Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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for each sentence was explained. Let the Chinagos take the lesson to
heart, the Court said finally, for they must learn that the law would be
fulfilled in Tahiti though the heavens fell.

The five Chinagos were taken back to jail. They were not shocked
nor grieved. The sentences being unexpected was quite what they were
accustomed to in their dealings with the white devils. From them a
Chinago rarely expected more than the unexpected. The heavy punishment
for a crime they had not committed was no stranger than the countless
strange things that white devils did. In the weeks that followed, Ah Cho
often contemplated Ah Chow with mild curiosity. His head was to be cut
off by the guillotine that was being erected on the plantation. For him
there would be no declining years, no gardens of tranquillity. Ah Cho
philosophized and speculated about life and death. As for himself, he
was not perturbed. Twenty years were merely twenty years. By that much
was his garden removed from him - that was all. He was young, and the
patience of Asia was in his bones. He could wait those twenty years, and
by that time the heats of his blood would be assuaged and he would be
better fitted for that garden of calm delight. He thought of a name for
it; he would call it The Garden of the Morning Calm. He was made happy
all day by the thought, and he was inspired to devise a moral maxim on
the virtue of patience, which maxim proved a great comfort, especially
to Wong Li and Ah Tong. Ah Chow, however, did not care for the maxim.
His head was to be separated from his body in so short a time that he
had no need for patience to wait for that event. He smoked well, ate
well, slept well, and did not worry about the slow passage of time.

Cruchot was a gendarme. He had seen twenty years of service in the
colonies, from Nigeria and Senegal to the South Seas, and those
twenty years had not perceptibly brightened his dull mind. He was as
slow-witted and stupid as in his peasant days in the south of France. He
knew discipline and fear of authority, and from God down to the sergeant
of gendarmes the only difference to him was the measure of slavish
obedience which he rendered. In point of fact, the sergeant bulked
bigger in his mind than God, except on Sundays when God's mouthpieces
had their say. God was usually very remote, while the sergeant was
ordinarily very close at hand.

Cruchot it was who received the order from the Chief Justice to the
jailer commanding that functionary to deliver over to Cruchot the person
of Ah Chow. Now, it happened that the Chief Justice had given a dinner
the night before to the captain and officers of the French man-of-war.
His hand was shaking when he wrote out the order, and his eyes were
aching so dreadfully that he did not read over the order. It was only a
Chinago's life he was signing away, anyway. So he did not notice that he
had omitted the final letter in Ah Chow's name. The order read "Ah Cho,"
and, when Cruchot presented the order, the jailer turned over to him the
person of Ah Cho. Cruchot took that person beside him on the seat of a
wagon, behind two mules, and drove away.

Ah Cho was glad to be out in the sunshine. He sat beside the gendarme
and beamed. He beamed more ardently than ever when he noted the mules
headed south toward Atimaono. Undoubtedly Schemmer had sent for him to
be brought back. Schemmer wanted him to work. Very well, he would work
well. Schemmer would never have cause to complain. It was a hot day.
There had been a stoppage of the trades. The mules sweated, Cruchot
sweated, and Ah Cho sweated. But it was Ah Cho that bore the heat with
the least concern. He had toiled three years under that sun on the
plantation. He beamed and beamed with such genial good nature that even
Cruchot's heavy mind was stirred to wonderment.

"You are very funny," he said at last.

Ah Cho nodded and beamed more ardently. Unlike the magistrate, Cruchot
spoke to him in the Kanaka tongue, and this, like all Chinagos and all
foreign devils, Ah Cho understood.

"You laugh too much," Cruchot chided. "One's heart should be full of
tears on a day like this."

"I am glad to get out of the jail."

"Is that all?" The gendarme shrugged his shoulders.

"Is it not enough?" was the retort.

"Then you are not glad to have your head cut off?"

Ah Cho looked at him in abrupt perplexity, and said -

"Why, I am going back to Atimaono to work on the plantation for
Schemmer. Are you not taking me to Atimaono?"

Cruchot stroked his long moustaches reflectively. "Well, well," he said
finally, with a flick of the whip at the off mule, "so you don't know?"

"Know what?" Ah Cho was beginning to feel a vague alarm. "Won't Schemmer
let me work for him any more?"

"Not after to-day." Cruchot laughed heartily. It was a good joke. "You
see, you won't be able to work after to-day. A man with his head off
can't work, eh?" He poked the Chinago in the ribs, and chuckled.

