The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London

Chapter 17

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: 5,718
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Keywords: 20th century literature, adventure, american literature, jack london
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Strange to say, in spite of the general foreboding, nothing of especial moment happened on the Ghost.  We ran on to the north and west till we raised the coast of Japan and picked up with the great seal herd.  Coming from no man knew where in the illimitable Pacific, it was travelling north on its annual migration to the rookeries of Bering Sea.  And north we travelled with it, ravaging and destroying, flinging the naked carcasses to the shark and salting down the skins so that they might later adorn the fair shoulders of the women of the cities.

It was wanton slaughter, and all for woman’s sake.  No man ate of the seal meat or the oil.  After a good day’s killing I have seen our decks covered with hides and bodies, slippery with fat and blood, the scuppers running red; masts, ropes, and rails spattered with the sanguinary colour; and the men, like butchers plying their trade, naked and red of arm and hand, hard at work with ripping and flensing-knives, removing the skins from the pretty sea-creatures they had killed.

It was my task to tally the pelts as they came aboard from the boats, to oversee the skinning and afterward the cleansing of the decks and bringing things ship-shape again.  It was not pleasant work.  My soul and my stomach revolted at it; and yet, in a way, this handling and directing of many men was good for me.  It developed what little executive ability I possessed, and I was aware of a toughening or hardening which I was undergoing and which could not be anything but wholesome for “Sissy” Van Weyden.

One thing I was beginning to feel, and that was that I could never again be quite the same man I had been.  While my hope and faith in human life still survived Wolf Larsen’s destructive criticism, he had nevertheless been a cause of change in minor matters.  He had opened up for me the world of the real, of which I had known practically nothing and from which I had always shrunk.  I had learned to look more closely at life as it was lived, to recognize that there were such things as facts in the world, to emerge from the realm of mind and idea and to place certain values on the concrete and objective phases of existence.

I saw more of Wolf Larsen than ever when we had gained the grounds.  For when the weather was fair and we were in the midst of the herd, all hands were away in the boats, and left on board were only he and I, and Thomas Mugridge, who did not count.  But there was no play about it.  The six boats, spreading out fan-wise from the schooner until the first weather boat and the last lee boat were anywhere from ten to twenty miles apart, cruised along a straight course over the sea till nightfall or bad weather drove them in.  It was our duty to sail the Ghost well to leeward of the last lee boat, so that all the boats should have fair wind to run for us in case of squalls or threatening weather.

It is no slight matter for two men, particularly when a stiff wind has sprung up, to handle a vessel like the Ghost, steering, keeping look-out for the boats, and setting or taking in sail; so it devolved upon me to learn, and learn quickly.  Steering I picked up easily, but running aloft to the crosstrees and swinging my whole weight by my arms when I left the ratlines and climbed still higher, was more difficult.  This, too, I learned, and quickly, for I felt somehow a wild desire to vindicate myself in Wolf Larsen’s eyes, to prove my right to live in ways other than of the mind.  Nay, the time came when I took joy in the run of the masthead and in the clinging on by my legs at that precarious height while I swept the sea with glasses in search of the boats.

I remember one beautiful day, when the boats left early and the reports of the hunters’ guns grew dim and distant and died away as they scattered far and wide over the sea.  There was just the faintest wind from the westward; but it breathed its last by the time we managed to get to leeward of the last lee boat.  One by one—I was at the masthead and saw—the six boats disappeared over the bulge of the earth as they followed the seal into the west.  We lay, scarcely rolling on the placid sea, unable to follow.  Wolf Larsen was apprehensive.  The barometer was down, and the sky to the east did not please him.  He studied it with unceasing vigilance.

“If she comes out of there,” he said, “hard and snappy, putting us to windward of the boats, it’s likely there’ll be empty bunks in steerage and fo’c’sle.”

By eleven o’clock the sea had become glass.  By midday, though we were well up in the northerly latitudes, the heat was sickening.  There was no freshness in the air.  It was sultry and oppressive, reminding me of what the old Californians term “earthquake weather.”  There was something ominous about it, and in intangible ways one was made to feel that the worst was about to come.  Slowly the whole eastern sky filled with clouds that over-towered us like some black sierra of the infernal regions.  So clearly could one see cañon, gorge, and precipice, and the shadows that lie therein, that one looked unconsciously for the white surf-line and bellowing caverns where the sea charges on the land.  And still we rocked gently, and there was no wind.

