|Home :: Biography :: Ranch Album :: Writings :: Links|
|« View Series Index||Read Stories »|
Part XX of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
"The Captain of the Susan Drew" (San Francisco Call, Semi-Monthly Magazine, January 1, 1912) was reprinted as "The Tar Pot" in the July 26, 1913, edition of the London-based Weekly Tale Teller and with slight revisions as "Poppy Cargo" in Physical Culture (July, 1931) where it was billed as "the literary sensation of 1931." In this same magazine, Charmian London stated that her husband wrote both "The Captain of the Susan Drew" and "Poppy Cargo" during the Dirigo voyage. In any event, London received $1,000 for it, presumably from the San Francisco Call, on October 13, 1912.
The story begins on a life-boat on the Pacific. Ten people are on board. Less than 24 hours earlier their steamer, the Mingalia, collided with something and there was a near-mutiny as people scrambled for boats.
Now they spy a large yacht-like schooner becalmed and are taken aboard. Captain Bill Decker of the Susan Drew is a strange, perhaps insane, skipper, ordering the sleeping arrangements, bullying and insulting and making mad speeches and claims. At one` point he says he was born with whiskers and moustache: "I was born a man, in a ship's fo'c's'le" — the Ermyntrude eighteen years ago," he announced. He also is given to such outbursts as "By the tarpaulins of Tartarus!", as unlikely an exclamation as "By the Turtles of Tasman!"
Decker is heading for Hawaiian waters but refuses to land the survivors of the Mingalia in the islands. Mrs. Gifford, one of the rescued passengers, whose husband Seth is believed to have drowned in San Francisco Bay, offers Decker $50,000 to land them in Hawaii but he refuses. The Susan Drew, the passengers learn, is an opium smuggler. Decker has fifty tons of dope below the deck worth $1.5 million.
The Susan Drew has boats coming alongside and the opium trans-shipped. Decker tells Mrs. Gifford he is heading across the Pacific until all the opium is distributed and safe, and that he will drop the passengers off "somewhere."
In the days that follow, Decker persistently stares at and pesters Mrs. Gifford, drawn to her.
At dinner one evening the talk turns to the occult, general disbelief in such phenomena as telepathy and clairvoyance. Decker tells those foregathered that he knows things about Mrs Gifford "that I have no right to know." He provides examples: "Under your left shoulder-blade, midway between it and the hip, is a mole — Ha!"
Decker sends a young man aloft to tar down the main rigging but when the tar pot is untied, it drops on Decker's head. He sat on the deck looking at his hands and does not recognize the mate who speaks to him. "Something terrible has happened to me.," Decker says.
The tar pot has apparently reversed his amnesia and returned him to sanity and to his true identity: Decker is Seth Gifford.
Thus, London's penchant for the deus ex machina — the fabulous coincidence — comes to play: of all the ships in the Pacific to pick up survivors of a shipwreck. . .
"Whose Business Is to Live" (in Dutch Courage & Other Stories; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1922) derives from London's advent in Mexico in 1914 as a correspondent for Collier's in the national revolution taking place there.
In April, 1914, some American marines and bluejackets landed at Vera Cruz and seized its customs house. A Mexican backlash erupted and warships were diverted from Tampico to Vera Cruz, leaving some Americans stranded.
Stanton Davies and Jim Wemple are holed up in Wemple's residence in Tampico, Mexico, while a mob outside is pelting the windows with stones. The two men need to get to Panuco, 47 miles by river, to rescue Miss Beth Drexel, both men having an interest in her.
Two German lieutenants and half dozen German marines arrive and agree to escort the Americans to the wharf where they board the Chill II, run by Peter Tonsburg, a Texas-born Swede who agrees to take them upriver. They are fired on by a Mexican gunboat but Tonsburg steams on. He says he is reading a magazine article titled "Whose Business Is to Die," to which he exclaims, "The hell it is. A man's business is to live. . ."
“a two-fisted piece of machinery...”They locate Beth Drexel and a woman named Martha Morgan, and with two saddle horses, start back through the jungle to the river. Near a banana plantation they find a "Merry Oldsmobile," and take it over rutted roads. At one point Miss Drexel "seized by inspiration or desperation, with a quick movement stripped off her short, corduroy tramping-skirt, and, looking very lithe and boyish in slender-cut pongee bloomers," throws the skirt under the wheels to give the machine's wheels purchase.
At the lines of the constitutionalists, three American soldiers of fortune who had fought the entire campaign with Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and the German officers who assisted them, tell them they are nearly the only Americans left in Tampico.
They have a growing admiration for the Olds — "She's a two-fisted piece of machinery," they agree.
"The Hussy" (Cosmopolitan, December, 1916) has the distinction of being the first of eleven stories London wrote in 1916, after a slump of but two stories between 1912 and 1915. "The Hussy" is also the first London story published after his death on November 22, 1916.
London himself appears to be the narrator of this tale, telling of meeting Julian Jones at the Australian Building at the Panama Pacific Exposition while both were viewing an exhibit of facsimiles of record nuggets "discovered in the gold fields of the Antipodes."
Jones, a railroad engineer with years of experience in the tropics, says the nuggets are small compared to what he has seen — and thereby hangs the tale he is about to relate after the narrator meets Mrs. Jones, Sarah, and they retire to the lagoon.
He says the nugget he saw, Jones says, was bigger than the whole exhibit put together and then some and begins by saying he went to Ecuador on a tramp collier out of Australia after hearing of high wages on the American railroad running from Guayaquil over the Andes to Quito. Of Guayaquil, Jones says it was a fever hole when he arrived there, Yellow Jack killing forty people a day. "Thomas Nast died there of it [fever] within a month after he landed," he says, adding that the country was in a "Kill the Yankees" frame of mind as well.