Ah Cho maintained silence while the mules trotted a hot mile. Then he
spoke: "Is Schemmer going to cut off my head?"

Cruchot grinned as he nodded.

"It is a mistake," said Ah Cho, gravely. "I am not the Chinago that
is to have his head cut off. I am Ah Cho. The honourable judge has
determined that I am to stop twenty years in New Caledonia."

The gendarme laughed. It was a good joke, this funny Chinago trying to
cheat the guillotine. The mules trotted through a coconut grove and for
half a mile beside the sparkling sea before Ah Cho spoke again.

"I tell you I am not Ah Chow. The honourable judge did not say that my
head was to go off."

"Don't be afraid," said Cruchot, with the philanthropic intention of
making it easier for his prisoner. "It is not difficult to die that
way." He snapped his fingers. "It is quick - like that. It is not like
hanging on the end of a rope and kicking and making faces for five
minutes. It is like killing a chicken with a hatchet. You cut its head
off, that is all. And it is the same with a man. Pouf! - it is over. It
doesn't hurt. You don't even think it hurts. You don't think. Your head
is gone, so you cannot think. It is very good. That is the way I want to
die - quick, ah, quick. You are lucky to die that way. You might get the
leprosy and fall to pieces slowly, a finger at a time, and now and again
a thumb, also the toes. I knew a man who was burned by hot water. It
took him two days to die. You could hear him yelling a kilometre away.
But you? Ah! so easy! Chck! - the knife cuts your neck like that. It is
finished. The knife may even tickle. Who can say? Nobody who died that
way ever came back to say."

He considered this last an excruciating joke, and permitted himself
to be convulsed with laughter for half a minute. Part of his mirth was
assumed, but he considered it his humane duty to cheer up the Chinago.

"But I tell you I am Ah Cho," the other persisted. "I don't want my head
cut off."

Cruchot scowled. The Chinago was carrying the foolishness too far.

"I am not Ah Chow - " Ah Cho began.

"That will do," the gendarme interrupted. He puffed up his cheeks and
strove to appear fierce.

"I tell you I am not - " Ah Cho began again.

"Shut up!" bawled Cruchot.

After that they rode along in silence. It was twenty miles from Papeete
to Atimaono, and over half the distance was covered by the time the
Chinago again ventured into speech.

"I saw you in the court room, when the honourable judge sought after our
guilt," he began. "Very good. And do you remember that Ah Chow, whose
head is to be cut off - do you remember that he - Ah Chow - was a tall man?
Look at me."

He stood up suddenly, and Cruchot saw that he was a short man. And just
as suddenly Cruchot caught a glimpse of a memory picture of Ah Chow, and
in that picture Ah Chow was tall. To the gendarme all Chinagos looked
alike. One face was like another. But between tallness and shortness he
could differentiate, and he knew that he had the wrong man beside him on
the seat. He pulled up the mules abruptly, so that the pole shot ahead
of them, elevating their collars.

"You see, it was a mistake," said Ah Cho, smiling pleasantly.

But Cruchot was thinking. Already he regretted that he had stopped the
wagon. He was unaware of the error of the Chief Justice, and he had
no way of working it out; but he did know that he had been given this
Chinago to take to Atimaono and that it was his duty to take him to
Atimaono. What if he was the wrong man and they cut his head off? It
was only a Chinago when all was said, and what was a Chinago, anyway?
Besides, it might not be a mistake. He did not know what went on in the
minds of his superiors. They knew their business best. Who was he to
do their thinking for them? Once, in the long ago, he had attempted to
think for them, and the sergeant had said: "Cruchot, you are a fool! The
quicker you know that, the better you will get on. You are not to think;
you are to obey and leave thinking to your betters." He smarted under
the recollection. Also, if he turned back to Papeete, he would delay the
execution at Atimaono, and if he were wrong in turning back, he would
get a reprimand from the sergeant who was waiting for the prisoner. And,
furthermore, he would get a reprimand at Papeete as well.

He touched the mules with the whip and drove on. He looked at his watch.
He would be half an hour late as it was, and the sergeant was bound to
be angry. He put the mules into a faster trot. The more Ah Cho persisted
in explaining the mistake, the more stubborn Cruchot became. The
knowledge that he had the wrong man did not make his temper better. The
knowledge that it was through no mistake of his confirmed him in the
belief that the wrong he was doing was the right. And, rather than incur
the displeasure of the sergeant, he would willingly have assisted a
dozen wrong Chinagos to their doom.

