The Finest Privilege
TO ME, reclining in a deck chair under an awning in the centre of the famous sward that fronts Le Sporting, Cairo, listening to the band of the Fifth Foresters playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan in the distance and wishing that I had something less than an Egyptian five-pound note in my pocket that I might buy myself a drink, appeared Major Charles de Bellay of the French Army, athlete, good friend and genial globe trotter. We had ofttimes met before, had Major Charles de Bellay and myself, usually in places where one may not linger. On gangways and on the steps of hotels, in customs sheds and on railway platforms and so forth. And now once again the whirligig of time and chance had brought us together, on this occasion on a Cairene lawn where a British military band played Gilbert and Sullivan in the sunshine and the Gippy waiters were forbidden to give change.
1 was glad to see Charles de Bellay with his elegant light grey suit, buckskin shoes and quizzical, tanned face. After we had asked each other what the devil we were doing here, r.nd the major had appropriated the deck chair adjoining mine, I touched on my financial dilemma. Nothing, I said, would delight me more than to buy Major de Bellay the drink the occasion so clearly demanded. But, alas! And I bade him look first at my five-pound note and then at the r.otice which tells you in English, French, Italian and Arabic—for Le Sporting is nothing if not cosmopolitan— that the waiters cannot provide change.
"The drinks are on me,” said Major Charles de Bellay, diving into his pocket with one hand and beckoning with his gloves. “But if I can oblige you with some small change to assist you during the remainder of the evening and to save you from a tedious taxi drive to the nearest bank—”
As I counted the piastres he had given me with a view to future repayment, I generalized about Englishmen, money, and the East.
"If you hadn’t turned up I’d have asked one of the waiters to advance me the price of a whisky and soda. He’d have let me have it like a bird. Just because I’m English. We’re a privileged race in that way. Particularly in the East. Natives seem to think that an Englishman’s word—” "Quite,” said Major Charles de Bellay. “And if you’re wise you will take advantage of your privileges while they still exist. For the day of Englishmen is done, the British Empire is a back number and all that remains for your present-day degenerates is to mourn your past magnificence. I know that for a fact because every Englishman I meet assures me of the same thing. What is more, 1 can recall my grandfather, who had many English friends, telling my father that he had heard on their authority that England’s day was over. A fact so long established cannot fail to be true. So, my friend, take your English privileges while they’re still to be had. Not, however to the extent of cheating for them like the Honorable Guy Tarleton did. Ah, he was English of the English, that one ! I have heard it said that even when his Malay wife—one of his many Malay wives, that is to say—was drunk and pulling his hair—” "Isn’t this from Pinafore?” I asked.
“In Pnom Penk in French Indo-China where my eldest brother, Colonel Henri de Bellay, holds the rank of administrator,” said my friend firmly, "there were two main schools of thought. There were those who called the Honorable Guy Tarleton ‘English’ Tarleton because of his haughty insistence upon his national rights, and those who called him ‘Lucky Penny’ Tarleton because he was never known to lose a toss. Also there was a third minority who spoke of him as ‘Soaker’ Tarleton, a nickname that explains itself. All these schools, however, united in saying that ‘English,’ ‘Lucky Penny,’ ‘Soaker,’ the Honorable Guy Tarleton was a swine and a disgrace to his great country. Not only did he trade on his privileges as an Englishman but he abused them. Once to my knowledge he cheated to secure such a privilege. As witness there is my good friend, Captain Robinet, who saw—”
“I surrendered to the inevitable.
"But begin at the beginning,” I implored.
THAT WAS where I stumped Major Charles de Bellay.
He couldn’t tell me of the beginnings of “English,” “Lucky Penny,” “Soaker” Tarleton because he didn’t know what they were. It seems that even at his most drunk the Honorable Guy was reticent on that point. One may, however, surmise. The well-authenticated fact that he threw a blind, of which you can still hear echoes in Mary Ann’s parlor in Doi Suva on the day on which some other exile got a cable telling of an Etonian record first-wicket stand against a reputedly powerful eleven from the Hill, is suggestive. And I think the fact that a Malay woman with whom he had associated once caused consternation in certain quarters in Den Upang by flaunting a Sandhurst blazer, very dirty but still recognizable as such, above her slendang, hints that the Honorable Guy Tarleton had once a connection with the regular British Army. But all that is, of course, mere guessing. All that is certain is that one day he landed in Singapore as a cold-eyed, supercilious, remittance man and celebrated his arrival by beating up a native policeman. As to the cause of his fall, Major Charles de Bellay—being Gallic and romantic—naturally declares it was a girl.
