| THE SEA-WOLF, by Jack London.
I SCARCELY KNOW WHERE to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place
the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth's credit. He kept a summer
cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and never
occupied it except when he loafed through the winter months and read
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain. When summer came on,
he elected to sweat out a hot and dusty existence in the city and to
toil incessantly. Had it not been my custom to run up to see him every
Saturday afternoon and to stop over till Monday morning, this
particular January Monday morning would not have found me afloat on
San Francisco Bay.
Not but that I was afloat in a safe craft, for the Martinez was a
new ferry-steamer, making her fourth or fifth trip on the run
between Sausalito and San Francisco. The danger lay in the heavy fog
which blanketed the bay, and of which, as a landsman, I had little
apprehension. In fact, I remember the placid exaltation with which I
took up my position on the forward upper deck, directly beneath the
pilot-house, and allowed the mystery of the fog to lay hold of my
imagination. A fresh breeze was blowing, and for a time I was alone in
the moist obscurity; yet not alone, for I was dimly conscious of the
presence of the pilot, and of what I took to be the captain, in the
glass house above my head.
I remember thinking how comfortable it was, this division of labor
which made it unnecessary for me to study fogs, winds, tides, and
navigation in order to visit my friend who lived across an arm of
the sea. It was good that men should be specialists, I mused. The
peculiar knowledge of the pilot and captain sufficed for many
thousands of people who knew no more of the sea and navigation than
I knew. On the other hand, instead of having to devote my energy to
the learning of a multitude of things, I concentrated it upon a few
particular things, such as, for instance, the analysis of Poe's
place in American literature, an essay of mine, by the way, in the
current 'Atlantic.' Coming aboard, as I passed through the cabin, I
had noticed with greedy eyes a stout gentleman reading the 'Atlantic,'
which was open at my very essay. And there it was again, the
division of labor, the special knowledge of the pilot and captain
which permitted the stout gentleman to read my special knowledge on
Poe while they carried him safely from Sausalito to San Francisco.
A red-faced man, slamming the cabin door behind him and stumping out
on the deck, interrupted my reflections, though I made a mental note
of the topic for use in a projected essay which I had thought of
calling 'The Necessity for Freedom: A Plea for the Artist.' The
red-faced man shot a glance up at the pilot-house, gazed around at the
fog, stumped across the deck and back (he evidently had artificial
legs), and stood still by my side, legs wide apart and with an
expression of keen enjoyment on his face. I was not wrong when I
decided that his days had been spent on the sea.
'It's nasty weather like this here that turns heads gray before
their time,' he said, with a nod toward the pilot-house.
'I had not thought there was any particular strain,' I answered. 'It
seems as simple as a-b-c. They know the direction by compass, the
distance, and the speed. I should not call it anything more than
'Strain!' he snorted. 'Simple as a-b-c! Mathematical certainty!'
He seemed to brace himself up and lean backward against the air as
he stared at me. 'How about this here tide that's rushin' out
through the Golden Gate?' he demanded, or bellowed, rather. 'How
fast is she ebbin'? What's the drift, eh? Listen to that, will you!
A bell-buoy, and we're atop of it! See 'em alterin' the course!'
From out of the fog came the mournful tolling of a bell, and I could
see the pilot turning the wheel with great rapidity. The bell, which
had seemed straight ahead, was now sounding from the side. Our own
whistle was blowing hoarsely, and from time to time the sound of other
whistles came to us from out of the fog.
'That's a ferryboat of some sort,' the newcomer said, indicating a
whistle off to the right. 'And there! D'ye hear that? Blown by
mouth. Some scow schooner, most likely. Better watch out, Mr.
Schooner-man. Ah, I thought so.'
The unseen ferryboat was blowing blast after blast, and the
mouth-blown horn was tooting in terror-stricken fashion.
'And now they're payin' their respects to each other and tryin' to
get clear,' the red-faced man went on, as the hurried whistling
His face was shining, his eyes flashing with excitement, as he
translated into articulate language the speech of the horns and
sirens. 'That's a steam-siren a-goin' it over there to the left. And
you hear that fellow with a frog in his throat- a steam-schooner, as
near as I can judge, crawlin' in from the Heads against the tide.'
A shrill little whistle, piping as if gone mad, came from directly
ahead and from very near at hand. Gongs sounded on the Martinez. Our
paddlewheels stopped, their pulsing beat died away, and then they
started again. The shrill little whistle, like the chirping of a
cricket amid the cries of great beasts, shot through the fog from more
to the side and swiftly grew faint and fainter. I looked to my
companion for enlightenment.
'One of them daredevil launches,' he said. 'I almost wish we'd
sunk him, the little rip! They're the cause of more trouble. And
what good are they? Any jackass gets aboard one and thinks he can
run it, blowin' his whistle to beat the band and tellin' the rest of
the world to look out for him because he's comin' and can't look out
for himself. Because he's comin'! And you've got to look out, too.
Right of way! Common decency! They don't know the meanin' of it!'
