Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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love Billy!"

"Because you don't love him," Bashford resumed with confidence, "is no
reason that you should be unhappy just because he has proposed to you."

She sobbed again, and from the midst of her sobs she cried -

"That's the trouble. I wish I did love him. Oh, I wish I were dead!"

"Now, my dear child, you are worrying yourself over trifles." His other
hand crossed over after its mate and rested on hers. "Women do it every
day. Because you have changed your mind or did not know your mind,
because you have - to use an unnecessarily harsh word - jilted a man - "

"Jilted!" She had raised her head and was looking at him with
tear-dimmed eyes. "Oh, Ned, if that were all!"

"All?" he asked in a hollow voice, while his hands slowly retreated from
hers. He was about to speak further, then remained silent.

"But I don't want to marry him," Loretta broke forth protestingly.

"Then I shouldn't," he counselled.

"But I ought to marry him."

"OUGHT to marry him?"

She nodded.

"That is a strong word."

"I know it is," she acquiesced, while she strove to control her
trembling lips. Then she spoke more calmly. "I am a wicked woman, a
terribly wicked woman. No one knows how wicked I am - except Billy."

There was a pause. Ned Bashford's face was grave, and he looked queerly
at Loretta.

"He - Billy knows?" he asked finally.

A reluctant nod and flaming cheeks was the reply.

He debated with himself for a while, seeming, like a diver, to be
preparing himself for the plunge.

"Tell me about it." He spoke very firmly. "You must tell me all of it."

"And will you - ever - forgive me?" she asked in a faint, small voice.

He hesitated, drew a long breath, and made the plunge.

"Yes," he said desperately. "I'll forgive you. Go ahead."

"There was no one to tell me," she began. "We were with each other so
much. I did not know anything of the world - then."

She paused to meditate. Bashford was biting his lip impatiently.

"If I had only known - "

She paused again.

"Yes, go on," he urged.

"We were together almost every evening."

"Billy?" he demanded, with a savageness that startled her.

"Yes, of course, Billy. We were with each other so much... If I had only
known... There was no one to tell me... I was so young - "

Her lips parted as though to speak further, and she regarded him
anxiously.

"The scoundrel!"

With the explosion Ned Bashford was on his feet, no longer a tired
Greek, but a violently angry young man.

"Billy is not a scoundrel; he is a good man," Loretta defended, with a
firmness that surprised Bashford.

"I suppose you'll be telling me next that it was all your fault," he
said sarcastically.

She nodded.

"What?" he shouted.

"It was all my fault," she said steadily. "I should never have let him.
I was to blame."

Bashford ceased from his pacing up and down, and when he spoke, his
voice was resigned.

"All right," he said. "I don't blame you in the least, Loretta. And you
have been very honest. But Billy is right, and you are wrong. You must
get married."

"To Billy?" she asked, in a dim, far-away voice.

"Yes, to Billy. I'll see to it. Where does he live? I'll make him."

"But I don't want to marry Billy!" she cried out in alarm. "Oh, Ned, you
won't do that?"

"I shall," he answered sternly. "You must. And Billy must. Do you
understand?"

Loretta buried her face in the cushioned chair back, and broke into a
passionate storm of sobs.

All that Bashford could make out at first, as he listened, was: "But I
don't want to leave Daisy! I don't want to leave Daisy!"

He paced grimly back and forth, then stopped curiously to listen.

"How was I to know? - Boo - hoo," Loretta was crying. "He didn't tell me.
Nobody else ever kissed me. I never dreamed a kiss could be so
terrible... until, boo-hoo... until he wrote to me. I only got the
letter this morning."

His face brightened. It seemed as though light was dawning on him.

"Is that what you're crying about?"

"N - no."

His heart sank.

"Then what are you crying about?" he asked in a hopeless voice.

"Because you said I had to marry Billy. And I don't want to marry Billy.
I don't want to leave Daisy. I don't know what I want. I wish I were
dead."

He nerved himself for another effort.

"Now look here, Loretta, be sensible. What is this about kisses. You
haven't told me everything?"

"I - I don't want to tell you everything."

She looked at him beseechingly in the silence that fell.

"Must I?" she quavered finally.

"You must," he said imperatively. "You must tell me everything."

"Well, then... must I?"

"You must."

"He... I... we..." she began flounderingly. Then blurted out, "I let
him, and he kissed me."

"Go on," Bashford commanded desperately.

"That's all," she answered.

