Burning Daylight by Jack London
Daylight awoke with the familiar parched mouth and lips and throat, took a long drink of water from the pitcher beside his bed, and gathered up the train of thought where he had left it the night before. He reviewed the easement of the financial strain. Things were mending at last. While the going was still rough, the greatest dangers were already past. As he had told Hegan, a tight rein and careful playing were all that was needed now. Flurries and dangers were bound to come, but not so grave as the ones they had already weathered. He had been hit hard, but he was coming through without broken bones, which was more than Simon Dolliver and many another could say. And not one of his business friends had been ruined. He had compelled them to stay in line to save himself, and they had been saved as well.
His mind moved on to the incident at the corner of the bar of the Parthenon, when the young athlete had turned his hand down. He was no longer stunned by the event, but he was shocked and grieved, as only a strong man can be, at this passing of his strength. And the issue was too clear for him to dodge, even with himself. He knew why his hand had gone down. Not because he was an old man. He was just in the first flush of his prime, and, by rights, it was the hand of the hammer-thrower which should have gone down. Daylight knew that he had taken liberties with himself. He had always looked upon this strength of his as permanent, and here, for years, it had been steadily oozing from him. As he had diagnosed it, he had come in from under the stars to roost in the coops of cities. He had almost forgotten how to walk. He had lifted up his feet and been ridden around in automobiles, cabs and carriages, and electric cars. He had not exercised, and he had dry-rotted his muscles with alcohol.
And was it worth it? What did all his money mean after all? Dede was right. It could buy him no more than one bed at a time, and at the same time it made him the abjectest of slaves. It tied him fast. He was tied by it right now. Even if he so desired, he could not lie abed this very day. His money called him. The office whistle would soon blow, and he must answer it. The early sunshine was streaming through his window--a fine day for a ride in the hills on Bob, with Dede beside him on her Mab. Yet all his millions could not buy him this one day. One of those flurries might come along, and he had to be on the spot to meet it. Thirty millions! And they were powerless to persuade Dede to ride on Mab--Mab, whom he had bought, and who was unused and growing fat on pasture. What were thirty millions when they could not buy a man a ride with the girl he loved? Thirty millions!--that made him come here and go there, that rode upon him like so many millstones, that destroyed him while they grew, that put their foot down and prevented him from winning this girl who worked for ninety dollars a month.
Which was better? he asked himself. All this was Dede's own thought. It was what she had meant when she prayed he would go broke. He held up his offending right arm. It wasn't the same old arm. Of course she could not love that arm and that body as she had loved the strong, clean arm and body of years before. He didn't like that arm and body himself. A young whippersnapper had been able to take liberties with it. It had gone back on him. He sat up suddenly. No, by God, he had gone back on it! He had gone back on himself. He had gone back on Dede. She was right, a thousand times right, and she had sense enough to know it, sense enough to refuse to marry a money slave with a whiskey-rotted carcass.
He got out of bed and looked at himself in the long mirror on the wardrobe door. He wasn't pretty. The old-time lean cheeks were gone. These were heavy, seeming to hang down by their own weight. He looked for the lines of cruelty Dede had spoken of, and he found them, and he found the harshness in the eyes as well, the eyes that were muddy now after all the cocktails of the night before, and of the months and years before. He looked at the clearly defined pouches that showed under his eyes, and they've shocked him. He rolled up the sleeve of his pajamas. No wonder the hammer-thrower had put his hand down. Those weren't muscles. A rising tide of fat had submerged them. He stripped off the pajama coat. Again he was shocked, this time but the bulk of his body. It wasn't pretty. The lean stomach had become a paunch. The ridged muscles of chest and shoulders and abdomen had broken down into rolls of flesh.
He sat down on the bed, and through his mind drifted pictures of his youthful excellence, of the hardships he had endured over other men, of the Indians and dogs he had run off their legs in the heart-breaking days and nights on the Alaskan trail, of the feats of strength that had made him king over a husky race of frontiersmen.
