Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

Title:      A Thousand Deaths
Author:     Jack London
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.:  0601811.txt
Edition:    1
Language:   English
Character set encoding:     Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit
Date first posted:          June 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to

Title:      A Thousand Deaths
Author:     Jack London

I had been in the water about an hour, and cold, exhausted, with a
terrible cramp in my right calf, it seemed as though my hour had come.
Fruitlessly struggling against the strong ebb tide, I had beheld the
maddening procession of the water-front lights slip by, but now I gave
up attempting to breast the stream and contented myself with the bitter
thoughts of a wasted career, now drawing to a close.

It had been my luck to come of good, English stock, but of parents whose
account with the bankers far exceeded their knowledge of child-nature
and the rearing of children. While born with a silver spoon in my mouth,
the blessed atmosphere of the home circle was to me unknown. My father,
a very learned man and a celebrated antiquarian, gave no thought to his
family, being constantly lost in the abstractions of his study; while my
mother, noted far more for her good looks than her good sense, sated
herself with the adulation of the society in which she was perpetually
plunged. I went through the regular school and college routine of a boy
of the English bourgeoisie, and as the years brought me increasing
strength and passions, my parents suddenly became aware that I was
possessed of an immortal soul, and endeavoured to draw the curb. But it
was too late; I perpetrated the wildest and most audacious folly, and
was disowned by my people, ostracised by the society I had so long
outraged, and with the thousand pounds my father gave me, with the
declaration that he would neither see me again nor give me more, I took
a first-class passage to Australia.

Since then my life had been one long peregrination--from the Orient to
the Occident, from the Arctic to the Antarctic--to find myself at last,
an able seaman at thirty, in the full vigour of my manhood, drowning in
San Francisco Bay because of a disastrously successful attempt to desert
my ship.

My right leg was drawn up by the cramp, and I was suffering the keenest
agony. A slight breeze stirred up a choppy sea, which washed into my
mouth and down my throat, nor could I prevent it. Though I still
contrived to keep afloat, it was merely mechanical, for I was rapidly
becoming unconscious. I have a dim recollection of drifting past the
sea-wall, and of catching a glimpse of an upriver steamer's starboard
light; then everything became a blank.

* * *

I heard the low hum of insect life, and felt the balmy air of a spring
morning fanning my cheek. Gradually it assumed a rhythmic flow, to whose
soft pulsations my body seemed to respond. I floated on the gentle bosom
of a summer's sea, rising and falling with dreamy pleasure on each
crooning wave. But the pulsations grew stronger; the humming, louder;
the waves, larger, fiercer--I was dashed about on a stormy sea. A great
agony fastened upon me. Brilliant, intermittent sparks of light flashed
athwart my inner consciousness; in my ears there was the sound of many
waters; then a sudden snapping of an intangible something, and I awoke.

The scene, of which I was protagonist, was a curious one. A glance
sufficed to inform me that I lay on the cabin floor of some gentleman's
yacht, in a most uncomfortable posture. On either side, grasping my arms
and working them up and down like pump handles, were two peculiarly
clad, dark-skinned creatures. Though conversant with most aboriginal
types, I could not conjecture their nationality. Some attachment had
been fastened about my head, which connected my respiratory organs with
the machine I shall next describe. My nostrils, however, had been
closed, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. Foreshortened by the
obliquity of my line of vision, I beheld two tubes, similar to small
hosing but of different composition, which emerged from my mouth and
went off at an acute angle from each other. The first came to an abrupt
termination and lay on the floor beside me; the second traversed the
floor in numerous coils, connecting with the apparatus I have promised
to describe.

In the days before my life had become tangential, I had dabbled not a
little in science, and, conversant with the appurtenances and general
paraphernalia of the laboratory, I appreciated the machine I now beheld.
It was composed chiefly of glass, the construction being of that crude
sort which is employed for experimentative purposes. A vessel of water
was surrounded by an air chamber, to which was fixed a vertical tube,
surmounted by a globe. In the centre of this was a vacuum gauge. The
water in the tube moved upwards and downwards, creating alternate
inhalations and exhalations, which were in turn communicated to me
through the hose. With this, and the aid of the men who pumped my arms,
so vigorously, had the process of breathing been artificially carried
on, my chest rising and falling and my lungs expanding and contracting,
till nature could be persuaded to again take up her wonted labour.

As I opened my eyes, the appliance about my head, nostrils and mouth was
removed. Draining a stiff three fingers of brandy, I staggered to my
feet to thank my preserver, and confronted--my father. But long years of
fellowship with danger had taught me self-control, and I waited to see
if he would recognise me. Not so; he saw in me no more than a runaway
sailor and treated me accordingly.

