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Bierce, Ambrose

· Ambrose Bierce: Chickamauga · Ambrose Bierce: Presentiment · Ambrose Bierce: An Obituarian · Ambrose Bierce: A Commuted Sentence · Ambrose Bierce: Three Kinds of a Rogue · Ambrose Bierce: The Key Note

Ambrose Bierce: Chickamauga

Chickamauga

One sunny autumn afternoon a child strayed away from its rude home in a small field and entered a forest unobserved. It was happy in a new sense of freedom from control, happy in the opportunity of exploration and adventure; for this child’s spirit, in bodies of its ancestors, had for thousands of years been trained to memorable feats of discovery and conquest—victories in battles whose critical moments were centuries, whose victors’ camps were cities of hewn stone. From the cradle of its race it had conquered its way through two continents and passing a great sea had penetrated a third, there to be born to war and dominion as a heritage.

The child was a boy aged about six years, the son of a poor planter. In his younger manhood the father had been a soldier, had fought against naked savages and followed the flag of his country into the capital of a civilized race to the far South. In the peaceful life of a planter the warrior-fire survived; once kindled, it is never extinguished. The man loved military books and pictures and the boy had understood enough to make himself a wooden sword, though even the eye of his father would hardly have known it for what it was. This weapon he now bore bravely, as became the son of an heroic race, and pausing now and again in the sunny space of the forest assumed, with some exaggeration, the postures of aggression and defense that he had been taught by the engraver’s art. Made reckless by the ease with which he overcame invisible foes attempting to stay his advance, he committed the common enough military error of pushing the pursuit to a dangerous extreme, until he found himself upon the margin of a wide but shallow brook, whose rapid waters barred his direct advance against the flying foe that had crossed with illogical ease. But the intrepid victor was not to be baffled; the spirit of the race which had passed the great sea burned unconquerable in that small breast and would not be denied. Finding a place where some bowlders in the bed of the stream lay but a step or a leap apart, he made his way across and fell again upon the rear-guard of his imaginary foe, putting all to the sword.

Now that the battle had been won, prudence required that he withdraw to his base of operations. Alas; like many a mightier conqueror, and like one, the mightiest, he could not

curb the lust for war,
Nor learn that tempted Fate will leave the loftiest star.

Advancing from the bank of the creek he suddenly found himself confronted with a new and more formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat, bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit! With a startled cry the child turned and fled, he knew not in what direction, calling with inarticulate cries for his mother, weeping, stumbling, his tender skin cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terror—breathless, blind with tears—lost in the forest! Then, for more than an hour, he wandered with erring feet through the tangled undergrowth, till at last, overcome by fatigue, he lay down in a narrow space between two rocks, within a few yards of the stream and still grasping his toy sword, no longer a weapon but a companion, sobbed himself to sleep. The wood birds sang merrily above his head; the squirrels, whisking their bravery of tail, ran barking from tree to tree, unconscious of the pity of it, and somewhere far away was a strange, muffed thunder, as if the partridges were drumming in celebration of nature’s victory over the son of her immemorial enslavers. And back at the little plantation, where white men and black were hastily searching the fields and hedges in alarm, a mother’s heart was breaking for her missing child.

Hours passed, and then the little sleeper rose to his feet. The chill of the evening was in his limbs, the fear of the gloom in his heart. But he had rested, and he no longer wept. With some blind instinct which impelled to action he struggled through the undergrowth about him and came to a more open ground—on his right the brook, to the left a gentle acclivity studded with infrequent trees; over all, the gathering gloom of twilight. A thin, ghostly mist rose along the water. It frightened and repelled him; instead of recrossing, in the direction whence he had come, he turned his back upon it, and went forward toward the dark inclosing wood. Suddenly he saw before him a strange moving object which he took to be some large animal—a dog, a pig—he could not name it; perhaps it was a bear. He had seen pictures of bears, but knew of nothing to their discredit and had vaguely wished to meet one. But something in form or movement of this object—something in the awkwardness of its approach—told him that it was not a bear, and curiosity was stayed by fear. He stood still and as it came slowly on gained courage every moment, for he saw that at least it had not the long menacing ears of the rabbit. Possibly his impressionable mind was half conscious of something familiar in its shambling, awkward gait. Before it had approached near enough to resolve his doubts he saw that it was followed by another and another. To right and to left were many more; the whole open space about him were alive with them—all moving toward the brook.

