Ambrose Bierce

The San Francisco Examiner/January 1, 1888

A Record of Individual Opinion.

The conviction entertained by an Oakland contemporary, that “the destinies of the German Empire may be profoundly affected by the death of Dr. Mackonochle,” seems to me one of the most mysterious of intellectual phenomena. It impresses one with something of the awe that is felt in the presence of some uncanny manifestation of the supernatural. In what way the destinies of the German Empire were interlocked with the personality of the once notorious English Ritualist, it is not given to the merely human intelligence to discern; that occult relation can be visible only to the spiritual eye of one whom long experience in Oakland journalism has purged of his earthly dross and informed with the divine fire which illuminates the understanding with a revealing light like that of a peeled potato in a sack of coal.

A Chicago wedding was darkened by but a single untoward incident—the absence of the bridegroom. This person has now “turned up,” and explains that while on his way to the place of execution, on that fateful day, he was rudely assailed by two gentlemen whom he had not the pleasure of knowing, and by them chloroformed and removed to an unfamiliar place. This is a singular occurrence—it is singular that two strangers, or even one, should have taken so sympathetic an interest in an intending bridegroom as to administer the kindly rite of anaesthesia; and still more singular that a man should take the trouble to explain why he did not marry a Chicago girl.

It is related in the news dispatches that a balloon having been seen to descend in a Kentucky swamp, a search was set afoot with the result of finding the aeronaut’s “emaciated” body. Poor dear man!—the balloon must have been some hours above the whisky belt, and he had forgotten to put aboard his private barrel!

The incident related in the foregoing paragraph reminds me of a Kentucky Colonel—a real Colonel—whom I knew when I was soldiering. Suddenly seized one day by a diligent discomfort in the region of the sword-belt, he was advised, in the absence of the regimental surgeon and his medicaments, to drink a scoundrelly potion compounded of turpentine and water! He took it down with never a wink. “How do you like it, Sir?” asked the Major, with mock solicitude. “Bah—it is nothing,” said the hero of the infernal performance, as tranquilly as he would have described the loss of a leg by a cannon-shot—“I could drink it without the turpentine.”

Every lover of his race will burn and thrill with ecstasy on learning that the British Government has decided to banish King Jaja, of Oporbo, to the island of St. Helena. There let the monster expiate his giant crimes! There let the unshrouded specters from a thousand battle-fields confront him in the silent solitude of his evil distinction, in the darkness of his great remorse, and pointing him out with fleshless fingers—the weapons of the dead—perform their horrible office upon his guilty soul! In the thunder of the Atlantic, whose unappeasable billows batter forever at the rocky defenses where

St. Helena’s castled steep

Frowns defiance o’er the deep.

Let him hear the voice of Nature’s wrath against the slayer of her sons! And at the last, when brought to bed of cancer in the stomach, let him die an inglorious death, murmuring the impotent words, “Head obde Ahmy,” and take his appointed place in history’s Chamber of Horrors, execrated ceaselessly by all the nations that he overcame and mourned by all the followers whom he left alive.

As Washington telegrams mention,

“D. Young” is awarded a pension.

O can it be Michael, I wonder,

Who (Sprockets opposing) fought under

The banner of Mammon and also

A stool, and endeavored to bawl so

That angels and saints would all rush to

The rescue though devils would blush to.

‘T would be a consistent attention

If Michael is drawing a pension

For wounds in his body and breeches,

Subduing the skill of the leeches.

To comfort his spirit’s internal

Contusion by calling him “Colonel.”

O Knight of the Tripod, if Spreckels

Again ever wickedly freckles

Your surface with ballets, I beg you

To rival the great feats of leg you

Performed on the other occasion

To equal his bullets’ abrasion.

Like that, I may venture to mention.

You “heeled at the first intention.”

In an Eastern telegram a few days ago was related the incident of a “cowhiding” performed at a Christmas festival, the victim being the master of that revel and the victors a brace of young women concerning the respectability of one of whom he was said to have uttered a doubt. When the first young woman had so exhausted her strength that it was possible for a number of men to restrain her arm, though probably not her tongue, the other “delicate creature,” as Shakespeare would call her, snatched the scourge and began the work de novo. The outcome and finality of it all was a fearfully and wonderfully ribbed and striated man and a town which on the question of the propriety of the performance was divided against itself, the fools all fervently affirmative.

