Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Tony Rollo’s Conclusion.

To a degree unprecedented in the Rollo family, of Illinois, Antony was an undutiful son. He was so undutiful that he may be said to have been preposterous. There were seven other sons — Antony was the eldest. His younger brothers were a nice, well-behaved bevy of boys as ever you saw. They always attended Sunday School regularly; arriving just before the Doxology (I think Sunday School exercises terminate that way), and sitting in a solemn row on a fence outside, waiting with pious patience for the girls to come forth; then they walked home with them as far as their respective gates. They were an obedient seven, too; they knew well enough the respect due to paternal authority, and when their father told them what was what, and which side up it ought to lie, they never tarried until he had more than picked up a hickory cudgel before tacitly admitting the correctness of the riper judgment. Had the old gentleman commanded the digging of seven graves, and the fabrication of seven board coffins to match, these necessaries would have been provided with unquestioning alacrity.

But Antony, I bleed to state, was of an impractical, pensive turn. He despised industry, scoffed at Sunday-schooling, set up a private standard of morals, and rebelled against natural authority. He wouldn’t be a dutiful son — not for money! He had no natural affections, and loved nothing so well as to sit and think. He was tolerably thoughtful all the time; but with some farming implement in his hand he came out strong. He has been known to take an axe between his knees, and sit on a stump in a “clearing” all day, wrapt in a single continuous meditation. And when interrupted by the interposition of night, or by the superposition of the paternal hickory, he would resume the meditation, next day, precisely where he left off, going on, and on, and on, in one profound and inscrutable think. It was a common remark in the neighbourhood that “If Tony Rollo didn’t let up, he’d think his ridiculous white head off!” And on divers occasions when the old man’s hickory had fallen upon that fleecy globe with unusual ardour, Tony really did think it off — until the continued pain convinced him it was there yet.

You would like to know what Tony was thinking of, all these years. That is what they all wanted to know; but he didn’t seem to tell. When the subject was mentioned he would always try to get away; and if he could not avoid a direct question, he would blush and stammer in so distressing a confusion that the doctor forbade all allusion to the matter, lest the young man should have a convulsion. It was clear enough, however, that the subject of Tony’s meditation was “more than average inter estin’,” as his father phrased it; for sometimes he would give it so grave consideration that observers would double their anxiety about the safety of his head, which he seemed in danger of snapping off with solemn nods; and at other times he would laugh immoderately, smiting his thigh or holding his sides in uncontrollable merriment. But it went on without abatement, and without any disclosure; went on until his poor mother’s curiosity had worried her grey hairs in sorrow to the grave; went on until his father, having worn out all the hickory saplings on the place, had made a fair beginning upon the young oaks; went on until all the seven brothers, having married a Sunday-school girl each, had erected comfortable log-houses upon outlying corners of the father-in-legal farms; on, and ever on, until Tony was forty years of age! This appeared to be a turning-point in Tony’s career — at this time a subtle change stole into his life, affecting both his inner and his outer self: he worked less than formerly, and thought a good deal more!

Years afterwards, when the fraternal seven were well-to-do freeholders, with clouds of progeny, making their hearts light and their expenses heavy — when the old homestead was upgrown with rank brambles, and the live-stock long extinct — when the aged father had so fallen into the sere and yellow leaf that he couldn’t hit hard enough to hurt — Tony, the mere shadow of his former self, sat, one evening, in the chimney corner, thinking very hard indeed. His father and three or four skeleton hounds were the only other persons present; the old gentleman quietly shelling a peck of Indian corn given by a grateful neighbour whose cow he had once pulled out of the mire, and the hounds thinking how cheerfully they would have assisted him had Nature kindly made them graminivorous. Suddenly Tony spake.

“Father,” said he, looking straight across the top of the axe-handle which he held between his knees as a mental stimulant, “father, I’ve been thinking of something a good bit lately.”

“Jest thirty-five years, Tony, come next Thanksgiving,” replied the old man, promptly, in a thin asthmatic falsetto. “I recollect your mother used to say it dated from the time your Aunt Hannah was here with the girls.”

“Yes, father, I think it may be a matter of thirty-five years; though it don’t seem so long, does it? But I’ve been thinking harder for the last week or two, and I’m going to speak out.”

Unbounded amazement looked out at the old man’s eyes; his tongue, utterly unprepared for the unexpected contingency, refused its office; a corncob imperfectly denuded dropped from his nerveless hand, and was critically examined, in turn, by the gossamer dogs, hoping against hope. A smoking brand in the fireplace fell suddenly upon a bed of hot coals, where, lacking the fortitude of Guatimozin, it emitted a sputtering protest, followed by a thin flame like a visible agony. In the resulting light Tony’s haggard face shone competitively with a ruddy blush, which spread over his entire scalp, to the imminent danger of firing his flaxen hair.

“Yes, father,” he answered, making a desperate clutch at calmness, but losing his grip, “I’m going to make a clean breast of it this time, for sure! Then you can do what you like about it.”

The paternal organ of speech found sufficient strength to grind out an intimation that the paternal ear was open for business.

“I’ve studied it all over, father; I’ve looked at it from every side; I’ve been through it with a lantern! And I’ve come to the conclusion that, seeing as I’m the oldest, it’s about time I was beginning to think of getting married!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.11.html

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