WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Jack London (1904) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
“You’ve been on deck, Mr. Van Weyden,” Wolf Larsen said, the following morning at the breakfast-table, “How do things look?”
“Clear enough,” I answered, glancing at the sunshine which streamed down the open companion-way. “Fair westerly breeze, with a promise of stiffening, if Louis predicts correctly.”
He nodded his head in a pleased way. “Any signs of fog?”
“Thick banks in the north and north-west.”
He nodded his head again, evincing even greater satisfaction than before.
“What of the Macedonia?”
“Not sighted,” I answered.
I could have sworn his face fell at the intelligence, but why he should be disappointed I could not conceive.
I was soon to learn. “Smoke ho!” came the hail from on deck, and his face brightened.
“Good!” he exclaimed, and left the table at once to go on deck and into the steerage, where the hunters were taking the first breakfast of their exile.
Maud Brewster and I scarcely touched the food before us, gazing, instead, in silent anxiety at each other, and listening to Wolf Larsen’s voice, which easily penetrated the cabin through the intervening bulkhead. He spoke at length, and his conclusion was greeted with a wild roar of cheers. The bulkhead was too thick for us to hear what he said; but whatever it was it affected the hunters strongly, for the cheering was followed by loud exclamations and shouts of joy.
From the sounds on deck I knew that the sailors had been routed out and were preparing to lower the boats. Maud Brewster accompanied me on deck, but I left her at the break of the poop, where she might watch the scene and not be in it. The sailors must have learned whatever project was on hand, and the vim and snap they put into their work attested their enthusiasm. The hunters came trooping on deck with shot-guns and ammunition-boxes, and, most unusual, their rifles. The latter were rarely taken in the boats, for a seal shot at long range with a rifle invariably sank before a boat could reach it. But each hunter this day had his rifle and a large supply of cartridges. I noticed they grinned with satisfaction whenever they looked at the Macedonia’s smoke, which was rising higher and higher as she approached from the west.
The five boats went over the side with a rush, spread out like the ribs of a fan, and set a northerly course, as on the preceding afternoon, for us to follow. I watched for some time, curiously, but there seemed nothing extraordinary about their behaviour. They lowered sails, shot seals, and hoisted sails again, and continued on their way as I had always seen them do. The Macedonia repeated her performance of yesterday, “hogging” the sea by dropping her line of boats in advance of ours and across our course. Fourteen boats require a considerable spread of ocean for comfortable hunting, and when she had completely lapped our line she continued steaming into the north-east, dropping more boats as she went.
“What’s up?” I asked Wolf Larsen, unable longer to keep my curiosity in check.
“Never mind what’s up,” he answered gruffly. “You won’t be a thousand years in finding out, and in the meantime just pray for plenty of wind.”
“Oh, well, I don’t mind telling you,” he said the next moment. “I’m going to give that brother of mine a taste of his own medicine. In short, I’m going to play the hog myself, and not for one day, but for the rest of the season,—if we’re in luck.”
“And if we’re not?” I queried.
“Not to be considered,” he laughed. “We simply must be in luck, or it’s all up with us.”
He had the wheel at the time, and I went forward to my hospital in the forecastle, where lay the two crippled men, Nilson and Thomas Mugridge. Nilson was as cheerful as could be expected, for his broken leg was knitting nicely; but the Cockney was desperately melancholy, and I was aware of a great sympathy for the unfortunate creature. And the marvel of it was that still he lived and clung to life. The brutal years had reduced his meagre body to splintered wreckage, and yet the spark of life within burned brightly as ever.
“With an artificial foot—and they make excellent ones—you will be stumping ships’ galleys to the end of time,” I assured him jovially.
But his answer was serious, nay, solemn. “I don’t know about wot you s’y, Mr. Van W’yden, but I do know I’ll never rest ’appy till I see that ’ell-’ound bloody well dead. ’E cawn’t live as long as me. ’E’s got no right to live, an’ as the Good Word puts it, ‘’E shall shorely die,’ an’ I s’y, ‘Amen, an’ damn soon at that.’”
When I returned on deck I found Wolf Larsen steering mainly with one hand, while with the other hand he held the marine glasses and studied the situation of the boats, paying particular attention to the position of the Macedonia. The only change noticeable in our boats was that they had hauled close on the wind and were heading several points west of north. Still, I could not see the expediency of the manœuvre, for the free sea was still intercepted by the Macedonia’s five weather boats, which, in turn, had hauled close on the wind. Thus they slowly diverged toward the west, drawing farther away from the remainder of the boats in their line. Our boats were rowing as well as sailing. Even the hunters were pulling, and with three pairs of oars in the water they rapidly overhauled what I may appropriately term the enemy.
