| Martin Eden, by Jack London.
The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a
young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap. He wore rough clothes
that smacked of the sea, and he was manifestly out of place in the
spacious hall in which he found himself. He did not know what to
do with his cap, and was stuffing it into his coat pocket when the
other took it from him. The act was done quietly and naturally,
and the awkward young fellow appreciated it. "He understands," was
his thought. "He'll see me through all right."
He walked at the other's heels with a swing to his shoulders, and
his legs spread unwittingly, as if the level floors were tilting up
and sinking down to the heave and lunge of the sea. The wide rooms
seemed too narrow for his rolling gait, and to himself he was in
terror lest his broad shoulders should collide with the doorways or
sweep the bric-a-brac from the low mantel. He recoiled from side
to side between the various objects and multiplied the hazards that
in reality lodged only in his mind. Between a grand piano and a
centre-table piled high with books was space for a half a dozen to
walk abreast, yet he essayed it with trepidation. His heavy arms
hung loosely at his sides. He did not know what to do with those
arms and hands, and when, to his excited vision, one arm seemed
liable to brush against the books on the table, he lurched away
like a frightened horse, barely missing the piano stool. He
watched the easy walk of the other in front of him, and for the
first time realized that his walk was different from that of other
men. He experienced a momentary pang of shame that he should walk
so uncouthly. The sweat burst through the skin of his forehead in
tiny beads, and he paused and mopped his bronzed face with his
"Hold on, Arthur, my boy," he said, attempting to mask his anxiety
with facetious utterance. "This is too much all at once for yours
truly. Give me a chance to get my nerve. You know I didn't want
to come, an' I guess your fam'ly ain't hankerin' to see me
"That's all right," was the reassuring answer. "You mustn't be
frightened at us. We're just homely people - Hello, there's a
letter for me."
He stepped back to the table, tore open the envelope, and began to
read, giving the stranger an opportunity to recover himself. And
the stranger understood and appreciated. His was the gift of
sympathy, understanding; and beneath his alarmed exterior that
sympathetic process went on. He mopped his forehead dry and
glanced about him with a controlled face, though in the eyes there
was an expression such as wild animals betray when they fear the
trap. He was surrounded by the unknown, apprehensive of what might
happen, ignorant of what he should do, aware that he walked and
bore himself awkwardly, fearful that every attribute and power of
him was similarly afflicted. He was keenly sensitive, hopelessly
self-conscious, and the amused glance that the other stole privily
at him over the top of the letter burned into him like a dagger-
thrust. He saw the glance, but he gave no sign, for among the
things he had learned was discipline. Also, that dagger-thrust
went to his pride. He cursed himself for having come, and at the
same time resolved that, happen what would, having come, he would
carry it through. The lines of his face hardened, and into his
eyes came a fighting light. He looked about more unconcernedly,
sharply observant, every detail of the pretty interior registering
itself on his brain. His eyes were wide apart; nothing in their
field of vision escaped; and as they drank in the beauty before
them the fighting light died out and a warm glow took its place.
He was responsive to beauty, and here was cause to respond.
An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and
burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm-clouds covered the
sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled,
heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging
along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew
him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to
the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His
face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a
careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the
beauty flashed back into the canvas. "A trick picture," was his
thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the
multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a
prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to
make a trick. He did not know painting. He had been brought up on
chromos and lithographs that were always definite and sharp, near
or far. He had seen oil paintings, it was true, in the show
windows of shops, but the glass of the windows had prevented his
eager eyes from approaching too near.
He glanced around at his friend reading the letter and saw the
books on the table. Into his eyes leaped a wistfulness and a
yearning as promptly as the yearning leaps into the eyes of a
starving man at sight of food. An impulsive stride, with one lurch
to right and left of the shoulders, brought him to the table, where
he began affectionately handling the books. He glanced at the
titles and the authors' names, read fragments of text, caressing
the volumes with his eyes and hands, and, once, recognized a book
he had read. For the rest, they were strange books and strange
authors. He chanced upon a volume of Swinburne and began reading
steadily, forgetful of where he was, his face glowing. Twice he
closed the book on his forefinger to look at the name of the
author. Swinburne! he would remember that name. That fellow had
eyes, and he had certainly seen color and flashing light. But who
was Swinburne? Was he dead a hundred years or so, like most of the
poets? Or was he alive still, and writing? He turned to the
title-page . . . yes, he had written other books; well, he would go
to the free library the first thing in the morning and try to get
hold of some of Swinburne's stuff. He went back to the text and
lost himself. He did not notice that a young woman had entered the
room. The first he knew was when he heard Arthur's voice saying:-
"Ruth, this is Mr. Eden."
