Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

The civil Service in Florida.

Colonel Bulper was of a slumberous turn. Most people are not: they work all day and sleep all night — are always in one or the other condition of unrest, and never slumber. Such persons, the Colonel used to remark, are fit only for sentry duty; they are good to watch our property while we take our rest — and they take the property. But this tale is not of them; it is of Colonel Bulper.

There was a fellow named Halsey, a practical joker, and one of the most disagreeable of his class. He would remain broad awake for a year at a time, for no other purpose than to break other people of their natural rest. And I must admit that from the wreck of his faculties upon the rock of insomnia he had somehow rescued a marvellous ingenuity and fertility of expedient. But this tale is not so much of him as of Colonel Bulper.

At the time of which I write, the Colonel was the Collector of Customs at a sea-port town in Florida, United States. The climate there is perpetual summer; it never rains, nor anything; and there was no good reason why the Colonel should not have enjoyed it to the top of his bent, as there was enough for all. In point of fact, the Collectorship had been given him solely that he might repair his wasted vitality by a short season of unbroken repose; for during the Presidential canvass immediately preceding his appointment he had been kept awake a long time by means of strong tea, in order to deliver an able and exhaustive political argument prepared by the candidate, who was ultimately successful in spite of it. Halsey, who had favoured the other aspirant, was a merchant, and had nothing in the world to do but annoy the collector. If the latter could have kept away from him, the dignity of the office might have been preserved, and the object of the incumbent’s appointment to it attained; but sneak away whithersoever he might — into the heart of the dismal swamp, or anywhere in the Everglades — some vagrom Indian or casual negro was sure to stumble over him before long, and go and tell Halsey, securing a plug of tobacco for reward. Or if he was not found in this way, some company was tolerably certain, in the course of time, to survey a line of railway athwart his leafy couch, and laying his prostrate trunk aside out of the way, send word to his persecutor; who, as soon as the line was as nearly completed as it ever would be, would come down on horseback with some diabolical device for waking the slumberer. I will confess there is a subtle seeming of unlikelihood about all this; but in the land where Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth there is an air of unreality in everything. I can only say I have had the story by me a long time, and it seems to me just as true as it was the day I wrote it.

Sometimes the Colonel would seek out a hillside with a southern exposure; but no sooner would he compose his members for a bit of slumber, than Halsey would set about making inquiries for him, under pretence that a ship was en route from Liverpool, and the collector’s signature might be required for her anchoring papers. Having traced him — which, owing to the meddlesome treachery of the venal natives, he was always able to do — Halsey would set off to Texas for a seed of the prickly pear, which he would plant exactly beneath the slumberer’s body. This he called a triumph of modern engineering! As soon as the young vegetable had pushed its spines above the soil, of course the Colonel would have to get up and seek another spot — and this nearly always waked him.

Upon one occasion the Colonel existed five consecutive days without slumber — travelling all day and sleeping in the weeds at night — to find an almost inaccessible crag, on the summit of which he hoped to be undisturbed until the action of the dew should wear away the rock all round his body, when he expected and was willing to roll off and wake. But even there Halsey found him out, and put eagles’ eggs in his southern pockets to hatch. When the young birds were well grown, they pecked so sharply at the Colonel’s legs that he had to get up and wring their necks. The malevolence of people who scorn slumber seems to be practically unlimited.

At last the Colonel resolved upon revenge, and having dreamed out a feasible plan, proceeded to put it into execution. He had in the warehouse some Government powder, and causing a keg of this to be conveyed into his private office, he knocked out the head. He next penned a note to Halsey, asking him to step down to the office “upon important business;” adding in a postscript, “As I am liable to be called out for a few moments at any time, in case you do not find me in, please sit down and amuse yourself with the newspaper until I return.” He knew Halsey was at his counting-house, and would certainly come if only to learn what signification a Government official attached to the word “business.” Then the Colonel procured a brief candle and set it into the powder. His plan was to light the candle, dispatch a porter with the message, and bolt for home. Having completed his preparations, he leaned back in his easy chair and smiled. He smiled a long time, and even achieved a chuckle. For the first time in his life, he felt a serene sense of happiness in being particularly wide awake. Then, without moving from his chair, he ignited the taper, and put out his hand toward the bell-cord, to summon the porter. At this stage of his vengeance the Colonel fell into a tranquil and refreshing slumber.

There is nothing omitted here; that is merely the Colonel’s present address.

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