The Scarlet Plague (2)
January 26, 2012
HILOBROW is pleased to present the second installment of our serialization of Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. New installments will appear each Thursday for 12 weeks.
London’s post-apocalyptic novel is partly set in 2013; 2012 marks the centennial of its first serialization. In May, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of The Scarlet Plague, checked against the 1915 first published edition (Macmillan), with an introduction by science fiction author (and HiLobrow cofounder) Matthew Battles. NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDERING.
LAST WEEK: “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!— think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times.”
CHAPTER ONE (excerpt 2 of 2)
Again Granser’s eyes burned with greediness as a large crab was handed to him. It was a shell with legs and all complete, but the meat had long since departed. With shaky fingers and babblings of anticipation, the old man broke off a leg and found it filled with emptiness.
“The crabs, Hoo-Hoo?” he wailed. “The crabs?”
“I was foolin’, Granser. They ain’t no crabs. I never found one.”
The boys were overwhelmed with delight at sight of the tears of senile disappointment that dribbled down the old man’s cheeks. Then, unnoticed, Hoo-Hoo replaced the empty shell with a fresh-cooked crab. Already dismembered, from the cracked legs the white meat sent forth a small cloud of savory steam. This attracted the old man’s nostrils, and he looked down in amazement. The change of his mood to one of joy was immediate. He snuffled and muttered and mumbled, making almost a croon of delight, as he began to eat. Of this the boys took little notice, for it was an accustomed spectacle. Nor did they notice his occasional exclamations and utterances of phrases which meant nothing to them, as, for instance, when he smacked his lips and champed his gums while muttering: “Mayonnaise! Just think — mayonnaise! And it’s sixty years since the last was ever made! Two generations and never a smell of it! Why, in those days it was served in every restaurant with crab.”
When he could eat no more, the old man sighed, wiped his hands on his naked legs, and gazed out over the sea. With the content of a full stomach, he waxed reminiscent.
“To think of it! I’ve seen this beach alive with men, women, and children on a pleasant Sunday. And there weren’t any bears to eat them up, either. And right up there on the cliff was a big restaurant where you could get anything you wanted to eat. Four million people lived in San Francisco then. And now, in the whole city and county there aren’t forty all told. And out there on the sea were ships and ships always to be seen, going in for the Golden Gate or coming out. And airships in the air — dirigibles and flying machines. They could travel two hundred miles an hour. The mail contracts with the New York and San Francisco Limited demanded that for the minimum. There was a chap, a Frenchman, I forget his name, who succeeded in making three hundred; but the thing was risky, too risky for conservative persons. But he was on the right clew, and he would have managed it if it hadn’t been for the Great Plague. When I was a boy, there were men alive who remembered the coming of the first aeroplanes, and now I have lived to see the last of them, and that sixty years ago.”
The old man babbled on, unheeded by the boys, who were long accustomed to his garrulousness, and whose vocabularies, besides, lacked the greater portion of the words he used. It was noticeable that in these rambling soliloquies his English seemed to recrudesce into better construction and phraseology. But when he talked directly with the boys it lapsed, largely, into their own uncouth and simpler forms.
“But there weren’t many crabs in those days,” the old man wandered on. “They were fished out, and they were great delicacies. The open season was only a month long, too. And now crabs are accessible the whole year around. Think of it — catching all the crabs you want, any time you want, in the surf of the Cliff House beach!”
A sudden commotion among the goats brought the boys to their feet. The dogs about the fire rushed to join their snarling fellow who guarded the goats, while the goats themselves stampeded in the direction of their human protectors. A half dozen forms, lean and gray, glided about on the sand hillocks and faced the bristling dogs. Edwin arched an arrow that fell short. But Hare-Lip, with a sling such as David carried into battle against Goliath, hurled a stone through the air that whistled from the speed of its flight. It fell squarely among the wolves and caused them to slink away toward the dark depths of the eucalyptus forest.
The boys laughed and lay down again in the sand, while Granser sighed ponderously. He had eaten too much, and, with hands clasped on his paunch, the fingers interlaced, he resumed his maunderings.
“‘The fleeting systems lapse like foam,'” he mumbled what was evidently a quotation. “That’s it — foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam. He domesticated the serviceable animals, destroyed the hostile ones, and cleared the land of its wild vegetation. And then he passed, and the flood of primordial life rolled back again, sweeping his handiwork away — the weeds and the forest inundated his fields, the beasts of prey swept over his flocks, and now there are wolves on the Cliff House beach.” He was appalled by the thought. “Where four million people disported themselves, the wild wolves roam to-day, and the savage progeny of our loins, with prehistoric weapons, defend themselves against the fanged despoilers. Think of it! And all because of the Scarlet Death —”
The adjective had caught Hare-Lip’s ear.
“He’s always saying that,” he said to Edwin. “What is scarlet?”
“‘The scarlet of the maples can shake me like the cry of bugles going by,'” the old man quoted.
“It’s red,” Edwin answered the question. “And you don’t know it because you come from the Chauffeur Tribe. They never did know nothing, none of them. Scarlet is red —I know that.”
“Red is red, ain’t it?” Hare-Lip grumbled. “Then what’s the good of gettin’ cocky and calling it scarlet?”