As for Ah Cho, after the gendarme had struck him over the head with the
butt of the whip and commanded him in a loud voice to shut up, there
remained nothing for him to do but to shut up. The long ride continued
in silence. Ah Cho pondered the strange ways of the foreign devils.
There was no explaining them. What they were doing with him was of a
piece with everything they did. First they found guilty five innocent
men, and next they cut off the head of the man that even they, in their
benighted ignorance, had deemed meritorious of no more than twenty
years' imprisonment. And there was nothing he could do. He could only
sit idly and take what these lords of life measured out to him. Once, he
got in a panic, and the sweat upon his body turned cold; but he fought
his way out of it. He endeavoured to resign himself to his fate by
remembering and repeating certain passages from the "Yin Chih Wen" ("The
Tract of the Quiet Way"); but, instead, he kept seeing his dream-garden
of meditation and repose. This bothered him, until he abandoned himself
to the dream and sat in his garden listening to the tinkling of the
windbells in the several trees. And lo! sitting thus, in the dream,
he was able to remember and repeat the passages from "The Tract of the
Quiet Way."

So the time passed nicely until Atimaono was reached and the mules
trotted up to the foot of the scaffold, in the shade of which stood the
impatient sergeant. Ah Cho was hurried up the ladder of the scaffold.
Beneath him on one side he saw assembled all the coolies of the
plantation. Schemmer had decided that the event would be a good
object-lesson, and so he called in the coolies from the fields and
compelled them to be present. As they caught sight of Ah Cho they
gabbled among themselves in low voices. They saw the mistake; but they
kept it to themselves. The inexplicable white devils had doubtlessly
changed their minds. Instead of taking the life of one innocent man,
they were taking the life of another innocent man. Ah Chow or Ah
Cho - what did it matter which? They could never understand the white
dogs any more than could the white dogs understand them. Ah Cho was
going to have his head cut off, but they, when their two remaining years
of servitude were up, were going back to China.

Schemmer had made the guillotine himself. He was a handy man, and though
he had never seen a guillotine, the French officials had explained the
principle to him. It was on his suggestion that they had ordered the
execution to take place at Atimaono instead of at Papeete. The scene
of the crime, Schemmer had argued, was the best possible place for the
punishment, and, in addition, it would have a salutary influence
upon the half-thousand Chinagos on the plantation. Schemmer had also
volunteered to act as executioner, and in that capacity he was now on
the scaffold, experimenting with the instrument he had made. A banana
tree, of the size and consistency of a man's neck, lay under the
guillotine. Ah Cho watched with fascinated eyes. The German, turning a
small crank, hoisted the blade to the top of the little derrick he had
rigged. A jerk on a stout piece of cord loosed the blade and it dropped
with a flash, neatly severing the banana trunk.

"How does it work?" The sergeant, coming out on top the scaffold, had
asked the question.

"Beautifully," was Schemmer's exultant answer. "Let me show you."

Again he turned the crank that hoisted the blade, jerked the cord, and
sent the blade crashing down on the soft tree. But this time it went no
more than two-thirds of the way through.

The sergeant scowled. "That will not serve," he said.

Schemmer wiped the sweat from his forehead. "What it needs is more
weight," he announced. Walking up to the edge of the scaffold, he called
his orders to the blacksmith for a twenty-five-pound piece of iron. As
he stooped over to attach the iron to the broad top of the blade, Ah Cho
glanced at the sergeant and saw his opportunity.

"The honourable judge said that Ah Chow was to have his head cut off,"
he began.

The sergeant nodded impatiently. He was thinking of the fifteen-mile
ride before him that afternoon, to the windward side of the island, and
of Berthe, the pretty half-caste daughter of Lafiere, the pearl-trader,
who was waiting for him at the end of it.

"Well, I am not Ah Chow. I am Ah Cho. The honourable jailer has made a
mistake. Ah Chow is a tall man, and you see I am short."

The sergeant looked at him hastily and saw the mistake. "Schemmer!" he
called, imperatively. "Come here."

The German grunted, but remained bent over his task till the chunk
of iron was lashed to his satisfaction. "Is your Chinago ready?" he

"Look at him," was the answer. "Is he the Chinago?"