“It’s no square” Wolf Larsen said.  “Old Mother Nature’s going to get up on her hind legs and howl for all that’s in her, and it’ll keep us jumping, Hump, to pull through with half our boats.  You’d better run up and loosen the topsails.”

“But if it is going to howl, and there are only two of us?” I asked, a note of protest in my voice.

“Why we’ve got to make the best of the first of it and run down to our boats before our canvas is ripped out of us.  After that I don’t give a rap what happens.  The sticks ’ll stand it, and you and I will have to, though we’ve plenty cut out for us.”

Still the calm continued.  We ate dinner, a hurried and anxious meal for me with eighteen men abroad on the sea and beyond the bulge of the earth, and with that heaven-rolling mountain range of clouds moving slowly down upon us.  Wolf Larsen did not seem affected, however; though I noticed, when we returned to the deck, a slight twitching of the nostrils, a perceptible quickness of movement.  His face was stern, the lines of it had grown hard, and yet in his eyes—blue, clear blue this day—there was a strange brilliancy, a bright scintillating light.  It struck me that he was joyous, in a ferocious sort of way; that he was glad there was an impending struggle; that he was thrilled and upborne with knowledge that one of the great moments of living, when the tide of life surges up in flood, was upon him.

Once, and unwitting that he did so or that I saw, he laughed aloud, mockingly and defiantly, at the advancing storm.  I see him yet standing there like a pigmy out of the Arabian Nights before the huge front of some malignant genie.  He was daring destiny, and he was unafraid.

He walked to the galley.  “Cooky, by the time you’ve finished pots and pans you’ll be wanted on deck.  Stand ready for a call.”

“Hump,” he said, becoming cognizant of the fascinated gaze I bent upon him, “this beats whisky and is where your Omar misses.  I think he only half lived after all.”

The western half of the sky had by now grown murky.  The sun had dimmed and faded out of sight.  It was two in the afternoon, and a ghostly twilight, shot through by wandering purplish lights, had descended upon us.  In this purplish light Wolf Larsen’s face glowed and glowed, and to my excited fancy he appeared encircled by a halo.  We lay in the midst of an unearthly quiet, while all about us were signs and omens of oncoming sound and movement.  The sultry heat had become unendurable.  The sweat was standing on my forehead, and I could feel it trickling down my nose.  I felt as though I should faint, and reached out to the rail for support.

And then, just then, the faintest possible whisper of air passed by.  It was from the east, and like a whisper it came and went.  The drooping canvas was not stirred, and yet my face had felt the air and been cooled.

“Cooky,” Wolf Larsen called in a low voice.  Thomas Mugridge turned a pitiable scared face.  “Let go that foreboom tackle and pass it across, and when she’s willing let go the sheet and come in snug with the tackle.  And if you make a mess of it, it will be the last you ever make.  Understand?”

“Mr. Van Weyden, stand by to pass the head-sails over.  Then jump for the topsails and spread them quick as God’ll let you—the quicker you do it the easier you’ll find it.  As for Cooky, if he isn’t lively bat him between the eyes.”

I was aware of the compliment and pleased, in that no threat had accompanied my instructions.  We were lying head to north-west, and it was his intention to jibe over all with the first puff.

“We’ll have the breeze on our quarter,” he explained to me.  “By the last guns the boats were bearing away slightly to the south’ard.”

He turned and walked aft to the wheel.  I went forward and took my station at the jibs.  Another whisper of wind, and another, passed by.  The canvas flapped lazily.

“Thank Gawd she’s not comin’ all of a bunch, Mr. Van Weyden,” was the Cockney’s fervent ejaculation.