And this was age. Then there drifted across the field of vision of his mind's eye the old man he had encountered at Glen Ellen, corning up the hillside through the fires of sunset, white-headed and white-bearded, eighty-four, in his hand the pail of foaming milk and in his face all the warm glow and content of the passing summer day. That had been age. "Yes siree, eighty-four, and spryer than most," he could hear the old man say. "And I ain't loafed none. I walked across the Plains with an ox-team and fit Injuns in '51, and I was a family man then with seven youngsters."
Next he remembered the old woman of the chaparral, pressing grapes in her mountain clearing; and Ferguson, the little man who had scuttled into the road like a rabbit, the one-time managing editor of a great newspaper, who was content to live in the chaparral along with his spring of mountain water and his hand-reared and manicured fruit trees. Ferguson had solved a problem. A weakling and an alcoholic, he had run away from the doctors and the chicken-coop of a city, and soaked up health like a thirsty sponge. Well, Daylight pondered, if a sick man whom the doctors had given up could develop into a healthy farm laborer, what couldn't a merely stout man like himself do under similar circumstances? He caught a vision of his body with all its youthful excellence returned, and thought of Dede, and sat down suddenly on the bed, startled by the greatness of the idea that had come to him.
He did not sit long. His mind, working in its customary way, like a steel trap, canvassed the idea in all its bearings. It was big--bigger than anything he had faced before. And he faced it squarely, picked it up in his two hands and turned it over and around and looked at it. The simplicity of it delighted him. He chuckled over it, reached his decision, and began to dress. Midway in the dressing he stopped in order to use the telephone.
Dede was the first he called up.
"Don't come to the office this morning," he said. "I'm coming out to see you for a moment." He called up others. He ordered his motor-car. To Jones he gave instructions for the forwarding of Bob and Wolf to Glen Ellen. Hegan he surprised by asking him to look up the deed of the Glen Ellen ranch and make out a new one in Dede Mason's name. "Who?" Hegan demanded. "Dede Mason," Daylight replied imperturbably the 'phone must be indistinct this morning. "D-e-d-e M-a-s o-n. Got it?"
Half an hour later he was flying out to Berkeley. And for the first time the big red car halted directly before the house. Dede offered to receive him in the parlor, but he shook his head and nodded toward her rooms.
"In there," he said. "No other place would suit."
As the door closed, his arms went out and around her. Then he stood with his hands on her shoulders and looking down into her face.
"Dede, if I tell you, flat and straight, that I'm going up to live on that ranch at Glen Ellen, that I ain't taking a cent with me, that I'm going to scratch for every bite I eat, and that I ain't going to play ary a card at the business game again, will you come along with me?"
She gave a glad little cry, and he nestled her in closely. But the next moment she had thrust herself out from him to the old position at arm's length.
"I-I don't understand," she said breathlessly.
"And you ain't answered my proposition, though I guess no answer is necessary. We're just going to get married right away and start. I've sent Bob and Wolf along already. When will you be ready?"
Dede could not forbear to smile. "My, what a hurricane of a man it is. I'm quite blown away. And you haven't explained a word to me."
Daylight smiled responsively.
"Look here, Dede, this is what card-sharps call a show-down. No more philandering and frills and long-distance sparring between you and me. We're just going to talk straight out in meeting--the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Now you answer some questions for me, and then I'll answer yours."
He paused. "Well, I've got only one question after all: Do you love me enough to marry me?"
"But--" she began.
"No buts," he broke in sharply. "This is a show-down. When I say marry, I mean what I told you at first, that we'd go up and live on the ranch. Do you love me enough for that?"
She looked at him for a moment, then her lids dropped, and all of her seemed to advertise consent.
"Come on, then, let's start." The muscles of his legs tensed involuntarily as if he were about to lead her to the door. "My auto's waiting outside. There's nothing to delay excepting getting on your hat."
He bent over her. "I reckon it's allowable," he said, as he kissed her.
It was a long embrace, and she was the first to speak.
"You haven't answered my questions. How is this possible? How can you leave your business? Has anything happened?"
