The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Chapter 6

By the following morning the storm had blown itself quite out and the Ghost was rolling slightly on a calm sea without a breath of wind. Occasional light airs were felt, however, and Wolf Larsen patrolled the poop constantly, his eyes ever searching the sea to the north-eastward, from which direction the great trade-wind must blow.

The men were all on deck and busy preparing their various boats for the season’s hunting. There are seven boats aboard, the captain’s dingey, and the six which the hunters will use. Three, a hunter, a boat-puller, and a boat-steerer, compose a boat’s crew. On board the schooner the boat-pullers and steerers are the crew. The hunters, too, are supposed to be in command of the watches, subject, always, to the orders of Wolf Larsen.

All this, and more, I have learned. The Ghost is considered the fastest schooner in both the San Francisco and Victoria fleets. In fact, she was once a private yacht, and was built for speed. Her lines and fittings — though I know nothing about such things — speak for themselves. Johnson was telling me about her in a short chat I had with him during yesterday’s second dog-watch. He spoke enthusiastically, with the love for a fine craft such as some men feel for horses. He is greatly disgusted with the outlook, and I am given to understand that Wolf Larsen bears a very unsavoury reputation among the sealing captains. It was the Ghost herself that lured Johnson into signing for the voyage, but he is already beginning to repent.

As he told me, the Ghost is an eighty-ton schooner of a remarkably fine model. Her beam, or width, is twenty-three feet, and her length a little over ninety feet. A lead keel of fabulous but unknown weight makes her very stable, while she carries an immense spread of canvas. From the deck to the truck of the maintopmast is something over a hundred feet, while the foremast with its topmast is eight or ten feet shorter. I am giving these details so that the size of this little floating world which holds twenty-two men may be appreciated. It is a very little world, a mote, a speck, and I marvel that men should dare to venture the sea on a contrivance so small and fragile.

Wolf Larsen has, also, a reputation for reckless carrying on of sail. I overheard Henderson and another of the hunters, Standish, a Californian, talking about it. Two years ago he dismasted the Ghost in a gale on Bering Sea, whereupon the present masts were put in, which are stronger and heavier in every way. He is said to have remarked, when he put them in, that he preferred turning her over to losing the sticks.

Every man aboard, with the exception of Johansen, who is rather overcome by his promotion, seems to have an excuse for having sailed on the Ghost. Half the men forward are deep-water sailors, and their excuse is that they did not know anything about her or her captain. And those who do know, whisper that the hunters, while excellent shots, were so notorious for their quarrelsome and rascally proclivities that they could not sign on any decent schooner.

I have made the acquaintance of another one of the crew — Louis he is called, a rotund and jovial-faced Nova Scotia Irishman, and a very sociable fellow, prone to talk as long as he can find a listener. In the afternoon, while the cook was below asleep and I was peeling the everlasting potatoes, Louis dropped into the galley for a “yarn.” His excuse for being aboard was that he was drunk when he signed. He assured me again and again that it was the last thing in the world he would dream of doing in a sober moment. It seems that he has been seal-hunting regularly each season for a dozen years, and is accounted one of the two or three very best boat-steerers in both fleets.

“Ah, my boy,” he shook his head ominously at me, “’tis the worst schooner ye could iv selected, nor were ye drunk at the time as was I. ’Tis sealin’ is the sailor’s paradise — on other ships than this. The mate was the first, but mark me words, there’ll be more dead men before the trip is done with. Hist, now, between you an’ meself and the stanchion there, this Wolf Larsen is a regular devil, an’ the Ghost’ll be a hell-ship like she’s always ben since he had hold iv her. Don’t I know? Don’t I know? Don’t I remember him in Hakodate two years gone, when he had a row an’ shot four iv his men? Wasn’t I a-layin’ on the Emma L., not three hundred yards away? An’ there was a man the same year he killed with a blow iv his fist. Yes, sir, killed ’im dead-oh. His head must iv smashed like an eggshell. An’ wasn’t there the Governor of Kura Island, an’ the Chief iv Police, Japanese gentlemen, sir, an’ didn’t they come aboard the Ghost as his guests, a-bringin’ their wives along — wee an’ pretty little bits of things like you see ’em painted on fans. An’ as he was a-gettin’ under way, didn’t the fond husbands get left astern-like in their sampan, as it might be by accident? An’ wasn’t it a week later that the poor little ladies was put ashore on the other side of the island, with nothin’ before ’em but to walk home acrost the mountains on their weeny-teeny little straw sandals which wouldn’t hang together a mile? Don’t I know? ’Tis the beast he is, this Wolf Larsen — the great big beast mentioned iv in Revelation; an’ no good end will he ever come to. But I’ve said nothin’ to ye, mind ye. I’ve whispered never a word; for old fat Louis’ll live the voyage out if the last mother’s son of yez go to the fishes.”

