The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

CHAPTER 26

Wolf Larsen took the distribution of the whisky off my hands, and the bottles began to make their appearance while I worked over the fresh batch of wounded men in the forecastle.  I had seen whisky drunk, such as whisky-and-soda by the men of the clubs, but never as these men drank it, from pannikins and mugs, and from the bottles—great brimming drinks, each one of which was in itself a debauch.  But they did not stop at one or two.  They drank and drank, and ever the bottles slipped forward and they drank more.

Everybody drank; the wounded drank; Oofty-Oofty, who helped me, drank.  Only Louis refrained, no more than cautiously wetting his lips with the liquor, though he joined in the revels with an abandon equal to that of most of them.  It was a saturnalia.  In loud voices they shouted over the day’s fighting, wrangled about details, or waxed affectionate and made friends with the men whom they had fought.  Prisoners and captors hiccoughed on one another’s shoulders, and swore mighty oaths of respect and esteem.  They wept over the miseries of the past and over the miseries yet to come under the iron rule of Wolf Larsen.  And all cursed him and told terrible tales of his brutality.

It was a strange and frightful spectacle—the small, bunk-lined space, the floor and walls leaping and lurching, the dim light, the swaying shadows lengthening and fore-shortening monstrously, the thick air heavy with smoke and the smell of bodies and iodoform, and the inflamed faces of the men—half-men, I should call them.  I noted Oofty-Oofty, holding the end of a bandage and looking upon the scene, his velvety and luminous eyes glistening in the light like a deer’s eyes, and yet I knew the barbaric devil that lurked in his breast and belied all the softness and tenderness, almost womanly, of his face and form.  And I noticed the boyish face of Harrison,—a good face once, but now a demon’s,—convulsed with passion as he told the new-comers of the hell-ship they were in and shrieked curses upon the head of Wolf Larsen.

Wolf Larsen it was, always Wolf Larsen, enslaver and tormentor of men, a male Circe and these his swine, suffering brutes that grovelled before him and revolted only in drunkenness and in secrecy.  And was I, too, one of his swine? I thought.  And Maud Brewster?  No!  I ground my teeth in my anger and determination till the man I was attending winced under my hand and Oofty-Oofty looked at me with curiosity.  I felt endowed with a sudden strength.  What of my new-found love, I was a giant.  I feared nothing.  I would work my will through it all, in spite of Wolf Larsen and of my own thirty-five bookish years.  All would be well.  I would make it well.  And so, exalted, upborne by a sense of power, I turned my back on the howling inferno and climbed to the deck, where the fog drifted ghostly through the night and the air was sweet and pure and quiet.

The steerage, where were two wounded hunters, was a repetition of the forecastle, except that Wolf Larsen was not being cursed; and it was with a great relief that I again emerged on deck and went aft to the cabin.  Supper was ready, and Wolf Larsen and Maud were waiting for me.

While all his ship was getting drunk as fast as it could, he remained sober.  Not a drop of liquor passed his lips.  He did not dare it under the circumstances, for he had only Louis and me to depend upon, and Louis was even now at the wheel.  We were sailing on through the fog without a look-out and without lights.  That Wolf Larsen had turned the liquor loose among his men surprised me, but he evidently knew their psychology and the best method of cementing in cordiality, what had begun in bloodshed.

His victory over Death Larsen seemed to have had a remarkable effect upon him.  The previous evening he had reasoned himself into the blues, and I had been waiting momentarily for one of his characteristic outbursts.  Yet nothing had occurred, and he was now in splendid trim.  Possibly his success in capturing so many hunters and boats had counteracted the customary reaction.  At any rate, the blues were gone, and the blue devils had not put in an appearance.  So I thought at the time; but, ah me, little I knew him or knew that even then, perhaps, he was meditating an outbreak more terrible than any I had seen.

As I say, he discovered himself in splendid trim when I entered the cabin.  He had had no headaches for weeks, his eyes were clear blue as the sky, his bronze was beautiful with perfect health; life swelled through his veins in full and magnificent flood.  While waiting for me he had engaged Maud in animated discussion.  Temptation was the topic they had hit upon, and from the few words I heard I made out that he was contending that temptation was temptation only when a man was seduced by it and fell.

“For look you,” he was saying, “as I see it, a man does things because of desire.  He has many desires.  He may desire to escape pain, or to enjoy pleasure.  But whatever he does, he does because he desires to do it.”

“But suppose he desires to do two opposite things, neither of which will permit him to do the other?” Maud interrupted.