I felt quite amused at his unwarranted choler, and while he
stumped moodily up and down I fell to dwelling upon the romance of the
fog. And romantic it certainly was- the fog, like the gray shadow of
infinite mystery, brooding over the whirling speck of earth; and
men, mere motes of light and sparkle, cursed with an insane relish for
work, riding their steeds of wood and steel through the heart of the
mystery, groping their way blindly through the unseen, and clamoring
and clanging in confident speech the while their hearts are heavy with
incertitude and fear.
The voice of my companion brought me back to myself with a laugh. I,
too, had been groping and floundering, the while I thought I rode
clear-eyed through the mystery.
'Hello! Somebody comin' our way,' he was saying. 'And d'ye hear
that? He's comin' fast. Walkin' right along. Guess he don't hear us
yet. Wind's in wrong direction.'
The fresh breeze was blowing right down upon us, and I could hear
the whistle plainly, off to one side and a little ahead.
'Ferryboat?' I asked.
He nodded, then added: 'Or he wouldn't be keepin' up such a clip.'
He gave a short chuckle. 'They're gettin' anxious up there.'
I glanced up. The captain had thrust his head and shoulders out of
the pilot-house and was staring intently into the fog, as though by
sheer force of will he could penetrate it. His face was anxious, as
was the face of my companion, who had stumped over to the rail and was
gazing with a like intentness in the direction of the invisible
Then everything happened, and with inconceivable rapidity. The fog
seemed to break away as though split by a wedge, and the bow of a
steamboat emerged, trailing fog-wreaths on each side like seaweed on
the snout of Leviathan. I could see the pilot-house and a
white-bearded man leaning partly out of it, on his elbows. He was clad
in a blue uniform, and I remember noting how trim and quiet he was.
His quietness, under the circumstances, was terrible. He accepted
Destiny, marched hand in hand with it, and coolly measured the stroke.
As he leaned there, he ran a calm and speculative eye over us, as
though to determine the precise point of the collision, and took no
notice whatever when our pilot, white with rage, shouted, 'Now
you've done it!'
'Grab hold of something and hang on!' the red-faced man said to
me. All his bluster had gone, and he seemed to have caught the
contagion of preternatural calm. 'And listen to the women scream,'
he said grimly, almost bitterly, I thought, as though he had been
through the experience before.
The vessels came together before I could follow his advice. We
must have been struck squarely amidships, for I saw nothing, the
strange steamboat having passed beyond my line of vision. The Martinez
heeled over sharply, and there was a crashing and rending of timber. I
was thrown flat on the wet deck, and before I could scramble to my
feet I heard the screams of the women. This it was, I am certain,- the
most indescribable of bloodcurdling sounds,- that threw me into a
panic. I remembered the life-preservers stored in the cabin, but was
met at the door and swept backward by a wild rush of men and women.
What happened in the next few minutes I do not recollect, though I
have a clear remembrance of pulling down life-preservers from the
overhead racks while the red-faced man fastened them about the
bodies of an hysterical group of women. This memory is as distinct and
sharp as that of any picture I have seen. It is a picture, and I can
see it now- the jagged edges of the hole in the side of the cabin,
through which the gray fog swirled and eddied; the empty upholstered
seats, littered with all the evidences of sudden flight, such as
packages, hand-satchels, umbrellas, and wraps; the stout gentleman who
had been reading my essay, incased in cork and canvas, the magazine
still in his hand, and asking me with monotonous insistence if I
thought there was any danger; the red-faced man stumping gallantly
around on his artificial legs and buckling life-preservers on all
comers; and, finally, the screaming bedlam of women.
This it was, the screaming of the women, that most tried my
nerves. It must have tried, too, the nerves of the red-faced man,
for I have another picture which will never fade from my mind. The
stout gentleman is stuffing the magazine into his overcoat pocket
and looking on curiously. A tangled mass of women, with drawn, white
faces and open mouths, is shrieking like a chorus of lost souls; and
the red-faced man, his face now purplish with wrath, and with arms
extended overhead, as in the act of hurling thunderbolts, is shouting,
'Shut up! Oh, shut up!'
I remember the scene impelled me to sudden laughter, and in the next
instant I realized that I was becoming hysterical myself; for these
were women, of my own kind, like my mother and sisters, with the
fear of death upon them and unwilling to die. And I remember that
the sounds they made reminded me of the squealing of pigs under the
knife of the butcher, and I was struck with horror at the vividness of
the analogy. These women, capable of the most sublime emotions, of the
tenderest sympathies, were open-mouthed and screaming. They wanted
to live; they were helpless, like rats in a trap, and they screamed.
The horror of it drove me out on deck. I was feeling sick and
squeamish, and sat down on a bench. In a hazy way I saw and heard
men rushing and shouting as they strove to lower the boats. It was
just as I had read descriptions of such scenes in books. The tackles
jammed. Nothing worked. One boat lowered away with the plugs out,
filled with women and children and then with water, and capsized.
