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About the Author
Journalist, short story writer, and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) was equally adept in a variety of genres, from ghost stories to poetry to political commentary. Bierce's fiction is particularly distinguished by its realistic depictions of the author's Civil War experiences.
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By AMBROSE BIERCE, JANET BAINE KOPITO
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Moral Principle and the Material Interest
A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.
"Down, you base thing!" thundered the Moral Principle, "and let me pass over you!"
The Material Interest merely looked in the other's eyes without saying anything.
"Ah," said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, "let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed."
The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.
"In order to avoid a conflict," the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, "I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me."
Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. "I don't think you are very good walking," it said. "I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water."
It occurred that way.
The Crimson Candle
A man lying at the point of death called his wife to his bedside and said:
"I am about to leave you forever; give me, therefore, one last proof of your affection and fidelity, for, according to our holy religion, a married man seeking admittance at the gate of Heaven is required to swear that he has never defiled himself with an unworthy woman. In my desk you will find a crimson candle, which has been blessed by the High Priest and has a peculiar mystical significance. Swear to me that while it is in existence you will not remarry."
The Woman swore and the Man died. At the funeral the Woman stood at the head of the bier, holding a lighted crimson candle till it was wasted entirely away.
The Blotted Escutcheon and the Soiled Ermine
A Blotted Escutcheon, rising to a question of privilege, said:
"Mr. Speaker, I wish to hurl back an allegation and explain that the spots upon me are the natural markings of one who is a direct descendant of the sun and a spotted fawn. They come of no accident of character, but inhere in the divine order and constitution of things."
When the Blotted Escutcheon had resumed his seat a Soiled Ermine rose and said:
"Mr. Speaker, I have heard with profound attention and entire approval the explanation of the honourable member, and wish to offer a few remarks on my own behalf. I, too, have been foully calumniated by our ancient enemy, the Infamous Falsehood, and I wish to point out that I am made of the fur of the Mustela maculata, which is dirty from birth."
The Ingenious Patriot
Having obtained an audience of the King an Ingenious Patriot pulled a paper from his pocket, saying:
"May it please your Majesty, I have here a formula for constructing armour-plating which no gun can pierce. If these plates are adopted in the Royal Navy our warships will be invulnerable, and therefore invincible. Here, also, are reports of your Majesty's Ministers, attesting the value of the invention. I will part with my right in it for a million tumtums."
After examining the papers, the King put them away and promised him an order on the Lord High Treasurer of the Extortion Department for a million tumtums.
"And here," said the Ingenious Patriot, pulling another paper from another pocket, "are the working plans of a gun that I have invented, which will pierce that armour. Your Majesty's Royal Brother, the Emperor of Bang, is anxious to purchase it, but loyalty to your Majesty's throne and person constrains me to offer it first to your Majesty. The price is one million tumtums."
Having received the promise of another check, he thrust his hand into still another pocket, remarking:
"The price of the irresistible gun would have been much greater, your Majesty, but for the fact that its missiles can be so effectively averted by my peculiar method of treating the armour plates with a new——"
The King signed to the Great Head Factotum to approach.
"Search this man," he said, "and report how many pockets he has."
"Forty-three, Sire," said the Great Head Factotum, completing the scrutiny.
"May it please your Majesty," cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, "one of them contains tobacco."
"Hold him up by the ankles and shake him," said the King; "then give him a check for forty-two million tumtums and put him to death. Let a decree issue declaring ingenuity a capital offence."
The King of Madagao, being engaged in a dispute with the King of Bornegascar, wrote him as follows:
"Before proceeding further in this matter I demand the recall of your Minister from my capital."
Greatly enraged by this impossible demand, the King of Bornegascar replied:
"I shall not recall my Minister. Moreover, if you do not immediately retract your demand I shall withdraw him!"
This threat so terrified the King of Madagao that in hastening to comply he fell over his own feet, breaking the Third Commandment.
An Officer and a Thug
A Chief of Police who had seen an Officer beating a Thug was very indignant, and said he must not do so any more on pain of dismissal.
"Don't be too hard on me," said the Officer, smiling; "I was beating him with a stuffed club."
"Nevertheless," persisted the Chief of Police, "it was a liberty that must have been very disagreeable, though it may not have hurt. Please do not repeat it."
"But," said the Officer, still smiling, "it was a stuffed Thug."
In attempting to express his gratification, the Chief of Police thrust out his right hand with such violence that his skin was ruptured at the arm-pit and a stream of sawdust poured from the wound. He was a stuffed Chief of Police.
The Conscientious Official
While a Division Superintendent of a railway was attending closely to his business of placing obstructions on the track and tampering with the switches he received word that the President of the road was about to discharge him for incompetency.
"Good Heavens!" he cried; "there are more accidents on my division than on all the rest of the line."
"The President is very particular," said the Man who brought him the news; "he thinks the same loss of life might be effected with less damage to the company's property."
