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Part XII of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
ACCORDING to The Complete Stories of Jack London (Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard, eds., Stanford University Press, 1993, 3 vols.), "A Nose for the King" (Black Cat, March, 1906) was the sole story London wrote in 1904. (This after writing 11 stories and seeing publication of The Kempton-Wace Letters, The People of the Abyss, and The Call of the Wild, in 1903.) Part of the reason for this fallow short story year was London's acceptance of an offer from the Hearst newspaper organization to serve as correspondent in the as-yet-undeclared war between Russia and Japan, much of the fighting taking place in Manchuria and Korea.
Upon leaving Japan in mid-1904 to return to San Francisco, London told his friend and fellow correspondent Robert Dunn, "I wasted five months of my life in this war," but in truth the time had not been wasted. From his experiences in Korea came a memorable portion of his novel The Star Rover (1915) and a series of dispatches from the war zone (including the vivid account of his open boat voyage on the Yellow Sea) that proved to be among the best first-hand reportage of the war, indeed among the best first-hand reportage in all war correspondence.
Korea (Cho-sen in ancient times) served also as an offstage presence in London's futuristic "The Unparalleled Invasion" (McClure's, July, 1910), and as the backdrop for "A Nose for the King" (originally titled "The Nose"), a fable in which a politician named Yi Chin Ho, who had "diverted" 10,000 strings of cash from the government, is in jail awaiting execution by beheading.
Ho convinces his jailer to release him to make arrangements to repay the embezzled cash by seeking out a nose "that will save me from all my difficulties," and as a reward for trusting him promises to make the jailer director of all the prisons in Cho-sen.
“... the only remedy is a certain kind of nose.”
Ho travels to the shore of the Eastern Sea and there visits one Pak Chung Chang, head man of the city, and as part of his bogus scheme says that he is on King's business, that the King has a terrible affliction and that all the physicians of the Kingdom have decided that the only remedy is a certain kind of nose . He tells Chang, "You know it is your father's nose. Bring him before me that I may strike it off and be gone."
Chang begs for mercy — his father cannot go to his grave nose-less — after which beseeching, Ho, pretending his heart is softening, states that he will spare Chang's father but will lose his, Ho's, head for failing his mission. His head is worth 10,000 strings of cash, Ho says, and demands the money and horses to carry the treasure and men to guard it as he journeys through the mountains. Chang agrees and pledges to say nothing of the transaction.
After he repays the diverted cash, Yi Chin Ho prospers, even becomes the boon companion of the King of Cho-sen, and the jailer becomes director of Cho-sen's prisons as promised.
"But Pak Chung Chang fell into a melancholy, and ever after he shook his head sadly, with tears in his eyes, whenever he regarded the expensive nose of his ancient and very-much-to-be-respected ancestor."
“... It was
As they search the rivers and streams, the Klondike, Bonanza, Eldorado, Indian, Sulphur Creek, Dominion, Gold Bottom, and Too Much Gold, she is joined by a che-cha-quo, one "John Jones," and pushes on down the Yukon in -65° weather to Circle City and the Tanana Country, always with her admonition, "Come, Charley, harness the dogs. We start," to greet the new day.
These "baby wolves" as Sitka Charley calls them, have ready money to buy dogs and whatever else is needed to keep on the trail; they cry aloud in their sleep, groaning with the pain of frostbite, as they dog the trail of their quarry close to the Bering Sea. At last they find him and close for the kill. The women fires her Colt .44 three times and the nameless man falls in the snow, a snarl on his lips.
Charley leads them to St. Michaels where a steamship takes them south.
"Mary Jones" tells Charley that her mission is none of his business and this simple statement London extends to the reader, who has no business to know more than Charley knows. London keeps a steely grip on all the secrets of this episode of the Sun-Dog Trail, letting Sitka Charley close the tale by telling his cabin-mate: "It is a picture I remember . . . They came into my life and they went out of my life, and the picture is as I have said, without beginning, the end without understanding . . . It was a piece of life."
