| THE GAME, by Jack London.
Many patterns of carpet lay rolled out before them on the floor--two
of Brussels showed the beginning of their quest, and its ending in
that direction; while a score of ingrains lured their eyes and
prolonged the debate between desire pocket-book. The head of the
department did them the honor of waiting upon them himself--or did
Joe the honor, as she well knew, for she had noted the open-mouthed
awe of the elevator boy who brought them up. Nor had she been blind
to the marked respect shown Joe by the urchins and groups of young
fellows on corners, when she walked with him in their own
neighborhood down at the west end of the town.
But the head of the department was called away to the telephone, and
in her mind the splendid promise of the carpets and the irk of the
pocket-book were thrust aside by a greater doubt and anxiety.
"But I don't see what you find to like in it, Joe," she said softly,
the note of insistence in her words betraying recent and
For a fleeting moment a shadow darkened his boyish face, to be
replaced by the glow of tenderness. He was only a boy, as she was
only a girl--two young things on the threshold of life, house-
renting and buying carpets together.
"What's the good of worrying?" he questioned. "It's the last go,
the very last."
He smiled at her, but she saw on his lips the unconscious and all
but breathed sigh of renunciation, and with the instinctive monopoly
of woman for her mate, she feared this thing she did not understand
and which gripped his life so strongly.
"You know the go with O'Neil cleared the last payment on mother's
house," he went on. "And that's off my mind. Now this last with
Ponta will give me a hundred dollars in bank--an even hundred,
that's the purse--for you and me to start on, a nest-egg."
She disregarded the money appeal. "But you like it, this--this
'game' you call it. Why?"
He lacked speech-expression. He expressed himself with his hands,
at his work, and with his body and the play of his muscles in the
squared ring; but to tell with his own lips the charm of the squared
ring was beyond him. Yet he essayed, and haltingly at first, to
express what he felt and analyzed when playing the Game at the
supreme summit of existence.
"All I know, Genevieve, is that you feel good in the ring when
you've got the man where you want him, when he's had a punch up both
sleeves waiting for you and you've never given him an opening to
land 'em, when you've landed your own little punch an' he's goin'
groggy, an' holdin' on, an' the referee's dragging him off so's you
can go in an' finish 'm, an' all the house is shouting an' tearin'
itself loose, an' you know you're the best man, an' that you played
m' fair an' won out because you're the best man. I tell you--"
He ceased brokenly, alarmed by his own volubility and by Genevieve's
look of alarm. As he talked she had watched his face while fear
dawned in her own. As he described the moment of moments to her, on
his inward vision were lined the tottering man, the lights, the
shouting house, and he swept out and away from her on this tide of
life that was beyond her comprehension, menacing, irresistible,
making her love pitiful and weak. The Joe she knew receded, faded,
became lost. The fresh boyish face was gone, the tenderness of the
eyes, the sweetness of the mouth with its curves and pictured
corners. It was a man's face she saw, a face of steel, tense and
immobile; a mouth of steel, the lips like the jaws of a trap; eyes
of steel, dilated, intent, and the light in them and the glitter
were the light and glitter of steel. The face of a man, and she had
known only his boy face. This face she did not know at all.
And yet, while it frightened her, she was vaguely stirred with pride
in him. His masculinity, the masculinity of the fighting male, made
its inevitable appeal to her, a female, moulded by all her heredity
to seek out the strong man for mate, and to lean against the wall of
his strength. She did not understand this force of his being that
rose mightier than her love and laid its compulsion upon him; and
yet, in her woman's heart she was aware of the sweet pang which told
her that for her sake, for Love's own sake, he had surrendered to
her, abandoned all that portion of his life, and with this one last
fight would never fight again.
"Mrs. Silverstein doesn't like prize-fighting," she said. "She's
down on it, and she knows something, too."
