Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

. (page 5 of 12)
Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 5 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


His sunburned skin was black with the surge of blood in it, and his
tobacco-stained teeth were exposed by the snarling lips. Jim shivered
and involuntarily cowered. There was death in the man he looked at. Only
the night before that black-faced man had killed another with his hands,
and it had not hurt his sleep. And in his own heart Jim was aware of
a sneaking guilt, of a train of thought that merited all that was
threatened.

Matt passed out, leaving him still shivering. Then a hatred twisted his
own face, and he softly hurled savage curses at the door. He remembered
the jewels, and hastened to the bed, feeling under the pillow for the
bandanna bundle. He crushed it with his fingers to make certain that
it still contained the diamonds. Assured that Matt had not carried them
away, he looked toward the kerosene stove with a guilty start. Then he
hurriedly lighted it, filled the coffee-pot at the sink, and put it over
the flame.

The coffee was boiling when Matt returned, and while the latter cut the
bread and put a slice of butter on the table, Jim poured out the coffee.
It was not until he sat down and had taken a few sips of the coffee,
that Matt pulled out the morning paper from his pocket.

"We was way off," he said. "I told you I didn't dast figger out how fat
it was. Look at that."

He pointed to the head-lines on the first page.

"SWIFT NEMESIS ON BUJANNOFF'S TRACK," they read. "MURDERED IN HIS SLEEP
AFTER ROBBING HIS PARTNER."

"There you have it!" Matt cried. "He robbed his partner - robbed him like
a dirty thief."

"Half a million of jewels missin'," Jim read aloud. He put the paper
down and stared at Matt.

"That's what I told you," the latter said. "What in hell do we know
about jools? Half a million! - an' the best I could figger it was a
hundred thousan'. Go on an' read the rest of it."

They read on silently, their heads side by side, the untouched coffee
growing cold; and ever and anon one or the other burst forth with some
salient printed fact.

"I'd like to seen Metzner's face when he opened the safe at the store
this mornin'," Jim gloated.

"He hit the high places right away for Bujannoff's house," Matt
explained. "Go on an' read."

"Was to have sailed last night at ten on the Sajoda for the South
Seas - steamship delayed by extra freight - "

"That's why we caught 'm in bed," Matt interrupted. "It was just
luck - like pickin' a fifty-to-one winner."

"Sajoda sailed at six this mornin' - "

"He didn't catch her," Matt said. "I saw his alarm-clock was set at
five. That'd given 'm plenty of time... only I come along an' put the
kibosh on his time. Go on."

"Adolph Metzner in despair - the famous Haythorne pearl
necklace - magnificently assorted pearls - valued by experts at from fifty
to seventy thousan' dollars."

Jim broke off to swear vilely and solemnly, concluding with, "Those damn
oyster-eggs worth all that money!"

He licked his lips and added, "They was beauties an' no mistake."

"Big Brazilian gem," he read on. "Eighty thousan' dollars - many valuable
gems of the first water - several thousan' small diamonds well worth
forty thousan'."

"What you don't know about jools is worth knowin'," Matt smiled
good-humouredly.

"Theory of the sleuths," Jim read. "Thieves must have known - cleverly
kept watch on Bujannoff's actions - must have learned his plan and
trailed him to his house with the fruits of his robbery - "

"Clever - hell!" Matt broke out. "That's the way reputations is made...
in the noospapers. How'd we know he was robbin' his pardner?"

"Anyway, we've got the goods," Jim grinned. "Let's look at 'em again."

He assured himself that the door was locked and bolted, while Matt
brought out the bundle in the bandanna and opened it on the table.

"Ain't they beauties, though!" Jim exclaimed at sight of the pearls; and
for a time he had eyes only for them. "Accordin' to the experts, worth
from fifty to seventy thousan' dollars."

"An' women like them things," Matt commented. "An' they'll do everything
to get 'em - sell themselves, commit murder, anything."

"Just like you an' me."

"Not on your life," Matt retorted. "I'll commit murder for 'em, but not
for their own sakes, but for sake of what they'll get me. That's the
difference. Women want the jools for themselves, an' I want the jools
for the women an' such things they'll get me."

"Lucky that men an' women don't want the same things," Jim remarked.

"That's what makes commerce," Matt agreed; "people wantin' different
things."

In the middle of the afternoon Jim went out to buy food. While he was
gone, Matt cleared the table of the jewels, wrapping them up as before
and putting them under the pillow. Then he lighted the kerosene stove
and started to boil water for coffee. A few minutes later, Jim returned.

