Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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George was opening the door. He glanced in. His brother stood at a
sideboard, in one hand a decanter, in the other hand, bottom up and to
his lips, a whisky glass.

Across the glass Al saw that he was observed. It threw him into a panic.
Hastily he tried to refill the glass and get it to his lips; but glass
and decanter were sent smashing to the floor. He snarled. It was like
the sound of a wild beast. But the grip on his shoulder subdued and
frightened him. He was being propelled toward the door.

"The suit case," he gasped. "It's there in that room. Let me get it."

"Where's the key?" his brother asked, when he had brought it.

"It isn't locked."

The next moment the suit case was spread open, and George's hand was
searching the contents. From one side it brought out a bottle of whisky,
from the other side a flask. He snapped the case to.

"Come on," he said. "If we miss one car, we miss that train."

He went out into the hallway, leaving Al with his wife. It was like a
funeral, George thought, as he waited.

His brother's overcoat caught on the knob of the front door and delayed
its closing long enough for Mary's first sob to come to their ears.
George's lips were very thin and compressed as he went down the steps.
In one hand he carried the suit case. With the other hand he held his
brother's arm.

As they neared the corner, he heard the electric car a block away,
and urged his brother on. Al was breathing hard. His feet dragged and
shuffled, and he held back.

"A hell of a brother YOU are," he panted.

For reply, he received a vicious jerk on his arm. It reminded him of his
childhood when he was hurried along by some angry grown-up. And like a
child, he had to be helped up the car step. He sank down on an outside
seat, panting, sweating, overcome by the exertion. He followed George's
eyes as the latter looked him up and down.

"A hell of a brother YOU are," was George's comment when he had finished
the inspection.

Moisture welled into Al's eyes.

"It's my stomach," he said with self-pity.

"I don't wonder," was the retort. "Burnt out like the crater of a
volcano. Fervent heat isn't a circumstance."

Thereafter they did not speak. When they arrived at the transfer point,
George came to himself with a start. He smiled. With fixed gaze that
did not see the houses that streamed across his field of vision, he had
himself been sunk deep in self-pity. He helped his brother from the car,
and looked up the intersecting street. The car they were to take was not
in sight.

Al's eyes chanced upon the corner grocery and saloon across the way.
At once he became restless. His hands passed beyond his control, and he
yearned hungrily across the street to the door that swung open even as
he looked and let in a happy pilgrim. And in that instant he saw the
white-jacketed bartender against an array of glittering glass. Quite
unconsciously he started to cross the street.

"Hold on." George's hand was on his arm.

"I want some whisky," he answered.

"You've already had some."

"That was hours ago. Go on, George, let me have some. It's the last
day. Don't shut off on me until we get there - God knows it will be soon
enough."

George glanced desperately up the street. The car was in sight.

"There isn't time for a drink," he said.

"I don't want a drink. I want a bottle." Al's voice became wheedling.
"Go on, George. It's the last, the very last."

"No." The denial was as final as George's thin lips could make it.

Al glanced at the approaching car. He sat down suddenly on the
curbstone.

"What's the matter?" his brother asked, with momentary alarm.

"Nothing. I want some whisky. It's my stomach."

"Come on now, get up."

George reached for him, but was anticipated, for his brother sprawled
flat on the pavement, oblivious to the dirt and to the curious glances
of the passers-by. The car was clanging its gong at the crossing, a
block away.

"You'll miss it," Al grinned from the pavement. "And it will be your
fault."

George's fists clenched tightly.

"For two cents I'd give you a thrashing."

"And miss the car," was the triumphant comment from the pavement.

George looked at the car. It was halfway down the block. He looked at
his watch. He debated a second longer.

"All right," he said. "I'll get it. But you get on that car. If you miss
it, I'll break the bottle over your head."

He dashed across the street and into the saloon. The car came in and
stopped. There were no passengers to get off. Al dragged himself up the
steps and sat down. He smiled as the conductor rang the bell and the car
started. The swinging door of the saloon burst open. Clutching in
his hand the suit case and a pint bottle of whisky, George started in
pursuit. The conductor, his hand on the bell cord, waited to see if it
would be necessary to stop. It was not. George swung lightly aboard, sat
down beside his brother, and passed him the bottle.

