The Argus Pheasant
The Argus Pheasant
John Charles Beecham
The Argus Pheasant
Ah, God, for a man with a heart, head, hand,
Like some of the simple great ones gone
Forever and ever by;
One still, strong man in a blatant land,
Whatever they call him – what care I? —
Aristocrat, democrat, autocrat – one
Who can rule and dare not lie!
The Omniscient Sachsen
It was very apparent that his Excellency Jonkheer Adriaan Adriaanszoon Van Schouten, governor-general of the Netherlands East Indies, was in a temper. His eyes sparked like an emery-wheel biting cold steel. His thin, sharp-ridged nose rose high and the nostrils quivered. His pale, almost bloodless lips were set in rigid lines over his finely chiseled, birdlike beak with its aggressive Vandyke beard. His hair bristled straight and stiff, like the neck-feathers of a ruffled cock, over the edge of his linen collar. It was this latter evidence of the governor's unpleasant humor that his military associate, General Gysbert Karel Vanden Bosch, observed with growing anxiety.
The governor took a pinch of snuff with great deliberation and glared across the big table of his cabinet-room at the general. Vanden Bosch shrank visibly.
"Then, my dear generaal," he demanded, "you say we must let these sons of Jazebel burn down my residences, behead my residents, and feed my controlleurs to the crocodiles without interference from the military?"
"Ach, no, your excellency!" General Vanden Bosch expostulated hastily. "Not that!"
"I fear I have not understood you, my dear general. What do you advise?"
The icy sweetness of the choleric Van Schouten sent a cold shiver along the commander's spine. He wriggled nervously in the capacious armchair that he filled so snugly. Quite unconsciously he mumbled to himself the clause which the pious Javanese had added to their prayers since Van Schouten's coming to Batavia: "And from the madness of the orang blanda devil at the paleis, Allah deliver us."
"Ha! generaal, what do you say?" the governor exclaimed.
Vanden Bosch coughed noisily and rallied his wits.
"Ahem, your excellency; ah-hum! It is a problem, as your excellency knows. I could send Colonel Heyns and his regiment to Bulungan, if your excellency so desires. But – ahem – as your excellency knows, all he will find is empty huts. Not a proa on the sea; not a Dyak in his field."
"You might as well send that many wooden men!" Van Schouten snapped.
The general winced. His portentously solemn features that for forty years had impressed the authorities at The Hague with his sagacity in military affairs became severely grave. Oracularly he suggested:
"Would it not be wise, your excellency, to give Mynheer Muller, the controlleur, more time? His last report was very satisfactory. Very satisfactory, indeed!" He smacked his lips at the satisfactoriness thereof.
"Donder en bliksem!" the governor swore, crashing his lean fist on the table. "More time for what? The taxes have not been paid for two years. Not a kilo of rice has been grown on our plantations. Not a liter of dammargum has been shipped here. The cane is left to rot uncut. Fire has ravaged the cinchona-groves my predecessors set with such care. Every ship brings fresh reports of piracies, of tribal wars, and head-hunting. How much longer must we possess our souls in patience while these things go on?"
The general shook his head with a brave show of regret.
"Ach! your excellency," he replied sadly; "he promised so well."
"Promises," the governor retorted, "do not pay taxes."
Vanden Bosch rubbed his purple nose in perplexity.
"I suppose it is the witch-woman again," he remarked, discouragedly.
"Who else?" Van Schouten growled. "Always the witch-woman. That spawn of Satan, Koyala, is at the bottom of every uprising we have in Borneo."
"That is what we get for letting half-breeds mingle with whites in our mission schools," Vanden Bosch observed bitterly.
The governor scowled. "That folly will cost the state five hundred gulden," he remarked. "That is the price I have put on her head."
The general pricked up his ears. "H-m, that should interest Mynheer Muller," he remarked. "There is nothing he likes so well as the feel of a guilder between his fingers."
The governor snorted. "Neen, generaal," he negatived. "For once he has found a sweeter love than silver. The fool fairly grovels at Koyala's feet, Sachsen tells me."
"So?" Vanden Bosch exclaimed with quickened interest. "They say she is very fair."
"If I could get my hands on her once, the Argus Pheasant's pretty feathers would molt quickly," Van Schouten snarled. His fingers closed like an eagle's talons.
"Argus Pheasant, Bintang Burung, the Star Bird – 'tis a sweet-sounding name the Malays have for her," the general remarked musingly. There was a sparkle in his eye – the old warrior had not lost his fondness for a pretty face. "If I was younger," he sighed, "I might go to Bulungan myself."
The governor grunted.
"You are an old cock that has lost his tail-feathers, generaal," he growled. "This is a task for a young man."
The general's chest swelled and his chin perked up jauntily.
"I am not so old as you think, your excellency," he retorted with a trace of asperity.
"Neen, neen, generaal," the governor negatived, "I cannot let you go – not for your own good name's sake. The gossips of Amsterdam and The Hague would have a rare scandal to prate about if it became whispered around that Gysbert Vanden Bosch was scouring the jungles of Bulungan for a witch-woman with a face and form like Helen of Troy's."
The general flushed. His peccadillos had followed him to Java, and he did not like to be reminded of them.
"The argus pheasant is too shy a bird to come within gunshot, your excellency," he replied somberly. "It must be trapped."
"Ay, and so must she," the governor assented. "That is how she got her name. But you are too seasoned for bait, my dear generaal." He chuckled.
Vanden Bosch was too much impressed with his own importance to enjoy being chaffed. Ignoring the thrust, he observed dryly:
"Your excellency might try King Saul's plan."
"Ha!" the governor exclaimed with interest. "What is that?"
Van Schouten prided himself on his knowledge of the Scriptures, and the general could not repress a little smirk of triumph at catching him napping.
"King Saul tied David's hands by giving him his daughter to wife," he explained. "In the same way, your excellency might clip the Argus Pheasant's wings by marrying her to one of our loyal servants. It might be managed most satisfactorily. A proper marriage would cause her to forget the brown blood that she hates so bitterly."
"It is not her brown blood that she hates, it is her white blood," Van Schouten contradicted. "But who would be the man?"