"Most surprising," he remarked. "Streets, an' stores, an' people just
like they always was. Nothin' changed. An' me walking along through it
all a millionaire. Nobody looked at me an' guessed it."

Matt grunted unsympathetically. He had little comprehension of the
lighter whims and fancies of his partner's imagination.

"Did you get a porterhouse?" he demanded.

"Sure, an' an inch thick. It's a peach. Look at it."

He unwrapped the steak and held it up for the other's inspection. Then
he made the coffee and set the table, while Matt fried the steak.

"Don't put on too much of them red peppers," Jim warned. "I ain't used
to your Mexican cookin'. You always season too hot."

Matt grunted a laugh and went on with his cooking. Jim poured out the
coffee, but first, into the nicked china cup, he emptied a powder he had
carried in his vest pocket wrapped in a rice-paper. He had turned his
back for the moment on his partner, but he did not dare to glance around
at him. Matt placed a newspaper on the table, and on the newspaper
set the hot frying-pan. He cut the steak in half, and served Jim and
himself.

"Eat her while she's hot," he counselled, and with knife and fork set
the example.

"She's a dandy," was Jim's judgment, after his first mouthful. "But
I tell you one thing straight. I'm never goin' to visit you on that
Arizona ranch, so you needn't ask me."

"What's the matter now?" Matt asked.

"Hell's the matter," was the answer. "The Mexican cookin' on your
ranch'd be too much for me. If I've got hell a-comin' in the next life,
I'm not goin' to torment my insides in this one. Damned peppers!"

He smiled, expelled his breath forcibly to cool his burning mouth, drank
some coffee, and went on eating the steak.

"What do you think about the next life anyway, Matt?" he asked a little
later, while secretly he wondered why the other had not yet touched his
coffee.

"Ain't no next life," Matt answered, pausing from the steak to take
his first sip of coffee. "Nor heaven nor hell, nor nothin'. You get all
that's comin' right here in this life."

"An' afterward?" Jim queried out of his morbid curiosity, for he knew
that he looked upon a man that was soon to die. "An' afterward?" he
repeated.

"Did you ever see a man two weeks dead?" the other asked.

Jim shook his head.

"Well, I have. He was like this beefsteak you an' me is eatin'. It was
once steer cavortin' over the landscape. But now it's just meat.
That's all, just meat. An' that's what you an' me an' all people come
to - meat."

Matt gulped down the whole cup of coffee, and refilled the cup.

"Are you scared to die?" he asked.

Jim shook his head. "What's the use? I don't die anyway. I pass on an'
live again - "

"To go stealin', an' lyin' an' snivellin' through another life, an' go
on that way forever an' ever an' ever?" Matt sneered.

"Maybe I'll improve," Jim suggested hopefully. "Maybe stealin' won't be
necessary in the life to come."

He ceased abruptly, and stared straight before him, a frightened
expression on his face.

"What's the matter!" Matt demanded.

"Nothin'. I was just wonderin'" - Jim returned to himself with an
effort - "about this dyin', that was all."

But he could not shake off the fright that had startled him. It was
as if an unseen thing of gloom had passed him by, casting upon him
the intangible shadow of its presence. He was aware of a feeling of
foreboding. Something ominous was about to happen. Calamity hovered in
the air. He gazed fixedly across the table at the other man. He could
not understand. Was it that he had blundered and poisoned himself? No,
Matt had the nicked cup, and he had certainly put the poison in the
nicked cup.

It was all his own imagination, was his next thought. It had played him
tricks before. Fool! Of course it was. Of course something was about to
happen, but it was about to happen to Matt. Had not Matt drunk the whole
cup of coffee?

Jim brightened up and finished his steak, sopping bread in the gravy
when the meat was gone.

"When I was a kid - " he began, but broke off abruptly.

Again the unseen thing of gloom had fluttered, and his being was vibrant
with premonition of impending misfortune. He felt a disruptive influence
at work in the flesh of him, and in all his muscles there was a seeming
that they were about to begin to twitch. He sat back suddenly, and as
suddenly leaned forward with his elbows on the table. A tremor ran
dimly through the muscles of his body. It was like the first rustling
of leaves before the oncoming of wind. He clenched his teeth. It came
again, a spasmodic tensing of his muscles. He knew panic at the revolt
within his being. His muscles no longer recognized his mastery over
them. Again they spasmodically tensed, despite the will of him, for
he had willed that they should not tense. This was revolution within
himself, this was anarchy; and the terror of impotence rushed up in him
as his flesh gripped and seemed to seize him in a clutch, chills running
up and down his back and sweat starting on his brow. He glanced about
the room, and all the details of it smote him with a strange sense of
familiarity. It was as though he had just returned from a long journey.
He looked across the table at his partner. Matt was watching him and
smiling. An expression of horror spread over Jim's face.

