Darlac 6

Cacot asked to see the anthropologist’s fiancee and she was instantly produced along with a couple of young relations. She was a splendid creature with large black eyes and a deep yellow, but by no means unpleasing, complexion. The removal of her teeth had been clumsily done, resulting in permanently swollen gums and a slight displacement of the top lip. Although slightly tipsy she managed to retain a pleasantly demure manner and many bakelite cups had to pass from hand to hand before she could be persuaded to raise her eyes. The two younger Gauguin models sat twisting their hands, heads averted, and faces, as far as one could see, masked with fright, having quite sobered up under the effect of our terrifying presence. It appeared that the all-powerful old women of the tribe were sufficiently drunk by now not to require propitiation, so Cacot asked without more formality if any of the girls were available for marriage. The fathers immediately appeared, clearly delighted. Both the younger girls were ready at any time, and their mothers would pay a high price in jars and gongs for approved sons-in- law. Unfortunately the older girl was already promised. In the case of a good-looking girl like that the competition was bound to be strenuous, and no wonder a European had fallen for her. Being a divorcee, the father pointed out, she was exceptionally well off, as, according to law, she had kept all her husband’s property when he had left her home. Cacot said he would decide on the younger of the remaining pair and marry her, with a holocaust of buffaloes, when he came back from France. He gave the girl a few promissory pats about the torso, and she did a painful best to look pleased. Whether this was taken seriously or not, I don’t know. Probably not. The Moi’s enjoy leg-pulling as much as anybody else.
After leaving Buon Le Bang we were on the Emperor’s new hunting track. Moi’s were hacking this out of the virgin forest with implements that looked like garden hoes. They were paid six piastres a day, the piastre being worth fourpence officially, or about three-halfpence on the black market, and they were lucky to be able to work off their fifty days’ compulsory labour in this way and not on a plantation. When this road was finished, the Emperor would be able to drive in his specially fitted-up jeep, with a wooden platform built up, throne-like, in the back, right into the heart of what is supposed to be the richest hunting country in the world.
It was a mysterious landscape with mountains like thunderclouds threatening from the horizon. Clumps of bamboo spurted up from low, boiling vegetation. For the first time I saw the miracle of a peacock in flight, that Cacot fired at hopelessly, soaring with trailing plumage to the very top of a fern-swathed tree. The country was overrun with tigers and all the M’nongs’ stories were of them. Local wizards were reputed to specialise in tiger-taming and obtained their hold upon the villagers by allowing themselves to be seen riding upon the back of a muzzled tiger. Ribo was quite convinced that this took place; but even the most unim¬aginative European becomes infected with local credences in such places as this. There were a thousand inadvertent ways, too, of calling up a tiger, always ready, it seemed, to appear, like an uncomplaisant genie at the rubbing of ring or lamp. Most solecisms and lapses of table manners were reputed to have this unfortunate effect. It was particularly disastrous to scrape rice from a pot with a knife. Ribo said that the prestige of the tiger and their supposed human accomplices had risen so high that the M’nongs were becoming afraid to hunt them. After a recent hunt in which the tiger was killed, all the dogs who had taken part were found dead next day. Poisoned by a sorcerer, he thought. It was two of these tiger-men that the Chef de Canton had done away with. There was something curiously symbolical about the victory of this puny creature in his collection of cast-off Western clothes against the men in the tiger- skins.
The last village reached that day was Buon Choah, belonging to a small and exceptionally interesting tribe called the Bihs. When Doctor Jouin had visited the valley, two years before, they still retained their ancient burial customs which, he said, were identical with those of the Hovas of Madagascar. For two years the dead were exposed in open coffins in the trees. After that the bones were taken down and thoroughly cleaned, and before final burial, the skull was carried round the fields by an old woman of the family, and offerings were made to it. Doctor Jouin’s photograph of the elevated coffin, which he needed for a book on Moi funeral customs, had been destroyed during the Japanese occupation and I promised to take another for him. But I was too late. In the two years since Jouin had been there American evangelical missionaries had been to the village, persuaded the Bihs to give up such customs, and by way of giving something in exchange had taught one of the village boys to play the harmonium.
We had been spotted on the outskirts of Buon Choah and by the time we walked into the village an extraordinary spectacle was taking place. Women were scrambling in lines down the stepladders of the long- houses, like cadets coming down the rigging of a training ship. They then formed up in two rows – one on each side of the path, standing fairly smartly to attention. They wore white turbans and navy-blue calico blouses and skirts. The chief came hurrying to meet us, carrying under his arm a copy in English of the Gospel of St Mark and the usual diploma awarded for meritorious service to the Japanese.
Ribo and Cacot seemed faintly displeased and said something to the chief, nodding in the direction of the women. The chief snapped out a word of command and the blouses began to come off. When the women weren’t being quick enough, the chief and the heads of families shouted at them in stern reproof. In a few seconds the reception parade was ready and we made our way to the chief s house between two score or so of freely displayed Balinese torsos. I believe that Ribo and Cacot thought that the blouses, too, were the work of the pastor, and felt that the moment had come to draw the line.
At Ceo-Reo, not far from Buon Choah, are located the villages of those enigmatic personages, the Sadets, of Fire and Water, whose fear¬some reputation is widespread throughout Indo-China. It is astonishing to realise that from the remotest antiquity the Kings of Champa, Laos and Cambodia – that is, the temporal powers between which Indo-China was divided – all paid tribute to the formidable spiritual authority of these two poor Jarai tribesmen.
The Sadet of Fire is the guardian of a fabulous sword; a primitive, crudely hewn blade, according to report, which is kept wrapped in cotton rags. The mere act of half-drawing this weapon – to which the aforemen¬tioned kingdoms all lay claim – would be sufficient to plunge the whole of living creation into a profound slumber; while to draw it completely would cause the world to be devoured by fire. Until the reign of the present king of Cambodia’s grandfather, a caravan of elephants bearing rich presents was sent annually to the Sadet of Water.
Both the Sadets seem to be regarded as the incarnation of super¬natural beings, possessing involuntary and apparently uncontrollable powers, which are malefic rather than benevolent. The Sadet of Water is associated, in some obscure way, with epidemics, and is a kind of spiritual leper, surrounded with the most awesome taboos. When he travels through the country, shelters are specially erected for him outside the villages, and offerings are placed in them. Neither Sadet is allowed to die a natural death. As soon as one is considered to be mortally ill, he is dispatched by lance-thrusts, and a successor is chosen by divination from the members of his family. The mantle of this relinquished authority is said to be assumed with much reluctance by the person designated.

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