The strange white woman of Majuro
by Louis Becke
A group of four men were seated upon a trader's veranda at Majuro, one of the Marshall Islands. They were smoking and talking about old times. The night was brilliantly moonlight, and the hulland spars of a little white-painted brig that lay anchored in the lagoon about a mile distant from the trader's house stood out as clearly and distinct as if she were but fifty yards away from where they sat. Three of the men present were visitors-Bob Packenham the captain, Harvey the mate, and' Denison the supercargo of the Indiana; the fourth was the trader himself-a grizzled old wanderer of past sixty, with a skin like unto dark leather, and a frame that, old as he was, showed he was still as active and vigorous as when he had first landed on Majuro atoll thirty years before.
It was long past midnight, and the old trader's numerous halfcaste family had turned in to sleep some hours before. The strange, wondrous beauty of the night, and the pleasure of listening to old Charlie Waller's talk of the early days in the Marshalls when every white man lived like a prince, and died in his boots from a bullet ora spear, had tempted the visitors to send their boat back to the ship and accept Charlie's invitation to remain till breakfast next morning. It so happened that the old man had just been talking about a stalwart son of his who had died a few months previously, and Packenham and Denison, to whom the lad had been well known, asked his father where the boy had been buried.
'In there, ' replied the old man, pointing to a small white-walled enclosure about a stone's throw from where they were sitting. 'There's a good many graves there now. Let me see. There is Dawnay, the skipper of the Maid of Samoa, and three of his crew; Petersen, the Dutchman, that got a bullet into him for fooling around too much with a pistol in his hand and challenging natives to fight when he was drunk; two or three of my wife's relatives, who wanted to be buried in my boneyard, because they thought to make me some return for keeping their families after they were dead; my boy Tom; and the white woman.
'White woman!' said the mate of the brig. 'Was there a white woman died here?'
'Yes, ' answered the trader; 'but it's so long ago that I've almost forgotten the matter myself. Why, let me see-I came here in '40 or '41. Well, I think it was some time about '48 or '49.' 'Who was she?'
Old Waller shrugged his shoulders. 'That I can't tell. I only know that she died here, and that I buried her.'
'Where did she come from?' asked Denison.
'That I can't tell you either, gentlemen. But I'll tell you all Ido know, and a mighty queer yarn it is, too. In those days I was the only white man here. I had come here about six years before from Ebon, about four hundred miles from here, and, as I had learnt the language, I got on very well with the natives, and was doing a big business. There were not many whale ships here then, but every ten months or so a vessel came here from Sydney, and, as I had the sole run of the whole of this lagoon, I generally filled her up with coconut oil, and was making money hand over fist.
'The house in which I then lived was, like this one, built of coral lime, but stood further away towards the point, in rather a clearer spot than this, for the coconut trees were not growing thickly together around it. You can see the place from here, and also see that a house standing in such a position would be visible, not only from all parts of the inside beaches of the lagoon, but from the sea as well. It used to be a regular landing mark for all the canoes sailing over here from Arno'-a low-lying coral atoll, densely populated, twenty miles distant-'for, being white-washed it stood out very clearly, even at night time.
'Well, it was a pretty lonely life in those days, only seeing a ship once a year; but I was making money, as I said, hand over fist, and didn't worry much. My wife--not the present one, you
know--was a Bonin Island half-bred Portugee woman, and as she generally talked to me in English, and had no native ways to speak of, we used to sit outside in the evenings pretty often and watch our kids and the village people dancing and otherwise amusing themselves on the beach. Rotau, the head chief of this lagoon, was very chummy with me, and sometimes he and his wives would come up of an evening and join us.
'One night he told us that a canoe had come from Mili'-an island about three days' sail to the leeward of Waller's place' and reported that a ship had passed quite close to their island about a week before. At first I thought it was my vessel coming up from Sydney, but Rotau said it was not a brig, but a three-masted ship with yards on all her masts. Well, at first I thought it was a whaler, but then remembered that it was fully four months too late in the year for a blubber-hunter to be around. Then it occurred to me that it might be some English ship going to China or the East Indies from the colonies; but I wondered why she was beating to the eastward if that were the case.
'Well, after we had sat talking for a while, my wife called the children in and put them to sleep, and Rotau and I and his wives sat outside a bit longer, smoking. All the rest of the natives had gone away, and the beach was deserted. It was a moonlight night, almost as bright as it is tonight, and the sea was a smooth as a millpond; so smooth, in fact, that there was not even a break upon the reef, and the trade wind having died away, there was not the sound of a leaf stirring in the palm grove, and only just the lip-lap, lip-lap of the water in the lagoon as it swished up the
'We had been sitting like this for about half an hour when Nera, my wife, just as she was coming out of the door to join us, gave a cry.
' " Te kaibuke! Look at the ship!"
'I jumped up and looked, and there, sure enough, was a big ship just showing round the point and close in-at least, not more than a mile away from the reef. She showed up so plainly on the surface of the water that I could see that she was under all canvas--except her royals and such.
'For a moment I was a bit scared, remembering that there was not a breath of wind, and yet seeing her moving; then I remembered the current, and knew that she must have run up to the land from the westward, before dark, perhaps, and that as soon as the breeze had died away the current, which runs about four knots off the weatherside of the island, had caught her and was now moving her along. Even by the moonlight I could see that she was a fine-looking ship; and by her sheer, high bows, white painted deckhouses, and cut of her sails, I took her to be either a Yankee or a British North American.
