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17 to nearly 18 years
WHENEVER Jack London set foot upon deck-planking, he left behind more than the solid earth. Whatsoever load of soul-sickness or care he had borne to the water's edge fell from him, or, more fitly, shrank to its true scant measure under the springing arch of life. Any embarcadero was a wharf of dreams where, glad face to sweeping river or to open sea, he felt the burthen upon his shoulders transfigured into blithe immateriality as of wings.
Even so early, the dollar had ceased to stand as an unqualified goal; it was but a means to an end, or to many ends. Money bought larger life, and life to the full, was all his goal. Good indeed it was to know that he possessed ability to earn gold and silver which in turn was good to spend in playing the game as he saw it, the game wherein duty and pleasure were two of many points to win. The concept which had caused that clean break with a miserly past when he gave away his boyish treasures, had rendered it unlikely that mere money-getting should ever again hold him from the joy of living. "And somehow," he puts his case, "from the day I achieved that concept . . . I have never cared much for money. No one has ever considered me a miser since, while my carelessness of money is a source of anxiety to some that know me."
Descending the steep companionway into the fresh-paint air of the Sophie Sutherland's renovated forecastle, he de-
posited his bulging canvas sea-bag, packed the previous night at Eliza's, in a bunk selected for the best lighting from the hatch. And in that moment he relegated to its expedient limbo all worry as to finances. Fixed wages would be accumulating against the day of his return, and in that day the coin should be applied where it would benefit the most. Meantime thought of the same need not vex his head, a head which must be bent upon the study, moment by moment, of fitting himself into his exact place, be it audacious first or humble twelfth, among the round dozen deep-sea veterans in this deep-sea bottom. There was no call for currency in the fo'c's'le, and thank heaven the last round of drinks for many a month had been bought. The schooner carried no liquor of any sort.
Do not conceive of him as reflecting at any length with idle hands. A "busy child" he had been; a busier man he now was. Child-dreamer or man-dreamer, he worked while he dreamed, he "thought on his feet," to use his words, and with him action was quick as the thought. Throughout his complex mechanism there resided that unity which defied either misapplied effort or unproductive inertia.
While the handsome schooner's crew was typical of its rough Scandinavian class, Jack was immediately struck by an incongruity higher up. The sealer's owner, a somewhat unusual circumstance, sailed in her for personal reasons unfathomed by the ship's company, unless it was to make a sailor of his son, who was also on board. Apparently the father was a land-lubberly soul in a quiet, pensive way—his exterior, to their simple judgment, even suggesting piousness. Little he seemed to know or care about seamanship, always preserving an air of detachment from the management of his vessel, which was left entirely in the hands of the sailing master. "He thinks he's on his yacht, one of the men guffawed below deck a few days out.
Jack, one eye on sailing-master and mate, the other alert to his companions of the forecastle, kept tongue between
teeth as he had done with unprofessional ones of their stripe, and walked warily. Things were different now—no longer was he master of his own keel, nor even partner, as on the Reindeer. No authority of any kind was his, except over his inner self, and that was a confidential matter. He had had the "nerve," as Pete Holt had grinned, to sign on as A. B., he, who had never been more than a mile outside the Golden Gate. But what of that?—he was able-bodied if any of them were, and he was a seaman or he did not know what the word meant. He would see to it that he was an able one.
"I was an able seaman," he asserts. "I had graduated from the right school. It took no more than minutes to learn the names and uses of the few new ropes. It was simple. I did not do things blindly. As a small-boat sailor I had learned to reason out and know the why of everything. It is true, I had to learn to steer by compass, which took maybe half a minute; but when it came to steering full-and-by and close-and-by, I could beat the average of my shipmates, because that was the very way I had always sailed. Inside fifteen minutes I could box the compass around and back again. And there was little else to learn during that seven-months cruise, except fancy rope-sailorizing, such as the more complicated lanyard knots and the making of various kinds of sennit and rope-mats."
It must be remembered that, while he realized he was measuring against better-informed sailors than those he had known, his undue reverence for deep-water men had been shaken when they came to managing small sailing craft. Scotty's fiasco with the little old skiff of tender remembrance was not the only one he had witnessed.
Of him there should be no complaint from captain or officers. Simultaneously he appreciated that any difficulty in making good lay in relation to the forecastle rather than to the deck. He sensed a sneering antagonism, in certain able-bodied salts for'ard, toward the mere undersized bay-
sailor he indubitably was, and his chest rose and his eye darkened with the zest of strife against odds. Oh, not strife with his hands, unless forced ; he would make no hasty nor false moves. But the conquesting of minds of their caliber he well knew was easily possible, though only by keeping one jump ahead of them. One did it with animals, and he had found the same method practicable with most boys he had known and with some men.
