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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

THE DAMNED THING by Ambrose G. Bierce

 THE DAMNED THING

by
Ambrose G. Bierce

CHAPTER I

ONE DOES NOT ALWAYS EAT WHAT IS ON THE TABLE

By the light of a tallow candle which had been placed on one end of a rough
table a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account
book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for
the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a
stronger light on it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity
a half of the rooms, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides
the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the
rough log walls, silent, motionless, and the room being small, not very far
from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the
eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet,
his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to
be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without
expectation. From the bland darkness outside came in, through the aperture
that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the
wilderness Ñ the long nameless note of a distant coyote; the drone of great
blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem
always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if
conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that
company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters
of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged
faces Ñ obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were
evidently men of the vicinity, farmers and woodsmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that
he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which
attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His
coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco; his foot-gear was not
of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only
one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere
personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man
was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may
have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a
coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book
in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man's effects Ñ in
his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast
pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He,
clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who
dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in
fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

"We have waited for you," said the coroner. "It is necessary to have done
with this business to-night."

The young man smiled. "I am sorry to have kept you," he said. "I went away,
not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I
suppose I am called back to relate."

The coroner smiled.

"The account that you posted to your newspaper," he said, "differs,
probably, from that which you will give here under oath."

"That," replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, "is as you
please. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not
written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as part of
my testimony under oath."

"But you say it is incredible."

"That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true."

The coroner was silent for a time, his eyes upon the floor.

The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew
their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his
eyes and said: "We will resume the inquest."

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

"What is your name?" the coroner asked.

"William Harker."

"Age?"

"Twenty-seven."

"You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?"

"Yes."

"You were with him when he died?"

"Near him."

"How did that happen; your presence, I mean?"

"I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose,
however, was to study him and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a
good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories."

"I sometimes read them."

"Thank you."

"Stories in general Ñ not yours."

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humour shows high
lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the
death chamber conquers by surprise.

"Relate the circumstances of this man's death," said the coroner. "You may
use any notes or memoranda that you please."

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held
it near the candle and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he
wanted began to read.

                                 CHAPTER II

                   WHAT MAY HAPPEN IN A FIELD OF WILD OATS

"...The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for
quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our
best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed
it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively
level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the
chaparral Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly we heard, at a
little distance to our right and partly in front, a noise as of some animal
thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.

"'We've started a deer,' I said. 'I wish we had brought a rifle.'

"Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral,
said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun and was holding it in
readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he
had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and
imminent peril.

"'Oh, come,' I said. 'You are not going to fill up a deer with quailshot,
are you?'

"Still he did not reply; but catching sight of his face as he turned it
slightly toward me I was struck by the intensity of his look. Then I
understood that we had serious business in hand, and my first conjecture was
that we had 'jumped' a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan's side, cocking my
piece as I moved.

"The bushes were now quiet and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as
attentive to the place as before.

"'What is it? What the devil is it?' I asked.

"'That Damned Thing!' he replied, without turning his head. His voice was
husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.

"I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place
of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly
describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only
bent it, but pressed it down; crushed it so that it did not rise; and this
movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.

"Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this
unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense
of fear. I remember and tell it here because, singularly enough, I
recollected it then that once in looking carelessly out of an open window
I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of
larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the
others, but being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail
seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of
aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon
the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension
of them is noted as a menace to our safety, as warning of unthinkable
calamity. So now the apparent causeless movement of the herbage and the
slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly
disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly
credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulder and
fire both barrels at the agitated grain! Before the smoke had cleared away I
heard a loud savage cry; a scream like that of a wild animal and flinging
his gun upon the ground Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At
the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of
something unseen in the smoke; some soft, heavy substance that seemed
thrown against me with great force.

"Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have
been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony,
and mingling with his cries were such hoarse, savage sounds as one hears
from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and
looked in the direction of Morgan's retreat; and may Heaven in mercy spare
me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was
my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle,
hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement
from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed
to lack the hand Ñ at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible.
At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern
but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out Ñ I
cannot otherwise express it Ñ then a shifting of his position would bring it
all into view again.

