THE WHITE SILENCE
by Jack London
"Carmen won't last more than a couple of
days." Mason spat out a chunk of ice and
surveyed the poor animal ruefully, then
put her foot in his mouth and proceeded
to bite out the ice which clustered cruelly
between the toes.
"I never saw a dog with a highfalutin'
name that ever was worth a rap," he said,
as he concluded his task and shoved her
aside. "They just fade away and die under
the responsibility. Did ye ever see one
go wrong with a sensible name like Cassiar,
Siwash, or Husky? No, sir! Take a look
at Shookum here, he's -- "
Snap! The lean brute flashed up, the
white teeth just missing Mason's throat.
"Ye will, will ye?" A shrewd clout behind
the ear with the butt of the dog-whip
stretched the animal in the snow, quivering
softly, a yellow slaver dripping from
"As I was saying, just look at Shookum,
here -- he's got the spirit. Bet ye he
eats Carmen before the week's out."
"I'll bank another proposition against
that," replied Malemute Kid, reversing
the frozen bread placed before the fire
to thaw. "We'll eat Shookum before the
trip is over. What d' ye say, Ruth?"
The Indian woman settled the coffee with
a piece of ice, glanced from Malemute Kid
to her husband, then at the dogs, but
vouchsafed no reply. It was such a palpable
truism that none was necessary. Two hundred
miles of unbroken trail in prospect, with
a scant six days' grub for themselves and
none for the dogs, could admit no other
alternative. The two men and the woman
grouped about the fire and began their
meager meal. The dogs lay in their harnesses,
for it was a mid-day halt, and watched
each mouthful enviously.
"No more lunches after to-day," said
Malemute Kid. "And we've got to keep
a close eye on the dogs, -- they're
getting vicious. They'd just as soon
pull a fellow down as not, if they get
"And I was president of an Epworth once,
and taught in the Sunday school." Having
irrelevantly delivered himself of this,
Mason fell into a dreamy contemplation
of his steaming moccasins, but was aroused
by Ruth filling his cup. "Thank God, we've
got slathers of tea! I've seen it growing,
down in Tennessee. What wouldn't I give for
a hot corn pone just now! Never mind, Ruth;
you won't starve much longer, nor wear
The woman threw off her gloom at this,
and in her eyes welled up a great love
for her white lord, -- the first white
man she had ever seen, -- the first man
whom she had known to treat a woman as
something better than a mere animal or
beast of burden.
"Yes, Ruth," continued her husband,
having recourse to the macaronic jargon
in which it was alone possible for them
to understand each other, "wait till we
clean up and pull for the Outside. We'll
take the White Man's canoe and go to
the Salt Water. Yes, bad water, rough
water, -- great mountains dance up and
down all the time. And so big, so far,
so far away, -- you travel ten sleep,
twenty sleep, forty sleep" (he graphically
enumerated the days on his fingers,)
"all the time water, bad water. Then
you come to great village, plenty people,
just the same mosquitoes next summer.
Wigwams oh, so high, -- ten, twenty
pines. Hi-yu skookum!"
He paused impotently, cast an appealing
glance at Malemute Kid, then laboriously
placed the twenty pines, end on end, by
sign language. Malemute Kid smiled with
cheery cynicism; but Ruth's eyes were
wide with wonder, and with pleasure; for
she half believed he was joking, and such
condescension pleased her poor woman's
"And then you step into a -- a box, and
pouf! up you go." He tossed his empty cup
in the air by way of illustration, and
as he deftly caught it, cried: "And biff!
down you come. Oh, great medicine-men!
You go Fort Yukon, I go Arctic City, --
twenty-five sleep, -- big string, all
the time, -- I catch him string, -- I
say, 'Hello, Ruth! How are ye?' -- and
you say, 'Is that my good husband?' --
and I say, 'Yes,' -- and you say, 'No
can bake good bread, no more soda,' --
then I say, 'Look in cache, under flour;
good-by.' You look and catch plenty
soda. All the time you Fort Yukon, me
Arctic City. Hi-yu medicine-man!"
Ruth smiled so ingenuously at the fairy
story, that both men burst into laughter.
A row among the dogs cut short the wonders
of the Outside, and by the time the
snarling combatants were separated, she
had lashed the sleds and all was ready
for the trail.
"Mush! Baldy! Hi! Mush on!" Mason worked
his whip smartly, and as the dogs whined
low in the traces, broke out the sled
with the gee-pole. Ruth followed with the
second team, leaving Malemute Kid, who
had helped her start, to bring up the
rear. Strong man, noble brute that he was,
capable of felling an ox at a blow, he
could not bear to beat the poor animals,
but humored them as a dog-driver rarely
does, -- nay, almost wept with them in
"Come, mush on there, you poor sore-footed
brutes," he murmured, after several
ineffectual attempts to start the load.