Swiftly "sizing up" the seamed visages of the elder A. B. s, he divined without error the ones he must deal with from the word go. Not for nothing had he pondered the weird unreckonable quality of the order of Scandinavian intelligence that had come his way in the past. And here he uncovered the same mental quirks, although not one of these "squareheads" could boast of the physical beauty or charm of either of the "Scratches."
He must make no blunders. These seasoned tars would make capital of the raw material they deemed him, as they were traditionally accustomed. He would degenerate to a mere cabin-boy, a door-mat, and worse, if he were not cautious and more than cautious. Obliging he would be, of course; but he must firmly entrench himself short of being imposed upon. He gave them credit for a primitive cunning that would pounce upon an unguarded weakening. Difficult clay this for a youngster to mold for his own survival, but malleable clay nevertheless, which he must steel himself to thumb without fumbling. Here he laid foundation for the tactician without hypocrisy which in time he came to be.
Reviewing his problem, he writes: "These hard-bit Scandinavian sailors had come through a hard school. As boys they had served their mates, and as able seamen they looked to be served by other boys. I was a boy . . . I had never been to sea before—withal I was a good sailor and knew my business . . . I had signed on as an equal, and an equal I must maintain myself, or else endure seven
months of hell at their hands. And it was this very equality they resented. By what right was I an equal? I had not earned that high privilege. I had not endured the miseries they had endured as maltreated boys or bullied ordinaries. Worse than that, I was a land-lubber making his first voyage. And yet, by the injustice of fate, on the ship's articles I was their equal.
"My method was deliberate, and simple, and drastic. In the first place, I resolved to do my work, no matter how hard or dangerous it might be, so well that no man would be called upon to do it for me. Further, I put ginger in my muscles. I never malingered when pulling on a rope, for I knew the eagle eyes of my forecastle mates were squinting for just such evidence of my inferiority. I made it a point to be among the first of the watch going on deck, among the last going below, never leaving a sheet or tackle for some one else to coil over a pin. I was always eager for the run aloft for the shifting of topsail sheets and tacks, or for the setting or taking in of topsails ; and in these matters I did more than my share."
While he adjusted and outlined further adjustment, he was sensible of being very much alone; but he was always that, in almost any group. It was his fate to be isolate, owing to a faculty for anticipating, which left him little to learn from the average run of individuals. And in his predicament aboard the schooner, as usual there seemed to be none to help him; he must work everything out for himself. Although he did not know it then, this was be cause he was actually preeminent in judgment of the fitness, of things. Seldom did he come in contact with persons who could discriminate as quickly as he, due to that supreme awareness which quickened his every wakeful moment. His keynote was awareness, consciousness.
Making this appraisement of the Sophie Sutherland's complement and his relation to it, meanwhile exerting his mightiest in setting sail and making fast and coiling
down, he retained capacity to glory in the fact that he was at last clearing the Golden Gate on the beautiful, lifting highway to Heart s Desire. When the tug had cast off outside the Heads, and the trim sailer breasted the Bar and filled to her course on "the sea's blue swerve," surging past the rocky Farallones and slowly burying the high coastline, the young voyager filled his lungs with the flowing Seabreeze and realized with enormous relief that he was also clearing the moral morass ashore that had threatened to engulf him. "I shudder to think how close a shave I ran," once he referred to his escape. Never again, he promised himself, would he more than skim the surface of that morass—for the sake of old times and friends to whom he felt and owed loyalty.
But there was another and very important factor that entered into his calculations, namely his own temper, which was itself "on a hair-trigger of resentment" in face of "any abuse or the slightest patronizing." And the men were not unnoting of the warning advertised by an involuntary setting of that square jaw or a tightening curl at one corner of the full mouth, nor of the sudden omen of darkening eyes behind their long crescent lashes. Several times he "mixed" hotly with one or another of them, in sudden flares that as suddenly subsided; but "I left the impression that I was a wild-cat and that I would just as willingly fight again," he recalls. I proved that the man that imposed upon me must have a fight on his hands. And, doing my work well, the innate justice of the men, assisted by their wholesome dislike for a clawing and rending wildcat ruction, soon led them to give over their hectoring."
Comparatively seldom, considering the way of his life, had he hit out with his fists. There had been the usual school and street "scraps," in the course of determining his status among the boys. Once, when he was running with the hoodlum crowd, one real battle royal between the two bad Oakland gangs, had taken place on a bridge which spanned the
neck of water separating Lake Merritt from the Bay. The water-front brawls had drawn him in on more than one occasion. He never forgot the day he made good his threat, twice repeated, to knock the daylights out of a stupid lunk-head of a sailor on the Reindeer, who had as many times let go the main-sheet in a delicate maneuver Jack was essaying in a tight corner. Practically, these were the only times he had used his hands in this way. And he was punctilious always in a determination never to threaten unless he intended to make good. "I hope I'll never have to draw a gun," I have heard him say, "because, if I did, I'd have to use it!"
On the Sophie Sutherland, however, it remained for one decisive victory to clarify the atmosphere for all the voyage.