"Does he expect me to shoot passengers through the car windows?" exclaimed the indignant official, spiking a loose tie across the rails. "Does he take me for an assassin?"
How Leisure Came
A Man to Whom Time Was Money, and who was bolting his breakfast in order to catch a train, had leaned his newspaper against the sugar-bowl and was reading as he ate. In his haste and abstraction he stuck a pickle-fork into his right eye, and on removing the fork the eye came with it. In buying spectacles the needless outlay for the right lens soon reduced him to poverty, and the Man to Whom Time Was Money had to sustain life by fishing from the end of a wharf.
The Moral Sentiment
A Pugilist met the Moral Sentiment of the Community, who was carrying a hatbox. "What have you in the hat-box, my friend?" inquired the Pugilist.
"A new frown," was the answer. "I am bringing it from the frownery—the one over there with the gilded steeple."
"And what are you going to do with the nice new frown?" the Pugilist asked.
"Put down pugilism—if I have to wear it night and day," said the Moral Sentiment of the Community, sternly.
"That's right," said the Pugilist, "that is right, my good friend; if pugilism had been put down yesterday, I wouldn't have this kind of Nose to-day. I had a rattling hot fight last evening with——"
"Is that so?" cried the Moral Sentiment of the Community, with sudden animation. "Which licked ? Sit down here on the hat-box and tell me all about it!"
An Old Politician and a Young Politician were travelling through a beautiful country, by the dusty highway which leads to the City of Prosperous Obscurity. Lured by the flowers and the shade and charmed by the songs of birds which invited to woodland paths and green fields, his imagination fired by glimpses of golden domes and glittering palaces in the distance on either hand, the Young Politician said:
"Let us, I beseech thee, turn aside from this comfortless road leading, thou knowest whither, but not I. Let us turn our backs upon duty and abandon ourselves to the delights and advantages which beckon from every grove and call to us from every shining hill. Let us, if so thou wilt, follow this beautiful path, which, as thou seest, hath a guide-board saying, 'Turn in here all ye who seek the Palace of Political Distinction.'"
"It is a beautiful path, my son," said the Old Politician, without either slackening his pace or turning his head, "and it leadeth among pleasant scenes. But the search for the Palace of Political Distinction is beset with one mighty peril."
"What is that?" said the Young Politician.
"The peril of finding it," the Old Politician replied, pushing on.
The Thoughtful Warden
The Warden of a Penitentiary was one day putting locks on the doors of all the cells when a mechanic said to him:
"Those locks can all be opened from the inside—you are very imprudent."
The Warden did not look up from his work, but said:
"If that is called imprudence, I wonder what would be called a thoughtful provision against the vicissitudes of fortune."
The Treasury and the Arms
A Public Treasury, feeling Two Arms lifting out its contents, exclaimed :
"Mr. Shareman, I move for a division."
"You seem to know something about parliamentary forms of speech," said the Two Arms.
"Yes," replied the Public Treasury, "I am familiar with the hauls of legislation."
The Christian Serpent
A Rattlesnake came home to his brood and said: "My children, gather about and receive your father's last blessing, and see how a Christian dies."
"What ails you, Father?" asked the Small Snakes.
"I have been bitten by the editor of a partisan journal," was the reply, accompanied by the ominous death-rattle.
The Broom of the Temple
The city of Gakwak being about to lose its character of capital of the province of Ukwuk, the Wampog issued a proclamation convening all the male residents in council in the Temple of Ul to devise means of defence. The first speaker thought the best policy would be to offer a fried jackass to the gods. The second suggested a public procession, headed by the Wampog himself, bearing the Holy Poker on a cushion of cloth-of-brass. Another thought that a scarlet mole should be buried alive in the public park and a suitable incantation chanted over the remains. The advice of the fourth was that the columns of the capitol be rubbed with oil of dog by a person having a moustache on the calf of his leg. When all the others had spoken an Aged Man rose and said:
"High and mighty Wampog and fellow-citizens, I have listened attentively to all the plans proposed. All seem wise, and I do not suffer myself to doubt that any one of them would be efficacious. Nevertheless, I cannot help thinking that if we would put an improved breed of polliwogs in our drinking water, construct shallower roadways, groom the street cows, offer the stranger within our gates a free choice between the poniard and the potion, and relinquish our private system of morals, the other measures of public safety would be needless."
The Aged Man was about to speak further, but the meeting informally adjourned in order to sweep the floor of the temple—for the men of Gakwak are the tidiest housewives in all that province. The last speaker was the broom.
While bathing, Antinous was seen by Minerva, who was so enamoured of his beauty that, all armed as she happened to be, she descended from Olympus to woo him; but, unluckily displaying her shield, with the head of Medusa on it, she had the unhappiness to see the beautiful mortal turn to stone from catching a glimpse of it. She straightway ascended to ask Jove to restore him; but before this could be done a Sculptor and a Critic passed that way and espied him.
