The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Chapter 19

I came on deck to find the Ghost heading up close on the port tack and cutting in to windward of a familiar spritsail close-hauled on the same tack ahead of us. All hands were on deck, for they knew that something was to happen when Leach and Johnson were dragged aboard.

It was four bells. Louis came aft to relieve the wheel. There was a dampness in the air, and I noticed he had on his oilskins.

“What are we going to have?” I asked him.

“A healthy young slip of a gale from the breath iv it, sir,” he answered, “with a splatter iv rain just to wet our gills an’ no more.”

“Too bad we sighted them,” I said, as the Ghost’s bow was flung off a point by a large sea and the boat leaped for a moment past the jibs and into our line of vision.

Louis gave a spoke and temporized. “They’d never iv made the land, sir, I’m thinkin’.”

“Think not?” I queried.

“No, sir. Did you feel that?” (A puff had caught the schooner, and he was forced to put the wheel up rapidly to keep her out of the wind.) “’Tis no egg-shell’ll float on this sea an hour come, an’ it’s a stroke iv luck for them we’re here to pick ’em up.”

Wolf Larsen strode aft from amidships, where he had been talking with the rescued men. The cat-like springiness in his tread was a little more pronounced than usual, and his eyes were bright and snappy.

“Three oilers and a fourth engineer,” was his greeting. “But we’ll make sailors out of them, or boat-pullers at any rate. Now, what of the lady?”

I know not why, but I was aware of a twinge or pang like the cut of a knife when he mentioned her. I thought it a certain silly fastidiousness on my part, but it persisted in spite of me, and I merely shrugged my shoulders in answer.

Wolf Larsen pursed his lips in a long, quizzical whistle.

“What’s her name, then?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “She is asleep. She was very tired. In fact, I am waiting to hear the news from you. What vessel was it?”

“Mail steamer,” he answered shortly. “The City of Tokio, from ‘Frisco, bound for Yokohama. Disabled in that typhoon. Old tub. Opened up top and bottom like a sieve. They were adrift four days. And you don’t know who or what she is, eh? — maid, wife, or widow? Well, well.”

He shook his head in a bantering way, and regarded me with laughing eyes.

“Are you —” I began. It was on the verge of my tongue to ask if he were going to take the castaways into Yokohama.

“Am I what?” he asked.

“What do you intend doing with Leach and Johnson?”

He shook his head. “Really, Hump, I don’t know. You see, with these additions I’ve about all the crew I want.”

“And they’ve about all the escaping they want,” I said. “Why not give them a change of treatment? Take them aboard, and deal gently with them. Whatever they have done they have been hounded into doing.”

“By me?”

“By you,” I answered steadily. “And I give you warning, Wolf Larsen, that I may forget love of my own life in the desire to kill you if you go too far in maltreating those poor wretches.”

“Bravo!” he cried. “You do me proud, Hump! You’ve found your legs with a vengeance. You’re quite an individual. You were unfortunate in having your life cast in easy places, but you’re developing, and I like you the better for it.”

His voice and expression changed. His face was serious. “Do you believe in promises?” he asked. “Are they sacred things?”

“Of course,” I answered.

“Then here’s a compact,” he went on, consummate actor. “If I promise not to lay my hands upon Leach will you promise, in turn, not to attempt to kill me?”

“Oh, not that I’m afraid of you, not that I’m afraid of you,” he hastened to add.

I could hardly believe my ears. What was coming over the man?

“Is it a go?” he asked impatiently.

“A go,” I answered.

His hand went out to mine, and as I shook it heartily I could have sworn I saw the mocking devil shine up for a moment in his eyes.

We strolled across the poop to the lee side. The boat was close at hand now, and in desperate plight. Johnson was steering, Leach bailing. We overhauled them about two feet to their one. Wolf Larsen motioned Louis to keep off slightly, and we dashed abreast of the boat, not a score of feet to windward. The Ghost blanketed it. The spritsail flapped emptily and the boat righted to an even keel, causing the two men swiftly to change position. The boat lost headway, and, as we lifted on a huge surge, toppled and fell into the trough.

It was at this moment that Leach and Johnson looked up into the faces of their shipmates, who lined the rail amidships. There was no greeting. They were as dead men in their comrades’ eyes, and between them was the gulf that parts the living and the dead.

The next instant they were opposite the poop, where stood Wolf Larsen and I. We were falling in the trough, they were rising on the surge. Johnson looked at me, and I could see that his face was worn and haggard. I waved my hand to him, and he answered the greeting, but with a wave that was hopeless and despairing. It was as if he were saying farewell. I did not see into the eyes of Leach, for he was looking at Wolf Larsen, the old and implacable snarl of hatred strong as ever on his face.

Then they were gone astern. The spritsail filled with the wind, suddenly, careening the frail open craft till it seemed it would surely capsize. A whitecap foamed above it and broke across in a snow-white smother. Then the boat emerged, half swamped, Leach flinging the water out and Johnson clinging to the steering-oar, his face white and anxious.

Wolf Larsen barked a short laugh in my ear and strode away to the weather side of the poop. I expected him to give orders for the Ghost to heave to, but she kept on her course and he made no sign. Louis stood imperturbably at the wheel, but I noticed the grouped sailors forward turning troubled faces in our direction. Still the Ghost tore along, till the boat dwindled to a speck, when Wolf Larsen’s voice rang out in command and he went about on the starboard tack.

Back we held, two miles and more to windward of the struggling cockle-shell, when the flying jib was run down and the schooner hove to. The sealing boats are not made for windward work. Their hope lies in keeping a weather position so that they may run before the wind for the schooner when it breezes up. But in all that wild waste there was no refuge for Leach and Johnson save on the Ghost, and they resolutely began the windward beat. It was slow work in the heavy sea that was running. At any moment they were liable to be overwhelmed by the hissing combers. Time and again and countless times we watched the boat luff into the big whitecaps, lose headway, and be flung back like a cork.

Johnson was a splendid seaman, and he knew as much about small boats as he did about ships. At the end of an hour and a half he was nearly alongside, standing past our stern on the last leg out, aiming to fetch us on the next leg back.

“So you’ve changed your mind?” I heard Wolf Larsen mutter, half to himself, half to them as though they could hear. “You want to come aboard, eh? Well, then, just keep a-coming.”

“Hard up with that helm!” he commanded Oofty–Oofty, the Kanaka, who had in the meantime relieved Louis at the wheel.

Command followed command. As the schooner paid off, the fore — and main-sheets were slacked away for fair wind. And before the wind we were, and leaping, when Johnson, easing his sheet at imminent peril, cut across our wake a hundred feet away. Again Wolf Larsen laughed, at the same time beckoning them with his arm to follow. It was evidently his intention to play with them — a lesson, I took it, in lieu of a beating, though a dangerous lesson, for the frail craft stood in momentary danger of being overwhelmed.

Johnson squared away promptly and ran after us. There was nothing else for him to do. Death stalked everywhere, and it was only a matter of time when some one of those many huge seas would fall upon the boat, roll over it, and pass on.

“’Tis the fear iv death at the hearts iv them,” Louis muttered in my ear, as I passed forward to see to taking in the flying jib and staysail.

“Oh, he’ll heave to in a little while and pick them up,” I answered cheerfully. “He’s bent upon giving them a lesson, that’s all.”

Louis looked at me shrewdly. “Think so?” he asked.

“Surely,” I answered. “Don’t you?”

“I think nothing but iv my own skin, these days,” was his answer. “An’ ’tis with wonder I’m filled as to the workin’ out iv things. A pretty mess that ‘Frisco whisky got me into, an’ a prettier mess that woman’s got you into aft there. Ah, it’s myself that knows ye for a blitherin’ fool.”

