Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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accompanied each stroke of the oars with spasmodically increasing glee.
It was this maniacal laughter that greeted the rescue boat as it hauled
alongside and the first officer clambered on board.




A CURIOUS FRAGMENT

[The capitalist, or industrial oligarch, Roger Vanderwater,
mentioned in the narrative, has been identified as the ninth
in the line of the Vanderwaters that controlled for hundreds
of years the cotton factories of the South. This Roger
Vanderwater flourished in the last decades of the twenty-
sixth century after Christ, which was the fifth century of
the terrible industrial oligarchy that was reared upon the
ruins of the early Republic.

From internal evidences we are convinced that the narrative
which follows was not reduced to writing till the twenty-
ninth century. Not only was it unlawful to write or print
such matter during that period, but the working-class was so
illiterate that only in rare instances were its members able
to read and write. This was the dark reign of the overman,
in whose speech the great mass of the people were
characterized as the "herd animals." All literacy was
frowned upon and stamped out. From the statute-books of the
times may be instanced that black law that made it a capital
offence for any man, no matter of what class, to teach even
the alphabet to a member of the working-class. Such
stringent limitation of education to the ruling class was
necessary if that class was to continue to rule.

One result of the foregoing was the development of the
professional story-tellers. These story-tellers were paid by
the oligarchy, and the tales they told were legendary,
mythical, romantic, and harmless. But the spirit of freedom
never quite died out, and agitators, under the guise of
story-tellers, preached revolt to the slave class. That the
following tale was banned by the oligarchs we have proof
from the records of the criminal police court of Ashbury,
wherein, on January 27, 2734, one John Tourney, found guilty
of telling the tale in a boozing-ken of labourers, was
sentenced to five years' penal servitude in the borax mines
of the Arizona Desert. - EDITOR'S NOTE.]


Listen, my brothers, and I will tell you a tale of an arm. It was the
arm of Tom Dixon, and Tom Dixon was a weaver of the first class in a
factory of that hell-hound and master, Roger Vanderwater. This factory
was called "Hell's Bottom"... by the slaves who toiled in it, and I
guess they ought to know; and it was situated in Kingsbury, at the other
end of the town from Vanderwater's summer palace. You do not know where
Kingsbury is? There are many things, my brothers, that you do not know,
and it is sad. It is because you do not know that you are slaves. When I
have told you this tale, I should like to form a class among you for the
learning of written and printed speech. Our masters read and write and
possess many books, and it is because of that that they are our masters,
and live in palaces, and do not work. When the toilers learn to read
and write - all of them - they will grow strong; then they will use their
strength to break their bonds, and there will be no more masters and no
more slaves.

Kingsbury, my brothers, is in the old State of Alabama. For three
hundred years the Vanderwaters have owned Kingsbury and its slave pens
and factories, and slave pens and factories in many other places and
States. You have heard of the Vanderwaters - who has not? - but let me
tell you things you do not know about them. The first Vanderwater was
a slave, even as you and I. Have you got that? He was a slave, and that
was over three hundred years ago. His father was a machinist in the
slave pen of Alexander Burrell, and his mother was a washerwoman in the
same slave pen. There is no doubt about this. I am telling you truth. It
is history. It is printed, every word of it, in the history books of our
masters, which you cannot read because your masters will not permit you
to learn to read. You can understand why they will not permit you to
learn to read, when there are such things in the books. They know, and
they are very wise. If you did read such things, you might be wanting
in respect to your masters, which would be a dangerous thing... to your
masters. But I know, for I can read, and I am telling you what I have
read with my own eyes in the history books of our masters.

The first Vanderwater's name was not Vanderwater; it was Vange - Bill
Vange, the son of Yergis Vange, the machinist, and Laura Carnly, the
washerwoman. Young Bill Vange was strong. He might have remained with
the slaves and led them to freedom; instead, however, he served the
masters and was well rewarded. He began his service, when yet a small
child, as a spy in his home slave pen. He is known to have informed on
his own father for seditious utterance. This is fact. I have read it
with my own eyes in the records. He was too good a slave for the slave
pen. Alexander Burrell took him out, while yet a child, and he was
taught to read and write. He was taught many things, and he was entered
in the secret service of the Government. Of course, he no longer wore
the slave dress, except for disguise at such times when he sought to
penetrate the secrets and plots of the slaves. It was he, when but
eighteen years of age, who brought that great hero and comrade, Ralph
Jacobus, to trial and execution in the electric chair. Of course, you
have all heard the sacred name of Ralph Jacobus, but it is news to you
that he was brought to his death by the first Vanderwater, whose
name was Vange. I know. I have read it in the books. There are many
interesting things like that in the books.