"This is a very bad Apollo," said the Sculptor: "the chest is too narrow, and one arm is at least a half-inch shorter than the other. The attitude is unnatural, and I may say impossible. Ah ! my friend, you should see my statue of Antinous."
"In my judgment, the figure," said the Critic, "is tolerably good, though rather Etrurian, but the expression of the face is decidedly Tuscan, and therefore false to nature. By the way, have you read my work on 'The Fallaciousness of the Aspectual in Art'?"
The Foolish Woman
A Married Woman, whose lover was about to reform by running away, procured a pistol and shot him dead.
"Why did you do that, Madam?" inquired a Policeman, sauntering by.
"Because," replied the Married Woman, "he was a wicked man, and had purchased a ticket to Chicago."
"My sister," said an adjacent Man of God, solemnly, "you cannot stop the wicked from going to Chicago by killing them."
Father and Son
"My boy," said an aged Father to his fiery and disobedient Son, "a hot temper is the soil of remorse. Promise me that when next you are angry you will count one hundred before you move or speak."
No sooner had the Son promised than he received a stinging blow from the paternal walking-stick, and by the time he had counted to seventy-five had the unhappiness to see the old man jump into a waiting cab and whirl away.
The Discontented Malefactor
A Judge having sentenced a Malefactor to the penitentiary was proceeding to point out to him the disadvantages of crime and the profit of reformation.
"Your Honour," said the Malefactor, interrupting, "would you be kind enough to alter my punishment to ten years in the penitentiary and nothing else?"
"Why," said the Judge, surprised, "I have given you only three years!"
"Yes, I know," assented the Malefactor—"three years' imprisonment and the preaching. If you please, I should like to commute the preaching."
A Call to Quit
Seeing that his audiences were becoming smaller every Sunday, a Minister of the Gospel broke off in the midst of a sermon, descended the pulpit stairs, and walked on his hands down the central aisle of the church. He then remounted his feet, ascended to the pulpit, and resumed his discourse, making no allusion to the incident.
"Now," said he to himself, as he went home, "I shall have, henceforth, a large attendance and no snoring."
But on the following Friday he was waited upon by the Pillars of the Church, who informed him that in order to be in harmony with the New Theology and get full advantage of modern methods of Gospel interpretation they had deemed it advisable to make a change. They had therefore sent a call to Brother Jowjeetum-Fallal, the World-Renowned Hindoo Human Pin-Wheel, then holding forth in Hoopitup's circus. They were happy to say that the reverend gentleman had been moved by the Spirit to accept the call, and on the ensuing Sabbath would break the bread of life for the brethren or break his neck in the attempt.
The Man and the Lightning
A Man Running for Office was overtaken by Lightning.
"You see," said the Lightning, as it crept past him inch by inch, "I can travel considerably faster than you."
"Yes," the Man Running for Office replied, "but think how much longer I keep going!"
The Lassoed Bear
A Hunter who had lassoed a Bear was trying to disengage himself from the rope, but the slip-knot about his wrist would not yield, for the Bear was all the time pulling in the slack with his paws. In the midst of his trouble the Hunter saw a Showman passing by, and managed to attract his attention.
"What will you give me," he said, "for my Bear?"
"It will be some five or ten minutes," said the Showman, "before I shall want a fresh Bear, and it looks to me as if prices would fall during that time. I think I'll wait and watch the market."
"The price of this animal," the Hunter replied, "is down to bed-rock; you can have him for nothing a pound, spot cash, and I'll throw in the next one that I lasso. But the purchaser must remove, the goods from the premises forthwith, to make room for three man-eating tigers, a cat-headed gorilla, and an armful of rattlesnakes."
But the Showman passed on, in maiden meditation, fancy free, and being joined soon afterward by the Bear, who was absently picking his teeth, it was inferred that they were not unacquainted.
The Ineffective Rooter
A Drunken Man was lying in the road with a bleeding nose, upon which he had fallen, when a Pig passed that way.
"You wallow fairly well," said the Pig, "but, my fine fellow, you have much to learn about rooting."
A Protagonist of Silver
Some Financiers who were whetting their tongues on their teeth because the Government had "struck down" silver, and were about to "inaugurate" a season of sweatshed, were addressed as follows by a Member of their honourable and warlike body:
"Comrades of the thunder and companions of death, I cannot but regard it as singularly fortunate that we who by conviction and sympathy are designated by nature as the champions of that fairest of her products, the white metal, should also, by a happy chance, be engaged mostly in the business of mining it. Nothing could be more appropriate than that those who from unselfish motives and elevated sentiments are doing battle for the people's rights and interests, should themselves be the chief beneficiaries of success. Therefore, O children of the earthquake and the storm, let us stand shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, and pocket to pocket!"
This speech so pleased the other Members of the convention that, actuated by a magnanimous impulse, they sprang to their feet and left the hall. It was the first time they had ever been known to leave anything having value.
Excerpted from Fantastic Fables by AMBROSE BIERCE, JANET BAINE KOPITO. Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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OLD SAWS WITH NEW TEETH,