“Wolf Larsen!” he snorted a moment later. “Listen to the word, will ye! Wolf —’tis what he is. He’s not black-hearted like some men. ’Tis no heart he has at all. Wolf, just wolf, ’tis what he is. D’ye wonder he’s well named?”

“But if he is so well-known for what he is,” I queried, “how is it that he can get men to ship with him?”

“An’ how is it ye can get men to do anything on God’s earth an’ sea?” Louis demanded with Celtic fire. “How d’ye find me aboard if ‘twasn’t that I was drunk as a pig when I put me name down? There’s them that can’t sail with better men, like the hunters, and them that don’t know, like the poor devils of wind-jammers for’ard there. But they’ll come to it, they’ll come to it, an’ be sorry the day they was born. I could weep for the poor creatures, did I but forget poor old fat Louis and the troubles before him. But ’tis not a whisper I’ve dropped, mind ye, not a whisper.”

“Them hunters is the wicked boys,” he broke forth again, for he suffered from a constitutional plethora of speech. “But wait till they get to cutting up iv jinks and rowin’ ‘round. He’s the boy’ll fix ’em. ’Tis him that’ll put the fear of God in their rotten black hearts. Look at that hunter iv mine, Horner. ‘Jock’ Horner they call him, so quiet-like an’ easy-goin’, soft-spoken as a girl, till ye’d think butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth iv him. Didn’t he kill his boat-steerer last year? ’Twas called a sad accident, but I met the boat-puller in Yokohama an’ the straight iv it was given me. An’ there’s Smoke, the black little devil — didn’t the Roosians have him for three years in the salt mines of Siberia, for poachin’ on Copper Island, which is a Roosian preserve? Shackled he was, hand an’ foot, with his mate. An’ didn’t they have words or a ruction of some kind? — for ’twas the other fellow Smoke sent up in the buckets to the top of the mine; an’ a piece at a time he went up, a leg to-day, an’ to-morrow an arm, the next day the head, an’ so on.”

“But you can’t mean it!” I cried out, overcome with the horror of it.

“Mean what!” he demanded, quick as a flash. “’Tis nothin’ I’ve said. Deef I am, and dumb, as ye should be for the sake iv your mother; an’ never once have I opened me lips but to say fine things iv them an’ him, God curse his soul, an’ may he rot in purgatory ten thousand years, and then go down to the last an’ deepest hell iv all!”

Johnson, the man who had chafed me raw when I first came aboard, seemed the least equivocal of the men forward or aft. In fact, there was nothing equivocal about him. One was struck at once by his straightforwardness and manliness, which, in turn, were tempered by a modesty which might be mistaken for timidity. But timid he was not. He seemed, rather, to have the courage of his convictions, the certainty of his manhood. It was this that made him protest, at the commencement of our acquaintance, against being called Yonson. And upon this, and him, Louis passed judgment and prophecy.

