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The White Wife and the Brown Woman by Louis Becke

 

Masters, the trader at Fana 'alu, was walking up the beach to his house, reading a letter which he had just received from the captain of a passing vessel. It was from his employers in Sydney,—'We are confident that Mrs Masters and yourself will do all you can to render the lady's stay at Fana 'alu agreeable to her. You will find her husband, our new supercargo, a very fine fellow, easy to get on with, and a thoroughly honourable and conscientious business man.'

'Here, Melanie, old woman, where are you?' he called, as he flung himself lazily into a cane lounge on the verandah.

Melanie, who, native-like, was combing her hair in the sitting-room, rose from the mat upon which she was sitting and came to the door.

'What is it, Tom?' she asked, leaning against the wall and drawing the comb slowly through her long, black locks.

'Why, the barque will be here in another week or so, so this letter says, and there's a tamaitai papalagi (white lady) on board, and she will very likely stay here with us while her husband, who is the new supercargo, goes away in the ship to the Solomon Islands. He will come for her again in about six weeks.'


Melanie's dark eyes glistened with pleasure. White women were rare visitors at lonely Fana 'alu. Every year, it was true, when the American missionary barque touched at the island, one, or sometimes two, white ladies would come ashore; but they were missionaries' wives, and never passed inside the door of the trader's house to speak to his wife. That, in the eyes of the converted natives, would have been scandalous. Melanie might, if she so wished it, have called upon them at the native teacher's house, and paid homage afar off by sitting down on the mats in the furthest corner of the house, while fat, greasy Lepeka,{*} the wife of the equally fat and greasy teacher Paulo, Christianly whispered in the ears of the holy white ladies that that was the white man's 'woman'—who wasn't married to her 'husband.' And even a white missionary's wife must not offend the spouse of the native teacher. So had any of these ladies wished to talk to Melanie, they would have had to make Lepeka their medium; for in some parts of the South Seas the usual position of vicar and curate is reversed, and the white visiting missionary and his wife deliver themselves into the hands of the brown curate and his wife for the time being. Perhaps it is this that makes most white missionaries so thin—the strain of having to submit to a Kanaka teacher's ideas of conventionality must be pretty hard to bear. And so poor Melanie, who would have liked to have sat near the fair-faced, sweet-voiced white ladies, or, perhaps, fondled their hands, as did the young unmarried girls who always surrounded them, bore her lot with content. For once, when she had brought her simple alofa (gift of love) to the missionaries, and laid it timidly down on the mats in the centre of the room, one of the white ladies had smiled at her and said to her husband,—

'Oh, what a pretty girl, and how nicely she is dressed. Ask her to come here and sit by me.'

     * Rebecca.

But Melanie was quick to see Lepeka's dark frown, and discreetly retired to her usual corner, at the back of the room, and when she went home to Masters, she did not chatter and laugh as usual when telling him of all she had seen and heard at the teacher's house.

For, in her simple heart, there began to grow an unrest. She would feel better, she thought, when the mission ship had sailed away again, and she would forget the kind smile of the missionary's wife, and forget, too, the sneering curl of Lepeka's fat lips. Three years before, when Tom Masters had picked her up in a dancing saloon in Apia and had asked her to come away with him to Fana 'alu as his wife, she had thought of a marriage in the church, with its attendant mild excitements, and gluttonies of baked pig and fowls, and palusami and other delicacies, and the receiving and giving of many presents. But when Masters—who possessed a fragmentary conscience—told her why he could not marry her, she accepted the position calmly, and said it did not matter.

Perhaps, among the women of Fana 'alu, she stood highest in public estimation, notwithstanding her bar sinister, for she was open-handed and generous, and both the chiefs wife and Lepeka, the teacher's grand lady, were of common blood—whilst she, despite her antecedents in Apia, was of the best in Manono—the birthplace of the noble families of Samoa.


So, as she stood there in the doorway, first combing and then plaiting her hair à la Suisse, she asked in her native tongue,—

'Is she young, Tom? Will she have hair of goldthread like that of the wife thou hadst in Sini{*} long ago—she who married another man?'

     * Sydney.