Red John, a huge-boned Swede, had not yet ceased looking for trouble with this smooth-cheeked boy who declined to be mere boy, nor heeded the signs that boy hung out in plain sight from time to time as the other tried to incite him to protest. But one day, when Jack, on watch below, was sitting in his bunk engaged in the unoffending task of weaving a rope-yarn mat for sister Eliza at home, the inevitable moment presented, and he recognized and dealt with it for all it was worth.
It was Red John's peggy-day—his turn at cleaning house in the sailor s quarters; and Red John's eagerness to impress the greenest hand into personal service cost him his caution and a distinct loss of dignity. Some rough order he flung at Jack, who woke from pleasant reverie and bristled and tensed, but paid no other attention to the bully, while he went on making his love-gift.
Red John mumbled and cursed without noticeable effect on the mat-weaver. Suddenly boiling over, the incensed giant let go the coffee-pot he was carrying, and gave the boy a back-handed blow across the mouth. Like a flash Jack landed on the other's eye, dodged the return swing
of the sledge-hammer fist, and the combat was on—the strangest ever seen by their mates, who scuttled into bunks to be out of the way and enjoy the show. With that cat-like swiftness he later ascribed to his "Sea Wolf," Jack had outflanked the foe and sprung upon his shoulders, where he clasped powerful short legs in a strangle-hold about the roaring bull-throat, while his fingers sought eyes and windpipe of the confounded, raging brute under him. The only recourse left the Swede was main strength, which he used, perhaps by mere instinct, in butting his captor against the deck beams. This inflicted bloody and painful damage to the young tiger's scalp and crouched shoulders. But those excruciating pointed digits in larynx and eye-sockets settled the issue, and the tormented Berserker was forced to give in by hoarsely bellowing assent to Jack's breathless repetition of "Will y'leave me alone, now? Will y'let up on me for keeps? Will y'leave me be?—Will yuh? Will yuh?"
Once more on his feet, quivering and weak amidst the wreck of the forecastle, but wrapt in the solicitous congratulations of admiring colleagues, he cemented their respectful regard by an utter lack of swank over his victory. "That's all right, boys," and a "Thank you kindly," was all they could get out of him as he grinned through the blood that dripped from his lacerated scalp, and went about cleansing it. Hardly needful to mention, Red John became the staunchest admirer and champion of this valiant cub whom he had failed to whip. As for the others, "It was my pride that I was taken in as an equal, in spirit as well as in fact. From then on, everything was beautiful, and the voyage promised to be a happy one." Quite opposed, it will be seen, to accounts from inexcusably careless biographers, that the friendly schooner was a hell-ship in which Jack London had a fight on his hands, or provoked one, every day of the voyage!
And very happy it was. While he could get along com-
fortably without approbation, his content was enhanced by it; and the pleasure of camaraderie with his fellows below or on deck, or aloft in the shrieking rigging in a gale, was not to be calculated. No exhausting strain could dampen the ardor of holding his own with the best in sheer muscular rivalry. Even in middle age, for him to be able to say, "I have toiled all night, both watches on deck, off the coast of Japan," meant more to him than the best passage he had ever written. It should be remembered that eye-to-eye, strain-to-strain, blow-to-blow, with these rougher forces, he overbore the unjust handicap of supersensitiveness—making no allowance for small-boned wrists and ankles that were foredoomed to injury. But whatever his disgruntlement may have been as regarded those fragile extremities, he could be secretly pleased with the augmenting bulge of muscle on back and shoulders, legs and biceps, although it may be the strenuousness of his hit-or-miss education in hardship cost him an inch or so of stature.
He was never apathetic to the beauty of the world about the pretty schooner he took prideful hand in sailing. His trick at the wheel, ably and faithfully discharged, brought him inexhaustible delights, not the least of which was the satisfaction of holding his own as a helmsman among helmsmen. The chronometer, that "least imperfect time-piece that man has devised," and the nautical instruments, were things almost of enchantment, and again he dreamed dreams of some day working his own ship by their aid under sun and star. The wide sea and dome of sky, with all their moods of color and motion, pervaded him with a never-palling joyance of eye and spirit. In the night watches, swinging majestically under the wintry steel-blue stars, or fighting through big seas beneath low scudding moonlit cloud-masses, with only the pale-glimmering bin nacle for company, he knew again those lofty, cool levels of
contemplation wherein his vision was extended into ever-receding distances of thought.
Because of the extravagant and unappeased hunger of his mind, sleeping hours he divided with the books he had smuggled aboard. At the nearest possible inch to the inner wall of his confined bunk, he crept with a tiny improvised light, fitted with a shade so that he might not disturb the men. I think he has described the contrivance as a saucer of slush-oil containing a floating bit of wick, which "lamp" he was obliged to hold in his hand. To such lengths he went to feed that mind-hunger. Two reasons there were for this stealth—a decent consideration toward the men, and, still more important, an unmistaken intuition that good fellowship depended upon hiding propensities they might construe as "airish." There was too much at stake.
