The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London

Chapter 10

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1904
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: London, J. (1904). The Sea-Wolf.New York, NY: Macmillan.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 7.0
  • Word Count: 2,596
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Keywords: 20th century literature, adventure, american literature, jack london
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My intimacy with Wolf Larsen increases—if by intimacy may be denoted those relations which exist between master and man, or, better yet, between king and jester.  I am to him no more than a toy, and he values me no more than a child values a toy.  My function is to amuse, and so long as I amuse all goes well; but let him become bored, or let him have one of his black moods come upon him, and at once I am relegated from cabin table to galley, while, at the same time, I am fortunate to escape with my life and a whole body.

The loneliness of the man is slowly being borne in upon me.  There is not a man aboard but hates or fears him, nor is there a man whom he does not despise.  He seems consuming with the tremendous power that is in him and that seems never to have found adequate expression in works.  He is as Lucifer would be, were that proud spirit banished to a society of soulless, Tomlinsonian ghosts.

This loneliness is bad enough in itself, but, to make it worse, he is oppressed by the primal melancholy of the race.  Knowing him, I review the old Scandinavian myths with clearer understanding.  The white-skinned, fair-haired savages who created that terrible pantheon were of the same fibre as he.  The frivolity of the laughter-loving Latins is no part of him.  When he laughs it is from a humour that is nothing else than ferocious.  But he laughs rarely; he is too often sad.  And it is a sadness as deep-reaching as the roots of the race.  It is the race heritage, the sadness which has made the race sober-minded, clean-lived and fanatically moral, and which, in this latter connection, has culminated among the English in the Reformed Church and Mrs. Grundy.

In point of fact, the chief vent to this primal melancholy has been religion in its more agonizing forms.  But the compensations of such religion are denied Wolf Larsen.  His brutal materialism will not permit it.  So, when his blue moods come on, nothing remains for him, but to be devilish.  Were he not so terrible a man, I could sometimes feel sorry for him, as instance three mornings ago, when I went into his stateroom to fill his water-bottle and came unexpectedly upon him.  He did not see me.  His head was buried in his hands, and his shoulders were heaving convulsively as with sobs.  He seemed torn by some mighty grief.  As I softly withdrew I could hear him groaning, “God!  God!  God!”  Not that he was calling upon God; it was a mere expletive, but it came from his soul.

At dinner he asked the hunters for a remedy for headache, and by evening, strong man that he was, he was half-blind and reeling about the cabin.

“I’ve never been sick in my life, Hump,” he said, as I guided him to his room.  “Nor did I ever have a headache except the time my head was healing after having been laid open for six inches by a capstan-bar.”

For three days this blinding headache lasted, and he suffered as wild animals suffer, as it seemed the way on ship to suffer, without plaint, without sympathy, utterly alone.

This morning, however, on entering his state-room to make the bed and put things in order, I found him well and hard at work.  Table and bunk were littered with designs and calculations.  On a large transparent sheet, compass and square in hand, he was copying what appeared to be a scale of some sort or other.

“Hello, Hump,” he greeted me genially.  “I’m just finishing the finishing touches.  Want to see it work?”

“But what is it?” I asked.

“A labour-saving device for mariners, navigation reduced to kindergarten simplicity,” he answered gaily.  “From to-day a child will be able to navigate a ship.  No more long-winded calculations.  All you need is one star in the sky on a dirty night to know instantly where you are.  Look.  I place the transparent scale on this star-map, revolving the scale on the North Pole.  On the scale I’ve worked out the circles of altitude and the lines of bearing.  All I do is to put it on a star, revolve the scale till it is opposite those figures on the map underneath, and presto! there you are, the ship’s precise location!”

There was a ring of triumph in his voice, and his eyes, clear blue this morning as the sea, were sparkling with light.

“You must be well up in mathematics,” I said.  “Where did you go to school?”

“Never saw the inside of one, worse luck,” was the answer.  “I had to dig it out for myself.”

“And why do you think I have made this thing?” he demanded, abruptly.  “Dreaming to leave footprints on the sands of time?”  He laughed one of his horrible mocking laughs.  “Not at all.  To get it patented, to make money from it, to revel in piggishness with all night in while other men do the work.  That’s my purpose.  Also, I have enjoyed working it out.”

“The creative joy,” I murmured.

“I guess that’s what it ought to be called.  Which is another way of expressing the joy of life in that it is alive, the triumph of movement over matter, of the quick over the dead, the pride of the yeast because it is yeast and crawls.”

I threw up my hands with helpless disapproval of his inveterate materialism and went about making the bed.  He continued copying lines and figures upon the transparent scale.  It was a task requiring the utmost nicety and precision, and I could not but admire the way he tempered his strength to the fineness and delicacy of the need.

When I had finished the bed, I caught myself looking at him in a fascinated sort of way.  He was certainly a handsome man—beautiful in the masculine sense.  And again, with never-failing wonder, I remarked the total lack of viciousness, or wickedness, or sinfulness in his face.  It was the face, I am convinced, of a man who did no wrong.  And by this I do not wish to be misunderstood.  What I mean is that it was the face of a man who either did nothing contrary to the dictates of his conscience, or who had no conscience.  I am inclined to the latter way of accounting for it.  He was a magnificent atavism, a man so purely primitive that he was of the type that came into the world before the development of the moral nature.  He was not immoral, but merely unmoral.

