Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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spending the whole quarter at one fell swoop. In retrospect he spent the
quarter a thousand times, and each time to better advantage.

There was one other memory of the past, dim and faded, but stamped into
his soul everlasting by the savage feet of his father. It was more like
a nightmare than a remembered vision of a concrete thing - more like the
race-memory of man that makes him fall in his sleep and that goes back
to his arboreal ancestry.

This particular memory never came to Johnny in broad daylight when
he was wide awake. It came at night, in bed, at the moment that his
consciousness was sinking down and losing itself in sleep. It always
aroused him to frightened wakefulness, and for the moment, in the first
sickening start, it seemed to him that he lay crosswise on the foot of
the bed. In the bed were the vague forms of his father and mother. He
never saw what his father looked like. He had but one impression of his
father, and that was that he had savage and pitiless feet.

His earlier memories lingered with him, but he had no late memories.
All days were alike. Yesterday or last year were the same as a thousand
years - or a minute. Nothing ever happened. There were no events to mark
the march of time. Time did not march. It stood always still. It was
only the whirling machines that moved, and they moved nowhere - in spite
of the fact that they moved faster.

When he was fourteen, he went to work on the starcher. It was a colossal
event. Something had at last happened that could be remembered beyond
a night's sleep or a week's pay-day. It marked an era. It was a machine
Olympiad, a thing to date from. "When I went to work on the starcher,"
or, "after," or "before I went to work on the starcher," were sentences
often on his lips.

He celebrated his sixteenth birthday by going into the loom room and
taking a loom. Here was an incentive again, for it was piece-work. And
he excelled, because the clay of him had been moulded by the mills
into the perfect machine. At the end of three months he was running two
looms, and, later, three and four.

At the end of his second year at the looms he was turning out more yards
than any other weaver, and more than twice as much as some of the less
skilful ones. And at home things began to prosper as he approached the
full stature of his earning power. Not, however, that his increased
earnings were in excess of need. The children were growing up. They ate
more. And they were going to school, and school-books cost money. And
somehow, the faster he worked, the faster climbed the prices of things.
Even the rent went up, though the house had fallen from bad to worse

He had grown taller; but with his increased height he seemed leaner
than ever. Also, he was more nervous. With the nervousness increased his
peevishness and irritability. The children had learned by many bitter
lessons to fight shy of him. His mother respected him for his earning
power, but somehow her respect was tinctured with fear.

There was no joyousness in life for him. The procession of the days he
never saw. The nights he slept away in twitching unconsciousness.
The rest of the time he worked, and his consciousness was machine
consciousness. Outside this his mind was a blank. He had no ideals,
and but one illusion; namely, that he drank excellent coffee. He was a
work-beast. He had no mental life whatever; yet deep down in the crypts
of his mind, unknown to him, were being weighed and sifted every hour of
his toil, every movement of his hands, every twitch of his muscles, and
preparations were making for a future course of action that would amaze
him and all his little world.

It was in the late spring that he came home from work one night aware of
unusual tiredness. There was a keen expectancy in the air as he sat down
to the table, but he did not notice. He went through the meal in moody
silence, mechanically eating what was before him. The children um'd
and ah'd and made smacking noises with their mouths. But he was deaf to

"D'ye know what you're eatin'?" his mother demanded at last,

He looked vacantly at the dish before him, and vacantly at her.

"Floatin' island," she announced triumphantly.

"Oh," he said.

"Floating island!" the children chorussed loudly.

"Oh," he said. And after two or three mouthfuls, he added, "I guess I
ain't hungry to-night."

He dropped the spoon, shoved back his chair, and arose wearily from the

"An' I guess I'll go to bed."

His feet dragged more heavily than usual as he crossed the kitchen
floor. Undressing was a Titan's task, a monstrous futility, and he wept
weakly as he crawled into bed, one shoe still on. He was aware of a
rising, swelling something inside his head that made his brain thick and
fuzzy. His lean fingers felt as big as his wrist, while in the ends of
them was a remoteness of sensation vague and fuzzy like his brain.
The small of his back ached intolerably. All his bones ached. He ached
everywhere. And in his head began the shrieking, pounding, crashing,
roaring of a million looms. All space was filled with flying shuttles.
They darted in and out, intricately, amongst the stars. He worked a
thousand looms himself, and ever they speeded up, faster and faster, and
his brain unwound, faster and faster, and became the thread that fed the
thousand flying shuttles.