"All?" There was a vast incredulity in his voice.

"All?" In her voice was an interrogation no less vast.

"I mean - er - nothing worse?" He was overwhelmingly aware of his own
awkwardness.

"Worse?" She was frankly puzzled. "As though there could be! Billy
said - "

"When did he say it?" Bashford demanded abruptly.

"In his letter I got this morning. Billy said that my... our... our
kisses were terrible if we didn't get married."

Bashford's head was swimming.

"What else did Billy say?" he asked.

"He said that when a woman allowed a man to kiss her, she always married
him - that it was terrible if she didn't. It was the custom, he said;
and I say it is a bad, wicked custom, and I don't like it. I know I'm
terrible," she added defiantly, "but I can't help it."

Bashford absent-mindedly brought out a cigarette.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked, as he struck a match.

Then he came to himself.

"I beg your pardon," he cried, flinging away match and cigarette. "I
don't want to smoke. I didn't mean that at all. What I mean is - "

He bent over Loretta, caught her hands in his, then sat on the arm of
the chair and softly put one arm around her.

"Loretta, I am a fool. I mean it. And I mean something more. I want you
to be my wife."

He waited anxiously in the pause that followed.

"You might answer me," he urged.

"I will... if - "

"Yes, go on. If what?"

"If I don't have to marry Billy."

"You can't marry both of us," he almost shouted.

"And it isn't the custom... what... what Billy said?"

"No, it isn't the custom. Now, Loretta, will you marry me?"

"Don't be angry with me," she pouted demurely.

He gathered her into his arms and kissed her.

"I wish it were the custom," she said in a faint voice, from the
midst of the embrace, "because then I'd have to marry you, Ned dear...
wouldn't I?"




JUST MEAT

He strolled to the corner and glanced up and down the intersecting
street, but saw nothing save the oases of light shed by the street lamps
at the successive crossings. Then he strolled back the way he had come.
He was a shadow of a man, sliding noiselessly and without undue movement
through the semi-darkness. Also he was very alert, like a wild animal in
the jungle, keenly perceptive and receptive. The movement of another in
the darkness about him would need to have been more shadowy than he to
have escaped him.

In addition to the running advertisement of the state of affairs carried
to him by his senses, he had a subtler perception, a FEEL, of the
atmosphere around him. He knew that the house in front of which he
paused for a moment, contained children. Yet by no willed effort of
perception did he have this knowledge. For that matter, he was not even
aware that he knew, so occult was the impression. Yet, did a moment
arise in which action, in relation to that house, were imperative, he
would have acted on the assumption that it contained children. He was
not aware of all that he knew about the neighbourhood.

In the same way, he knew not how, he knew that no danger threatened in
the footfalls that came up the cross street. Before he saw the walker,
he knew him for a belated pedestrian hurrying home. The walker came
into view at the crossing and disappeared on up the street. The man that
watched, noted a light that flared up in the window of a house on the
corner, and as it died down he knew it for an expiring match. This was
conscious identification of familiar phenomena, and through his mind
flitted the thought, "Wanted to know what time." In another house one
room was lighted. The light burned dimly and steadily, and he had the
feel that it was a sick-room.

He was especially interested in a house across the street in the middle
of the block. To this house he paid most attention. No matter what
way he looked, nor what way he walked, his looks and his steps always
returned to it. Except for an open window above the porch, there was
nothing unusual about the house. Nothing came in nor out. Nothing
happened. There were no lighted windows, nor had lights appeared and
disappeared in any of the windows. Yet it was the central point of his
consideration. He rallied to it each time after a divination of the
state of the neighbourhood.

Despite his feel of things, he was not confident. He was supremely
conscious of the precariousness of his situation. Though unperturbed by
the footfalls of the chance pedestrian, he was as keyed up and sensitive
and ready to be startled as any timorous deer. He was aware of
the possibility of other intelligences prowling about in the
darkness - intelligences similar to his own in movement, perception, and
divination.

Far down the street he caught a glimpse of something that moved. And he
knew it was no late home-goer, but menace and danger. He whistled twice
to the house across the street, then faded away shadow-like to the
corner and around the corner. Here he paused and looked about him
carefully. Reassured, he peered back around the corner and studied the
object that moved and that was coming nearer. He had divined aright. It
was a policeman.