“The very thing I was coming to,” he said.

“And between these two desires is just where the soul of the man is manifest,” she went on.  “If it is a good soul, it will desire and do the good action, and the contrary if it is a bad soul.  It is the soul that decides.”

“Bosh and nonsense!” he exclaimed impatiently.  “It is the desire that decides.  Here is a man who wants to, say, get drunk.  Also, he doesn’t want to get drunk.  What does he do?  How does he do it?  He is a puppet.  He is the creature of his desires, and of the two desires he obeys the strongest one, that is all.  His soul hasn’t anything to do with it.  How can he be tempted to get drunk and refuse to get drunk?  If the desire to remain sober prevails, it is because it is the strongest desire.  Temptation plays no part, unless—” he paused while grasping the new thought which had come into his mind—“unless he is tempted to remain sober.

“Ha! ha!” he laughed.  “What do you think of that, Mr. Van Weyden?”

“That both of you are hair-splitting,” I said.  “The man’s soul is his desires.  Or, if you will, the sum of his desires is his soul.  Therein you are both wrong.  You lay the stress upon the desire apart from the soul, Miss Brewster lays the stress on the soul apart from the desire, and in point of fact soul and desire are the same thing.

“However,” I continued, “Miss Brewster is right in contending that temptation is temptation whether the man yield or overcome.  Fire is fanned by the wind until it leaps up fiercely.  So is desire like fire.  It is fanned, as by a wind, by sight of the thing desired, or by a new and luring description or comprehension of the thing desired.  There lies the temptation.  It is the wind that fans the desire until it leaps up to mastery.  That’s temptation.  It may not fan sufficiently to make the desire overmastering, but in so far as it fans at all, that far is it temptation.  And, as you say, it may tempt for good as well as for evil.”

I felt proud of myself as we sat down to the table.  My words had been decisive.  At least they had put an end to the discussion.

But Wolf Larsen seemed voluble, prone to speech as I had never seen him before.  It was as though he were bursting with pent energy which must find an outlet somehow.  Almost immediately he launched into a discussion on love.  As usual, his was the sheer materialistic side, and Maud’s was the idealistic.  For myself, beyond a word or so of suggestion or correction now and again, I took no part.

He was brilliant, but so was Maud, and for some time I lost the thread of the conversation through studying her face as she talked.  It was a face that rarely displayed colour, but to-night it was flushed and vivacious.  Her wit was playing keenly, and she was enjoying the tilt as much as Wolf Larsen, and he was enjoying it hugely.  For some reason, though I know not why in the argument, so utterly had I lost it in the contemplation of one stray brown lock of Maud’s hair, he quoted from Iseult at Tintagel, where she says:

“Blessed am I beyond women even herein,
That beyond all born women is my sin,
And perfect my transgression.”

As he had read pessimism into Omar, so now he read triumph, stinging triumph and exultation, into Swinburne’s lines.  And he read rightly, and he read well.  He had hardly ceased reading when Louis put his head into the companion-way and whispered down:

“Be easy, will ye?  The fog’s lifted, an’ ’tis the port light iv a steamer that’s crossin’ our bow this blessed minute.”

Wolf Larsen sprang on deck, and so swiftly that by the time we followed him he had pulled the steerage-slide over the drunken clamour and was on his way forward to close the forecastle-scuttle.  The fog, though it remained, had lifted high, where it obscured the stars and made the night quite black.  Directly ahead of us I could see a bright red light and a white light, and I could hear the pulsing of a steamer’s engines.  Beyond a doubt it was the Macedonia.

Wolf Larsen had returned to the poop, and we stood in a silent group, watching the lights rapidly cross our bow.

“Lucky for me he doesn’t carry a searchlight,” Wolf Larsen said.

“What if I should cry out loudly?” I queried in a whisper.

“It would be all up,” he answered.  “But have you thought upon what would immediately happen?”

Before I had time to express any desire to know, he had me by the throat with his gorilla grip, and by a faint quiver of the muscles—a hint, as it were—he suggested to me the twist that would surely have broken my neck.  The next moment he had released me and we were gazing at the Macedonia’s lights.

“What if I should cry out?” Maud asked.

“I like you too well to hurt you,” he said softly—nay, there was a tenderness and a caress in his voice that made me wince.

“But don’t do it, just the same, for I’d promptly break Mr. Van Weyden’s neck.”

“Then she has my permission to cry out,” I said defiantly.