“’Tis a fine chap, that squarehead Johnson we’ve for’ard with us,” he said. “The best sailorman in the fo’c’sle. He’s my boat-puller. But it’s to trouble he’ll come with Wolf Larsen, as the sparks fly upward. It’s meself that knows. I can see it brewin’ an’ comin’ up like a storm in the sky. I’ve talked to him like a brother, but it’s little he sees in takin’ in his lights or flyin’ false signals. He grumbles out when things don’t go to suit him, and there’ll be always some tell-tale carryin’ word iv it aft to the Wolf. The Wolf is strong, and it’s the way of a wolf to hate strength, an’ strength it is he’ll see in Johnson — no knucklin’ under, and a ‘Yes, sir, thank ye kindly, sir,’ for a curse or a blow. Oh, she’s a-comin’! She’s a-comin’! An’ God knows where I’ll get another boat-puller! What does the fool up an’ say, when the old man calls him Yonson, but ‘Me name is Johnson, sir,’ an’ then spells it out, letter for letter. Ye should iv seen the old man’s face! I thought he’d let drive at him on the spot. He didn’t, but he will, an’ he’ll break that squarehead’s heart, or it’s little I know iv the ways iv men on the ships iv the sea.”

Thomas Mugridge is becoming unendurable. I am compelled to Mister him and to Sir him with every speech. One reason for this is that Wolf Larsen seems to have taken a fancy to him. It is an unprecedented thing, I take it, for a captain to be chummy with the cook; but this is certainly what Wolf Larsen is doing. Two or three times he put his head into the galley and chaffed Mugridge good-naturedly, and once, this afternoon, he stood by the break of the poop and chatted with him for fully fifteen minutes. When it was over, and Mugridge was back in the galley, he became greasily radiant, and went about his work, humming coster songs in a nerve-racking and discordant falsetto.

“I always get along with the officers,” he remarked to me in a confidential tone. “I know the w’y, I do, to myke myself uppreci-yted. There was my last skipper — w’y I thought nothin’ of droppin’ down in the cabin for a little chat and a friendly glass. ‘Mugridge,’ sez ‘e to me, ‘Mugridge,’ sez ‘e, ‘you’ve missed yer vokytion.’ ‘An’ ‘ow’s that?’ sez I. ‘Yer should ‘a been born a gentleman, an’ never ‘ad to work for yer livin’.’ God strike me dead, ‘Ump, if that ayn’t wot ‘e sez, an’ me a-sittin’ there in ‘is own cabin, jolly-like an’ comfortable, a-smokin’ ‘is cigars an’ drinkin’ ‘is rum.”

This chitter-chatter drove me to distraction. I never heard a voice I hated so. His oily, insinuating tones, his greasy smile and his monstrous self-conceit grated on my nerves till sometimes I was all in a tremble. Positively, he was the most disgusting and loathsome person I have ever met. The filth of his cooking was indescribable; and, as he cooked everything that was eaten aboard, I was compelled to select what I ate with great circumspection, choosing from the least dirty of his concoctions.

My hands bothered me a great deal, unused as they were to work. The nails were discoloured and black, while the skin was already grained with dirt which even a scrubbing-brush could not remove. Then blisters came, in a painful and never-ending procession, and I had a great burn on my forearm, acquired by losing my balance in a roll of the ship and pitching against the galley stove. Nor was my knee any better. The swelling had not gone down, and the cap was still up on edge. Hobbling about on it from morning till night was not helping it any. What I needed was rest, if it were ever to get well.

Rest! I never before knew the meaning of the word. I had been resting all my life and did not know it. But now, could I sit still for one half-hour and do nothing, not even think, it would be the most pleasurable thing in the world. But it is a revelation, on the other hand. I shall be able to appreciate the lives of the working people hereafter. I did not dream that work was so terrible a thing. From half-past five in the morning till ten o’clock at night I am everybody’s slave, with not one moment to myself, except such as I can steal near the end of the second dog-watch. Let me pause for a minute to look out over the sea sparkling in the sun, or to gaze at a sailor going aloft to the gaff-topsails, or running out the bowsprit, and I am sure to hear the hateful voice, “‘Ere, you, ‘Ump, no sodgerin’. I’ve got my peepers on yer.”

There are signs of rampant bad temper in the steerage, and the gossip is going around that Smoke and Henderson have had a fight. Henderson seems the best of the hunters, a slow-going fellow, and hard to rouse; but roused he must have been, for Smoke had a bruised and discoloured eye, and looked particularly vicious when he came into the cabin for supper.