The book was closed on his forefinger, and before he turned he was
thrilling to the first new impression, which was not of the girl,
but of her brother's words. Under that muscled body of his he was
a mass of quivering sensibilities. At the slightest impact of the
outside world upon his consciousness, his thoughts, sympathies, and
emotions leapt and played like lambent flame. He was
extraordinarily receptive and responsive, while his imagination,
pitched high, was ever at work establishing relations of likeness
and difference. "Mr. Eden," was what he had thrilled to - he who
had been called "Eden," or "Martin Eden," or just "Martin," all his
life. And "MISTER!" It was certainly going some, was his internal
comment. His mind seemed to turn, on the instant, into a vast
camera obscura, and he saw arrayed around his consciousness endless
pictures from his life, of stoke-holes and forecastles, camps and
beaches, jails and boozing-kens, fever-hospitals and slum streets,
wherein the thread of association was the fashion in which he had
been addressed in those various situations.
And then he turned and saw the girl. The phantasmagoria of his
brain vanished at sight of her. She was a pale, ethereal creature,
with wide, spiritual blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair. He did
not know how she was dressed, except that the dress was as
wonderful as she. He likened her to a pale gold flower upon a
slender stem. No, she was a spirit, a divinity, a goddess; such
sublimated beauty was not of the earth. Or perhaps the books were
right, and there were many such as she in the upper walks of life.
She might well be sung by that chap, Swinburne. Perhaps he had had
somebody like her in mind when he painted that girl, Iseult, in the
book there on the table. All this plethora of sight, and feeling,
and thought occurred on the instant. There was no pause of the
realities wherein he moved. He saw her hand coming out to his, and
she looked him straight in the eyes as she shook hands, frankly,
like a man. The women he had known did not shake hands that way.
For that matter, most of them did not shake hands at all. A flood
of associations, visions of various ways he had made the
acquaintance of women, rushed into his mind and threatened to swamp
it. But he shook them aside and looked at her. Never had he seen
such a woman. The women he had known! Immediately, beside her, on
either hand, ranged the women he had known. For an eternal second
he stood in the midst of a portrait gallery, wherein she occupied
the central place, while about her were limned many women, all to
be weighed and measured by a fleeting glance, herself the unit of
weight and measure. He saw the weak and sickly faces of the girls
of the factories, and the simpering, boisterous girls from the
south of Market. There were women of the cattle camps, and swarthy
cigarette-smoking women of Old Mexico. These, in turn, were
crowded out by Japanese women, doll-like, stepping mincingly on
wooden clogs; by Eurasians, delicate featured, stamped with
degeneracy; by full-bodied South-Sea-Island women, flower-crowned
and brown-skinned. All these were blotted out by a grotesque and
terrible nightmare brood - frowsy, shuffling creatures from the
pavements of Whitechapel, gin-bloated hags of the stews, and all
the vast hell's following of harpies, vile-mouthed and filthy, that
under the guise of monstrous female form prey upon sailors, the
scrapings of the ports, the scum and slime of the human pit.
"Won't you sit down, Mr. Eden?" the girl was saying. "I have been
looking forward to meeting you ever since Arthur told us. It was
brave of you - "
He waved his hand deprecatingly and muttered that it was nothing at
all, what he had done, and that any fellow would have done it. She
noticed that the hand he waved was covered with fresh abrasions, in
the process of healing, and a glance at the other loose-hanging
hand showed it to be in the same condition. Also, with quick,
critical eye, she noted a scar on his cheek, another that peeped
out from under the hair of the forehead, and a third that ran down
and disappeared under the starched collar. She repressed a smile
at sight of the red line that marked the chafe of the collar
against the bronzed neck. He was evidently unused to stiff
collars. Likewise her feminine eye took in the clothes he wore,
the cheap and unaesthetic cut, the wrinkling of the coat across the
shoulders, and the series of wrinkles in the sleeves that
advertised bulging biceps muscles.