The man went down the cross street to the next corner, from the shelter
of which he watched the corner he had just left. He saw the policeman
pass by, going straight on up the street. He paralleled the policeman's
course, and from the next corner again watched him go by; then he
returned the way he had come. He whistled once to the house across the
street, and after a time whistled once again. There was reassurance
in the whistle, just as there had been warning in the previous double
whistle.

He saw a dark bulk outline itself on the roof of the porch and slowly
descend a pillar. Then it came down the steps, passed through the small
iron gate, and went down the sidewalk, taking on the form of a man. He
that watched kept on his own side of the street and moved on abreast
to the corner, where he crossed over and joined the other. He was quite
small alongside the man he accosted.

"How'd you make out, Matt?" he asked.

The other grunted indistinctly, and walked on in silence a few steps.

"I reckon I landed the goods," he said.

Jim chuckled in the darkness, and waited for further information. The
blocks passed by under their feet, and he grew impatient.

"Well, how about them goods?" he asked. "What kind of a haul did you
make, anyway?"

"I was too busy to figger it out, but it's fat. I can tell you that
much, Jim, it's fat. I don't dast to think how fat it is. Wait till we
get to the room."

Jim looked at him keenly under the street lamp of the next crossing,
and saw that his face was a trifle grim and that he carried his left arm
peculiarly.

"What's the matter with your arm?" he demanded.

"The little cuss bit me. Hope I don't get hydrophoby. Folks gets
hydrophoby from manbite sometimes, don't they?"

"Gave you fight, eh?" Jim asked encouragingly.

The other grunted.

"You're harder'n hell to get information from," Jim burst out irritably.
"Tell us about it. You ain't goin' to lose money just a-tellin' a guy."

"I guess I choked him some," came the answer. Then, by way of
explanation, "He woke up on me."

"You did it neat. I never heard a sound."

"Jim," the other said with seriousness, "it's a hangin' matter.
I fixed 'm. I had to. He woke up on me. You an' me's got to do some
layin' low for a spell."

Jim gave a low whistle of comprehension.

"Did you hear me whistle?" he asked suddenly.

"Sure. I was all done. I was just comin' out."

"It was a bull. But he wasn't on a little bit. Went right by an' kept
a-paddin' the hoof out a sight. Then I come back an' gave you the
whistle. What made you take so long after that?"

"I was waitin' to make sure," Matt explained. "I was mighty glad when
I heard you whistle again. It's hard work waitin'. I just sat there an'
thought an' thought... oh, all kinds of things. It's remarkable what
a fellow'll think about. And then there was a darn cat that kept movin'
around the house all' botherin' me with its noises."

"An' it's fat!" Jim exclaimed irrelevantly and with joy.

"I'm sure tellin' you, Jim, it's fat. I'm plum' anxious for another look
at 'em."

Unconsciously the two men quickened their pace. Yet they did not relax
from their caution. Twice they changed their course in order to avoid
policemen, and they made very sure that they were not observed when they
dived into the dark hallway of a cheap rooming house down town.

Not until they had gained their own room on the top floor, did they
scratch a match. While Jim lighted a lamp, Matt locked the door and
threw the bolts into place. As he turned, he noticed that his partner
was waiting expectantly. Matt smiled to himself at the other's
eagerness.

"Them search-lights is all right," he said, drawing forth a small pocket
electric lamp and examining it. "But we got to get a new battery. It's
runnin' pretty weak. I thought once or twice it'd leave me in the dark.
Funny arrangements in that house. I near got lost. His room was on the
left, an' that fooled me some."

"I told you it was on the left," Jim interrupted.

"You told me it was on the right," Matt went on. "I guess I know what
you told me, an' there's the map you drew."

Fumbling in his vest pocket, he drew out a folded slip of paper. As he
unfolded it, Jim bent over and looked.

"I did make a mistake," he confessed.

"You sure did. It got me guessin' some for a while."

"But it don't matter now," Jim cried. "Let's see what you got."

"It does matter," Matt retorted. "It matters a lot... to me. I've got
to run all the risk. I put my head in the trap while you stay on the
street. You got to get on to yourself an' be more careful. All right,
I'll show you."

He dipped loosely into his trousers pocket and brought out a handful of
small diamonds. He spilled them out in a blazing stream on the greasy
table. Jim let out a great oath.

"That's nothing," Matt said with triumphant complacence. "I ain't begun
yet."

From one pocket after another he continued bringing forth the spoil.
There were many diamonds wrapped in chamois skin that were larger than
those in the first handful. From one pocket he brought out a handful of
very small cut gems.