"No, nothing's happened yet, but it's going to, blame quick. I've taken your preaching to heart, and I've come to the penitent form. You are my Lord God, and I'm sure going to serve you. The rest can go to thunder. You were sure right. I've been the slave to my money, and since I can't serve two masters I'm letting the money slide. I'd sooner have you than all the money in the world, that's all." Again he held her closely in his arms. "And I've sure got you, Dede. I've sure got you.
"And I want to tell you a few more. I've taken my last drink. You're marrying a whiskey-soak, but your husband won't be that. He's going to grow into another man so quick you won't know him. A couple of months from now, up there in Glen Ellen, you'll wake up some morning and find you've got a perfect stranger in the house with you, and you'll have to get introduced to him all over again. You'll say, 'I'm Mrs. Harnish, who are you?" And I'll say, 'I'm Elam Harnish's younger brother. I've just arrived from Alaska to attend the funeral.' 'What funeral?' you'll say. And I'll say, 'Why, the funeral of that good-for-nothing, gambling, whiskey-drinking Burning Daylight--the man that died of fatty degeneration of the heart from sitting in night and day at the business game 'Yes ma'am,' I'll say, 'he's sure a gone 'coon, but I've come to take his place and make you happy. And now, ma'am, if you'll allow me, I'll just meander down to the pasture and milk the cow while you're getting breakfast.'"
Again he caught her hand and made as if to start with her for the door. When she resisted, he bent and kissed her again and again.
"I'm sure hungry for you, little woman," he murmured "You make thirty millions look like thirty cents."
"Do sit down and be sensible," she urged, her cheeks flushed, the golden light in her eyes burning more golden than he had ever seen it before.
But Daylight was bent on having his way, and when he sat down it was with her beside him and his arm around her.
"'Yes, ma'am,' I'll say, 'Burning Daylight was a pretty good cuss, but it's better that he's gone. He quit rolling up in his rabbit-skins and sleeping in the snow, and went to living in a chicken-coop. He lifted up his legs and quit walking and working, and took to existing on Martini cocktails and Scotch whiskey. He thought he loved you, ma'am, and he did his best, but he loved his cocktails more, and he loved his money more, and himself more, and 'most everything else more than he did you.' And then I'll say, 'Ma'am, you just run your eyes over me and see how different I am. I ain't got a cocktail thirst, and all the money I got is a dollar and forty cents and I've got to buy a new ax, the last one being plumb wore out, and I can love you just about eleven times as much as your first husband did. You see, ma'am, he went all to fat. And there ain't ary ounce of fat on me.' And I'll roll up my sleeve and show you, and say, 'Mrs. Harnish, after having experience with being married to that old fat money-bags, do you-all mind marrying a slim young fellow like me?' And you'll just wipe a tear away for poor old Daylight, and kind of lean toward me with a willing expression in your eye, and then I'll blush maybe some, being a young fellow, and put my arm around you, like that, and then--why, then I'll up and marry my brother's widow, and go out and do the chores while she's cooking a bite to eat."
"But you haven't answered my questions," she reproached him, as she emerged, rosy and radiant, from the embrace that had accompanied the culmination of his narrative.
"Now just what do you want to know?" he asked.
"I want to know how all this is possible? How you are able to leave your business at a time like this? What you meant by saying that something was going to happen quickly? I--" She hesitated and blushed. "I answered your question, you know."
"Let's go and get married," he urged, all the whimsicality of his utterance duplicated in his eyes. "You know I've got to make way for that husky young brother of mine, and I ain't got long to live." She made an impatient moue, and he continued seriously.
"You see, it's like this, Dede. I've been working like forty horses ever since this blamed panic set in, and all the time some of those ideas you'd given me were getting ready to sprout. Well, they sprouted this morning, that's all. I started to get up, expecting to go to the office as usual. But I didn't go to the office. All that sprouting took place there and then. The sun was shining in the window, and I knew it was a fine day in the hills. And I knew I wanted to ride in the hills with you just about thirty million times more than I wanted to go to the office. And I knew all the time it was impossible. And why? Because of the office. The office wouldn't let me. All my money reared right up on its hind legs and got in the way and wouldn't let me. It's a way that blamed money has of getting in the way. You know that yourself.
