The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

CHAPTER 37

At once we moved aboard the Ghost, occupying our old state-rooms and cooking in the galley.  The imprisonment of Wolf Larsen had happened most opportunely, for what must have been the Indian summer of this high latitude was gone and drizzling stormy weather had set in.  We were very comfortable, and the inadequate shears, with the foremast suspended from them, gave a business-like air to the schooner and a promise of departure.

And now that we had Wolf Larsen in irons, how little did we need it!  Like his first attack, his second had been accompanied by serious disablement.  Maud made the discovery in the afternoon while trying to give him nourishment.  He had shown signs of consciousness, and she had spoken to him, eliciting no response.  He was lying on his left side at the time, and in evident pain.  With a restless movement he rolled his head around, clearing his left ear from the pillow against which it had been pressed.  At once he heard and answered her, and at once she came to me.

Pressing the pillow against his left ear, I asked him if he heard me, but he gave no sign.  Removing the pillow and, repeating the question he answered promptly that he did.

“Do you know you are deaf in the right ear?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered in a low, strong voice, “and worse than that.  My whole right side is affected.  It seems asleep.  I cannot move arm or leg.”

“Feigning again?” I demanded angrily.

He shook his head, his stern mouth shaping the strangest, twisted smile.  It was indeed a twisted smile, for it was on the left side only, the facial muscles of the right side moving not at all.

“That was the last play of the Wolf,” he said.  “I am paralysed.  I shall never walk again.  Oh, only on the other side,” he added, as though divining the suspicious glance I flung at his left leg, the knee of which had just then drawn up, and elevated the blankets.

“It’s unfortunate,” he continued.  “I’d liked to have done for you first, Hump.  And I thought I had that much left in me.”

“But why?” I asked; partly in horror, partly out of curiosity.

Again his stern mouth framed the twisted smile, as he said:

“Oh, just to be alive, to be living and doing, to be the biggest bit of the ferment to the end, to eat you.  But to die this way.”

He shrugged his shoulders, or attempted to shrug them, rather, for the left shoulder alone moved.  Like the smile, the shrug was twisted.

“But how can you account for it?” I asked.  “Where is the seat of your trouble?”

“The brain,” he said at once.  “It was those cursed headaches brought it on.”

“Symptoms,” I said.

He nodded his head.  “There is no accounting for it.  I was never sick in my life.  Something’s gone wrong with my brain.  A cancer, a tumour, or something of that nature,—a thing that devours and destroys.  It’s attacking my nerve-centres, eating them up, bit by bit, cell by cell—from the pain.”

“The motor-centres, too,” I suggested.

“So it would seem; and the curse of it is that I must lie here, conscious, mentally unimpaired, knowing that the lines are going down, breaking bit by bit communication with the world.  I cannot see, hearing and feeling are leaving me, at this rate I shall soon cease to speak; yet all the time I shall be here, alive, active, and powerless.”

“When you say you are here, I’d suggest the likelihood of the soul,” I said.

“Bosh!” was his retort.  “It simply means that in the attack on my brain the higher psychical centres are untouched.  I can remember, I can think and reason.  When that goes, I go.  I am not.  The soul?”

He broke out in mocking laughter, then turned his left ear to the pillow as a sign that he wished no further conversation.

Maud and I went about our work oppressed by the fearful fate which had overtaken him,—how fearful we were yet fully to realize.  There was the awfulness of retribution about it.  Our thoughts were deep and solemn, and we spoke to each other scarcely above whispers.

“You might remove the handcuffs,” he said that night, as we stood in consultation over him.  “It’s dead safe.  I’m a paralytic now.  The next thing to watch out for is bed sores.”

He smiled his twisted smile, and Maud, her eyes wide with horror, was compelled to turn away her head.

“Do you know that your smile is crooked?” I asked him; for I knew that she must attend him, and I wished to save her as much as possible.

“Then I shall smile no more,” he said calmly.  “I thought something was wrong.  My right cheek has been numb all day.  Yes, and I’ve had warnings of this for the last three days; by spells, my right side seemed going to sleep, sometimes arm or hand, sometimes leg or foot.”

“So my smile is crooked?” he queried a short while after.  “Well, consider henceforth that I smile internally, with my soul, if you please, my soul.  Consider that I am smiling now.”

And for the space of several minutes he lay there, quiet, indulging his grotesque fancy.

The man of him was not changed.  It was the old, indomitable, terrible Wolf Larsen, imprisoned somewhere within that flesh which had once been so invincible and splendid.  Now it bound him with insentient fetters, walling his soul in darkness and silence, blocking it from the world which to him had been a riot of action.  No more would he conjugate the verb “to do in every mood and tense.”  “To be” was all that remained to him—to be, as he had defined death, without movement; to will, but not to execute; to think and reason and in the spirit of him to be as alive as ever, but in the flesh to be dead, quite dead.