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

Not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer; he saw little but that these were men, yet crept like babes. Being men, they were not terrible, though unfamiliarly clad. He moved among them freely, going from one to another and peering into their faces with childish curiosity. All their faces were singularly white and many were streaked and gouted with red. Something in this—something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements—reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them. But on and ever on they crept, these maimed and bleeding men, as heedless as he of the dramatic contrast between his laughter and their own ghastly gravity. To him it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father’s negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement—had ridden them so, “making believe” they were his horses. He now approached one of these crawling figures from behind and with an agile movement mounted it astride. The man sank upon his breast, recovered, flung the small boy fiercely to the ground as an unbroken colt might have done, then turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone. The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes, gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry. The man rose to his knees, the child to his feet. The man shook his fist at the child; the child, terrified at last, ran to a tree near by, got upon the farther side of it and took a more serious view of the situation. And so the clumsy multitude dragged itself slowly and painfully along in hideous pantomime—moved forward down the slope like a swarm of great black beetles, with never a sound of going—in silence profound, absolute.

Instead of darkening, the haunted landscape began to brighten. Through the belt of trees beyond the brook shone a strange red light, the trunks and branches of the trees making a black lacework against it. It struck the creeping figures and gave them monstrous shadows, which caricatured their movements on the lit grass. It fell upon their faces, touching their whiteness with a ruddy tinge, accentuating the stains with which so many of them were freaked and maculated. It sparkled on buttons and bits of metal in their clothing. Instinctively the child turned toward the growing splendor and moved down the slope with his horrible companions; in a few moments had passed the foremost of the throng—not much of a feat, considering his advantages. He placed himself in the lead, his wooden sword still in hand, and solemnly directed the march, conforming his pace to theirs and occasionally turning as if to see that his forces did not straggle. Surely such a leader never before had such a following.

Scattered about upon the ground now slowly narrowing by the encroachment of this awful march to water, were certain articles to which, in the leader’s mind, were coupled no significant associations: an occasional blanket tightly rolled lengthwise, doubled and the ends bound together with a string; a heavy knapsack here, and there a broken rifle—such things, in short, as are found in the rear of retreating troops, the “spoor” of men flying from their hunters. Everywhere near the creek, which here had a margin of lowland, the earth was trodden into mud by the feet of men and horses. An observer of better experience in the use of his eyes would have noticed that these footprints pointed in both directions; the ground had been twice passed over—in advance and in retreat. A few hours before, these desperate, stricken men, with their more fortunate and now distant comrades, had penetrated the forest in thousands. Their successive battalions, breaking into swarms and reforming in lines, had passed the child on every side—had almost trodden on him as he slept. The rustle and murmur of their march had not awakened him. Almost within a stone’s throw of where he lay they had fought a battle; but all unheard by him were the roar of the musketry, the shock of the cannon, “the thunder of the captains and the shouting.” He had slept through it all, grasping his little wooden sword with perhaps a tighter clutch in unconscious sympathy with his martial environment, but as heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory.

The fire beyond the belt of woods on the farther side of the creek, reflected to earth from the canopy of its own smoke, was now suffusing the whole landscape. It transformed the sinuous line of mist to the vapor of gold. The water gleamed with dashes of red, and red, too, were many of the stones protruding above the surface. But that was blood; the less desperately wounded had stained them in crossing. On them, too, the child now crossed with eager steps; he was going to the fire. As he stood upon the farther bank he turned about to look at the companions of his march. The advance was arriving at the creek. The stronger had already drawn themselves to the brink and plunged their faces into the flood. Three or four who lay without motion appeared to have no heads. At this the child’s eyes expanded with wonder; even his hospitable understanding could not accept a phenomenon implying such vitality as that. After slaking their thirst these men had not had the strength to back away from the water, nor to keep their heads above it. They were drowned. In rear of these, the open spaces of the forest showed the leader as many formless figures of his grim command as at first; but not nearly so many were in motion. He waved his cap for their encouragement and smilingly pointed with his weapon in the direction of the guiding light—a pillar of fire to this strange exodus.