And after Ralph Jacobus died his shameful death, Bill Vange's name began
the many changes it was to undergo. He was known as "Sly Vange" far and
wide. He rose high in the secret service, and he was rewarded in grand
ways, but still he was not a member of the master class. The men were
willing that he should become so; it was the women of the master class
who refused to have Sly Vange one of them. Sly Vange gave good service
to the masters. He had been a slave himself, and he knew the ways of the
slaves. There was no fooling him. In those days the slaves were braver
than now, and they were always trying for their freedom. And Sly Vange
was everywhere, in all their schemes and plans, bringing their schemes
and plans to naught and their leaders to the electric chair. It was in
2255 that his name was next changed for him. It was in that year that
the Great Mutiny took place. In that region west of the Rocky Mountains,
seventeen millions of slaves strove bravely to overthrow their masters.
Who knows, if Sly Vange had not lived, but that they would have
succeeded? But Sly Vange was very much alive. The masters gave him
supreme command of the situation. In eight months of fighting, one
million and three hundred and fifty thousand slaves were killed. Vange,
Bill Vange, Sly Vange, killed them, and he broke the Great Mutiny. And
he was greatly rewarded, and so red were his hands with the blood of
the slaves that thereafter he was called "Bloody Vange." You see, my
brothers, what interesting things are to be found in the books when one
can read them. And, take my word for it, there are many other things,
even more interesting, in the books. And if you will but study with me,
in a year's time you can read those books for yourselves - ay, in six
months some of you will be able to read those books for yourselves.

Bloody Vange lived to a ripe old age, and always, to the last, was he
received in the councils of the masters; but never was he made a master
himself. He had first opened his eyes, you see, in a slave pen. But oh,
he was well rewarded! He had a dozen palaces in which to live. He, who
was no master, owned thousands of slaves. He had a great pleasure yacht
upon the sea that was a floating palace, and he owned a whole island in
the sea where toiled ten thousand slaves on his coffee plantations. But
in his old age he was lonely, for he lived apart, hated by his brothers,
the slaves, and looked down upon by those he had served and who refused
to be his brothers. The masters looked down upon him because he had
been born a slave. Enormously wealthy he died; but he died horribly,
tormented by his conscience, regretting all he had done and the red
stain on his name.

But with his children it was different. They had not been born in the
slave pen, and by the special ruling of the Chief Oligarch of that time,
John Morrison, they were elevated to the master class. And it was then
that the name of Vange disappears from the page of history. It becomes
Vanderwater, and Jason Vange, the son of Bloody Vange, becomes Jason
Vanderwater, the founder of the Vanderwater line. But that was
three hundred years ago, and the Vanderwaters of to-day forget their
beginnings and imagine that somehow the clay of their bodies is
different stuff from the clay in your body and mine and in the bodies
of all slaves. And I ask you, Why should a slave become the master of
another slave? And why should the son of a slave become the master of
many slaves? I leave these questions for you to answer for yourselves,
but do not forget that in the beginning the Vanderwaters were slaves.

And now, my brothers, I come back to the beginning of my tale to tell
you of Tom Dixon's arm. Roger Vanderwater's factory in Kingsbury was
rightly named "Hell's Bottom," but the men who toiled in it were men, as
you shall see. Women toiled there, too, and children, little children.
All that toiled there had the regular slave rights under the law, but
only under the law, for they were deprived of many of their rights by
the two overseers of Hell's Bottom, Joseph Clancy and Adolph Munster.