It was some years since this inquisitive pilgrim, with his disturbing aptitude for looking aside into the amazing by-ways of cause and effect, had begun to outstrip the childish methods of argument common amongst sailor folk. He concealed his advanced opinions, thrashing out in busy solitude the questions that arose in him, and nursing an increasing wonder at what Dana has called "the simple psychology of the forecastle." Hour upon hour he harkened to these huge men argue prodigiously and earnestly, and even come to blows, over the most obviously infantile details, splitting hairs ad infinitum and ad nauseam. He had to play down to their intelligence—caught himself time and again anticipating their conclusions, with leisure to indulge in speculations of his own while automatically following their talk.
Nevertheless certain simplicities of code were beneficial, and perhaps in the Sophie Sutherland's crowded forecastle were fixed in him economies of habit that stayed with him always, such as orderliness with personal belongings, and a notable scarcity of the same. It was only right that one's
private possessions and convictions should not get in the way of others. There were places for both groups, and they should not be misplaced to the harassment of persons one had to live with and vice versa. Besides, such encroachment was promptly resented in no uncertain terms and actions.
Though they were really children mentally, he noted vital differences of character. Victor and Axel, Swede and Norwegian respectively, were the youngest and most congenial to the antic side of his own personality, and after the wild adventure of the first landfall, they became known as "the Three Sports " aboard ship and ashore. Pete Holt, the hunter, Jack always liked to work with in the boats. For the vanquished Red John he felt good-humored tolerance along with ungrudged admiration for his gigantic proportions. And Long John was a fair sport. The senior member of the crew, poor fat Louis, old at fifty, was in Jack's sailor psychology that most unfortunate of wrecks, a broken skipper. He was deeply impressed to learn that drink had been the cause of Louis going to pieces and losing his papers. There it was again—drink had "thrown" a good man, "and he was winding up his career where he had begun it, in the forecastle. The worst of this, the boy was almost convinced, was that it had not killed the reduced skipper outright, but had done "much worse . . . robbed him of power and place and comfort, crucified his pride," and sailor-pride remained to Jack a superfine quality. And now the luckless Louis, once master of a ship, was "condemned to the hardships of the common sailor."
But when this youngest A. B. discovered himself repeating that solemn vow of Never Again, there would leap behind his eyes the rollicking high times, the "purple passages that went hand in hand with lusty drinking. Often, of course," he relates, "the talk in the forecastle turned on drink, and the men told of their more exciting and hu-
morous drunks, remembering such passages keenly, with greater delight, than all the other passages of their adventurous lives." The eternal riddle propounded by alcohol took place in his thinking as a cosmic contradiction.
Then, when he had failed to reach any congenial solution, he would turn to another sort of derelict, the man in their midst whom he always thought of as the twelfth and last of the dozen. No one knew his name. The only personal items he had let slip were that he was a Missouri bricklayer, and had never seen salt water before. That would have been enough to disqualify him; for not only in this respect was he an insult to the forecastle "he was vicious, malignant, dirty, and without common decency." Apparently he was strong, and perpetually he looked for a fight, though an unfair opponent. The first day out, he had reached for Jack's table knife to cut a plug of chewing tobacco. Jack "promptly exploded," and the first row of the voyage ensued. Subsequently, the man came to blows with every one of the other ten men. Combined with personal nastiness, his uselessness fomented the hatred of the crew, whom he bullied by indirection. Try as they would, they could never teach him to steer. . . . He never mastered its [the compass's] cardinal points, much less the checking and steadying of the ship on her course. It was mentally impossible for him to learn the easy muscular trick of throwing his weight on a rope in pulling and hauling. . . . He was mortally afraid of going aloft. He managed to get under the cross-trees, and there he froze to the ratlines. Two sailors had to go after him to help him down."
Fifteen years later, the subject of "praying to death" by the Kahunas (witch doctors) one day came up when we were in Hawaii. Jack declared a wholesome respect for the belief, soberly enough recalling the uncanny ending of the "Bricklayer" in the forecastle of the Sophie Sutherland, in the sealing grounds off Japan. "He was a beast, and
we treated him like a beast," I find him saying. "It is only by looking back through the years that I realize how heartless we were. . . . He had not made himself, and for his making he was not responsible. Yet we treated him as a free agent and held him personally responsible for all that he was and that he should not have been. As a result, our treatment was as terrible as he was himself terrible." The man was ill of some mysterious ailment, but he had long since forfeited kindness from any one. Nor did he want kindness. Instead, he repelled any tentative offer. "For weeks before he died we neither spoke to him nor did he speak to us. And for weeks he moved among us, or lay in his bunk in our crowded house, grinning at us his hatred and malignancy. . . . He encumbered our life with his presence, and ours was a rough life that made rough men of us. And so he died, in a small space crowded by twelve men and as much alone as if he had died on some desolate mountain peak. . . He died as he had lived, a beast, and he died hating us and hated by us.