“Granser, what for do you always say so much what nobody knows?” he asked. “Scarlet ain’t anything, but red is red. Why don’t you say red, then?”
“Red is not the right word,” was the reply. “The plague was scarlet. The whole face and body turned scarlet in an hour’s time. Don’t I know? Didn’t I see enough of it? And I am telling you it was scarlet because — well, because it was scarlet. There is no other word for it.”
“Red is good enough for me,” Hare-Lip muttered obstinately. “My dad calls red red, and he ought to know. He says everybody died of the Red Death.”
“Your dad is a common fellow, descended from a common fellow,” Granser retorted heatedly. “Don’t I know the beginnings of the Chauffeurs? Your grandsire was a chauffeur, a servant, and without education. He worked for other persons. But your grandmother was of good stock, only the children did not take after her. Don’t I remember when I first met them, catching fish at Lake Temescal?”
“What is education?” Edwin asked.
“Calling red scarlet,” Hare-Lip sneered, then returned to the attack on Granser. “My dad told me, an’ he got it from his dad afore he croaked, that your wife was a Santa Rosan, an’ that she was sure no account. He said she was a hash-slinger before the Red Death, though I don’t know what a hash-slinger is. You can tell me, Edwin.”
But Edwin shook his head in token of ignorance.
“It is true, she was a waitress,” Granser acknowledged. “But she was a good woman, and your mother was her daughter. Women were very scarce in the days after the Plague. She was the only wife I could find, even if she was a hash-slinger, as your father calls it. But it is not nice to talk about our progenitors that way.”
“Dad says that the wife of the first Chauffeur was a lady—”
“What’s a lady?” Hoo-Hoo demanded.
“A lady’s a Chauffeur squaw,” was the quick reply of Hare-Lip.
“The first Chauffeur was Bill, a common fellow, as I said before,” the old man expounded; “but his wife was a lady, a great lady. Before the Scarlet Death she was the wife of Van Worden. He was President of the Board of Industrial Magnates, and was one of the dozen men who ruled America. He was worth one billion, eight hundred millions of dollars — coins like you have there in your pouch, Edwin. And then came the Scarlet Death, and his wife became the wife of Bill, the first Chauffeur. He used to beat her, too. I have seen it myself.”
Hoo-Hoo, lying on his stomach and idly digging his toes in the sand, cried out and investigated, first, his toe-nail, and next, the small hole he had dug. The other two boys joined him, excavating the sand rapidly with their hands till there lay three skeletons exposed. Two were of adults, the third being that of a part-grown child. The old man hudged along on the ground and peered at the find.
“Plague victims,” he announced. “That’s the way they died everywhere in the last days. This must have been a family, running away from the contagion and perishing here on the Cliff House beach. They — what are you doing, Edwin?”
This question was asked in sudden dismay, as Edwin, using the back of his hunting knife, began to knock out the teeth from the jaws of one of the skulls.
“Going to string ’em,” was the response.
The three boys were now hard at it; and quite a knocking and hammering arose, in which Granser babbled on unnoticed.
“You are true savages. Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth. In another generation you will be perforating your noses and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell. I know. The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization. When we increase and feel the lack of room, we will proceed to kill one another. And then I suppose you will wear human scalp-locks at your waist, as well — as you, Edwin, who are the gentlest of my grandsons, have already begun with that vile pigtail. Throw it away, Edwin, boy; throw it away.”
“What a gabble the old geezer makes,” Hare-Lip remarked, when, the teeth all extracted, they began an attempt at equal division.
They were very quick and abrupt in their actions, and their speech, in moments of hot discussion over the allotment of the choicer teeth, was truly a gabble. They spoke in monosyllables and short jerky sentences that was more a gibberish than a language. And yet, through it ran hints of grammatical construction, and appeared vestiges of the conjugation of some superior culture. Even the speech of Granser was so corrupt that were it put down literally it would be almost so much nonsense to the reader. This, however, was when he talked with the boys. When he got into the full swing of babbling to himself, it slowly purged itself into pure English. The sentences grew longer and were enunciated with a rhythm and ease that was reminiscent of the lecture platform.
“Tell us about the Red Death, Granser,” Hare-Lip demanded, when the teeth affair had been satisfactorily concluded.
“The Scarlet Death,” Edwin corrected.
“An’ don’t work all that funny lingo on us,” Hare-Lip went on. “Talk sensible, Granser, like a Santa Rosan ought to talk. Other Santa Rosans don’t talk like you.”
NEXT WEEK: “Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food —”
NOTE: The phrase “The fleeting systems lapse like foam” is taken from a 1903 “star poem” titled “The Testimony of the Suns,” by George Sterling. Excerpt: “How haste the unresting feet of Change,/On life’s stupendous orbit set!/She walks a way her blood hath wet,/Yet deems her path untrodden, strange./By night’s immeasurable dome/She deems her hopes in surety held —/Lo! from insurgent deeps impelled/The fleeting systems lapse like foam.” Sterling was a central figure in the Californian literary scene of the early 20th century, and a friend of Jack London’s; “The Testimony of the Suns,” a pioneering work of Radium Age science fiction, was perhaps his best-known piece of writing.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. In May 2012, we will publish Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (May); in June, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”); in July, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt; in September, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook; in October, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins; and in November, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic) and Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda. We also publish original stories and comics.