[NOTES: London had, of course, been to Ecuador, in the spring of 1909 on the tramp collier Tymeric out of Australia, when he and Charmian were returning from the Snark adventure in the South Seas. Indeed they had visited both Guayaquil and Quito. Thomas Nast (1840-1902) who Jones mentions was the popular, controversial, political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly and the Illustrated London News. In 1902, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Nast became U.S. Consul General to Guayaquil and died there in December, 1902, during a yellow fever epidemic.]
As Sarah Jones awaited her husband back in Nebraska, in some months he was earning $500 in gold, living in Quito in an adobe house. Things were going well until he met Vahna, a person who Sarah constantly refers to as "the hussy!" — saying it with a hiss.
He was taking a locomotive down to Amato, thirty miles from Quito, with Seth Manners being broken in as fireman, when an Indian girl showed up on the track and the locomotive stopped twenty feet from her, a tall, slender girl wrapped in ocelot skins, her eyes shut and weeping.
He gets her on board the locomotive and on to Amato, then to Quito. Seth tells him he saved her life and "now she belongs to you. Custom of the country. . ."
He takes her to his 'dobe and the girl and Jones' Indian cook Paloma talk together, then an Indian boy shows up and brings Vahna a fat nugget she had sent him for — two pounds and worth more than $500. She gives it to Jones to pay for his keep.
“This is death. Good-by, amigo...”Later, after Jones gets word that his aunt had died and left him a farm and as he prepares to pull out "for God's country," Vahna, interpreted by Paloma, tells him that if he will stay she will show him a gold nugget, the father of all nuggets, a secret of her tribe. He can't resist and followsVahna into the Andes to a mountain top flat as a billiard table. There he sits down on a big rock — which turned out to be the nugget. With a hatchet he cut into it, It is solid gold, coated with a paint or lacquer, a boulder ten feet long and five through, tapering on the ends like an egg. He put a chip in his pocket.
Suddenly there appears on the mountain an old man and some thirty Indians. "No, no," Vahna cries, "This is death. Good-by, amigo--" after which Jones is knocked out. When he revives he finds Vahna spread-eagled on top of the nugget.
"I couldn't lift a hand, being held down, and being too weak besides," Jones says. "And — well, anyway, that stone knife did for her, and me they didn't even do the honour of killing there on top their sacred peak. They chucked me off of it like so much carrion.' He was thrown off the mountain but survived after falling into a snow-drift. It was two years and over before he put together what had happened.
In Nebraska, sitting on the porch of Sarah's father's farmhouse, she put the gold chip in his hand, found in a torn lining of a trunk he had brought out of Ecuador, and "all of a sudden there was a snap inside my head as if something had broken" and he remembered all that had happened.
He tells the narrator he hasn't figured out how to get back to the nugget but has figured out what it was: it was all the gold the Incas had hid away from Pizarro and his "gang of robbers and cutthroats," smelted together by the surviving Indians, disguised and secreted in plain sight on the mountain.
The narrator agrees to finance a return journey to the mountain and Jones promises to call at the hotel next morning -- but he doesn't call and the next day the narrator is told that Mr. and Mrs. Jones had departed with their baggage.
"Can Mrs. Jones have rushed him back and hidden him away in Nebraska?" the narrator says. "I remember that as we said good-by there was that in her smile that recalled the vulpine complacency of Mona Lisa, the Wise.
He had a ten-gauge shotgun and butterfly net when he plunged into the jungle after hearing the great sound, confident he would find the source and return to the beach in an hour to be picked up by Nari's whaleboat. In the attack in which Sagawa was beheaded, Bassett lost two fingers from an ax-blow and received a dent in the back of his skull. Afterward, chased by the natives along a pig-run in the jungle he heard the whisper of tiny arrows, bone-tipped and feather-shafted.
He is bitten by mosquitos, gnats and insects, has a virulent fever, his body pumped with poisons and eyes swollen shut as he stumbles along in the jungle for days and nights. In one bush village he finds a girl or young woman suspended by one arm in the sun, tongue swollen, still alive, joints of her limbs broken. He cannot remember if he shot her to put her out of her misery. (In "The Jokers of New Gibbon" [Saturday Evening Post, November 11, 1911], fourth of the David Grief series, the chief of New Gibbon once hanged one of his wives by one arm out in the sun for two days and nights.)
Bassett is lost in an eldritch place where it was always twilight. In the "dank and noisome jungle" of Guadalcanal, "Rarely did a shaft to sunlight penetrate its matted roof a hundred feet overhead. And beneath that roof was an aerial ooze of vegetation, a monstrous, parasitic dripping of decadent life-forms that rooted in death and lived on death. And through all this he drifted, ever pursued by the flitting shadows of the anthropophagi, themselves ghosts of evil that dared not face him in battle but that knew, soon or late, that they would feed on him."
In his fevered wanderings Bassett came out on a grassland, "leagues of velvet verdure, to the backbone of the great island," still hearing the pealing sound: "Sweet it was as no sound ever heard. Vast it was, of so mighty a resonance that it might have proceeded from some brazen-throated monster."
Balatta finds him and, squats on her hams to scrape mud off of him. She is hideously ugly, apish, dirt-caked, a pig's tail thrust in her ear lobe hole, still dripping blood. She brings him water and a putrid chunk of meat and after a journey takes him to her village where he collapses in front of the devil-devil house and later meets Ngurn, the medicine-man.
Bassett learns the rudiments of the guttural language of the natives and learns of a mysterious deity called the "Red One" which Ngurn says has been on the island forever but whose father had held otherwise, believing it came from out of the starry night — thus another of its names, "Star-Born."