"All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan
assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior
weight and strength. I saw nothing but him and not always distinctly. During
the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an
enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from
the throat of man or brute!

"For a moment only I stood irresolute, then throwing down my gun I ran
forward to my friend's assistance. I had a vague belief that he was
suffering from a fit, or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his
side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but with a feeling of
such terror as even these awful events had not inspired I now saw again the
mysterious movement of the wild oats, prolonging itself from the trampled
area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it
had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my
companion. He was dead."

                                 CHAPTER III

                      A MAN THOUGH NAKED MAY BE IN RAGS

The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an
edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether
naked and showing in the candle- light a clay-like yellow. It had, however,
broad maculations of bluish black, obviously caused by extravasated blood
from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with
a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and
shreds.

The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk
handkerchief which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of
the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the
throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their
curiosity and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open
window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the
handkerchief upon the dead man's neck the coroner stepped to an angle of the
room and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of
which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with
blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather
uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that
was new to them being Harker's testimony.

"Gentlemen," the coroner said, "we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty
has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you
may go outside and consider your verdict."

The foreman rose; a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.

"I shall like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner," he said. "What asylum did
this yer last witness escape from?"

"Mr. Harker," said the coroner gravely and tranquilly, "from what asylum did
you last escape?"

Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose
and solemnly filed out of the cabin.

"If you have done insulting me, sir," said Harker, as soon as he and the
officer were left alone with the dead man, "I suppose I am at liberty to
go?"

"Yes."

Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The
habit of his profession was strong in him; stronger than his sense of
personal dignity. He turned about and said:

"The book you have there; I recognize it as Morgan's diary. You seemed
greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see
it? The public would like... "

"The book will cut no figure in this matter," replied the official, slipping
it into his coat pocket; "all the entries in it were made before the
writer's death."

As Harker passed out of the house the jury re-entered and stood about the
table, on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp
definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his
breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper and wrote rather laboriously the
following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:

"We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of
a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits."

                                 CHAPTER IV

                        AN EXPLANATION FROM THE TOMB

In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having,
possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body
the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth
while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned
cannot be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of
the entry remaining follows:

"...would run in a half-circle, keeping his head turned always toward the
centre, and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran
away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had
gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his
manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.

"Can a dog see with his nose? Do odours impress some cerebral centre with
images of the thing that emitted them? ...

"Sept. 2. Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of
the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear Ñ from
left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at a time,
but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or
two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along
between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick
enough to define its outline. Ugh! don't like this."

Several weeks' entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.

"Sept. 27. It has been about here again I find evidences of its presence
every day. I watched again all last night in the same cover, gun in hand,
double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were
there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep Ñ indeed, I
hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing
experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.

"Oct. 3. I shall not go; it shall not drive me away. No, this is my
house, my land. God hates a coward....

"Oct. 5. I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few
weeks with me; he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he
thinks me mad.

"Oct. 7. I have the solution of the mystery; it came to me last night,
suddenly, as by revelation. How simple, how terribly simple!

"There are sounds we cannot hear. At either end of the scale are notes that
stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high
or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire
tree-top; the tops of several trees and all in full song. Suddenly, in a
moment at absolutely the same instant, all spring into the air and fly
away. How? They could not all see one another; whole tree-tops intervened.
At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a
signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me
unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were
silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds; quail, for example,
widely separated by bushes, even on opposite sides of a hill.

"It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the
surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between,
will sometimes dive at the same instant; all gone out of sight in a moment.
The signal has been sounded; too grave for the ear of the sailor at the
masthead and his comrades on the deck; who nevertheless feel its vibrations
in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the
organ.

"As with sounds, so with colours. At each end of the solar spectrum the
chemist can detect the presence of what are known as 'actinic' rays. They
represent colours; integral colours in the composition of light which we
are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range
is but a few octaves of the real 'chromatic scale.' I am not mad; there are
colours that we cannot see.

"And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!"



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