"They were engaged, but she ran off with another man,” the major related. “Tarleton followed and thrashed the other man to within an inch of his life. Unluckily for him the other man was his senior officer, so that Tarleton got cashiered. Anyway, that’s what I’ve heard whispered and I believe it to be true. But he never told me himself. It may have been, as you suggest, just drink. For he certainly did drink hard. Even when he went up country into the Malay States the rubber planters acknowledged that. They got rid of him as quickly as they could. It wasn’t the way he drank they objected to; it was his cheating at cards and his habit
of giving dud cheques to native money lenders. You see he induced them to cash them by saying he was English. Then the planters had to make the loss good to the natives. He was expensive as a bad rubber harvest to the fellows he foisted himself on. And they couldn’t send him home, either, because he wasn’t wanted in England or because he was wanted—I’m not clear which. So he stayed and abused his privileges and did himself well.”
Out of my comparatively slender knowledge of the Far East I could understand that. In the lands where rubber plants grow and Englishmen are toeans and a housebov is called a djongos, hospitality is notoriously lavish. Merely to be English and a newcomer is to find yourself fêted. But to abuse that privilege is rare. And it is still more rare for an Englishman to take advantage of the native’s belief that his word is as good as his written bond.
Apparently Soaker Tarleton—I’ll give him the nickname that to my mind seems to have fitted him best—had no scruples in the matter. He had a set formula for the native money lenders:
"Of course it will be all right. Dam it, man, I’m English.” And because he was English and therefore privileged the money lenders would give him what he wanted. Then he would smile haughtily— for a haughty, cold-eyed gentleman was the Honorable Guy—and hasten to the nearest saloon. But he didn’t always pay cash for his bottle of whisky. Often he would offer to toss the native bartender for the price, and if the bartender was fool enough to agree he always lost. That was how English Tarleton got his second nickname of “Lucky Penny.” He seems to have known by instinct which way up a coin was going to fall—the same instinct, possibly, that informed him where the aces were when he dealt the cards at poker.
“He must,” I remarked in order to show Major Charles de Bellay how intelligently I was listening, “have made quite a good thing out of his English privileges and his cheating.” “He did,” my friend said sadly as one who had been stung himself. “And the hospitality of the planters to a fellowcountryman and his skill at poker were not his sole sources of income. Whenever a ship called with English tourists on board, which was not often, our friend managed to be in the vicinity. He used to show the tourists round the native halls and toss them for drinks. And when the right time had come—when they were a little malleable, you understand— he used to say: ‘Look here, old bean, I’m afraid I’m a little short of the ready. If you could oblige a fellow-Englishman—’ Always the English touch, you see. It paid.” “There aren’t many Englishmen—” I began indignantly. “No,” agreed Major Charles de Bellay. “I’ll hand it to you as a nation, as an American would say, that you don’t often trade on your privileges. But when it does happen it is very disagreeable to others. They must, if I may paraphrase Mr. Kipling, ‘pass the cap for their honor’s sake.’ Anyway, that’s what the Honorable Guy Tarleton kept them busy doing in Hanan, Selaku, Battampang, Doi Prato, Suka and a host of other nasty little places I shall not
trouble to name. On the Sumatra side as well as the Malay. But they weren’t very rich men who lived in those places, and even for a fellow-Englishman the cap couldn’t be passed indefinitely. After a time they had to request the Honorable Guy to move on and not come back. ‘For,’ said they in effect, ‘you have bartered your birthright as an Englishman and now there is no more pottage.’
IDUT,” said Major Charles de Bellay, “even on the spacious coast of the Malay Peninsula, and even when you include the beachtowns of Sumatra and its satellite islands, there is a definite limit to the extent to which a man can keep moving on. A time arrived when the Honorable Guy had moved on until he could move on no farther. When that happened there were two courses open to him to pursue. The first, which I should have chosen myself, was to die decently in the bush. The second, which he selected, was to go native. After that, of course, even the beachcombers wouldn’t own him. As far as the civilized world was concerned he had disappeared just as completely as if he had been devoured by ants in the Sumatra bush. You see, my friend, when a white man goes native in those parts—”
And then it was as if Major Charles de Bellay led me to the edge of a pit and bade me peer over the edge that I might observe in what manner of filth the Honorable Guy Tarleton had wallowed. For it would seem he was not a person to do things by halves. No grabbing at the rope for that lad. He let himself go down, down, down, from one unholy depth of degradation to another until he reached the lowest depth to which a white man can sink—that of being kept by a native woman.
“The British consul at Den Upang bribed her not to wear his Sandhurst blazer,” Major Charles de Bellay told me.
And at Den Upang he left English Tarleton for a space while he talked of his own wanderings. Cambodia, Saigon and Pnom Penk. Tiger shooting in Muang Thai; pearl diving off the coast of French Indo-China. He took me up the Salween and introduced me to the pirates of Hainan. Jungles, temples, elephants and junks. And while he was chewing the cud of remembrance about what had befallen him in those hot, steamy countries, I listened to three whole pieces of Gilbert and Sullivan’s music.