Ngurn covets Bassett's head and Bassett promises it to him in exchange for a look at the Red One. But Ngurn explains he will have Bassett's head in any case, so the Englishman undertakes another ploy — making love to Balatta and convincing her to take him to the deity. She begs him to kill her, that the punishment for breaking the Red One taboo is a week of torture. Bassett insists and she yields, guiding him to a gorge in a mountain, then a mesa of black volcanic sand, then a tremendous pit like those of the diamond mines of South Africa.
In the pit he sees a perfect sphere, fully 200 feet in diameter, the top of it a hundred feet below the rim of the pit. It has the color of lacquer, bright cherry-red, iridescent in the sunlight. Carpeting the pit around the sphere are human bones, village gods of wood and stone, and some totemic figures carved from solid tree trunks 40 – 50 feet in length. Bassett touches the sphere, corrugated and pitted and of a metal unlike any metal or combination of metals he had ever seen, and the surface of the sphere livens and responds to his touch with rhythmic vibrations: it is hollow.
He discovers the source of the sound he heard in his delirium: a great king-post, half a hundred feet in length, carved into dynasties of helmeted gods, is slung by ropes from a tripod of three great forest trunks. The king-post, like a battering ram, could be driven end-on against the sphere.
Bassett combats fever, dreaming of reaching the beach and some blackbirding schooner. His relapses grow more frequent, periods of coma longer, and he realizes he will never live to cross the grasslands, the jungle, and reach the sea.
He asks Ngurn to carry him to the Red One so that he can look upon it and there die and Bassett is carried to the pit on a litter. He asks Ngurn that he might hear it, then drop his head forward for the stroke at the base of his neck. The king-post is drawn back and the sphere sounds — "the voice of God, seducing and commanding to be heard." He bends his forward and knew without seeing it when the razor-edged hatchet rose behind him.
"And, simultaneous with the bite of the steel on the onrush of the dark, in a flashing instant of fancy, he saw the vision of his head turning slowly, always turning, in the devil-devil house beside the breadfruit tree."
"On the Makaloa Mat" (Cosmopolitan, March, 1919) is the story told by Bella Castner, age 68, to her sister Martha Scandwell, age 64, wife of Roscoe Scandwell, wealthy owner of several homes in Hawaii.
Bella talks with, mostly to, Martha in Martha's Waikiki home. The sisters agree their husbands did well for them, except in the case of the late George Castner bringing happiness to Bella. She tells the circumstances of her marriage to her sister as if Martha has never heard it before. Martha observes that George "was a cold man. You were warm Hawaiian," but Bella says George was never a brute, never laid a hand on her, nor uttered a cross word. She says "But that house of his, of ours, was gray. . .while I was bright with all the colors of sun and earth and blood and birth."
She was 19 when they married. Castner was earning $1,800 a year, a high salary in those day, she says. He was the soul of devotion to his employers, honest, saved all but $200 of his salary, did not drink or smoke, and Bella made her own dresses, wore brooms down to the nub, ate jerky and porridge for breakfast, cooked, baked and scrubbed — this for a girl who grew up with servants.
George told her they would be rich in 20 years, and he was right, and when she told him they might not be alive in 20 years he would say, "Be patient, Bella."
“. . .great
She could not divorce Castner, unthinkable in those days, so the Prince and she were covert lovers and when he had to return to Honolulu he tore his lei across as his lips shaped the word pau (finish). George returned and gave her a perfunctory kiss and she reentered her gray life at Nahala and the old routine: "I was a dead woman. . . .Gladness had died at Hilo when Lilolilo dropped my ilima lei into the sea."
"The Tears of Ah Kim" (Cosmopolitan, July 1918), dated by London "Waikiki, Honolulu, June 16, 1916," takes place in Honolulu's Chinatown, at the Ah Kim Company, General Merchandise. There, Ah Kim, age fifty, is getting a whipping from his mother, Mrs. Tai Fu, age 74, a cadaverous woman who has whipped him with a bamboo stick from childhood. She has forbade her son talking to the woman Li Faa and has learned that Ah Kim talked with the woman on the street today — thus the caning.
Ah Kim does not cry, never has, in all the beatings she has administered over the years. Why does he not cry? "I do not know, except that it is my way."
He was born on the high banks of the Yangtze River where, like his father, he was a towing coolie, dragging junks through white water to the head of a canyon at just over one cent per day. A Cantonese sailor told Ah Kim of the magic land of Hawaii where a Yangtze family could work for the sugar-kings and be paid the prodigious sum of $10 in gold a month.
Ah Kim was 24 when, over his mother's pleas, he quit his towing job and got to Canton and signed away five years of his life to labor in the Hawaiian sugar fields as a plantation coolie. He had patience, saved his dollars, eschewed opium, clerked in the plantation store, and became aristocratic toward other coolies. When he was ready he went to Honolulu and worked at a general merchandise store, resigned when he was 33, put up his own sign and joined the powerful Hai Gum Tong.
He grew fat at 37, had $3,000 in gold in the bank and brought his mother oversea to oversee his Honolulu three-story shack building with two household servants, three clerks, and a porter, plus $10,000 in dress goods.
For 13 years he has lived tolerably happy but at age fifty wants a wife, not a tiny-footed one but a free and natural woman. His choice is the twice-widowed Li Faa, "the Silvery Moon Blossom," a woman Kim's mother violently objects to as half pake (Chinese) who wears corsets and skirts instead of trousers and who is shameless and impudent. Li Faa is in fact "a new woman, a feminist, who rides horseback astride, disports immodestly garbed at Waikiki on surf boards, and at more than one luau has been known to dance the hula. . . ." (The description of Li Faa fits Charmian Kittredge London to a tee.)
Ah Kim loves Li Faa and thinks of her as his poem, his lyric delight; his mother says that she, the mother, will be mistress of Ah Kim's house until she dies. She surprises her son and Li Faa together when she administers a caning to Ah Kim who drops to his knees and cries for the first time.
