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 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
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
"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
"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
"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 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
crowns and sovereigns, and she accepted the two coins from
"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
"'Don't do it with the sovereign,' Dennitson said to her in a
"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
"'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
"'There are not enough coined to get me overside,' was his
"She debated a moment, the boy forgotten in her tilt with
"'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
"'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
"'I never dreamed,' she said, and laughed a short, hysterical
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