“What do you mean?” I demanded; for, having sped his shaft, he was turning away.

“What do I mean?” he cried. “And it’s you that asks me! ’Tis not what I mean, but what the Wolf ‘ll mean. The Wolf, I said, the Wolf!”

“If trouble comes, will you stand by?” I asked impulsively, for he had voiced my own fear.

“Stand by? ’Tis old fat Louis I stand by, an’ trouble enough it’ll be. We’re at the beginnin’ iv things, I’m tellin’ ye, the bare beginnin’ iv things.”

“I had not thought you so great a coward,” I sneered.

He favoured me with a contemptuous stare. “If I raised never a hand for that poor fool,”— pointing astern to the tiny sail — “d’ye think I’m hungerin’ for a broken head for a woman I never laid me eyes upon before this day?”

I turned scornfully away and went aft.

“Better get in those topsails, Mr. Van Weyden,” Wolf Larsen said, as I came on the poop.

I felt relief, at least as far as the two men were concerned. It was clear he did not wish to run too far away from them. I picked up hope at the thought and put the order swiftly into execution. I had scarcely opened my mouth to issue the necessary commands, when eager men were springing to halyards and downhauls, and others were racing aloft. This eagerness on their part was noted by Wolf Larsen with a grim smile.

Still we increased our lead, and when the boat had dropped astern several miles we hove to and waited. All eyes watched it coming, even Wolf Larsen’s; but he was the only unperturbed man aboard. Louis, gazing fixedly, betrayed a trouble in his face he was not quite able to hide.

The boat drew closer and closer, hurling along through the seething green like a thing alive, lifting and sending and uptossing across the huge-backed breakers, or disappearing behind them only to rush into sight again and shoot skyward. It seemed impossible that it could continue to live, yet with each dizzying sweep it did achieve the impossible. A rain-squall drove past, and out of the flying wet the boat emerged, almost upon us.

“Hard up, there!” Wolf Larsen shouted, himself springing to the wheel and whirling it over.

Again the Ghost sprang away and raced before the wind, and for two hours Johnson and Leach pursued us. We hove to and ran away, hove to and ran away, and ever astern the struggling patch of sail tossed skyward and fell into the rushing valleys. It was a quarter of a mile away when a thick squall of rain veiled it from view. It never emerged. The wind blew the air clear again, but no patch of sail broke the troubled surface. I thought I saw, for an instant, the boat’s bottom show black in a breaking crest. At the best, that was all. For Johnson and Leach the travail of existence had ceased.

The men remained grouped amidships. No one had gone below, and no one was speaking. Nor were any looks being exchanged. Each man seemed stunned — deeply contemplative, as it were, and, not quite sure, trying to realize just what had taken place. Wolf Larsen gave them little time for thought. He at once put the Ghost upon her course — a course which meant the seal herd and not Yokohama harbour. But the men were no longer eager as they pulled and hauled, and I heard curses amongst them, which left their lips smothered and as heavy and lifeless as were they. Not so was it with the hunters. Smoke the irrepressible related a story, and they descended into the steerage, bellowing with laughter.

As I passed to leeward of the galley on my way aft I was approached by the engineer we had rescued. His face was white, his lips were trembling.

“Good God! sir, what kind of a craft is this?” he cried.

“You have eyes, you have seen,” I answered, almost brutally, what of the pain and fear at my own heart.

“Your promise?” I said to Wolf Larsen.

“I was not thinking of taking them aboard when I made that promise,” he answered. “And anyway, you’ll agree I’ve not laid my hands upon them.”

“Far from it, far from it,” he laughed a moment later.

I made no reply. I was incapable of speaking, my mind was too confused. I must have time to think, I knew. This woman, sleeping even now in the spare cabin, was a responsibility, which I must consider, and the only rational thought that flickered through my mind was that I must do nothing hastily if I were to be any help to her at all.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38