Two years later, he returns home from a meeting and finds his mother dead on her couch, having "passed without pain."
On their wedding night Ah Kim tells why he cried the last time he was caned. "I cried because I suddenly knew that my mother was nearing her end. There was no weight, no hurt, in her blows. I cried because I knew she no longer had strength enough to hurt me."
It is 1880 and at a ranch below the lofty Koolau Mountains at the opening of "The Bones of Kahekili" (Cosmopolitan, July, 1919). There, outside a bungalow, a score of Hawaiian cowboys squat, wearing big Spanish spurs and cowboy hats and have the appearance of banditti in leather leggings, knives, wreaths of flowers around the crowns of their hats. They await Hardman Pool, a gray-headed and bearded haole who is patriarch over Koolau ranchlands, has fourteen adult children, countless grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Pool landed 51 years past from an open boat at Laupahoehoe on the windward coast of Hawaii, off the whaler Black Prince out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Pool's hometown. He was twenty then, second mate on the lost whale ship. In Honolulu he married Kalama Kamaiopili, served as pilot of Honolulu Harbor, started a saloon and boarding house, and on the death of his wife's father, engaged in cattle ranching on the pasture lands she had inherited.
Waking from his siesta, "Kanaka Oolea" as he was called by the natives, summons a gin and milk, and begins listening to appeals from his workers. One ancient, Kumuhana, age 79, is asked to wait after the others depart. Pool asks this elder about the bones of Kahekili, an alii or high chief, and Kumuhana, after some coaxing and a gin and milk, is persuaded to tell the story of what happened to the bones of Kahekili.
“...in the shadowy other world.”Kumuhana says he was in love with Malia, who was of Kahekili's household as was Anapuni, and the two were drunk the night Kahekili died. Malia had walked over to Kumuhana when Chief Konukalani strode up and dragged her away by her hair. The chiefs were debating what to do with Kahekili's bones and Malia overheard that Anapuni and Kumuhana had been chosen as sacrifices "to go the way of Kahekili and his bones and to care for him afterward and forever, in the shadowy other world." They were to be the moepuu, human sacrifice, all this nine years before the coming of the missionaries.
Malia was never seen again, Anapuni fled, and Kumuhana was taken captive and commanded to go with the chiefs when they brought Kahekili out in an oiled and varnished haole coffin made by a ship's carpenter with a thin plate of glass over the alii's face.
They took the coffin in a canoe toward the Molokai Channel, singing an old Maori death chant. Kumuhana, suffering the thirst of hangover, was not killed as a sacrifice since there were supposed to be two moepuus and the priest had insisted that two was the law.
So the coffin was pushed overside but did not sink; instead it bobbed up and down astern of the canoe and they could see the head of Kahekili through the glass, grinning at them. At this the chiefs determined they must kill Kumuhana and prepared to slit his throat just at the moment the steersman of the canoe struck the glass of the coffin with his paddle. The glass broke and the coffin sank.
Thus Kumuhana lived and the bones of Kahekili lie at the bottom of the Molokai Channel and he is the only man living who witnessed it.
At the end, Pool gives the old man $6.50 to buy a jackass and will be given a bridle and saddle. Also, Hardman Pool orders a glass of gin and milk for old Kumuhana.
In "Shin Bones" (Cosmopolitan, November, 1918) Prince Akuli's $7,000 limousine breaks an axle near the village of Olokona and while waiting in a grass hut for a replacement car, he tells the narrator about how Hiwilani (his mother) reverted to the old beliefs in her last years. In her bedroom are jars of bones of her ancestors and she sleeps on mats on the floor rather than the great royal canopied four-poster "that had been presented to her grandmother by Lord Byron. . ."
Akuli (which translates to "squid") has no legal right to the title "Prince" but Lakanaii historians called him the highest alii in the islands. Akuli might have been king of Lakanaii, oldest and wildest and richest of the islands, maybe even of Hawaii, had not his grandfather been defeated in battle in 1810 by the first and greatest of the Kamehamehas.
The narrator first met Akuli "talking with an Oxford accent, in the officers' mess of the Black Watch in South Africa. This was just before that famous regiment was cut to pieces at Magersfontein." (NOTE: The Anglo-Boer War battle of Magersfontein, in the Cape Colony of South Africa, took place on December 11, 1899, and resulted in a defeat for British forces.)
Akuli says his father believed in nothing but sugar stocks and horse breeding but his mother collected the bones of ancestors. An old family retainer, Ahuna, knew the burial place of centuries of the family's ancestors and Akuli accompanied the old man to the Ponuloo Valley where their canoe was swamped and the outrigger smashed. They then journeyed up "A Jacob's ladder to the sky," straight up, 3,000 miles above the sea, and into a valley of naked, eroded lava in which was a deep pool. Akuli explored a subterranean chamber, followed by old Ahuna. The burial cave was filled with the traces of the Hawaiian race from the beginning of time: bundles of bones wrapped in tapa, inlaid wood, mats, capes, leis, helmets, cloaks, carved gourds and calabashes, shell scrapers, nets, baskets, fishhooks, ukukes and nose-flutes, poi bowls, lava-cup lamps, carvings, stone mortars and petals, adzes, poi pounders, drums, canoes, outriggers, pistols, derringers, pepper-boxes, five-barrelled fantastiques, Kentucky long rifles, muskets handled in trade by John Company and Hudson's Bay, shark-tooth swords, wooden stabbing-knives, arrows and spears bone-headed of the fish and the pig and of man, and spears and arrows wooden-headed and fire-hardened.
Ahuna produced the ancestral bones and Akuli took a shin-bone of Keola, a mighty wrestler who died for love of a woman and another of the woman, Lauilani, that he loved. They returned to his mother who put the bones in glass jars with the others.