It is a long story, but I shall not tell all of it to you. I shall tell
only about the arm. It happened that, according to the law, a portion of
the starvation wage of the slaves was held back each month and put
into a fund. This fund was for the purpose of helping such unfortunate
fellow-workmen as happened to be injured by accidents or to be overtaken
by sickness. As you know with yourselves, these funds are controlled
by the overseers. It is the law, and so it was that the fund at Hell's
Bottom was controlled by the two overseers of accursed memory.

Now, Clancy and Munster took this fund for their own use. When accidents
happened to the workmen, their fellows, as was the custom, made grants
from the fund; but the overseers refused to pay over the grants. What
could the slaves do? They had their rights under the law, but they
had no access to the law. Those that complained to the overseers were
punished. You know yourselves what form such punishment takes - the fines
for faulty work that is not faulty; the overcharging of accounts in the
Company's store; the vile treatment of one's women and children; and the
allotment to bad machines whereon, work as one will, he starves.

Once, the slaves of Hell's Bottom protested to Vanderwater. It was the
time of the year when he spent several months in Kingsbury. One of the
slaves could write; it chanced that his mother could write, and she had
secretly taught him as her mother had secretly taught her. So this slave
wrote a round robin, wherein was contained their grievances, and all the
slaves signed by mark. And, with proper stamps upon the envelope, the
round robin was mailed to Roger Vanderwater. And Roger Vanderwater did
nothing, save to turn the round robin over to the two overseers. Clancy
and Munster were angered. They turned the guards loose at night on the
slave pen. The guards were armed with pick handles. It is said that next
day only half of the slaves were able to work in Hell's Bottom. They
were well beaten. The slave who could write was so badly beaten that he
lived only three months. But before he died, he wrote once more, to what
purpose you shall hear.

Four or five weeks afterward, Tom Dixon, a slave, had his arm torn off
by a belt in Hell's Bottom. His fellow-workmen, as usual, made a grant
to him from the fund, and Clancy and Munster, as usual, refused to pay
it over from the fund. The slave who could write, and who even then was
dying, wrote anew a recital of their grievances. And this document was
thrust into the hand of the arm that had been torn from Tom Dixon's
body.

Now it chanced that Roger Vanderwater was lying ill in his palace at the
other end of Kingsbury - not the dire illness that strikes down you and
me, brothers; just a bit of biliousness, mayhap, or no more than a bad
headache because he had eaten too heartily or drunk too deeply. But it
was enough for him, being tender and soft from careful rearing. Such
men, packed in cotton wool all their lives, are exceeding tender and
soft. Believe me, brothers, Roger Vanderwater felt as badly with his
aching head, or THOUGHT he felt as badly, as Tom Dixon really felt with
his arm torn out by the roots.

It happened that Roger Vanderwater was fond of scientific farming, and
that on his farm, three miles outside of Kingsbury, he had managed to
grow a new kind of strawberry. He was very proud of that new strawberry
of his, and he would have been out to see and pick the first ripe ones,
had it not been for his illness. Because of his illness he had ordered
the old farm slave to bring in personally the first box of the berries.
All this was learned from the gossip of a palace scullion, who slept
each night in the slave pen. The overseer of the plantation should have
brought in the berries, but he was on his back with a broken leg from
trying to break a colt. The scullion brought the word in the night, and
it was known that next day the berries would come in. And the men in the
slave pen of Hell's Bottom, being men and not cowards, held a council.

The slave who could write, and who was sick and dying from the
pick-handle beating, said he would carry Tom Dixon's arm; also, he said
he must die anyway, and that it mattered nothing if he died a little
sooner. So five slaves stole from the slave pen that night after the
guards had made their last rounds. One of the slaves was the man who
could write. They lay in the brush by the roadside until late in the
morning, when the old farm slave came driving to town with the precious
fruit for the master. What of the farm slave being old and rheumatic,
and of the slave who could write being stiff and injured from his
beating, they moved their bodies about when they walked, very much in
the same fashion. The slave who could write put on the other's clothes,
pulled the broad-brimmed hat over his eyes, climbed upon the seat of the
wagon, and drove on to town. The old farm slave was kept tied all day
in the bushes until evening, when the others loosed him and went back to
the slave pen to take their punishment for having broken bounds.