Strange mental food for one so young and so thoughtful as Jack. But whatever remorse he may have felt was neutralized by the inevitable memory of the man's awfulness. Yet after the body had been flung overboard from the ice-rimed vessel, he did what no one else dared do—calmly moved his belongings into the thoroughly cleansed deserted bunk, mainly for the reason that it was dryer than his and commanded a better light for reading. By now the boys had accepted his little row of books as an amiable idiosyncrasy. "My other reason was pride," he explains. "I saw the sailors were superstitious, and I determined to show that I was braver than they. I would cap my proved equality by a deed that would compel their recognition of my superiority. Oh, the arrogance of youth! . . . Then they begged and pleaded with me, and my pride was tickled in that they showed they really liked me and were concerned. . . . I moved in, and lying in
the dead man's bunk, all afternoon and evening listened to dire prophecies of my future. . . . Also stories of awful deaths and grewsome ghosts that secretly shivered the hearts of all of us."
Although not recorded that the Bricklayer's obscene wraith was cognizant, it had its revenge upon at least one hated survivor. That night, hovering just above the identical spot where the unsavory corpse had been consigned to the deep, followed by his belongings, which the most avaricious had no stomach to appropriate, Jack saw wavering what seemed a long, gaunt ghost, and himself stood not upon the order of his going, but "leaped like a startled deer and in a blind madness of terror rushed aft along the poop, heading for the cabin." His "arrogance of youth and intellectual calm" deserted him cold, and he was "panic-stricken as a frightened horse." Through him "were vibrating the fiber-instincts of ten thousand generations of superstitious forebears who had been afraid of the dark and the things of the dark." He excuses or explains his abrupt terror on a biological basis: "I was not I. I was, in truth, those ten thousand forebears. I was the race, the whole human race, in its superstitious infancy."
He came to himself descending the cabin companionway, "suffocating, trembling, dizzy. . . . I clung to the ladder and considered. I could not doubt my senses. . . . But what was it? Either a ghost or a joke. . . . If a ghost. . . would it appear again?" and pride rushed to his rescue: if it did not appear again and he awoke the ship's officers, he would become the laughing stock of all on board which, of course, was unthinkable dishonor. Even more unthinkable would be his plight if the officers turned out to witness a practical joke. So he figured, "If I were to retain my hard-won place of equality, it would never do to arouse any one until I ascertained the nature of the thing."
"I am a brave man," he asserts. "I dare to say so;
for in fear and trembling I crept up the companionway and went back. . . . It had vanished. My bravery was qualified, however, " he temporizes. "Though I could see nothing, I was afraid to go forward to the spot where I had seen the thing. . . As my equanimity returned. . . I concluded that the whole affair had been a trick of the imagination and that I had got what I deserved for allowing my mind to dwell on such matters . . . and then, suddenly, I was a madman, rushing wildly aft. I had seen the thing again, the long, wavering attenuated substance through which could be seen the fore-rigging. This time I only reached the break of the poop. . . . Again I reasoned . . . and it was pride that counseled strongest. . . . And for a third time I resumed my amidships pacing." Growing angrier and angrier with the idea that he was the butt of hoaxers who had seen him twice run, at the third demonstration he drew his sheathe-knife and started for the Thing, though almost curdled with fear. "Step by step, nearer and nearer, the effort to control myself grew more severe. The struggle was between my will, my identity, my very self, on the one hand, and on the other, the ten thousand ancestors. . . ."
"And then, right before my eyes, it vanished . . . faded away, ceased to be. . . . I swear, from what I experienced in those few succeeding moments, that I know full well that men can die of fright. . . . In all my life I never went through more torment and mental suffering than on that lonely night watch."
Of course, he never mentioned the incident aboard the schooner, nor how, in despair at the impossibility of running away from "the malevolent world of ghosts" to which he had suddenly given credence, he had as suddenly discovered the cause of the apparition in the shadow of a rocking topmast against the cloud-dimmed moon radiance on the fore-rigging. "Once again I have seen a ghost," he admits, and he was done with ghosts forever. "It proved
to be a Newfoundland dog, and I don't know which of us was the more frightened, for I hit that Newfoundland a full right-arm swing to the jaw."
It may have been it was the happiest period of his whole life, that voyage in the Sophie Sutherland; for then even his disillusionments were healthy, and the compensations ample. Within him, as the active days of the exceptionally fine passage rolled by, was the delicious anticipation of his first foreign port, which was to be in the Bonin Islands, a cluster to the southeast of Japan, once known as the Arzo-bispo group. And they would be wholly foreign. Thus he foretasted the bliss of lifting their heads above the sea-rim, for he had read that since recognition of their Japanese ownership over thirty years before, American and English settlements had been deserted. And even though dead, these were volcanic isles, which was another thrilling consideration albeit not the first he had seen. For the Sophie Sutherland had navigated the southern route, skirting Hawaii, the highest island in the world; and he had gazed spellbound upon the night-glow and day-smoke of the world s greatest active crater, Kilauea, in the foreground of a snow-capped mountain nearly fourteen thousand feet high.
