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Part VII of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
At the end of 1898, Jack London had written a career total of 22 short stories (from the "Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan" through "The Handsome Cabin Boy"), eight of which had been published. The true first year of London's professional writing career, 1898 was lean in numbers — nine stories written — but the nine included such immortals as "The Men of Forty-Mile," "To the Man on Trail," and "The White Silence."
In 1899, the floodgates opened: He wrote 25 stories that year and, as we have seen, the quality is exceptionally high with such tales as "The Priestly Prerogative," "The Son of the Wolf," "In a Far Country," "An Odyssey of the North," "The Wife of a King," and "The Wisdom of the Trail."
These are the last six of London's 1898 stories:
"At the Rainbow's End" (Pittsburgh [Pa.] Leader, March 24, 1901), is a 4,000-word tale of the shyster and ne'er-do-well Montana Kid who becomes a Dawson celebrity for his uncanny ability to collect important news. He plunges the town into mourning by announcing the deaths of Jack Dalton and Swiftwater Bill Gates (the latter gone through the ice at Lake LaBarge with six members of a female opera troupe), that Joe Ladue had both legs frozen and amputated at Five Fingers, and that Bettles was on the wrecked Carthagina in Seymour Narrows. All the reports are from Montana's imagination, however, and he is forced to flee. He suffers a terrible fate at a woodcutter's cabin during the freeze-up of the Yukon when "A great wall of white flung itself upon the island. Trees, dogs, men were blotted out, as though the hand of God had wiped the face of nature clean."
In “The Proper 'Girlie'” (Smart Set, October-Nov, 1900), Ralph Ainslie always called Maud, his "blue-eyed and matronly" fiancee, "Girlie" and she called him "Boyo." With this history of embarrassing nicknames, there can be little wonder that after they are married Maud discovers something missing in their once-loving relationship.
Ralph seems to have had, or to be having, a fling with one Bertha and, resolving to put an end to the trouble, "invoked the epistolary demon" and commits that timelessly moronic act of committing to paper a message to his extracurricular lover. Naturally and inevitably, Maud finds the unfinished and unsent letter and its greeting, "Dear Girlie." In the text, Ralph, writing to Bertha, says he is making "certain arrangements." Maud believes the letter is directed to her, reproaches herself for doubting Ralph and when he comes in calls him "Boyo!"
I don't get it, either, but after dunning the magazine twice, Smart Set coughed up $14 for the story.
As has been seen in many of his early stories, young Jack was captivated by a world he had never entered (nor would he in his lifetime) and about which he knew nothing: high society. This is the milieu of "The End of the Chapter" (Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, June 9, 1900). Therein, one Jack Lennon, clubman and bon vivant, tells a friend identified only as Golden Youth, "The world, dear chap, is the only original and simon-pure synonym for hell." He also routinely contemplates such arcane and uncomprehensible matters as how "Hawthorne's auburn-haired woman in her secret sepulchre" came to somebody "with unpleasant vividness."
Lennon goes to his hotel apartment, orders a whisky and soda, shaves twice, manicures his nails, pins a bud on his lapel, takes a black leather case from his desk, lights a cigar, grasps a magazine, "and in company of the black leather case, stretches himself with a comfortable sigh on the sofa and murmurs something about 'The end of the chapter.'" After drawing a pistol he contemplates suicide but thinks, "The world? Not so long as one woman's foot twinkles above the ground. For with each foot goes a chapter, and there be many such feet."
London had to dun the newspaper to get the $5 owed him for this trifle.
"Siwash" (Ainslee's Magazine, March, 1901) is a "grit of woman" story, a familiar theme in London's northland fiction. The setting is a storm-whipped tent on Crater Lake in the Yukon. Two prospectors — Johnny, and a man named Dick Humphries — and an American woman, Molly, are in desperate straits. Molly goes out in the storm to attempt a journey to Dawson. Tommy later tells Humphries of his Siwash woman, Tilly, in a time of travail up past Surprise Lake. There, the grub gave out and they ate the dogs, and when the dogs gave out, ate their harnass and moccasins. "Never a whimper; never a pick-me-up-and-carry me. . . .never a I-told-you-so," and, Tommy says, the Siwash woman told him, "I'd sooner be flat-bellied of hunger and be your woman, Tommy, than have a potlatch every day and be Chief George's klooch." (George was chief of the Chilcoots.) After seven years, in rough sailing and smooth, she died in childbirth on the Chilcat Station, he holding her hand and listening as she made him promise that if he married again it would be to a white woman.
