Jack London

         Under the Deck Awnings

             From "The Night-Born"

    "Can any man - a gentleman, I mean - call a woman a pig?"
    The little man flung this challenge forth to the  whole  group,  then  leaned 
back in his deck chair, sipping lemonade with an air commingled of certitude  and 
watchful belligerence. Nobody made answer. They were used to the little  man  and 
his sudden passions and high elevations.
    "I repeat, it was in my presence that he said a certain lady,  whom  none  of 
you knows, was a pig. He did not say swine. He grossly said that she was  a  pig. 
And I hold that no man who is a man could possibly make such a remark  about  any 
    Dr. Dawson puffed stolidly at his black pipe. Matthews, with knees hunched up 
and clasped by his arms, was absorbed in the flight of a gunie. Sweet,  finishing 
his Scotch and soda, was questing about with his eyes for a deck steward.
    "I ask you, Mr. Treloar, can any man call any woman a pig?"
    Treloar, who happened to  be  sitting  next  to  him,  was  startled  by  the 
abruptness of the attack, and wondered what grounds he had ever given the  little 
man to believe that he could call a woman a pig.
    "I should say," he began  his  hesitant  answer,  "that it - er - depends  on 
the - er - the lady."
    The little man was aghast.
    "You mean...?" he quavered.
    "That I have seen female humans who were as bad as pigs - and worse."
    There was a long pained silence. The little man seemed withered by the coarse 
brutality of the reply. In his face was unutterable hurt and woe.
    "You have told of a man who made a not nice remark and  you  have  classified 
him," Treloar said in cold, even tones. "I shall now tell  you  about  a  woman - 
I beg your pardon - a lady, and when I have finished I shall ask you to  classify 
her. Miss Caruthers I shall call her, principally for the reason that it  is  not 
her name. It was on a P. & 0. boat, and it occurred neither more  nor  less  than 
several years ago.
    "Miss Caruthers was charming. No; that is not the word. She was amazing.  She 
was a young woman, and a lady. Her father was a certain high official whose name, 
if I mentioned it, would be immediately recognized by all of you.  She  was  with 
her mother and two maids at the  time,  going  out  to  join  the  old  gentleman 
wherever you like to wish in the East.
    "She, and pardon me for repeating, was amazing. It is the one adequate  word. 
Even the  most  minor  adjectives  applicable  to  her  are  bound  to  be  sheer 
superlatives. There was nothing she could not do better than any woman  and  than 
most  men.  Sing,  play - bah! - as  some  rhetorician  once  said  of  old  Nap, 
competition fled from her. Swim! She could have made a fortune and a  name  as  a 
public performer. She was one of those rare women  who  can  strip  off  all  the 
frills of dress, and in simple swimming suit be more satisfying beautiful. Dress! 
She was an artist.
    "But her swimming. Physically, she was  the  perfect  woman - you  know  what 
I mean, not in the gross, muscular way of acrobats, but in all  the  delicacy  of 
line and fragility of frame and texture. And combined with  this,  strength.  How 
she could do it was the marvel. You know the wonder of a woman's  arm - the  fore
arm, I mean; the sweet fading away from rounded biceps and hint of  muscle,  down 
through small elbow and firm soft swell to the wrist,  small,  unthinkably  small 
and round and strong. This was hers. And yet, to see her swimming the sharp quick 
English  overhand  stroke,  and  getting  somewhere  with  it,  too,  was - well, 
I understand anatomy and athletics and such things, and yet it was a  mystery  to 
me how she could do it.
    "She could stay under water for two minutes. I have  timed  her.  No  man  on 
board, except Dennitson, could capture as many coins as she with a  single  dive. 
On the forward main-deck was a big canvas tank with six  feet  of  sea-water.  We 
used to toss small coins into it. I have seen her dive from the bridge  deck - no
mean feat in itself - into that six-feet of water, and  fetch  up  no  less  than 
forty-seven coins, scattered willy-nilly over  the  whole  bottom  of  the  tank. 
