Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

A Tale of Spanish Vengeance.

Don Hemstitch Blodoza was an hidalgo — one of the highest dalgos of old Spain. He had a comfortably picturesque castle on the Guadalquiver, with towers, battlements, and mortages on it; but as it belonged, not to his own creditors, but to those of his bitterest enemy, who inhabited it, Don Hemstitch preferred the forest as a steady residence. He had that curse of Spanish pride which will not permit one to be a burden upon the man who may happen to have massacred all one’s relations, and set a price upon the heads of one’s family generally. He had made a vow never to accept the hospitality of Don Symposio — not if he died for it. So he pervaded the romantic dells, and the sunless jungle was infected with the sound of his guitar. He rose in the morning and laved him in the limpid brooklet; and the beams of the noonday sun fell upon him in the pursuit of diet  —

“The thistle’s downy seed his fare,

    His drink the morning dew.”

He throve but indifferently upon this meagre regimen, but beyond all other evils a true Spaniard of the poorer sort dreads obesity. During the darkest night of the season he will get up at an absurd hour and stab his best friend in the back rather than grow fat.

It will of course be suspected by the experienced reader that Don Hemstitch did not have any bed. Like the Horatian lines above quoted  —

“He perched at will on every spray.”

In translating this tale into the French, M. Victor Hugo will please twig the proper meaning of the word “spray”; I shall be very angry if he make it appear that my hero is a gull.

One morning while Don Hemstitch was dozing upon his leafy couch — not his main couch, but a branch — he was roused from his tranquil nap by the grunting of swine; or, if you like subtle distinctions, by the sound of human voices. Peering cautiously through his bed-hangings, he saw below him at a little distance two of his countrymen in conversation. The fine practised phrenzy of their looks, their excellently rehearsed air of apprehensive secrecy, showed him they were merely conspiring against somebody’s life; and he dismissed the matter from his mind until the mention of his own name recalled his attention. One of the conspirators was urging the other to make one of a joint-stock company for the Don’s assassination; but the more conscientious plotter would not consent.

“The laws of Spain,” said the latter, “with which we have an acquaintance meanly withheld from the attorneys, enjoin that when one man murders another, except for debt, he must make provision for the widow and orphans. I leave it to you if, after the summer’s unprofitable business, we are in a position to assume the care and education of a large family. We have not a single asset, and our liabilities amount to fourteen widows, and more than thirty children of strong and increasing appetite.

Car-r-rajo!“ hissed the other through his beard; “we will slaughter the lot of them!”

At this cold-blooded proposition his merciful companion recoiled aghast.

Diablo!” he shrieked. “Tempt me no farther. What! immolate a whole hecatomb of guiltless women and children? Consider the funeral expense!”

There is really no moving the law-abiding soul to crime of doubtful profit. But Don Hemstitch was not at ease; he could not say how soon it might transpire that he had nor chick nor child. Should Don Symposio pass that way and communicate this information — and he was in a position to know — the moral scruples of the conscientious plotter would vanish like the baseless fabric of a beaten cur. Moreover, it is always unpleasant to be included in a conspiracy in which one is not a conspirator. Don Hemstitch resolved to sell his life at the highest market price.

Hastily descending his tree, he wrapped his cloak about him and stood for some time, wishing he had a poniard. Trying the temper of this upon his thumbnail, he found it much more amiable than his own. It was a keen Toledo blade — keen enough to sever a hare. To nerve himself for the deadly work before him, he began thinking of a lady whom he had once met — the lovely Donna Lavaca, beloved of El Toro-blanco. Having thus wrought up his Castilian soul to a high pitch of jealously, he felt quite irresistible, and advanced towards the two ruffians with his poniard deftly latent in his flowing sleeve. His mien was hostile, his stride puissant, his nose tip-tilted — not to put too fine a point upon it, petallic. Don Hemstitch was upon the war-path with all his might. The forest trembled as he trode, the earth bent like thin ice beneath his heel. Birds, beasts, serpents, and poachers fled affrighted to the right and left of his course. He came down upon the unsuspecting assassins like a mild Spanish avalanche.

Don Hemstitch and Conspirators

Senores!” he thundered, with a frightful scowl and a faint aroma of garlic, “patter your pater-nosters as fast as you conveniently may. You have but ten minutes to exist. Has either of you a watch?”

Then might you have seen a guilty dismay over-spreading the faces of two sinners, like a sudden snow paling twin mountain peaks. In the presence of Death, Crime shuddered and sank into his boots. Conscience stood appalled in the sight of Retribution. In vain the villains essayed speech; each palsied tongue beat out upon the yielding air some weak words of supplication, then clave to its proper concave. Two pairs of brawny knees unsettled their knitted braces, and bent limply beneath their loads of incarnate wickedness swaying unsteadily above. With clenched hands and streaming eyes these wretched men prayed silently. At this supreme moment an American gentleman sitting by, with his heels upon a rotted oaken stump, tilted back his chair, laid down his newspaper, and began operating upon a half-eaten apple-pie. One glance at the title of that print — one look at that calm angular face clasped in its crescent of crisp crust — and Don Hemstitch Blodoza reeled, staggered like an exhausted spinning-top. He spread his baffled hand upon his eyes, and sank heavily to earth!

“Saved! saved!” shrieked the penitent conspirators, springing to their feet. The far deeps of the forest whispered in consultation, and a distant hillside echoed back the words. “Saved!” sang the rocks —“Saved!” the glad birds twittered from the leaves above. The hare that Don Hemstitch Blodoza’s poniard would have severed limped awkwardly but confidently about, saying, “Saved!” as well as he knew how.

Explanation is needless. The American gentleman was the Special Correspondent of the “New York Herald.” It is tolerably well known that except beneath his searching eye no considerable event can occur — and his whole attention was focused upon that apple-pie!

That is how Spanish vengeance was balked of its issue.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.16.html

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