That there can be two opinions of such an affair—of any affair in which a woman uses retaliatory violence against a man—must be accepted as one of the many evidences of hideous imperfection in the human organ of thought, and of the brevity of the step which the race has taken out of the night of unreason. It seems incredible that any adult male able to count ten on the fingers of one hand and having a just sense of the advantages of going in when it rains should have failed to discern the rationale of that social convention which forbids a man to lay his hand upon a woman unless she wants him to—as I am told sometimes happens. No one who has discerned it can, without repugnance and disgust, contemplate the spectacle or entertain the thought of a woman assaulting a man even with that intemperate tongue which tradition ascribes to her sex. It is written all over creation in letters of blood that the weak shall not irritate the strong.

The custom that prevails among the generally rather prosperous members of a small class in the population of every civilized country, of conceding to the physical feebleness of woman immunity from physical violence at the hands of man, is no exception to the universal rule that every privilege is fettered to its obligation. A man must not strike a woman, because (1) men believe women to be better than themselves, and (2) they know them to be weaker, and therefore incapable of defense. But, obviously, this immunity implies that a woman shall not strike a man, except, of course, her husband.

If it should become customary for women to lift the band against men, it is clear that it could no longer remain customary for men to refrain from lifting the hand against women. In attacking a man, a woman unsexes herself in this sense: she repudiates her obligation, and by that act must be held to have forfeited the privilege of which it is an essential condition, voluntarily placing herself upon ground where considerations of sex have no validity and do not, in fact, apply. In exact justice she might be, and in point of expediency ought to be, promptly knocked down. By her violation of the wholesome and immemorial understanding—the unwritten contract between the sexes—she has not only invited the blow but she has earned the execration of her entire sex; for her act has, to the limit of its influence, tended to release men from the self-assumed obligation upon which the security of all women depends.

She has, in short, committed a crime against the whole race, and is, in cold truth, a rascal. That men suffer the pungent touch of her cowhide, the penetrant impaction of her bullet and the ripple and plash of her vitriol, not only without retaliation but even without effective defense, goes a considerable way toward proving that in point of magnanimity man is distinctly superior to the tiger.

The reader was kind enough some weeks-ago to indulge me in various remarks indifferently respectful to the national custom of calling men by fictitious titles and titles that have lapsed. The practice seems to me more discreditable and mischievous the more I think of it, and I am now disposed kindly to the notion that it ought by law to be made a misdemeanor, in the same way and for the same and many additional reasons that in some states it is made a misdemeanor to wear a Grand Army badge without taking the trouble to have been a soldier in the great estrangement. One of the disadvantages of the folly herein deprecated is its tendency to beget confusion in the minds of foreigners who “come over” to study our social and political systems in propinquity, or, for that matter, remain at home and trust to that “comprehensive view” which “surveys, from China to Peru.” Fancy such a person taking up last Saturday’s issue of the Diligent Sycophant and reading an editorial beginning: “Governor Stanford has introduced, or given notice of the introduction of, a bid into the Senate,” etc. Wherever throughout the article Senator Stanford is mentioned in connection with his bill he is called “Governor.” Of course our intelligent foreign student could in honor, conscience and decency do no less than make the article the foundation of an impressive pyramid of literary wisdom, solid, strong and eternal—an immortal book entitled: “Gubernatorial Lawmakers; an Examination of the American Political Iniquity of Combining the Executive and the Legislative Function in a Single Person.”

To all old Californians Senator Stanford is still “Governor”—their only objection to the title is that it once really belonged to him; but as he has not for something like a quarter of a century had the shadow of a right to it, it is at least preferable in their view to the one that is legally his. I once knew a man whom everybody called “President” and nobody knew why. He was a musician, and one day in a local newspaper yellow and friable with age I read a report of a wedding, in which it was stated that he “presided at the organ.” A gentleman who presided at a flute in a lodging-house is, I suppose, eligible to the title.

The German Department of Justice is said to have sent a Commissioner, Judge Aschrott, to this country to study the American penal system with a view to its adoption in the Empire. It is sincerely to he hoped that the Germans will not “take it down whole.” It would be well, for example, to set aside for later examination in the light of our own more extended experience our practice of putting into the various penitentiaries our future rulers instead of our former ones.

