Jack London.

When God Laughs: and other stories online

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and a bully over the sailors, who knew that behind the mate was Captain
Cullen, the law-giver and compeller, the driver and the destroyer, the
incarnation of a dozen bucko mates. In that wild weather at the southern
end of the earth, Joshua Higgins ceased washing. His grimy face usually
robbed George Dorety of what little appetite he managed to accumulate.
Ordinarily this lavatorial dereliction would have caught Captain
Cullen's eye and vocabulary, but in the present his mind was filled with
making westing, to the exclusion of all other things not contributory
thereto. Whether the mate's face was clean or dirty had no bearing
upon westing. Later on, when 50 degrees south in the Pacific had been
reached, Joshua Higgins would wash his face very abruptly. In the
meantime, at the cabin table, where gray twilight alternated with
lamplight while the lamps were being filled, George Dorety sat between
the two men, one a tiger and the other a hyena, and wondered why God had
made them. The second mate, Matthew Turner, was a true sailor and a man,
but George Dorety did not have the solace of his company, for he ate by
himself, solitary, when they had finished.

On Saturday morning, July 24, George Dorety awoke to a feeling of life
and headlong movement. On deck he found the Mary Rogers running off
before a howling south-easter. Nothing was set but the lower topsails
and the foresail. It was all she could stand, yet she was making
fourteen knots, as Mr. Turner shouted in Dorety's ear when he came on
deck. And it was all westing. She was going around the Horn at last...
if the wind held. Mr. Turner looked happy. The end of the struggle was
in sight. But Captain Cullen did not look happy. He scowled at Dorety
in passing. Captain Cullen did not want God to know that he was pleased
with that wind. He had a conception of a malicious God, and believed
in his secret soul that if God knew it was a desirable wind, God would
promptly efface it and send a snorter from the west. So he walked softly
before God, smothering his joy down under scowls and muttered curses,
and, so, fooling God, for God was the only thing in the universe of
which Dan Cullen was afraid.

All Saturday and Saturday night the Mary Rogers raced her westing.
Persistently she logged her fourteen knots, so that by Sunday morning
she had covered three hundred and fifty miles. If the wind held, she
would make around. If it failed, and the snorter came from anywhere
between south-west and north, back the Mary Rogers would be hurled and
be no better off than she had been seven weeks before. And on Sunday
morning the wind was failing. The big sea was going down and running
smooth. Both watches were on deck setting sail after sail as fast as the
ship could stand it. And now Captain Cullen went around brazenly before
God, smoking a big cigar, smiling jubilantly, as if the failing wind
delighted him, while down underneath he was raging against God for
taking the life out of the blessed wind. Make westing! So he would, if
God would only leave him alone. Secretly, he pledged himself anew to
the Powers of Darkness, if they would let him make westing. He pledged
himself so easily because he did not believe in the Powers of Darkness.
He really believed only in God, though he did not know it. And in his
inverted theology God was really the Prince of Darkness. Captain Cullen
was a devil-worshipper, but he called the devil by another name, that
was all.

At midday, after calling eight bells, Captain Cullen ordered the royals
on. The men went aloft faster than they had gone in weeks. Not alone
were they nimble because of the westing, but a benignant sun was shining
down and limbering their stiff bodies. George Dorety stood aft, near
Captain Cullen, less bundled in clothes than usual, soaking in the
grateful warmth as he watched the scene. Swiftly and abruptly the
incident occurred. There was a cry from the foreroyal-yard of "Man
overboard!" Somebody threw a life-buoy over the side, and at the same
instant the second mate's voice came aft, ringing and peremptory -

"Hard down your helm!"

The man at the wheel never moved a spoke. He knew better, for Captain
Dan Cullen was standing alongside of him. He wanted to move a spoke, to
move all the spokes, to grind the wheel down, hard down, for his comrade
drowning in the sea. He glanced at Captain Dan Cullen, and Captain Dan
Cullen gave no sign.

"Down! Hard down!" the second mate roared, as he sprang aft.

But he ceased springing and commanding, and stood still, when he saw
Dan Cullen by the wheel. And big Dan Cullen puffed at his cigar and said
nothing. Astern, and going astern fast, could be seen the sailor. He had
caught the life-buoy and was clinging to it. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved.
The men aloft clung to the royal yards and watched with terror-stricken
faces. And the Mary Rogers raced on, making her westing. A long, silent
minute passed.

