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The Selangor Civil War

Seyyid Mashhur

The story "A Silhouette", from "Stories and Sketches by Sir Frank Sweettenham" (Oxford University Press, 1967)


Amongst the Malays of the Peninsula, the most picturesque figure is that of the famous Seyyid.

He is a man of sixty-two; tall and straight, with a face so striking that it would attract attention anywhere.  His forehead is wide and high, his dark eyes rather far apart, with drooping lids that it seems almost an effort to raise.  His nose is aquiline and rather long, and his mouth is hidden by a long and heavy grey moustache.  The jaw is massive and the chin square.  The eyebrows black , curved and distinctly marked; while the hair is short and grey. He has a clear yellow complexion, and, in spite of his age, there is hardly a line on his face.

The drooping eyelids and hooked nose, the dark eyebrows, grey-almost white-moustache, with ends curved upwards, and the massive jaw and chin, are very remarkable.  The elaborately quiet manner of the man, the studied slowness of his ordinary movements, and his voice - so soft and low, it is an effort to catch his words -accentuate the strong feature of his face and fascinate the spectator, as certain snakes are said to fascinate their victims. Only, with the Famous Seyyid, the eyes attract attention by the little there is to see of them. 

His dress is scarcely less striking.  A kerchief of some thin black material, stiffened with a jungle varnish which gives to the outer side a glossy surface, is tied into a fantastic yet becoming head-dress.  The cloth is folded closely around the brow and over the scalps but two of the corners, overlapping, stand up in a point, about ten inches high, on the left side of the head, and balance the thick fold of the kerchief which rests on the right ear.  The cloth is hemmed with a chain stitch, in white, all around its edges, and these edges are made to show with great effect, especially in the upstanding corners.  On the glossy side of the jet-black head-covering is painted, in gold leaf, a deep burden of scroll-work, and dotted about, within the border, are conventional flowers, also in gold.

Over a shirt of soft, rich, yellow satin the Seyyid wears a jacket of Malay-red silk - dull of surface, but o strange rich colour - into which is woven a design which resembles small cheriot which is gold thread.  The jacket has an upright collar of the same material, is fastened by one gold buttion at the throat, and discloses a narrow gleam of satin undershirt.  The sleeves are tight at the waist, slashed, and fastened by a long row of golden buttons.  The costume is completed by trousers of dead-black silk, the lower eighteen inches interwoven with a quaint design is silver thread.  The trousers are made almost tight round the ankles, while a gorgeous silk sarong or shirt hangs in graceful folds from the waist to the knees.  The saroung itself is a thing of beauty, finest work of the famed Terengganu looms.  The prevailing colours are soft tones of cunningly-blended heliotrope and green, lived by faint gleams of gold thread; but a wide length of Malay-red, ablaze with gold, crosses the darker folds in flashes of splendour.

He is a man of war, this Seyyid, and was one of the most famous of the Malay fighting-chiefs in the days that are no more.  The stories of his prowess.  If his cunning, of his wickedness, are strange and ghastly.  He has enemies, and it is charitable to suppose that he has been maligned...

He has been a solider of fortune, and he would be so again.  He does not pretend to many virtues, or accomplishments outside his profession as a captain of men.

When I see him, we talk of war - as it is understood on Malaya  - and on that subject he can speak with experience.

"It is very annoying, "he remarks at last;" you know what Malays are; and as I walk in the streets, men nudge each other and say, "That is the Famous Seyyid," and they huddle together like covering cars, which always fall over each otehr in their anxiety to reach a safe place.  Of course there is nothing to do now, and while the white men, the officers of the Government, talk nicely to me, they are always suggesting that I would go away to some other country.  I am old, and I have no desire to go elsewhere, and when the Government wanted help, they found me useful.. You know that, for me are old friends, and we have done the Government work together."

I reminded him that once, before those ancient days, he had, by his own statement to me, only waited for a signal to fall upon a considerable party of Europeans, amongst whom my death was, perhaps, the one most keenly desired.

The Seyyid will not discuss such an unprofitable subject.  He dismisses it with a reproachful glance a little deprecatory movement of hi hand, and the remark, "But the signal was never given!"

It was unkind to recall this incident, , and possibly a trifle malicious, so I ask "Is there some title you would like?"

"Ah, yes,"he answers, "there is; but then, I must not forget my old friends in arms, the men who fought with me long ago.  I would not have anything which rightly belongs to one of them."

The Sayyid recently passed the fasting month with the Sultan of Perak, who invited my attention to the fact that "his brother, the Sayyid, "had become very devout, and never missed a prayer.  This craving for holy things and the better life is a veyr encouraging sign; and the Famous Seyyid is, perhaps, not the first sinner who has turned to religion for excitement when he found the world slipping away from him.
 
But in his case, at any rate, the old Adam is hardly scotched, for, the conversation having turned to his recent visit, he says: "I asked the Sultan of Perak whether he was friend or foe to the State of Paiten, because I thought he could not care for the Raja of that place, and I offered to go and take it from him, if he wanted it."  "How did you mean to do it?" I ask "Oh!, he says, "I should go there with four or five people and make friends with the Paiten folk - fight cocks, and gamble with them, and play at anything they like - and all the time my people would be coming in, by twos and threes, and fours and fives, and working towards the Raja's place, where I should be.  And when it was time..."

Then, for an instant, his drooping eyelids rise a fraction of an inch; he glances at me, and they fall again.

"Meng-amok?" I suggest.

He does not answer; but a very slow smile wonders around the corners of his mouth, and, as his face turns towards the ghostly pictures seen through the open doorways, it seems to be instinct with the vision of that sudden and furious might attack in for Paiten.

"It wold not be difficult."  I say; " but Lenggang" - naming another State - "would be better worth having."

"Ah!", he answers, "I could not do that, it is a very populous county; but with quite a few men I could take Paitten, and there would some loot.  You see I must think of that. I am a poor man, and if I could get some loot, I should like to go to Mecca."

*                               *                                    *

"You have been writing while I have talked," says the Seyyid;2May I ask what you have written about?"

"I have been trying to make a silhouette of you"

"What is a silhouette?"

"Roughly speaking, it is a profile portrait, in black, on a white background."

"But where have yuou done this?"

"Here," I say, showing him the paper on which I am writing; " and you see I have only used black and white."

"Ah!" he says, "I understand; "it is the black and the white of me. Do not make it too black. A silhouette can only be true in outline."

"Very well," I reply. "I will put in the colours."


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