“Professor Dahm’s” explanation of the circumstances under which two same girls entered his lair and left it as gibbering lunatics may be true or not, but it does not acquit him, in any event, of “astrology.” I know something of this wretch and his fellow wretches of the “astrology” imposture, and when I am Dictator the headsman’s ax, its cheeks rosy with their blood, will be “the very picture of health.” I will not leave an astrologer of them all, so help me Satan! Do you know, you fat and prosperous fellow sitting at the receipt of custom in your bank or counting room—do you know where your wife was yesterday with her new friend, the charming and very respectable Mrs. Runningmate? Sir, she was one of the score or more of similarly sexed dupes and idiots in fashionable attire whose money was graciously taken in by the somewhat clouded hand of the world renowned thaumaturgist, Professor Hoopin Helworth. And your daughter, sir, the beautiful and accomplished Amiabilia Delicatessa, she was there, unknown to her mother, the day before, and afterward visited the web of Professor Arachnus Pandarus, recommended to her by the celebrated inspirational manipulatrix, Mme. Blatsky, the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter, born with a caul—and a gall. I will tell you no more, my very good but rather too “busy” man of affairs. There is more—more than enough, more—to tell, but, of course, it can’t be true of your wife and your daughter—Holy smoke, no! Besides, you have so little leisure to read. You really cannot take the time to have your eyes opened by installments: it must be broken to you roughly; and the chances are that it will be. In the meantime do not let any earthly consideration come between you and your dolluring. Above all, don’t corrupt the minds of your wife and daughter by knowledge of evil. Don’t venture to explain to them the ravening infamies infesting all the jungles of cities, the hungry rascalities that crouch by every path of life. Faith! why should she know of wickedness, whose only relation to it is that of present dupe and future victim? She can be both with no knowledge “unfitting” her for the “domestic circle.” Dear old domestic circle! within whose narrow plot Satan, like a skilled skater on a small pond, executes his beautifulest work!

My professional and commercial friends—my well-to-do friends—my respectable, clean-bodied, church-going and tax-evading friends, your names in the society columns of the newspapers every week and your hands, generally speaking, in the pockets of your neighbors—my well-mannered and well-meaning friends, a trifle over-addicted to pillage—my oleaginous and saponaceous friends, lubricants of the social machine—my friends spectacularly austere, who impress me with a delicious sense of having got into the show for nothing—look to your women and girls! It is they who make possible the pandering “astrologer,” the procuring “healer,” the unspeakable “manipulator” and all the horrible pirate crew of them. What! do you think “the lower classes” support all this superincumbent mass of imposture and vice? They have not the money. It is yourselves who foot the bills: it is from your own purses that the wants of these malefactors are supplied; it is in the sweat of your brows that they eat souls. Look to your women, I say—look to your women. Some of them may possibly be worth saving.

He strolled along the avenue,

Two “ladifrens” beside him:

A swinging parrot met his view.

Who indolently eyed him.

Some dread fatality provoked

His humor to attack her.

Close to the cage his nose he poked.

With “Polly want a cracker?”

Polly barely turned her sleepy head

’Twas plain that she desired

But little talk with him—and said

“Go ’way—you make me tired.”

It is hoped that with further practice the good people of Scott City, which appears to be in Missouri, may acquire greater skill in extracting small children from well-tubes. The plan of letting down a hook when the child is at the depth of eighty feet and fitting the tube like a cartridge in a gun was tried the other day and was only partially successful. The hook took hold very well, under the chin, and a strong pull by willing hands hoisted the small unfortunate a considerable part of the distance to the surface, where its anxious mother and friends (including the blacksmith who made the hook) awaited it; the screams became more audible every moment, carrying joy to every heart. But the friction and consequent fatigue were very great and the men at the rope ceased work for a moment to rest. By some mischance the rope was permitted to slacken and the hook, having unluckily been made without a barb, disengaged itself by its weight, and as the child settled slowly past it refused to take hold again. The whole work had now to be done over again, but these brave hearts never faltered in their humane efforts, although a spectator whose suggestion of baiting the book had been received with contumelious inhospitality coldly remarked: “I told you so” which was not accurately true. Further attempts, however, were unavailing: the hook would not take a firm hold, though an occasional timely scream as the rope drew taut inspired a momentary hope which speedily proved fallacious. The hook, repeatedly drawn up and examined, showed each time enough new and crimson evidence of its partial efficacy to raise the spirits of all except the mother; but finally this method of rescue was reluctantly abandoned and the child got out by digging. Unfortunately it had in the meantime died. The tube-wells of Scott City are now closed, pending the blacksmith’s production of a more effective appliance for saving life—something, preferably, acting on the principle of the corkscrew.

I never was quite clear about the relative rank and importance of the world’s great men, and daresay I am quite wrong, but it seems to me a little singular that the Emperor of Germany pays railroad fare when he travels, and Colonel Jackson of the Wasp goes wherever he wants to for nothing.

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