Masters laughed. How could he tell! She might be young and fair; she might be an olomatua (an old woman), dried up and skinny. But that was none of their business. All that he and Melanie had to do was to entertain her well and make much of her.

'True,' said the placid-minded Melanie; 'and even if she be as ugly as an aitu (devil), yet will that fat-faced pig Lepeka die with envy to see a white lady a guest in my house. Would that I could send to Manono for my three brothers, so that they might come here and get drunk, and beat Paulo! I hate Paulo, even as I hate Lepeka, for they both speak evil of me, yet are for ever cringing to thee, taking eagerly thy gifts of money to the church and the school and the mission fund, and yet whispering of me as the dancing-house whore.'

'Never mind that, old woman,' said Masters, softly, placing his hand upon the girl's head. 'Next year we shall go away from Fana 'alu. We shall go to Ponapé, in the far, far north—away from these islands; no bitter tongues shall pain thy heart there.' Then, picking up his hat, he sauntered down to the beach again and stood watching his whale-boat being hauled up into the boat-shed by her native crew.

'Like the wife he once had in Sydney, long ago.'

He lit his pipe, and began to pace to and fro on the sandy path under the cool shade of the coco-palms and bread-fruit trees, thinking of an incident of his past life, which, although six long years had passed, neither his subsequent wanderings in many lands, nor his three latter years' monotonously happy and lazy existence with Melanie at Fana 'alu, had yet quite banished from his memory. And the chance question put to him half an hour before had brought back to him a vision of the slender, blue-eyed and golden-haired woman who was the partner of his first matrimonial venture.

They had in the beginning led a turtle-dovey kind of life in those old days on the shores of Port Jackson. Not long after their marriage the shipping firm in which he was employed failed, and he had to seek for another billet; and, being an energetic, self-reliant man, with no false pride, he shipped as steward on board the Noord Brabant, a hogged-backed, heartbroken and worn-out American lumber ship running between Puget Sound and the Australian colonies. His wife had cried a little at first; but he told her that no one but their two selves would know, and it was better for him to be earning five pounds a month than idling about in Sydney.

On board the crazy old barque he found an acquaintance, who soon became a friend. This was the second mate—another Sydney man—who had shipped on the Noord Brabant because berths on good ships were scarce and mates and skippers were plentiful. So the two men, while the ship was being patched up for her long voyage across the Pacific, spent their evenings together at Masters's house.

Harry Laurance—that was the second mate's name—was a fine, handsome man, with clear, honest eyes and a merry, infectious laugh, and those evenings at his friend's house were a source of unalloyed happiness to him, for from his boyhood he had known no home except a ship or a squalid boarding-house.

One night, as the three sat together in Masters's little four-roomed cottage, and Nellie Masters had ceased playing upon the rattling fifteen-guinea box of discord called a piano, the three made plans for the future. When they—Masters and Laurance—returned from Puget Sound, they were not to part. Laurance, who had had long experience in the Island trade, had saved a little money—not much (as he told Masters one day when he placed ten sovereigns in the latter's hand, and asked him to accept it as a loan for his wife's sake), but nearly enough to buy a little thirty-ton vessel he knew of which was for sale, and which would be just the craft to run on trading voyages from New Zealand among the islands of the Gambier Group—if they could load her with trade goods. And he knew a man in Puget Sound who, he thought, would lend him a few hundreds, and take a third share in the venture. Then, when he and Masters returned from the impending voyage to Sydney, they, with Mrs Masters, would go over to Auckland, buy the schooner and the trade goods, and then sail for Manga Reva in the Gambier Group, where Masters and his wife were to buy a bit of land and put up a trading station, whilst Laurance ran the little vessel to and fro among the various islands of the group, and brought back pearl shell and copra for sale to the big German firm in Tahiti. And Masters's pretty wife smiled joyously. She did not like to be parted from Tom for nearly seven months; but seven months was not a lifetime—and then they would be so happy, away from the grinding poverty of their existence in Sydney.


