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Home -> Jack London -> The Sea Wolf -> Chapter 1

The Sea Wolf - Chapter 1

1. Chapter 1

2. Chapter 2

3. Chapter 3

4. Chapter 4

5. Chapter 5

6. Chapter 6

7. Chapter 7

8. Chapter 8

9. Chapter 9

10. Chapter 10

11. Chapter 11

12. Chapter 12

13. Chapter 13

14. Chapter 14

15. Chapter 15

16. Chapter 16

17. Chapter 17

18. Chapter 18

19. Chapter 19

20. Chapter 20

21. Chapter 21

22. Chapter 22

23. Chapter 23

24. Chapter 24

25. Chapter 25

26. Chapter 26

27. Chapter 27

28. Chapter 28

29. Chapter 29

30. Chapter 30

31. Chapter 31

32. Chapter 32

33. Chapter 33

34. Chapter 34

35. Chapter 35

36. Chapter 36

37. Chapter 37

38. Chapter 38

39. Chapter 39

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
mouths 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 labour
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 labour, 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 grey 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 mathematical certainty."

"Strain!" he snorted. "Simple as A, B, C! Mathematical

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 a-top of it! See 'em alterin' the

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 ferry-boat of some sort," the new-comer 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. Now hell's a poppin' for

The unseen ferry-boat 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 paddle-wheels 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 dare-devil 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 runs it from
hell to breakfast, 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
indignantly up and down I fell to dwelling upon the romance of the
fog. And romantic it certainly was--the fog, like the grey 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
clamouring 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. Walking 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.

"Ferry-boat?" 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 danger.

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 either 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!"

On looking back, I realize that the remark was too obvious to make
rejoinder necessary.

"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 scream of the women. This it was,
I am certain,--the most indescribable of blood-curdling 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 grey 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, encased 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
corners; 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 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

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 assistance.

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 clamouring 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 lungs.

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
marvelled 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. And I could not swim a stroke. And I was alone,
floating, apparently, in the midst of a grey primordial vastness.
I confess that a madness seized me, that I shrieked aloud as the
women had shrieked, and beat the water with my numb hands.

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 the 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

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 leapt almost instantly from view into the fog.

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
hell don't you sing out?" This meant me, I thought, and then the
blankness and darkness rose over me.

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