"You might have got a quart," Al said reproachfully.

He extracted the cork with a pocket corkscrew, and elevated the bottle.

"I'm sick... my stomach," he explained in apologetic tones to the
passenger who sat next to him.

In the train they sat in the smoking-car. George felt that it was
imperative. Also, having successfully caught the train, his heart
softened. He felt more kindly toward his brother, and accused himself of
unnecessary harshness. He strove to atone by talking about their mother,
and sisters, and the little affairs and interests of the family. But Al
was morose, and devoted himself to the bottle. As the time passed, his
mouth hung looser and looser, while the rings under his eyes seemed to
puff out and all his facial muscles to relax.

"It's my stomach," he said, once, when he finished the bottle and
dropped it under the seat; but the swift hardening of his brother's face
did not encourage further explanations.

The conveyance that met them at the station had all the dignity and
luxuriousness of a private carriage. George's eyes were keen for the ear
marks of the institution to which they were going, but his apprehensions
were allayed from moment to moment. As they entered the wide gateway
and rolled on through the spacious grounds, he felt sure that the
institutional side of the place would not jar upon his brother. It was
more like a summer hotel, or, better yet, a country club. And as they
swept on through the spring sunshine, the songs of birds in his ears,
and in his nostrils the breath of flowers, George sighed for a week
of rest in such a place, and before his eyes loomed the arid vista of
summer in town and at the office. There was not room in his income for
his brother and himself.

"Let us take a walk in the grounds," he suggested, after they had met
Doctor Bodineau and inspected the quarters assigned to Al. "The carriage
leaves for the station in half an hour, and we'll just have time."

"It's beautiful," he remarked a moment later. Under his feet was
the velvet grass, the trees arched overhead, and he stood in mottled
sunshine. "I wish I could stay for a month."

"I'll trade places with you," Al said quickly.

George laughed it off, but he felt a sinking of the heart.

"Look at that oak!" he cried. "And that woodpecker! Isn't he a beauty!"

"I don't like it here," he heard his brother mutter.

George's lips tightened in preparation for the struggle, but he said -

"I'm going to send Mary and the children off to the mountains. She needs
it, and so do they. And when you're in shape, I'll send you right on to
join them. Then you can take your summer vacation before you come back
to the office."

"I'm not going to stay in this damned hole, for all you talk about it,"
Al announced abruptly.

"Yes you are, and you're going to get your health and strength back
again, so that the look of you will put the colour in Mary's cheeks
where it used to be."

"I'm going back with you." Al's voice was firm. "I'm going to take the
same train back. It's about time for that carriage, I guess."

"I haven't told you all my plans," George tried to go on, but Al cut him
off.

"You might as well quit that. I don't want any of your soapy talking.
You treat me like a child. I'm not a child. My mind's made up, and I'll
show you how long it can stay made up. You needn't talk to me. I don't
care a rap for what you're going to say."

A baleful light was in his eyes, and to his brother he seemed for all
the world like a cornered rat, desperate and ready to fight. As George
looked at him he remembered back to their childhood, and it came to him
that at last was aroused in Al the same old stubborn strain that had
enabled him, as a child, to stand against all force and persuasion.

George abandoned hope. He had lost. This creature was not human. The
last fine instinct of the human had fled. It was a brute, sluggish
and stolid, impossible to move - just the raw stuff of life, combative,
rebellious, and indomitable. And as he contemplated his brother he felt
in himself the rising up of a similar brute. He became suddenly aware
that his fingers were tensing and crooking like a thug's, and he knew
the desire to kill. And his reason, turned traitor at last, counselled
that he should kill, that it was the only thing left for him to do.

He was aroused by a servant calling to him through the trees that the
carriage was waiting. He answered. Then, looking straight before him, he
discovered his brother. He had forgotten it was his brother. It had been
only a thing the moment before. He began to talk, and as he talked the
way became clear to him. His reason had not turned traitor. The brute in
him had merely orientated his reason.

"You are no earthly good, Al," he said. "You know that. You've made
Mary's life a hell. You are a curse to your children. And you have not
made life exactly a paradise for the rest of us."