“...we stink of gasoline.”After the car comes to rescue them, Akuli tells the narrator, "I believe in no mystery stuff of old time . . . yet I saw in that cave things which I dare not name to you, and which I, since old Ahuna died, alone of the living know. I have no children. With me my long line ceases. This is the twentieth century, and we stink of gasoline."
He says he still has the shin bones of Laulani and Keola and "they changed the entire course of my life and trend of my mind. They gave me a modesty and a humility in the world from which my father's fortune has ever failed to seduce me. . ."
"Man of Mine" (Hearst's Magazine, February, 1917; reprinted as "The Kanaka Surf" in On the Makaloa Mat, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1919) is a love story with a lot of satirical humor (one hopes!) involving two impossibly beautiful, unimaginably demi-god-like Anglo-Saxons named Lee Barton and wife Ida. She is the envy of all and sundry as she emerges from the bathhouse. People are shocked by her swimming suit but it is is not just the swimwear, it is "the totality of her, the sweet and brilliant jewel of her femininity bursting upon them." She causes "the sex-jealous thought" that "no woman, so beautiful as this one, should be permitted to show her beauty."
“It's positively indecent”They talk about her charms on the beach. Hanley Black's wife, a stout-in-the-middle matron of 45, thinks "It's positively indecent" while her husband "surveyed his wife's criminal shapelessness and voluminousness of ante-diluvian, New England swimming dress with a withering, contemplative eye" and tells her in a sentence never uttered by a human before or since, "You appear as a creature shameful, under a grotesqueness of apparel striving to hide some secret awfulness."
As the the Bartons go swimming off Waikiki Beach London provides a long, peculiar, oddly venomous, utterly non sequitur, aside; a screed boiling up from — what? Its overabundance of polysyllabic ranting about phantom book reviewers, dreary, "ordinary" folk, "meager personalities," and the like, seems to be vaguely humorous, somewhat Freudian, satire; if not, London was perhaps ill, at least in ill-humor, when he wrote:
"For, be it known in advance, Lee Barton was a super-man and Ida Barton a super-woman--or at least the were personalities so designated by the cub book reviewers, flat-floor men and women, and scholastically emasculated critics, who, from across the dreary levels of their living, can descry no glorious humans overtopping their horizons. These dreary folk, echoes of the dead past and importunate and self-elected pallbearers for the present and future, proxy livers of life and vicarious sensualists that they are in a eunuch sort of way, insist, since their own selves, environments, and narrow agitations of the quick are mediocre and commonplace, that no man or woman can rise above the mediocre and commonplace.
"Lacking gloriousness in themselves, they deny gloriousness to all mankind; too cowardly for whimsy and derring-do, they assert whimsy and derring do ceased at the very latest no later than the Middle Ages; flickering little tapers themselves, their feeble eyes are dazzled to unseeingness of the floaming conflagrations of other souls that illumine their skies. Possessing power in no greater quantity than is the just due of pygmies, they cannot conceive of power greater in others than in themselves. In those days there were giants; but, as their moldy books tell them, the giants are long since passed and only the bones of them remain. Never having seen the mountains, there are no mountains.
"In the mud of their complacently perpetuated barnyard pond, they assert that no bright-browed, bright-appareled, shining figures can be outside of fairy books, old histories, and ancient superstitions. Never having seen the stars, they deny the stars. Never having glimpsed shining ways nor the mortals that tread them, they deny the existence of the shining ways as well as the existence of the high-bright mortals who venture along the shining ways. The narrow pupils of their eyes the center of the universe, they image the universe in terms of themselves, of their meager personalities make pitiful yardsticks with which to measure the high-bright souls, saying: 'Thus long are all souls, and no longer; it is impossible that there should exist greater-statured souls than we are, and our gods know that we are great of stature.'"
There are two surfs at Waikiki: "a big, bearded-man surf that roars far out beyond the diving stage; the smaller, gentler, wahine or woman, surf that breaks upon the shore itself. The Bartons, naturally, dip in the Kanaka surf, in which "no one ventured" since it swamps outriggers and surf boards. As they swim in it, a member of the Outrigger Club watches and now appears among them. He is Sonny Grandison, the most preposterous ubermensch in all of London's fiction. Grandison is Hawaiian-born and prominent, age 41, a widow ten years, his father owner of the great Lakanaii cattle ranch. He was educated at Harvard, served in the Philippine Insurrection, accompanied expeditions through Maylasia, South America and Africa, was an entomologist with a traveling commission from the Smithsonian, is worth $10 millions, is a polo-player, a "clean-and-strong-featured brunette, tall, slendly graceful, with the lean runners' stomach, always fit as a fiddle, a distinguished figure in any group," the most eligible and sought-after man in Hawaii.
Suddenly there is a triangle — Sonny and Ida seem to be contriving to be together at parties, picnics, luaus, dances, dinners, outings, midnight swims, and rides home, and Lee Barton, perspicacious fellow, suspects his wife and Grandison are having an "affair," an especially poignant suspicion when he accidently sees them embracing among the night-blooming cereus, monkey pods, scarlet double-hibiscus and algarroba.
Lee and Ida go for a swim in the Kanaka surf and Lee feigns leg cramps so bad he beseeches Ida to swim for shore lest he pull her down with him. She refuses, kneads his muscles and stays with him. When the "attack" passes, she says, "I feel I'm the happiest woman in the world. . ." and he says "And I'm the proudest man in the world," after which she confesses that Sonny Grandison — who is sailing to the Malay coast to inspect his lumber and rubber holdings — "rather lost his — head over me." She admits that she slightly lost her head, too, letting Sonny embrace and kiss her even though she didn't love him.