"My God, Matt!" he screamed. "You ain't doped me?"

Matt smiled and continued to watch him. In the paroxysm that followed,
Jim did not become unconscious. His muscles tensed and twitched and
knotted, hurting him and crushing him in their savage grip. And in the
midst of it all, it came to him that Matt was acting queerly. He was
travelling the same road. The smile had gone from his face, and there
was on it an intent expression, as if he were listening to some inner
tale of himself and trying to divine the message. Matt got up and walked
across the room and back again, then sat down.

"You did this, Jim," he said quietly.

"But I didn't think you'd try to fix ME," Jim answered reproachfully.

"Oh, I fixed you all right," Matt said, with teeth close together and
shivering body. "What did you give me?"

"Strychnine."

"Same as I gave you," Matt volunteered. "It's a hell of a mess, ain't
it?"

"You're lyin', Matt," Jim pleaded. "You ain't doped me, have you?"

"I sure did, Jim; an' I didn't overdose you, neither. I cooked it in as
neat as you please in your half the porterhouse. - Hold on! Where're you
goin'?"

Jim had made a dash for the door, and was throwing back the bolts. Matt
sprang in between and shoved him away.

"Drug store," Jim panted. "Drug store."

"No you don't. You'll stay right here. There ain't goin' to be any
runnin' out an' makin' a poison play on the street - not with all them
jools reposin' under the pillow. Savve? Even if you didn't die, you'd
be in the hands of the police with a whole lot of explanations comin'.
Emetics is the stuff for poison. I'm just as bad bit as you, an' I'm
goin' to take a emetic. That's all they'd give you at a drug store,
anyway."

He thrust Jim back into the middle of the room and shot the bolts into
place. As he went across the floor to the food shelf, he passed one hand
over his brow and flung off the beaded sweat. It spattered audibly on
the floor. Jim watched agonizedly as Matt got the mustard-can and a cup
and ran for the sink. He stirred a cupful of mustard and water and drank
it down. Jim had followed him and was reaching with trembling hands for
the empty cup. Again Matt shoved him away. As he mixed a second cupful,
he demanded -

"D'you think one cup'll do for me? You can wait till I'm done."

Jim started to totter toward the door, but Matt checked him.

"If you monkey with that door, I'll twist your neck. Savve? You can take
yours when I'm done. An' if it saves you, I'll twist your neck, anyway.
You ain't got no chance, nohow. I told you many times what you'd get if
you did me dirt."

"But you did me dirt, too," Jim articulated with an effort.

Matt was drinking the second cupful, and did not answer. The sweat had
got into Jim's eyes, and he could scarcely see his way to the table,
where he got a cup for himself. But Matt was mixing a third cupful, and,
as before, thrust him away.

"I told you to wait till I was done," Matt growled. "Get outa my way."

And Jim supported his twitching body by holding on to the sink, the
while he yearned toward the yellowish concoction that stood for life. It
was by sheer will that he stood and clung to the sink. His flesh strove
to double him up and bring him to the floor. Matt drank the third
cupful, and with difficulty managed to get to a chair and sit down. His
first paroxysm was passing. The spasms that afflicted him were dying
away. This good effect he ascribed to the mustard and water. He was
safe, at any rate. He wiped the sweat from his face, and, in the
interval of calm, found room for curiosity. He looked at his partner.

A spasm had shaken the mustard can out of Jim's hands, and the contents
were spilled upon the floor. He stooped to scoop some of the mustard
into the cup, and the succeeding spasm doubled him upon the floor. Matt
smiled.

"Stay with it," he encouraged. "It's the stuff all right. It's fixed me
up."

Jim heard him and turned toward him a stricken face, twisted with
suffering and pleading. Spasm now followed spasm till he was in
convulsions, rolling on the floor and yellowing his face and hair in the
mustard.