In the meantime, Roger Vanderwater lay waiting for the berries in his
wonderful bedroom - such wonders and such comforts were there that they
would have blinded the eyes of you and me who have never seen such
things. The slave who could write said afterward that it was like
a glimpse of Paradise! And why not? The labour and the lives of ten
thousand slaves had gone to the making of that bedchamber, while they
themselves slept in vile lairs like wild beasts. The slave who could
write brought in the berries on a silver tray or platter - you see, Roger
Vanderwater wanted to speak with him in person about the berries.

The slave who could write tottered his dying body across the wonderful
room and knelt by the couch of Vanderwater, holding out before him the
tray. Large green leaves covered the top of the tray, and these the
body-servant alongside whisked away so that Vanderwater could see.
And Roger Vanderwater, propped upon his elbow, saw. He saw the fresh,
wonderful fruit lying there like precious jewels, and in the midst of it
the arm of Tom Dixon as it had been torn from his body, well washed,
of course, my brothers, and very white against the blood-red fruit. And
also he saw, clutched in the stiff, dead fingers, the petition of his
slaves who toiled in Hell's Bottom.

"Take and read," said the slave who could write. And even as the master
took the petition, the body-servant, who till then had been motionless
with surprise, struck with his fist the kneeling slave upon the mouth.
The slave was dying anyway, and was very weak, and did not mind. He made
no sound, and, having fallen over on his side, he lay there quietly,
bleeding from the blow on the mouth. The physician, who had run for the
palace guards, came back with them, and the slave was dragged upright
upon his feet. But as they dragged him up, his hand clutched Tom Dixon's
arm from where it had fallen on the floor.

"He shall be flung alive to the hounds!" the body-servant was crying in
great wrath. "He shall be flung alive to the hounds!"

But Roger Vanderwater, forgetting his headache, still leaning on his
elbow, commanded silence, and went on reading the petition. And while
he read, there was silence, all standing upright, the wrathful
body-servant, the physician, the palace guards, and in their midst the
slave, bleeding at the mouth and still holding Tom Dixon's arm. And when
Roger Vanderwater had done, he turned upon the slave, saying -

"If in this paper there be one lie, you shall be sorry that you were
ever born."

And the slave said, "I have been sorry all my life that I was born."

Roger Vanderwater looked at him closely, and the slave said -

"You have done your worst to me. I am dying now. In a week I shall be
dead, so it does not matter if you kill me now."

"What do you with that?" the master asked, pointing to the arm; and the
slave made answer -

"I take it back to the pen to give it burial. Tom Dixon was my friend.
We worked beside each other at our looms."

There is little more to my tale, brothers. The slave and the arm were
sent back in a cart to the pen. Nor were any of the slaves punished for
what they had done. Indeed, Roger Vanderwater made investigation and
punished the two overseers, Joseph Clancy and Adolph Munster. Their
freeholds were taken from them. They were branded, each upon the
forehead, their right hands were cut off, and they were turned loose
upon the highway to wander and beg until they died. And the fund was
managed rightfully thereafter for a time - for a time only, my brothers;
for after Roger Vanderwater came his son, Albert, who was a cruel master
and half mad.

Brothers, that slave who carried the arm into the presence of the master
was my father. He was a brave man. And even as his mother secretly
taught him to read, so did he teach me. Because he died shortly after
from the pick-handle beating, Roger Vanderwater took me out of the slave
pen and tried to make various better things out of me. I might
have become an overseer in Hell's Bottom, but I chose to become a
story-teller, wandering over the land and getting close to my brothers,
the slaves, everywhere. And I tell you stories like this, secretly,
knowing that you will not betray me; for if you did, you know as well as
I that my tongue will be torn out and that I shall tell stories no more.
And my message is, brothers, that there is a good time coming, when all
will be well in the world and there will be neither masters nor slaves.
But first you must prepare for that good time by learning to read. There
is power in the printed word. And here am I to teach you to read, and as
well there are others to see that you get the books when I am gone
along upon my way - the history books wherein you will learn about your
masters, and learn to become strong even as they.

