UNDER THE DECK AWNINGS
by Jack London
"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 woman."
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 guny. 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
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, painful 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. & O. boat, and it
occurred 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 satisfyingly beautiful.
Dress! She was an artist. Her taste was
"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 forearm, 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
at random 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
flowing dress, surrounded by half a dozen
eager men, languidly careless of them, 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 had 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 seaworn, 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 whiplash, 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. But 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 just 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 exhibition.
"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
human body is high, and the tendency is to overtopple.
But the little beggars employed a method new to
her, 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 done. You know, it is head-first
into the water; and 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. 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
many 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 wonderfully 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, pell-mell,
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
"'Are they afraid of sharks?' she asked.
"'Aren't you?' he asked back."
She shuddered, looked overside at the water,
and made a move.
"'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 baksheesh. 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
"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 positiveness.
"'No, no, no!' she cried. And then to us:
'Who'll lend me a half-crown and a sovereign?'
"Immediately the half-dozen of us were presenting
her with half-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 if 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 well.
"'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 willfulness 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 didn't. 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
"'I--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
Treloar ceased. He turned his head and
favored the little man with a look of cold
"Well?" he said finally. "Classify her."
The little man gulped and swallowed.
"I have nothing to say," he said. "Nothing
whatever to say."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~