And yet, though I even removed the handcuffs, we could not adjust ourselves to his condition.  Our minds revolted.  To us he was full of potentiality.  We knew not what to expect of him next, what fearful thing, rising above the flesh, he might break out and do.  Our experience warranted this state of mind, and we went about our work with anxiety always upon us.

I had solved the problem which had arisen through the shortness of the shears.  By means of the watch-tackle (I had made a new one), I heaved the butt of the foremast across the rail and then lowered it to the deck.  Next, by means of the shears, I hoisted the main boom on board.  Its forty feet of length would supply the height necessary properly to swing the mast.  By means of a secondary tackle I had attached to the shears, I swung the boom to a nearly perpendicular position, then lowered the butt to the deck, where, to prevent slipping, I spiked great cleats around it.  The single block of my original shears-tackle I had attached to the end of the boom.  Thus, by carrying this tackle to the windlass, I could raise and lower the end of the boom at will, the butt always remaining stationary, and, by means of guys, I could swing the boom from side to side.  To the end of the boom I had likewise rigged a hoisting tackle; and when the whole arrangement was completed I could not but be startled by the power and latitude it gave me.

Of course, two days’ work was required for the accomplishment of this part of my task, and it was not till the morning of the third day that I swung the foremast from the deck and proceeded to square its butt to fit the step.  Here I was especially awkward.  I sawed and chopped and chiselled the weathered wood till it had the appearance of having been gnawed by some gigantic mouse.  But it fitted.

“It will work, I know it will work,” I cried.

“Do you know Dr. Jordan’s final test of truth?” Maud asked.

I shook my head and paused in the act of dislodging the shavings which had drifted down my neck.

“Can we make it work?  Can we trust our lives to it? is the test.”

“He is a favourite of yours,” I said.

“When I dismantled my old Pantheon and cast out Napoleon and Caesar and their fellows, I straightway erected a new Pantheon,” she answered gravely, “and the first I installed as Dr. Jordan.”

“A modern hero.”

“And a greater because modern,” she added.  “How can the Old World heroes compare with ours?”

I shook my head.  We were too much alike in many things for argument.  Our points of view and outlook on life at least were very alike.

“For a pair of critics we agree famously,” I laughed.

“And as shipwright and able assistant,” she laughed back.

But there was little time for laughter in those days, what of our heavy work and of the awfulness of Wolf Larsen’s living death.

He had received another stroke.  He had lost his voice, or he was losing it.  He had only intermittent use of it.  As he phrased it, the wires were like the stock market, now up, now down.  Occasionally the wires were up and he spoke as well as ever, though slowly and heavily.  Then speech would suddenly desert him, in the middle of a sentence perhaps, and for hours, sometimes, we would wait for the connection to be re-established.  He complained of great pain in his head, and it was during this period that he arranged a system of communication against the time when speech should leave him altogether—one pressure of the hand for “yes,” two for “no.”  It was well that it was arranged, for by evening his voice had gone from him.  By hand pressures, after that, he answered our questions, and when he wished to speak he scrawled his thoughts with his left hand, quite legibly, on a sheet of paper.

The fierce winter had now descended upon us.  Gale followed gale, with snow and sleet and rain.  The seals had started on their great southern migration, and the rookery was practically deserted.  I worked feverishly.  In spite of the bad weather, and of the wind which especially hindered me, I was on deck from daylight till dark and making substantial progress.

I profited by my lesson learned through raising the shears and then climbing them to attach the guys.  To the top of the foremast, which was just lifted conveniently from the deck, I attached the rigging, stays and throat and peak halyards.  As usual, I had underrated the amount of work involved in this portion of the task, and two long days were necessary to complete it.  And there was so much yet to be done—the sails, for instance, which practically had to be made over.

While I toiled at rigging the foremast, Maud sewed on canvas, ready always to drop everything and come to my assistance when more hands than two were required.  The canvas was heavy and hard, and she sewed with the regular sailor’s palm and three-cornered sail-needle.  Her hands were soon sadly blistered, but she struggled bravely on, and in addition doing the cooking and taking care of the sick man.

“A fig for superstition,” I said on Friday morning.  “That mast goes in to-day.’

Everything was ready for the attempt.  Carrying the boom-tackle to the windlass, I hoisted the mast nearly clear of the deck.  Making this tackle fast, I took to the windlass the shears-tackle (which was connected with the end of the boom), and with a few turns had the mast perpendicular and clear.

Maud clapped her hands the instant she was relieved from holding the turn, crying:

“It works!  It works!  We’ll trust our lives to it!”

Then she assumed a rueful expression.

“It’s not over the hole,” she add.  “Will you have to begin all over?”

I smiled in superior fashion, and, slacking off on one of the boom-guys and taking in on the other, swung the mast perfectly in the centre of the deck.  Still it was not over the hole.  Again the rueful expression came on her face, and again I smiled in a superior way.  Slacking away on the boom-tackle and hoisting an equivalent amount on the shears-tackle, I brought the butt of the mast into position directly over the hole in the deck.  Then I gave Maud careful instructions for lowering away and went into the hold to the step on the schooner’s bottom.