Schemmer was surprised. He swore tersely for a few seconds, and looked
regretfully across at the thing he had made with his own hands and
which he was eager to see work. "Look here," he said finally, "we can't
postpone this affair. I've lost three hours' work already out of those
five hundred Chinagos. I can't afford to lose it all over again for the
right man. Let's put the performance through just the same. It is only a

The sergeant remembered the long ride before him, and the pearl-trader's
daughter, and debated with himself.

"They will blame it on Cruchot - if it is discovered," the German urged.
"But there's little chance of its being discovered. Ah Chow won't give
it away, at any rate."

"The blame won't lie with Cruchot, anyway," the sergeant said. "It must
have been the jailer's mistake."

"Then let's go on with it. They can't blame us. Who can tell one Chinago
from another? We can say that we merely carried out instructions with
the Chinago that was turned over to us. Besides, I really can't take all
those coolies a second time away from their labour."

They spoke in French, and Ah Cho, who did not understand a word of it,
nevertheless knew that they were determining his destiny. He knew,
also, that the decision rested with the sergeant, and he hung upon that
official's lips.

"All right," announced the sergeant. "Go ahead with it. He is only a

"I'm going to try it once more, just to make sure." Schemmer moved the
banana trunk forward under the knife, which he had hoisted to the top of
the derrick.

Ah Cho tried to remember maxims from "The Tract of the Quiet Way." "Live
in concord," came to him; but it was not applicable. He was not going to
live. He was about to die. No, that would not do. "Forgive malice" - yes,
but there was no malice to forgive. Schemmer and the rest were doing
this thing without malice. It was to them merely a piece of work that
had to be done, just as clearing the jungle, ditching the water, and
planting cotton were pieces of work that had to be done. Schemmer jerked
the cord, and Ah Cho forgot "The Tract of the Quiet Way." The knife shot
down with a thud, making a clean slice of the tree.

"Beautiful!" exclaimed the sergeant, pausing in the act of lighting a
cigarette. "Beautiful, my friend."

Schemmer was pleased at the praise.

"Come on, Ah Chow," he said, in the Tahitian tongue.

"But I am not Ah Chow - " Ah Cho began.

"Shut up!" was the answer. "If you open your mouth again, I'll break
your head."

The overseer threatened him with a clenched fist, and he remained
silent. What was the good of protesting? Those foreign devils always had
their way. He allowed himself to be lashed to the vertical board that
was the size of his body. Schemmer drew the buckles tight - so tight that
the straps cut into his flesh and hurt. But he did not complain. The
hurt would not last long. He felt the board tilting over in the air
toward the horizontal, and closed his eyes. And in that moment he caught
a last glimpse of his garden of meditation and repose. It seemed to him
that he sat in the garden. A cool wind was blowing, and the bells in
the several trees were tinkling softly. Also, birds were making sleepy
noises, and from beyond the high wall came the subdued sound of village

Then he was aware that the board had come to rest, and from muscular
pressures and tensions he knew that he was lying on his back. He opened
his eyes. Straight above him he saw the suspended knife blazing in the
sunshine. He saw the weight which had been added, and noted that one
of Schemmer's knots had slipped. Then he heard the sergeant's voice in
sharp command. Ah Cho closed his eyes hastily. He did not want to see
that knife descend. But he felt it - for one great fleeting instant. And
in that instant he remembered Cruchot and what Cruchot had said. But
Cruchot was wrong. The knife did not tickle. That much he knew before he
ceased to know.


Whatever you do, make westing! make westing!
- Sailing directions for Cape Horn.

For seven weeks the Mary Rogers had been between 50 degrees south in the
Atlantic and 50 degrees south in the Pacific, which meant that for seven
weeks she had been struggling to round Cape Horn. For seven weeks
she had been either in dirt, or close to dirt, save once, and then,
following upon six days of excessive dirt, which she had ridden out
under the shelter of the redoubtable Terra del Fuego coast, she had
almost gone ashore during a heavy swell in the dead calm that had
suddenly fallen. For seven weeks she had wrestled with the Cape Horn
graybeards, and in return been buffeted and smashed by them. She was a
wooden ship, and her ceaseless straining had opened her seams, so that
twice a day the watch took its turn at the pumps.

The Mary Rogers was strained, the crew was strained, and big Dan Cullen,
master, was likewise strained. Perhaps he was strained most of all, for
upon him rested the responsibility of that titanic struggle. He slept
most of the time in his clothes, though he rarely slept. He haunted the
deck at night, a great, burly, robust ghost, black with the sunburn
of thirty years of sea and hairy as an orang-outang. He, in turn, was
haunted by one thought of action, a sailing direction for the Horn:
Whatever you do, make westing! make westing! It was an obsession. He
thought of nothing else, except, at times, to blaspheme God for sending
such bitter weather.

