THE LAND OF UPSIDE DOWN
THAT IS my English rendering of Muang Thai, which is more commonly translated as "The Land of the Free," and which you were taught at school to call Siam, I prefer my own translation, for
Muang Thai did not win freedom when her armies defeated the Burmese invaders in the eighteenth century. At least not freedom as we understand the word. When she has banished her ghosts as she has banished the Burmese— that is to say when yaks (giants), dragons and triple-headed serpents cease to be considered essential guardians to frighten the spirits away from every village and temple, when men dare to go out alone at night, and when the profession of cymbal-banger (spirits dislike loud noises) has ceased to be lucrative and honorable—Siam will have won the right to erect her Statue of Liberty at Bangkok. Pending the banishment of the ghosts, however, I think "The Land of Upside Down” is a more appropriate title, since Siam is above all the land where things work out directly contrary to what any foreigner—I except Burmese and Chinese, who live in upside-down countries themselves— might reasonably expect.
Of course the foregoing only applies to the Siamese inhabitants. Whites resident in Muang Thai retain the normal jrerspective unless they remain too long, in which case they go a little queer. Incidentally, there are quite a number of whites in Siam who have remained too long. If you meet one—which is not likely, for they’re shy beasts where their own kith and kin are concernedhe will talk to you of what he did in his past incarnations as if it were yesterday, show you his spirit scares, and warn you against going out after sunset. And if you deride what he says, he will tell you that you will know better when you have been in Siam a little longer and in that he will as likely as not prove a true prophet. Better or worse—it all depends which way you look at things.
SWINNERTON of the Siamese Irrigation Service had not yet arrived at the stage when a man nms to the jungle at sight of a white face and considers his past incarnations more imjxirtant than his jrresent one, but he was certainly heading that way. That is to say, he carried little carven spirit scares of an unbelievable grotesqueness on his jrerson, and never, never went out alone at night. Nor was it the fear of meeting a tiger or a prowling Miao tribesman with a pwisoned blowpipe that kept him in his tent after sunset. He adduced those reasons for the benefit of Rex Burton, who had only been in Muang Thai two years and who still retained the outlook of Chester, which was his hard-headed home town; but Burton suspected the truth and used to chaff Swinnerton about his dread of the jungle
Altogether Burton and Swinnerton didn’t hit it off too well. Apart from their divergence of ideas in the matter of spirits, there was the fact that Swinnerton was an eightanna-in-the-rupee Eurasian and thought Burton despised
him on that account, which was quite wrong. As a matter of fact, Burton didn’t even know Swinnerton was a Eurasian and wouldn't have cared if he had. But what he did deplore about Swinnerton was the fact that he was too superstitious to stop the Kahmé villagers in the French Indo-China hills in the North from floating teak logs down the Pakneeping River, across which Burton was constructing an eight span, double-line railway bridge which promised to be the masterpiece of his career. Swinnerton’s explanation of his slackness—that the spirits of the Pakneeping would be angry if they were deprived of their customary quota of teak logs—seemed to the engineer from Chester to be sheer bunkum.
They’d quite a row about it. Burton told Swinnerton that the Pakneeping was only a muddy river and that he, Swinnerton, must be wrong in his head if he thought otherwise, and Swinnerton replied in a lofty “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” strain that made the engineer from Chester see red. Indeed, Burton would have gone up country himself and talked with the Kahmé villagers about the teak logs, had not the Lissu coolies who w'ere doing the donkey-work on the bridge clinched matters by taking Swinnerton’s side and threatening that if anything were done that might annoy the Pakneeping spirits, they would call a general strike.
In the end a compromise was made. As the logs came down, they were hooked by boatmen in prows and towed into the shallows at the side, where elephants who kept little men called mahouts as their servants (another instance of the general topsy-turveydom of Muang That), took charge and made of them, as it were, an island.
WHEN HE bothers, which isn’t always, the elephant rivals the beaver as nature’s finest engineer. In this instance, what they did with those teak logs would have excited the envy of a French-Canadian logger. The “jam” was constructed on sound scientific principles. Even Burton, when he had satisfied himself as to the strength of the chain which held the key log on which the security of the whole depended, was content.