And I was indeed thankful, for I had by this time learned enough to know, with all our canvas spread, what disaster in such event awaited us.  The whispers of wind became puffs, the sails filled, the Ghost moved.  Wolf Larsen put the wheel hard up, to port, and we began to pay off.  The wind was now dead astern, muttering and puffing stronger and stronger, and my head-sails were pounding lustily.  I did not see what went on elsewhere, though I felt the sudden surge and heel of the schooner as the wind-pressures changed to the jibing of the fore- and main-sails.  My hands were full with the flying-jib, jib, and staysail; and by the time this part of my task was accomplished the Ghost was leaping into the south-west, the wind on her quarter and all her sheets to starboard.  Without pausing for breath, though my heart was beating like a trip-hammer from my exertions, I sprang to the topsails, and before the wind had become too strong we had them fairly set and were coiling down.  Then I went aft for orders.

Wolf Larsen nodded approval and relinquished the wheel to me.  The wind was strengthening steadily and the sea rising.  For an hour I steered, each moment becoming more difficult.  I had not the experience to steer at the gait we were going on a quartering course.

“Now take a run up with the glasses and raise some of the boats.  We’ve made at least ten knots, and we’re going twelve or thirteen now.  The old girl knows how to walk.”

I contested myself with the fore crosstrees, some seventy feet above the deck.  As I searched the vacant stretch of water before me, I comprehended thoroughly the need for haste if we were to recover any of our men.  Indeed, as I gazed at the heavy sea through which we were running, I doubted that there was a boat afloat.  It did not seem possible that such frail craft could survive such stress of wind and water.

I could not feel the full force of the wind, for we were running with it; but from my lofty perch I looked down as though outside the Ghost and apart from her, and saw the shape of her outlined sharply against the foaming sea as she tore along instinct with life.  Sometimes she would lift and send across some great wave, burying her starboard-rail from view, and covering her deck to the hatches with the boiling ocean.  At such moments, starting from a windward roll, I would go flying through the air with dizzying swiftness, as though I clung to the end of a huge, inverted pendulum, the arc of which, between the greater rolls, must have been seventy feet or more.  Once, the terror of this giddy sweep overpowered me, and for a while I clung on, hand and foot, weak and trembling, unable to search the sea for the missing boats or to behold aught of the sea but that which roared beneath and strove to overwhelm the Ghost.

But the thought of the men in the midst of it steadied me, and in my quest for them I forgot myself.  For an hour I saw nothing but the naked, desolate sea.  And then, where a vagrant shaft of sunlight struck the ocean and turned its surface to wrathful silver, I caught a small black speck thrust skyward for an instant and swallowed up.  I waited patiently.  Again the tiny point of black projected itself through the wrathful blaze a couple of points off our port-bow.  I did not attempt to shout, but communicated the news to Wolf Larsen by waving my arm.  He changed the course, and I signalled affirmation when the speck showed dead ahead.

It grew larger, and so swiftly that for the first time I fully appreciated the speed of our flight.  Wolf Larsen motioned for me to come down, and when I stood beside him at the wheel gave me instructions for heaving to.

“Expect all hell to break loose,” he cautioned me, “but don’t mind it.  Yours is to do your own work and to have Cooky stand by the fore-sheet.”

I managed to make my way forward, but there was little choice of sides, for the weather-rail seemed buried as often as the lee.  Having instructed Thomas Mugridge as to what he was to do, I clambered into the fore-rigging a few feet.  The boat was now very close, and I could make out plainly that it was lying head to wind and sea and dragging on its mast and sail, which had been thrown overboard and made to serve as a sea-anchor.  The three men were bailing.  Each rolling mountain whelmed them from view, and I would wait with sickening anxiety, fearing that they would never appear again.  Then, and with black suddenness, the boat would shoot clear through the foaming crest, bow pointed to the sky, and the whole length of her bottom showing, wet and dark, till she seemed on end.  There would be a fleeting glimpse of the three men flinging water in frantic haste, when she would topple over and fall into the yawning valley, bow down and showing her full inside length to the stern upreared almost directly above the bow.  Each time that she reappeared was a miracle.

The Ghost suddenly changed her course, keeping away, and it came to me with a shock that Wolf Larsen was giving up the rescue as impossible.  Then I realized that he was preparing to heave to, and dropped to the deck to be in readiness.  We were now dead before the wind, the boat far away and abreast of us.  I felt an abrupt easing of the schooner, a loss for the moment of all strain and pressure, coupled with a swift acceleration of speed.  She was rushing around on her heel into the wind.