Barton says "Oh, well, you know you're my one woman. Enough said." But it wasn't enough said for he says he has something "ridiculously rich and all about me and the foolishness of me over you" to tell her, but not for five years.
Alice Akana, age 50, has lived her life spaciously. She is a living repository of accurate, often embarrassing information on such matters as land issues, marriages, births, bequests and scandals. She is mistress of a hula house in Honolulu and knows where all the skeletons are hidden. Such is the premise of "When Alice Told Her Soul" (Cosmopolitan, March, 1918).
Alice gets caught up in the preaching of Abel Ah Yo, "as much mixed a personage as Billy Sunday," a Pentecostal preacher of one-fourth each Portuguese, Hawaiian, Japanese and Scotch. He is thus "Of no race, a mongrel par excellence, a heterogenous scrabble, the genius of the admixture" and an apostate of the Church of England" and his mission is to convince Alice to bear her soul in public, as Protestants insist, and tell all so that she can enter God's kingdom.
Caught up in Abel Ah Yo's ministry, Alice closes up the hula house, divests herself of her "gala colors and raiments," bought and dispersed bibles. But this is not sufficient for Abel who tells her she must choose between loyalty to God or to man, that God would not smile upon her until she was reborn, and to be reborn she must tell her soul. "If I ever tell my soul, it will be a big telling," she says, "flirting on the fringes of paradise."
People begin talking about Alice and she finds herself "abruptly popular with friends who had forgotten her existence for twenty years." People accost her and try to wriggle out of transgressions they knew she knew: industrialists, politicians, lawyers, bankers. And she began receiving gifts, her house becoming a Mecca for pilgrims bearing squid, opihis, limu, alligator pears, roasting corn, suckling pigs, banana poi, crabs, boxes of candy, bolts of pina cloth from the Philippines and in one case, a Mandarin coat.
Alice struggles with her soul while half of Honolulu hangs on the outcome.
Finally, after a particularly brilliant exhortation by Abel Ah Yo, replete with brimstone images of hell's burning (he had caught on to Alice's weakness — terror of earthquakes and volcanoes), she gave in and word went out that Alice, "the penitent Phyrne of Honolulu," would tell her soul in a revival meeting at his tabernacle.
Alice tells all — people with bad hearts, peculations, crooked dealings, "cutting high in business, financial and social life, as well as low. None was too high or too low to escape; and not until two in the morning, before an entranced audience that packed the tabernacle to the doors, did she complete her recital of the personal and detailed iniquities she knew of the community in which she had lived intimately all her days."
Afterward, some veteran islanders talk about old John Ward, a beach-comber and drunken reprobate — with a perfect memory. They speculate on what might happen if Abel Ah Yo got John Ward in his clutches, and vote that this grand old kamaaina deserved to be presented with tickets to his ancestral home in Sag Harbor and expenses for a year's trip. There was no dissent in the plan to send to Sag Harbor the Noble Pioneer, John Ward, "in Recognition of a Lifetime of Devotion of Energy to the Upbuilding of Hawaii."
In Glen Ellen in the fall of 1916, no more than three months before his death, London produced one of his finest stories, "Like Argus of the Ancient Times" (Hearst's Magazine, March, 1917), a late-life return to the Klondike.
The story opens in the summer of 1897 with trouble in and amongst the Tarwater family as Grandfather Tarwater was getting itchy feet for the Klondike. He had previously been a 49er, at age 20, selling his 240 Michigan acres for the price of four yoke of oxen and a wagon, and starting off across the plains, headed for California.
After years of freighting and mining and with a stake in the Merced placers he settled in Sonoma County, then ten years past he got the fever to hunt gold in Patagonia, and lifted his hoarse, cracked voice in song:
Like Argus of the ancient times,
His multitudinous family was naturally much opposed to any such talk from the then sixty-year-old and "The application of lawyers to John Tarwater was like the application of a mustard plaster."
After the Patagonia fever passed he deeded over to his family ten acres of Tarwater Flat and retained for himself only a span of old horses, a mountain buckboard and one room in the crowded house. He got a job as contract mail deliverer, twice a week from Kelterville up over Tarwater Mountain to Old Almaden, and for ten years he never missed a trip, rain or shine, nor failed to pay rent to his daughter Mary. The family thought him "mildly crazy."
“...the bottoms of my feet is itching...”Now he talked of going to the Klondike "and pick up enough gold to buy back the Tarwater lands," for which effort he was called an "old fool. " His son William told him the lands would cost $300,000, that ocean travel cost money and the old man didn't have any, and said the papers were warning that only the young and robust could stand the Klondike, a place worse than the north pole. Basically the Tarwater clan said Grandfather was "crazy as a loon," to which he said, "Just the same, the bottoms of my feet is itching something terrible."
One morning, long before family breakfast, Old Man Tarwater left the house, drove his team down Tarwater Valley to Keltrville and turned off the main road to Santa Rosa, taking with him one black suit. He sold the suit for $2.50, the wedding ring for $4, the span of horses and wagon for $75, collected a $10 debt, borrowed a dollar off a drunk and took the afternoon train to San Francisco.
Twelve days later he landed in the bedlam on Dyea beach in Yukon Territory with a half-empty sack of blankets and spare clothes and headed up the trail toward Chilkoot Pass`.
The next day he fished a man named Anson out of the river and shared breakfast with him. At Anson's camp he was introduced to Anson's partners. He washed dishes, foraged for dry wood, mended a packstrap, sharpened a butcher-knife and camp ax, and repacked the picks and shovels.
Tarwater proposes that Anson take him along to do the cooking, making packs and toting a load in exchange for passage on their boat. He was willing to sign a paper that he would shift for himself once they reach Dawson. Anson said they have to get "young Liverpool's " vote, a man they said was blasphemous, with a quick temper, but fair.