Dennitson, a quiet young Englishman, never exceeded her in this, though  he  made 
it a point always to tie her score.
    "She was a sea-woman, true. But she was a land-woman, a  horsewoman - a - she 
was the universal woman. To see her, all softness of soft  dress,  surrounded  by 
half a dozen eager men, languidly careless of them all or flashing brightness and 
wit on them and at them and through them,  one  would  fancy  she  was  good  for 
nothing else in the world. At such moments I have compelled  myself  to  remember 
her score of forty-seven coins from the bottom of the swimming tank. But that was 
she, the everlasting, wonder of a woman who did all things well.
    "She fascinated every betrousered human around her. She had me - and I  don't 
mind confessing it - she bad me to heel along with the rest.  Young  puppies  and 
old gray dogs who ought to have known better - oh, they all came up  and  crawled 
around her skirts and whined and fawned when she whistled. They were all  guilty, 
from young Ardmore, a pink cherub of nineteen outward bound for some clerkship in 
the Consular Service, to old Captain  Bentley,  grizzled  and  sea-worn,  and  as 
emotional, to look at, as a Chinese joss. There  was  a  nice  middle-aged  chap, 
Perkins, I believe, who forgot his wife was on board until  Miss  Caruthers  sent 
him to the right about and back where he belonged.
    "Men were wax in her hands. She  melted  them,  or  softly  molded  them,  or 
incinerated them, as she pleased. There wasn't a steward, even, grand and  remote 
as she was, who, at her bidding, would  have  hesitated  to  souse  the  Old  Man 
himself with a plate of soup. You have all seen such women - a  sort  of  world's 
desire to all men. As a man-conqueror she was supreme. She  was  a  whip-lash,  a 
sting and a flame, an electric spark. Oh, believe me, at times there were flashes 
of will that scorched through her beauty and seduction and smote  a  victim  into 
blank and shivering idiocy and fear.
    "And don't fail to mark, in the light of what is to  come,  that  she  was  a 
prideful woman. Pride of race, pride of caste, pride of sex, pride of power - she 
had it all, a pride strange and wilful and terrible.
    "She ran the ship, she ran the  voyage,  she  ran  everything,  and  she  ran 
Dennitson. That he had outdistanced the pack even the least wise of us  admitted. 
That she liked him, and that this feeling was growing, there  was  not  a  doubt. 
I am certain that she looked on him with kinder eyes than  she  had  ever  looked 
with on man before. We still worshiped, and were always hanging about waiting  to 
be whistled up, though we knew that Dennitson was laps and laps ahead of us. What 
might have happened we shall never know, for we came  to  Colombo  and  something 
else happened.
    "You know Colombo, and how the native boys  dive  for  coins  in  the  shark- 
infested bay. Of course, it is only among the ground sharks and fish sharks  that 
they venture. It is almost uncanny the way they know sharks  and  can  sense  the 
presence of a real killer - a tiger shark, for instance, or a gray nurse  strayed 
up from Australian waters.  Let  such  a  shark  appear,  and,  long  before  the 
passengers can guess, every mother's son of them is out of the water  in  a  wild 
scramble for safety.
    "It was after tiffin, and Miss Caruthers was holding her  usual  court  under 
the deck-awnings. Old Captain Bentley had just been whistled up, and had  granted 
her what he never granted before... nor since - permission for the boys  to  come 
up on the promenade deck. You see, Miss Caruthers was  a  swimmer,  and  she  was 
interested. She took up a collection of all our small change, and herself  tossed 
it overside, singly and in handfuls, arranging the terms of the contests, chiding 
a miss, giving extra rewards  to  clever  wins,  in  short,  managing  the  whole 
    "She was especially keen on their jumping. You know, jumping feet-first  from 
a height, it is very difficult to hold the body perpendicularly while in the air. 
The center of gravity  of  the  male  body  is  high,  and  the  tendency  is  to 
overtopple. But the little beggars employed a method which she declared  was  new 
to her and which she desired to learn. Leaping from the davits of  the  boat-deck 
above, they plunged downward, their faces and shoulders bowed forward, looking at 
the water. And only at the last moment did they abruptly straighten up and  enter 
the water erect and true.
