Friday Excerpts | The While Silence by Jack London
Over at my full-time gig, we recently did a 10-part series on the life Jack London. He’s most famous for The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he also wrote dozens of other novels and hundreds of short stories. The very first short story of his I read, White Silence, is magnificent. Here’s a snippet below, and you can read the entire thing here. It won’t take more than 15 minutes, and it’s well worth it.
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 shoulder.
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 might 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.
From The White Silence / Jack London / 1899