Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

No Charge for Attendance.

Near the road leading from Deutscherkirche to Lagerhaus may be seen the ruins of a little cottage. It never was a very pretentious pile, but it has a history. About the middle of the last century it was occupied by one Heinrich Schneider, who was a small farmer — so small a farmer his clothes wouldn’t fit him without a good deal of taking-in. But Heinrich Schneider was young. He had a wife, however — most small farmers have when young. They were rather poor: the farm was just large enough to keep them comfortably hungry.

Schneider was not literary in his taste; his sole reading was an old dog’s-eared copy of the “Arabian Nights” done into German, and in that he read nothing but the story of “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp.” Upon his five hundredth perusal of that he conceived a valuable idea: he would rub his lamp and corral a Genie! So he put a thick leather glove on his right hand, and went to the cupboard to get out the lamp. He had no lamp. But this disappointment, which would have been instantly fatal to a more despondent man, was only an agreeable stimulus to him. He took out an old iron candle-snuffer, and went to work upon that.

Now, iron is very hard; it requires more rubbing than any other metal. I once chafed a Genie out of an anvil, but I was quite weary before I got him all out; the slightest irritation of a leaden water-pipe would have fetched the same Genie out of it like a rat from his hole. But having planted all his poultry, sown his potatoes, and set out his wheat, Heinrich had the whole summer before him, and he was patient; he devoted all his time to compelling the attendance of the Supernatural.

When the autumn came, the good wife reaped the chickens, dug out the apples, plucked the pigs and other cereals; and a wonderfully abundant harvest it was. Schneider’s crops had flourished amazingly. That was because he did not worry them all summer with agricultural implements. One evening when the produce had been stored, Heinrich sat at his fireside operating upon his candle-snuffer with the same simple faith as in the early spring. Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and the expected Genie put in an appearance. His advent begot no little surprise in the good couple.

He was a very substantial incarnation, indeed, of the Supernatural. About eight feet in length, extremely fat, thick-limbed, ill-favoured, heavy of movement, and generally unpretty, he did not at first sight impress his new master any too favourably.

However, he was given a stool at the fireside, and Heinrich plied him with a multitude of questions: Where did he come from? whom had he last served? how did he like Aladdin? and did he think they should get on well? To all these queries the Genie returned evasive answers; he was Delphic to the verge of unintelligibility. He would only nod mysteriously, muttering beneath his breath in some unknown tongue, probably Arabic — in which, however, his master thought he could distinguish the words “roast” and “boiled” with significant frequency. This Genie must have served last in the capacity of cook.

Farmer, Wife and Genie

This was a gratifying discovery: for the next four months or so there would be nothing to do about the farm; the Slave could prepare the family meals during the winter, and in the spring go regularly to work. Schneider was too shrewd to risk everything by extravagant demands all at once. He remembered the roc’s egg of the legend, and thought he would proceed with caution. So the good couple brought out their cooking utensils, and by pantomime inducted the Slave into the mystery of their use. They showed him the larder, the cellars, the granary, the chicken-coops, and everything. He appeared interested and intelligent, apprehended the salient points of the situation with marvellous ease, and nodded like he would drop his big head off — did everything but talk.

After this the frau prepared the evening meal, the Genie assisting very satisfactorily, except that his notions of quantity were rather too liberal; perhaps this was natural in one accustomed to palaces and courts. When all was on the table, by way of testing his Slave’s obedience Heinrich sat down at the board and carelessly rubbed the candle-snuffer. The Genie was there in a second! Not only so, but he fell upon the viands with an ardour and sincerity that were alarming. In two minutes he had got away with everything on the table. The rapidity with which that spirit crowded all manner of edibles into his neck was simply shocking!

Having finished his repast he stretched himself before the fire and went to sleep. Heinrich and Barbara were depressed in spirit; they sat up until nearly morning in silence, waiting for the Genie to vanish for the night; but he did not perceptibly vanish any. Moreover, he had not vanished next morning; he had risen with the lark, and was preparing breakfast, having made his estimates upon a basis of most immoderate consumption. To this he soon sat down with the same catholicity of appetite that had distinguished him the previous evening. Having bolted this preposterous breakfast he arrayed his fat face in a sable scowl, beat his master with a stewpan, stretched himself before the fire, and again addressed himself to sleep. Over a furtive and clandestine meal in the larder, Heinrich and Barbara confessed themselves thoroughly heart-sick of the Supernatural.

“I told you so,” said he; “depend upon it, patient industry is a thousand per cent. better than this invisible agency. I will now take the fatal candle-snuffer a mile from here, rub it real hard, fling it aside, and run away.”

But he didn’t. During the night ten feet of snow had fallen. It lay all winter too.

Early the next spring there emerged from that cottage by the wayside the unstable framework of a man dragging through seas of melting snow a tottering female of dejected aspect. Forlorn, crippled, famishing, and discouraged, these melancholy relics held on their way until they came to a cross-roads (all leading to Lagerhaus), where they saw clinging to an upright post the tatter of an old placard. It read as follows:

LOST, strayed, or stolen, from Herr Schaackhofer’s Grand Museum, the celebrated Patagonian Giant, Ugolulah. Height 8 ft. 2 in., elegant figure, handsome, intelligent features, sprightly and vivacious in conversation, of engaging address, temperate in diet, harmless and tractable in disposition. Answers to the nickname of Fritz Sneddeker. Any one returning him to Herr Schaackhofer will receive Seven Thalers Reward, and no questions asked.

It was a tempting offer, but they did not go back for the giant. But he was afterwards discovered sleeping sweetly upon the hearthstone, after a hearty meal of empty barrels and boxes. Being secured he was found to be too fat for egress by the door. So the house was pulled down to let him out; and that is how it happens to be in ruins now.

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