Make westing! He hugged the Horn, and a dozen times lay hove to with the
iron Cape bearing east-by-north, or north-north-east, a score of miles
away. And each time the eternal west wind smote him back and he made
easting. He fought gale after gale, south to 64 degrees, inside the
antarctic drift-ice, and pledged his immortal soul to the Powers of
Darkness for a bit of westing, for a slant to take him around. And he
made easting. In despair, he had tried to make the passage through the
Straits of Le Maire. Halfway through, the wind hauled to the north'ard
of north-west, the glass dropped to 28.88, and he turned and ran before
a gale of cyclonic fury, missing, by a hair's-breadth, piling up the
Mary Rogers on the black-toothed rocks. Twice he had made west to the
Diego Ramirez Rocks, one of the times saved between two snow-squalls by
sighting the gravestones of ships a quarter of a mile dead ahead.

Blow! Captain Dan Cullen instanced all his thirty years at sea to prove
that never had it blown so before. The Mary Rogers was hove to at the
time he gave the evidence, and, to clinch it, inside half an hour the
Mary Rogers was hove down to the hatches. Her new maintopsail and brand
new spencer were blown away like tissue paper; and five sails, furled
and fast under double gaskets, were blown loose and stripped from the
yards. And before morning the Mary Rogers was hove down twice again, and
holes were knocked in her bulwarks to ease her decks from the weight of
ocean that pressed her down.

On an average of once a week Captain Dan Cullen caught glimpses of the
sun. Once, for ten minutes, the sun shone at midday, and ten minutes
afterward a new gale was piping up, both watches were shortening sail,
and all was buried in the obscurity of a driving snow-squall. For
a fortnight, once, Captain Dan Cullen was without a meridian or a
chronometer sight. Rarely did he know his position within half of a
degree, except when in sight of land; for sun and stars remained hidden
behind the sky, and it was so gloomy that even at the best the horizons
were poor for accurate observations. A gray gloom shrouded the world.
The clouds were gray; the great driving seas were leaden gray; the
smoking crests were a gray churning; even the occasional albatrosses
were gray, while the snow-flurries were not white, but gray, under the
sombre pall of the heavens.

Life on board the Mary Rogers was gray - gray and gloomy. The faces
of the sailors were blue-gray; they were afflicted with sea-cuts and
sea-boils, and suffered exquisitely. They were shadows of men. For seven
weeks, in the forecastle or on deck, they had not known what it was to
be dry. They had forgotten what it was to sleep out a watch, and all
watches it was, "All hands on deck!" They caught snatches of agonized
sleep, and they slept in their oilskins ready for the everlasting call.
So weak and worn were they that it took both watches to do the work of
one. That was why both watches were on deck so much of the time. And no
shadow of a man could shirk duty. Nothing less than a broken leg could
enable a man to knock off work; and there were two such, who had been
mauled and pulped by the seas that broke aboard.

One other man who was the shadow of a man was George Dorety. He was the
only passenger on board, a friend of the firm, and he had elected to
make the voyage for his health. But seven weeks of Cape Horn had not
bettered his health. He gasped and panted in his bunk through the long,
heaving nights; and when on deck he was so bundled up for warmth that he
resembled a peripatetic old-clothes shop. At midday, eating at the cabin
table in a gloom so deep that the swinging sea-lamps burned always, he
looked as blue-gray as the sickest, saddest man for'ard. Nor did gazing
across the table at Captain Dan Cullen have any cheering effect upon
him. Captain Cullen chewed and scowled and kept silent. The scowls
were for God, and with every chew he reiterated the sole thought of his
existence, which was make westing. He was a big, hairy brute, and the
sight of him was not stimulating to the other's appetite. He looked
upon George Dorety as a Jonah, and told him so, once each meal, savagely
transferring the scowl from God to the passenger and back again.

Nor did the mate prove a first aid to a languid appetite. Joshua
Higgins by name, a seaman by profession and pull, but a pot-wolloper
by capacity, he was a loose-jointed, sniffling creature, heartless and
selfish and cowardly, without a soul, in fear of his life of Dan Cullen,

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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 7 of 12)