[EDITOR'S NOTE. - From "Historical Fragments and Sketches," first
published in fifty volumes in 4427, and now, after two hundred years,
because of its accuracy and value, edited and republished by the
National Committee on Historical Research.]




A PIECE OF STEAK

With the last morsel of bread Tom King wiped his plate clean of the last
particle of flour gravy and chewed the resulting mouthful in a slow and
meditative way. When he arose from the table, he was oppressed by the
feeling that he was distinctly hungry. Yet he alone had eaten. The two
children in the other room had been sent early to bed in order that in
sleep they might forget they had gone supperless. His wife had touched
nothing, and had sat silently and watched him with solicitous eyes. She
was a thin, worn woman of the working-class, though signs of an earlier
prettiness were not wanting in her face. The flour for the gravy she had
borrowed from the neighbour across the hall. The last two ha'pennies had
gone to buy the bread.

He sat down by the window on a rickety chair that protested under his
weight, and quite mechanically he put his pipe in his mouth and dipped
into the side pocket of his coat. The absence of any tobacco made him
aware of his action, and, with a scowl for his forgetfulness, he put the
pipe away. His movements were slow, almost hulking, as though he were
burdened by the heavy weight of his muscles. He was a solid-bodied,
stolid-looking man, and his appearance did not suffer from being
overprepossessing. His rough clothes were old and slouchy. The uppers of
his shoes were too weak to carry the heavy re-soling that was itself
of no recent date. And his cotton shirt, a cheap, two shilling affair,
showed a frayed collar and ineradicable paint stains.

But it was Tom King's face that advertised him unmistakably for what he
was. It was the face of a typical prize-fighter; of one who had put in
long years of service in the squared ring and, by that means, developed
and emphasized all the marks of the fighting beast. It was distinctly a
lowering countenance, and, that no feature of it might escape notice, it
was clean-shaven. The lips were shapeless and constituted a mouth harsh
to excess, that was like a gash in his face. The jaw was aggressive,
brutal, heavy. The eyes, slow of movement and heavy-lidded, were almost
expressionless under the shaggy, indrawn brows. Sheer animal that he
was, the eyes were the most animal-like feature about him. They were
sleepy, lion-like - the eyes of a fighting animal. The forehead slanted
quickly back to the hair, which, clipped close, showed every bump of a
villainous-looking head. A nose twice broken and moulded variously
by countless blows, and a cauliflower ear, permanently swollen and
distorted to twice its size, completed his adornment, while the beard,
fresh-shaven as it was, sprouted in the skin and gave the face a
blue-black stain.

Altogether, it was the face of a man to be afraid of in a dark alley or
lonely place. And yet Tom King was not a criminal, nor had he ever done
anything criminal. Outside of brawls, common to his walk in life, he had
harmed no one. Nor had he ever been known to pick a quarrel. He was a
professional, and all the fighting brutishness of him was reserved
for his professional appearances. Outside the ring he was slow-going,
easy-natured, and, in his younger days, when money was flush, too
open-handed for his own good. He bore no grudges and had few enemies.
Fighting was a business with him. In the ring he struck to hurt, struck
to maim, struck to destroy; but there was no animus in it. It was
a plain business proposition. Audiences assembled and paid for the
spectacle of men knocking each other out. The winner took the big end of
the purse. When Tom King faced the Woolloomoolloo Gouger, twenty years
before, he knew that the Gouger's jaw was only four months healed after
having been broken in a Newcastle bout. And he had played for that jaw
and broken it again in the ninth round, not because he bore the Gouger
any ill-will, but because that was the surest way to put the Gouger
out and win the big end of the purse. Nor had the Gouger borne him any
ill-will for it. It was the game, and both knew the game and played it.

Tom King had never been a talker, and he sat by the window, morosely
silent, staring at his hands. The veins stood out on the backs of the
hands, large and swollen; and the knuckles, smashed and battered and
malformed, testified to the use to which they had been put. He had never
heard that a man's life was the life of his arteries, but well he knew
the meaning of those big upstanding veins. His heart had pumped too much
blood through them at top pressure. They no longer did the work. He
had stretched the elasticity out of them, and with their distension had
passed his endurance. He tired easily now. No longer could he do a fast


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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 10 of 12)