Matt laughed hoarsely at the sight, but the laugh broke midway. A tremor
had run through his body. A new paroxysm was beginning. He arose and
staggered across to the sink, where, with probing forefinger, he vainly
strove to assist the action of the emetic. In the end, he clung to
the sink as Jim had clung, filled with the horror of going down to the
floor.

The other's paroxysm had passed, and he sat up, weak and fainting, too
weak to rise, his forehead dripping, his lips flecked with a foam made
yellow by the mustard in which he had rolled. He rubbed his eyes with
his knuckles, and groans that were like whines came from his throat.

"What are you snifflin' about?" Matt demanded out of his agony. "All you
got to do is die. An' when you die you're dead."

"I... ain't... snifflin'... it's... the... mustard... stingin'... my...
eyes," Jim panted with desperate slowness.

It was his last successful attempt at speech. Thereafter he babbled
incoherently, pawing the air with shaking arms till a fresh convulsion
stretched him on the floor.

Matt struggled back to the chair, and, doubled up on it, with his arms
clasped about his knees, he fought with his disintegrating flesh. He
came out of the convulsion cool and weak. He looked to see how it went
with the other, and saw him lying motionless.

He tried to soliloquize, to be facetious, to have his last grim laugh at
life, but his lips made only incoherent sounds. The thought came to
him that the emetic had failed, and that nothing remained but the drug
store. He looked toward the door and drew himself to his feet. There he
saved himself from falling by clutching the chair. Another paroxysm had
begun. And in the midst of the paroxysm, with his body and all the parts
of it flying apart and writhing and twisting back again into knots, he
clung to the chair and shoved it before him across the floor. The last
shreds of his will were leaving him when he gained the door. He turned
the key and shot back one bolt. He fumbled for the second bolt, but
failed. Then he leaned his weight against the door and slid down gently
to the floor.




CREATED HE THEM

She met him at the door.

"I did not think you would be so early."

"It is half past eight." He looked at his watch. "The train leaves at
9.12."

He was very businesslike, until he saw her lips tremble as she abruptly
turned and led the way.

"It'll be all right, little woman," he said soothingly. "Doctor
Bodineau's the man. He'll pull him through, you'll see."

They entered the living-room. His glance quested apprehensively about,
then turned to her.

"Where's Al?"

She did not answer, but with a sudden impulse came close to him and
stood motionless. She was a slender, dark-eyed woman, in whose face
was stamped the strain and stress of living. But the fine lines and the
haunted look in the eyes were not the handiwork of mere worry. He knew
whose handiwork it was as he looked upon it, and she knew when she
consulted her mirror.

"It's no use, Mary," he said. He put his hand on her shoulder. "We've
tried everything. It's a wretched business, I know, but what else can we
do? You've failed. Doctor Bodineau's all that's left."

"If I had another chance..." she began falteringly.

"We've threshed that all out," he answered harshly. "You've got to buck
up, now. You know what conclusion we arrived at. You know you haven't
the ghost of a hope in another chance."

She shook her head. "I know it. But it is terrible, the thought of his
going away to fight it out alone."

"He won't be alone. There's Doctor Bodineau. And besides, it's a
beautiful place."

She remained silent.

"It is the only thing," he said.

"It is the only thing," she repeated mechanically.

He looked at his watch. "Where's Al?"

"I'll send him."

When the door had closed behind her, he walked over to the window and
looked out, drumming absently with his knuckles on the pane.

"Hello."

He turned and responded to the greeting of the man who had just entered.
There was a perceptible drag to the man's feet as he walked across
toward the window and paused irresolutely halfway.

"I've changed my mind, George," he announced hurriedly and nervously.
"I'm not going."

He plucked at his sleeve, shuffled with his feet, dropped his eyes, and
with a strong effort raised them again to confront the other.

George regarded him silently, his nostrils distending and his lean
fingers unconsciously crooking like an eagle's talons about to clutch.

In line and feature, there was much of resemblance between the two men;
and yet, in the strongest resemblances there was a radical difference.
Theirs were the same black eyes, but those of the man at the window were
sharp and straight looking, while those of the man in the middle of the
room were cloudy and furtive. He could not face the other's gaze, and
continually and vainly struggled with himself to do so. The high cheek
bones with the hollows beneath were the same, yet the texture of the
hollows seemed different. The thin-lipped mouths were from the same
mould, but George's lips were firm and muscular, while Al's were soft
and loose - the lips of an ascetic turned voluptuary. There was also a
sag at the corners. His flesh hinted of grossness, especially so in the
eagle-like aquiline nose that must once have been like the other's, but
that had lost the austerity the other's still retained.