He did not go to work next morning. He was too busy weaving colossally
on the thousand looms that ran inside his head. His mother went to work,
but first she sent for the doctor. It was a severe attack of la grippe,
he said. Jennie served as nurse and carried out his instructions.

It was a very severe attack, and it was a week before Johnny dressed and
tottered feebly across the floor. Another week, the doctor said, and he
would be fit to return to work. The foreman of the loom room visited him
on Sunday afternoon, the first day of his convalescence. The best weaver
in the room, the foreman told his mother. His job would be held for him.
He could come back to work a week from Monday.

"Why don't you thank 'im, Johnny?" his mother asked anxiously.

"He's ben that sick he ain't himself yet," she explained apologetically
to the visitor.

Johnny sat hunched up and gazing steadfastly at the floor. He sat in the
same position long after the foreman had gone. It was warm outdoors,
and he sat on the stoop in the afternoon. Sometimes his lips moved. He
seemed lost in endless calculations.

Next morning, after the day grew warm, he took his seat on the stoop. He
had pencil and paper this time with which to continue his calculations,
and he calculated painfully and amazingly.

"What comes after millions?" he asked at noon, when Will came home from
school. "An' how d'ye work 'em?"

That afternoon finished his task. Each day, but without paper and
pencil, he returned to the stoop. He was greatly absorbed in the one
tree that grew across the street. He studied it for hours at a time, and
was unusually interested when the wind swayed its branches and fluttered
its leaves. Throughout the week he seemed lost in a great communion
with himself. On Sunday, sitting on the stoop, he laughed aloud, several
times, to the perturbation of his mother, who had not heard him laugh
for years.

Next morning, in the early darkness, she came to his bed to rouse him.
He had had his fill of sleep all the week, and awoke easily. He made no
struggle, nor did he attempt to hold on to the bedding when she stripped
it from him. He lay quietly, and spoke quietly.

"It ain't no use, ma."

"You'll be late," she said, under the impression that he was still
stupid with sleep.

"I'm awake, ma, an' I tell you it ain't no use. You might as well lemme
alone. I ain't goin' to git up."

"But you'll lose your job!" she cried.

"I ain't goin' to git up," he repeated in a strange, passionless voice.

She did not go to work herself that morning. This was sickness
beyond any sickness she had ever known. Fever and delirium she could
understand; but this was insanity. She pulled the bedding up over him
and sent Jennie for the doctor.

When that person arrived, Johnny was sleeping gently, and gently he
awoke and allowed his pulse to be taken.

"Nothing the matter with him," the doctor reported. "Badly debilitated,
that's all. Not much meat on his bones."

"He's always been that way," his mother volunteered.

"Now go 'way, ma, an' let me finish my snooze."

Johnny spoke sweetly and placidly, and sweetly and placidly he rolled
over on his side and went to sleep.

At ten o'clock he awoke and dressed himself. He walked out into the
kitchen, where he found his mother with a frightened expression on her

"I'm goin' away, ma," he announced, "an' I jes' want to say good-bye."

She threw her apron over her head and sat down suddenly and wept. He
waited patiently.

"I might a-known it," she was sobbing.

"Where?" she finally asked, removing the apron from her head and gazing
up at him with a stricken face in which there was little curiosity.

"I don't know - anywhere."

As he spoke, the tree across the street appeared with dazzling
brightness on his inner vision. It seemed to lurk just under his
eyelids, and he could see it whenever he wished.

"An' your job?" she quavered.

"I ain't never goin' to work again."

"My God, Johnny!" she wailed, "don't say that!"

What he had said was blasphemy to her. As a mother who hears her child
deny God, was Johnny's mother shocked by his words.

"What's got into you, anyway?" she demanded, with a lame attempt at

"Figures," he answered. "Jes' figures. I've ben doin' a lot of figurin'
this week, an' it's most surprisin'."

"I don't see what that's got to do with it," she sniffled.

Johnny smiled patiently, and his mother was aware of a distinct shock at
the persistent absence of his peevishness and irritability.

