The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Chapter 20

The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. The young slip of a gale, having wetted our gills, proceeded to moderate. The fourth engineer and the three oilers, after a warm interview with Wolf Larsen, were furnished with outfits from the slop-chests, assigned places under the hunters in the various boats and watches on the vessel, and bundled forward into the forecastle. They went protestingly, but their voices were not loud. They were awed by what they had already seen of Wolf Larsen’s character, while the tale of woe they speedily heard in the forecastle took the last bit of rebellion out of them.

Miss Brewster — we had learned her name from the engineer — slept on and on. At supper I requested the hunters to lower their voices, so she was not disturbed; and it was not till next morning that she made her appearance. It had been my intention to have her meals served apart, but Wolf Larsen put down his foot. Who was she that she should be too good for cabin table and cabin society? had been his demand.

But her coming to the table had something amusing in it. The hunters fell silent as clams. Jock Horner and Smoke alone were unabashed, stealing stealthy glances at her now and again, and even taking part in the conversation. The other four men glued their eyes on their plates and chewed steadily and with thoughtful precision, their ears moving and wobbling, in time with their jaws, like the ears of so many animals.

Wolf Larsen had little to say at first, doing no more than reply when he was addressed. Not that he was abashed. Far from it. This woman was a new type to him, a different breed from any he had ever known, and he was curious. He studied her, his eyes rarely leaving her face unless to follow the movements of her hands or shoulders. I studied her myself, and though it was I who maintained the conversation, I know that I was a bit shy, not quite self-possessed. His was the perfect poise, the supreme confidence in self, which nothing could shake; and he was no more timid of a woman than he was of storm and battle.

“And when shall we arrive at Yokohama?” she asked, turning to him and looking him squarely in the eyes.

There it was, the question flat. The jaws stopped working, the ears ceased wobbling, and though eyes remained glued on plates, each man listened greedily for the answer.

“In four months, possibly three if the season closes early,” Wolf Larsen said.

She caught her breath and stammered, “I— I thought — I was given to understand that Yokohama was only a day’s sail away. It —” Here she paused and looked about the table at the circle of unsympathetic faces staring hard at the plates. “It is not right,” she concluded.

“That is a question you must settle with Mr. Van Weyden there,” he replied, nodding to me with a mischievous twinkle. “Mr. Van Weyden is what you may call an authority on such things as rights. Now I, who am only a sailor, would look upon the situation somewhat differently. It may possibly be your misfortune that you have to remain with us, but it is certainly our good fortune.”

He regarded her smilingly. Her eyes fell before his gaze, but she lifted them again, and defiantly, to mine. I read the unspoken question there: was it right? But I had decided that the part I was to play must be a neutral one, so I did not answer.

“What do you think?” she demanded.

“That it is unfortunate, especially if you have any engagements falling due in the course of the next several months. But, since you say that you were voyaging to Japan for your health, I can assure you that it will improve no better anywhere than aboard the Ghost.”

I saw her eyes flash with indignation, and this time it was I who dropped mine, while I felt my face flushing under her gaze. It was cowardly, but what else could I do?

“Mr. Van Weyden speaks with the voice of authority,” Wolf Larsen laughed.

I nodded my head, and she, having recovered herself, waited expectantly.

“Not that he is much to speak of now,” Wolf Larsen went on, “but he has improved wonderfully. You should have seen him when he came on board. A more scrawny, pitiful specimen of humanity one could hardly conceive. Isn’t that so, Kerfoot?”

Kerfoot, thus directly addressed, was startled into dropping his knife on the floor, though he managed to grunt affirmation.

“Developed himself by peeling potatoes and washing dishes. Eh, Kerfoot?”

Again that worthy grunted.

“Look at him now. True, he is not what you would term muscular, but still he has muscles, which is more than he had when he came aboard. Also, he has legs to stand on. You would not think so to look at him, but he was quite unable to stand alone at first.”

The hunters were snickering, but she looked at me with a sympathy in her eyes which more than compensated for Wolf Larsen’s nastiness. In truth, it had been so long since I had received sympathy that I was softened, and I became then, and gladly, her willing slave. But I was angry with Wolf Larsen. He was challenging my manhood with his slurs, challenging the very legs he claimed to be instrumental in getting for me.

“I may have learned to stand on my own legs,” I retorted. “But I have yet to stamp upon others with them.”

He looked at me insolently. “Your education is only half completed, then,” he said dryly, and turned to her.