Al fought for steadiness in the middle of the floor. The silence
bothered him. He had a feeling that he was about to begin swaying back
and forth. He moistened his lips with his tongue.

"I'm going to stay," he said desperately.

He dropped his eyes and plucked again at his sleeve.

"And you are only twenty-six years old," George said at last. "You poor,
feeble old man."

"Don't be so sure of that," Al retorted, with a flash of belligerence.

"Do you remember when we swam that mile and a half across the channel?"

"Well, and what of it?" A sullen expression was creeping across Al's
face.

"And do you remember when we boxed in the barn after school?"

"I could take all you gave me."

"All I gave you!" George's voice rose momentarily to a higher pitch.
"You licked me four afternoons out of five. You were twice as strong as
I - three times as strong. And now I'd be afraid to land on you with a
sofa cushion; you'd crumple up like a last year's leaf. You'd die, you
poor, miserable old man."

"You needn't abuse me just because I've changed my mind," the other
protested, the hint of a whine in his voice.

His wife entered, and he looked appealingly to her; but the man at the
window strode suddenly up to him and burst out -

"You don't know your own mind for two successive minutes! You haven't
any mind, you spineless, crawling worm!"

"You can't make me angry." Al smiled with cunning, and glanced
triumphantly at his wife. "You can't make me angry," he repeated, as
though the idea were thoroughly gratifying to him. "I know your game.
It's my stomach, I tell you. I can't help it. Before God, I can't! Isn't
it my stomach, Mary?"

She glanced at George and spoke composedly, though she hid a trembling
hand in a fold of her skirt.

"Isn't it time?" she asked softly.

Her husband turned upon her savagely. "I'm not going to go!" he cried.
"That's just what I've been telling... him. And I tell you again, all of
you, I'm not going. You can't bully me."

"Why, Al, dear, you said - " she began.

"Never mind what I said!" he broke out. "I've said something else right
now, and you've heard it, and that settles it."

He walked across the room and threw himself with emphasis into a Morris
chair. But the other man was swiftly upon him. The talon-like fingers
gripped his shoulders, jerked him to his feet, and held him there.

"You've reached the limit, Al, and I want you to understand it. I've
tried to treat you like... like my brother, but hereafter I shall treat
you like the thing that you are. Do you understand?"

The anger in his voice was cold. The blaze in his eyes was cold. It was
vastly more effective than any outburst, and Al cringed under it and
under the clutching hand that was bruising his shoulder muscles.

"It is only because of me that you have this house, that you have the
food you eat. Your position? Any other man would have been shown the
door a year ago - two years ago. I have held you in it. Your salary has
been charity. It has been paid out of my pocket. Mary... her dresses...
that gown she has on is made over; she wears the discarded dresses of
her sisters, of my wife. Charity - do you understand? Your children - they
are wearing the discarded clothes of my children, of the children of my
neighbours who think the clothes went to some orphan asylum. And it is
an orphan asylum... or it soon will be."

He emphasized each point with an unconscious tightening of his grip
on the shoulder. Al was squirming with the pain of it. The sweat was
starting out on his forehead.

"Now listen well to me," his brother went on. "In three minutes you will
tell me that you are going with me. If you don't, Mary and the children
will be taken away from you - to-day. You needn't ever come to the
office. This house will be closed to you. And in six months I shall
have the pleasure of burying you. You have three minutes to make up your
mind."

Al made a strangling movement, and reached up with weak fingers to the
clutching hand.

"My heart... let me go... you'll be the death of me," he gasped.

The hand thrust him down forcibly into the Morris chair and released
him.

The clock on the mantle ticked loudly. George glanced at it, and
at Mary. She was leaning against the table, unable to conceal her
trembling. He became unpleasantly aware of the feeling of his brother's
fingers on his hand. Quite unconsciously he wiped the back of the hand
upon his coat. The clock ticked on in the silence. It seemed to George
that the room reverberated with his voice. He could hear himself still
speaking.

"I'll go," came from the Morris chair.

It was a weak and shaken voice, and it was a weak and shaken man that
pulled himself out of the Morris chair. He started toward the door.

"Where are you going?" George demanded.

"Suit case," came the response. "Mary'll send the trunk later. I'll be
back in a minute."

The door closed after him. A moment later, struck with sudden suspicion,


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 5 of 12)