While he waved his hand and muttered that he had done nothing at
all, he was obeying her behest by trying to get into a chair. He
found time to admire the ease with which she sat down, then lurched
toward a chair facing her, overwhelmed with consciousness of the
awkward figure he was cutting. This was a new experience for him.
All his life, up to then, he had been unaware of being either
graceful or awkward. Such thoughts of self had never entered his
mind. He sat down gingerly on the edge of the chair, greatly
worried by his hands. They were in the way wherever he put them.
Arthur was leaving the room, and Martin Eden followed his exit with
longing eyes. He felt lost, alone there in the room with that pale
spirit of a woman. There was no bar-keeper upon whom to call for
drinks, no small boy to send around the corner for a can of beer
and by means of that social fluid start the amenities of friendship
"You have such a scar on your neck, Mr. Eden," the girl was saying.
"How did it happen? I am sure it must have been some adventure."
"A Mexican with a knife, miss," he answered, moistening his parched
lips and clearing hip throat. "It was just a fight. After I got
the knife away, he tried to bite off my nose."
Baldly as he had stated it, in his eyes was a rich vision of that
hot, starry night at Salina Cruz, the white strip of beach, the
lights of the sugar steamers in the harbor, the voices of the
drunken sailors in the distance, the jostling stevedores, the
flaming passion in the Mexican's face, the glint of the beast-eyes
in the starlight, the sting of the steel in his neck, and the rush
of blood, the crowd and the cries, the two bodies, his and the
Mexican's, locked together, rolling over and over and tearing up
the sand, and from away off somewhere the mellow tinkling of a
guitar. Such was the picture, and he thrilled to the memory of it,
wondering if the man could paint it who had painted the pilot-
schooner on the wall. The white beach, the stars, and the lights
of the sugar steamers would look great, he thought, and midway on
the sand the dark group of figures that surrounded the fighters.
The knife occupied a place in the picture, he decided, and would
show well, with a sort of gleam, in the light of the stars. But of
all this no hint had crept into his speech. "He tried to bite off
my nose," he concluded.
"Oh," the girl said, in a faint, far voice, and he noticed the
shock in her sensitive face.
He felt a shock himself, and a blush of embarrassment shone faintly
on his sunburned cheeks, though to him it burned as hotly as when
his cheeks had been exposed to the open furnace-door in the fire-
room. Such sordid things as stabbing affrays were evidently not
fit subjects for conversation with a lady. People in the books, in
her walk of life, did not talk about such things - perhaps they did
not know about them, either.
There was a brief pause in the conversation they were trying to get
started. Then she asked tentatively about the scar on his cheek.
Even as she asked, he realized that she was making an effort to
talk his talk, and he resolved to get away from it and talk hers.
"It was just an accident," he said, putting his hand to his cheek.
"One night, in a calm, with a heavy sea running, the main-boom-lift
carried away, an' next the tackle. The lift was wire, an' it was
threshin' around like a snake. The whole watch was tryin' to grab
it, an' I rushed in an' got swatted."
"Oh," she said, this time with an accent of comprehension, though
secretly his speech had been so much Greek to her and she was
wondering what a LIFT was and what SWATTED meant.
"This man Swineburne," he began, attempting to put his plan into
execution and pronouncing the I long.
"Swineburne," he repeated, with the same mispronunciation. "The
"Swinburne," she corrected.
"Yes, that's the chap," he stammered, his cheeks hot again. "How
long since he died?"
"Why, I haven't heard that he was dead." She looked at him
curiously. "Where did you make his acquaintance?"
"I never clapped eyes on him," was the reply. "But I read some of
his poetry out of that book there on the table just before you come
in. How do you like his poetry?"
And thereat she began to talk quickly and easily upon the subject
he had suggested. He felt better, and settled back slightly from
the edge of the chair, holding tightly to its arms with his hands,
as if it might get away from him and buck him to the floor. He had
succeeded in making her talk her talk, and while she rattled on, he
strove to follow her, marvelling at all the knowledge that was
stowed away in that pretty head of hers, and drinking in the pale
beauty of her face. Follow her he did, though bothered by
unfamiliar words that fell glibly from her lips and by critical
phrases and thought-processes that were foreign to his mind, but
that nevertheless stimulated his mind and set it tingling. Here
was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and
wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself
and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live
for, to win to, to fight for - ay, and die for. The books were
true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them.