In "The White Man's Way" (New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, November 4, 1906), Old Ebbits, "blear-eyed and vacuous," and his wife Zilla ("no more bitter-tongued, implacable old squaw dwelt on the Yukon") are visited by a white man who shares his moose meat, tea and tobacco with them. Old Ebbits, "oppressed by the weight and the torment of this thing called life," explains his confusion over the white man's way, of which there is no understanding. "If a man takes your meat, or your canoe, or your wife, the man is killed in Indian law although a dog is beaten and not killed because it must pull the sled of the man," the old man says, then proceeds to tell the story of Yamikan, a young villager who killed a white man who had drunk too much whiskey and came into Yamikan's house and tried to kill Yamikan. The soldiers came and took Yamikan away but eventually he returned to the village, very fat and with a story to tell. He was taken on a big iron boat to a place with no snows (California), then to a large house where he was asked many questions, given plenty of grub, a place to sleep, and money. After two years he returns to his village, becomes head man, and before he dies tells his story by the campfire.
Ebbits, recalling Yamikan's story, tells his son Bidarshik to find and kill a white man and then the soldiers will come and take him across the "salt lake" to the white man's land. Soon a white man comes to the village, a man who seeks after bugs, bones, birds and bird-eggs (apparently a naturalist), and Bidarshik kills this man with his ax.
“... the way
... never twice the same.”
But to the Indian the white man is unpredictable — a motif London employed over and again, often with dark humor: "Yesterday he takes Yamikan to the land under the sun and makes him fat with much grub," Old Ebbits says. "To-day he takes Bidarshik and--what does he do with Bidarshik? . . . . Let me tell you. He takes Bidarshik to Campbell Fort, and he ties a rope around his neck, and, when his feet are no more on the ground, he dies. . . .Because of the way of the white man, which is without understanding and never twice the same."
English-born Edith Whittlesey Nelson of "The Unexpected" (McClure's, August 1906), one of London's strongest female creations, was untrained in the Unexpected when she came to America at age 25 and remained so when she married Hans Nelson. She followed Hans as he pursued the mining fever to Colorado, the Dakotas, Idaho, Oregon, and the mountains of British Columbia, sharing his luck, hardship and toil.
They were swept to the Klondike and in the summer of '98, with three other men, made their way to Latuya Bay, Alaska, with Siwash Indians canoing them to a bight of land 100 miles beyond the bay. They cut spruces for a cabin, Edith cooked and the men found gold in a placer and took out $15-$20 a day each man. They weighed about $8,000 in dust — $1,600 each for the short summer's work — made snowshoes, hunted meat, played cards. There was no bickering among the men: Hans Nelson, stolid and easy-going; Harkey, a lanky, companionable Texan; Michael Dennin, an Irish wit, large and powerful, good-humored but prone to sudden rushes of anger over little things; and Dutchy, a willing butt of the party, a maker of laughter.
Then the unexpected happens: At breakfast one morning, Dennin comes in the cabin with a shotgun and kills Dutchy and Harkey, but when he tries to reload to kill Hans and Edith, she leaps on him and Hans, in a Berserker rage, beats the Irishman to the ground unconscious. They bind Dennin, dig graves in the frozen soil for the dead men, and stand four-hour watches, guarding the killer with the shotgun while they decide his fate. Hans is obsessed with killing the Irishman, Dennin eventually begs to die. Negook, head man of an Indian village, declines taking the killer by canoe to the nearest trading post.
Edith is nearing break-down but begins to reason a solution: "It came to her that the law was nothing more than the judgment and will of any group of people" and if a thousand could constitute such a group, why not a hundred, or fifty, or five — or two?
She and Hans decide Dennin must die for the murders, then as judge Edith pronounces the sentence that in three days he will hang.
Dennin confesses he planned to kill them all for the gold; that he had not been home in 15 years and intended to report the murders in Skaguay as an Indian raid, and take the gold to his mother in Ireland.
“The day of the execution broke clear and cold.”"The day of the execution broke clear and cold" and Dennin is stood on a barrel, noose about his neck and the rope thrown across an overhead branch. Edith throws her weight against the barrel but collapses and Hans finishes the job while Edith breaks down, reeling toward her husband as, "With Hans's arm around her, supporting her weight and directing her helpless steps, she went off across the snow. But the Indians remained solemnly to watch the working of the white man's law that compelled a man to dance upon the air."