Meantime, Molly comes crawling back into the tent and falls exhausted. They give her dry clothes, go outside to re-peg the tent while she dresses. Tommy says her experience "knocked the edge off her for the rest of this trip."
"Semper Idem" was submitted to eight other magazines and syndicates before Boston-based The Black Cat bought it for $50 and published it in its December, 1900, issue. The original title, "Semper Idem, Semper Fidelis," was shortened by the editor, presumably Herman D. Umbstaetter. This hero of London's early career, in the spring of 1899 paid the writer $40 for the macabre story, "A Thousand Deaths" (see Part Three of this series), a sale, London said, that saved him "literally and literarily."
“Semper Idem is a man who has recovered from an operation after cutting his own throat...”
"Semper Idem" is a man who has recovered from an operation after cutting his own throat from ear to ear in a slum lodging. When he was found, bleeding to death, he had done the deed standing, his head bowed forward gazing at a photograph of a woman which bore the inscription, in a female hand, "Semper idem, semper fidelis" ("Always the same, always faithful"). The only other clue to the man's identity was that while his clothing and surroundings were those of the lowest laborer, his hands were the hands of a gentleman.
As Semper Idem is getting discharged from the hospital, a Dr. Bicknell offers him some advice: "Next time you try it, hold your chin up, so. Don't snuggle it down and butcher yourself like a cow. Neatness and despatch, you know. Neatness and despatch."
Some days later, an ambulance delivers a corpse to the hospital. The attendent says, "Suicide--throat cut. Down on Morgan Alley." Bicknell takes a look, says, "Properly done, upon my life, sir, properly done. Took my advice to the letter. I'm not required here. Take it along to the morgue."
"The God of His Fathers" (McClure's, May, 1901), among the longest (at 6,000 words), most brutally powerful, and best of London's early short fiction, is a story of race — the first among many London stories with this underlying current. The action takes place somewhere in the Mackenzie River region of the primeval northland where Baptiste the Red, a Red River-born half-breed chief, rules with a hatred for the Christian God which he believes has betrayed him in the past. Into this dangerous milieu come three white men, Hay Stockard, his companion Bill, and a fanatical priest named Sturgis Owen, all quickly learning Baptiste's vow that "for each white man who comes to my village, him will I make deny his god."
Baptiste wants the priest, Sturgis Owen ("disseminator of light and apostle to the Lord") turned over to him, and offers Stockard and Bill their freedom, but Stockard says no: ". . . he's my own breed – white – and – why, I couldn't buy my life with his, not if he was a nigger." A battle ensues: Stockard's Indian wife is killed and when one of Baptiste's men kills their baby, Stockard's ax splits the killer's head.
In the end Sturgis Owen suffers "an ecstasy of fear" when brought before Baptiste and denies his god out of his "feebleness of spirit." But Stockard, "The heroic figure of the blasphemer," suffering many wounds and bristling with arrows, leans defiantly upon his axe, "indomitable, superb," and when asked by Baptiste, "Has thou a god?", says, "Ay, the God of my fathers," and is speared to death.
From the opening line ("On every hand stretched the forest primeval, – the home of noisy comedy and silent tragedy") to such imagery as, "From an island on the breast of the Yukon a colony of wild fowl voiced its interminable wrongs, while a loon laughed mockingly back across a still stretch of water," the story is elegantly written with the prose poetry of "The White Silence," The Call of the Wild, and other of London's northland masterworks.
"The God of His Fathers" appeared in a prestigious magazine which paid the author a prestigious $120 for it after he agreed to make some changes — probably to tone down the violence.
London's sixteen-story production in 1900 began with "Chased by the Trail" (See Part Six of this series), and was followed by "The Lost Poacher" (Youth's Companion, March 14, 1901), a longish (nearly 4,000 words) story born from London's experiences as a seaman on the Sophia Sutherland in 1895. The poacher is the sealing schooner Mary Thomas, hunting the seal pack along the coast of Japan and north of the Bering Sea, running into a heavy fog, and unwittingly crossing the line "where the Russian bear kept guard" with 1,500 seal skins in salt piles in the hold. John Lewis, the ship's "sea-lawyer," predicts they — the 23-men on the ship — will be picked up by a Russian patrol and hauled off to Siberia for poaching in Russian waters even though they are innocent.
When the fog lifts, the schooner makes a run for it but a Russian patrol cruiser finds them and an officer boards and seizes the vessel in the name of the tsar after inspecting the fur cache in the hold.