"^L/HEN THERE was an interval and I returned to
** Major Charles de Bellay, he had got himself on board a small French coastal steamer called the Marie Celeste. I am not clear as to where the Marie Celeste was going or why. I rather think she had been somewhere and was returning empty. They were carrying a good many Malays and Chinese coolies. The hands were Lascars and the officers were French. The Marie Celeste was old and very slow. They were crawling southward over a lukewarm, yellow sea and sharks were swimming in their wake. The ship stank, the Chinese coolies died and were thrown to the sharks at the rate of one a day, and altogether it seems to have been a most unpleasant voyage.
Then they were caught in a typhoon. Now I myself have never experienced a typhoon of the Gulf of Tonkin variety and hope I never will. It seems the preliminaries are even more terrifying than the typhoon itself. A ghastly silence and a feeling of suffocation. To those on board it felt as if the Marie Celeste was crawling beneath a warm wet blanket over a sea of oil.
Then the typhoon came. They saw her first like a lowering black animal peering at them over the edge of the horizon. They felt puffs of her burning breath, and Captain Robinet
turned east to run for the shelter of some bay on the Hainan coast. But the typhoon was much swifter than the old Marte Celeste. In the middle of the night she swooped on the ship, and then it was as if all hell had broken loose.
Almost at the first shock the propeller shaft broke. The Mane Celeste was unmanageable, a spinning cockroach in a furious sea. On board, the Malays were in a panic. There were revolver shots and shouts. Brown men who charged like stampeding cattle, white men who pushed them back. Everybody was mad, and the noise of wind and sea was deafening.
They couldn’t control the Malays. Boat after boat was lowered, packed to overflowing with howling, brown humanity, swept away into the darkness and lost for ever. The Marie Celeste was sinking like a stone. When they lowered the last boat she had but three feet to fall.
Those who still survived jumped into that boat for their lives. Three French officers, eighteen Lascars and Major Charles de Bellay. Also one solitary Malay. A great dirty devil who stank.
The boat was full and there was not a soul left on the Marie Celeste. And then—when they were just about to cast off—there was a most lamentable bellowing on the deck of the sinking ship. It was a Malay woman. She must have been a stowaway, for officially the ship carried no females. Major Charles de Bellay believes she must have got shut up somewhere below when they battened down at the approach of the typhoon. And now at the last possible moment she had shown herself and was roaring like a heifer for a seat in the last boat.
“Alas, there was no vacant space in which she could be accommodated,” said Major Charles de Bellay. “We were really quite full, you understand. I was angry when I had ascertained that. I had no wish to be eaten by the sharks and the woman was not even beautiful. Still, she was a woman - sister, strange as it may appear, to the ravishing creatures who surround us on this lawn.
“I looked at her and I saw the Longchamps race course. And I saw as it were a picture of Charles de Bellay as he bowed over the hand of some smiling lady. And Charles de Bellay, major of the French Army, was whispering to himself as he bowed: ‘Here I am,
madame, safe and sound because I left one of your sisters to be eaten by the sharks in the Gulf of Tonkin.’
“ ’Crê bon sann ;1? bonjour, but that wasn’t quite good enough, hein? Not convenable, you agree? For the sake of the Longchamps race course and the slim hands which I would never kiss again, I struggled to my feet in that mad animal of a boat. I bowed in my best style. ‘Madame,’ I began, ‘this seat is not of the most comfortable, but if you will do me the honor —’
"And then I became aware that our solitary Malay was also on his feet. He put his dirty hand on my shoulder—he was very tall—and he spoke to me to me, Major Charles de Bellayof theFrench Army !— as one might speak toan inferior who presumes. ‘If you don’t mind we'll toss who stays.’ That was what he said. A cold command rather than a request. Had I disputed, the Honorable Guy Tarleton—for as such I had recognized that filthy outcast—would have hurled me into the sea.
“He produced a coin and he spun it in the air. ‘Tails!’ he shouted above the wind, ‘Tails!’ And it fell heads. By the light of the boat’s lantern he showed me he had lost the toss and won the honor. And I own I was not sorry.
“Another second and Tarleton was out of the boat and on the Marie Celeste. He caught up the Malay woman and he swung her into my arms as if she were a child. Then the I^ascars gave way and we left him alone on the deck of the disappearing ship. A noble end to an ignoble life.”
AFTER A PAUSE Major Charles de Bellay laughed • suddenly and slipped his hand into his pocket. “Mon dieu, but he wras a fine cheat, that one! When we wrere picked up the next day by a Dutch coastal steamer I found the coin he had tossed lying in the boat. I have kept it as a memento. Examine it and you will know why Tarleton shouted ‘Tails.’ ”
As I turned over and over the penny he handed me, and satisfied myself it was a cheat’s penny, a minted freak with the King’s head on both sides, the band broke into a rollicking, defiant tune, to which even my unmusical ear could fit the words: “For he was an Englishman."
And he had claimed his finest privilege.