The smoke of the Macedonia had dwindled to a dim blot on the north-eastern horizon. Of the steamer herself nothing was to be seen. We had been loafing along, till now, our sails shaking half the time and spilling the wind; and twice, for short periods, we had been hove to. But there was no more loafing. Sheets were trimmed, and Wolf Larsen proceeded to put the Ghost through her paces. We ran past our line of boats and bore down upon the first weather boat of the other line.
“Down that flying jib, Mr. Van Weyden,” Wolf Larsen commanded. “And stand by to back over the jibs.”
I ran forward and had the downhaul of the flying jib all in and fast as we slipped by the boat a hundred feet to leeward. The three men in it gazed at us suspiciously. They had been hogging the sea, and they knew Wolf Larsen, by reputation at any rate. I noted that the hunter, a huge Scandinavian sitting in the bow, held his rifle, ready to hand, across his knees. It should have been in its proper place in the rack. When they came opposite our stern, Wolf Larsen greeted them with a wave of the hand, and cried:
“Come on board and have a ’gam’!”
“To gam,” among the sealing-schooners, is a substitute for the verbs “to visit,” “to gossip.” It expresses the garrulity of the sea, and is a pleasant break in the monotony of the life.
The Ghost swung around into the wind, and I finished my work forward in time to run aft and lend a hand with the mainsheet.
“You will please stay on deck, Miss Brewster,” Wolf Larsen said, as he started forward to meet his guest. “And you too, Mr. Van Weyden.”
The boat had lowered its sail and run alongside. The hunter, golden bearded like a sea-king, came over the rail and dropped on deck. But his hugeness could not quite overcome his apprehensiveness. Doubt and distrust showed strongly in his face. It was a transparent face, for all of its hairy shield, and advertised instant relief when he glanced from Wolf Larsen to me, noted that there was only the pair of us, and then glanced over his own two men who had joined him. Surely he had little reason to be afraid. He towered like a Goliath above Wolf Larsen. He must have measured six feet eight or nine inches in stature, and I subsequently learned his weight—240 pounds. And there was no fat about him. It was all bone and muscle.
A return of apprehension was apparent when, at the top of the companion-way, Wolf Larsen invited him below. But he reassured himself with a glance down at his host—a big man himself but dwarfed by the propinquity of the giant. So all hesitancy vanished, and the pair descended into the cabin. In the meantime, his two men, as was the wont of visiting sailors, had gone forward into the forecastle to do some visiting themselves.
Suddenly, from the cabin came a great, choking bellow, followed by all the sounds of a furious struggle. It was the leopard and the lion, and the lion made all the noise. Wolf Larsen was the leopard.
“You see the sacredness of our hospitality,” I said bitterly to Maud Brewster.
She nodded her head that she heard, and I noted in her face the signs of the same sickness at sight or sound of violent struggle from which I had suffered so severely during my first weeks on the Ghost.
“Wouldn’t it be better if you went forward, say by the steerage companion-way, until it is over?” I suggested.
She shook her head and gazed at me pitifully. She was not frightened, but appalled, rather, at the human animality of it.
“You will understand,” I took advantage of the opportunity to say, “whatever part I take in what is going on and what is to come, that I am compelled to take it—if you and I are ever to get out of this scrape with our lives.”
“It is not nice—for me,” I added.
“I understand,” she said, in a weak, far-away voice, and her eyes showed me that she did understand.
The sounds from below soon died away. Then Wolf Larsen came alone on deck. There was a slight flush under his bronze, but otherwise he bore no signs of the battle.
“Send those two men aft, Mr. Van Weyden,” he said.
I obeyed, and a minute or two later they stood before him. “Hoist in your boat,” he said to them. “Your hunter’s decided to stay aboard awhile and doesn’t want it pounding alongside.”
“Hoist in your boat, I said,” he repeated, this time in sharper tones as they hesitated to do his bidding.
“Who knows? you may have to sail with me for a time,” he said, quite softly, with a silken threat that belied the softness, as they moved slowly to comply, “and we might as well start with a friendly understanding. Lively now! Death Larsen makes you jump better than that, and you know it!”
Their movements perceptibly quickened under his coaching, and as the boat swung inboard I was sent forward to let go the jibs. Wolf Larsen, at the wheel, directed the Ghost after the Macedonia’s second weather boat.
Under way, and with nothing for the time being to do, I turned my attention to the situation of the boats. The Macedonia’s third weather boat was being attacked by two of ours, the fourth by our remaining three; and the fifth, turn about, was taking a hand in the defence of its nearest mate. The fight had opened at long distance, and the rifles were cracking steadily. A quick, snappy sea was being kicked up by the wind, a condition which prevented fine shooting; and now and again, as we drew closer, we could see the bullets zip-zipping from wave to wave.