(NOTE: In a letter to the editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of August 2, 1906, London wrote that the story was based on a newspaper report from the San Francisco Examiner of October 14, 1900, an account of the double murder committed by Michael Dennin and of his hanging by Mrs. Nelson and her husband Hans. (See Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966.)
"All Gold Cañon" (Century Magazine, November 1905) is a splendid example of Jack London's mastery of the single protagonist story in a omniscient viewpoint in which the reader sees all — even into the protagonist's mind. ("To Build a Fire" and "Love of Life" are other examples of this mastery.)
It is a long (7,850 words), pastoral tale with no wasted words and many memorable lines, especially those describing the Eden-like setting of the Sierra Madre range: "It was the spirit of peace that was not of death, but of smooth-pulsing life, of quietude that was not silence, of movement that was not action, of repose that was quick with existence without being violent with struggle and travail. The spirit of the place was the spirit of the peace of living, somnolent with the easement and content of prosperity, and undisturbed by rumors of far wars."
“Jumping dandelions and happy hollyhocks!”Into this sacred place, this "pocket-hunter's delight an' a cayuse's paradise!" comes a deliberate sort of man, a good-natured prospector called Bill, with a pick and shovel and gold-pan, dressed in faded overalls, a black shirt, shapeless, smoke-stained hat, hobnailed brogans and having with him two horses and "the habit of soliloquy." He takes in the sweet odor of the place and says to his animals, "Jumping dandelions and happy hollyhocks, but that smells good to me!"
He is a veteran miner, purposeful and tireless, and begins making test pans at the river, examining the dark silt closely until, "Like a shepherd he herded his flock of golden specks so that not one should be lost." He moves downstream and repeats the process and as his horses graze starts a second line of test pans, then a third, cross-cutting the hillside as he ascended into an inverted "V," the apex of which was his goal. He carries each pan down to the stream to wash it, putting the gold in a baking powder tin; at night he fixes his meal, smokes his pipe, fishes for trout, and sleeps fitfully. He puts off scouting for intruders and rises with the sun to resume his work.
"Before him was the smooth slope, spangled with flowers and made sweet with their breath. Behind him was devastation. It looked like some terrible eruption breaking out on the smooth skin of the hill. His slow progress was like that of a slug, befouling beauty with a monstrous trail." But the test pans increase in richness, 20, then 60 cents, then a dollar from a single shovel-full of dirt; three and four dollar pans, then a $5 pan, then breaking through rotten quartz , six feet down and more and Bill's song of triumph: "Sufferin' Sardanopolis! Lumps an' chunks of it!" He finds virgin gold by the handful and names the place "All Gold Cañon."
At the moment of discovery he has a sudden premonition of danger followed by a crashing noise, a blow on his back and a rush of flame through his body. He crumples, legs tangled and twisted. The claim-jumper, certain Bill is dead, makes a cigarette and sits on the edge of the placer for a time before dropping into the hole. But Bill, who is only wounded, and is very angry, throws dirt in the interloper's eyes and wrestles the gun away from the man, emptying the pistol into the "Measly skunk! . . . a-campin' on my trail an' lettin' me do the work, an' then shootin' me in the back!"
He bandages himself and with his horse hauls the corpse out of the hole then sets to work, pausing to rest his shoulder wound, wrapping his gold in blanket parcels and calculating: ". . . two hundred pounds of gold. Bill! Wake up! Two hundred pounds of gold! Forty thousand dollars!"
He buries the stranger in the hole, loads his gold on his horses, and departs with a clash of steel-shod hoofs on stone and the echo of his triumphant voice singing a hymn until "Only remained the hoof-marks in the meadow and the torn hillside to mark the boisterous trail of the life that had broken the peace of the place and passed on."
The author has been credited with employing roots of Greek myths and powerful female sexual overtones in describing the virginal cañon despoiled by Bill the prospector. On a practical level, however, it appears London had a fairly straight-forward tale in mind and bedecked it with his superb command of descriptive phrase, very reminiscent of his stunning images of the broad valley and smiling timberland found by John Thornton and Buck in the final pages of The Call of the Wild.