As she arrived at right angles to the sea, the full force of the wind (from which we had hitherto run away) caught us.  I was unfortunately and ignorantly facing it.  It stood up against me like a wall, filling my lungs with air which I could not expel.  And as I choked and strangled, and as the Ghost wallowed for an instant, broadside on and rolling straight over and far into the wind, I beheld a huge sea rise far above my head.  I turned aside, caught my breath, and looked again.  The wave over-topped the Ghost, and I gazed sheer up and into it.  A shaft of sunlight smote the over-curl, and I caught a glimpse of translucent, rushing green, backed by a milky smother of foam.

Then it descended, pandemonium broke loose, everything happened at once.  I was struck a crushing, stunning blow, nowhere in particular and yet everywhere.  My hold had been broken loose, I was under water, and the thought passed through my mind that this was the terrible thing of which I had heard, the being swept in the trough of the sea.  My body struck and pounded as it was dashed helplessly along and turned over and over, and when I could hold my breath no longer, I breathed the stinging salt water into my lungs.  But through it all I clung to the one idea—I must get the jib backed over to windward.  I had no fear of death.  I had no doubt but that I should come through somehow.  And as this idea of fulfilling Wolf Larsen’s order persisted in my dazed consciousness, I seemed to see him standing at the wheel in the midst of the wild welter, pitting his will against the will of the storm and defying it.

I brought up violently against what I took to be the rail, breathed, and breathed the sweet air again.  I tried to rise, but struck my head and was knocked back on hands and knees.  By some freak of the waters I had been swept clear under the forecastle-head and into the eyes.  As I scrambled out on all fours, I passed over the body of Thomas Mugridge, who lay in a groaning heap.  There was no time to investigate.  I must get the jib backed over.

When I emerged on deck it seemed that the end of everything had come.  On all sides there was a rending and crashing of wood and steel and canvas.  The Ghost was being wrenched and torn to fragments.  The foresail and fore-topsail, emptied of the wind by the manœuvre, and with no one to bring in the sheet in time, were thundering into ribbons, the heavy boom threshing and splintering from rail to rail.  The air was thick with flying wreckage, detached ropes and stays were hissing and coiling like snakes, and down through it all crashed the gaff of the foresail.

The spar could not have missed me by many inches, while it spurred me to action.  Perhaps the situation was not hopeless.  I remembered Wolf Larsen’s caution.  He had expected all hell to break loose, and here it was.  And where was he?  I caught sight of him toiling at the main-sheet, heaving it in and flat with his tremendous muscles, the stern of the schooner lifted high in the air and his body outlined against a white surge of sea sweeping past.  All this, and more,—a whole world of chaos and wreck,—in possibly fifteen seconds I had seen and heard and grasped.

I did not stop to see what had become of the small boat, but sprang to the jib-sheet.  The jib itself was beginning to slap, partially filling and emptying with sharp reports; but with a turn of the sheet and the application of my whole strength each time it slapped, I slowly backed it.  This I know: I did my best.  I pulled till I burst open the ends of all my fingers; and while I pulled, the flying-jib and staysail split their cloths apart and thundered into nothingness.

Still I pulled, holding what I gained each time with a double turn until the next slap gave me more.  Then the sheet gave with greater ease, and Wolf Larsen was beside me, heaving in alone while I was busied taking up the slack.

“Make fast!” he shouted.  “And come on!”

As I followed him, I noted that in spite of rack and ruin a rough order obtained.  The Ghost was hove to.  She was still in working order, and she was still working.  Though the rest of her sails were gone, the jib, backed to windward, and the mainsail hauled down flat, were themselves holding, and holding her bow to the furious sea as well.

I looked for the boat, and, while Wolf Larsen cleared the boat-tackles, saw it lift to leeward on a big sea an not a score of feet away.  And, so nicely had he made his calculation, we drifted fairly down upon it, so that nothing remained to do but hook the tackles to either end and hoist it aboard.  But this was not done so easily as it is written.