    "It was a pretty sight. Their diving was not so good, though there was one of 
them who was excellent at it, as he was in all the other stunts. Some  white  man 
must have taught him, for he made the proper swan dive and did it as  beautifully 
as I have ever seen it. You know, headfirst into the water, from a great  height, 
the problem is to enter the water at the perfect angle. Miss  the  angle  and  it 
means at the least a twisted back and injury for life. Also, it has  meant  death 
for many a bungler. But this boy could do it - seventy feet I know he cleared  in 
one dive from the rigging - clenched hands on chest, head  thrown  back,  sailing 
more like a bird, upward and out, and out and down, body flat on the air so  that 
if it struck the surface in that position it  would  be  split  in  half  like  a 
herring. But the moment before the water is reached, the head drops forward,  the
hands go out and lock the arms in an arch in advance of the head,  and  the  body 
curves gracefully downward and enters the water just right.
    "This the boy did, again and  again,  to  the  delight  of  all  of  us,  but 
particularly of Miss Caruthers. He could not have been a moment  over  twelve  or 
thirteen, yet he was by far the cleverest of the gang. He was the favorite of his 
crowd,  and  its  leader.  Though  there  were  a  number  older  than  he,  they 
acknowledged his chieftaincy. He was a  beautiful  boy,  a  lithe  young  god  in 
breathing bronze, eyes wide apart, intelligent and daring, a bubble,  a  mote,  a 
beautiful flash and sparkle of life. You have seen wonderful glorious creatures - 
animals, anything, a leopard, a horse - restless, eager, too much alive  ever  to 
be still, silken of muscle, each slightest movement a benediction of grace, every 
action wild, untrammeled, and over all spilling out that intense  vitality,  that 
sheen and luster of living light. The boy had it. Life poured out of  him  almost 
in an effulgence. His skin glowed with it. It burned in his eyes. I swear I could 
almost hear it crackle from him. Looking at him, it was as if a  whiff  of  ozone 
came to one's nostrils - so fresh and young was he, so resplendent  with  health, 
so wildly wild. 
    "This was the boy. And it  was  he  who  gave  the  alarm  in  the  midst  of 
the sport. The boys made a dash of it for  the  gangway  platform,  swimming  the 
fastest strokes they knew, pellmell, floundering and splashing, fright  in  their 
faces, clambering out with jumps and surges, any way  to  get  out,  lending  one 
another a hand to safety, till all were strung along the gangway and peering down 
into the water.
    "'What is the matter?' asked Miss Caruthers.
    "'A shark, I fancy,' Captain Bentley answered. 'Lucky little beggars that  he 
didn't get one of them.'
    "'Are they afraid of sharks?' she asked.
    "'Aren't you?' he asked back.
    She shuddered, looked overside at the water, and made a moue.
    "'Not for the world would I venture where a shark might be,'  she  said,  and 
shuddered again. 'They are horrible! Horrible!'
    "The boys came up on the promenade deck, clustering close  to  the  rail  and 
worshiping Miss Caruthers who had flung them such a  wealth  of  backsheesh.  The 
performance being over, Captain Bentley motioned to them to clear  out.  But  she 
stopped him.
    "'One moment, please, Captain. I have always understood that the natives  are 
not afraid of sharks.'
    "She beckoned the boy of the swan dive nearer to her, and signed  to  him  to 
dive over again. He shook his head, and  along  with  all  his  crew  behind  him 
laughed as if it were a good joke.
    "'Shark,' he volunteered, pointing to the water.
    "'No,' she said. 'There is no shark.'
    "But he nodded his head positively, and the boys behind him nodded with equal 
    "'No, no, no,' she cried. And then to us, 'Who'll lend me a half-crown and  a 
    "Immediately the half dozen  of  us  were  presenting  her  with  crowns  and 
sovereigns, and she accepted the two coins from young Ardmore.