"I'll show you," he said. "I'm plum' tired out. What makes me tired?
Moves. I've ben movin' ever since I was born. I'm tired of movin', an' I
ain't goin' to move any more. Remember when I worked in the glass-house?
I used to do three hundred dozen a day. Now I reckon I made about ten
different moves to each bottle. That's thirty-six thousan' moves a day.
Ten days, three hundred an' sixty thousan' moves. One month, one million
an' eighty thousan' moves. Chuck out the eighty thousan'" - he spoke with
the complacent beneficence of a philanthropist - "chuck out the eighty
thousan', that leaves a million moves a month - twelve million moves a

"At the looms I'm movin' twic'st as much. That makes twenty-five million
moves a year, an' it seems to me I've ben a movin' that way 'most a
million years.

"Now this week I ain't moved at all. I ain't made one move in hours an'
hours. I tell you it was swell, jes' settin' there, hours an' hours,
an' doin' nothin'. I ain't never ben happy before. I never had any time.
I've ben movin' all the time. That ain't no way to be happy. An' I ain't
going to do it any more. I'm jes' goin' to set, an' set, an' rest, an'
rest, and then rest some more."

"But what's goin' to come of Will an' the children?" she asked

"That's it, 'Will an' the children,'" he repeated.

But there was no bitterness in his voice. He had long known his mother's
ambition for the younger boy, but the thought of it no longer rankled.
Nothing mattered any more. Not even that.

"I know, ma, what you've ben plannin' for Will - keepin' him in school to
make a book-keeper out of him. But it ain't no use, I've quit. He's got
to go to work."

"An' after I have brung you up the way I have," she wept, starting to
cover her head with the apron and changing her mind.

"You never brung me up," he answered with sad kindliness. "I brung
myself up, ma, an' I brung up Will. He's bigger'n me, an' heavier, an'
taller. When I was a kid, I reckon I didn't git enough to eat. When he
come along an' was a kid, I was workin' an' earnin' grub for him too.
But that's done with. Will can go to work, same as me, or he can go to
hell, I don't care which. I'm tired. I'm goin' now. Ain't you goin' to
say goodbye?"

She made no reply. The apron had gone over her head again, and she was
crying. He paused a moment in the doorway.

"I'm sure I done the best I knew how," she was sobbing.

He passed out of the house and down the street. A wan delight came
into his face at the sight of the lone tree. "Jes' ain't goin' to do
nothin'," he said to himself, half aloud, in a crooning tone. He glanced
wistfully up at the sky, but the bright sun dazzled and blinded him.

It was a long walk he took, and he did not walk fast. It took him past
the jute-mill. The muffled roar of the loom room came to his ears, and
he smiled. It was a gentle, placid smile. He hated no one, not even the
pounding, shrieking machines. There was no bitterness in him, nothing
but an inordinate hunger for rest.

The houses and factories thinned out and the open spaces increased as
he approached the country. At last the city was behind him, and he was
walking down a leafy lane beside the railroad track. He did not walk
like a man. He did not look like a man. He was a travesty of the human.
It was a twisted and stunted and nameless piece of life that shambled
like a sickly ape, arms loose-hanging, stoop-shouldered, narrow-chested,
grotesque and terrible.

He passed by a small railroad station and lay down in the grass under a
tree. All afternoon he lay there. Sometimes he dozed, with muscles that
twitched in his sleep. When awake, he lay without movement, watching the
birds or looking up at the sky through the branches of the tree above
him. Once or twice he laughed aloud, but without relevance to anything
he had seen or felt.

After twilight had gone, in the first darkness of the night, a freight
train rumbled into the station. When the engine was switching cars on to
the side-track, Johnny crept along the side of the train. He pulled open
the side-door of an empty box-car and awkwardly and laboriously climbed
in. He closed the door. The engine whistled. Johnny was lying down, and
in the darkness he smiled.


It was because she had broken with Billy that Loretta had come visiting
to Santa Clara. Billy could not understand. His sister had reported that
he had walked the floor and cried all night. Loretta had not slept all
night either, while she had wept most of the night. Daisy knew this,
because it was in her arms that the weeping had been done. And Daisy's
husband, Captain Kitt, knew, too. The tears of Loretta, and the
comforting by Daisy, had lost him some sleep.

Now Captain Kitt did not like to lose sleep. Neither did he want Loretta
to marry Billy - nor anybody else. It was Captain Kitt's belief that
Daisy needed the help of her younger sister in the household. But he
did not say this aloud. Instead, he always insisted that Loretta was too
young to think of marriage. So it was Captain Kitt's idea that Loretta
should be packed off on a visit to Mrs. Hemingway. There wouldn't be any
Billy there.