Dreams! Six weeks afterwards, as the old Noord Brabant lay groaning over on her beam ends, thrashing her canvas to ribbons in a fierce night squall off Beveridge Reef, Tom Masters, hurrying on deck to help the hands shorten sail, was knocked overboard by the parting of the spanker-boom guy, and disappeared without a cry, into the seething boil to leeward.

For two hours—after the squall had ceased, and Masters was missed—the boat searched for him under the bright rays of a silvery moon and a clear, cloudless sky. But every now and then rain fell heavily, and though the boat rowed round and round the ship within a radius of two or three miles no answering cry came to the repeated hails of the crew. So then the Noord Brabant stood away again on her course, and Harry Laurance lay awake all his watch below, thinking sadly of his friend and of the dreadful shock which awaited the young wife in Sydney.

But Tom Masters did not drown. When he came to the surface of the water he found himself floating among the debris of the quarter-boat, which, when the spanker-boom guy parted and the heavy spar swung over to leeward, had swept the after-davit out of its socket and let the boat hang, stern down, by the for'ard fall, until the labouring old barque, raising her stern high out of the water, smashed down upon it as it dragged under her counter and tore out the for'ard ringbolt.

Half-stunned by the force of the blow which he had received on the back of his head from the spanker-boom when it swept him overboard, Masters was yet able to swim to the wreckage of the boat which he saw floating near him, and, clinging to the after part of the keel, he saw the cabin lights of the Noord Brabant shining brightly through the square, old-fashioned ports for a minute or two, and heard the cries of her crew as the sails were clewed up and furled. Then a sharp, hissing rain squall hid her from view in a thick white mist, and, with agony and despair in his heart, he gave up all hope of life, knowing that the only other boat was turned bottom up on the main hatch of the barque, and that the ship was only half-manned by a scratch crew of long-shore loafers.

But it so happened that when the Noord Brabant, close-hauled to clear Beveridge Reef, was thrown on her beam ends by the violence of the squall, the whaling schooner John Bright was rolling easily along before it under shortened canvas, and the cook of the schooner, as he stood on the foc'scle, smoking his pipe, caught a sight of floating wreckage right ahead, with the indistinct figure of a man clinging to it, and bawled out 'Hard a-port!' just in time, or else the schooner had run right on top of the drifting boat and finished this tale and Tom Masters as well.

But boats are lowered quickly on an American whale-ship—quicker than on any other ship afloat—and in less than ten minutes Tom Masters was picked up and, in face of a blinding rain squall, brought on board the John Bright. Then a long illness—almost death.

Three months afterwards, as the schooner was slowly crawling along over the North Pacific towards Honolulu, she spoke a timber ship bound to the Australian colonies from Port Townsend in Puget Sound; and Masters, now recovering from the terrible shock he had received, went on board and asked the captain to let him work his passage. But the Yankee skipper of the lumber ship did not seem to like the idea of having to feed such a hollow-eyed, gaunt-looking being for another six weeks or so, and refused his request. And so Masters, in a dulled, apathetic sort of way went back to the John Bright, climbed up her side, and, with despair in his heart, lay down in his bunk and tried to sleep, never knowing that, half an hour before, when he was speaking to the captain of the lumberman, a letter to his wife from Laurance lay in a locker not three feet away from him, telling her of her husband's death at sea and his own heartfelt sorrow and sympathy.

And Laurance was honest and genuine in his sympathy. He had had a warm feeling of friendship for Tom Masters, and his heart was filled with pity for the poor little wife left alone without a friend in the world. He had tried to express himself clearly in his letter, but all that Nellie Masters could understand was that Tom had been drowned at sea, that Laurance would be back in Sydney in a month or two and give her all particulars, and that she was not utterly friendless and alone in the world.

Within a month of Harry Laurance's return she began to think more of him and of his goodness to her, than of her dead husband—and then gratitude became love. She was only a poor little woman, and of a weakly, irresolute nature, unable to think for herself, and unfitted to battle alone with the world and poverty. So one day when Laurance, whose big heart was full of love and pity for her, asked her to be his wife, she gave him a happy smile and said 'Yes.' Before a second month had passed they were quietly married.