"Sun dust," he remarked, as he spilled them on the table in a space by
themselves.

Jim examined them.

"Just the same, they retail for a couple of dollars each," he said. "Is
that all?"

"Ain't it enough?" the other demanded in an aggrieved tone.

"Sure it is," Jim answered with unqualified approval. "Better'n I
expected. I wouldn't take a cent less than ten thousan' for the bunch."

"Ten thousan'," Matt sneered. "They're worth twic't that, an' I don't
know anything about joolery, either. Look at that big boy!"

He picked it out from the sparkling heap and held it near to the lamp
with the air of an expert, weighing and judging.

"Worth a thousan' all by its lonely," was Jim's quicker judgment.

"A thousan' your grandmother," was Matt's scornful rejoinder. "You
couldn't buy it for three."

"Wake me up! I'm dreamin'!" The sparkle of the gems was in Jim's eyes,
and he began sorting out the larger diamonds and examining them. "We're
rich men, Matt - we'll be regular swells."

"It'll take years to get rid of 'em," was Matt's more practical thought.

"But think how we'll live! Nothin' to do but spend the money an' go on
gettin' rid of em."

Matt's eyes were beginning to sparkle, though sombrely, as his
phlegmatic nature woke up.

"I told you I didn't dast think how fat it was," he murmured in a low
voice.

"What a killin'! What a killin'!" was the other's more ecstatic
utterance.

"I almost forgot," Matt said, thrusting his hand into his inside coat
pocket.

A string of large pearls emerged from wrappings of tissue paper and
chamois skin. Jim scarcely glanced at them.

"They're worth money," he said, and returned to the diamonds.

A silence fell on the two men. Jim played with the gems, running them
through his fingers, sorting them into piles, and spreading them out
flat and wide. He was a slender, weazened man, nervous, irritable,
high-strung, and anaemic - a typical child of the gutter, with
unbeautiful twisted features, small-eyed, with face and mouth
perpetually and feverishly hungry, brutish in a cat-like way, stamped to
the core with degeneracy.

Matt did not finger the diamonds. He sat with chin on hands and elbows
on table, blinking heavily at the blazing array. He was in every way a
contrast to the other. No city had bred him. He was heavy-muscled and
hairy, gorilla-like in strength and aspect. For him there was no unseen
world. His eyes were full and wide apart, and there seemed in them
a certain bold brotherliness. They inspired confidence. But a closer
inspection would have shown that his eyes were just a trifle too full,
just a shade too wide apart. He exceeded, spilled over the limits of
normality, and his features told lies about the man beneath.

"The bunch is worth fifty thousan'," Jim remarked suddenly.

"A hundred thousan'," Matt said.

The silence returned and endured a long time, to be broken again by Jim.

"What in hell was he doin' with 'em all at the house? - that's what
I want to know. I'd a-thought he'd kept 'em in the safe down at the
store."

Matt had just been considering the vision of the throttled man as he had
last looked upon him in the dim light of the electric lantern; but he
did not start at the mention of him.

"There's no tellin'," he answered. "He might a-ben gettin' ready to
chuck his pardner. He might a-pulled out in the mornin' for parts
unknown, if we hadn't happened along. I guess there's just as many
thieves among honest men as there is among thieves. You read about such
things in the papers, Jim. Pardners is always knifin' each other."

A queer, nervous look came into the other's eyes. Matt did not betray
that he noted it, though he said -

"What was you thinkin' about, Jim?"

Jim was a trifle awkward for the moment.

"Nothin'," he answered. "Only I was thinkin' just how funny it was - all
them jools at his house. What made you ask?"

"Nothin'. I was just wonderin', that was all."

The silence settled down, broken by an occasional low and nervous giggle
on the part of Jim. He was overcome by the spread of gems. It was not
that he felt their beauty. He was unaware that they were beautiful in
themselves. But in them his swift imagination visioned the joys of life
they would buy, and all the desires and appetites of his diseased mind
and sickly flesh were tickled by the promise they extended. He builded
wondrous, orgy-haunted castles out of their brilliant fires, and was
appalled at what he builded. Then it was that he giggled. It was all
too impossible to be real. And yet there they blazed on the table before
him, fanning the flame of the lust of him, and he giggled again.

"I guess we might as well count 'em," Matt said suddenly, tearing
himself away from his own visions. "You watch me an' see that
it's square, because you an' me has got to be on the square, Jim.
Understand?"

