After a fortnight I went to stay at Government House with Sir William and Lady Jervoice. It was a huge building with fine halls and reception-rooms, but very little bedroom accommodation. It stood on the highest hill of the district, and overlooked all the town of Singapore, its bay and islands, and miles of the richest country covered with woods and cocoa-nuts. Close under my window was a great india-rubber tree with large shiny leaves and fantastic hanging roots. In front of the garden was a gorgeous tree of Poinciana regia blazing with scarlet blooms. I immediately begged a branch and hung it up to paint, but made a most absurd mistake. I placed it the wrong way up. It was stupid, but I was consoled afterwards when I found that that clever Dutch lady, Madame van Nooten, had actually published a painting of the poinciana growing in the same topsy-turvy way ! Nothing approaches this tree for gorgeousness ; the peculiar tender green of the acacia-like leaves enhances the brilliancy of its vermilion tints. The amherstia was also in great beauty in the same royal garden, with scarlet pods and delicate rosy-lilac young leaves. The beaumontia creeper was there too, with its white waxy bells and beautifully embossed leaves. It was curious to see how little the English cared for these glories around them. Lawn-tennis and croquet were reigning supreme in Singapore, and little else was thought of after business was over.
We were near the beautiful Botanical Gardens, and used to take a stroll there in the cool evening, or sit and hear the band and scandalise our neighbours in the orthodox manner of the place. The ground-orchids were magnificent in that garden, with flower-stalks as high as myself. There were also a good many animals and birds ; amongst the former a huge ape, who put his long arm through the bars of his cage without any warning and grabbed hold of anything he fancied with irresistible force. He only got the button of my umbrella from me, but had quite lately seized the watch-chain and locket of a German gentleman, dipped them in the water, and then munched them slowly, while the German danced round and round like a madman, lamenting the portraits of his beloved ones on the other side of the world, helpless to save them, till a native seized one of the hanging ants’ nests from a tree and flung it at the brute, which dropped the mangled treasures with a savage growl as the small creatures revenged on his body the injury done to their house. Those nests were as big as two heads, made of leaves sewn together most cleverly. One hung close to our bungalow on an alamanda bush, and made a pretty picture, surrounded with its bunches of lovely yellow bells. The Poinciana trees were in full glory of scarlet bloom, and I shall never forget looking down on the top of one from the verandah of Mr. R., the consul, at night, a group of lamps throwing down their full light upon it. I never saw any colour equal to that mass shining in the darkness : to see it was worth enduring the heat within.
Those long European dinners, full dress, with glaring lamps, are a mistake so near the Equator. We endured several. The new Governor and his family were most homely, kind people, with eight children, just come from Tasmania ; and Lady Weld took us to see all the younger ones sleeping in uncomfortable corners about that architectural but ill-arranged Government House. Poor things, how they were being eaten up by mosquitoes, whilst dreaming uneasily of the cool antipodes ! Singapore was delightful for flower-painting in one’s shirt-sleeves, but not for so-called society.
Recollections of a Happy Life, Marianne North
Singapore, 2014-2015, in search of Marianne.