The young Argonaut was deeply affected when at last the blue-distant peaks of the Bonins pierced the horizon, steadily growing less mirage-like, until he could make out the heavy green forestage, and smell what no voyager ever forgets, that scent, borne on the ocean breeze, of a tropic garden-isle of fruit and flowers and cocoa-palms. And presently the schooner was threading the surfy reefs and sounding her way into a landlocked harbor. Here were anchored twenty-odd sail of the American and Canadian fleets, put in for repairs and replenishing of water supplies, in readiness for the seal-hunting to the north. All about were sampans and queer native canoes paddled by
oriental aborigines, who made for the latest arrival and swarmed aboard as Jack had read in old chronicles.
"I had won to the other side of the world," he rejoiced, "and I would see all I had read in the books come true. I was wild to get ashore."
He could hardly wait, when on leave they rowed across the clear green water above a fairy jungle of branching coral, to beach on the gleaming coral sands. Such fishing as they would have on that reef, from those outlandish sampans, after all that was possible had been seen of the palmy, blossomy heights. Somehow he did not think so much about the village itself. He wanted to stretch himself out of doors, on that mountainside, and perhaps find other villages, much more strange and picturesque than the one on the beach, which was alive with white-skinned mariners anyway. And so, he and Victor and Axel "walked across the fringe of beach under the cocoanut palms and into the little town, and found several hundred riotous seamen from all the world drinking prodigiously, singing prodigiously, dancing prodigiously—and all on the main street, to the scandal of a helpless handful of Japanese police."
Victor and Axel proposed that they have one drink for old sake's sake, before starting on their long, warm hike. Jack did not want the drink—but what should be his troubles to them? "Could I decline to drink with these two chesty shipmates? Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on comradeship." Fifty-one days had worked all the alcohol out of his system, and he swears he had not known the desire for it, doubting if he once thought of a drink. But apparently "It was the way of life. Our teetotaler owner-captain was laughed at, and sneered at, by all of us because of his teetotalism. I didn't in the least want a drink, but I did want to be a good fellow and a good comrade." He thought of poor old Louis's case, but his own swamp was far behind him, and he felt too strong, from the splendid conditioning of the voyage, to be fearful.
"My blood ran full and red," he was healthily conscious; "I had a constitution of iron; and—well, youth ever grins scornfully at the wreckage of age."
The feet of the Sailors Three never trod that flowery path into the perfumed fastnesses of the mountain isle. The pitfalls of the town were too numerous to step over or around. Their long-deprived eyes were captivated by the flower-faces of the impossibly tiny, doll-like girls, dressed in bright kimonos with their reversed obis. "Little bits of things off a fan," Jack once described the Japanese women to me. And provokingly unreal they appeared to his young fancy, the little butterfly courtesans. So Jack and Axel left the turbulent village only in order to carry Victor, a lunatic from vast quantities of adulterated whiskey and the pale-golden native saké', back to the schooner, which he proceeded to "clean up." Balked in this, he threw himself overboard. The other two followed to the rescue, for though the keenest of the older crew, Victor evidently was one of the notorious able seamen who could swim little. Jack and Axel were not so tipsy but they wanted to return to the delights ashore, which they did after getting the subdued Victor into his bunk. "It was curious," Jack reflected later, "the judgment passed on Victor by his shipmates, drinkers themselves. They shook their heads disapprovingly and muttered: 'A man like that oughtn't drink.'"
Jack seems to have kept his head long enough to capture his meed of the saturnalian orgy that ran wide open that night. "Ashore, snugly ensconsed in a Japanese house of entertainment," he and Axel had several quiet nips of saké, first alone together, then with succeeding shipmates who dropped in. Just as they were luxuriously settling on their native wooden head-rests to enjoy the novelty of music made on samisens and taikos they had engaged, "came a wild howl from the street . . howling, disdaining doorways, with bloodshot eyes and wildly waving
muscular arms, Victor burst upon us through the fragile walls." It developed later that Victor had dreamed that a pretty Japanese girl whom he had known earlier in the afternoon was appropriated by Jack, and he forthwith ran amuck. "The orchestra fled," Jack recounts; "so did we. We went through doorways, and we went through paper walls—anything to get away." They returned, however, to pay for the demolished house.
"The main street was a madness. Because the chief of police with his small force was helpless, the Governor of the colony had issued orders to the captains to have all their men on board by sunset. This was the signal for a "general debauch for all hands." The men "went around inviting the authorities to try to put them aboard." Jack, still sober enough to take it all in, "thought it was great. It was like the old days of the Spanish Main come back. It was license; it was adventure. And I was part of it, a chesty sea-rover along with all these other chesty sea-rovers among the paper houses of Japan."
