, of which there were two, the King going in one, and his son Tungku Saleh in the other. In the latter boat sat Tuan Bangau, and about a dozen of the King’s Youths. Arrived at a certain place, the King’s boat went on round the point, and Tungku Saleh’s boat tied up in mid-stream, while the Prince ate some sweatmeats which had been brought for the purpose.

When he had eaten his fill, he bade Tuan Bangau and one or two other Saiyids, who were among his followers, fall to on what remained, and it was while Tuan Bangau was washing his mouth over the side of the boat after eating, that Tungku Saleh gave the signal which heralded his death. A man who was behind him stabbed him in the shoulder with a spear, and another blow given almost simultaneously knocked him into the river. Tuan Bangau dived, and swam until he had reached the shallow water near the bank. Here he rose to his feet, drew his kris, and called to those within the boat to come and fight him one at a time if they dared. The only answer was a spear which wounded him in the neck, and a bullet from a gun which penetrated to his heart. In a moment all that remained of Tuan Bangau was a shapeless heap of useless flesh, lying in the shallow water, with the eddies playing around and in and out of the brilliant silk garments, which had made him so brave a sight when alive. Those who had slain him, buried him; where, no man knoweth; the report that he had strayed and been lost, was diligently spread, and, though generally disbelieved, was found to be impossible of disproof. But Bedah, his wife who had loved him, had learnt these things, and now told all to the White Man, hoping that thus her husband’s murder might be avenged, and thereby she risked the life which his death had temporarily made desolate.

Compared with that of Awang Itam, however, Tuan Bangau’s fate was a happy one. When the former disappeared from the sight of men, he was the victim of nameless tortures. As he told the tale of what he had suffered on the night that followed his arrest; of the ghastly tortures and mutilations which had wrecked his manhood, and left him the pitiable ruin he then was, the White Man writhed in sympathy, and was filled with a horror that made him sick.

‘Better it were to die,’ said he, ’than to live the life which is no life, and to suffer these nameless torments.’

‘It is true,’ said Awang Itam, ’it is true. But readily would I bear it over again, Tuan, if thereby for a little space I might be what I have been, and my Heart’s Desire could once more be satisfied!’

These were the last words spoken while the dawn was breaking, as the White Man clambered over the side and wended his way homeward; and, therefore, I have called this tale the story of ‘His Heart’s Desire.’