“We are very hospitable upon the Ghost. Mr. Van Weyden has discovered that. We do everything to make our guests feel at home, eh, Mr. Van Weyden?”

“Even to the peeling of potatoes and the washing of dishes,” I answered, “to say nothing to wringing their necks out of very fellowship.”

“I beg of you not to receive false impressions of us from Mr. Van Weyden,” he interposed with mock anxiety. “You will observe, Miss Brewster, that he carries a dirk in his belt, a — ahem — a most unusual thing for a ship’s officer to do. While really very estimable, Mr. Van Weyden is sometimes — how shall I say? — er — quarrelsome, and harsh measures are necessary. He is quite reasonable and fair in his calm moments, and as he is calm now he will not deny that only yesterday he threatened my life.”

I was well-nigh choking, and my eyes were certainly fiery. He drew attention to me.

“Look at him now. He can scarcely control himself in your presence. He is not accustomed to the presence of ladies anyway. I shall have to arm myself before I dare go on deck with him.”

He shook his head sadly, murmuring, “Too bad, too bad,” while the hunters burst into guffaws of laughter.

The deep-sea voices of these men, rumbling and bellowing in the confined space, produced a wild effect. The whole setting was wild, and for the first time, regarding this strange woman and realizing how incongruous she was in it, I was aware of how much a part of it I was myself. I knew these men and their mental processes, was one of them myself, living the seal-hunting life, eating the seal-hunting fare, thinking, largely, the seal-hunting thoughts. There was for me no strangeness to it, to the rough clothes, the coarse faces, the wild laughter, and the lurching cabin walls and swaying sea-lamps.

As I buttered a piece of bread my eyes chanced to rest upon my hand. The knuckles were skinned and inflamed clear across, the fingers swollen, the nails rimmed with black. I felt the mattress-like growth of beard on my neck, knew that the sleeve of my coat was ripped, that a button was missing from the throat of the blue shirt I wore. The dirk mentioned by Wolf Larsen rested in its sheath on my hip. It was very natural that it should be there — how natural I had not imagined until now, when I looked upon it with her eyes and knew how strange it and all that went with it must appear to her.

But she divined the mockery in Wolf Larsen’s words, and again favoured me with a sympathetic glance. But there was a look of bewilderment also in her eyes. That it was mockery made the situation more puzzling to her.

“I may be taken off by some passing vessel, perhaps,” she suggested.

“There will be no passing vessels, except other sealing-schooners,” Wolf Larsen made answer.

“I have no clothes, nothing,” she objected. “You hardly realize, sir, that I am not a man, or that I am unaccustomed to the vagrant, careless life which you and your men seem to lead.”

“The sooner you get accustomed to it, the better,” he said.

“I’ll furnish you with cloth, needles, and thread,” he added. “I hope it will not be too dreadful a hardship for you to make yourself a dress or two.”

She made a wry pucker with her mouth, as though to advertise her ignorance of dressmaking. That she was frightened and bewildered, and that she was bravely striving to hide it, was quite plain to me.

“I suppose you’re like Mr. Van Weyden there, accustomed to having things done for you. Well, I think doing a few things for yourself will hardly dislocate any joints. By the way, what do you do for a living?”

She regarded him with amazement unconcealed.

“I mean no offence, believe me. People eat, therefore they must procure the wherewithal. These men here shoot seals in order to live; for the same reason I sail this schooner; and Mr. Van Weyden, for the present at any rate, earns his salty grub by assisting me. Now what do you do?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Do you feed yourself? Or does some one else feed you?”

“I’m afraid some one else has fed me most of my life,” she laughed, trying bravely to enter into the spirit of his quizzing, though I could see a terror dawning and growing in her eyes as she watched Wolf Larsen.

“And I suppose some one else makes your bed for you?”

“I have made beds,” she replied.

“Very often?”

She shook her head with mock ruefulness.

“Do you know what they do to poor men in the States, who, like you, do not work for their living?”

“I am very ignorant,” she pleaded. “What do they do to the poor men who are like me?”

“They send them to jail. The crime of not earning a living, in their case, is called vagrancy. If I were Mr. Van Weyden, who harps eternally on questions of right and wrong, I’d ask, by what right do you live when you do nothing to deserve living?”

“But as you are not Mr. Van Weyden, I don’t have to answer, do I?”

She beamed upon him through her terror-filled eyes, and the pathos of it cut me to the heart. I must in some way break in and lead the conversation into other channels.

“Have you ever earned a dollar by your own labour?” he demanded, certain of her answer, a triumphant vindictiveness in his voice.