"Who was it?" Captain Cullen demanded.

"Mops, sir," eagerly answered the sailor at the wheel.

Mops topped a wave astern and disappeared temporarily in the trough.
It was a large wave, but it was no graybeard. A small boat could live
easily in such a sea, and in such a sea the Mary Rogers could easily
come to. But she could not come to and make westing at the same time.

For the first time in all his years, George Dorety was seeing a real
drama of life and death - a sordid little drama in which the scales
balanced an unknown sailor named Mops against a few miles of longitude.
At first he had watched the man astern, but now he watched big Dan
Cullen, hairy and black, vested with power of life and death, smoking a

Captain Dan Cullen smoked another long, silent minute. Then he removed
the cigar from his mouth. He glanced aloft at the spars of the Mary
Rogers, and overside at the sea.

"Sheet home the royals!" he cried.

Fifteen minutes later they sat at table, in the cabin, with food served
before them. On one side of George Dorety sat Dan Cullen, the tiger, on
the other side, Joshua Higgins, the hyena. Nobody spoke. On deck the men
were sheeting home the skysails. George Dorety could hear their cries,
while a persistent vision haunted him of a man called Mops, alive and
well, clinging to a life-buoy miles astern in that lonely ocean. He
glanced at Captain Cullen, and experienced a feeling of nausea, for the
man was eating his food with relish, almost bolting it.

"Captain Cullen," Dorety said, "you are in command of this ship, and it
is not proper for me to comment now upon what you do. But I wish to say
one thing. There is a hereafter, and yours will be a hot one."

Captain Cullen did not even scowl. In his voice was regret as he said -

"It was blowing a living gale. It was impossible to save the man."

"He fell from the royal-yard," Dorety cried hotly. "You were setting
the royals at the time. Fifteen minutes afterward you were setting the

"It was a living gale, wasn't it, Mr. Higgins?" Captain Cullen said,
turning to the mate.

"If you'd brought her to, it'd have taken the sticks out of her," was
the mate's answer. "You did the proper thing, Captain Cullen. The man
hadn't a ghost of a show."

George Dorety made no answer, and to the meal's end no one spoke. After
that, Dorety had his meals served in his state-room. Captain Cullen
scowled at him no longer, though no speech was exchanged between them,
while the Mary Rogers sped north toward warmer latitudes. At the end of
the week, Dan Cullen cornered Dorety on deck.

"What are you going to do when we get to 'Frisco?" he demanded bluntly.

"I am going to swear out a warrant for your arrest," Dorety answered
quietly. "I am going to charge you with murder, and I am going to see
you hanged for it."

"You're almighty sure of yourself," Captain Cullen sneered, turning on
his heel.

A second week passed, and one morning found George Dorety standing in
the coach-house companionway at the for'ard end of the long poop,
taking his first gaze around the deck. The Mary Rogers was reaching
full-and-by, in a stiff breeze. Every sail was set and drawing,
including the staysails. Captain Cullen strolled for'ard along the poop.
He strolled carelessly, glancing at the passenger out of the corner
of his eye. Dorety was looking the other way, standing with head and
shoulders outside the companionway, and only the back of his head was to
be seen. Captain Cullen, with swift eye, embraced the mainstaysail-block
and the head and estimated the distance. He glanced about him. Nobody
was looking. Aft, Joshua Higgins, pacing up and down, had just turned
his back and was going the other way. Captain Cullen bent over suddenly
and cast the staysail-sheet off from its pin. The heavy block hurtled
through the air, smashing Dorety's head like an egg-shell and hurtling
on and back and forth as the staysail whipped and slatted in the wind.
Joshua Higgins turned around to see what had carried away, and met the
full blast of the vilest portion of Captain Cullen's profanity.

"I made the sheet fast myself," whimpered the mate in the first lull,
"with an extra turn to make sure. I remember it distinctly."

"Made fast?" the Captain snarled back, for the benefit of the watch as
it struggled to capture the flying sail before it tore to ribbons. "You
couldn't make your grandmother fast, you useless hell's scullion. If
you made that sheet fast with an extra turn, why in hell didn't it stay
fast? That's what I want to know. Why in hell didn't it stay fast?"

The mate whined inarticulately.

"Oh, shut up!" was the final word of Captain Cullen.

Half an hour later he was as surprised as any when the body of George
Dorety was found inside the companionway on the floor. In the afternoon,
alone in his room, he doctored up the log.