The boat we were pursuing had squared away and was running before the wind to escape us, and, in the course of its flight, to take part in repulsing our general boat attack.
Attending to sheets and tacks now left me little time to see what was taking place, but I happened to be on the poop when Wolf Larsen ordered the two strange sailors forward and into the forecastle. They went sullenly, but they went. He next ordered Miss Brewster below, and smiled at the instant horror that leapt into her eyes.
“You’ll find nothing gruesome down there,” he said, “only an unhurt man securely made fast to the ring-bolts. Bullets are liable to come aboard, and I don’t want you killed, you know.”
Even as he spoke, a bullet was deflected by a brass-capped spoke of the wheel between his hands and screeched off through the air to windward.
“You see,” he said to her; and then to me, “Mr. Van Weyden, will you take the wheel?”
Maud Brewster had stepped inside the companion-way so that only her head was exposed. Wolf Larsen had procured a rifle and was throwing a cartridge into the barrel. I begged her with my eyes to go below, but she smiled and said:
“We may be feeble land-creatures without legs, but we can show Captain Larsen that we are at least as brave as he.”
He gave her a quick look of admiration.
“I like you a hundred per cent. better for that,” he said. “Books, and brains, and bravery. You are well-rounded, a blue-stocking fit to be the wife of a pirate chief. Ahem, we’ll discuss that later,” he smiled, as a bullet struck solidly into the cabin wall.
I saw his eyes flash golden as he spoke, and I saw the terror mount in her own.
“We are braver,” I hastened to say. “At least, speaking for myself, I know I am braver than Captain Larsen.”
It was I who was now favoured by a quick look. He was wondering if I were making fun of him. I put three or four spokes over to counteract a sheer toward the wind on the part of the Ghost, and then steadied her. Wolf Larsen was still waiting an explanation, and I pointed down to my knees.
“You will observe there,” I said, “a slight trembling. It is because I am afraid, the flesh is afraid; and I am afraid in my mind because I do not wish to die. But my spirit masters the trembling flesh and the qualms of the mind. I am more than brave. I am courageous. Your flesh is not afraid. You are not afraid. On the one hand, it costs you nothing to encounter danger; on the other hand, it even gives you delight. You enjoy it. You may be unafraid, Mr. Larsen, but you must grant that the bravery is mine.”
“You’re right,” he acknowledged at once. “I never thought of it in that way before. But is the opposite true? If you are braver than I, am I more cowardly than you?”
We both laughed at the absurdity, and he dropped down to the deck and rested his rifle across the rail. The bullets we had received had travelled nearly a mile, but by now we had cut that distance in half. He fired three careful shots. The first struck fifty feet to windward of the boat, the second alongside; and at the third the boat-steerer let loose his steering-oar and crumpled up in the bottom of the boat.
“I guess that’ll fix them,” Wolf Larsen said, rising to his feet. “I couldn’t afford to let the hunter have it, and there is a chance the boat-puller doesn’t know how to steer. In which case, the hunter cannot steer and shoot at the same time.”
His reasoning was justified, for the boat rushed at once into the wind and the hunter sprang aft to take the boat-steerer’s place. There was no more shooting, though the rifles were still cracking merrily from the other boats.
The hunter had managed to get the boat before the wind again, but we ran down upon it, going at least two feet to its one. A hundred yards away, I saw the boat-puller pass a rifle to the hunter. Wolf Larsen went amidships and took the coil of the throat-halyards from its pin. Then he peered over the rail with levelled rifle. Twice I saw the hunter let go the steering-oar with one hand, reach for his rifle, and hesitate. We were now alongside and foaming past.
“Here, you!” Wolf Larsen cried suddenly to the boat-puller. “Take a turn!”
At the same time he flung the coil of rope. It struck fairly, nearly knocking the man over, but he did not obey. Instead, he looked to his hunter for orders. The hunter, in turn, was in a quandary. His rifle was between his knees, but if he let go the steering-oar in order to shoot, the boat would sweep around and collide with the schooner. Also he saw Wolf Larsen’s rifle bearing upon him and knew he would be shot ere he could get his rifle into play.
“Take a turn,” he said quietly to the man.
The boat-puller obeyed, taking a turn around the little forward thwart and paying the line as it jerked taut. The boat sheered out with a rush, and the hunter steadied it to a parallel course some twenty feet from the side of the Ghost.
“Now, get that sail down and come alongside!” Wolf Larsen ordered.