At Sheep Camp, the Scales, across Chilcoot, above timber-line in the first swirl of autumn snow, Father Christmas sang his quatrain. At Crater Lake, Long Lake, Deep Lake, Lake Lindeman, Lake Bennett, Lake Le Barge, he took part in the man-killing race against winter.
But he began to break, developed a cough and chills by the time they took the boat to the rapids in the fall blizzards. At one point Liverpool offered to give him $600 to take passage home but Tarwater kindly refused, saying he was going to Klondike and shake $300,000 out of the moss-roots.
In Dawson Tarwater passed the winter chopping firewood, running trap-lines and hibernating in a log cabin.
By the end of January, '98, he got lost in a heavy snowfall while following a bobcat that had dragged a trap away. He was warmly clad, had killed a moose and made a camp in the spruce-bottom, prepared to last out the winter unless a search party found him or scurvy claimed him.
After two weeks, the scurvy grew worse and he sank deep into a torpor, "unaware of what was day-dream and what was sleep-dream in the content of his unconsciousness. And here, in the unforgettable crypts of man's unwritten history, unthinkable and unrealizable, like passages of nightmare or impossible adventures of lunacy, he encountered the monsters created of man's first morality that ever since have vexed him into the spinning of fantasies to elude them or do battle with them."
In delirium, "in the dusk of Death's fluttery wings," he sank until reality came crashing upon his ears and he stared vague-eyed across his dying fire at a huge moose that "stared at him in startlement, dragging a wounded leg. . ."
(NOTE: Franklin Walker wrote that London had read Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious  when he introduced the idea of racial memory in John Tarwater's fever-dream sequence. See Jack London and the Klondike, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966.)
The old man shot the moose, realized the temperature was lower than sixty below, realized the moose had trailed him from the east and therefore in the east there were men. He packed twenty pounds of moose meat and "an Argus rejuvenated," lame of legs and tottery, came down the hill to a camp, singing.
In under a week he was up and limping, recovering from scurvy, doing cabin housework for five men at the creek, genuine sourdoughs. He found a bench formation across the creek and after the thaw, climbed to it and gathered a bunch of moss and ripped it out by the roots. "The sun smoldered on dully glistening yellow. He shook the handful of moss, and coarse nuggets, like gravel, fell to the ground. It was the Golden Fleece ready for the shearing."
He sold his holdings for a half-million, "faced for California," and arrived home a true prodigal grandfather. He strolled around his property with his sons and daughters "fulsomely eating out of the gnarled old hand that had half a million dollars to disburse." Tarwater Valley, Tarwater Mountain was his again and it remained to be witnessed what he would do with the doubters of his multitudinous family.
NOTE: Tarwater was based on a real character, an old man London met at Sheep Camp above Dyea Canyon in August, 1897, when he and his companions were working their way toward Dawson City. According to Fred Thompson, one of London's friends who was there, Tarwater was from Santa Rosa, about 70 years old, and proved very helpful with cooking, packing, and repairing camp gear.
In August 17, 2000, I had the good fortune to meet a descendent of "John" Tarwater at the Jack London Bookstore and Research Center in Glen Ellen, California. She came to a monthly reading at the bookstore in which "Like Argus of the Ancient Times" was the August selection. She was Gloria Tarwater Sellander of Petaluma, California, great-granddaughter of Martin Wilbur Tarwater, the actual namesake of the immortal John Tarwater of Jack London's story.
A charming retired schoolteacher, Mrs. Sellander told of her own discovery that her forebear had served as a model for the Jack London hero, and also provided the audience with some fascinating detail about her grandfather: Martin "Mart" Tarwater was born in 1831 in Ray City, Missouri (and was thus only 66 when he ventured to the Yukon), and died, of "acute asthma," on May 20, 1898, at Fort Yukon. He and another man, Orion T. Thomas of Los Angeles, were cutting wood on an island in the Yukon River when Tarwater became ill."
Before he caught the "Klondike fever" Tarwater had served many years as a mail carrier in the Santa Rosa area and, as the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported in its news of his death, "Few men were better known, and at every fireside in Sonoma county he was a welcome guest."
"The Princess" (Cosmopolitan, June, 1918) is another of London's fabulous coincidence stories, the coincidences in this one topping all others: Three hobos, each with one arm and each having South Seas adventures, meet quite accidentally in a hobo jungle.
One hobo, "truly horrible-appearing," was an alki-stiff who had degenerated into a stew-bum. "What was visible of his face looked as if at some period it had stopped a hand-grenade." His nose was malformed, one nostril tilted upward toward the sky; one eye weepy and seemingly on the verge of popping out, the other "scarcely larger than a squirrel's and uncannily bright, twisted up obliquely into the hair scar of a bone-crushed eyebrow." He was one-armed.
Another man emerged, grotesquely fat, also one-armed, carrying a bindle in which is a twelve ounce bottle of something alcoholic.
A third man joined them, gaunt, tall, toothless, thin-lipped, "as repellant a nightmare of old age as ever Dore imagined," with "beady gray eyes, unblinking and unwavering . . . bitter as death, bleak as absolute zero and as merciless." He was also one-armed.
They began spinning tales, Fatty first: Percival Delaney was his name, of a good family, "not unknown at Oxford," a gay young dog, played ducks and drakes at home but also polo, steeple-chasing, boxing, wrestling, swimming, and had medals in backjumping in Australia.
His Princess, Tui-nui, was Polynesian, glowing, golden, lovable, royal, high-spirited, a mermaid, a sea-goddesses, a fine figure of a woman, on the island of Talofa where her father was king. "As a woman she was ravishing, sublime," Delaney said. "I have said she was a sea-goddess. She was. Oh, for a Phidias, or a Praxiteles to have made the wonder of her body immortal!"