"Bub" Russell, the cabin boy, is taken aboard the Russian cruiser and in the darkness lays down near the hawser and works on it with a jack-knife. The towing-rope parts and by the time the Russians discover it, the Americans have disappeared. Two weeks later a U.S. man-of-war, steaming out of the port of Vladivostok, is hailed by the Russians and Bub Russell is dropped over the rail to the deck of the American ship; a week later he is put ashore at Hakodate, and after some telegraphing, his fare is paid on the railroad to Yokohama. There he hires a sampan to put him aboard "a certain vessel whose familiar rigging had quickly caught his eye," and he was soon underway back to the U.S. with the cheers of the ship's crew.
London's 50th story written, 42nd story published, ninth and final story to appear in the Overland Monthly (May, 1901) was the lengthy (8,700 words) and amusing, "The Scorn of Women." It is the tale of Bonanza King Floyd Vanderlip and the several women he gets involved with out of his own "lack of co-ordination."
There is Freda, a Greek dancer and femme fatale whose "name was common on the lips of men"; Mrs. Eppingwell, wife of a sea captain and head of the social constellation of the Klondike, her worth attested to by Sitka Charley who had traveled trails with her during famine time; Loraine Lisznayi, a Hungarian "model-woman" with a cosmopolitan reputation; and Flossie, a girl in the states Floyd remembers and arranges to come north to marry him.
Floyd is strong, hard-working, a cool head, but has a weakness: "His parts were strong, but they lacked co-ordination" and while waiting for Flossie falls for Loraine (who has come to north to be married and improve her finances), and her cosmopolitan reputation.
Meantime, Freda hears of the goings-on between Floyd and Loraine and her heart goes out to Flossie, "a shrinking, clinging sort of girl," as Freda pictures her. Mrs. Eppingwell, too, hears the story and also feels sorry for Flossie. Mrs. E. invites Floyd to tea and he glories in the attention being paid him by the three women, with a fourth en route.
Loraine, the Hungarian beauty, manages to capture Floyd but through the connivance of Sitka Charley — who sends fresh dogs to the government courier escorting Flossie — and Freda, and Mrs. Eppingwell, before he and Lorraine can make a run downriver to wed at Forty Mile, Floyd is stalled at the Governor's masquerade ball until Flossie arrives.
The lesson? "The way of a man with a maid may be too wonderful to know, but the way of a woman with a man passeth all conception. . ."
The Overland Monthly paid $20 for the story, a bit less than ¼-cent per word.
In her Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999), Jeanne Campbell Reesman calls "The Minions of Midas" (Pearson's, May 1901) one of three of London's "Mad Master" stories — the others are "Goliah" and "The Enemy of All the World" (both 1907). These are futuristic, socialistic, tales which Reesman believes are related to the mad scientist story "A Thousand Deaths" (1899), and the two Klondike tall tales, "A Relic of the Pliocene" and "A Hyperborean Brew" (both 1900).
The story concerns a band of anarchists calling themselves the Minions of Midas who, in August, 1899, attempt to extort $20 million from a "money baron," Eban Hale, a railway magnate, by threatening to kill a random series of innocent citizens. The blackmail letter states the Minions are "devoid of animus" and are members of the "intellectual proletariat."
Hale treats the letter lightly but receives another letter from the Minions which points out that one "workingman" has been killed and on a certain date a policeman will be murdered near the corner of Polk Street and Clermont Avenue and thereafter a person will be killed weekly.
A man of iron, Hale refuses to give in as the weeks pass with a growing list of victims. Hale hardens his heart, begins spending a fortune for "secret service," Pinkertons and countless private detective agencies. Still the messages continue to arrive and people — babies, old men, the police chief, the daughter of a judge — continue to die.
Eban Hale dies in bed of "asphyxiation," and Wade Atsheler, his executive assistant, learns that the Minions of Midas is even more powerful than Hale and he suspected: other millionaires have been blackmailed, the federal government is helpless, similar branch societies are operating in Europe.
Atsheler commits suicide but leaves the documents of the crimes of the Minions to be made public upon his death. In the letter accompanying the papers, he writes, "Let the press strike off millions of copies; let the electric currents sweep it round the world; wherever men meet and speak, let them speak of it in fear and trembling. And then, when thoroughly aroused, let society arise in its might and cast out this abomination."
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Copyright © 2005 by Dale L. Walker
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