"Ordinary seaman, Karl Brun," he wrote, "lost overboard from
foreroyal-yard in a gale of wind. Was running at the time, and for the
safety of the ship did not dare come up to the wind. Nor could a boat
have lived in the sea that was running."

On another page, he wrote

"Had often warned Mr. Dorety about the danger he ran because of his
carelessness on deck. I told him, once, that some day he would get his
head knocked off by a block. A carelessly fastened mainstaysail sheet
was the cause of the accident, which was deeply to be regretted because
Mr. Dorety was a favourite with all of us."

Captain Dan Cullen read over his literary effort with admiration,
blotted the page, and closed the log. He lighted a cigar and stared
before him. He felt the Mary Rogers lift, and heel, and surge along,
and knew that she was making nine knots. A smile of satisfaction slowly
dawned on his black and hairy face. Well, anyway, he had made his
westing and fooled God.


Doctor Bicknell was in a remarkably gracious mood. Through a minor
accident, a slight bit of carelessness, that was all, a man who might
have pulled through had died the preceding night. Though it had been
only a sailorman, one of the innumerable unwashed, the steward of the
receiving hospital had been on the anxious seat all the morning. It was
not that the man had died that gave him discomfort, he knew the Doctor
too well for that, but his distress lay in the fact that the operation
had been done so well. One of the most delicate in surgery, it had been
as successful as it was clever and audacious. All had then depended upon
the treatment, the nurses, the steward. And the man had died. Nothing
much, a bit of carelessness, yet enough to bring the professional wrath
of Doctor Bicknell about his ears and to perturb the working of the
staff and nurses for twenty-four hours to come.

But, as already stated, the Doctor was in a remarkably gracious mood.
When informed by the steward, in fear and trembling, of the man's
unexpected take-off, his lips did not so much as form one syllable of
censure; nay, they were so pursed that snatches of rag-time floated
softly from them, to be broken only by a pleasant query after the health
of the other's eldest-born. The steward, deeming it impossible that he
could have caught the gist of the case, repeated it.

"Yes, yes," Doctor Bicknell said impatiently; "I understand. But how
about Semper Idem? Is he ready to leave?"

"Yes. They're helping him dress now," the steward answered, passing on
to the round of his duties, content that peace still reigned within the
iodine-saturated walls.

It was Semper Idem's recovery which had so fully compensated Doctor
Bicknell for the loss of the sailorman. Lives were to him as nothing,
the unpleasant but inevitable incidents of the profession, but cases,
ah, cases were everything. People who knew him were prone to brand him a
butcher, but his colleagues were at one in the belief that a bolder
and yet a more capable man never stood over the table. He was not an
imaginative man. He did not possess, and hence had no tolerance for,
emotion. His nature was accurate, precise, scientific. Men were to him
no more than pawns, without individuality or personal value. But as
cases it was different. The more broken a man was, the more precarious
his grip on life, the greater his significance in the eyes of Doctor
Bicknell. He would as readily forsake a poet laureate suffering from a
common accident for a nameless, mangled vagrant who defied every law of
life by refusing to die, as would a child forsake a Punch and Judy for a

So it had been in the case of Semper Idem. The mystery of the man had
not appealed to him, nor had his silence and the veiled romance which
the yellow reporters had so sensationally and so fruitlessly exploited
in divers Sunday editions. But Semper Idem's throat had been cut. That
was the point. That was where his interest had centred. Cut from ear to
ear, and not one surgeon in a thousand to give a snap of the fingers
for his chance of recovery. But, thanks to the swift municipal ambulance
service and to Doctor Bicknell, he had been dragged back into the world
he had sought to leave. The Doctor's co-workers had shaken their heads
when the case was brought in. Impossible, they said. Throat, windpipe,
jugular, all but actually severed, and the loss of blood frightful. As
it was such a foregone conclusion, Doctor Bicknell had employed methods
and done things which made them, even in their professional capacities,
shudder. And lo! the man had recovered.

So, on this morning that Semper Idem was to leave the hospital, hale
and hearty, Doctor Bicknell's geniality was in nowise disturbed by the
steward's report, and he proceeded cheerfully to bring order out of the
chaos of a child's body which had been ground and crunched beneath the
wheels of an electric car.