In the bow was Kerfoot, Oofty-Oofty in the stern, and Kelly amidships.  As we drifted closer the boat would rise on a wave while we sank in the trough, till almost straight above me I could see the heads of the three men craned overside and looking down.  Then, the next moment, we would lift and soar upward while they sank far down beneath us.  It seemed incredible that the next surge should not crush the Ghost down upon the tiny eggshell.

But, at the right moment, I passed the tackle to the Kanaka, while Wolf Larsen did the same thing forward to Kerfoot.  Both tackles were hooked in a trice, and the three men, deftly timing the roll, made a simultaneous leap aboard the schooner.  As the Ghost rolled her side out of water, the boat was lifted snugly against her, and before the return roll came, we had heaved it in over the side and turned it bottom up on the deck.  I noticed blood spouting from Kerfoot’s left hand.  In some way the third finger had been crushed to a pulp.  But he gave no sign of pain, and with his single right hand helped us lash the boat in its place.

“Stand by to let that jib over, you Oofty!” Wolf Larsen commanded, the very second we had finished with the boat.  “Kelly, come aft and slack off the main-sheet!  You, Kerfoot, go for’ard and see what’s become of Cooky!  Mr. Van Weyden, run aloft again, and cut away any stray stuff on your way!”

And having commanded, he went aft with his peculiar tigerish leaps to the wheel.  While I toiled up the fore-shrouds the Ghost slowly paid off.  This time, as we went into the trough of the sea and were swept, there were no sails to carry away.  And, halfway to the crosstrees and flattened against the rigging by the full force of the wind so that it would have been impossible for me to have fallen, the Ghost almost on her beam-ends and the masts parallel with the water, I looked, not down, but at almost right angles from the perpendicular, to the deck of the Ghost.  But I saw, not the deck, but where the deck should have been, for it was buried beneath a wild tumbling of water.  Out of this water I could see the two masts rising, and that was all.  The Ghost, for the moment, was buried beneath the sea.  As she squared off more and more, escaping from the side pressure, she righted herself and broke her deck, like a whale’s back, through the ocean surface.

Then we raced, and wildly, across the wild sea, the while I hung like a fly in the crosstrees and searched for the other boats.  In half-an-hour I sighted the second one, swamped and bottom up, to which were desperately clinging Jock Horner, fat Louis, and Johnson.  This time I remained aloft, and Wolf Larsen succeeded in heaving to without being swept.  As before, we drifted down upon it.  Tackles were made fast and lines flung to the men, who scrambled aboard like monkeys.  The boat itself was crushed and splintered against the schooner’s side as it came inboard; but the wreck was securely lashed, for it could be patched and made whole again.

Once more the Ghost bore away before the storm, this time so submerging herself that for some seconds I thought she would never reappear.  Even the wheel, quite a deal higher than the waist, was covered and swept again and again.  At such moments I felt strangely alone with God, alone with him and watching the chaos of his wrath.  And then the wheel would reappear, and Wolf Larsen’s broad shoulders, his hands gripping the spokes and holding the schooner to the course of his will, himself an earth-god, dominating the storm, flinging its descending waters from him and riding it to his own ends.  And oh, the marvel of it! the marvel of it!  That tiny men should live and breathe and work, and drive so frail a contrivance of wood and cloth through so tremendous an elemental strife.

As before, the Ghost swung out of the trough, lifting her deck again out of the sea, and dashed before the howling blast.  It was now half-past five, and half-an-hour later, when the last of the day lost itself in a dim and furious twilight, I sighted a third boat.  It was bottom up, and there was no sign of its crew.  Wolf Larsen repeated his manœuvre, holding off and then rounding up to windward and drifting down upon it.  But this time he missed by forty feet, the boat passing astern.

“Number four boat!” Oofty-Oofty cried, his keen eyes reading its number in the one second when it lifted clear of the foam, and upside down.

It was Henderson’s boat and with him had been lost Holyoak and Williams, another of the deep-water crowd.  Lost they indubitably were; but the boat remained, and Wolf Larsen made one more reckless effort to recover it.  I had come down to the deck, and I saw Horner and Kerfoot vainly protest against the attempt.