I called to her, and the mast moved easily and accurately.  Straight toward the square hole of the step the square butt descended; but as it descended it slowly twisted so that square would not fit into square.  But I had not even a moment’s indecision.  Calling to Maud to cease lowering, I went on deck and made the watch-tackle fast to the mast with a rolling hitch.  I left Maud to pull on it while I went below.  By the light of the lantern I saw the butt twist slowly around till its sides coincided with the sides of the step.  Maud made fast and returned to the windlass.  Slowly the butt descended the several intervening inches, at the same time slightly twisting again.  Again Maud rectified the twist with the watch-tackle, and again she lowered away from the windlass.  Square fitted into square.  The mast was stepped.

I raised a shout, and she ran down to see.  In the yellow lantern light we peered at what we had accomplished.  We looked at each other, and our hands felt their way and clasped.  The eyes of both of us, I think, were moist with the joy of success.

“It was done so easily after all,” I remarked.  “All the work was in the preparation.”

“And all the wonder in the completion,” Maud added.  “I can scarcely bring myself to realize that that great mast is really up and in; that you have lifted it from the water, swung it through the air, and deposited it here where it belongs.  It is a Titan’s task.”

“And they made themselves many inventions,” I began merrily, then paused to sniff the air.

I looked hastily at the lantern.  It was not smoking.  Again I sniffed.

“Something is burning,” Maud said, with sudden conviction.

We sprang together for the ladder, but I raced past her to the deck.  A dense volume of smoke was pouring out of the steerage companion-way.

“The Wolf is not yet dead,” I muttered to myself as I sprang down through the smoke.

It was so thick in the confined space that I was compelled to feel my way; and so potent was the spell of Wolf Larsen on my imagination, I was quite prepared for the helpless giant to grip my neck in a strangle hold.  I hesitated, the desire to race back and up the steps to the deck almost overpowering me.  Then I recollected Maud.  The vision of her, as I had last seen her, in the lantern light of the schooner’s hold, her brown eyes warm and moist with joy, flashed before me, and I knew that I could not go back.

I was choking and suffocating by the time I reached Wolf Larsen’s bunk.  I reached my hand and felt for his.  He was lying motionless, but moved slightly at the touch of my hand.  I felt over and under his blankets.  There was no warmth, no sign of fire.  Yet that smoke which blinded me and made me cough and gasp must have a source.  I lost my head temporarily and dashed frantically about the steerage.  A collision with the table partially knocked the wind from my body and brought me to myself.  I reasoned that a helpless man could start a fire only near to where he lay.

I returned to Wolf Larsen’s bunk.  There I encountered Maud.  How long she had been there in that suffocating atmosphere I could not guess.

“Go up on deck!” I commanded peremptorily.

“But, Humphrey—” she began to protest in a queer, husky voice.

“Please! please!” I shouted at her harshly.

She drew away obediently, and then I thought, What if she cannot find the steps?  I started after her, to stop at the foot of the companion-way.  Perhaps she had gone up.  As I stood there, hesitant, I heard her cry softly:

“Oh, Humphrey, I am lost.”

I found her fumbling at the wall of the after bulkhead, and, half leading her, half carrying her, I took her up the companion-way.  The pure air was like nectar.  Maud was only faint and dizzy, and I left her lying on the deck when I took my second plunge below.

The source of the smoke must be very close to Wolf Larsen—my mind was made up to this, and I went straight to his bunk.  As I felt about among his blankets, something hot fell on the back of my hand.  It burned me, and I jerked my hand away.  Then I understood.  Through the cracks in the bottom of the upper bunk he had set fire to the mattress.  He still retained sufficient use of his left arm to do this.  The damp straw of the mattress, fired from beneath and denied air, had been smouldering all the while.

As I dragged the mattress out of the bunk it seemed to disintegrate in mid-air, at the same time bursting into flames.  I beat out the burning remnants of straw in the bunk, then made a dash for the deck for fresh air.

Several buckets of water sufficed to put out the burning mattress in the middle of the steerage floor; and ten minutes later, when the smoke had fairly cleared, I allowed Maud to come below.  Wolf Larsen was unconscious, but it was a matter of minutes for the fresh air to restore him.  We were working over him, however, when he signed for paper and pencil.

“Pray do not interrupt me,” he wrote.  “I am smiling.”

“I am still a bit of the ferment, you see,” he wrote a little later.

“I am glad you are as small a bit as you are,” I said.

“Thank you,” he wrote.  “But just think of how much smaller I shall be before I die.”

“And yet I am all here, Hump,” he wrote with a final flourish.  “I can think more clearly than ever in my life before.  Nothing to disturb me.  Concentration is perfect.  I am all here and more than here.”

It was like a message from the night of the grave; for this man’s body had become his mausoleum.  And there, in so strange sepulchre, his spirit fluttered and lived.  It would flutter and live till the last line of communication was broken, and after that who was to say how much longer it might continue to flutter and live?

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