Before Loretta had been at Santa Clara a week, she was convinced that
Captain Kitt's idea was a good one. In the first place, though Billy
wouldn't believe it, she did not want to marry Billy. And in the second
place, though Captain Kitt wouldn't believe it, she did not want to
leave Daisy. By the time Loretta had been at Santa Clara two weeks, she
was absolutely certain that she did not want to marry Billy. But she was
not so sure about not wanting to leave Daisy. Not that she loved Daisy
less, but that she - had doubts.

The day of Loretta's arrival, a nebulous plan began shaping itself in
Mrs. Hemingway's brain. The second day she remarked to Jack Hemingway,
her husband, that Loretta was so innocent a young thing that were it not
for her sweet guilelessness she would be positively stupid. In proof
of which, Mrs. Hemingway told her husband several things that made him
chuckle. By the third day Mrs. Hemingway's plan had taken recognizable
form. Then it was that she composed a letter. On the envelope she wrote:
"Mr. Edward Bashford, Athenian Club, San Francisco."

"Dear Ned," the letter began. She had once been violently loved by him
for three weeks in her pre-marital days. But she had covenanted herself
to Jack Hemingway, who had prior claims, and her heart as well; and Ned
Bashford had philosophically not broken his heart over it. He merely
added the experience to a large fund of similarly collected data out of
which he manufactured philosophy. Artistically and temperamentally he
was a Greek - a tired Greek. He was fond of quoting from Nietzsche, in
token that he, too, had passed through the long sickness that follows
upon the ardent search for truth; that he too had emerged, too
experienced, too shrewd, too profound, ever again to be afflicted by the
madness of youths in their love of truth. "'To worship appearance,'" he
often quoted; "'to believe in forms, in tones, in words, in the whole
Olympus of appearance!'" This particular excerpt he always concluded
with, "'Those Greeks were superficial - OUT OF PROFUNDITY!'"

He was a fairly young Greek, jaded and worn. Women were faithless and
unveracious, he held - at such times that he had relapses and descended
to pessimism from his wonted high philosophical calm. He did not believe
in the truth of women; but, faithful to his German master, he did
not strip from them the airy gauzes that veiled their untruth. He was
content to accept them as appearances and to make the best of it. He was
superficial - OUT OF PROFUNDITY.

"Jack says to be sure to say to you, 'good swimming,'" Mrs. Hemingway
wrote in her letter; "and also 'to bring your fishing duds along.'" Mrs.
Hemingway wrote other things in the letter. She told him that at last
she was prepared to exhibit to him an absolutely true, unsullied, and
innocent woman. "A more guileless, immaculate bud of womanhood never
blushed on the planet," was one of the several ways in which she phrased
the inducement. And to her husband she said triumphantly, "If I don't
marry Ned off this time - " leaving unstated the terrible alternative
that she lacked either vocabulary to express or imagination to conceive.

Contrary to all her forebodings, Loretta found that she was not unhappy
at Santa Clara. Truly, Billy wrote to her every day, but his letters
were less distressing than his presence. Also, the ordeal of being away
from Daisy was not so severe as she had expected. For the first time in
her life she was not lost in eclipse in the blaze of Daisy's brilliant
and mature personality. Under such favourable circumstances Loretta
came rapidly to the front, while Mrs. Hemingway modestly and shamelessly
retreated into the background.

Loretta began to discover that she was not a pale orb shining by
reflection. Quite unconsciously she became a small centre of things.
When she was at the piano, there was some one to turn the pages for
her and to express preferences for certain songs. When she dropped her
handkerchief, there was some one to pick it up. And there was some one
to accompany her in ramblings and flower gatherings. Also, she learned
to cast flies in still pools and below savage riffles, and how not to
entangle silk lines and gut-leaders with the shrubbery.