Leaving me to the care of the blackies, he fell to revising the notes he
had made on my resuscitation. As I ate of the handsome fare served up to
me, confusion began on deck, and from the chanteys of the sailors and
the rattling of blocks and tackles I surmised that we were getting under
way. What a lark! Off on a cruise with my recluse father into the wide
Pacific! Little did I realise, as I laughed to myself, which side the
joke was to be on. Aye, had I known, I would have plunged overboard and
welcomed the dirty fo'c'sle from which I had just escaped.

I was not allowed on deck till we had sunk the Farallones and the last
pilot boat. I appreciated this forethought on the part of my father and
made it a point to thank him heartily, in my bluff seaman's manner. I
could not suspect that he had his own ends in view, in thus keeping my
presence secret to all save the crew. He told me briefly of my rescue by
his sailors, assuring me that the obligation was on his side, as my
appearance had been most opportune. He had constructed the apparatus for
the vindication of a theory concerning certain biological phenomena, and
had been waiting for an opportunity to use it.

"You have proved it beyond all doubt," he said; then added with a sigh,
"But only in the small matter of drowning."

But, to take a reef in my yarn--he offered me an advance of two pounds
on my previous wages to sail with him, and this I considered handsome,
for he really did not need me. Contrary to my expectations, I did not
join the sailors' mess, for'ard, being assigned to a comfortable
stateroom and eating at the captain's table. He had perceived that I was
no common sailor, and I resolved to take this chance for reinstating
myself in his good graces. I wove a fictitious past to account for my
education and present position, and did my best to come in touch with
him. I was not long in disclosing a predilection for scientific
pursuits, nor he in appreciating my aptitude. I became his assistant,
with a corresponding increase in wages, and before long, as he grew
confidential and expounded his theories, I was as enthusiastic as

The days flew quickly by, for I was deeply interested in my new studies,
passing my waking hours in his well-stocked library, or listening to his
plans and aiding him in his laboratory work. But we were forced to
forego many enticing experiments, a rolling ship not being exactly the
proper place for delicate or intricate work. He promised me, however,
many delightful hours in the magnificent laboratory for which we were
bound. He had taken possession of an uncharted South Sea island, as he
said, and turned it into a scientific paradise.

We had not been on the island long, before I discovered the horrible
mare's nest I had fallen into. But before I describe the strange things
which came to pass, I must briefly outline the causes which culminated
in as startling an experience as ever fell to the lot of man.

Late in life, my father had abandoned the musty charms of antiquity and
succumbed to the more fascinating ones embraced under the general head
of biology. Having been thoroughly grounded during his youth in the
fundamentals, he rapidly explored all the higher branches as far as the
scientific world had gone, and found himself on the no man's land of the
unknowable. It was his intention to pre-empt some of this unclaimed
territory, and it was at this stage of his investigations that we had
been thrown together. Having a good brain, though I say it myself, I had
mastered his speculations and methods of reasoning, becoming almost as
mad as himself. But I should not say this. The marvellous results we
afterwards obtained can only go to prove his sanity. I can but say that
he was the most abnormal specimen of cold-blooded cruelty I have ever

After having penetrated the dual mysteries of physiology and psychology,
his thought had led him to the verge of a great field, for which, the
better to explore, he began studies in higher organic chemistry,
pathology, toxicology and other sciences and sub-sciences rendered
kindred as accessories to his speculative hypotheses. Starting from the
proposition that the direct cause of the temporary and permanent arrest
of vitality was due to the coagulation of certain elements and compounds
in the protoplasm, he had isolated and subjected these various
substances to innumerable experiments. Since the temporary arrest of
vitality in an organism brought coma, and a permanent arrest death, he
held that by artificial means this coagulation of the protoplasm could
be retarded, prevented, and even overcome in the extreme states of
solidification. Or, to do away with the technical nomenclature, he
argued that death, when not violent and in which none of the organs had
suffered injury, was merely suspended vitality; and that, in such
instances, life could be induced to resume its functions by the use of
proper methods. This, then, was his idea: To discover the method--and by
practical experimentation prove the possibility--of renewing vitality in
a structure from which life had seemingly fled. Of course, he recognised
the futility of such endeavour after decomposition had set in; he must
have organisms which but the moment, the hour, or the day before, had
been quick with life. With me, in a crude way, he had proved this
theory. I was really drowned, really dead, when picked from the water of
San Francisco Bay--but the vital spark had been renewed by means of his
aerotherapeutical apparatus, as he called it.