Another boat had been lowered by one end and still hung in the
tackle by the other end where it had been abandoned. Nothing was to be
seen of the strange steamboat which had caused the disaster, though
I heard men saying that she would undoubtedly send boats to our
I descended to the lower deck. The Martinez was sinking fast, for
the water was very near. Numbers of the passengers were leaping
overboard. Others, in the water, were clamoring to be taken aboard
again. No one heeded them. A cry arose that we were sinking. I was
seized by the consequent panic, and went over the side in a surge of
bodies. How I went over I do not know, though I did know, and
instantly, why those in the water were so desirous of getting back
on the steamer. The water was cold- so cold that it was painful. The
pang, as I plunged into it, was as quick and sharp as that of fire. It
bit to the marrow. It was like the grip of death. I gasped with the
anguish and shock of it, filling my lungs before the life-preserver
popped me to the surface. The taste of the salt was strong in my
mouth, and I was strangling with the acrid stuff in my throat and
But it was the cold that was most distressing. I felt that I could
survive but a few minutes. People were struggling and floundering in
the water about me. I could hear them crying out to one another. And I
heard, also, the sound of oars. Evidently the strange steamboat had
lowered its boats. As the time went by I marveled that I was still
alive. I had no sensation whatever in my lower limbs, while a chilling
numbness was wrapping about my heart and creeping into it. Small
waves, with spiteful foaming crests, continually broke over me and
into my mouth, sending me off into more strangling paroxysms.
The noises grew indistinct, though I heard a final and despairing
chorus of screams in the distance and knew that the Martinez had
gone down. Later,- how much later I have no knowledge,- I came to
myself with a start of fear. I was alone, I could hear no calls or
cries- only the sound of the waves, made weirdly hollow and
reverberant by the fog. A panic in a crowd, which partakes of a sort
of community of interest, is not so terrible as a panic when one is by
oneself; and such a panic I now suffered. Whither was I drifting?
The red-faced man had said that the tide was ebbing through the Golden
Gate. Was I, then, being carried out to sea? And the life-preserver in
which I floated? was it not liable to go to pieces at any moment? I
had heard of such things being made of paper and hollow rushes,
which quickly became saturated and lost all buoyancy. I could not swim
a stroke, and I was alone, floating, apparently, in the midst of a
gray primordial vastness. I confess that a madness seized me, that I
shrieked aloud as the women had shrieked, and beat the water with my
How long this lasted I have no conception, for a blankness
intervened, of which I remember no more than one remembers of troubled
and painful sleep. When I aroused, it was as after centuries of
time, and I saw, almost above me and emerging from the fog, the bow of
a vessel and three triangular sails, each shrewdly lapping the other
and filled with wind. Where the bow cut the water there was a great
foaming and gurgling, and I seemed directly in its path. I tried to
cry out, but was too exhausted. The bow plunged down, just missing
me and sending a swash of water clear over my head. Then the long
black side of the vessel began slipping past, so near that I could
have touched it with my hands. I tried to reach it, in a mad resolve
to claw into the wood with my nails; but my arms were heavy and
lifeless. Again I strove to call out, but made no sound.
The stern of the vessel shot by, dropping, as it did so, into a
hollow between the waves; and I caught a glimpse of a man standing
at a wheel, and of another man who seemed to be doing little else than
smoke a cigar. I saw the smoke issuing from his lips as he slowly
turned his head and glanced out over the water in my direction. It was
a careless, unpremeditated glance, one of those haphazard things men
do when they have no immediate call to do anything in particular,
but act because they are alive and must do something.
But life and death were in that glance. I could see the vessel being
swallowed up in the fog; I saw the back of the man at the wheel, and
the head of the other man turning, slowly turning, as his gaze
struck the water and casually lifted along it toward me. His face wore
an absent expression, as of deep thought, and I became afraid that
if his eyes did light upon me he would nevertheless not see me. But
his eyes did light upon me, and looked squarely into mine; and he
did see me, for he sprang to the wheel, thrusting the other man aside,
and whirled it round and round, hand over hand, at the same time
shouting orders of some sort. The vessel seemed to go off at a tangent
to its former course and to leap almost instantly from view into the
I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness, and tried with all
the power of my will to fight above the suffocating blankness and
darkness that was rising around me. A little later I heard the
stroke of oars, growing nearer and nearer, and the calls of a man.
When he was very near I heard him crying, in vexed fashion: 'Why in-
don't you sing out?'
This meant me, I thought, and then the blankness and darkness rose
over me.Next chapter |
THE SEA-WOLF, by Jack London. CHAPTER TWO. CHAPTER THREE. CHAPTER FOUR. CHAPTER FIVE. CHAPTER SIX. CHAPTER SEVEN. CHAPTER EIGHT. CHAPTER NINE. CHAPTER TEN. CHAPTER ELEVEN. CHAPTER TWELVE. CHAPTER THIRTEEN. CHAPTER FOURTEEN. CHAPTER FIFTEEN. CHAPTER SIXTEEN. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN. CHAPTER NINETEEN. CHAPTER TWENTY. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX. CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN. CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT. CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE. CHAPTER THIRTY. CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE. CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO. CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE. CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR. CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE. CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX. CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN. CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT. CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE.
(Tuesday, 22 October, 2019.)