The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London

Chapter 11

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: 2,382
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Keywords: 20th century literature, adventure, american literature, jack london
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The Ghost has attained the southernmost point of the arc she is describing across the Pacific, and is already beginning to edge away to the west and north toward some lone island, it is rumoured, where she will fill her water-casks before proceeding to the season’s hunt along the coast of Japan.  The hunters have experimented and practised with their rifles and shotguns till they are satisfied, and the boat-pullers and steerers have made their spritsails, bound the oars and rowlocks in leather and sennit so that they will make no noise when creeping on the seals, and put their boats in apple-pie order—to use Leach’s homely phrase.

His arm, by the way, has healed nicely, though the scar will remain all his life.  Thomas Mugridge lives in mortal fear of him, and is afraid to venture on deck after dark.  There are two or three standing quarrels in the forecastle.  Louis tells me that the gossip of the sailors finds its way aft, and that two of the telltales have been badly beaten by their mates.  He shakes his head dubiously over the outlook for the man Johnson, who is boat-puller in the same boat with him.  Johnson has been guilty of speaking his mind too freely, and has collided two or three times with Wolf Larsen over the pronunciation of his name.  Johansen he thrashed on the amidships deck the other night, since which time the mate has called him by his proper name.  But of course it is out of the question that Johnson should thrash Wolf Larsen.

Louis has also given me additional information about Death Larsen, which tallies with the captain’s brief description.  We may expect to meet Death Larsen on the Japan coast.  “And look out for squalls,” is Louis’s prophecy, “for they hate one another like the wolf whelps they are.”  Death Larsen is in command of the only sealing steamer in the fleet, the Macedonia, which carries fourteen boats, whereas the rest of the schooners carry only six.  There is wild talk of cannon aboard, and of strange raids and expeditions she may make, ranging from opium smuggling into the States and arms smuggling into China, to blackbirding and open piracy.  Yet I cannot but believe for I have never yet caught him in a lie, while he has a cyclopædic knowledge of sealing and the men of the sealing fleets.

As it is forward and in the galley, so it is in the steerage and aft, on this veritable hell-ship.  Men fight and struggle ferociously for one another’s lives.  The hunters are looking for a shooting scrape at any moment between Smoke and Henderson, whose old quarrel has not healed, while Wolf Larsen says positively that he will kill the survivor of the affair, if such affair comes off.  He frankly states that the position he takes is based on no moral grounds, that all the hunters could kill and eat one another so far as he is concerned, were it not that he needs them alive for the hunting.  If they will only hold their hands until the season is over, he promises them a royal carnival, when all grudges can he settled and the survivors may toss the non-survivors overboard and arrange a story as to how the missing men were lost at sea.  I think even the hunters are appalled at his cold-bloodedness.  Wicked men though they be, they are certainly very much afraid of him.

Thomas Mugridge is cur-like in his subjection to me, while I go about in secret dread of him.  His is the courage of fear,—a strange thing I know well of myself,—and at any moment it may master the fear and impel him to the taking of my life.  My knee is much better, though it often aches for long periods, and the stiffness is gradually leaving the arm which Wolf Larsen squeezed.  Otherwise I am in splendid condition, feel that I am in splendid condition.  My muscles are growing harder and increasing in size.  My hands, however, are a spectacle for grief.  They have a parboiled appearance, are afflicted with hang-nails, while the nails are broken and discoloured, and the edges of the quick seem to be assuming a fungoid sort of growth.  Also, I am suffering from boils, due to the diet, most likely, for I was never afflicted in this manner before.

I was amused, a couple of evenings back, by seeing Wolf Larsen reading the Bible, a copy of which, after the futile search for one at the beginning of the voyage, had been found in the dead mate’s sea-chest.  I wondered what Wolf Larsen could get from it, and he read aloud to me from Ecclesiastes.  I could imagine he was speaking the thoughts of his own mind as he read to me, and his voice, reverberating deeply and mournfully in the confined cabin, charmed and held me.  He may be uneducated, but he certainly knows how to express the significance of the written word.  I can hear him now, as I shall always hear him, the primal melancholy vibrant in his voice as he read:

“I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces; I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.

“So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom returned with me.

“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought and on the labour that I had laboured to do; and behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.

“All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

“This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all; yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

“For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

“For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

“Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the sun.”