Many pictures he remembered, in which he unconsciously posed, the last one "standing out very clear and bright in the midst of vagueness before and blackness afterward." He and several angel-faced apprentices of his own age from the Canadian sealers, "are swaying and clinging to one another under the stars . . . singing a rollicking sea-song, all save one who sits on the ground and weeps; and we are marking the rhythm with waving square-faces. From up and down the street come far choruses of sea-voices similarly singing, and life is great, and beautiful, and romantic, and magnificently mad."
As in his babyhood beer-bust, returning intelligence was under the anxious eyes of some one, this time a strange Japanese woman, the port pilot's wife, where Jack, stripped of everything but his trousers—money, watch, shoes, belt, everything—had been left upon her threshold as a joke by the angelic blond apprentices.
For ten days it was the same story, except that the Three Sports "caroused somewhat more discreetly." Even Victor, repentant of excesses, saw the wisdom of discretion. But why regret that one adventure went wrong? Jack undoubtedly figured, then and after, that because he missed exploring the island he perhaps lived more than he would have in all the mountain climbing on earth. Of him I have observed, when on occasion one arrangement was interfered with by some other, that he forgot regret, or at least replaced regret, with wholesouled interest in the substitution. Eventually he summed up the entire Bonin incident in his customary philosophical way, though in this instance pointing the immorality of alcohol s accessibility to the young.
"I might have seen and healthily enjoyed a whole lot more of the Bonin Islands if I had done what I ought to have done. But, as I see it, it is not a matter of what one ought to do, or ought not to do. It is what one does do. That is the everlasting, irrefragable fact. I did just what I did. I did what all those men did in the Bonin Islands. I did what millions of men over the world were doing at that particular point in time. I did it because the way led to it, because I was only a human boy, a creature of my environment, and neither an anemic nor a god. I was just human, and I was taking the path in the world that men took—men whom I admired, if you please ; full-blooded men, lusty, breedy, chesty men, free spirits and anything but niggards in the way they foamed life away.
"And the way was open."
Each daybreak on the northward run brought its fresh excitement of locating the positions of other vessels in their race for the sealing grounds. These reached, for twelve weeks they saw the sun hardly as many times. Jack, boat-puller, did his man's work at the oars, and skinning as well as packing the fabulously valuable pelts which
he could scarce credit were the same furs that made the lovely, plushy coats he had seen on fine ladies who could not forego wearing them even in California's mild winters. With habitual thoroughness he had soon informed himself of the process of plucking and softening the unbeautiful slimy hides he was instrumental in securing.
"The deck was a slaughter-house, week in and week out," he has told me. "There wasn't a malingerer left among us since the Bricklayer slid overside; and we kept up a lively competition to see who would have the biggest number of skins salted down at the close of the season. It was wild, heavy work off the coast of Siberia, with no let-up weeks on end. We had our fun, though—savage fun it sometimes was, but wholly good-natured. One horrid practical joke I remember," he exploded in that giggle which every one about him always enjoyed, "—oh, it was silly, and dirty and disgusting and everything else—and it did nearly cost us Long John's friendship; but he got back at us in some way, I forget how, and all was for given.
"Maybe it was Long John's length that put the idea into some one s mind, or his custom of sleeping naked—there'd be so much of him to shock! Now a skinned seal is not a pretty object nor nice to touch—all grease and blood, and colder than hell. We had a time getting it into the forecastle unknown to Long John—it was a whale for size—and into his bunk, where we laid it close to the ship's side, and covered it all up. When we went to bed those nights, we were so dog-tired we turned in all-standing, never looked first but just grabbed up the bedclothes, flopped in with them on top, raised our feet to swoop the blankets under and around, and were dead to the world. No reading for me those nights.—You can follow, can't you," he interrupted himself, "how I got the habit you've noticed, of spoiling my nicely made bed, pulling the blankets out with
my feet and rolling up in them. I'm a savage anyway, in spite of my tender skin!
"But anyway—we were all on hand for the show; and some show! It went like a charm. Long John ripped off his oilskins and woollens, everything, and in one big movement landed under the covers full length of his bare, warm body against that horrible, blood-slimy, half-frozen corpse. God!—but he let out the most soul-curdling yell I've ever heard, and shot out of that bunk a hundredfold quicker than he went in. I'll bet his first thought was of the Bricklayer—but his next was no slower, for he tried to lay out the whole fo'c's'le. When a slow man does get mad. . . . I can tell you no one of us ever turned in again on that voyage without examining the bed!"
About the only relaxation the crew got was an occasional "gam" aboard the other sealers, scattered widely over the face of the gray sea, One of these, the schooner Herman, in 1907 under the name of the Roberta trading in the South Seas, put into Taiohae while we were visiting the Marquesas Islands in the Snark.
