Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

The Grateful Bear.

I hope all my little readers have heard the story of Mr. Androcles and the lion; so I will relate it as nearly as I can remember it, with the caution that Androcles must not be confounded with the lion. If I had a picture representing Androcles with a silk hat, and the lion with a knot in his tail, the two might readily be distinguished; but the artist says he won’t make any such picture, and we must try to get on without.

One day Androcles was gathering truffles in a forest, when he found a lion’s den; and, walking into it, he lay down and slept. It was a custom, in his time, to sleep in lions’ dens when practicable. The lion was absent, inspecting a zoological garden, and did not return until late; but he did return. He was surprised to find a stranger in his menagerie without a ticket; but, supposing him to be some contributor to a comic paper, did not eat him: he was very well satisfied not to be eaten by him. Presently Androcles awoke, wishing he had some seltzer water, or something. (Seltzer water is good after a night’s debauch, and something — it is difficult to say what — is good to begin the new debauch with). Seeing the lion eyeing him, he began hastily to pencil his last will and testament upon the rocky floor of the den. What was his surprise to see the lion advance amicably and extend his right forefoot! Androcles, however, was equal to the occasion: he met the friendly overture with a cordial grasp of the hand, whereat the lion howled — for he had a carpet-tack in his foot. Perceiving that he had made a little mistake, Androcles made such reparation as was in his power by pulling out the tack and putting it in his own foot.

After this the beast could not do too much for him. He went out every morning — carefully locking the door behind him — and returned every evening, bringing in a nice fat baby from an adjacent village, and laying it gratefully at his benefactor’s feet. For the first few days something seemed to have gone wrong with the benefactor’s appetite, but presently he took very kindly to the new diet; and, as he could not get away, he lodged there, rent-free, all the days of his life — which terminated very abruptly one evening when the lion had not met with his usual success in hunting.

All this has very little to do with my story: I throw it in as a classical allusion, to meet the demands of a literary fashion which has its origin in the generous eagerness of writers to give the public more than it pays for. But the story of Androcles was a favourite with the bear whose adventures I am about to relate.

One day this crafty brute carefully inserted a thorn between two of his toes, and limped awkwardly to the farm-house of Dame Pinworthy, a widow, who with two beautiful whelps infested the forest where he resided. He knocked at the open door, sent in his card, and was duly admitted to the presence of the lady, who inquired his purpose. By way of “defining his position” he held up his foot, and snuffled very dolorously. The lady adjusted her spectacles, took the paw in her lap (she, too, had heard the tale of Androcles), and, after a close scrutiny, discovered the thorn, which, as delicately as possible, she extracted, the patient making wry faces and howling dismally the while.

Widow and Bear

When it was all over, and she had assured him there was no charge, his gratitude was a passion to observe! He desired to embrace her at once; but this, although a widow of seven years’ standing, she would by no means permit; she said she was not personally averse to hugging, “but what would her dear departed — boo-hoo! — say of it?” This was very absurd, for Mr. Boo-hoo had seven feet of solid earth above him, and it couldn’t make much difference what he said, even supposing he had enough tongue left to say anything, which he had not. However, the polite beast respected her scruples; so the only way in which he could testify his gratitude was by remaining to dinner. They had the housedog for dinner that day, though, from some false notion of hospitable etiquette, the woman and children did not take any.

On the next day, punctually at the same hour, the bear came again with another thorn, and stayed to dinner as before. It was not much of a dinner this time — only the cat, and a roll of stair-carpet, with one or two pieces of sheet music; but true gratitude does not despise even the humblest means of expression. The succeeding day he came as before; but after being relieved of his torment, he found nothing prepared for him. But when he took to thoughtfully licking one of the little girl’s hands, “that answered not with a caress,” the mother thought better of it, and drove in a small heifer.

He now came every day; he was so old a friend that the formality of extracting the thorn was no longer observed; it would have contributed nothing to the good understanding that existed between him and the widow. He thought that three or four instances of Good Samaritanism afforded ample matter for perpetual gratitude. His constant visits were bad for the live stock of the farm; for some kind of beast had to be in readiness each day to furnish forth the usual feast, and this prevented multiplication. Most of the textile fabrics, too, had disappeared; for the appetite of this animal was at the same time cosmopolitan and exacting: it would accept almost anything in the way of entremets, but something it would have. A hearthrug, a hall-mat, a cushion, mattress, blanket, shawl, or other article of wearing apparel — anything, in short, that was easy of ingestion was graciously approved. The widow tried him once with a box of coals as dessert to some barn-yard fowls; but this he seemed to regard as a doubtful comestible, seductive to the palate, but obstinate in the stomach. A look at one of the children always brought him something else, no matter what he was then engaged on.

It was suggested to Mrs. Pinworthy that she should poison the bear; but, after trying about a hundredweight of strychnia, arsenic, and Prussic acid, without any effect other than what might be expected from mild tonics, she thought it would not be right to go into toxicology. So the poor Widow Pinworthy went on, patiently enduring the consumption of her cattle, sheep, and hogs, the evaporation of her poultry, and the taking off of her bed linen, until there were left only the clothing of herself and children, some curtains, a sickly lamb, and a pet pigeon. When the bear came for these she ventured to expostulate. In this she was perfectly successful: the animal permitted her to expostulate as long as she liked. Then he ate the lamb and pigeon, took in a dish-cloth or two, and went away just as contentedly as if she had not uttered a word.

Nothing edible now stood between her little daughters and the grave. Her mental agony was painful to her mind; she could scarcely have suffered more without an increase of unhappiness. She was roused to desperation; and next day, when she saw the bear leaping across the fields toward the house, she staggered from her seat and shut the door. It was singular what a difference it made; she always remembered it after that, and wished she had thought of it before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31