“I hardly think you’ll care to sacrifice the Dean of American Letters the Second,” he sneered.

We spoke no more, though we had become too used to one another for the silence to be awkward; and when the red light and the white had disappeared we returned to the cabin to finish the interrupted supper.

Again they fell to quoting, and Maud gave Dowson’s “Impenitentia Ultima.”  She rendered it beautifully, but I watched not her, but Wolf Larsen.  I was fascinated by the fascinated look he bent upon Maud.  He was quite out of himself, and I noticed the unconscious movement of his lips as he shaped word for word as fast as she uttered them.  He interrupted her when she gave the lines:

“And her eyes should be my light while the sun went out behind me,
And the viols in her voice be the last sound in my ear.”

“There are viols in your voice,” he said bluntly, and his eyes flashed their golden light.

I could have shouted with joy at her control.  She finished the concluding stanza without faltering and then slowly guided the conversation into less perilous channels.  And all the while I sat in a half-daze, the drunken riot of the steerage breaking through the bulkhead, the man I feared and the woman I loved talking on and on.  The table was not cleared.  The man who had taken Mugridge’s place had evidently joined his comrades in the forecastle.

If ever Wolf Larsen attained the summit of living, he attained it then.  From time to time I forsook my own thoughts to follow him, and I followed in amaze, mastered for the moment by his remarkable intellect, under the spell of his passion, for he was preaching the passion of revolt.  It was inevitable that Milton’s Lucifer should be instanced, and the keenness with which Wolf Larsen analysed and depicted the character was a revelation of his stifled genius.  It reminded me of Taine, yet I knew the man had never heard of that brilliant though dangerous thinker.

“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying.  “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten.  A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man.  Why was he beaten out of heaven?  Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring?  No!  A thousand times no!  God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater.  But Lucifer was a free spirit.  To serve was to suffocate.  He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility.  He did not care to serve God.  He cared to serve nothing.  He was no figure-head.  He stood on his own legs.  He was an individual.”

“The first Anarchist,” Maud laughed, rising and preparing to withdraw to her state-room.

“Then it is good to be an anarchist!” he cried.  He, too, had risen, and he stood facing her, where she had paused at the door of her room, as he went on:

“‘Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy; will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

It was the defiant cry of a mighty spirit.  The cabin still rang with his voice, as he stood there, swaying, his bronzed face shining, his head up and dominant, and his eyes, golden and masculine, intensely masculine and insistently soft, flashing upon Maud at the door.

Again that unnamable and unmistakable terror was in her eyes, and she said, almost in a whisper, “You are Lucifer.”

The door closed and she was gone.  He stood staring after her for a minute, then returned to himself and to me.

“I’ll relieve Louis at the wheel,” he said shortly, “and call upon you to relieve at midnight.  Better turn in now and get some sleep.”

He pulled on a pair of mittens, put on his cap, and ascended the companion-stairs, while I followed his suggestion by going to bed.  For some unknown reason, prompted mysteriously, I did not undress, but lay down fully clothed.  For a time I listened to the clamour in the steerage and marvelled upon the love which had come to me; but my sleep on the Ghost had become most healthful and natural, and soon the songs and cries died away, my eyes closed, and my consciousness sank down into the half-death of slumber.

I knew not what had aroused me, but I found myself out of my bunk, on my feet, wide awake, my soul vibrating to the warning of danger as it might have thrilled to a trumpet call.  I threw open the door.  The cabin light was burning low.  I saw Maud, my Maud, straining and struggling and crushed in the embrace of Wolf Larsen’s arms.  I could see the vain beat and flutter of her as she strove, pressing her face against his breast, to escape from him.  All this I saw on the very instant of seeing and as I sprang forward.

I struck him with my fist, on the face, as he raised his head, but it was a puny blow.  He roared in a ferocious, animal-like way, and gave me a shove with his hand.  It was only a shove, a flirt of the wrist, yet so tremendous was his strength that I was hurled backward as from a catapult.  I struck the door of the state-room which had formerly been Mugridge’s, splintering and smashing the panels with the impact of my body.  I struggled to my feet, with difficulty dragging myself clear of the wrecked door, unaware of any hurt whatever.  I was conscious only of an overmastering rage.  I think I, too, cried aloud, as I drew the knife at my hip and sprang forward a second time.

But something had happened.  They were reeling apart.  I was close upon him, my knife uplifted, but I withheld the blow.  I was puzzled by the strangeness of it.  Maud was leaning against the wall, one hand out for support; but he was staggering, his left hand pressed against his forehead and covering his eyes, and with the right he was groping about him in a dazed sort of way.  It struck against the wall, and his body seemed to express a muscular and physical relief at the contact, as though he had found his bearings, his location in space as well as something against which to lean.

Then I saw red again.  All my wrongs and humiliations flashed upon me with a dazzling brightness, all that I had suffered and others had suffered at his hands, all the enormity of the man’s very existence.  I sprang upon him, blindly, insanely, and drove the knife into his shoulder.  I knew, then, that it was no more than a flesh wound,—I had felt the steel grate on his shoulder-blade,—and I raised the knife to strike at a more vital part.

But Maud had seen my first blow, and she cried, “Don’t!  Please don’t!”

I dropped my arm for a moment, and a moment only.  Again the knife was raised, and Wolf Larsen would have surely died had she not stepped between.  Her arms were around me, her hair was brushing my face.  My pulse rushed up in an unwonted manner, yet my rage mounted with it.  She looked me bravely in the eyes.

“For my sake,” she begged.

“I would kill him for your sake!” I cried, trying to free my arm without hurting her.

“Hush!” she said, and laid her fingers lightly on my lips.  I could have kissed them, had I dared, even then, in my rage, the touch of them was so sweet, so very sweet.  “Please, please,” she pleaded, and she disarmed me by the words, as I was to discover they would ever disarm me.

I stepped back, separating from her, and replaced the knife in its sheath.  I looked at Wolf Larsen.  He still pressed his left hand against his forehead.  It covered his eyes.  His head was bowed.  He seemed to have grown limp.  His body was sagging at the hips, his great shoulders were drooping and shrinking forward.

“Van, Weyden!” he called hoarsely, and with a note of fright in his voice.  “Oh, Van Weyden! where are you?”

I looked at Maud.  She did not speak, but nodded her head.

“Here I am,” I answered, stepping to his side.  “What is the matter?”

“Help me to a seat,” he said, in the same hoarse, frightened voice.

“I am a sick man; a very sick man, Hump,” he said, as he left my sustaining grip and sank into a chair.

His head dropped forward on the table and was buried in his hands.  From time to time it rocked back and forward as with pain.  Once, when he half raised it, I saw the sweat standing in heavy drops on his forehead about the roots of his hair.

“I am a sick man, a very sick man,” he repeated again, and yet once again.

“What is the matter?” I asked, resting my hand on his shoulder.  “What can I do for you?”

But he shook my hand off with an irritated movement, and for a long time I stood by his side in silence.  Maud was looking on, her face awed and frightened.  What had happened to him we could not imagine.

“Hump,” he said at last, “I must get into my bunk.  Lend me a hand.  I’ll be all right in a little while.  It’s those damn headaches, I believe.  I was afraid of them.  I had a feeling—no, I don’t know what I’m talking about.  Help me into my bunk.”

But when I got him into his bunk he again buried his face in his hands, covering his eyes, and as I turned to go I could hear him murmuring, “I am a sick man, a very sick man.”

Maud looked at me inquiringly as I emerged.  I shook my head, saying:

“Something has happened to him.  What, I don’t know.  He is helpless, and frightened, I imagine, for the first time in his life.  It must have occurred before he received the knife-thrust, which made only a superficial wound.  You must have seen what happened.”

She shook her head.  “I saw nothing.  It is just as mysterious to me.  He suddenly released me and staggered away.  But what shall we do?  What shall I do?”

“If you will wait, please, until I come back,” I answered.

I went on deck.  Louis was at the wheel.

“You may go for’ard and turn in,” I said, taking it from him.

He was quick to obey, and I found myself alone on the deck of the Ghost.  As quietly as was possible, I clewed up the topsails, lowered the flying jib and staysail, backed the jib over, and flattened the mainsail.  Then I went below to Maud.  I placed my finger on my lips for silence, and entered Wolf Larsen’s room.  He was in the same position in which I had left him, and his head was rocking—almost writhing—from side to side.

“Anything I can do for you?” I asked.

He made no reply at first, but on my repeating the question he answered, “No, no; I’m all right.  Leave me alone till morning.”

But as I turned to go I noted that his head had resumed its rocking motion.  Maud was waiting patiently for me, and I took notice, with a thrill of joy, of the queenly poise of her head and her glorious, calm eyes.  Calm and sure they were as her spirit itself.

“Will you trust yourself to me for a journey of six hundred miles or so?” I asked.