“There you have it, Hump,” he said, closing the book upon his finger and looking up at me.  “The Preacher who was king over Israel in Jerusalem thought as I think.  You call me a pessimist.  Is not this pessimism of the blackest?—‘All is vanity and vexation of spirit,’ ‘There is no profit under the sun,’ ‘There is one event unto all,’ to the fool and the wise, the clean and the unclean, the sinner and the saint, and that event is death, and an evil thing, he says.  For the Preacher loved life, and did not want to die, saying, ‘For a living dog is better than a dead lion.’  He preferred the vanity and vexation to the silence and unmovableness of the grave.  And so I.  To crawl is piggish; but to not crawl, to be as the clod and rock, is loathsome to contemplate.  It is loathsome to the life that is in me, the very essence of which is movement, the power of movement, and the consciousness of the power of movement.  Life itself is unsatisfaction, but to look ahead to death is greater unsatisfaction.”

“You are worse off than Omar,” I said.  “He, at least, after the customary agonizing of youth, found content and made of his materialism a joyous thing.”

“Who was Omar?” Wolf Larsen asked, and I did no more work that day, nor the next, nor the next.

In his random reading he had never chanced upon the Rubáiyát, and it was to him like a great find of treasure.  Much I remembered, possibly two-thirds of the quatrains, and I managed to piece out the remainder without difficulty.  We talked for hours over single stanzas, and I found him reading into them a wail of regret and a rebellion which, for the life of me, I could not discover myself.  Possibly I recited with a certain joyous lilt which was my own, for—his memory was good, and at a second rendering, very often the first, he made a quatrain his own—he recited the same lines and invested them with an unrest and passionate revolt that was well-nigh convincing.

I was interested as to which quatrain he would like best, and was not surprised when he hit upon the one born of an instant’s irritability, and quite at variance with the Persian’s complacent philosophy and genial code of life:

“What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?
And, without asking, Whither hurried hence!
   Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine
Must drown the memory of that insolence!”

“Great!” Wolf Larsen cried.  “Great!  That’s the keynote.  Insolence!  He could not have used a better word.”

In vain I objected and denied.  He deluged me, overwhelmed me with argument.

“It’s not the nature of life to be otherwise.  Life, when it knows that it must cease living, will always rebel.  It cannot help itself.  The Preacher found life and the works of life all a vanity and vexation, an evil thing; but death, the ceasing to be able to be vain and vexed, he found an eviler thing.  Through chapter after chapter he is worried by the one event that cometh to all alike.  So Omar, so I, so you, even you, for you rebelled against dying when Cooky sharpened a knife for you.  You were afraid to die; the life that was in you, that composes you, that is greater than you, did not want to die.  You have talked of the instinct of immortality.  I talk of the instinct of life, which is to live, and which, when death looms near and large, masters the instinct, so called, of immortality.  It mastered it in you (you cannot deny it), because a crazy Cockney cook sharpened a knife.

“You are afraid of him now.  You are afraid of me.  You cannot deny it.  If I should catch you by the throat, thus,”—his hand was about my throat and my breath was shut off,—“and began to press the life out of you thus, and thus, your instinct of immortality will go glimmering, and your instinct of life, which is longing for life, will flutter up, and you will struggle to save yourself.  Eh?  I see the fear of death in your eyes.  You beat the air with your arms.  You exert all your puny strength to struggle to live.  Your hand is clutching my arm, lightly it feels as a butterfly resting there.  Your chest is heaving, your tongue protruding, your skin turning dark, your eyes swimming.  ‘To live!  To live!  To live!’ you are crying; and you are crying to live here and now, not hereafter.  You doubt your immortality, eh?  Ha! ha!  You are not sure of it.  You won’t chance it.  This life only you are certain is real.  Ah, it is growing dark and darker.  It is the darkness of death, the ceasing to be, the ceasing to feel, the ceasing to move, that is gathering about you, descending upon you, rising around you.  Your eyes are becoming set.  They are glazing.  My voice sounds faint and far.  You cannot see my face.  And still you struggle in my grip.  You kick with your legs.  Your body draws itself up in knots like a snake’s.  Your chest heaves and strains.  To live!  To live!  To live—”

I heard no more.  Consciousness was blotted out by the darkness he had so graphically described, and when I came to myself I was lying on the floor and he was smoking a cigar and regarding me thoughtfully with that old familiar light of curiosity in his eyes.

“Well, have I convinced you?” he demanded.  “Here take a drink of this.  I want to ask you some questions.”

I rolled my head negatively on the floor.  “Your arguments are too—er—forcible,” I managed to articulate, at cost of great pain to my aching throat.

“You’ll be all right in half-an-hour,” he assured me.  “And I promise I won’t use any more physical demonstrations.  Get up now.  You can sit on a chair.”

And, toy that I was of this monster, the discussion of Omar and the Preacher was resumed.  And half the night we sat up over it.