NOTE: A small but interesting issue is the Spanish spelling of the word "canyon" in the title and text. Whether this was the publisher's decision or was employed by London himself, the tilde (squiggly mark) over the first "n" is the Spanish language equivalent of the "ny" sound in "canyon." In any event the Spanish spelling is appropriate for a cañon in the Sierra Madres.
A tangled, extremely lengthy (16,000 words) spiritualistic mystery set in the Sonoma Valley of California, is "Planchette" (Cosmopolitan, August 1906). This story is sometimes singled out to illustrate, however thinly, the "influence" of the spiritualistic beliefs and practices of London's mother, Flora Wellman London. Perhaps more pertinently, the story was written during the period of London's divorce from his first wife, Bess Maddern, and marriage to his second, Charmian Kittredge.
The story involves a young woman, Lute Story, and her "lover" (whatever that meant in 1906), Chris Dunbar. Dunbar, after four years of companionship with Lute tells her he cannot marry her or any woman, and further, he says he cannot tell her why. The mystery Chris has presented is killing her, she says, and he must tell her: "It is justice you owe me."
These two, together with Lute's aunt and uncle plus a Mrs. Grantly, and a corporate rich man named Mr. Barton, all sit down to a session of Planchette, a form of Ouija involving a "planchette," or triangular board on moving casters with a pencil at the apex of the triangle.
Later Chris buys a horse named Comanche and says he is wise-footed and clear-headed. With Lute astride her beloved mare Dolly and Chris aboard Comanche the two ride down into the Napa Valley. Suddenly the wise-footed Comanche falls "as though, abruptly, in mid-leap, he had died or been struck a stunning blow." Chris's foot is caught in the stirrup as horse and rider plunge over the edge of the cliff. Lute sees the animal lodged on a hummock of stone, sees the horse struggle and "clear on her vision, it seemed, was the spectral arm of her father clutching the reins and dragging the animal over. Comanche floundered across the hummock, the inert body following, and together, horse and man, they plunged from sight."
She calls Chris's name three times: "She felt the touch of Dolly's muzzle on her arm, and she leaned her head against the mare's neck and waited. She knew not why she waited, or for what, only there seemed nothing else but waiting left for her to do."
According to Charmian London, she suggested the plot of "Brown Wolf" (Everybody's, August 1906) to her husband and that this benign California story was also based on London's own Alaskan wolf dog "Brown," given him by the relative of a Klondiker. (See Charmian Kittredge London, The Book of Jack London: The Century Co., 1921; Vol. II 27-28.)
Walt Irvine is that rarest of writers, a poet who actually appears to make a living selling, of all things, sonnets and triolets. He confesses modestly , "I am a beauty merchant, a trader in song," as he waits for checks from the sonnet and triolet magazines to come in. He and wife Madge live in a little mountain cottage at Glen Ellen with Wolf, a huge timber wolf-mixed dog that wandered onto their property. At first, Wolf is "as alien as a traveller from another planet," never barks, runs away many times, sometimes covering over a hundred miles a day, "possessed of an obsession that drove him north."
One day as Walt prepares to leave for the post office ("It's about time I heard from those triolets," he says, which will transmute into buckwheat flour, a gallon of maple syrup and a pair of overshoes for Madge), a man named Skiff Miller appears, a neighbor's Klondike brother come home for a surprise visit, intending to return to the gold fields with a mail contract. Miller instantly recognizes Wolf, and vice-versa, and tells the Irvines that the animal is Brown, his lead sled dog in the Yukon, stolen from him three years past. Wolf answers the Klondiker's "gee" and "haw" orders and there can be little question that he belongs to Miller.
Madge suggests that the dog make the choice of the life of hardship with Miller or the life of love and comfort with the Irvines. They agree; Miller will walk down the trail and the Irvines stay where they are and not coax or make a sound.
The dog is torn between the two but in the end, as Miller disappears down the trail, Brown Wolf trots after him.