Confident of the fidelity of his forces, he now entered the belt of woods, passed through it easily in the red illumination, climbed a fence, ran across a field, turning now and again to coquet with his responsive shadow, and so approached the blazing ruin of a dwelling. Desolation everywhere! In all the wide glare not a living thing was visible. He cared nothing for that; the spectacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames. He ran about, collecting fuel, but every object that he found was too heavy for him to cast in from the distance to which the heat limited his approach. In despair he flung in his sword—a surrender to the superior forces of nature. His military career was at an end.

Shifting his position, his eyes fell upon some outbuildings which had an oddly familiar appearance, as if he had dreamed of them. He stood considering them with wonder, when suddenly the entire plantation, with its inclosing forest, seemed to turn as if upon a pivot. His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed. He recognized the blazing building as his own home!

For a moment he stood stupefied by the power of the revelation, then ran with stumbling feet, making a half-circuit of the ruin. There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman—the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles—the work of a shell.

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries—something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey—a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil. The child was a deaf mute.

Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

Ambrose Bierce
(1842-1914)
Chickamauga

• fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose, Bierce, Ambrose


Ambrose Bierce: Presentiment

 

Presentiment

With saintly grace and reverent tread,
She walked among the graves with me;
Her every foot-fall seemed to be
A benediction on the dead.

The guardian spirit of the place
She seemed, and I some ghost forlorn
Surprised in the untimely morn
She made with her resplendent face.

Moved by some waywardness of will,
Three paces from the path apart
She stepped and stood — my prescient heart
Was stricken with a passing chill.

The folk-lore of the years agone
Remembering, I smiled and thought:
“Who shudders suddenly at naught,
His grave is being trod upon.”

But now I know that it was more
Than idle fancy. O, my sweet,
I did not think so little feet
Could make a buried heart so sore!

Ambrose Bierce
(1842-1914)
poetry

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose


Ambrose Bierce: An Obituarian

 

Ambrose Bierce

(1842-1914?)

 

An Obituarian

Death-poet Pickering sat at his desk,

Wrapped in appropriate gloom;

His posture was pensive and picturesque,

Like a raven charming a tomb.

 

Enter a party a-drinking the cup

Of sorrow–and likewise of woe:

“Some harrowing poetry, Mister, whack up,

All wrote in the key of O.

 

“For the angels has called my old woman hence

From the strife (where she fit mighty free).

It’s a nickel a line? Cond–n the expense!

For wealth is now little to me.”

 

The Bard of Mortality looked him through

In the piercingest sort of a way:

“It is much to me though it’s little to you–

I’ve taken a wife to-day.”

 

So he twisted the tail of his mental cow

And made her give down her flow.

The grief of that bard was long-winded, somehow–

There was reams and reamses of woe.

 

The widower man which had buried his wife

Grew lily-like round each gill,

For she turned in her grave and came back to life–

Then he cruel ignored the bill!

 

Then Sorrow she opened her gates a-wide,

As likewise did also Woe,

And the death-poet’s song, as is heard inside,

Is sang in the key of O.

 

Ambrose Bierce poetry

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose


Ambrose Bierce: A Commuted Sentence

 

Ambrose Bierce

(1842-1914?)

 

A Commuted Sentence

Boruck and Waterman upon their grills

In Hades lay, with many a sigh and groan,

Hotly disputing, for each swore his own

Were clearly keener than the other’s ills.

And, truly, each had much to boast of–bone

And sinew, muscle, tallow, nerve and skin,

Blood in the vein and marrow in the shin,

Teeth, eyes and other organs (for the soul

Has all of these and even a wagging chin)

Blazing and coruscating like a coal!

For Lower Sacramento, you remember,

Has trying weather, even in mid-December.

 

Now this occurred in the far future. All

Mankind had been a million ages dead,

And each to her reward above had sped,

Each to his punishment below,–I call

That quite a just arrangement. As I said,

Boruck and Waterman in warmest pain

Crackled and sizzed with all their might and main.

For, when on earth, they’d freed a scurvy host

Of crooks from the State prison, who again

Had robbed and ravaged the Pacific Coast

And (such the felon’s predatory nature)

Even got themselves into the Legislature.