Jack Hemingway did not care to teach beginners, and fished much by
himself, or not at all, thus giving Ned Bashford ample time in which
to consider Loretta as an appearance. As such, she was all that his
philosophy demanded. Her blue eyes had the direct gaze of a boy, and
out of his profundity he delighted in them and forbore to shudder at the
duplicity his philosophy bade him to believe lurked in their depths. She
had the grace of a slender flower, the fragility of colour and line of
fine china, in all of which he pleasured greatly, without thought of the
Life Force palpitating beneath and in spite of Bernard Shaw - in whom he

Loretta burgeoned. She swiftly developed personality. She discovered
a will of her own and wishes of her own that were not everlastingly
entwined with the will and the wishes of Daisy. She was petted by Jack
Hemingway, spoiled by Alice Hemingway, and devotedly attended by Ned
Bashford. They encouraged her whims and laughed at her follies, while
she developed the pretty little tyrannies that are latent in all pretty
and delicate women. Her environment acted as a soporific upon her
ancient desire always to live with Daisy. This desire no longer prodded
her as in the days of her companionship with Billy. The more she saw of
Billy, the more certain she had been that she could not live away
from Daisy. The more she saw of Ned Bashford, the more she forgot her
pressing need of Daisy.

Ned Bashford likewise did some forgetting. He confused superficiality
with profundity, and entangled appearance with reality until he
accounted them one. Loretta was different from other women. There was no
masquerade about her. She was real. He said as much to Mrs. Hemingway,
and more, who agreed with him and at the same time caught her husband's
eyelid drooping down for the moment in an unmistakable wink.

It was at this time that Loretta received a letter from Billy that was
somewhat different from his others. In the main, like all his letters,
it was pathological. It was a long recital of symptoms and sufferings,
his nervousness, his sleeplessness, and the state of his heart. Then
followed reproaches, such as he had never made before. They were sharp
enough to make her weep, and true enough to put tragedy into her face.
This tragedy she carried down to the breakfast table. It made Jack and
Mrs. Hemingway speculative, and it worried Ned. They glanced to him for
explanation, but he shook his head.

"I'll find out to-night," Mrs. Hemingway said to her husband.

But Ned caught Loretta in the afternoon in the big living-room. She
tried to turn away. He caught her hands, and she faced him with wet
lashes and trembling lips. He looked at her, silently and kindly. The
lashes grew wetter.

"There, there, don't cry, little one," he said soothingly.

He put his arm protectingly around her shoulder. And to his shoulder,
like a tired child, she turned her face. He thrilled in ways unusual for
a Greek who has recovered from the long sickness.

"Oh, Ned," she sobbed on his shoulder, "if you only knew how wicked I

He smiled indulgently, and breathed in a great breath freighted with the
fragrance of her hair. He thought of his world-experience of women, and
drew another long breath. There seemed to emanate from her the perfect
sweetness of a child - "the aura of a white soul," was the way he phrased
it to himself.

Then he noticed that her sobs were increasing.

"What's the matter, little one?" he asked pettingly and almost
paternally. "Has Jack been bullying you? Or has your dearly beloved
sister failed to write?"

She did not answer, and he felt that he really must kiss her hair, that
he could not be responsible if the situation continued much longer.

"Tell me," he said gently, "and we'll see what I can do."

"I can't. You will despise me. - Oh, Ned, I am so ashamed!"

He laughed incredulously, and lightly touched her hair with his lips - so
lightly that she did not know.

"Dear little one, let us forget all about it, whatever it is. I want to
tell you how I love - "

She uttered a sharp cry that was all delight, and then moaned -

"Too late!"

"Too late?" he echoed in surprise.

"Oh, why did I? Why did I?" she was moaning.

He was aware of a swift chill at his heart.

"What?" he asked.

"Oh, I... he... Billy.

"I am such a wicked woman, Ned. I know you will never speak to me

"This - er - this Billy," he began haltingly. "He is your brother?"

"No... he... I didn't know. I was so young. I could not help it. Oh, I
shall go mad! I shall go mad!"

It was then that Loretta felt his shoulder and the encircling arm become
limp. He drew away from her gently, and gently he deposited her in a
big chair, where she buried her face and sobbed afresh. He twisted his
moustache fiercely, then drew up another chair and sat down.

"I - I do not understand," he said.

"I am so unhappy," she wailed.

"Why unhappy?"

"Because... he... he wants me to marry him."

His face cleared on the instant, and he placed a hand soothingly on

"That should not make any girl unhappy," he remarked sagely. "Because
you don't love him is no reason - of course, you don't love him?"

Loretta shook her head and shoulders in a vigorous negative.


Bashford wanted to make sure.

"No," she asserted explosively. "I don't love Billy! I don't want to

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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 3 of 12)