As many will remember, the case of Semper Idem aroused a vast deal
of unseemly yet highly natural curiosity. He had been found in a slum
lodging, with throat cut as aforementioned, and blood dripping down upon
the inmates of the room below and disturbing their festivities. He had
evidently done the deed standing, with head bowed forward that he might
gaze his last upon a photograph which stood on the table propped against
a candlestick. It was this attitude which had made it possible for
Doctor Bicknell to save him. So terrific had been the sweep of the razor
that had he had his head thrown back, as he should have done to have
accomplished the act properly, with his neck stretched and the elastic
vascular walls distended, he would have of a certainty well-nigh
decapitated himself.

At the hospital, during all the time he travelled the repugnant road
back to life, not a word had left his lips. Nor could anything be
learned of him by the sleuths detailed by the chief of police. Nobody
knew him, nor had ever seen or heard of him before. He was strictly,
uniquely, of the present. His clothes and surroundings were those of the
lowest labourer, his hands the hands of a gentleman. But not a shred
of writing was discovered, nothing, save in one particular, which would
serve to indicate his past or his position in life.

And that one particular was the photograph. If it were at all a
likeness, the woman who gazed frankly out upon the onlooker from the
card-mount must have been a striking creature indeed. It was an amateur
production, for the detectives were baffled in that no professional
photographer's signature or studio was appended. Across a corner of the
mount, in delicate feminine tracery, was written: "Semper idem; semper
fidelis." And she looked it. As many recollect, it was a face one could
never forget. Clever half-tones, remarkably like, were published in all
the leading papers at the time; but such procedure gave rise to nothing
but the uncontrollable public curiosity and interminable copy to the

For want of a better name, the rescued suicide was known to the hospital
attendants, and to the world, as Semper Idem. And Semper Idem he
remained. Reporters, detectives, and nurses gave him up in despair.
Not one word could he be persuaded to utter; yet the flitting conscious
light of his eyes showed that his ears heard and his brain grasped every
question put to him.

But this mystery and romance played no part in Doctor Bicknell's
interest when he paused in the office to have a parting word with his
patient. He, the Doctor, had performed a prodigy in the matter of this
man, done what was virtually unprecedented in the annals of surgery. He
did not care who or what the man was, and it was highly improbable
that he should ever see him again; but, like the artist gazing upon a
finished creation, he wished to look for the last time upon the work of
his hand and brain.

Semper Idem still remained mute. He seemed anxious to be gone. Not a
word could the Doctor extract from him, and little the Doctor cared.
He examined the throat of the convalescent carefully, idling over the
hideous scar with the lingering, half-caressing fondness of a parent.
It was not a particularly pleasing sight. An angry line circled the
throat - for all the world as though the man had just escaped the
hangman's noose - and, disappearing below the ear on either side, had the
appearance of completing the fiery periphery at the nape of the neck.

Maintaining his dogged silence, yielding to the other's examination in
much the manner of a leashed lion, Semper Idem betrayed only his desire
to drop from out of the public eye.

"Well, I'll not keep you," Doctor Bicknell finally said, laying a hand
on the man's shoulder and stealing a last glance at his own handiwork.
"But let me give you a bit of advice. Next time you try it on, hold
your chin up, so. Don't snuggle it down and butcher yourself like a cow.
Neatness and despatch, you know. Neatness and despatch."

Semper Idem's eyes flashed in token that he heard, and a moment later
the hospital door swung to on his heel.

It was a busy day for Doctor Bicknell, and the afternoon was well along
when he lighted a cigar preparatory to leaving the table upon which it
seemed the sufferers almost clamoured to be laid. But the last one, an
old rag-picker with a broken shoulder-blade, had been disposed of, and
the first fragrant smoke wreaths had begun to curl about his head, when
the gong of a hurrying ambulance came through the open window from
the street, followed by the inevitable entry of the stretcher with its
ghastly freight.

"Lay it on the table," the Doctor directed, turning for a moment to
place his cigar in safety. "What is it?"

"Suicide - throat cut," responded one of the stretcher bearers. "Down on
Morgan Alley. Little hope, I think, sir. He's 'most gone."

"Eh? Well, I'll give him a look, anyway." He leaned over the man at the
moment when the quick made its last faint flutter and succumbed.

"It's Semper Idem come back again," the steward said.

"Ay," replied Doctor Bicknell, "and gone again. No bungling this time.
Properly done, upon my life, sir, properly done. Took my advice to the
letter. I'm not required here. Take it along to the morgue."