But his patience was at last rewarded,
and though whimpering with pain, they
hastened to join their fellows.
No more conversation; the toil of the
trail will not permit such extravagance.
And of all deadening labors, that of
the Northland trail is the worst. Happy
is the man who can weather a day's travel
at the price of silence, and that on a
And of all heart-breaking labors, that
of breaking trail is the worst. At every
step the great webbed shoe sinks till
the snow is level with the knee. Then up,
straight up, the deviation of a fraction
of an inch being a certain precursor of
disaster, the snowshoe must be lifted
till the surface is cleared; then forward,
down, and the other foot is raised
perpendicularly for the matter of half
a yard. He who tries this for the first
time, if haply he avoids bringing his
shoes in dangerous propinquity and measures
not his length on the treacherous footing,
will give up exhausted at the end of a
hundred yards; he who can keep out of
the way of the dogs for a whole day may
well crawl into his sleeping-bag with a
clear conscience, and a pride which passeth
all understanding; and he who travels
twenty sleeps on the Long Trail is a man
whom the gods may envy.
The afternoon wore on, and with the awe,
born of the White Silence, the voiceless
travelers bent to their work. Nature has
many tricks wherewith she convinces man
of his finity, -- the ceaseless flow of
the tides, the fury of the storm, the
shock of the earthquake, the long roll
of heaven's artillery, -- but the most
tremendous, the most stupefying of all,
is the passive phase of the White Silence.
All movement ceases, the sky clears, the
heavens are as brass; the slightest
whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes
timid, affrighted at the sound of his
own voice. Sole speck of life journeying
across the ghostly wastes of a dead world,
he trembles at his audacity, realizes
that his is a maggot's life, nothing more.
Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and
the mystery of all things strives for
utterance. And the fear of death, of
God, of the universe, comes over him, --
the hope of the Resurrection and the
Life, the yearning for immortality, the
vain striving of the imprisoned essence, --
it is then, if ever, man walks alone
So wore the day away. The river took a
great bend, and Mason headed his team
for the cut-off across the narrow neck
of land. But the dogs balked at the
high bank. Again and again, though
Ruth and Malemute Kid were shoving on
the sled, they slipped back. Then came
the concerted effort. The miserable
creatures, weak from hunger, exerted
their last strength. Up -- up -- the
sled poised on the top of the bank;
but the leader swung the string of
dogs behind him to the right, fouling
Mason's snowshoes. The result was
grievous. Mason was whipped off his
feet; one of the dogs fell in the
traces; and the sled toppled back,
dragging everything to the bottom
Slash! the whip fell among the dogs
savagely, especially upon the one
which had fallen.
"Don't, Mason," entreated Malemute
Kid; "the poor devil's on its last
legs. Wait and we'll put my team on."
Mason deliberately withheld the whip
till the last word had fallen, then
out flashed the long lash, completely
curling about the offending creature's
body. Carmen, -- for it was Carmen, --
cowered in the snow, cried piteously,
then rolled over on her side.
It was a tragic moment, a pitiful
incident of the trail, -- a dying dog,
two comrades in anger. Ruth glanced
solicitously from man to man. But
Malemute Kid restrained himself,
though there was a world of reproach
in his eyes, and bending over the
dog, cut the traces. No word was
spoken. The teams were double-spanned
and the difficulty overcome; the sleds
were under way again, the dying dog
dragging herself along in the rear.
As long as an animal can travel, it
is not shot, and this last chance
is accorded it, -- the crawling into
camp, if it can, in the hope of a
moose being killed.
Already penitent for his angry action,
but too stubborn to make amends, Mason
toiled on at the head of the cavalcade,
little dreaming that danger hovered
in the air. The timber clustered thick
in the sheltered bottom, and through
this they threaded their way. Fifty
feet or more from the trail towered
a lofty pine. For generations it had
stood there, and for generations destiny
had had this one end in view, -- perhaps
the same had been decreed of Mason.
He stooped to fasten the loosened
thong of his moccasin. The sleds came
to a halt and the dogs lay down in the
snow without a whimper. The stillness
was weird; not a breath rustled the
frost-encrusted forest; the cold and
silence of outer space had chilled the
heart and smote the trembling lips of
nature. A sigh pulsed through the
air, -- they did not seem to actually
hear it, but rather felt it, like the
premonition of movement in a motionless
void. Then the great tree, burdened
with its weight of years and snow,
played its last part in the tragedy
of life. He heard the warning crash
and attempted to spring up, but almost
erect, caught the blow squarely on the
The sudden danger, the quick death, --
how often had Malemute Kid faced it!
