Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce


My envious rivals have always sought to cast discredit upon the following tale, by affirming that mere unadorned truth does not constitute a work of literary merit. Be it so: I care not what they call it. A rose with any other smell would be as sweet.

In the autumn of 1868 I wanted to go from Sacramento, California, to San Francisco. I at once went to the railway office and bought a ticket, the clerk telling me that would take me there. But when I tried it, it wouldn’t. Vainly I laid it on the railway and sat down upon it: it would not move; and every few minutes an engine would come along and crowd me off the track. I never travelled by so badly managed a line!

I then resolved to go by way of the river, and took passage on a steamboat. The engineer of this boat had once been a candidate for the State Legislature while I was editing a newspaper. Stung to madness by the arguments I had advanced against his election (which consisted mainly in relating how that his cousin was hanged for horse-stealing, and how that his sister had an intolerable squint which a free people could never abide), he had sworn to be revenged. After his defeat I had confessed the charges were false, so far as he personally was concerned, but this did not seem to appease him. He declared he would “get even on me,” and he did: he blew up the boat.

Being thus summarily set ashore, I determined that I would be independent of common carriers destitute of common courtesy. I purchased a wooden box, just large enough to admit one, and not transferable. I lay down in this, double-locked it on the outside, and carrying it to the river, launched it upon the watery waste. The box, I soon discovered, had an hereditary tendency to turn over. I had parted my hair in the middle before embarking, but the precaution was inadequate; it secured not immunity, only impartiality, the box turning over one way as readily as the other. I could counteract this evil only by shifting my tobacco from cheek to cheek, and in this way I got on tolerably well until my navy sprang a leak near the stern.

I now began to wish I had not locked down the cover; I could have got out and walked ashore. But it was childish to give way to foolish regrets; so I lay perfectly quiet, and yelled. Presently I thought of my jack-knife. By this time the ship was so water-logged as to be a little more stable. This enabled me to get the knife from my pocket without upsetting more than six or eight times, and inspired hope. Taking the whittle between my teeth, I turned over upon my stomach, and cut a hole through the bottom near the bow. Turning back again, I awaited the result. Most men would have awaited the result, I think, if they could not have got out. For some time there was no result. The ship was too deeply laden astern, where my feet were, and water will not run up hill unless it is paid to do it. But when I called in all my faculties for a good earnest think, the weight of my intellect turned the scale. It was like a cargo of pig-lead in the forecastle. The water, which for nearly an hour I had kept down by drinking it as it rose about my lips, began to run out at the hole I had scuttled, faster than it could be admitted at the one in the stern; and in a few moments the bottom was so dry you might have lighted a match upon it, if you had been there, and obtained the captain’s permission.

Box Floating, Hand In View

I was all right now. I had got into San Pablo Bay, where it was all plain sailing. If I could manage to keep off the horizon I should be somewhere before daylight. But a new annoyance was in store for me. The steamboats on these waters are constructed of very frail materials, and whenever one came into collision with my flotilla, she immediately sank. This was most exasperating, for the piercing shrieks of the hapless crews and passengers prevented my getting any sleep. Such disagreeable voices as these people had would have tortured an ear of corn. I felt as if I would like to step out and beat them soft-headed with a club; though of course I had not the heart to do so while the padlock held fast.

The reader, if he is obliging, will remember that there was formerly an obstruction in the harbour of San Francisco, called Blossom Rock, which was some fathoms under water, but not fathoms enough to suit shipmasters. It was removed by an engineer named Von Schmidt. This person bored a hole in it, and sent down some men who gnawed out the whole interior, leaving the rock a mere shell. Into this drawing-room suite were inserted thirty tons of powder, ten barrels of nitro-glycerine, and a woman’s temper. Von Schmidt then put in something explosive, and corked up the opening, leaving a long wire hanging out. When all these preparations were complete, the inhabitants of San Francisco came out to see the fun. They perched thickly upon Telegraph Hill from base to summit; they swarmed innumerable upon the beach; the whole region was black with them. All that day they waited, and came again the next. Again they were disappointed, and again they returned full of hope. For three long weeks they did nothing but squat upon that eminence, looking fixedly at the wrong place. But when it transpired that Von Schmidt had hastily left the State directly he had completed his preparations, leaving the wire floating in the water, in the hope that some electrical eel might swim against it and ignite the explosives, the people began to abate their ardour, and move out of town. They said it might be a good while before a qualified gymnotus would pass that way, although the State Ichthyologer assured them that he had put some eels’ eggs into the head waters of the Sacramento River not two weeks previously. But the country was very beautiful at that time of the year, and the people would not wait. So when the explosion really occurred, there wasn’t anybody in the vicinity to witness it. It was a stupendous explosion all the same, as the unhappy gymnotus discovered to his cost.

Now, I have often thought that if this mighty convulsion had occurred a year or two earlier than it really did, it would have been bad for me as I floated idly past, unconscious of danger. As it was, my little bark was carried out into the broad Pacific, and sank in ten thousand fathoms of the coldest water! — it makes my teeth chatter to relate it!

Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48