Doctor Bicknell secured his cigar and relighted it. "That," he said
between the puffs, looking at the steward, "that evens up for the one
you lost last night. We're quits now."


In the morning calm of Korea, when its peace and tranquillity truly
merited its ancient name, "Cho-sen," there lived a politician by name Yi
Chin Ho. He was a man of parts, and - who shall say? - perhaps in no wise
worse than politicians the world over. But, unlike his brethren in other
lands, Yi Chin Ho was in jail. Not that he had inadvertently diverted to
himself public moneys, but that he had inadvertently diverted too much.
Excess is to be deplored in all things, even in grafting, and Yi Chin
Ho's excess had brought him to most deplorable straits.

Ten thousand strings of cash he owed the Government, and he lay
in prison under sentence of death. There was one advantage to the
situation - he had plenty of time in which to think. And he thought well.
Then called he the jailer to him.

"Most worthy man, you see before you one most wretched," he began. "Yet
all will be well with me if you will but let me go free for one short
hour this night. And all will be well with you, for I shall see to
your advancement through the years, and you shall come at length to the
directorship of all the prisons of Cho-sen."

"How now?" demanded the jailer. "What foolishness is this? One short
hour, and you but waiting for your head to be chopped off! And I, with
an aged and much-to-be-respected mother, not to say anything of a wife
and several children of tender years! Out upon you for the scoundrel
that you are!"

"From the Sacred City to the ends of all the Eight Coasts there is no
place for me to hide," Yi Chin Ho made reply. "I am a man of wisdom, but
of what worth my wisdom here in prison? Were I free, well I know I could
seek out and obtain the money wherewith to repay the Government. I know
of a nose that will save me from all my difficulties."

"A nose!" cried the jailer.

"A nose," said Yi Chin Ho. "A remarkable nose, if I may say so, a most
remarkable nose."

The jailer threw up his hands despairingly. "Ah, what a wag you are,
what a wag," he laughed. "To think that that very admirable wit of yours
must go the way of the chopping-block!"

And so saying, he turned and went away. But in the end, being a man soft
of head and heart, when the night was well along he permitted Yi Chin Ho
to go.

Straight he went to the Governor, catching him alone and arousing him
from his sleep.

"Yi Chin Ho, or I'm no Governor!" cried the Governor. "What do you here
who should be in prison waiting on the chopping-block?"

"I pray Your Excellency to listen to me," said Yi Chin Ho, squatting on
his hams by the bedside and lighting his pipe from the fire-box. "A dead
man is without value. It is true, I am as a dead man, without value to
the Government, to Your Excellency, or to myself. But if, so to say,
Your Excellency were to give me my freedom - "

"Impossible!" cried the Governor. "Beside, you are condemned to death."

"Your Excellency well knows that if I can repay the ten thousand strings
of cash, the Government will pardon me," Yi Chin Ho went on. "So, as I
say, if Your Excellency were to give me my freedom for a few days, being
a man of understanding, I should then repay the Government and be in
position to be of service to Your Excellency. I should be in position to
be of very great service to Your Excellency."

"Have you a plan whereby you hope to obtain this money?" asked the

"I have," said Yi Chin Ho.

"Then come with it to me to-morrow night; I would now sleep," said the
Governor, taking up his snore where it had been interrupted.

On the following night, having again obtained leave of absence from the
jailer, Yi Chin Ho presented himself at the Governor's bedside.

"Is it you, Yi Chin Ho?" asked the Governor. "And have you the plan?"

"It is I, Your Excellency," answered Yi Chin Ho, "and the plan is here."

"Speak," commanded the Governor.

"The plan is here," repeated Yi Chin Ho, "here in my hand."

The Governor sat up and opened his eyes. Yi Chin Ho proffered in his
hand a sheet of paper. The Governor held it to the light.

"Nothing but a nose," said he.

"A bit pinched, so, and so, Your Excellency," said Yi Chin Ho.

"Yes, a bit pinched here and there, as you say," said the Governor.

"Withal it is an exceeding corpulent nose, thus, and so, all in one
place, at the end," proceeded Yi Chin Ho. "Your Excellency would seek
far and wide and many a day for that nose and find it not!"

"An unusual nose," admitted the Governor.

"There is a wart upon it," said Yi Chin Ho.

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Online LibraryJack LondonWhen God Laughs: and other stories → online text (page 8 of 12)