The pine needles were still quivering
as he gave his commands and sprang into
action. Nor did the Indian girl faint
or raise her voice in idle wailing, as
would many of her white sisters. At his
order, she threw her weight on the end
of a quickly extemporized handspike,
easing the pressure and listening to
her husband's groans, while Malemute Kid
attacked the tree with his ax. The
steel rang merrily as it bit into the
frozen trunk, each stroke being accompanied
by a forced, audible respiration, the
"Huh!" "Huh!" of the woodsman.
At last the Kid laid the pitiable thing
that was once a man in the snow. But
worse than his comrade's pain, was the
dumb anguish in the woman's face, the
blended look of hopeful, hopeless query.
Little was said; those of the Northland
are early taught the futility of words
and the inestimable value of deeds. With
the temperature at sixty-five below
zero, a man cannot lie many minutes
in the snow and live. So the sled-lashings
were cut, and the sufferer, rolled in
furs, laid on a couch of boughs. Before
him roared a fire, built of the very
wood which wrought the mishap. Behind
and partially over him was stretched
the primitive fly, -- a piece of canvas,
which caught the radiating heat and
threw it back and down upon him, -- a
trick which men may know who study
physics at the fount.
And men who have shared their bed with
death know when the call is sounded.
Mason was terribly crushed. The most
cursory examination revealed it. His
right arm, leg, and back, were broken;
his limbs were paralyzed from the hips;
and the likelihood of internal injuries
was large. An occasional moan was his
only sign of life.
No hope; nothing to be done. The
pitiless night crept slowly by, --
Ruth's portion, the despairing stoicism
of her race, and Malemute Kid adding
new lines to his face of bronze. In
fact, Mason suffered least of all, for
he spent his time in Eastern Tennessee,
in the Great Smoky Mountains, living
over the scenes of his childhood. And
most pathetic was the melody of his
long-forgotten Southern vernacular,
as he raved of swimming-holes and
coon-hunts and watermelon raids. It
was as Greek to Ruth, but the Kid
understood and felt, -- felt as only
one can feel who has been shut out
for years from all that civilization
Morning brought consciousness to the
stricken man, and Malemute Kid bent
closer to catch his whispers.
"You remember when we foregathered
on the Tanana, four years come next
ice-run? I didn't care so much for
her then. It was more like she was
pretty, and there was a smack of
excitement about it, I think. But
d' ye know, I've come to think a
heap of her. She's been a good wife
to me, always at my shoulder in the
pinch. And when it comes to trading,
you know there isn't her equal. D' ye
recollect the time she shot the
Moosehorn Rapids to pull you and me
off that rock, the bullets whipping
the water like hailstones? -- and
the time of the famine at Nuklukyeto? --
or when she raced the ice-run to
bring the news? Yes, she's been a
good wife to me, better 'n that other
one. Didn't know I'd been there?
Never told you, eh? Well, I tried it
once, down in the States. That's why
I'm here. Been raised together, too.
I came away to give her a chance for
divorce. She got it.
"But that's got nothing to do with
Ruth. I had thought of cleaning up
and pulling for the Outside next year,
-- her and I, -- but it's too late.
Don't send her back to her people, Kid.
It's beastly hard for a woman to go
back. Think of it! -- nearly four years
on our bacon and beans and flour and
dried fruit, and then to go back to
her fish and cariboo. It's not good
for her to have tried our ways, to
come to know they're better 'n her
people's, and then return to them.
Take care of her, Kid, -- why don't
you, -- but no, you always fought shy
of them, -- and you never told me why
you came to this country. Be kind to
her, and send her back to the States
as soon as you can. But fix it so as
she can come back, -- liable to get
homesick, you know.
"And the youngster -- it's drawn us
closer, Kid. I only hope it is a boy.
Think of it! -- flesh of my flesh, Kid.
He mustn't stop in this country. And
if it's a girl, why she can't. Sell
my furs; they'll fetch at least five
thousand, and I've got as much more
with the company. And handle my interests
with yours. I think that bench claim
will show up. See that he gets a good
schooling; and Kid, above all, don't
let him come back. This country was
not made for white men.
"I'm a gone man, Kid. Three or four
sleeps at the best. You've got to
go on. You must go on! Remember, it's
my wife, it's my boy, -- O God! I
hope it's a boy! You can't stay by
me, -- and I charge you, a dying man,
that you pull on."
"Give me three days," pleaded Malemute
Kid. "You may change for the better;
something may turn up."
"Just three days."
"You must pull on."
"It's my wife and my boy, Kid. You
would not ask it."
"No, no! I charge --"
"Only one day. We can shave it through
on the grub, and I might knock over a
"No, -- all right; one day, but not a
minute more. And Kid, don't -- don't
leave me to face it alone. Do as you
would ask of me. Just a shot, one pull
on the trigger. You understand. Think
of it! Think of it! Flesh of my flesh,
and I'll never live to see him!