The sole indisposition I know of, that claimed Jack on the Sutherland voyage, was a sudden and severe attack upon his sensory nerves by the excruciating "shingles" (herpes zoster)—an intercostal manifestation that came near to proving fatal.
One more adventure Jack was promised, and they would be bound home with a big catch. Into the capacious Bay of Tokyo the Sophie Sutherland made her way, and let go anchor off Yokohama's imposing docks. Those docks, with the modern public buildings, invested the Far East metropolis with a-disappointingly European character. It was the largest city he had ever seen, its population totaling upward of 200,000, and incredulously he referred to one of the history books he had brought on the voyage, which stated that Yokohama had been a mere fishing hamlet less than thirty-five years earlier. Ever afterward he nourished an admir-
ing respect for these short-legged, canoe-bodied, brilliant-minded sub-Mongolians and the shorter-legged, gentle-voiced, flower-faced mothers of the wonderful race. The preceding generation of average Californians is apt to be slipshod to a degree not understood by citizens of the Atlantic seaboard, concerning both Chinese and Japanese immigrants of whatsoever station. This because the familiar cook and coolie, house-servant, laundryman, and vegetable peddler, of western pioneer occupation, were usually Mongolian. Jack, in his hoodlum antics, had undoubtedly not been guiltless of teasing a Japanese or Chinese boy or two. Still, I have heard him indignantly descant upon how he had seen a ruthless gang jump off a moving Seventh Street "local" in order to besmirch and tear to bits the clean laundry on a wagon, first binding the helplessly chattering Chinese driver by his long queue to a telegraph post. "Teasing" of this criminal sort seems not to have been funny to Jack.
In skiff-voyaging on San Francisco Bay, then populous with lofty-masted ships of all the world, toward which his eyes had yearned so worshipfully, he had dwelt upon the scented cargoes which he imagined lay in their holds— rarest teas and glossy silks, perfumed fans of carven sandalwood, lacquered furniture and bamboo wares. And now he was making ready to land upon one of the massive piers of the very emporium of Japan's silk industry.
The sailors were kept aboard at ship's work all the first day; and none more anxious than Jack London that his American vessel should be the most immaculate and trim in port. That ship-pride kept pace with his years, and be came as natural as his efficiency or his sense of the beautiful.
Evening came at last, and spic and span the young mariners disembarked from their rowboat upon a warf, and pursued their laughing way in 'rickshaws directly to a Japanese public-house. There they were to meet the hunters, to whom the Captain had given their pay. The
hunters were already in full possession of the gay, paper-partitioned building and its engratiating entertainers.
When the fortnight was ended, and he bent to the windlass to break out the schooner's hook, and braced to her heeling pace before the homing West Wind of the northern passage, he knew what his undeviating course was to be when he landed in Oakland: steady work of some sort and what schooling he could cram in. As the thirty-seven days of the voyage neared completion, each of the crew conceived a plan of sheerest virtue for himself. They were all going to cut out this drink stuff for good, and make up for wasted time and money. A good pay-day was still due, despite those wastrel Japan nights—they could live, if they lived decently, until next year s sealing, on what was coming to them. And warmly they vowed to sail together the following season.
"They refused to buy anything more from the slopchest. Old rags had to last, and they sewed patch upon patch, turning out what are called 'homeward-bound patches' of the most amazing dimensions. They even saved on matches, waiting till two or three were ready to light their pipes from the same match."
When they had reëntered the Golden Gate and were towing slowly past the San Francisco wharves, the crew in profane language warned off predacious sailor-boardinghouse runners who flocked aboard from Whitehall boats. Once ashore, and the owner departed for his home, all the Sophie Sutherland's family, from sailing-master and mate to her youngest sailor, Jack, agreed that they must have one drink to pledge friendship and safe return. There were nineteen all told, and each of course must treat. And so it went. Every good intention of the older men was shattered that night, as it had been shattered on former returns. "From two days to a week saw the end of their money and saw them being carted by the boarding-house masters on board outward-bound ships."
Jack, lucky enough to have a home, did not spend all his pay-day nor get shanghai'd. In the early morning he withdrew and crossed to Oakland.*
The following year, Pete Holt reminded Jack of his promise to sail another voyage with him as boat-puller, this time on the schooner Mary Thomas. But Jack declined on some pretext, for his reading had by then fired him to inspect quite a different part of the world—the South Seas. The Mary Thomas never was spoken after she passed the Farallones. Her disappearance, remains, in so far as I know, a mystery to this day.
* Referring to his first sea voyage, in the "duty" letter to his girl in 1898, he says: "Aye, I at last kicked over the traces; but even then, did I wholly run away from duty? Many a gold piece went into the family when I returned from seven months at sea. What did I do with my pay day? I bought a second-hand hat, some forty-cent shirts, two fifty-cent suits of underclothes, and a second-hand coat and vest. I spent exactly seventy cents for drinks among the crowd I had known before I went to sea. The rest went to pay some debts of my father and to the family.
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