She lent wings to his imagination, and great, luminous canvases
spread themselves before him whereon loomed vague, gigantic figures
of love and romance, and of heroic deeds for woman's sake - for a
pale woman, a flower of gold. And through the swaying, palpitant
vision, as through a fairy mirage, he stared at the real woman,
sitting there and talking of literature and art. He listened as
well, but he stared, unconscious of the fixity of his gaze or of
the fact that all that was essentially masculine in his nature was
shining in his eyes. But she, who knew little of the world of men,
being a woman, was keenly aware of his burning eyes. She had never
had men look at her in such fashion, and it embarrassed her. She
stumbled and halted in her utterance. The thread of argument
slipped from her. He frightened her, and at the same time it was
strangely pleasant to be so looked upon. Her training warned her
of peril and of wrong, subtle, mysterious, luring; while her
instincts rang clarion-voiced through her being, impelling her to
hurdle caste and place and gain to this traveller from another
world, to this uncouth young fellow with lacerated hands and a line
of raw red caused by the unaccustomed linen at his throat, who, all
too evidently, was soiled and tainted by ungracious existence. She
was clean, and her cleanness revolted; but she was woman, and she
was just beginning to learn the paradox of woman.
"As I was saying - what was I saying?" She broke off abruptly and
laughed merrily at her predicament.
"You was saying that this man Swinburne failed bein' a great poet
because - an' that was as far as you got, miss," he prompted, while
to himself he seemed suddenly hungry, and delicious little thrills
crawled up and down his spine at the sound of her laughter. Like
silver, he thought to himself, like tinkling silver bells; and on
the instant, and for an instant, he was transported to a far land,
where under pink cherry blossoms, he smoked a cigarette and
listened to the bells of the peaked pagoda calling straw-sandalled
devotees to worship.
"Yes, thank you," she said. "Swinburne fails, when all is said,
because he is, well, indelicate. There are many of his poems that
should never be read. Every line of the really great poets is
filled with beautiful truth, and calls to all that is high and
noble in the human. Not a line of the great poets can be spared
without impoverishing the world by that much."
"I thought it was great," he said hesitatingly, "the little I read.
I had no idea he was such a - a scoundrel. I guess that crops out
in his other books."
"There are many lines that could be spared from the book you were
reading," she said, her voice primly firm and dogmatic.
"I must 'a' missed 'em," he announced. "What I read was the real
goods. It was all lighted up an' shining, an' it shun right into
me an' lighted me up inside, like the sun or a searchlight. That's
the way it landed on me, but I guess I ain't up much on poetry,
He broke off lamely. He was confused, painfully conscious of his
inarticulateness. He had felt the bigness and glow of life in what
he had read, but his speech was inadequate. He could not express
what he felt, and to himself he likened himself to a sailor, in a
strange ship, on a dark night, groping about in the unfamiliar
running rigging. Well, he decided, it was up to him to get
acquainted in this new world. He had never seen anything that he
couldn't get the hang of when he wanted to and it was about time
for him to want to learn to talk the things that were inside of him
so that she could understand. SHE was bulking large on his
"Now Longfellow - " she was saying.
"Yes, I've read 'm," he broke in impulsively, spurred on to exhibit
and make the most of his little store of book knowledge, desirous
of showing her that he was not wholly a stupid clod. "'The Psalm
of Life,' 'Excelsior,' an' . . . I guess that's all."
She nodded her head and smiled, and he felt, somehow, that her
smile was tolerant, pitifully tolerant. He was a fool to attempt
to make a pretence that way. That Longfellow chap most likely had
written countless books of poetry.
"Excuse me, miss, for buttin' in that way. I guess the real facts
is that I don't know nothin' much about such things. It ain't in
my class. But I'm goin' to make it in my class."
It sounded like a threat. His voice was determined, his eyes were
flashing, the lines of his face had grown harsh. And to her it
seemed that the angle of his jaw had changed; its pitch had become
unpleasantly aggressive. At the same time a wave of intense
virility seemed to surge out from him and impinge upon her.