NOTE: London seems to have had an elevated notion of poets and their wares, perhaps an outgrowth of his own poetic ambitions and his close friendship with George Sterling, a published poet. While the Shakespearean sonnet (the Bard wrote 154 of them) is a somewhat familiar poetic form — 14 lines written in iambic pentameter, 10 syllables per line and a with a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g — the triolet is a rare form and, one imagines, difficult to write and even more difficult to sell, Walt Irvine notwithstanding. Except that it has only eight lines, the triolet is also difficult to describe but a nice example of one is aptly titled "Triolet" and written by the American newspaperman and humorist Don Marquis (1878—1937), and is taken from his book Dreams & Dust (1915).
"A Day's Lodging" (Collier's Weekly, May 25, 1907) is a Klondike story remarkable only in that it contains London's monument to coincidence.
John Messner (UC Berkeley, class of '86), mushing his team somewhere deep in the Yukon in minus 74 degrees weather, finds a deserted cabin, thaws fish for the dogs, boils water for coffee. Then, in that remotist cabin in the remoteness of the Far North, a knock on the door brings in two wayfarers, a physician going by the name of Haythorne and woman Haythorne calls Tess but who is actually Messner's wife.
Since he is a doctor who says he is from San Francisco, Messner begins to question Haythorne about a scandal some 2-3 years ago in which the wife of an English professor disappeared with a San Francisco doctor. Haythorne says he heard of it and that a man named Graham Womble asserted that the couple voyaged to the South Seas and were lost at sea. Messner says he heard that the woman was "a termagant" and "that she made life — er — not exactly paradise for her husband."
When Haythorne goes out to gather wood, Messner tells his wife that he broke with academic life and came north because he thought the Klondike "the place you were least liable to be in."
The Smart Set, which published London's "When God Laughs" in its January 1907, issue, was a monthly magazine launched in 1900 which came into prominence under the co-editorship (from 1914 to 1923) of George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. The journal was renowned for its sophistication, humor, and irreverence and featured the work of such authors as O. Henry, Damon Runyan, Theodore Dreiser, Louis Untermeyer, Hugh Walpole, Eugene O'Neill, and James Joyce. Jack London, in pre-Nathan-Mencken days found The Smart Set a ready market and published in it these five stories: "The Proper 'Girlie'" (October-Nov. 1900); "The Story of Jees Uck" (September, 1902); "When God Laughs"(January, 1907); "A Wicked Woman" (November,1906); and "Aloha Oe" (May, 1909, after first appearing in the London-based magazine Lady's Realm in December, 1908).
"When God Laughs" is a story that would never have passed muster under the keen editorial eye of Henry Mencken; indeed, it begged rejection under any editor, even in 1907 when the proliferation of "arty" magazines created an insatiable hunger for fiction, no matter how lousy. London's tale is another drawing room morsel filled to the margins with impossible dialog between an artist impossibly named Monte Carquinez — "I am Aztec, I am Inca, I am Spaniard" — and an unnamed narrator.
Carquinez, who, instead of a strait-jacket, is dressed like a 1907 poet is required to dress: soft flannel shirt, velvet-corduroy jacket, red necktie, leather banded sombrero, and begins talking about wine "made for gray-robed saints to drink" and moves on to inanities about the "gods" and senility and satiety.
He tells the story of one Marvin Fiske and his "Dantesque face and poet's soul, singing his chant of the flesh, the very priest of Love", and Ethel Baird, "Holy as Love, and sweeter!...drenched through with holiness as your own air here is with the perfume of flowers" and how this pair married, and after he died how she "took the veil, buried herself in that dolorous convent of the living dead." Fiske and Baird had apparently foresworn physical love, heightening the anticipation of it, or, as Carquinez puts it in his logorrhoean fashion, ". . . it was out of their inordinate desire for joy that they forewent joy . . . . They played with nature's fire and bedded with a naked sword. They laughed at the gods . . . .'Beware!' I cried. 'The gods are behind the table . . . .You have no chance to win.'"
