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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE TALL WHITE LADY

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As published in The Critic, Adelaide, Australia, 15 April 1908

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-17
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

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THE shellers swarmed into Sashino's hut without ceremony and squatted on the floor. The two Manila boys sat behind the Japs. The Malays from Kasinga Muru's lugger crowded the doorway. Japanese etiquette forbade them entering; the Jap. has no stomach for the Malay.

The hut stood naked in the warm gulf sand. A network of dank inlets imbibed the shallow waters inside the bar. A dozen small boats clung heelward of the pearling fleet. At intervals a banana-John in a solar-topee addressed the skipper of a 40-ton fore-and-aft schooner. The skipper, a New Britain skull-trader, told him in snarls that the boys had gone ashore to Sashino's raffle. John, being a new chum from Shanghai, couldn't understand.

A panting silence filled the overcrowded hut. A tiny window faced the Gulf, and the hot sunlight streamed in upon the faces of the Jap pearlers. They were squat, mis-shapen men, dull-eyed as though the Gulf slime and the pump-air had filled them with ague and the germs of death. In a far corner of the hut was a cheap tea-house screen. The Manila-boys pointed to it and grinned. The pearlers sat shoulder to shoulder, and when a man raised his cigarette one beheld an occasional sore on the wrist, where it plunges into the soaped sleeve of the rubber diving- jacket.

Sashino was last to enter the hut; his cheek bones stood square beneath his Mongolian eyes. His pants were white, and his cummerbund was of crimson silk. He was the dude of the pearling fleet, and he had once worked in a 'Frisco laundry, but he discovered that pearling paid much better.

"Say, boys, give order. No dam fuss. My wife not too drunk to show up, eh? Then I wake her out of the devil's sleep."

Pushing aside the screen, Sashino revealed a woman huddled on a yellow mat. Her hair clung like a wolf's mane to her neck. Her skin was white beneath her ragged German trade dress; but her face was bitten and tarnished by the Gulf wind and sun.

The sudden laughter of the shellers awoke her. She sat up blinking feebly, but through the veneer of vice that lay upon her features the Japs. discerned the high-caste lines of an English lady. They merely laughed at Sashino's way of addressing her. Sashino sat opposite her, wagging his head like a broken image.

"This lady is my English wife, boys. No good since the opium took her. No good—no good."

"I come home to her very tired, boys. You know how the lungs go after work." He coughed and squeezed his chest with both hands. The shellers grunted.

"Ah King gave her the opium one day, and she cuts into my sleep when I want it bad. Sleep, sleep the diver must have, boys, or he jibber and run amok. She wakes up and sings; oh dam, and the song of hers, oh dam, and the opium hysterics, dam dam!"

Sashino breathed like a man with a hurt lung. "I go down into the sea to escape her screams." He waved his cigarette at the blinking woman. "All day the big flies sit on her face. She does not wash. She is no profit to me. I do not beat her, because she is a lady."

A swart sheller addressed him suddenly in the vernacular.

Sashino nodded. "You get dice. There are twenty of you. Shake up. The high man takes her. I tell you, boys, she is an English lady. No caste-break, no tar-brush"—the crowd giggled—"keep away Ah King and the opium and she is a bargain. Taught me good English... Dam good wife."

The woman on the mat blinked, yawned violently behind her small hand. Then she stared dully at the ring of brown men squatting in the centre of the hut. A box rattled suddenly. A toothless old sheller threw the dice across the floor.

"Seven; no good, Tashan!"

"She might have taught me French," mumbled the old man.

The dice passed from hand to hand hurriedly. Sashino smoked indifferently, but the woman's eyes grew brighter and brighter.

Matsu Hayadi, the pocket Hercules, with the China war-medals on his dungaree coat, refused to throw.

"I want not this woman, Sashino. She too tall and old. The young lubra is better for a wife. This raffle is a violent shame, upon my honour."

The woman on the mat struggled to her knees, clawed the hut- side with her nails, and stood up. She was a head taller than the crowd. With a gesture almost regal she pushed back the mane of her hair, while her lips quivered.

"You did not consult me in this matter, Sashino," she said quietly. "Why do you allow the fish-catcher with the medals to insult me?"

Sashino frowned.