 

So Waterman and Boruck lay and roared

In Hades. It is true all other males

Felt the like flames and uttered equal wails,

But did not suffer them; whereas they bored

Each one the other. But indeed my tale’s

Not getting on at all. They lay and browned

Till Boruck (who long since his teeth had ground

Away and spoke Gum Arabic and made

Stump speeches even in praying) looked around

And said to Bob’s incinerated shade:

“Your Excellency, this is mighty hard on

The inventors of the unpardonable pardon.”

 

The other soul–his right hand all aflame,

For ’twas with that he’d chiefly sinned, although

His tongue, too, like a wick was working woe

To the reserve of tallow in his frame–

Said, with a sputtering, uncertain flow,

And with a gesture like a shaken torch:

“Yes, but I’m sure we’ll not much longer scorch.

Although this climate is not good for Hope,

Whose joyous wing ‘twould singe, I think the porch

Of Hell we’ll quit with a pacific slope.

Last century I signified repentance

And asked for commutation of our sentence.”

 

Even as he spoke, the form of Satan loomed

In sight, all crimson with reflections’s fire,

Like some tall tower or cathedral spire

Touched by the dawn while all the earth is gloomed

In mists and shadows of the night time. “Sire,”

Said Waterman, his agitable wick

Still sputtering, “what calls you back so quick?

It scarcely was a century ago

You left us.” “I have come to bring,” said Nick,

“St. Peter’s answer (he is never slow

In correspondence) to your application

For pardon–pardon me!–for commutation.

 

“He says that he’s instructed to reply

(And he has so instructed me) that sin

Like yours–and this poor gentleman’s who’s in

For bad advice to you–comes rather high;

But since, apparently, you both begin

To feel some pious promptings to the right,

And fain would turn your faces to the light,

Eternity seems all too long a term.

So ’tis commuted to one-half. I’m quite

Prepared, when that expires, to free the worm

And quench the fire.” And, civilly retreating,

He left them holding their protracted meeting.

 

Ambrose Bierce poetry

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose


Ambrose Bierce: Three Kinds of a Rogue

 

Ambrose Bierce

(1842-1914?)

 

Three Kinds of a Rogue

 

I

Sharon, ambitious of immortal shame,

Fame’s dead-wall daubed with his illustrious name–

Served in the Senate, for our sins, his time,

Each word a folly and each vote a crime;

Law for our governance well skilled to make

By knowledge gained in study how to break;

Yet still by the presiding eye ignored,

Which only sought him when too loud he snored.

Auspicious thunder!–when he woke to vote

He stilled his own to cut his country’s throat;

That rite performed, fell off again to sleep,

While statesmen ages dead awoke to weep!

For sedentary service all unfit,

By lying long disqualified to sit,

Wasting below as he decayed aloft,

His seat grown harder as his brain grew soft,

He left the hall he could not bring away,

And grateful millions blessed the happy day!

Whate’er contention in that hall is heard,

His sovereign State has still the final word:

For disputatious statesmen when they roar

Startle the ancient echoes of his snore,

Which from their dusty nooks expostulate

And close with stormy clamor the debate.

To low melodious thunders then they fade;

Their murmuring lullabies all ears invade;

Peace takes the Chair; the portal Silence keeps;

No motion stirs the dark Lethean deeps–

Washoe has spoken and the Senate sleeps.

 

II

Lo! the new Sharon with a new intent,

Making no laws, but keen to circumvent

The laws of Nature (since he can’t repeal)

That break his failing body on the wheel.

As Tantalus again and yet again

The elusive wave endeavors to restrain

To slake his awful thirst, so Sharon tries

To purchase happiness that age denies;

Obtains the shadow, but the substance goes,

And hugs the thorn, but cannot keep the rose;

For Dead Sea fruits bids prodigally, eats,

And then, with tardy reformation–cheats.

Alert his faculties as three score years

And four score vices will permit, he nears–

Dicing with Death–the finish of the game,

And curses still his candle’s wasting flame,

The narrow circle of whose feeble glow

Dims and diminishes at every throw.

Moments his losses, pleasures are his gains,

Which even in his grasp revert to pains.

The joy of grasping them alone remains.

 

III

Ring up the curtain and the play protract!

Behold our Sharon in his last mad act.