He proceeds to relate how one morning the two lovers interruptus looked into each others' eyes "and knew that they did not care. Desire was dead . . . . Not once had they kissed. Love as gone . . . ." Within the week Marvin Fiske was dead and, Carquinez says, "We never win. Sometimes we think we win. That is a little pleasantry of the gods."
Although the Woman's Home Companion would publish several of London's non-fiction pieces, including some of the essays written during the Snark voyage of 1907-1909, the author, despite numerous efforts, was able to sell only two short stories to the venerable (1883 -1957) magazine: "Their Alcove" (September 1900) and "The Apostate" (September 1906). According to Russ Kingman's Jack London: A Definitive Chronology. (Middletown, Calif.: David Rejl, 1992) the latter story appeared at a time when Moon-Face and Other Stories had just appeared, when London was reading galley proofs of Before Adam, the Love of Life story collection, and Scorn of Women, and starting work on The Iron Heel.
An excellent, affecting, melancholy story, "The Apostate" is often described as "semi-autobiographical" but, as is the case with Martin Eden, John Barleycorn, and other of London's "semi-autobiographical" fiction, more weight must be given the "semi" than the "autobiographical."
In the present case, London was never as poor as 12-year-old Johnny, who is forced awake by his mother ("You'll be docked!") before dawn to eat a meal of bread, coffee, and a piece of pork meat. He washes at the filthy sink with splashes of cold water (he has never seen a tooth-brush), dries on a greasy towel that leaves his face covered with shreds of lint, meantime hearing his chronically sick mother's plaintive mantra, "I try to do the best I can. . ." She is, in a memorable phrase, "an anaemic whirlwind of solicitude and maternal wrath." Johnny's only memory of his father was "the savage feet" of the man, his "savage and pitiless feet [presumably used to kick Johnny and his siblings] . . . the race-memory of man that makes him fall in his sleep and that goes back to his arboreal ancestry."
Johnny, who began work at age seven, "had become a man very early in life . . . . Manhood, full-blown manhood, had come when he was eleven, at which time he had gone to work on the night shift for six months. No child works on the night shift and remains a child."
The jute mill whistle sounds at 5:30 a.m., and Johnny begins his numbing task of tying weaver's knots on bobbins, tying the knots even in his sleep. Johnny, in fact, had been born to the noise, moist air and flying lint of the mill, and had coughed from the day of his birth, afflicted with the lung disease that has invalided his mother. As the mill inspector said, "If epilepsy doesn't get him in the end, it will be because tuberculosis gets him first."
"From the perfect worker," he had evolved into the perfect machine and it is dark when he returns home to eat supper with his younger brothers and sisters "like an old and irritable man."
At age 14 he goes to work as a starcher. ("It was a colossal event . . . . It marked an era") and at 16 graduated to the loom-room where, at the end of three months he was operating two looms, and later three and four so that at the end of his second year he was turning out more yards than any other weaver at the mill.
Johnny grew taller and leaner, more nervous and irritable. There was no joy in his life; he had no ideals. "He was a work-beast. He had no mental life whatever; yet deep down in the crypts of his mind, unknown to him, were being weighed and sifted every hour of his toil, every movement of his hands, every twitch of his muscles, and preparations were making for a future course of action that would amaze him and all his little world."
One day in late spring he tells his mother he is going away and "I ain't never goin' to work again . . . . "I'm plum tired out." He tells his mother he knows she has been planning for his younger brother Will to become a bookkeeper but that it's time for Will to go to work. "You never brung me up. I brung myself up, ma, an' I brung up Will . . . . Will can go to work, same as me, or he can go to hell, I don't care which."
Johnny walks out past the mill and down a leafy lane. "He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human. It was a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled like a sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested, grotesque and terrible."
He passes the railroad station, lays down under a tree, dozing, muscles twitching, then awake watching the birds. Once or twice he laughs aloud "but without relevance to anything he had seen or felt."
After twilight he crawls into a boxcar. "He closed the door. The engine whistled. Johnny was lying down, and in the darkness he smiled."
NOTE: The length of "The Apostate" is 7,673 words and Woman's Home Companion paid the author $767.30 for it. London often wrote of working as a ten-cent-an-hour "work beast" and now was earning ten cents a word for his labors.
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