"And then I made up my mind that I was to the dividing of the ways. One way led to the office. The other way led to Berkeley.
And I took the Berkeley road. I'm never going to set foot in the office again. That's all gone, finished, over and done with, and I'm letting it slide clean to smash and then some. My mind's set on this. You see, I've got religion, and it's sure the old-time religion; it's love and you, and it's older than the oldest religion in the world. It's IT, that's what it is--IT, with a capital I-T."
She looked at him with a sudden, startled expression.
"You mean--?" she began.
"I mean just that. I'm wiping the slate clean. I'm letting it all go to smash. When them thirty million dollars stood up to my face and said I couldn't go out with you in the hills to-day, I knew the time had come for me to put my foot down. And I'm putting it down. I've got you, and my strength to work for you, and that little ranch in Sonoma. That's all I want, and that's all I'm going to save out, along with Bob and Wolf, a suit case and a hundred and forty hair bridles. All the rest goes, and good riddance. It's that much junk."
But Dede was insistent.
"Then this--this tremendous loss is all unnecessary?" she asked.
"Just what I haven't been telling you. It IS necessary. If that money thinks it can stand up right to my face and say I can't go riding with you-"
"No, no; be serious," Dede broke in. "I don't mean that, and you know it. What I want to know is, from a standpoint of business, is this failure necessary?"
He shook his head.
"You bet it isn't necessary. That's the point of it. I'm not letting go of it because I'm licked to a standstill by the panic and have got to let go. I'm firing it out when I've licked the panic and am winning, hands down. That just shows how little I think of it. It's you that counts, little woman, and I make my play accordingly."
But she drew away from his sheltering arms.
"You are mad, Elam."
"Call me that again," he murmured ecstatically. "It's sure sweeter than the chink of millions."
All this she ignored.
"It's madness. You don't know what you are doing--"
"Oh, yes, I do," he assured her. "I'm winning the dearest wish of my heart. Why, your little finger is worth more--"
"Do be sensible for a moment."
"I was never more sensible in my lie. I know what I want, and I'm going to get it. I want you and the open air. I want to get my foot off the paving-stones and my ear away from the telephone.
I want a little ranch-house in one of the prettiest bits of country God ever made, and I want to do the chores around that ranch-house--milk cows, and chop wood, and curry horses, and plough the ground, and all the rest of it; and I want you there in the ranch-house with me. I'm plumb tired of everything else, and clean wore out. And I'm sure the luckiest man alive, for I've got what money can't buy. I've got you, and thirty millions couldn't buy you, nor three thousand millions, nor thirty cents-"
A knock at the door interrupted him, and he was left to stare delightedly at the Crouched Venus and on around the room at Dede's dainty possessions, while she answered the telephone.
"It is Mr. Hegan," she said, on returning. "He is holding the line. He says it is important."
Daylight shook his head and smiled.
"Please tell Mr. Hegan to hang up. I'm done with the office and I don't want to hear anything about anything."
A minute later she was back again.
"He refuses to hang up. He told me to tell you that Unwin is in the office now, waiting to see you, and Harrison, too. Mr. Hegan said that Grimshaw and Hodgkins are in trouble. That it looks as if they are going to break. And he said something about protection."
It was startling information. Both Unwin and Harrison represented big banking corporations, and Daylight knew that if the house of Grimshaw and Hodgkins went it would precipitate a number of failures and start a flurry of serious dimensions. But Daylight smiled, and shook his head, and mimicked the stereotyped office tone of voice as he said:--
"Miss Mason, you will kindly tell Mr. Hegan that there is nothing doing and to hang up."
"But you can't do this," she pleaded.
"Watch me," he grimly answered.
"Say it again'' he cried. "Say it again, and a dozen Grimshaws and Hodgkins can smash!"
He caught her by the hand and drew her to him.
"You let Hegan hang on to that line till he's tired. We can't be wasting a second on him on a day like this. He's only in love with books and things, but I've got a real live woman in my arms that's loving me all the time she's kicking over the traces."