“When we’ve got the rafts out of the way we can let the logs through, a few at a time,” he told Sp>encer, who was his only purely European assistant. “They can be poled out from the side without risk of breaking up the main jam. I shouldn't like that to happen. If those logs came down en bloc and jammed against the pylons, as they certainly would, and the Pakneeping started piling up behind them—”
“She would be swept down to Chiengrai,” finished Sjrencer. “At least what was left of her would be.”
Both he and Burton always spoke of the bridge ás “she,” which fact is an index to how they felt. “She” was as much a personality in their proud eyes as the Pakneeping was in the eyes of the Lissu coolies. With a difference. Whereas the coolies regarded the Pakneeping as a malignant deity
to be coaxed and placated, the engineers regarded the bridge as their wayward daughter who had to be watched with loving vigilance lest she should grow up wrong.
At the moment “she” was at the aw'kward stage, ungainly with cranes and scaffoldings and trailing strings of barges. But Burton, who had watched her grow from a pencilled line in his notebook, could look ahead and visualize her in maturity—strong and graceful, with clean, swift lines, crowned with a tracery of ironwork, riding the brown width of the Pakneeping as lightly as a white bird.
At the first inception he had sensed she was to be his masterpiece. Now that she was three-quarters grown, he saw that the reality bade fair to surpass the dream. And when a creative artist feels that way about his work, he knows a satisfaction which even the stings of mosquitoes and the stupidity of Lissu coolies are powerless to mar.
It was, therefore, a nasty shock for Burton when Colonel Pragda Barai of the Siamese Civil Engineering—a highly educated man and reputed to be one of the finest architects in the East—said he didn’t think much of his bridge.
"pRAGDA BARAI had come to observe how the work was proceeding, on behalf of the Siamese Government. Burton, who had seen some of Pragda Barai’s own work— notably the reconstructed Grand Palace at Bangkok and the aerodrome at Duang Mai—had hailed him as a fellow artist from the dragon-decorated motor launch in which he had travelled from Chiengrai, and was eager for his admira-
But Pragda Barai broke intonopaeansof admiration when he saw what had been done. On the contrary, he frowned.
“H’m! So that’s how you’re doing it, Mr. Burton !” He spoke excellent English. “She looks to me as if she’ll be on the light side for so long a bridge. And I’m not sure I like those towers at the ends. Still, she’ll do. As long as the trains can get over safely it’s the main thing.”
Burton could have hit the little brown man.
"You approved the plans yourself, colonel,” he growled.
"I wish I hadn’t now,” said Pragda Barai. “But at least if a sudden flood comes and sweeps her away, we shan’t have lost very much. Only an ugly little bridge. Nobody would mind losing that.”
Now if Burton had been a free agent—that is to say, if he had not been a loyal employee of the Chester Bridge Building Company who had contracted with the Siamese Government to bridge the Pakneeping for two million ticals —he would have told Colonel Pragda Barai a thing or two. For instance, that he didn’t know the difference between a beautiful bridge and a kettle of fish; that if he didn’t like his, Burton’s, work, he could take the something contract to somewhere hotter than Siam and be hanged to him. “Build one for yourself if you know such a lot about it; something with snakes and dragons and pagodas and plenty of gold paint. That’s what you admire in this country.”
Loyalty to his firm and the thought of what it would mean to it if Pragda Barai should induce his Government to dispute the contract with the bridge seven-eighths finished, kept Burton from saying any of those angerappeasing things. He merely remarked that he hoped Pragda Barai would like the bridge better when he saw the
completed article, and asked if he had any suggestions to make.
“There must be a white marble Garuda at either end,” Pragda Barai said promptly. “Of course, as those were not specified in the contract we’ll see to their erection ourselves.”
And he showed the speechless engineer exactly where he proposed to place the marble Gañidas—a Garuda being a winged figure, half man, half bird, and the mythical steed of Vishnu. Burton was relieved to find that the Siamese had at least enough sense of architectural fitness not to put them anywhere where they would interfere with the lines of his bridge.
NEXT DAY Pragda Barai departed in his dragondecorated launch. And though he had assured Burton that he was not going to say anything that might imperil the contract, he left the engineer in a frame of mind for which "disgruntled” is too mild a word. In fact, Burton was as furiously angry as a mother whose first-born has been scorned.
Probably that is why he acted as he did act shortly after Pragda Barai’s launch had disappeared down the Pakneeping. In a normal frame of mind he would have reasoned with Swinnerton. Certainly he would not have struck him. Still less would he have thrashed him in the presence of a dozen or so Lissu coolies.