“By God, I’ll not be robbed of my boat by any storm that ever blew out of hell!” he shouted, and though we four stood with our heads together that we might hear, his voice seemed faint and far, as though removed from us an immense distance.

“Mr. Van Weyden!” he cried, and I heard through the tumult as one might hear a whisper.  “Stand by that jib with Johnson and Oofty!  The rest of you tail aft to the mainsheet!  Lively now! or I’ll sail you all into Kingdom Come!  Understand?”

And when he put the wheel hard over and the Ghost’s bow swung off, there was nothing for the hunters to do but obey and make the best of a risky chance.  How great the risk I realized when I was once more buried beneath the pounding seas and clinging for life to the pinrail at the foot of the foremast.  My fingers were torn loose, and I swept across to the side and over the side into the sea.  I could not swim, but before I could sink I was swept back again.  A strong hand gripped me, and when the Ghost finally emerged, I found that I owed my life to Johnson.  I saw him looking anxiously about him, and noted that Kelly, who had come forward at the last moment, was missing.

This time, having missed the boat, and not being in the same position as in the previous instances, Wolf Larsen was compelled to resort to a different manœuvre.  Running off before the wind with everything to starboard, he came about, and returned close-hauled on the port tack.

“Grand!” Johnson shouted in my ear, as we successfully came through the attendant deluge, and I knew he referred, not to Wolf Larsen’s seamanship, but to the performance of the Ghost herself.

It was now so dark that there was no sign of the boat; but Wolf Larsen held back through the frightful turmoil as if guided by unerring instinct.  This time, though we were continually half-buried, there was no trough in which to be swept, and we drifted squarely down upon the upturned boat, badly smashing it as it was heaved inboard.

Two hours of terrible work followed, in which all hands of us—two hunters, three sailors, Wolf Larsen and I—reefed, first one and then the other, the jib and mainsail.  Hove to under this short canvas, our decks were comparatively free of water, while the Ghost bobbed and ducked amongst the combers like a cork.

I had burst open the ends of my fingers at the very first, and during the reefing I had worked with tears of pain running down my cheeks.  And when all was done, I gave up like a woman and rolled upon the deck in the agony of exhaustion.

In the meantime Thomas Mugridge, like a drowned rat, was being dragged out from under the forecastle head where he had cravenly ensconced himself.  I saw him pulled aft to the cabin, and noted with a shock of surprise that the galley had disappeared.  A clean space of deck showed where it had stood.

In the cabin I found all hands assembled, sailors as well, and while coffee was being cooked over the small stove we drank whisky and crunched hard-tack.  Never in my life had food been so welcome.  And never had hot coffee tasted so good.  So violently did the Ghost, pitch and toss and tumble that it was impossible for even the sailors to move about without holding on, and several times, after a cry of “Now she takes it!” we were heaped upon the wall of the port cabins as though it had been the deck.

“To hell with a look-out,” I heard Wolf Larsen say when we had eaten and drunk our fill.  “There’s nothing can be done on deck.  If anything’s going to run us down we couldn’t get out of its way.  Turn in, all hands, and get some sleep.”

The sailors slipped forward, setting the side-lights as they went, while the two hunters remained to sleep in the cabin, it not being deemed advisable to open the slide to the steerage companion-way.  Wolf Larsen and I, between us, cut off Kerfoot’s crushed finger and sewed up the stump.  Mugridge, who, during all the time he had been compelled to cook and serve coffee and keep the fire going, had complained of internal pains, now swore that he had a broken rib or two.  On examination we found that he had three.  But his case was deferred to next day, principally for the reason that I did not know anything about broken ribs and would first have to read it up.

“I don’t think it was worth it,” I said to Wolf Larsen, “a broken boat for Kelly’s life.”

“But Kelly didn’t amount to much,” was the reply.  “Good-night.”

After all that had passed, suffering intolerable anguish in my finger-ends, and with three boats missing, to say nothing of the wild capers the Ghost was cutting, I should have thought it impossible to sleep.  But my eyes must have closed the instant my head touched the pillow, and in utter exhaustion I slept throughout the night, the while the Ghost, lonely and undirected, fought her way through the storm.