He smiled indulgently, concealing a hurt, not altogether new, at her
persistent inappreciation of this side of his nature and life in
which he took the greatest pride. It was to him power and
achievement, earned by his own effort and hard work; and in the
moment when he had offered himself and all that he was to Genevieve,
it was this, and this alone, that he was proudly conscious of laying
at her feet. It was the merit of work performed, a guerdon of
manhood finer and greater than any other man could offer, and it had
been to him his justification and right to possess her. And she had
not understood it then, as she did not understand it now, and he
might well have wondered what else she found in him to make him
"Mrs. Silverstein is a dub, and a softy, and a knocker," he said
good-humoredly. "What's she know about such things, anyway? I tell
you it IS good, and healthy, too,"--this last as an afterthought.
"Look at me. I tell you I have to live clean to be in condition
like this. I live cleaner than she does, or her old man, or anybody
you know--baths, rub-downs, exercise, regular hours, good food and
no makin' a pig of myself, no drinking, no smoking, nothing that'll
hurt me. Why, I live cleaner than you, Genevieve--"
"Honest, I do," he hastened to add at sight of her shocked face. "I
don't mean water an' soap, but look there." His hand closed
reverently but firmly on her arm. "Soft, you're all soft, all over.
Not like mine. Here, feel this."
He pressed the ends of her fingers into his hard arm-muscles until
she winced from the hurt.
"Hard all over just like that," he went on. "Now that's what I call
clean. Every bit of flesh an' blood an' muscle is clean right down
to the bones--and they're clean, too. No soap and water only on the
skin, but clean all the way in. I tell you it feels clean. It
knows it's clean itself. When I wake up in the morning an' go to
work, every drop of blood and bit of meat is shouting right out that
it is clean. Oh, I tell you--"
He paused with swift awkwardness, again confounded by his unwonted
flow of speech. Never in his life had he been stirred to such
utterance, and never in his life had there been cause to be so
stirred. For it was the Game that had been questioned, its verity
and worth, the Game itself, the biggest thing in the world--or what
had been the biggest thing in the world until that chance afternoon
and that chance purchase in Silverstein's candy store, when
Genevieve loomed suddenly colossal in his life, overshadowing all
other things. He was beginning to see, though vaguely, the sharp
conflict between woman and career, between a man's work in the world
and woman's need of the man. But he was not capable of
generalization. He saw only the antagonism between the concrete,
flesh-and-blood Genevieve and the great, abstract, living Game.
Each resented the other, each claimed him; he was torn with the
strife, and yet drifted helpless on the currents of their
His words had drawn Genevieve's gaze to his face, and she had
pleasured in the clear skin, the clear eyes, the cheek soft and
smooth as a girl's. She saw the force of his argument and disliked
it accordingly. She revolted instinctively against this Game which
drew him away from her, robbed her of part of him. It was a rival
she did not understand. Nor could she understand its seductions.
Had it been a woman rival, another girl, knowledge and light and
sight would have been hers. As it was, she grappled in the dark
with an intangible adversary about which she knew nothing. What
truth she felt in his speech made the Game but the more formidable.
A sudden conception of her weakness came to her. She felt pity for
herself, and sorrow. She wanted him, all of him, her woman's need
would not be satisfied with less; and he eluded her, slipped away
here and there from the embrace with which she tried to clasp him.
Tears swam into her eyes, and her lips trembled, turning defeat into
victory, routing the all-potent Game with the strength of her
"Don't, Genevieve, don't," the boy pleaded, all contrition, though
he was confused and dazed. To his masculine mind there was nothing
relevant about her break-down; yet all else was forgotten at sight
of her tears.
She smiled forgiveness through her wet eyes, and though he knew of
nothing for which to be forgiven, he melted utterly. His hand went
out impulsively to hers, but she avoided the clasp by a sort of
bodily stiffening and chill, the while the eyes smiled still more
"Here comes Mr. Clausen," she said, at the same time, by some
transforming alchemy of woman, presenting to the newcomer eyes that
showed no hint of moistness.
"Think I was never coming back, Joe?" queried the head of the
department, a pink-and-white-faced man, whose austere side-whiskers
were belied by genial little eyes.