'I always kept my whaleboat ready in those days, and, after looking at her for a bit and seeing she was steadily drifting along to the northeast and would be out of sight by morning, I made up my mind to board her. But just as I had asked Rotau to get one of his women to hunt up a boat's crew, he sang out, "Listen; I hear a boat!"
'In another moment or two I heard it, plain enough-click, clack; click, clack-and at the same time saw that the ship was heading away, from the land.
' "That's queer, " I thought. And then Rotau, who, like all natives, had better eyes than most white men, said that she had three boats out towing.
' "Ah, " I thought, "the captain has got frightened at the current, and, as he can't anchor where he is, he's sending in a boat to try and find a place where he can let go till morning and is towing off the land meanwhile."
' I knew the ship was right enough, and could not get clear into any danger, as the current would take her clear of the land in another hour or so; so we all went down to the point to see where the boat was coming.
'As I said, there wasn't even so much as a bit of froth on the reef, and, being high water, no one a stranger to a coral reef would know it was there till he was going over it in a boat and looked over the side. We had just got down to the point when we saw the boat close to. She was being pulled very quickly by four hands, and made a devil of a row coming through the water.
The man who was steering was standing up, and I saw that his cap was off, and his face showed white and ghastly in the moon-light.
'As soon as she was within a hundred yards of the beach I hailed them to keep a bit to starboard, as there was a big coral boulder right in front of the spot they were steering for.
' "Aye, aye, " answered the man steering, and he did as I told him. In another minute or two the boat shot up on the beach, and we crowded round them.
' "Stand back, please, " says the officer, speaking in a curious hurried kind of way, and then I saw that he had a pistol in his left hand, and that the men with him looked white and scared, and seemed to take no notice of us.
'But they didn't give us much time to wonder at their looks. Two of the men jumped out, and then we saw that there was another person in the boat--a woman. She was sitting on the bottom boards, lying against the stem sheets, and seemed to be either asleep or dead. The officer helping them, they lifted her up out of the boat and carried her ashore. Then the officer turns to me, and I saw that though he tried to speak quietly, he was in a devil of a flurry over something.
' "What's all this?" I said; "what's the matter? What have you got this pistol in your hand for, and what is the matter with this woman?"
'He put the pistol out of sight pretty quick, and then, speaking so rapidly that I could hardly follow him, said that the lady was the captain's wife. She had been taken ill very suddenly, and her husband, seeing my house so close to, had determined to send her ashore, and see if anything could be done for her.
"'That's mighty queer, " I said. "Why didn't he come with her himself? Look here, I don't believe all this. How the devil did he know that even though the house is here, a white man lives in it? And I want to have a look at the woman's face. She might be dead for all I know."
'By this time my wife and one of Rotau's wives had gone up to the woman, and I saw that although she wasn't dead she looked very like it, for her eyes were closed, and she seemed quite unconscious of all that was going on. She was young about twenty-five or so-and was rather pretty.
' "Please take her to your house, " says the officer, "and as soon as we have towed the ship out of danger the captain will come ashore and see you."
' "Hold on, " says I, and I grabbed him by the arm. 'Do you mean to say you're going off in this fashion, without telling me anything further? Who are you, anyway? What is the ship's name?"
'He hesitated just a second, and then said, "The Inca Prince, Captain Broughton; but I can't stay to talk now. The captain himself will tell you about it in the morning. As you see, his wife is very ill. You will at least not refuse to help in the matter?"
'And then, before I could stop him, he jumped back out of my reach into the boat, and the four sailors, two of whom were
natives of some sort, shoved off, and away they went again.
' "You'd better tell the captain to come ashore at once I called out after them; but although he heard me plainly enough he took no notice of me beyond waving his hand.
'Well, we carried the woman up to the house and placed her in a chair, and the moment that my wife took off the woollen wrapper that covered her head and shoulders she cried out that there was blood running down her neck. And it didn't take me long to discover that the woman was dying from a bullet wound in the back of her head.
'We did all that we possibly could for the poor thing, but she never regained consciousness, and towards sunrise she died quietly. There was nothing about her clothing to show who she was, but she wore rings such as would belong to a woman of some position. She appeared to be twenty-six years of age, as I said; and when she was being prepared for her grave I took particular notice of her personal appearance. That she had been murdered I could not doubt, and perhaps some day, even after all these years, the crime may come to light.'
'But what became of the ship?' asked the mate of the Indiana.
'Out of sight by eight o'clock in the morning. As soon as I saw what was the matter with the woman I knew that we need not expect to see anyone from the ship back again. The boats towed her, I suppose, all night, and just before daylight a breeze sprang up, which soon took her away from the land.'
'I wonder what the true story of that woman's death was, ' said Packenham thoughtfully, as he looked towards the place where she was buried.
'Heaven only knows, ' answered the old trader. 'Whether it was a mutiny, and her husband was murdered, or whether the officer who came ashore with her was the captain himself and her husband as well, I cannot tell. My own idea is that there was a mutiny, and that she had been shot, perhaps accidentally, in the struggle, and that knowing that she might possibly recover, the mutineers had decided to send her ashore, rather than have to keep her a prisoner on board, and then perhaps kill her to prevent the discovery of their crime. Anyway, I have since learnt that there never was a ship named the Inca Prince. I've told the story to every shipmaster I've met since that night, and it was written about a good deal in the English and American newspapers. Then the affair was forgotten and, like many another such thing, the secret may never come out.'
Presently, following the old man, Denison and Packenham .went with him in the bright moonlight, and looking over the low white wall of the little cemetery saw the unknown woman's grave. A faint breath of air swayed the pendulous leaves of the surrounding coco palms, which for a moment rustled softly together, and then drooped into the silence of the night.
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