He never let go his rifle, even passing down the tackles with one hand. When they were fast, bow and stern, and the two uninjured men prepared to come aboard, the hunter picked up his rifle as if to place it in a secure position.
“Drop it!” Wolf Larsen cried, and the hunter dropped it as though it were hot and had burned him.
Once aboard, the two prisoners hoisted in the boat and under Wolf Larsen’s direction carried the wounded boat-steerer down into the forecastle.
“If our five boats do as well as you and I have done, we’ll have a pretty full crew,” Wolf Larsen said to me.
“The man you shot—he is—I hope?” Maud Brewster quavered.
“In the shoulder,” he answered. “Nothing serious, Mr. Van Weyden will pull him around as good as ever in three or four weeks.”
“But he won’t pull those chaps around, from the look of it,” he added, pointing at the Macedonia’s third boat, for which I had been steering and which was now nearly abreast of us. “That’s Horner’s and Smoke’s work. I told them we wanted live men, not carcasses. But the joy of shooting to hit is a most compelling thing, when once you’ve learned how to shoot. Ever experienced it, Mr. Van Weyden?”
I shook my head and regarded their work. It had indeed been bloody, for they had drawn off and joined our other three boats in the attack on the remaining two of the enemy. The deserted boat was in the trough of the sea, rolling drunkenly across each comber, its loose spritsail out at right angles to it and fluttering and flapping in the wind. The hunter and boat-puller were both lying awkwardly in the bottom, but the boat-steerer lay across the gunwale, half in and half out, his arms trailing in the water and his head rolling from side to side.
“Don’t look, Miss Brewster, please don’t look,” I had begged of her, and I was glad that she had minded me and been spared the sight.
“Head right into the bunch, Mr. Van Weyden,” was Wolf Larsen’s command.
As we drew nearer, the firing ceased, and we saw that the fight was over. The remaining two boats had been captured by our five, and the seven were grouped together, waiting to be picked up.
“Look at that!” I cried involuntarily, pointing to the north-east.
The blot of smoke which indicated the Macedonia’s position had reappeared.
“Yes, I’ve been watching it,” was Wolf Larsen’s calm reply. He measured the distance away to the fog-bank, and for an instant paused to feel the weight of the wind on his cheek. “We’ll make it, I think; but you can depend upon it that blessed brother of mine has twigged our little game and is just a-humping for us. Ah, look at that!”
The blot of smoke had suddenly grown larger, and it was very black.
“I’ll beat you out, though, brother mine,” he chuckled. “I’ll beat you out, and I hope you no worse than that you rack your old engines into scrap.”
When we hove to, a hasty though orderly confusion reigned. The boats came aboard from every side at once. As fast as the prisoners came over the rail they were marshalled forward to the forecastle by our hunters, while our sailors hoisted in the boats, pell-mell, dropping them anywhere upon the deck and not stopping to lash them. We were already under way, all sails set and drawing, and the sheets being slacked off for a wind abeam, as the last boat lifted clear of the water and swung in the tackles.
There was need for haste. The Macedonia, belching the blackest of smoke from her funnel, was charging down upon us from out of the north-east. Neglecting the boats that remained to her, she had altered her course so as to anticipate ours. She was not running straight for us, but ahead of us. Our courses were converging like the sides of an angle, the vertex of which was at the edge of the fog-bank. It was there, or not at all, that the Macedonia could hope to catch us. The hope for the Ghost lay in that she should pass that point before the Macedonia arrived at it.
Wolf Larsen was steering, his eyes glistening and snapping as they dwelt upon and leaped from detail to detail of the chase. Now he studied the sea to windward for signs of the wind slackening or freshening, now the Macedonia; and again, his eyes roved over every sail, and he gave commands to slack a sheet here a trifle, to come in on one there a trifle, till he was drawing out of the Ghost the last bit of speed she possessed. All feuds and grudges were forgotten, and I was surprised at the alacrity with which the men who had so long endured his brutality sprang to execute his orders. Strange to say, the unfortunate Johnson came into my mind as we lifted and surged and heeled along, and I was aware of a regret that he was not alive and present; he had so loved the Ghost and delighted in her sailing powers.
“Better get your rifles, you fellows,” Wolf Larsen called to our hunters; and the five men lined the lee rail, guns in hand, and waited.
The Macedonia was now but a mile away, the black smoke pouring from her funnel at a right angle, so madly she raced, pounding through the sea at a seventeen-knot gait—“’Sky-hooting through the brine,” as Wolf Larsen quoted while gazing at her. We were not making more than nine knots, but the fog-bank was very near.