They played a game to bring up squid, the wagers kisses. He encountered a tiger shark, the Princess ten feet away and the shark headed for her. He jabbed the shark with his squid-stick, the shark took his arm off just below the elbow. At least he got a thumb in the shark's eye.
From above those in canoes witnessed his act and, Delaney claimed, "To this day they still sing the song of me," and as for the Princess "she married me. . ."
Whiskers, a/k/a Chauncey Delarouse, said he also was once "a considerable figure of a man, three score and ten behind him, indulgent family, exiled out over the world. His Princess was also Polynesian, of Jolly Island — real name, Manatomana, the Island of Tranquil Laughter, where John Asibeli Tungi was king. He was known as John the Apostate, having thrown down Catholicism, Methodism, Second Reformed Wesleyanism, and had pronounced religious liberty and high tariffs and took to worshiping his ancestors. His wife Queen Mamare, a Baptist, and her daughter, the Princess, was "the Diana type of Polynesian." ethereal, sublimated by purity, shy and modest as a violet, fragile-slender as a lily. "She was woman, all woman, to the last sensitive, quivering atom of her," he said. She also played piano.
Chauncey fell in love with her, built a bungalow, converted to religion, had schooners carrying bibles in their cargo, gave up liquor and gambling and agreed to use some of his riches to build a big church.
He had a rival, Motomoe, a high chief who sneered at his religion and challenged Chauncey to a fight. Delarouse said he caught his arm in a cane crusher and Motomoe took a cane knife — like a machete — and hacked the arm off just outside the shoulder to prevent Chauncey being crushed to death in the cane machine.
He married the Princess. "Alackaday! Shuttlecock and battledore," he said obscurely, ". . . .Yet have I lived, and I kiss my hand to the dear dust of my Princess long asleep in the great mausoleum of King John that looks across the Vale of Manona to the alien flag that floats over the bungalow of the British Government House. . ."
Slim, also known as Bruce Cadogan Cavendish, says he has lived a hard life. He was a drinker who found himself on the island of Tagalag, master and owner of a schooner running blackbird labor from the West South Pacific and the Coral Sea to the plantations of Hawaii and the nitrate mines of Chile.
Cavenish says he was at Taki-Tiki in the Solomons, fishing for bêche-de-mer, trading hoop iron and hatchets for copra and ivory-nuts, "running niggers and all the rest of it" in head-hunter country where each village ran a jack-pot and whoever brought in a white man's head won it. Then his schooner, the Merry Mist, got caught in typhoon, four men surviving in a boat with boxes of square-face gin and dynamite. They came upon Tagalag, a volcanic cone with the sea entrance into the broken crater, 4,000 coconut palms, no four-legged animals, schools of mullet in the harbor.
Olaf, "a squarehead sailor," was first to try to dynamite the fish and didn't come back; next day the cook also blew himself up, then the carpenter. Cavendish remained and went out in the boat with a third of a stick. He had too much gin and asked, "Did you ever stem a strawberry and throw the strawberry away and pop the stem into your mouth? That's what I did. I threw the fire-stick into the water after the mullet and held onto the dynamite. And my arm went off with the stick. . ."
Slim yawed "Heigh-ho" and started down the path to the river.
"Yes, but. . ." Fatty suggested. "What happened then?"
"Oh," said Slim. "Then the Princess married me, of course."
"But you were the only person left, and there wasn't any Princess. . ."
Slim stares unblinkingly into the fire and Percival Delaney and Chauncey Delarouse tied their bindles and walked out of the circle of light.
Charmian London wrote that "The Water Baby" (Cosmopolitan, September, 1918), London's last written story, ". . . is clearly a symbolic representation of the Rebirth, the return to the Mother, exemplified by the arguments of the old Hawaiian Kohokumu." (The Book of Jack London, New York: The Century Co., 1920, II, 354.) Whether that is a reasonable description it remains debatable, but this last story is a fine story.
Island-born narrator John Lakana and old Kohokumu, the latter chanting the deeds and adventures of Maui, the Promethean demigod of Polynesia, fish for squid with Kohokumu going forty feet down though he is past seventy years, "lean as a spear, and shriveled like a mummy." He comes up wrapped up in an octopus nine feet across, shoving his face into it and biting into its heart.
He says the sea is his mother, he was born in a double canoe during a Kona gale in the channel of Kahoolawe.
Kohokumu tells of a young boy named Keikiwai, meaning Water Baby, who knew the language of the fishes. The King was making a progress around the island and a luau was to be served to him at Waihee, with dancers, flute players, hulas, and food. The king's favorite food was lobster but there were too many sharks inside the reef for lobster gathering.
The sharks talked of a traitor among them, measured their tails and devoured the one with the shortest tail.
Water Baby repeated his prayer and each time came up with a lobster. The sharks measured tails and devoured the shortest tailed among them until there are only two sharks left. And after the one shark ate the one other, the people of Waihee went away with plenty of lobsters for the king and the one surviving shark was found washed up on the beach, burst wide open from all the others sharks he had eaten.
Kohokumu says he has dived for lobsters at the very spot the Water Baby did and counted thirty lava rocks on the bottom."You can count them any day for yourself," he said.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
To Dave Hartzell, who coaxed this series along, reminding me when too many months had passed between the "parts," and who created the artistic design of the whole thing, I am immensely grateful. And to Dan Wichlan my deepest appreciation for vetting each installment for factual errors. All embarrassments I have been spared are due to the work of these two gentlemen; all embarrassments that remain are mine alone.
End of Series
|« View Series Index||
Copyright © 2008 by Dale L. Walker
|Jack London: The Stories|
|Home :: Biography :: Ranch Album :: Writings :: Links|