Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Juniper.

He was a dwarf, was Juniper. About the time of his birth Nature was executing a large order for prime giants, and had need of all her materials. Juniper infested the wooded interior of Norway, and dwelt in a cave — a miserable hole in which a blind bat in a condition of sempiternal torpor would have declined to hibernate, rent-free. Juniper was such a feeble little wretch, so inoffensive in his way of life, so modest in his demeanour, that every one was disposed to love him like a cousin; there was not enough of him to love like a brother. He, too, was inclined to return the affection; he was too weak to love very hard, but he made the best stagger at it he could. But a singular fatality prevented a perfect communion of soul between him and his neighbours. A strange destiny had thrown its shadow upon him, which made it cool for him in summer. There was a divinity that shaped his ends extremely rough, no matter how he hewed them.

Somewhere in that vicinity lived a monstrous bear — a great hulking obnoxious beast who had no more soul than tail. This rascal had somehow conceived a notion that the appointed function of his existence was the extermination of the dwarf. If you met the latter you might rely with cheerful confidence upon seeing the ferocious brute in eager pursuit of him in less than a minute. No sooner would Juniper fairly accost you, looking timidly over his shoulder the while, than the raging savage would leap out of some contiguous jungle and make after him like a locomotive engine too late for the train. Then poor Juniper would streak it for the nearest crowd of people, diving and dodging amongst their shins with nimble skill, shrieking all the time like a panther. He was as earnest about it as if he had made a bet upon the result of the race. Of course everybody was too busy to stop, but in his blind terror the dwarf would single out some luckless wight — commonly some well-dressed person; Juniper instinctively sought the protection of the aristocracy — getting behind him, ducking between his legs, surrounding him, dancing through him — doing anything to save the paltry flitch of his own bacon. Presently the bear would lose all patience and nip the other fellow. Then, ashamed of losing his temper, he would sneak sullenly away, taking along the body. When he had gone, poor Juniper would fall upon his knees, tearing his beard, pounding his breast, and crying Mea culpa in deep remorse. Afterwards he would pay a visit of condolence to the bereaved relations and offer to pay the funeral expenses; but of course there never were any funeral expenses. Everybody, as before stated, liked the unhappy dwarf, but nobody liked the company he kept, and people were not at home to him as a rule. Whenever he came into a village traffic was temporarily suspended, and he was made the centre of as broad a solitude as could be hastily improvised.

Many were the attempts to capture the terrible beast; hundreds of the country people would assemble to hunt him with guns and dogs. But even the dogs seemed to have an instinctive sense of some occult connection between him and the dwarf, and could never be made to understand that it was the former that was wanted. Directly they were laid on the scent they would forsake it to invest the dwarf’s abode; and it was with much difficulty the pitying huntsmen could induce them to raise the siege. Things went on in this unsatisfactory fashion for years; the population annually decreasing, and Juniper making the most miraculous escapes.

Now there resided in a small village near by, a brace of twins; little orphan girls, named Jalap and Ginseng. Their considerate neighbours had told them such pleasing tales about the bear that they decided to leave the country. So they got their valuables together in a box and set out. They met Juniper! He approached to inform them it was a fine morning, when the great beast of a bear “rose like the steam of rich distilled perfume” from the earth in front of them, and made a mouth at him. Juniper did not run, as might have been expected; he stood for a moment peering into the brute’s cavernous jaws, and then flew! He absented himself with such extraordinary nimbleness that after he was a mile distant his image appeared to be standing there yet; and looking back he saw it himself. Baffled of his dwarf, the bear thought he would make a shift to get on, for the present, with an orphan. So he picked up Jalap by her middle, and thoughtfully withdrew.

Bear, Juniper and Twins

The thankful but disgusted Ginseng continued her emigration, but soon missed the jewel-box, which in their alarm had been dropped and burst asunder. She did not much care for the jewels, but it contained some valuable papers, among them the “Examiner” (a print which once had the misfortune to condemn a book written by the author of this tale) and this she doted on. Returning for her property, she peered cautiously around the angle of a rock, and saw a spectacle that begot in her mind a languid interest. The bear had returned upon a similar mission; he was calmly distending his cheeks with the contents of the broken box. And perched on a rock near at hand sat Juniper waiting for him!

It was natural that a suspicion of collusion between the two should dawn upon that infant’s mind. It did dawn; it brightened and broadened into the perfect day of conviction. It was a revelation to the child. “At that moment,” said she afterwards, “I felt that I could lay my finger on the best-trained bear in Christendom.” But with praiseworthy moderation she controlled herself and didn’t do it; she just stood still and allowed the beast to proceed. Having stored all the jewels in his capacious mouth, he began taking in the valuable papers. First some title-deeds disappeared; then some railway bonds; presently a roll of rent-receipts. All these seemed to be as honey to his tongue; he smiled a smile of tranquil happiness. Finally the newspaper vanished into his face like a wisp of straw drawn into a threshing machine.

Then the brute expanded his mouth with a ludicrous gape, spilling out the jewels, a glittering shower. Then he snapped his jaws like a steel trap afflicted with tetanus, and stood on his head awhile. Next he made a feeble endeavour to complicate the relations between his parts — to tie himself into a love-knot. Failing in this he lay flat upon his side, wept, retched, and finally, fashioning his visage into the semblance of sickly grin, gave up the ghost. I don’t know what he died of; I suppose it was hereditary in his family.

The guilty come always to grief. Juniper was arrested, charged with conspiracy to kill, tried, convicted, sentenced to be hanged, and before the sun went down was pardoned. In searching his cavern the police discovered countless human bones, much torn clothing, and a mighty multitude of empty purses. But nothing of any value — not an article of any value. It was a mystery what Juniper had done with his ill-gotten valuables. The police confessed it was a mystery!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.14.html

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