“Yes, I have,” she answered slowly, and I could have laughed aloud at his crestfallen visage. “I remember my father giving me a dollar once, when I was a little girl, for remaining absolutely quiet for five minutes.”

He smiled indulgently.

“But that was long ago,” she continued. “And you would scarcely demand a little girl of nine to earn her own living.”

“At present, however,” she said, after another slight pause, “I earn about eighteen hundred dollars a year.”

With one accord, all eyes left the plates and settled on her. A woman who earned eighteen hundred dollars a year was worth looking at. Wolf Larsen was undisguised in his admiration.

“Salary, or piece-work?” he asked.

“Piece-work,” she answered promptly.

“Eighteen hundred,” he calculated. “That’s a hundred and fifty dollars a month. Well, Miss Brewster, there is nothing small about the Ghost. Consider yourself on salary during the time you remain with us.”

She made no acknowledgment. She was too unused as yet to the whims of the man to accept them with equanimity.

“I forgot to inquire,” he went on suavely, “as to the nature of your occupation. What commodities do you turn out? What tools and materials do you require?”

“Paper and ink,” she laughed. “And, oh! also a typewriter.”

“You are Maud Brewster,” I said slowly and with certainty, almost as though I were charging her with a crime.

Her eyes lifted curiously to mine. “How do you know?”

“Aren’t you?” I demanded.

She acknowledged her identity with a nod. It was Wolf Larsen’s turn to be puzzled. The name and its magic signified nothing to him. I was proud that it did mean something to me, and for the first time in a weary while I was convincingly conscious of a superiority over him.

“I remember writing a review of a thin little volume —” I had begun carelessly, when she interrupted me.

“You!” she cried. “You are —”

She was now staring at me in wide-eyed wonder.

I nodded my identity, in turn.

“Humphrey Van Weyden,” she concluded; then added with a sigh of relief, and unaware that she had glanced that relief at Wolf Larsen, “I am so glad.”

“I remember the review,” she went on hastily, becoming aware of the awkwardness of her remark; “that too, too flattering review.”

“Not at all,” I denied valiantly. “You impeach my sober judgment and make my canons of little worth. Besides, all my brother critics were with me. Didn’t Lang include your ‘Kiss Endured’ among the four supreme sonnets by women in the English language?”

“But you called me the American Mrs. Meynell!”

“Was it not true?” I demanded.

“No, not that,” she answered. “I was hurt.”

“We can measure the unknown only by the known,” I replied, in my finest academic manner. “As a critic I was compelled to place you. You have now become a yardstick yourself. Seven of your thin little volumes are on my shelves; and there are two thicker volumes, the essays, which, you will pardon my saying, and I know not which is flattered more, fully equal your verse. The time is not far distant when some unknown will arise in England and the critics will name her the English Maud Brewster.”

“You are very kind, I am sure,” she murmured; and the very conventionality of her tones and words, with the host of associations it aroused of the old life on the other side of the world, gave me a quick thrill — rich with remembrance but stinging sharp with home-sickness.

“And you are Maud Brewster,” I said solemnly, gazing across at her.

“And you are Humphrey Van Weyden,” she said, gazing back at me with equal solemnity and awe. “How unusual! I don’t understand. We surely are not to expect some wildly romantic sea-story from your sober pen.”

“No, I am not gathering material, I assure you,” was my answer. “I have neither aptitude nor inclination for fiction.”

“Tell me, why have you always buried yourself in California?” she next asked. “It has not been kind of you. We of the East have seen to very little of you — too little, indeed, of the Dean of American Letters, the Second.”

I bowed to, and disclaimed, the compliment. “I nearly met you, once, in Philadelphia, some Browning affair or other — you were to lecture, you know. My train was four hours late.”

And then we quite forgot where we were, leaving Wolf Larsen stranded and silent in the midst of our flood of gossip. The hunters left the table and went on deck, and still we talked. Wolf Larsen alone remained. Suddenly I became aware of him, leaning back from the table and listening curiously to our alien speech of a world he did not know.

I broke short off in the middle of a sentence. The present, with all its perils and anxieties, rushed upon me with stunning force. It smote Miss Brewster likewise, a vague and nameless terror rushing into her eyes as she regarded Wolf Larsen.

He rose to his feet and laughed awkwardly. The sound of it was metallic.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” he said, with a self-depreciatory wave of his hand. “I don’t count. Go on, go on, I pray you.”

But the gates of speech were closed, and we, too, rose from the table and laughed awkwardly.

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