The reason for the assault seemed as inadequate to the Eurasian and the Lissu coolies as it appeared the reverse to Burton. Cruelty to a child. Swinnerton had caught the twelve-year-old son of one of the mahouts stealing cigarettes from his tent and had been giving him a flogging that would have seemed excessive had it been administered to an elephant, when the victim’s screams brought Burton on the scene at the double.
“Stop that!” he yelled at Swinnerton. “You won’t? Then take that.”
“That” was a right to the jaw charged with some of the wrath excited by Colonel Pragda Barai. Swinnerton went down like the proverbial ninepin. Then Burton thrashed him to the delight of the Lissu coolies who found the spectacle of one toean (foreman) flogging another as exhilarating as it was unusual.
Their shrill laughter brought Burton to his senses. Besides, his arm was tired.
“That will teach you to flog children,” he said. “Next time you want to indulge in that amusement you’d better take care there isn’t a white man within hearing.”
When he said that he only meant to differentiate between himself and the Lissu coolies. But Swinnerton’s racial complex supplied another meaning. Plis face, flushed with dusky blood that made the whites of his eyes very noticeable, was murderous as he watched Burton carry the howling cause of the fracas to his father’s hut.
THE MAHOUT was at home. His name, which he had inherited from the elephant in whose service he succeeded his father, was Chularajahani.
Burton handed him the boy and said the right things as far as his knowledge of the Siamese tongue would permit.
“Your son is a line lad and will take no harm from the beating. One day he will doubtless be a mahout like yourself. But you must teach him not to steal from the tents of the toeans. It would be a pity if such a fine, handsome boy should grow into a thief.”
And to make the matter quite all right—he had teen told that mahouts are queer folk and ill to quarrel with—he gave the mahout's son a handful of satangs (small copper coins) by way of compensation.
When he had time to cool down, Burton decided he had acted hastily toward Swinnerton. He made overtures. Rather to his surprise, the sallow-faced irrigation officer accepted them readily enough. He admitted that he’d lost his temper with the mahout’s child and had beaten him more severely than he should have done.
“And I lost my temper with you,” Burton said. “It’s this torrid climate, of course. I shouldn't have hit you before the coolies, and I apologize. Shall we shake and forget?”
With Spencer as a witness, they shook hands. After that ceremony they went to the mess tent and called for gins and tonic to wash away the last dregs of ill-feeling, which is the custom of white men in the East who have had a row. They drank to the completion of the bridge and the conversion of Colonel Pragda Barai.
“When he sees the completed article he’ll change his mind,” Spencer prophesied. “Yes, you wait until he’s seen her as she’s going to be. I bet he apologizes for finding fault.”
Through the tent opening they could see the subject of discussion, hemmed in by a barrage of barges and rafts along which coolies were manhandling iron girders like so many ants. The steamy air vibrated with the noise of hammers. A few hundred yards above the bridge there were a dozen elephants, leg-deep in the sluggish brown water with their mahouts perched like insects on their backs, adding more logs to the steadily growing “jam.”
BURTON frowned at the sight. The jam had already become larger than he had anticipated.
“If that timber got on the move there’d be the deuce to pay,” he said. “I’ll be glad when we can start letting the logs through a few at a time. They’re a menace to the bridge as they are at present.”
“Don’t worry,” Spencer told him. “As long as the key log is in position they can’t shift. The elephants have seen to that.”
Swinnerton listened to what they said. He was not an engineer, but he could grasp the essentials of the situation. On the strength of the chains that kept the key log in
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position depended the safety of the bridge —Mister White Man’s bridge, Swinnerton called it to himself.
Despite the apologies, the handshake and the glasses of gin and tonic, the Eurasian had not forgiven Burton. Those who have Oriental blood in their veins don’t forget or forgive an injury as easily as all that. Mr. White Man had beaten him in the presence of coolies; Mr. White Man had sneered at him because his blood was mixed. For those things Mr. White Man must be paid back in full measure. Oh, yes, most “certainlee” he must.
Spencer’s remark had given him an idea. Later he went alone to inspect the jam. The key log lay broadside to the current, chained to piles driven deep in the river bed. There was a native prow alongside. A man standing in the prow could file the chain without difficulty or danger.