"Matsu Hayadi is a gentleman, Harriet; you may go to the dogs or the Kanakas, I care no dam. Hayadi is a gentleman."

The woman's silvery laughter cut them like whips. They stood up, and she laughed over their heads. Then, with the simplicity of a child, she begged them to be seated.

They sat at her feet, sullenly.

"Children of Japan, will you listen to a lady?"

Swift as a bullet each sheller's brow touched the earth.

"Ah, that is sensible, my children. You have all been to school, I see. You are all fighters and gentlemen, are you not?"

The shellers regarded her stonily. She faced them with luminous eyes and head erect. Her outstretched arm revealed the blue veins and the almost transparent skin.

"Children of Nippon, ere you cast dice for an English lady, consider what her arm has done."

"Has done?" grinned the shellers.

She smiled upon them tenderly. "Years ago, my children, when you were busy with your paper gods, this arm, this blood of mine, swung a sword east and west across the world; it held black and white nations by the throat, compelling obedience. It destroyed fleets, liberated slaves, and begat Cromwell. Its captains would not cease a game of bowls, even when the loud Armada thundered upon its shores. This black dicer with the medals on his breast refuses me!"

She laughed, held out her hand while a sheller thrust a cigarette between her fingers.

Matsu Hayadi lowered his head sulkily. "That is nothing—we of Nippon may cut the world in half when the Equator calls."

"The Equator 'called' me," laughed the woman, "and it gave me a cotton dress and a thirst. I began life by marrying an ambassador. I loved him, until I saw him in silk knickers. Then I ran away to India with a soldier. I lost caste because I ate chutney with a rajah. After that the Fall. I became the fashion among the native princes. I tasted hasheesh at Simla, and it left me in the coolie lines. How many of my kind have awakened at midnight in the everlasting coolie-traps?"

Sashino yawned wearily, his mouth gaped, his teeth flashed; he cracked the joints of his fingers with shot-like rapidity.

"Who will take her?" he asked; "who will take?"

Twenty shellers rose simultaneously, nodded politely to Sashino, and quitted the hut. Nikoo Shani, the toothless old pearler, remained. He stared across the hut with almost sightless eyes.

"Give her to me, Sashino. She will teach me history and French." He salaamed, and his shrivelled skin seemed to shake on his bones.

"Honour the aged," answered Sashino quietly. "Take her."

With finger pointing at the woman, he snapped a parting word.

"Go, now. You are too many times fluent. I listen not."

She smiled weakly. "This mat is mine, Sashino. May I take it?"

He nodded, tightened his cummerbund, and arranged his thin moustache. She broke into laughter, and slapped him between the shoulders.

"See how I descend, Sashino, from pit to pit, without a glass of wine to cheer me. Think of it, while the love of some Mimosa is in your heart, and the air tubes are choking your lungs."

She passed out, but the hot beach smote her with its sudden glare. For a moment she reeled in the sand. The man-'o-war hawks soared across the bar; a dinghy, crowded with pearlers, pulled towards a lugger in the offing. Nikoso Shani followed her uncertainly. Then he caught her ragged sleeve, and mumbled in her ear.

"History, first; French and Algebra."

There were livid marks under her eyes. A savage opium-thirst stayed in her throat. The Gulf sun seemed to spin across the sky. She clutched the old sheller's arm.

"Promise me, Nikoso, that you will not let me descend into the last Pit."

"The Pit, O Harriet? The last Pit has no number."

"It is over there, Nikoso Shani. Listen."

The old sheller bent his head for a moment; from across the bay came the monotonous chant of a Kanaka crew at work—slow, mournful, unutterably tragic. Nikoso nodded.

"The Kanakas, he said, absently. "They are singing a Christian hymn."

Terror stole like a white film across her eyes. "They are the last of all," she whispered. "When there is no shelter for my body, no pillow for my head, I must go to them. The Jewess Magdalene was happier, she had no last fences to climb."

She regarded the old pearler with lifeless eyes. They arrived at his hovel, near the mouth of the inlet. He pushed the door.

"There is shelter here," he mumbled. She entered silently, and flung her mat into the darkest corner. He closed the door.

"You must not forget the Algebra, the history, and French," he said.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.