As I have said, in the masculine sense his was a beautiful face.  Smooth-shaven, every line was distinct, and it was cut as clear and sharp as a cameo; while sea and sun had tanned the naturally fair skin to a dark bronze which bespoke struggle and battle and added both to his savagery and his beauty.  The lips were full, yet possessed of the firmness, almost harshness, which is characteristic of thin lips.  The set of his mouth, his chin, his jaw, was likewise firm or harsh, with all the fierceness and indomitableness of the male—the nose also.  It was the nose of a being born to conquer and command.  It just hinted of the eagle beak.  It might have been Grecian, it might have been Roman, only it was a shade too massive for the one, a shade too delicate for the other.  And while the whole face was the incarnation of fierceness and strength, the primal melancholy from which he suffered seemed to greaten the lines of mouth and eye and brow, seemed to give a largeness and completeness which otherwise the face would have lacked.

And so I caught myself standing idly and studying him.  I cannot say how greatly the man had come to interest me.  Who was he?  What was he?  How had he happened to be?  All powers seemed his, all potentialities—why, then, was he no more than the obscure master of a seal-hunting schooner with a reputation for frightful brutality amongst the men who hunted seals?

My curiosity burst from me in a flood of speech.

“Why is it that you have not done great things in this world?  With the power that is yours you might have risen to any height.  Unpossessed of conscience or moral instinct, you might have mastered the world, broken it to your hand.  And yet here you are, at the top of your life, where diminishing and dying begin, living an obscure and sordid existence, hunting sea animals for the satisfaction of woman’s vanity and love of decoration, revelling in a piggishness, to use your own words, which is anything and everything except splendid.  Why, with all that wonderful strength, have you not done something?  There was nothing to stop you, nothing that could stop you.  What was wrong?  Did you lack ambition?  Did you fall under temptation?  What was the matter?  What was the matter?”

He had lifted his eyes to me at the commencement of my outburst, and followed me complacently until I had done and stood before him breathless and dismayed.  He waited a moment, as though seeking where to begin, and then said:

“Hump, do you know the parable of the sower who went forth to sow?  If you will remember, some of the seed fell upon stony places, where there was not much earth, and forthwith they sprung up because they had no deepness of earth.  And when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.  And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprung up and choked them.”

“Well?” I said.

“Well?” he queried, half petulantly.  “It was not well.  I was one of those seeds.”

He dropped his head to the scale and resumed the copying.  I finished my work and had opened the door to leave, when he spoke to me.

“Hump, if you will look on the west coast of the map of Norway you will see an indentation called Romsdal Fiord.  I was born within a hundred miles of that stretch of water.  But I was not born Norwegian.  I am a Dane.  My father and mother were Danes, and how they ever came to that bleak bight of land on the west coast I do not know.  I never heard.  Outside of that there is nothing mysterious.  They were poor people and unlettered.  They came of generations of poor unlettered people—peasants of the sea who sowed their sons on the waves as has been their custom since time began.  There is no more to tell.”

“But there is,” I objected.  “It is still obscure to me.”

“What can I tell you?” he demanded, with a recrudescence of fierceness.  “Of the meagreness of a child’s life? of fish diet and coarse living? of going out with the boats from the time I could crawl? of my brothers, who went away one by one to the deep-sea farming and never came back? of myself, unable to read or write, cabin-boy at the mature age of ten on the coastwise, old-country ships? of the rough fare and rougher usage, where kicks and blows were bed and breakfast and took the place of speech, and fear and hatred and pain were my only soul-experiences?  I do not care to remember.  A madness comes up in my brain even now as I think of it.  But there were coastwise skippers I would have returned and killed when a man’s strength came to me, only the lines of my life were cast at the time in other places.  I did return, not long ago, but unfortunately the skippers were dead, all but one, a mate in the old days, a skipper when I met him, and when I left him a cripple who would never walk again.”

“But you who read Spencer and Darwin and have never seen the inside of a school, how did you learn to read and write?” I queried.

“In the English merchant service.  Cabin-boy at twelve, ship’s boy at fourteen, ordinary seamen at sixteen, able seaman at seventeen, and cock of the fo’c’sle, infinite ambition and infinite loneliness, receiving neither help nor sympathy, I did it all for myself—navigation, mathematics, science, literature, and what not.  And of what use has it been?  Master and owner of a ship at the top of my life, as you say, when I am beginning to diminish and die.  Paltry, isn’t it?  And when the sun was up I was scorched, and because I had no root I withered away.”

“But history tells of slaves who rose to the purple,” I chided.

“And history tells of opportunities that came to the slaves who rose to the purple,” he answered grimly.  “No man makes opportunity.  All the great men ever did was to know it when it came to them.  The Corsican knew.  I have dreamed as greatly as the Corsican.  I should have known the opportunity, but it never came.  The thorns sprung up and choked me.  And, Hump, I can tell you that you know more about me than any living man, except my own brother.”

“And what is he?  And where is he?”

“Master of the steamship Macedonia, seal-hunter,” was the answer.  “We will meet him most probably on the Japan coast.  Men call him ‘Death’ Larsen.”

“Death Larsen!” I involuntarily cried.  “Is he like you?”

“Hardly.  He is a lump of an animal without any head.  He has all my—my—”

“Brutishness,” I suggested.

“Yes,—thank you for the word,—all my brutishness, but he can scarcely read or write.”

“And he has never philosophized on life,” I added.

“No,” Wolf Larsen answered, with an indescribable air of sadness.  “And he is all the happier for leaving life alone.  He is too busy living it to think about it.  My mistake was in ever opening the books.”