A cruel thing happened just before supper, indicative of the callousness and brutishness of these men. There is one green hand in the crew, Harrison by name, a clumsy-looking country boy, mastered, I imagine, by the spirit of adventure, and making his first voyage. In the light baffling airs the schooner had been tacking about a great deal, at which times the sails pass from one side to the other and a man is sent aloft to shift over the fore-gaff-topsail. In some way, when Harrison was aloft, the sheet jammed in the block through which it runs at the end of the gaff. As I understood it, there were two ways of getting it cleared — first, by lowering the foresail, which was comparatively easy and without danger; and second, by climbing out the peak-halyards to the end of the gaff itself, an exceedingly hazardous performance.

Johansen called out to Harrison to go out the halyards. It was patent to everybody that the boy was afraid. And well he might be, eighty feet above the deck, to trust himself on those thin and jerking ropes. Had there been a steady breeze it would not have been so bad, but the Ghost was rolling emptily in a long sea, and with each roll the canvas flapped and boomed and the halyards slacked and jerked taut. They were capable of snapping a man off like a fly from a whip-lash.

Harrison heard the order and understood what was demanded of him, but hesitated. It was probably the first time he had been aloft in his life. Johansen, who had caught the contagion of Wolf Larsen’s masterfulness, burst out with a volley of abuse and curses.

“That’ll do, Johansen,” Wolf Larsen said brusquely. “I’ll have you know that I do the swearing on this ship. If I need your assistance, I’ll call you in.”

“Yes, sir,” the mate acknowledged submissively.

In the meantime Harrison had started out on the halyards. I was looking up from the galley door, and I could see him trembling, as if with ague, in every limb. He proceeded very slowly and cautiously, an inch at a time. Outlined against the clear blue of the sky, he had the appearance of an enormous spider crawling along the tracery of its web.

It was a slight uphill climb, for the foresail peaked high; and the halyards, running through various blocks on the gaff and mast, gave him separate holds for hands and feet. But the trouble lay in that the wind was not strong enough nor steady enough to keep the sail full. When he was half-way out, the Ghost took a long roll to windward and back again into the hollow between two seas. Harrison ceased his progress and held on tightly. Eighty feet beneath, I could see the agonized strain of his muscles as he gripped for very life. The sail emptied and the gaff swung amid-ships. The halyards slackened, and, though it all happened very quickly, I could see them sag beneath the weight of his body. Then the gag swung to the side with an abrupt swiftness, the great sail boomed like a cannon, and the three rows of reef-points slatted against the canvas like a volley of rifles. Harrison, clinging on, made the giddy rush through the air. This rush ceased abruptly. The halyards became instantly taut. It was the snap of the whip. His clutch was broken. One hand was torn loose from its hold. The other lingered desperately for a moment, and followed. His body pitched out and down, but in some way he managed to save himself with his legs. He was hanging by them, head downward. A quick effort brought his hands up to the halyards again; but he was a long time regaining his former position, where he hung, a pitiable object.

“I’ll bet he has no appetite for supper,” I heard Wolf Larsen’s voice, which came to me from around the corner of the galley. “Stand from under, you, Johansen! Watch out! Here she comes!”

In truth, Harrison was very sick, as a person is sea-sick; and for a long time he clung to his precarious perch without attempting to move. Johansen, however, continued violently to urge him on to the completion of his task.

“It is a shame,” I heard Johnson growling in painfully slow and correct English. He was standing by the main rigging, a few feet away from me. “The boy is willing enough. He will learn if he has a chance. But this is —” He paused awhile, for the word “murder” was his final judgment.

“Hist, will ye!” Louis whispered to him, “For the love iv your mother hold your mouth!”

But Johnson, looking on, still continued his grumbling.

“Look here,” the hunter Standish spoke to Wolf Larsen, “that’s my boat-puller, and I don’t want to lose him.”

“That’s all right, Standish,” was the reply. “He’s your boat-puller when you’ve got him in the boat; but he’s my sailor when I have him aboard, and I’ll do what I damn well please with him.”

“But that’s no reason —” Standish began in a torrent of speech.