"There's no use your talking," Al interjected. "I'm not going to stay
here."

"That's what I'm coming to," George continued. "You don't have to stay
here." (Al's face brightened, and he involuntarily made a movement, as
though about to start toward the carriage.) "On the other hand, it is
not necessary that you should return with me. There is another way."

George's hand went to his hip pocket and appeared with a revolver. It
lay along his palm, the butt toward Al, and toward Al he extended it. At
the same time, with his head, he indicated the near-by thicket.

"You can't bluff me," Al snarled.

"It is not a bluff, Al. Look at me. I mean it. And if you don't do it
for yourself, I shall have to do it for you."

They faced each other, the proffered revolver still extended. Al debated
for a moment, then his eyes blazed. With a quick movement he seized the
revolver.

"My God! I'll do it," he said. "I'll show you what I've got in me."

George felt suddenly sick. He turned away. He did not see his brother
enter the thicket, but he heard the passage of his body through the
leaves and branches.

"Good-bye, Al," he called.

"Good-bye," came from the thicket.

George felt the sweat upon his forehead. He began mopping his face with
his handkerchief. He heard, as from a remote distance, the voice of
the servant again calling to him that the carriage was waiting. The
woodpecker dropped down through the mottled sunshine and lighted on the
trunk of a tree a dozen feet away. George felt that it was all a dream,
and yet through it all he felt supreme justification. It was the right
thing to do. It was the only thing.

His whole body gave a spasmodic start, as though the revolver had been
fired. It was the voice of Al, close at his back.

"Here's your gun," Al said. "I'll stay."

The servant appeared among the trees, approaching rapidly and calling
anxiously. George put the weapon in his pocket and caught both his
brother's hands in his own.

"God bless you, old man," he murmured; "and" - with a final squeeze of
the hands - "good luck!"

"I'm coming," he called to the servant, and turned and ran through the
trees toward the carriage.




THE CHINAGO

"The coral waxes, the palm grows, but man departs."
- Tahitian proverb.

Ah Cho did not understand French. He sat in the crowded court room, very
weary and bored, listening to the unceasing, explosive French that now
one official and now another uttered. It was just so much gabble to Ah
Cho, and he marvelled at the stupidity of the Frenchmen who took so long
to find out the murderer of Chung Ga, and who did not find him at all.
The five hundred coolies on the plantation knew that Ah San had done the
killing, and here was Ah San not even arrested. It was true that all
the coolies had agreed secretly not to testify against one another; but
then, it was so simple, the Frenchmen should have been able to discover
that Ah San was the man. They were very stupid, these Frenchmen.

Ah Cho had done nothing of which to be afraid. He had had no hand in
the killing. It was true he had been present at it, and Schemmer, the
overseer on the plantation, had rushed into the barracks immediately
afterward and caught him there, along with four or five others; but what
of that? Chung Ga had been stabbed only twice. It stood to reason that
five or six men could not inflict two stab wounds. At the most, if a man
had struck but once, only two men could have done it.

So it was that Ah Cho reasoned, when he, along with his four companions,
had lied and blocked and obfuscated in their statements to the court
concerning what had taken place. They had heard the sounds of the
killing, and, like Schemmer, they had run to the spot. They had got
there before Schemmer - that was all. True, Schemmer had testified that,
attracted by the sound of quarrelling as he chanced to pass by, he had
stood for at least five minutes outside; that then, when he entered, he
found the prisoners already inside; and that they had not entered just
before, because he had been standing by the one door to the barracks.
But what of that? Ah Cho and his four fellow-prisoners had testified
that Schemmer was mistaken. In the end they would be let go. They were
all confident of that. Five men could not have their heads cut off for
two stab wounds. Besides, no foreign devil had seen the killing. But
these Frenchmen were so stupid. In China, as Ah Cho well knew, the
magistrate would order all of them to the torture and learn the truth.
The truth was very easy to learn under torture. But these Frenchmen did
not torture - bigger fools they! Therefore they would never find out who
killed Chung Ga.