With man long warring, quarreling with God,

He crouches now beneath a woman’s rod

Predestined for his back while yet it lay

Closed in an acorn which, one luckless day,

He stole, unconscious of its foetal twig,

From the scant garner of a sightless pig.

With bleeding shoulders pitilessly scored,

He bawls more lustily than once he snored.

The sympathetic Comstocks droop to hear,

And Carson river sheds a viscous tear,

Which sturdy tumble-bugs assail amain,

With ready thrift, and urge along the plain.

The jackass rabbit sorrows as he lopes;

The sage-brush glooms along the mountain slopes;

In rising clouds the poignant alkali,

Tearless itself, makes everybody cry.

Washoe canaries on the Geiger Grade

Subdue the singing of their cavalcade,

And, wiping with their ears the tears unshed,

Grieve for their family’s unlucky head.

Virginia City intermits her trade

And well-clad strangers walk her streets unflayed.

Nay, all Nevada ceases work to weep

And the recording angel goes to sleep.

But in his dreams his goose-quill’s creaking fount

Augments the debits in the long account.

And still the continents and oceans ring

With royal torments of the Silver King!

Incessant bellowings fill all the earth,

Mingled with inextinguishable mirth.

He roars, men laugh, Nevadans weep, beasts howl,

Plash the affrighted fish, and shriek the fowl!

With monstrous din their blended thunders rise,

Peal upon peal, and brawl along the skies,

Startle in hell the Sharons as they groan,

And shake the splendors of the great white throne!

Still roaring outward through the vast profound,

The spreading circles of receding sound

Pursue each other in a failing race

To the cold confines of eternal space;

There break and die along that awful shore

Which God’s own eyes have never dared explore–

Dark, fearful, formless, nameless evermore!

 

Look to the west! Against yon steely sky

Lone Mountain rears its holy cross on high.

About its base the meek-faced dead are laid

To share the benediction of its shade.

With crossed white hands, shut eyes and formal feet,

Their nights are innocent, their days discreet.

Sharon, some years, perchance, remain of life–

Of vice and greed, vulgarity and strife;

And then–God speed the day if such His will–

You’ll lie among the dead you helped to kill,

And be in good society at last,

Your purse unsilvered and your face unbrassed.

 

Ambrose Bierce poetry

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose


Ambrose Bierce: The Key Note

 

Ambrose Bierce

(1842-1914?)

 

The Key Note


I dreamed I was dreaming one morn as I lay

In a garden with flowers teeming.

On an island I lay in a mystical bay,

In the dream that I dreamed I was dreaming.

 

The ghost of a scent–had it followed me there

From the place where I truly was resting?

It filled like an anthem the aisles of the air,

The presence of roses attesting.

 

Yet I thought in the dream that I dreamed I dreamed

That the place was all barren of roses–

That it only seemed; and the place, I deemed,

Was the Isle of Bewildered Noses.

 

Full many a seaman had testified

How all who sailed near were enchanted,

And landed to search (and in searching died)

For the roses the Sirens had planted.

 

For the Sirens were dead, and the billows boomed

In the stead of their singing forever;

But the roses bloomed on the graves of the doomed,

Though man had discovered them never.

 

I thought in my dream ’twas an idle tale,

A delusion that mariners cherished–

That the fragrance loading the conscious gale

Was the ghost of a rose long perished.

 

I said, “I will fly from this island of woes.”

And acting on that decision,

By that odor of rose I was led by the nose,

For ’twas truly, ah! truly, Elysian.

 

I ran, in my madness, to seek out the source

Of the redolent river–directed

By some supernatural, sinister force

To a forest, dark, haunted, infected.

 

And still as I threaded (’twas all in the dream

That I dreamed I was dreaming) each turning

There were many a scream and a sudden gleam

Of eyes all uncannily burning!

 

The leaves were all wet with a horrible dew

That mirrored the red moon’s crescent,

And all shapes were fringed with a ghostly blue,

Dim, wavering, phosphorescent.

 

But the fragrance divine, coming strong and free,

Led me on, though my blood was clotting,

Till–ah, joy!–I could see, on the limbs of a tree,

Mine enemies hanging and rotting!

 

Ambrose Bierce poetry

fleursdumal.nl magazine

More in: Archive A-B, Bierce, Ambrose


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