“That’ll do, easy as she goes,” Wolf Larsen counselled back. “I’ve told you what’s what, and let it stop at that. The man’s mine, and I’ll make soup of him and eat it if I want to.”

There was an angry gleam in the hunter’s eye, but he turned on his heel and entered the steerage companion-way, where he remained, looking upward. All hands were on deck now, and all eyes were aloft, where a human life was at grapples with death. The callousness of these men, to whom industrial organization gave control of the lives of other men, was appalling. I, who had lived out of the whirl of the world, had never dreamed that its work was carried on in such fashion. Life had always seemed a peculiarly sacred thing, but here it counted for nothing, was a cipher in the arithmetic of commerce. I must say, however, that the sailors themselves were sympathetic, as instance the case of Johnson; but the masters (the hunters and the captain) were heartlessly indifferent. Even the protest of Standish arose out of the fact that he did not wish to lose his boat-puller. Had it been some other hunter’s boat-puller, he, like them, would have been no more than amused.

But to return to Harrison. It took Johansen, insulting and reviling the poor wretch, fully ten minutes to get him started again. A little later he made the end of the gaff, where, astride the spar itself, he had a better chance for holding on. He cleared the sheet, and was free to return, slightly downhill now, along the halyards to the mast. But he had lost his nerve. Unsafe as was his present position, he was loath to forsake it for the more unsafe position on the halyards.

He looked along the airy path he must traverse, and then down to the deck. His eyes were wide and staring, and he was trembling violently. I had never seen fear so strongly stamped upon a human face. Johansen called vainly for him to come down. At any moment he was liable to be snapped off the gaff, but he was helpless with fright. Wolf Larsen, walking up and down with Smoke and in conversation, took no more notice of him, though he cried sharply, once, to the man at the wheel:

“You’re off your course, my man! Be careful, unless you’re looking for trouble!”

“Ay, ay, sir,” the helmsman responded, putting a couple of spokes down.

He had been guilty of running the Ghost several points off her course in order that what little wind there was should fill the foresail and hold it steady. He had striven to help the unfortunate Harrison at the risk of incurring Wolf Larsen’s anger.

The time went by, and the suspense, to me, was terrible. Thomas Mugridge, on the other hand, considered it a laughable affair, and was continually bobbing his head out the galley door to make jocose remarks. How I hated him! And how my hatred for him grew and grew, during that fearful time, to cyclopean dimensions. For the first time in my life I experienced the desire to murder —“saw red,” as some of our picturesque writers phrase it. Life in general might still be sacred, but life in the particular case of Thomas Mugridge had become very profane indeed. I was frightened when I became conscious that I was seeing red, and the thought flashed through my mind: was I, too, becoming tainted by the brutality of my environment? — I, who even in the most flagrant crimes had denied the justice and righteousness of capital punishment?

Fully half-an-hour went by, and then I saw Johnson and Louis in some sort of altercation. It ended with Johnson flinging off Louis’s detaining arm and starting forward. He crossed the deck, sprang into the fore rigging, and began to climb. But the quick eye of Wolf Larsen caught him.

“Here, you, what are you up to?” he cried.

Johnson’s ascent was arrested. He looked his captain in the eyes and replied slowly:

“I am going to get that boy down.”

“You’ll get down out of that rigging, and damn lively about it! D’ye hear? Get down!”

Johnson hesitated, but the long years of obedience to the masters of ships overpowered him, and he dropped sullenly to the deck and went on forward.

At half after five I went below to set the cabin table, but I hardly knew what I did, for my eyes and my brain were filled with the vision of a man, white-faced and trembling, comically like a bug, clinging to the thrashing gaff. At six o’clock, when I served supper, going on deck to get the food from the galley, I saw Harrison, still in the same position. The conversation at the table was of other things. Nobody seemed interested in the wantonly imperilled life. But making an extra trip to the galley a little later, I was gladdened by the sight of Harrison staggering weakly from the rigging to the forecastle scuttle. He had finally summoned the courage to descend.

Before closing this incident, I must give a scrap of conversation I had with Wolf Larsen in the cabin, while I was washing the dishes.

“You were looking squeamish this afternoon,” he began. “What was the matter?”

I could see that he knew what had made me possibly as sick as Harrison, that he was trying to draw me, and I answered, “It was because of the brutal treatment of that boy.”

He gave a short laugh. “Like sea-sickness, I suppose. Some men are subject to it, and others are not.”

“Not so,” I objected.

“Just so,” he went on. “The earth is as full of brutality as the sea is full of motion. And some men are made sick by the one, and some by the other. That’s the only reason.”

“But you, who make a mock of human life, don’t you place any value upon it whatever?” I demanded.

“Value? What value?” He looked at me, and though his eyes were steady and motionless, there seemed a cynical smile in them. “What kind of value? How do you measure it? Who values it?”

“I do,” I made answer.

“Then what is it worth to you? Another man’s life, I mean. Come now, what is it worth?”

The value of life? How could I put a tangible value upon it? Somehow, I, who have always had expression, lacked expression when with Wolf Larsen. I have since determined that a part of it was due to the man’s personality, but that the greater part was due to his totally different outlook. Unlike other materialists I had met and with whom I had something in common to start on, I had nothing in common with him. Perhaps, also, it was the elemental simplicity of his mind that baffled me. He drove so directly to the core of the matter, divesting a question always of all superfluous details, and with such an air of finality, that I seemed to find myself struggling in deep water, with no footing under me. Value of life? How could I answer the question on the spur of the moment? The sacredness of life I had accepted as axiomatic. That it was intrinsically valuable was a truism I had never questioned. But when he challenged the truism I was speechless.

“We were talking about this yesterday,” he said. “I held that life was a ferment, a yeasty something which devoured life that it might live, and that living was merely successful piggishness. Why, if there is anything in supply and demand, life is the cheapest thing in the world. There is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless. Nature is a spendthrift. Look at the fish and their millions of eggs. For that matter, look at you and me. In our loins are the possibilities of millions of lives. Could we but find time and opportunity and utilize the last bit and every bit of the unborn life that is in us, we could become the fathers of nations and populate continents. Life? Bah! It has no value. Of cheap things it is the cheapest. Everywhere it goes begging. Nature spills it out with a lavish hand. Where there is room for one life, she sows a thousand lives, and it’s life eats life till the strongest and most piggish life is left.”

“You have read Darwin,” I said. “But you read him misunderstandingly when you conclude that the struggle for existence sanctions your wanton destruction of life.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “You know you only mean that in relation to human life, for of the flesh and the fowl and the fish you destroy as much as I or any other man. And human life is in no wise different, though you feel it is and think that you reason why it is. Why should I be parsimonious with this life which is cheap and without value? There are more sailors than there are ships on the sea for them, more workers than there are factories or machines for them. Why, you who live on the land know that you house your poor people in the slums of cities and loose famine and pestilence upon them, and that there still remain more poor people, dying for want of a crust of bread and a bit of meat (which is life destroyed), than you know what to do with. Have you ever seen the London dockers fighting like wild beasts for a chance to work?”

He started for the companion stairs, but turned his head for a final word. “Do you know the only value life has is what life puts upon itself? And it is of course over-estimated since it is of necessity prejudiced in its own favour. Take that man I had aloft. He held on as if he were a precious thing, a treasure beyond diamonds or rubies. To you? No. To me? Not at all. To himself? Yes. But I do not accept his estimate. He sadly overrates himself. There is plenty more life demanding to be born. Had he fallen and dripped his brains upon the deck like honey from the comb, there would have been no loss to the world. He was worth nothing to the world. The supply is too large. To himself only was he of value, and to show how fictitious even this value was, being dead he is unconscious that he has lost himself. He alone rated himself beyond diamonds and rubies. Diamonds and rubies are gone, spread out on the deck to be washed away by a bucket of sea-water, and he does not even know that the diamonds and rubies are gone. He does not lose anything, for with the loss of himself he loses the knowledge of loss. Don’t you see? And what have you to say?”

“That you are at least consistent,” was all I could say, and I went on washing the dishes.

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