But Ah Cho did not understand everything. The English Company that owned
the plantation had imported into Tahiti, at great expense, the five
hundred coolies. The stockholders were clamouring for dividends, and
the Company had not yet paid any; wherefore the Company did not want its
costly contract labourers to start the practice of killing one another.
Also, there were the French, eager and willing to impose upon the
Chinagos the virtues and excellences of French law. There was nothing
like setting an example once in a while; and, besides, of what use was
New Caledonia except to send men to live out their days in misery and
pain in payment of the penalty for being frail and human?

Ah Cho did not understand all this. He sat in the court room and waited
for the baffled judgment that would set him and his comrades free to go
back to the plantation and work out the terms of their contracts. This
judgment would soon be rendered. Proceedings were drawing to a close. He
could see that. There was no more testifying, no more gabble of tongues.
The French devils were tired, too, and evidently waiting for the
judgment. And as he waited he remembered back in his life to the time
when he had signed the contract and set sail in the ship for Tahiti.
Times had been hard in his sea-coast village, and when he indentured
himself to labour for five years in the South Seas at fifty cents
Mexican a day, he had thought himself fortunate. There were men in his
village who toiled a whole year for ten dollars Mexican, and there were
women who made nets all the year round for five dollars, while in the
houses of shopkeepers there were maidservants who received four dollars
for a year of service. And here he was to receive fifty cents a day; for
one day, only one day, he was to receive that princely sum! What if the
work were hard? At the end of the five years he would return home - that
was in the contract - and he would never have to work again. He would
be a rich man for life, with a house of his own, a wife, and children
growing up to venerate him. Yes, and back of the house he would have a
small garden, a place of meditation and repose, with goldfish in a tiny
lakelet, and wind bells tinkling in the several trees, and there would
be a high wall all around so that his meditation and repose should be
undisturbed.

Well, he had worked out three of those five years. He was already a
wealthy man (in his own country) through his earnings, and only two
years more intervened between the cotton plantation on Tahiti and the
meditation and repose that awaited him. But just now he was losing money
because of the unfortunate accident of being present at the killing of
Chung Ga. He had lain three weeks in prison, and for each day of those
three weeks he had lost fifty cents. But now judgment would soon be
given, and he would go back to work.

Ah Cho was twenty-two years old. He was happy and good-natured, and it
was easy for him to smile. While his body was slim in the Asiatic way,
his face was rotund. It was round, like the moon, and it irradiated a
gentle complacence and a sweet kindliness of spirit that was unusual
among his countrymen. Nor did his looks belie him. He never caused
trouble, never took part in wrangling. He did not gamble. His soul was
not harsh enough for the soul that must belong to a gambler. He was
content with little things and simple pleasures. The hush and quiet in
the cool of the day after the blazing toil in the cotton field was
to him an infinite satisfaction. He could sit for hours gazing at a
solitary flower and philosophizing about the mysteries and riddles
of being. A blue heron on a tiny crescent of sandy beach, a silvery
splatter of flying fish, or a sunset of pearl and rose across the
lagoon, could entrance him to all forgetfulness of the procession of
wearisome days and of the heavy lash of Schemmer.

Schemmer, Karl Schemmer, was a brute, a brutish brute. But he earned
his salary. He got the last particle of strength out of the five hundred
slaves; for slaves they were until their term of years was up. Schemmer
worked hard to extract the strength from those five hundred sweating
bodies and to transmute it into bales of fluffy cotton ready for export.
His dominant, iron-clad, primeval brutishness was what enabled him to
effect the transmutation. Also, he was assisted by a thick leather belt,
three inches wide and a yard in length, with which he always rode and
which, on occasion, could come down on the naked back of a stooping
coolie with a report like a pistol-shot. These reports were frequent
when Schemmer rode down the furrowed field.

Once, at the beginning of the first year of contract labour, he had
killed a coolie with a single blow of his fist. He had not exactly
crushed the man's head like an egg-shell, but the blow had been
sufficient to addle what was inside, and, after being sick for a week,
the man had died. But the Chinese had not complained to the French
devils that ruled over Tahiti. It was their own look out. Schemmer was
their problem. They must avoid his wrath as they avoided the venom
of the centipedes that lurked in the grass or crept into the sleeping
quarters on rainy nights. The Chinagos - such they were called by
the indolent, brown-skinned island folk - saw to it that they did not
displease Schemmer too greatly. This was equivalent to rendering up to
him a full measure of efficient toil. That blow of Schemmer's fist had
been worth thousands of dollars to the Company, and no trouble ever came
of it to Schemmer.