    "She held up the half-crown for the boys to see. But there was no eager  rush 
to the rail preparatory to leaping. They stood  there  grinning  sheepishly.  She 
offered the coin to each one individually, and each, as his turn came, rubbed his 
foot against his calf, shook his head, and grinned. Then  she  tossed  the  half- 
crown overboard. With wistful, regretful faces they  watched  its  silver  flight 
through the air, but not one moved to follow it.
    "'Don't do it with the sovereign,' Dennitson said to her in a low voice.
    "She took no notice, but held up the gold coin before the eyes of the boy  of 
the swan dive.
    "'Don't,' said Captain Bentley. 'I wouldn't throw a sick cat overside with  a 
shark around.'
    "But she laughed, bent on her purpose, and continued to dazzle the boy.
    "'Don't tempt him,' Dennitson urged. 'It is a fortune to him, and he might go 
over after it.'
    "'Wouldn't you?' she flared at him. 'If I threw it?'
    This last more softly.
    Dennitson shook his head.
    "'Your price is high,' she said. 'For how many sovereigns would you go?'
    "'There are not enough coined to get me overside,' was his answer.
    "She debated a moment, the boy forgotten in her tilt with Dennitson.
    "'For me?' she said very softly.
    "'To save your life - yes. But not otherwise.'
    "She turned back to the boy.  Again  she  held  the  coin  before  his  eyes, 
dazzling him with the vastness of its value. Then she made as  to  toss  it  out, 
and, involuntarily, he made a half-movement toward the rail, but was  checked  by 
sharp cries of reproof from his companions. There was anger in  their  voices  as 
    "'I know it is only fooling,' Dennitson said. 'Carry it as far as  you  like, 
but for heaven's sake don't throw it.'
    "Whether it was that strange wilfulness of hers, or whether she  doubted  the 
boy could be persuaded, there is no telling. It was unexpected to all of us.  Out 
from the shade of the awning the coin flashed golden in the blaze of sunshine and 
fell toward the sea in a glittering arch. Before a hand could stay him,  the  boy 
was over the rail and curving beautifully downward after the coin. Both  were  in 
the air at the same time. It was a pretty sight.  The  sovereign  cut  the  water 
sharply, and at the very spot, almost  at  the  same  instant,  with  scarcely  a 
splash, the boy entered.
    "From the quicker-eyed black boys watching, came an exclamation. We were  all 
at the railing. Don't tell me it is necessary for a shark to turn  on  its  back. 
That one did not. In the clear water, from the height we were above  it,  we  saw 
everything. The shark was a big brute, and with one drive he cut the boy squarely 
in half.
    "There was a murmur or something from among us - who made it I did not  know; 
it might have been I. And then there was silence. Miss Caruthers was the first to 
speak. Her face was deathly white.
    "'I never dreamed,' she said, and laughed a short, hysterical laugh.
    All her pride was at work to give  her  control.  She  turned  weakly  toward 
Dennitson, and then, on from one to another of us. In her  eyes  was  a  terrible 
sickness, and her lips were trembling. We were brutes - oh, I know it,  now  that 
I look back upon it. But we did nothing.
    "'Mr. Dennitson,' she said, 'Tom, won't you take me below!'
    "He never changed the direction of his gaze, which was the  bleakest  I  have 
ever seen in a man's face, nor did he move an eyelid. He took  a  cigarette  from 
his case and lighted it. Captain Bentley made a nasty sound  in  his  throat  and 
spat overboard. That was all; that and the silence.
    "She turned away and started to walk firmly down the deck. Twenty feet  away, 
she swayed and thrust a hand against the wall to save herself. And  so  she  went 
on, supporting herself against the cabins and walking very slowly." 
    Treloar ceased. He turned his head and favored the little man  with a look of 
cold inquiry.
    "Well," he said finally. "Classify her."
    The little man gulped and swallowed.
    "I have nothing to say," he said. "I have nothing whatever to say."



    К списку авторов     В кают-компанию