Yes, it would be a fine punishment frir Mr. White Man. Once those thousands of tons of timber were in motion, all the elephants in Siam couldn’t stop them. They’d swing down upon the bridge as irresistibly as a drifting liner. And that would be the end of the beautiful bridge of which Mr. White Man was so proud.
Swinnerton thought about it for a week. Then circumstances in the shape of an unexpected rise in the level of the Pakneeping played into his hands. In some distant Chinese valley to the northeast a dam had broken, and a few million tons of turgid brown water were hurrying down to the gulf of Martaban. The island of teak logs swayed and groaned to their passing, and the head mahout reported that the elephants declined to enter the river at all that day.
SWINNERTON had already made his preparations. A little something of the nature of opium cunningly dropped into Burton’s after-dinner coffee ensured that he would not be prowling about that night as was his wont. Nobody else was likely to be astir. From sunset to sunrise the mahouts and the Lissu coolies remained in their huts under the protection of the spirit scares.
Only his desire for revenge could have induced Swinnerton to tempt the evil spirits of the night by going out alone during the hours of darkness. He had been long enough in fear-ridden Muang Thai to know it was during the night that they were at their most powerful and most malignant. The water spirits and the jungle spirits. Beings like great birds with human heads and sharp claws. Phra Chan, the spirit of the moon, and the ghost tigers who lap human blood. . . It was of those things he thought as he hurried along the track the elephants had made on the river bank, holding his lantern at the level of his knees for fear of snakes.
Little Chularajahani the mahout laughed when he saw the low-swinging lantern coming along the path. He too had been induced by his desire for revenge to dare the spirits of the night. Not this night alone, but several nights he had waited. And at last his enemy had come ! He crouched lower in the long jungle grass at the side of the track and gripped his knife.
As the figure with the lantern passed he sprang and struck. Once, twice, and then his knife plunged downward. It was a swift, silent slaying in the darkness.
But even in the wilds of Muang Thai there is danger in the killing of a white man. When he knew his enemy was dead, Chularajahani fled the spot as quickly as his thin brown legs would carry him. His son awaited him with the elephant which was to the mahout what the snail is to its shell. He climbed on the great beast’s back, and Chularajahani, Senior, bore him swiftly and silently away into the fastnesses of the jungle where the avengers could not follow.
QN THE EVIDENCE of the file in the dead man’s pocket and the fact that he lay on the track leading to the teak island, Burton was able to deduce what had happened. Chularajahani, his elephant yid his son were missing from the camp. It was obvious the Eurasian had intended to wreck the bridge and had fallen victim to the mahout's vengeance for the flogging administered to his son. But he wondered how Chularajahani had known his enemy would be abroad that night.
Anyway, what had happened seemed to the engineer a good illustration of the just workings of the law of karma. At the banquet given on the evening of the day on which the first train, with its load of Siamese high officials in top hats and their doll-like ladies in Parisian costumes, had puffed over the Pakneeping bridge, he related the story in detail to Colonel Pragda Barai sitting beside him. And he philosophized about it. As we sow, so we reap. . . Swinnerton’s cruelty to the mahout’s child had cost him his life; while his kindness had been rewarded, etc.
Colonel Pragda Barai removed his cigar. “Forgive me, Mr. Burton, but you are taking an upside-down view of things. To me it is perfectly evident that you were the person the mahout intended to kill. For one thing, Swinnerton never went out at night and you did. For another, you and not Swinnerton had done Chularajahani the unforgivable wrong.”
“I had!” Burton said indignantly. “But I was kind to his son. I—”
“You praised the boy when you carried him to the hut and gave hlm a gift of money,” said Colonel Pragda Barai. “Had you lived longer in Muang Thai you would have known better. For our spirits are very jealous. Your kindness to the boy must have incurred their enmity against him. That was why Chularajahani killed Swinnerton, thinking he was you. You had brought a curse upon his son in your ignorance. We of Muang Thai only praise what we wish the spirits to destroy.”
A great light broke upon the engineer from Chester.
"Then you really think that mybridge -?” “Is beautiful, a masterpiece,” whispered Colonel Pragda Barai. ”1 don’t mind telling you now that the Garudas who will frighten away the jealous spirits have been placed in position.”
And he smiled on the engineer as one smiles on a child who cannot understand.