"Now let me see--hum, yes, we was discussing ingrains," he continued
briskly. "That tasty little pattern there catches your eye, don't
it now, eh? Yes, yes, I know all about it. I set up housekeeping
when I was getting fourteen a week. But nothing's too good for the
little nest, eh? Of course I know, and it's only seven cents more,
and the dearest is the cheapest, I say. Tell you what I'll do,
Joe,"--this with a burst of philanthropic impulsiveness and a
confidential lowering of voice,--"seein's it's you, and I wouldn't
do it for anybody else, I'll reduce it to five cents. Only,"--here
his voice became impressively solemn,--"only you mustn't ever tell
how much you really did pay."
"Sewed, lined, and laid--of course that's included," he said, after
Joe and Genevieve had conferred together and announced their
"And the little nest, eh?" he queried. "When do you spread your
wings and fly away? To-morrow! So soon? Beautiful! Beautiful!"
He rolled his eyes ecstatically for a moment, then beamed upon them
with a fatherly air.
Joe had replied sturdily enough, and Genevieve had blushed prettily;
but both felt that it was not exactly proper. Not alone because of
the privacy and holiness of the subject, but because of what might
have been prudery in the middle class, but which in them was the
modesty and reticence found in individuals of the working class when
they strive after clean living and morality.
Mr. Clausen accompanied them to the elevator, all smiles, patronage,
and beneficence, while the clerks turned their heads to follow Joe's
"And to-night, Joe?" Mr. Clausen asked anxiously, as they waited at
the shaft. "How do you feel? Think you'll do him?"
"Sure," Joe answered. "Never felt better in my life."
"You feel all right, eh? Good! Good! You see, I was just a-
wonderin'--you know, ha! ha!--goin' to get married and the rest--
thought you might be unstrung, eh, a trifle?--nerves just a bit off,
you know. Know how gettin' married is myself. But you're all
right, eh? Of course you are. No use asking YOU that. Ha! ha!
Well, good luck, my boy! I know you'll win. Never had the least
doubt, of course, of course."
"And good-by, Miss Pritchard," he said to Genevieve, gallantly
handing her into the elevator. "Hope you call often. Will be
charmed--charmed--I assure you."
"Everybody calls you 'Joe'," she said reproachfully, as the car
dropped downward. "Why don't they call you 'Mr. Fleming'? That's
no more than proper."
But he was staring moodily at the elevator boy and did not seem to
"What's the matter, Joe?" she asked, with a tenderness the power of
which to thrill him she knew full well.
"Oh, nothing," he said. "I was only thinking--and wishing."
"Wishing?--what?" Her voice was seduction itself, and her eyes
would have melted stronger than he, though they failed in calling
his up to them.
Then, deliberately, his eyes lifted to hers. "I was wishing you
could see me fight just once."
She made a gesture of disgust, and his face fell. It came to her
sharply that the rival had thrust between and was bearing him away.
"I--I'd like to," she said hastily with an effort, striving after
that sympathy which weakens the strongest men and draws their heads
to women's breasts.
Again his eyes lifted and looked into hers. He meant it--she knew
that. It seemed a challenge to the greatness of her love.
"It would be the proudest moment of my life," he said simply.
It may have been the apprehensiveness of love, the wish to meet his
need for her sympathy, and the desire to see the Game face to face
for wisdom's sake,--and it may have been the clarion call of
adventure ringing through the narrow confines of uneventful
existence; for a great daring thrilled through her, and she said,
just as simply, "I will."
"I didn't think you would, or I wouldn't have asked," he confessed,
as they walked out to the sidewalk.
"But can't it be done?" she asked anxiously, before her resolution
"Oh, I can fix that; but I didn't think you would."
"I didn't think you would," he repeated, still amazed, as he helped
her upon the electric car and felt in his pocket for the fare.Next chapter |
THE GAME, by Jack London. CHAPTER II CHAPTER III CHAPTER IV CHAPTER V CHAPTER VI
(Friday, 27 November, 2020.)