The French, with no instinct for colonization, futile in their childish
playgame of developing the resources of the island, were only too glad
to see the English Company succeed. What matter of Schemmer and his
redoubtable fist? The Chinago that died? Well, he was only a Chinago.
Besides, he died of sunstroke, as the doctor's certificate attested.
True, in all the history of Tahiti no one had ever died of sunstroke.
But it was that, precisely that, which made the death of this Chinago
unique. The doctor said as much in his report. He was very candid.
Dividends must be paid, or else one more failure would be added to the
long history of failure in Tahiti.

There was no understanding these white devils. Ah Cho pondered their
inscrutableness as he sat in the court room waiting the judgment. There
was no telling what went on at the back of their minds. He had seen a
few of the white devils. They were all alike - the officers and sailors
on the ship, the French officials, the several white men on the
plantation, including Schemmer. Their minds all moved in mysterious ways
there was no getting at. They grew angry without apparent cause, and
their anger was always dangerous. They were like wild beasts at such
times. They worried about little things, and on occasion could out-toil
even a Chinago. They were not temperate as Chinagos were temperate; they
were gluttons, eating prodigiously and drinking more prodigiously. A
Chinago never knew when an act would please them or arouse a storm of
wrath. A Chinago could never tell. What pleased one time, the very next
time might provoke an outburst of anger. There was a curtain behind the
eyes of the white devils that screened the backs of their minds from the
Chinago's gaze. And then, on top of it all, was that terrible efficiency
of the white devils, that ability to do things, to make things go, to
work results, to bend to their wills all creeping, crawling things,
and the powers of the very elements themselves. Yes, the white men were
strange and wonderful, and they were devils. Look at Schemmer.

Ah Cho wondered why the judgment was so long in forming. Not a man on
trial had laid hand on Chung Ga. Ah San alone had killed him. Ah San
had done it, bending Chung Ga's head back with one hand by a grip of his
queue, and with the other hand, from behind, reaching over and driving
the knife into his body. Twice had he driven it in. There in the court
room, with closed eyes, Ah Cho saw the killing acted over again - the
squabble, the vile words bandied back and forth, the filth and insult
flung upon venerable ancestors, the curses laid upon unbegotten
generations, the leap of Ah San, the grip on the queue of Chung Ga, the
knife that sank twice into his flesh, the bursting open of the door, the
irruption of Schemmer, the dash for the door, the escape of Ah San, the
flying belt of Schemmer that drove the rest into the corner, and the
firing of the revolver as a signal that brought help to Schemmer. Ah
Cho shivered as he lived it over. One blow of the belt had bruised his
cheek, taking off some of the skin. Schemmer had pointed to the bruises
when, on the witness-stand, he had identified Ah Cho. It was only just
now that the marks had become no longer visible. That had been a blow.
Half an inch nearer the centre and it would have taken out his eye. Then
Ah Cho forgot the whole happening in a vision he caught of the garden
of meditation and repose that would be his when he returned to his own
land.

He sat with impassive face, while the magistrate rendered the judgment.
Likewise were the faces of his four companions impassive. And they
remained impassive when the interpreter explained that the five of them
had been found guilty of the murder of Chung Ga, and that Ah Chow
should have his head cut off, Ah Cho serve twenty years in prison in New
Caledonia, Wong Li twelve years, and Ah Tong ten years. There was no use
in getting excited about it. Even Ah Chow remained expressionless as
a mummy, though it was his head that was to be cut off. The magistrate
added a few words, and the interpreter explained that Ah Chow's face
having been most severely bruised by Schemmer's strap had made his
identification so positive that, since one man must die, he might as
well be that man. Also, the fact that Ah Cho's face likewise had been
severely bruised, conclusively proving his presence at the murder and
his undoubted participation, had merited him the twenty years of penal
servitude. And down to the ten years of Ah Tong, the proportioned reason


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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 6 of 12)