Now to his dark purpose concerning me. He first showed me how completely
I was in his power. He had sent the yacht away for a year, retaining
only his two blackies, who were utterly devoted to him. He then made an
exhaustive review of his theory and outlined the method of proof he had
adopted, concluding with the startling announcement that I was to be his

I had faced death and weighed my chances in many a desperate venture,
but never in one of this nature. I can swear I am no coward, yet this
proposition of journeying back and forth across the borderland of death
put the yellow fear upon me. I asked for time, which he granted, at the
same time assuring me that but the one course was open--I must submit.
Escape from the island was out of the question; escape by suicide was
not to be entertained, though really preferable to what it seemed I must
undergo; my only hope was to destroy my captors. But this latter was
frustrated through the precautions taken by my father. I was subjected
to a constant surveillance, even in my sleep being guarded by one or the
other of the blacks.

Having pleaded in vain, I announced and proved that I was his son. It
was my last card, and I had played all my hopes upon it. But he was
inexorable; he was not a father but a scientific machine. I wonder yet
how it ever came to pass that he married my mother or begat me, for
there was not the slightest grain of emotion in his make-up. Reason was
all in all to him, nor could he understand such things as love or
sympathy in others, except as petty weaknesses which should be overcome.
So he informed me that in the beginning he had given me life, and who
had better right to take it away than he? Such, he said, was not his
desire, however; he merely wished to borrow it occasionally, promising
to return it punctually at the appointed time. Of course, there was a
liability of mishaps, but I could do no more than take the chances,
since the affairs of men were full of such.

The better to insure success, he wished me to be in the best possible
condition, so I was dieted and trained like a great athlete before a
decisive contest. What could I do? If I had to undergo the peril, it
were best to be in good shape. In my intervals of relaxation he allowed
me to assist in the arranging of the apparatus and in the various
subsidiary experiments. The interest I took in all such operations can
be imagined. I mastered the work as thoroughly as he, and often had the
pleasure of seeing some of my suggestions or alterations put into
effect. After such events I would smile grimly, conscious of officiating
at my own funeral.

He began by inaugurating a series of experiments in toxicology. When all
was ready, I was killed by a stiff dose of strychnine and allowed to lie
dead for some twenty hours. During that period my body was dead,
absolutely dead. All respiration and circulation ceased; but the
frightful part of it was, that while the protoplasmic coagulation
proceeded, I retained consciousness and was enabled to study it in all
its ghastly details.

The apparatus to bring me back to life was an air-tight chamber, fitted
to receive my body. The mechanism was simple--a few valves, a rotary
shaft and crank, and an electric motor. When in operation, the interior
atmosphere was alternately condenses and rarefied, thus communicating to
my lungs an artificial respiration without the agency of the hosing
previously used. Though my body was inert, and, for all I knew, in the
first stages of decomposition, I was cognisant of everything that
transpired. I knew when they placed me in the chamber, and though all my
senses were quiescent, I was aware of hypodermic injections of a
compound to react upon the coagulatory process. Then the chamber was
closed and the machinery started. My anxiety was terrible; but the
circulation became gradually restored, the different organs began to
carry on their respective functions, and in an hour's time I was eating
a hearty dinner.

It cannot be said that I participated in this series, nor in the
subsequent ones, with much verve; but after two ineffectual attempts of
escape, I began to take quite an interest. Besides, I was becoming
accustomed. My father was beside himself at his success, and as the
months rolled by his speculations took wilder and yet wilder flights. We
ranged through the three great classes of poisons, the neurotics, the
gaseous and the irritants, but carefully avoided some of the mineral
irritants and passed the whole group of corrosives. During the poison
regime I became quite accustomed to dying, and had but one mishap to
shake my growing confidence. Scarifying a number of lesser blood vessels
in my arm, he introduced a minute quantity of that most frightful of
poisons, the arrow poison, or curare. I lost consciousness at the start,
quickly followed by the cessation of respiration and circulation, and so
far had the solidification of the protoplasm advanced, that he gave up
all hope. But at the last moment he applied a discovery he had been
working upon, receiving such encouragement as to redouble his efforts.

In a glass vacuum, similar but not exactly like a Crookes' tube, was
placed a magnetic field. When penetrated by polarised light, it gave no
phenomena of phosphorescence nor the rectilinear projection of atoms,
but emitted non-luminous rays, similar to the X ray. While the X ray
could reveal opaque objects hidden in dense mediums, this was possessed
of far subtler penetration. By this he photographed my body, and found
on the negative an infinite number of blurred shadows, due to the
chemical and electric motions still going on. This was an infallible
proof that the rigor mortis in which I lay was not genuine; that is,
those mysterious forces, those delicate bonds which held my soul to my
body, were still in action. The resultants of all other poisons were
unapparent, save those of mercurial compounds, which usually left me
languid for several days.