Masters, meanwhile, had been pursued by the demon of ill-luck. When the schooner reached Honolulu, he, a mere wreck, physically and mentally, of his former self, had been carried ashore to the hospital, and was making a slow recovery, when the Sydney whaling brig, Wild Wave came into port with some of her crew injured by a boat accident. One of the men was placed in a bed next to that occupied by Masters, and one day his captain came to see him and brought him some colonial newspapers which had just arrived.

'Here, mate,' said the sailor, tossing one of the papers over to Masters, 'you're a Sydney man, and there's a Sydney newspaper.'

Masters took up the paper, and the first lines he read were these:—

'Laurance—Masters. On the 10th inst., at the Scots Church, Church Hill, Henry A. Laurance to Helen, widow of the late Thomas Masters.'

Possibly, had he been well enough to have returned to Sydney, he would have gone back and made three persons' lives unhappy. But, although an Englishman, he had not the rigidly conventional idea that the divorce court was part of the machinery of the Wrath of God against women who unknowingly committed bigamy, and ought to be availed of by injured husbands. So, instead of having a relapse, he pulled himself together, left the hospital, and got placidly drunk, and concluded, when he became sober, not to disturb them.

'I suppose neither of them is to blame,' he thought. 'How were either of them to know that I was not drowned?... And then poor little Nell had only ten shillings a week to live upon until I came back.'

Still, he would have been better pleased had Harry Laurance been a stranger to him—no man cares to know his successor in such a matter. By-and-by he worked his passage to Samoa, where, under the assumed name of Tom Patterson, he soon found employment. Then one night he went into Charley the Russian's saloon—and met Melanie.

And now he was settled down at Fana 'alu, was doing well as a trader, and had acquired, in all its intensity, the usual dislike to the idea of ever going back to the world again, common enough to men of his nature in Polynesia. Besides that, Melanie understood him and he understood her. She was as open and honest as the day, worked hard for him in his store, and was sincerely attached to him. So he was well content.


There was much commotion in the village when the trading barque arrived and lay-to off Fana 'alu. Melanie, in a dress of spotless white muslin, flitted to and fro within the house, smoking cigarettes and cursing her women assistants' laziness and stupidity. Masters, it so happened, was away in his boat at another village along the coast, and pretty Melanie was in a state of nervous trepidation at the thought of having to meet the English lady alone. What should she do? What should she say? Her English was scant but vigorous, having mostly been acquired from the merchant skippers, who, in her—to put it nicely—maiden days, frequented the dance house of 'Charley the Russian' in Apia, and she was conning over the problem of whether she should address her coming guest in that language or not. Her child, a little girl of two, followed her mother's movements with intense curiosity; and presently a bevy of young native girls swarmed into the room with the news that the boat had come ashore, and that the white lady and her husband had landed and were now walking up to the house. Then Mrs Masters Number Two pulled herself together and, throwing away her cigarette, went to the door and, with a graceful, modest demeanour and a timid, bashful smile, held out her hand to a lovely being with big, bright blue eyes and thick masses of hair of shining gold. Beside this—to Melanie—glorious vision of beauty, stood the husband—a big, black-moustached and bronze-feced man, who stooped as he entered the door of the trader's house, and said good-naturedly to her,—

'Glad to meet you, Mrs Patterson. Will your husband be long before he returns?'

'I don' know, sir,' answered Melanie. 'He hav' gone to Pitofanua. But he will come ver' quick when he know that the ship hav' come.' Then, trembling with pleasurable excitement, she turned to the lady and indicated a low easy-chair, and said in Samoan,—

'Sit thou there, O lady;' and then in English, 'I can't speak Englis' very good sometimes. But my man will soon come.' Then she remembered something. 'Please will you come into dis room here, which is been made all ready for you, an' take off your hat;' and then she darted over to a side table, brought a glass and a bottle of whisky over to the lady's husband; then, with a winning smile, timidly held out her brown hand to her guest, and led her into the bedroom.

The new supercargo helped himself to a nip of whisky and then sat down, his keen business eye taking in the order and cleanliness of the room. In a few minutes his wife came out.

'Hang these traders, Nell! Why isn't this fellow here to meet me? He had no business to go away from his station when the ship was due. However, he has jolly nice quarters, and so we'll make ourselves comfortable until he turns up. I think you'll like this place, Nell, and won't find it tedious whilst I'm away at the Solomons. Eh, pet?'

The White Lady nodded and smiled. 'Yes, Harry, but I'll miss you terribly to-morrow. Six weeks is a long time, dear.... Oh, Harry, do look—isn't she a lovely child?' And, bending down, she swept up Melanie's little girl in her arms and kissed her softly, and her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

'Yes,' said the supercargo, shortly, as, without looking at the child, he took some papers from his pocket and began to read. His and her hearts' desire had never been granted, and so he hated to look at the child of another man.

'I wish this fellow would come,' he said presently, in an irritable tone, as he rose and walked to and fro.... Don't let that child paw you about like that, Nell.... Hallo, here he is at last.'

Fanning his heated brow with his broad hat of pandanus leaf, the trader stood in the doorway.

'Good morning. I'm sorry I was away when you came—'

A cry, half scream and half sob, came from the supercargo's wife, as, still holding the child in her arms, she swayed to and fro, and Melanie sprang to her side.

'Oh, Harry, it is Tom!' she said.

Then she sank back and lay upon the matted floor, with her head pillowed upon Melanie's bosom; and the child wailed in terror.

'What the hell is the matter?' said the big supercargo, striding forward to the trader and seizing him by the arm. Then he looked into Masters's face. 'By God, Masters, is it you? As heaven is my judge, I swear to you that we both thought you were dead!'

The trader's eyes met his in a long, searching glance, then turned to where the unconscious, figure of the white woman lay, supported in the arms of Melanie, who, with affrighted eyes, gazed appealingly to them both.

He reached out his hand to the other man. 'That's all right, Laurance. Let us go outside and talk. See, your wife has fainted, but Melanie will see to her.'


That night, whilst Masters and Laurance, cigars in mouth, were gravely picking out the former's trade goods on board the Palestine the White Lady and the Brown 'Woman' talked.

'Is you any better now?' said Melanie, as she caressingly ran her hand down the golden locks of Mrs Laurance.

A smothered sob was her answer, and the yellow head buried itself among the pillows of the couch.

Melanie turned away despairingly, and then lit a cigarette. What a fool was this beautiful white woman—nothing but sob, sob, sob! What could be done to dry her tears?

Presently the Brown 'Woman' slid her hand under the waist of the weeping White Lady, and pressed her cheek to hers.

'Don' you wan' to stay here now?'

'No, no, no! Let me go away. I wish I were dead!'

'What for?' and the philosophical Melanie sent two long streaks of smoke through her nostrils. 'Why are you 'shamed? You have a husban' now, and yo' don' wan' to faotane, do you?'

'What is faotane?'

Melanie laughed. 'Faotane is Samoa language; it means stealing a husban.... And yo' won' steal my husban' from me, will you? Yo' hav' got a new husban', and yo' won' take Tom from me, will yo'?'

Mrs Laurance sprang to her feet and placed her hands on the Brown 'Woman's' shoulders.

'Tell me,' she said, 'did he ever talk of me?'

'Yes,' said the truthful Melanie. 'He tell me that yo' have hair like gold, and that your eye was blue like the sky.'

'No more?'

Melanie shook her black locks. 'No more. My man never talk too much. You like to eat some roast pigeon now?'

The White Lady turned her head aside and sobbed. 'And for a soulless being like this!' Then she remembered that Masters was not to blame, and waited, trembling and sobbing, for the two men to return.


Masters, having finished his business on board the barque, held out his hand to Laurance.

'Good-bye, Harry. Nothing can be done. Tom Masters was drowned off Beveridge Reef years ago, and Harry Laurance married his widow; and Tom Patterson is another man, who has a native wife, and—'

He wrung Laurance's hand, sprang up the companion-way and called to his boat's crew,—

'Haul the boat alongside, boys. I'm going to Pito-fanua again; and you beggars will have to pull like hell.... Good-bye, Harry, old fellow. Send your boat ashore for your wife... and God bless you both!'