A puff of smoke broke from the Macedonia’s deck, we heard a heavy report, and a round hole took form in the stretched canvas of our mainsail. They were shooting at us with one of the small cannon which rumour had said they carried on board. Our men, clustering amidships, waved their hats and raised a derisive cheer. Again there was a puff of smoke and a loud report, this time the cannon-ball striking not more than twenty feet astern and glancing twice from sea to sea to windward ere it sank.
But there was no rifle-firing for the reason that all their hunters were out in the boats or our prisoners. When the two vessels were half-a-mile apart, a third shot made another hole in our mainsail. Then we entered the fog. It was about us, veiling and hiding us in its dense wet gauze.
The sudden transition was startling. The moment before we had been leaping through the sunshine, the clear sky above us, the sea breaking and rolling wide to the horizon, and a ship, vomiting smoke and fire and iron missiles, rushing madly upon us. And at once, as in an instant’s leap, the sun was blotted out, there was no sky, even our mastheads were lost to view, and our horizon was such as tear-blinded eyes may see. The grey mist drove by us like a rain. Every woollen filament of our garments, every hair of our heads and faces, was jewelled with a crystal globule. The shrouds were wet with moisture; it dripped from our rigging overhead; and on the underside of our booms drops of water took shape in long swaying lines, which were detached and flung to the deck in mimic showers at each surge of the schooner. I was aware of a pent, stifled feeling. As the sounds of the ship thrusting herself through the waves were hurled back upon us by the fog, so were one’s thoughts. The mind recoiled from contemplation of a world beyond this wet veil which wrapped us around. This was the world, the universe itself, its bounds so near one felt impelled to reach out both arms and push them back. It was impossible, that the rest could be beyond these walls of grey. The rest was a dream, no more than the memory of a dream.
It was weird, strangely weird. I looked at Maud Brewster and knew that she was similarly affected. Then I looked at Wolf Larsen, but there was nothing subjective about his state of consciousness. His whole concern was with the immediate, objective present. He still held the wheel, and I felt that he was timing Time, reckoning the passage of the minutes with each forward lunge and leeward roll of the Ghost.
“Go for’ard and hard alee without any noise,” he said to me in a low voice. “Clew up the topsails first. Set men at all the sheets. Let there be no rattling of blocks, no sound of voices. No noise, understand, no noise.”
When all was ready, the word “hard-a-lee” was passed forward to me from man to man; and the Ghost heeled about on the port tack with practically no noise at all. And what little there was,—the slapping of a few reef-points and the creaking of a sheave in a block or two,—was ghostly under the hollow echoing pall in which we were swathed.
We had scarcely filled away, it seemed, when the fog thinned abruptly and we were again in the sunshine, the wide-stretching sea breaking before us to the sky-line. But the ocean was bare. No wrathful Macedonia broke its surface nor blackened the sky with her smoke.
Wolf Larsen at once squared away and ran down along the rim of the fog-bank. His trick was obvious. He had entered the fog to windward of the steamer, and while the steamer had blindly driven on into the fog in the chance of catching him, he had come about and out of his shelter and was now running down to re-enter to leeward. Successful in this, the old simile of the needle in the haystack would be mild indeed compared with his brother’s chance of finding him. He did not run long. Jibing the fore- and main-sails and setting the topsails again, we headed back into the bank. As we entered I could have sworn I saw a vague bulk emerging to windward. I looked quickly at Wolf Larsen. Already we were ourselves buried in the fog, but he nodded his head. He, too, had seen it—the Macedonia, guessing his manœuvre and failing by a moment in anticipating it. There was no doubt that we had escaped unseen.
“He can’t keep this up,” Wolf Larsen said. “He’ll have to go back for the rest of his boats. Send a man to the wheel, Mr. Van Weyden, keep this course for the present, and you might as well set the watches, for we won’t do any lingering to-night.”
“I’d give five hundred dollars, though,” he added, “just to be aboard the Macedonia for five minutes, listening to my brother curse.”
“And now, Mr. Van Weyden,” he said to me when he had been relieved from the wheel, “we must make these new-comers welcome. Serve out plenty of whisky to the hunters and see that a few bottles slip for’ard. I’ll wager every man Jack of them is over the side to-morrow, hunting for Wolf Larsen as contentedly as ever they hunted for Death Larsen.”
“But won’t they escape as Wainwright did?” I asked.
He laughed shrewdly. “Not as long as our old hunters have anything to say about it. I’m dividing amongst them a dollar a skin for all the skins shot by our new hunters. At least half of their enthusiasm to-day was due to that. Oh, no, there won’t be any escaping if they have anything to say about it. And now you’d better get for’ard to your hospital duties. There must be a full ward waiting for you.”