Another series of delightful experiments was with electricity. We
verified Tesla's assertion that high currents were utterly harmless by
passing 100,000 volts through my body. As this did not affect me, the
current was reduced to 2,500, and I was quickly electrocuted. This time
he ventured so far as to allow me to remain dead, or in a state of
suspended vitality, for three days. It took four hours to bring me back.

Once, he superinduced lockjaw; but the agony of dying was so great that
I positively refused to undergo similar experiments. The easiest deaths
were by asphyxiation, such as drowning, strangling, and suffocation by
gas; while those by morphine, opium, cocaine and chloroform, were not at
all hard.

Another time, after being suffocated, he kept me in cold storage for
three months, not permitting me to freeze or decay. This was without my
knowledge, and I was in a great fright on discovering the lapse of time.
I became afraid of what he might do with me when I lay dead, my alarm
being increased by the predilection he was beginning to betray towards
vivisection. The last time I was resurrected, I discovered that he had
been tampering with my breast. Though he had carefully dressed and sewed
the incisions up, they were so severe that I had to take to my bed for
some time. It was during this convalescence that I evolved the plan by
which I ultimately escaped.

While feigning unbounded enthusiasm in the work, I asked and received a
vacation from my moribund occupation. During this period I devoted
myself to laboratory work, while he was too deep in the vivisection of
the many animals captured by the blacks to take notice of my work.

It was on these two propositions that I constructed my theory: First,
electrolysis, or the decomposition of water into its constituent gases
by means of electricity; and, second, by the hypothetical existence of a
force, the converse of gravitation, which Astor has named "apergy."
Terrestrial attraction, for instance, merely draws objects together but
does not combine them; hence, apergy is merely repulsion. Now, atomic or
molecular attraction not only draws objects together but integrates
them; and it was the converse of this, or a disintegrative force, which
I wished to not only discover and produce, but to direct at will. Thus,
the molecules of hydrogen and oxygen reacting on each other, separate
and create new molecules, containing both elements and forming water.
Electrolysis causes these molecules to split up and resume their
original condition, producing the two gases separately. The force I
wished to find must not only do this with two, but with all elements, no
matter in what compounds they exist. If I could then entice my father
within its radius, he would be instantly disintegrated and sent flying
to the four quarters, a mass of isolated elements.

It must not be understood that this force, which I finally came to
control, annihilated matter; it merely annihilated form. Nor, as I soon
discovered, had it any effect on inorganic structure; but to all organic
form it was absolutely fatal. This partiality puzzled me at first,
though had I stopped to think deeper I would have seen through it. Since
the number of atoms in organic molecules is far greater than in the most
complex mineral molecules, organic compounds are characterised by their
instability and the ease with which they are split up by physical forces
and chemical reagents.

By two powerful batteries, connected with magnets constructed specially
for this purpose, two tremendous forces were projected. Considered apart
from each other, they were perfectly harmless; but they accomplished
their purpose by focusing at an invisible point in mid-air. After
practically demonstrating its success, besides narrowly escaping being
blown into nothingness, I laid my trap. Concealing the magnets, so that
their force made the whole space of my chamber doorway a field of death,
and placing by my couch a button by which I could throw on the current
from the storage batteries, I climbed into bed.

The blackies still guarded my sleeping quarters, one relieving the other
at midnight. I turned on the current as soon as the first man arrived.
Hardly had I begun to doze, when I was aroused by a sharp, metallic
tinkle. There, on the mid-threshold, lay the collar of Dan, my father's
St. Bernard. My keeper ran to pick it up. He disappeared like a gust of
wind, his clothes falling to the floor in a heap. There was a slight
whiff of ozone in the air, but since the principal gaseous components of
his body were hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which are equally
colourless and odourless, there was no other manifestation of his
departure. Yet when I shut off the current and removed the garments, I
found a deposit of carbon in the form of animal charcoal; also other
powders, the isolated, solid elements of his organism, such as sulphur,
potassium and iron. Resetting the trap, I crawled back to bed. At
midnight I got up and removed the remains of the second black, and then
slept peacefully till morning.

I was awakened by the strident voice of my father, who was calling to me
from across the laboratory. I laughed to myself. There had been no one
to call him and he had overslept. I could hear him as he approached my
room with the intention of rousing me, and so I sat up in bed, the
better to observe his translation--perhaps apotheosis were a better
term. He paused a moment at the threshold, then took the fatal step.
Puff! It was like the wind sighing among the pines. He was gone. His
clothes fell in a fantastic heap on the floor. Besides ozone, I noticed
the faint, garlic-like odour of phosphorus. A little pile of elementary
solids lay among his garments. That was all. The wide world lay before
me. My captors were no more.


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia