Rhymes and Reactions (Aug 1926)
By George Sterling
Jack London did not keep a diary but the nearest approach to one is this article which is offered for publication for the first time through the courtesy of Mr. George Sterling. It was Jack London's custom to write to his wife, Charmian, account of his travel and experiences. She in turn copied these letters, sending one to Mr. Sterling. This was Mr. London's manner of keeping in touch with his friends and sharing equally with each, his wanderings.
In a recent trip to Carmel, Mr. Sterling recovered an old scrapbook belonging to himself and herein were found copies of many of Jack London's travels on the water, etc., which have been generously offered Overland Monthly.
On board junk, off Corean Coast, Tuesday, February 9, 1904.
THE wildest and most gorgeous things ever! If you could see me just now, captain of a junk with a crew of three Coreans who speak neither English nor Japanese and with five Japanese guests (strayed travelers) who speak neither English nor Corean—that is, all but one, which last knows a couple of dozen English words. And with this polyglot following I am bound on a voyage of several hundred miles along the Corean Coast to Chemulpo.
And how did it happen. I was to sail Monday, Feb. 8, on the KEIGO MARU for Chemulpo. Saturday, Feb. 6, returning in the afternoon from Kokura (where my camera had been returned to me)—returning to Shimonoseki, I learned KEIGO MARU had been taken off its run by the Jap. Government. Learned also that many Jap. warships had passed the straits bound out, and that soldiers had been called from their homes to join their regiments in the middle of the night.
And I made a dash right away. Caught, just as it was getting under way, a small steamer for Fusan. Had to take a third-class passage and—it was a native steamer, no white man's chow (food), even first-class, and I had to sleep on deck. Dashing aboard in steam launch, got one trunk overboard and saved it. Got wet myself, and my rugs and baggage, crossing the Japan Sea. At Fusan, caught a little 120-ton steamer, loaded with Coreans and Japs, and deck load piled to the sky, for Chemulpo. Made Mokpo, with a list to starboard of fully thirty degrees. It would take a couple of hundred of such steamers to make a Siberia. But this morning all passengers and freight were fired ashore, willy nilly, for the Jap. Government had taken the steamer to use. We had traveled the preceding night convoyed by two torpedo boats.
Well, fired ashore this morning, I chartered this junk, took five of the Jap. passengers along, and here I am, still bound for Chempulpo. Hardest job I ever undertook. Have had no news for several days, do not know if war has been declared—and shall not know till I make Chempulpo—maybe Kun San, at which place I drop my passengers. God, but I'd like to have a mouthful of white man's speech. It's not quite satisfying to do business with a 24-word vocabulary and gesticulations.
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Thursday, Feb. 11, 1904.
ON BOARD another junk. Grows more gorgeous. Night and day traveled for Kun San. Caught on lee-shore yesterday, and wind howling over Yellow Sea. You should have seen us clawing off—one man at the tiller and a man at each sheet (Coreans), four scared' Japs, and the fifth too seasick to be scared. Of course, we cleared off, or you wouldn't be reading this.
Made Kun San at nightfall, after having carried away a mast and smashed a rudder. And we arrived in driving rain, wind cutting like a knife. And then, well—you should have seen me being made comfortable last night—five Japanese maidens helping me undress, take a bath, and get into bed, the while visitors, male and female, were being entertained (my visitors). And this morning, same thing repeated—the Mayor of Kun San, the captain of police, leading citizens, all in my bedroom, visiting while I was being shaved, dressed, washed and fed.
And all the leading citizens of the town came down to see me off, and cheered me, and cried "Sayonara" countless times.
New junk, manned by Japanese—five —and not one knows one word of English, and here I am, adrift with them, off the Corean Coast..
No white man's news for a long time. Hear native rumors of sea fights, and of landing troops, but nothing I may believe without doubting. But when I get to Chemulpo, I'll know "where I'm at."
And maybe you think it isn't cold. traveling as I am, by junk. The snow is on the land, and in some places, on North slopes, comes down to the water's edge.
And there are no stoves by which to keep warm—charcoal boxes, with half a dozen small embers, are not to be sneered at—I am beside one now, which I just bought for 12 1/2 cents from a Corean at a village, where we have landed for water.
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Saturday, Feb. 13, 1904.
Still wilder, but can hardly say so "gorgeous," unless landscapes and seascapes, seen between driving snow squalls, be gorgeous. You know the tides on this coast range from 40 to 60 feet (we're at anchor now, in the midst of ten thousand islands, reefs and shoals, waiting four hours until the tide shall turn toward Chemulpo—30 ri, which means 75 miles away).
Well, concerning tides. Yesterday morning found us on a lee shore, all rocks, with a gale pounding the whole Yellow Sea down upon us. Our only chance for refuge, dead to leeward, a small bay and high and dry. Had to wait on the 4 oft. tide, and we waited, anchored under a small reef across which the breakers broke, until, tide rising, they submerged it. Never thought a sampan (an open crazy boat) could live through what ours did. A gale of wind, with driving snow—you can imagine how cold it was. But I'm glad I have Jap. sailors. They're braver and cooler and more daring than Coreans. Well, we waited till 11 A. M. It was twixt the devil and the deep sea—stay and be swamped, run for the little bay and run the chance of striking in the surf. We couldn't possibly stay longer, so we showed a piece of sail and ran for it. Well, I was nearly blind with a headache which I had brought away with me from Kunsan, and which had been increasing ever since; and I did not much care what happened; yet I remembered, when we drove in across that foaming bar, the white water showing reefs and shoals clear across, that I took off my overcoat, and loosened my shoes—and I didn't bother a bit about trying to save the camera.
But we made it—half full of water —but we made it. And maybe it didn't howl all night, so cold that it froze the salt water.
All of which I wouldn't mind, if it weren't for my ankles. I used to favor the right with the left, but with the left now smashed worse than the right, you can imagine how careful I have to be (where it's impossible to be careful), in a crazy junk going through such rough weather. And yet I have escaped any bad twists so far.
Junks, crazy—I should say so. Rags, tatters, rotten—something always carrying away—how they navigate is a miracle. I wonder if Hearst thinks I'm lost.
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Monday, Feb. 15, 1904.
OH, YES,, we waited four hours! When four hours had passed, wind came down out of the north, dead in our teeth. Lay all night in confounded tide-rip, junk standing on both ends, and driving me crazy with my headache.
At four in the morning turned out in the midst of driving snow to change anchorage on account of sea.
It was a cruel daybreak we witnessed; at 8 A. M. we showed a bit of sail and ran for shelter.
My sailors live roughly, and we put up at a fishing village (Corean) where they live still more roughly, and we spent Sunday and Sunday night there— my five sailors, myself—and about 20 men, women and children jammed in a room in a hut, the floor space of which room was about equivalent to that of a good double-bed.
And my foreign food is giving out, and I was compelled to begin on native chow. I hope my stomach will forgive me some of the things I have thrust upon it—filth, dirt, indescribale, and the worst of it is that I can't help thinking of the filth and dirt as I take each mouthful.
I showed one old fellow my false teeth at midnight. He proceeded to rouse the house. Must have given him bad dreams, for he crept in to me at three in the morning and woke me in order to have another look.
We are under way this morning— for Chemulpo. I hope I don't drop dead when I finally arrive there.
The land is covered with snow. The wind has just hauled ahead again. Our sail has come in, and the men are at the cars. If it blows up it'll be another run for shelter. O, this is a wild and bitter coast.