"I think you could make it in - in your class," she finished with a
laugh. "You are very strong."
Her gaze rested for a moment on the muscular neck, heavy corded,
almost bull-like, bronzed by the sun, spilling over with rugged
health and strength. And though he sat there, blushing and humble,
again she felt drawn to him. She was surprised by a wanton thought
that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay
her two hands upon that neck that all its strength and vigor would
flow out to her. She was shocked by this thought. It seemed to
reveal to her an undreamed depravity in her nature. Besides,
strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her ideal of
masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness. Yet the
thought still persisted. It bewildered her that she should desire
to place her hands on that sunburned neck. In truth, she was far
from robust, and the need of her body and mind was for strength.
But she did not know it. She knew only that no man had ever
affected her before as this one had, who shocked her from moment to
moment with his awful grammar.
"Yes, I ain't no invalid," he said. "When it comes down to hard-
pan, I can digest scrap-iron. But just now I've got dyspepsia.
Most of what you was sayin' I can't digest. Never trained that
way, you see. I like books and poetry, and what time I've had I've
read 'em, but I've never thought about 'em the way you have.
That's why I can't talk about 'em. I'm like a navigator adrift on
a strange sea without chart or compass. Now I want to get my
bearin's. Mebbe you can put me right. How did you learn all this
you've ben talkin'?"
"By going to school, I fancy, and by studying," she answered.
"I went to school when I was a kid," he began to object.
"Yes; but I mean high school, and lectures, and the university."
"You've gone to the university?" he demanded in frank amazement.
He felt that she had become remoter from him by at least a million
"I'm going there now. I'm taking special courses in English."
He did not know what "English" meant, but he made a mental note of
that item of ignorance and passed on.
"How long would I have to study before I could go to the
university?" he asked.
She beamed encouragement upon his desire for knowledge, and said:
"That depends upon how much studying you have already done. You
have never attended high school? Of course not. But did you
finish grammar school?"
"I had two years to run, when I left," he answered. "But I was
always honorably promoted at school."
The next moment, angry with himself for the boast, he had gripped
the arms of the chair so savagely that every finger-end was
stinging. At the same moment he became aware that a woman was
entering the room. He saw the girl leave her chair and trip
swiftly across the floor to the newcomer. They kissed each other,
and, with arms around each other's waists, they advanced toward
him. That must be her mother, he thought. She was a tall, blond
woman, slender, and stately, and beautiful. Her gown was what he
might expect in such a house. His eyes delighted in the graceful
lines of it. She and her dress together reminded him of women on
the stage. Then he remembered seeing similar grand ladies and
gowns entering the London theatres while he stood and watched and
the policemen shoved him back into the drizzle beyond the awning.
Next his mind leaped to the Grand Hotel at Yokohama, where, too,
from the sidewalk, he had seen grand ladies. Then the city and the
harbor of Yokohama, in a thousand pictures, began flashing before
his eyes. But he swiftly dismissed the kaleidoscope of memory,
oppressed by the urgent need of the present. He knew that he must
stand up to be introduced, and he struggled painfully to his feet,
where he stood with trousers bagging at the knees, his arms loose-
hanging and ludicrous, his face set hard for the impending ordeal.Next chapter |
Martin Eden, by Jack London. CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI CHAPTER VII CHAPTER VIII CHAPTER IX CHAPTER X CHAPTER XI CHAPTER XII CHAPTER XIII CHAPTER XIV CHAPTER XV CHAPTER XVI CHAPTER XVII CHAPTER XVIII CHAPTER XIX CHAPTER XX CHAPTER XXI CHAPTER XXII CHAPTER XXIII CHAPTER XXIV CHAPTER XXV CHAPTER XXVI CHAPTER XXVII CHAPTER XXVIII CHAPTER XXIX CHAPTER XXX CHAPTER XXXI CHAPTER XXXII CHAPTER XXXIII CHAPTER XXXIV CHAPTER XXXV CHAPTER XXXVI CHAPTER XXXVII CHAPTER XXXVIII CHAPTER XXXIX CHAPTER XL CHAPTER XLI CHAPTER XLII CHAPTER XLIII CHAPTER XLIV CHAPTER XLV CHAPTER XLVI
(Friday, 25 September, 2020.)