"Send Ruth here. I want to say good-by
and tell her that she must think of the
boy and not wait till I'm dead. She
might refuse to go with you if I didn't.
Good-by, old man; good-by.
"Kid! I say -- a -- sink a hole above
the pup, next to the slide. I panned
out forty cents on my shovel there.
"And Kid!" he stooped lower to catch
the last faint words, the dying man's
surrender of his pride. "I'm sorry --
for -- you know -- Carmen."
Leaving the girl crying softly over her
man, Malemute Kid slipped into his parka
and snowshoes, tucked his rifle under
his arm, and crept away into the forest.
He was no tyro in the stern sorrows of
the Northland, but never had he faced so
stiff a problem as this. In the abstract,
it was a plain, mathematical proposition, --
three possible lives as against one
doomed one. But now he hesitated. For
five years, shoulder to shoulder, on the
rivers and trails, in the camps and mines,
facing death by field and flood and famine,
had they knitted the bonds of their
comradeship. So close was the tie, that
he had often been conscious of a vague
jealousy of Ruth, from the first time
she had come between. And now it must be
severed by his own hand.
Though he prayed for a moose, just one
moose, all game seemed to have deserted
the land, and nightfall found the exhausted
man crawling into camp, light-handed,
heavy-hearted. An uproar from the dogs
and shrill cries from Ruth hastened him.
Bursting into the camp, he saw the girl
in the midst of the snarling pack, laying
about her with an ax. The dogs had broken
the iron rule of their masters and were
rushing the grub. He joined the issue
with his rifle reversed, and the hoary
game of natural selection was played
out with all the ruthlessness of its
primeval environment. Rifle and ax went
up and down, hit or missed with monotonous
regularity; lithe bodies flashed, with
wild eyes and dripping fangs; and man
and beast fought for supremacy to the
bitterest conclusion. Then the beaten
brutes crept to the edge of the firelight,
licking their wounds, voicing their misery
to the stars.
The whole stock of dried salmon had been
devoured, and perhaps five pounds of flour
remained to tide them over two hundred
miles of wilderness. Ruth returned to her
husband, while Malemute Kid cut up the
warm body of one of the dogs, the skull
of which had been crushed by the ax.
Every portion was carefully put away,
save the hide and offal, which were cast
to his fellows of the moment before.
Morning brought fresh trouble. The animals
were turning on each other. Carmen, who
still clung to her slender thread of life,
was downed by the pack. The lash fell
among them unheeded. They cringed and
cried under the blows, but refused to
scatter till the last wretched bit had
disappeared, -- bones, hide, hair,
Malemute Kid went about his work,
listening to Mason, who was back in
Tennessee, delivering tangled discourses
and wild exhortations to his brethren
of other days.
Taking advantage of neighboring pines,
he worked rapidly, and Ruth watched him
make a cache similar to those sometimes
used by hunters to preserve their meat
from the wolverines and dogs. One after
the other, he bent the tops of two small
pines toward each other and nearly to
the ground, making them fast with thongs
of moose-hide. Then he beat the dogs into
submission and harnessed them to two of
the sleds, loading the same with everything
but the furs which enveloped Mason. These
he wrapped and lashed tightly about him,
fastening either end of the robes to the
bent pines. A single stroke of his hunting
knife would release them and send the
body high in the air.
Ruth had received her husband's last
wishes and made no struggle. Poor girl,
she had learned the lesson of obedience
well. From a child, she had bowed, and
seen all women bow to the lords of
creation, and it did not seem in the
nature of things for woman to resist.
The Kid permitted her one outburst of
grief, as she kissed her husband, -- her
own people had no such custom, -- then
led her to the foremost sled and helped
her into her snowshoes. Blindly,
instinctively, she took the gee-pole
and whip, and "mushed" the dogs out on
the trail. Then he returned to Mason,
who had fallen into a coma; and long
after she was out of sight, he crouched
by the fire, waiting, hoping, praying
for his comrade to die.
It is not pleasant to be alone with
painful thoughts in the White Silence.
The silence of gloom is merciful,
shrouding one as with protection and
breathing a thousand intangible sympathies;
but the bright White Silence, clear
and cold, under steely skies, in pitiless.
An hour passed, -- two hours, -- but
the man would not die. At high noon,
the sun, without raising its rim above
the southern horizon, threw a suggestion
of fire athwart the heavens, then
quickly drew it back. Malemute Kid
roused and dragged himself to his
comrade's side. He cast one glance
about him. The White Silence seemed
to sneer, and a great fear came upon
him. There was a sharp report; Mason
swung into his aerial sepulcher, and
Malemute Kid lashed the dogs into a
wild gallop as he fled across the snow.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~