“You mean—?” she asked, and I knew she had guessed aright.

“Yes, I mean just that,” I replied.  “There is nothing left for us but the open boat.”

“For me, you mean,” she said.  “You are certainly as safe here as you have been.”

“No, there is nothing left for us but the open boat,” I iterated stoutly.  “Will you please dress as warmly as you can, at once, and make into a bundle whatever you wish to bring with you.”

“And make all haste,” I added, as she turned toward her state-room.

The lazarette was directly beneath the cabin, and, opening the trap-door in the floor and carrying a candle with me, I dropped down and began overhauling the ship’s stores.  I selected mainly from the canned goods, and by the time I was ready, willing hands were extended from above to receive what I passed up.

We worked in silence.  I helped myself also to blankets, mittens, oilskins, caps, and such things, from the slop-chest.  It was no light adventure, this trusting ourselves in a small boat to so raw and stormy a sea, and it was imperative that we should guard ourselves against the cold and wet.

We worked feverishly at carrying our plunder on deck and depositing it amidships, so feverishly that Maud, whose strength was hardly a positive quantity, had to give over, exhausted, and sit on the steps at the break of the poop.  This did not serve to recover her, and she lay on her back, on the hard deck, arms stretched out, and whole body relaxed.  It was a trick I remembered of my sister, and I knew she would soon be herself again.  I knew, also, that weapons would not come in amiss, and I re-entered Wolf Larsen’s state-room to get his rifle and shot-gun.  I spoke to him, but he made no answer, though his head was still rocking from side to side and he was not asleep.

“Good-bye, Lucifer,” I whispered to myself as I softly closed the door.

Next to obtain was a stock of ammunition,—an easy matter, though I had to enter the steerage companion-way to do it.  Here the hunters stored the ammunition-boxes they carried in the boats, and here, but a few feet from their noisy revels, I took possession of two boxes.

Next, to lower a boat.  Not so simple a task for one man.  Having cast off the lashings, I hoisted first on the forward tackle, then on the aft, till the boat cleared the rail, when I lowered away, one tackle and then the other, for a couple of feet, till it hung snugly, above the water, against the schooner’s side.  I made certain that it contained the proper equipment of oars, rowlocks, and sail.  Water was a consideration, and I robbed every boat aboard of its breaker.  As there were nine boats all told, it meant that we should have plenty of water, and ballast as well, though there was the chance that the boat would be overloaded, what of the generous supply of other things I was taking.

While Maud was passing me the provisions and I was storing them in the boat, a sailor came on deck from the forecastle.  He stood by the weather rail for a time (we were lowering over the lee rail), and then sauntered slowly amidships, where he again paused and stood facing the wind, with his back toward us.  I could hear my heart beating as I crouched low in the boat.  Maud had sunk down upon the deck and was, I knew, lying motionless, her body in the shadow of the bulwark.  But the man never turned, and, after stretching his arms above his head and yawning audibly, he retraced his steps to the forecastle scuttle and disappeared.

A few minutes sufficed to finish the loading, and I lowered the boat into the water.  As I helped Maud over the rail and felt her form close to mine, it was all I could do to keep from crying out, “I love you!  I love you!”  Truly Humphrey Van Weyden was at last in love, I thought, as her fingers clung to mine while I lowered her down to the boat.  I held on to the rail with one hand and supported her weight with the other, and I was proud at the moment of the feat.  It was a strength I had not possessed a few months before, on the day I said good-bye to Charley Furuseth and started for San Francisco on the ill-fated Martinez.

As the boat ascended on a sea, her feet touched and I released her hands.  I cast off the tackles and leaped after her.  I had never rowed in my life, but I put out the oars and at the expense of much effort got the boat clear of the Ghost.  Then I experimented with the sail.  I had seen the boat-steerers and hunters set their spritsails many times, yet this was my first attempt.  What took them possibly two minutes took me twenty, but in the end I succeeded in setting and trimming it, and with the steering-oar in my hands hauled on the wind.

“There lies Japan,” I remarked, “straight before us.”

“Humphrey Van Weyden,” she said, “you are a brave man.”

“Nay,” I answered, “it is you who are a brave woman.”

We turned our heads, swayed by a common impulse to see the last of the Ghost.  Her low hull lifted and rolled to windward on a sea; her canvas loomed darkly in the night; her lashed wheel creaked as the rudder kicked; then sight and sound of her faded away, and we were alone on the dark sea.

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