Jim did not like this, and betrayed it in his eyes, while Matt did not
like what he saw in his partner's eyes.

"Understand?" Matt repeated, almost menacingly.

"Ain't we always ben square?" the other replied, on the defensive
because of the treachery already whispering in him.

"It don't cost nothin', bein' square in hard times," Matt retorted.
"It's bein' square in prosperity that counts. When we ain't got nothin',
we can't help bein' square. We're prosperous now, an' we've got to be
business men - honest business men. Understand?"

"That's the talk for me," Jim approved, but deep down in the meagre soul
of him, - and in spite of him, - wanton and lawless thoughts were stirring
like chained beasts.

Matt stepped to the food shelf behind the two-burner kerosene cooking
stove. He emptied the tea from a paper bag, and from a second bag
emptied some red peppers. Returning to the table with the bags, he put
into them the two sizes of small diamonds. Then he counted the large
gems and wrapped them in their tissue paper and chamois skin.

"Hundred an' forty-seven good-sized ones," was his inventory; "twenty
real big ones; two big boys and one whopper; an' a couple of fistfuls of
teeny ones an' dust."

He looked at Jim.

"Correct," was the response.

He wrote the count out on a slip of memorandum paper, and made a copy of
it, giving one slip to his partner and retaining the other.

"Just for reference," he said.

Again he had recourse to the food shelf, where he emptied the sugar from
a large paper bag. Into this he thrust the diamonds, large and small,
wrapped it up in a bandanna handkerchief, and stowed it away under his
pillow. Then he sat down on the edge of the bed and took off his shoes.

"An' you think they're worth a hundred thousan'?" Jim asked, pausing and
looking up from the unlacing of his shoe.

"Sure," was the answer. "I seen a dance-house girl down in Arizona once,
with some big sparklers on her. They wasn't real. She said if they was
she wouldn't be dancin'. Said they'd be worth all of fifty thousan', an'
she didn't have a dozen of 'em all told."

"Who'd work for a livin'?" Jim triumphantly demanded. "Pick an' shovel
work!" he sneered. "Work like a dog all my life, an' save all my wages,
an' I wouldn't have half as much as we got tonight."

"Dish washin's about your measure, an' you couldn't get more'n twenty a
month an' board. Your figgers is 'way off, but your point is well taken.
Let them that likes it, work. I rode range for thirty a month when I was
young an' foolish. Well, I'm older, an' I ain't ridin' range."

He got into bed on one side. Jim put out the light and followed him in
on the other side.

"How's your arm feel?" Jim queried amiably.

Such concern was unusual, and Matt noted it, and replied -

"I guess there's no danger of hydrophoby. What made you ask?"

Jim felt in himself a guilty stir, and under his breath he cursed the
other's way of asking disagreeable questions; but aloud he answered -

"Nothin', only you seemed scared of it at first. What are you goin' to
do with your share, Matt?"

"Buy a cattle ranch in Arizona an' set down an' pay other men to ride
range for me. There's some several I'd like to see askin' a job from me,
damn them! An' now you shut your face, Jim. It'll be some time before I
buy that ranch. Just now I'm goin' to sleep."

But Jim lay long awake, nervous and twitching, rolling about restlessly
and rolling himself wide awake every time he dozed. The diamonds still
blazed under his eyelids, and the fire of them hurt. Matt, in spite of
his heavy nature, slept lightly, like a wild animal alert in its sleep;
and Jim noticed, every time he moved, that his partner's body moved
sufficiently to show that it had received the impression and that it was
trembling on the verge of awakening. For that matter, Jim did not
know whether or not, frequently, the other was awake. Once, quietly,
betokening complete consciousness, Matt said to him: "Aw, go to sleep,
Jim. Don't worry about them jools. They'll keep." And Jim had thought
that at that particular moment Matt had been surely asleep.

In the late morning Matt was awake with Jim's first movement, and
thereafter he awoke and dozed with him until midday, when they got up
together and began dressing.

"I'm goin' out to get a paper an' some bread," Matt said. "You boil the
coffee."

As Jim listened, unconsciously his gaze left Matt's face and roved
to the pillow, beneath which was the bundle wrapped in the bandanna
handkerchief. On the instant Matt's face became like a wild beast's.

"Look here, Jim," he snarled. "You've got to play square. If you do me
dirt, I'll fix you. Understand? I'd eat you, Jim. You know that. I'd
bite right into your throat an' eat you like that much beefsteak."


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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 4 of 12)