A Sole Survivor


Ambrose Bierce

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A Sole Survivor

Among the arts and sciences, the art of Sole Surviving is one of the most interesting, as (to the artist) it is by far the most important. It is not altogether an art, perhaps, for success in it is largely due to accident. One may study how solely to survive, yet, having an imperfect natural aptitude, may fail of proficiency and be early cut off. To the contrary, one little skilled in its methods, and not even well grounded in its fundamental principles, may, by taking the trouble to have been born with a suitable constitution, attain to a considerable eminence in the art. Without undue immodesty, I think I may fairly claim some distinction in it myself, although I have not regularly acquired it as one acquires knowledge and skill in writing, painting and playing the flute. O yes, I am a notable Sole Survivor, and some of my work in that way attracts great attention, mostly my own.

You would naturally expect, then, to find in me one who has experienced all manner of disaster at sea and the several kinds of calamity incident to a life on dry land. It would seem a just inference from my Sole Survivorship that I am familiar with railroad wrecks, inundations (though these are hardly dry-land phenomena), pestilences, earthquakes, conflagrations and other forms of what the reporters delight to call “a holocaust.” This is not entirely true; I have never been shipwrecked, never assisted as “unfortunate sufferer” at a fire or railway collision, and know of the ravages of epidemics only by hearsay. The most destructive temblor of which I have had a personal experience decreased the population of San Francisco by fewer, probably, than ten thousand persons, of whom not more than a dozen were killed; the others moved out of town. It is true that I once followed the perilous trade of a soldier, but my eminence in Sole Surviving is of a later growth and not specially the product of the sword.

Opening the portfolio of memory, I draw out picture after picture—“figure-pieces”—groups of forms and faces whereof mine only now remains, somewhat the worse for wear.

Here are three young men lolling at ease on a grassy bank. One, a handsome, dark-eyed chap, with a forehead like that of a Grecian god, raises his body on his elbow, looks straight away to the horizon, where some black trees hold captive certain vestiges of sunset as if they had torn away the plumage of a flight of flamingoes, and says: “Fellows, I mean to be rich. I shall see every country worth seeing. I shall taste every pleasure worth having. When old, I shall become a hermit.”

Said another slender youth, fair-haired: “I shall become President and execute a coup d’etat making myself an absolute monarch. I shall then issue a decree requiring that all hermits be put to death.”

The third said nothing. Was he restrained by some prescient sense of the perishable nature of the material upon which he was expected to inscribe the record of his hopes? However it may have been, he flicked his shoe with a hazel switch and kept his own counsel. For twenty years he has been the Sole Survivor of the group.


The scene changes. Six men are on horseback on a hill—a general and his staff. Below, in the gray fog of a winter morning, an army, which has left its intrenchments, is moving upon those of the enemy—creeping silently into position. In an hour the whole wide valley for miles to left and right will be all aroar with musketry stricken to seeming silence now and again by thunder claps of big guns. In the meantime the risen sun has burned a way through the fog, splendoring a part of the beleaguered city.

“Look at that, General,” says an aide; “it is like enchantment.”

“Go and enchant Colonel Post,” said the general, without taking his field-glass from his eyes, “and tell him to pitch in as soon as he hears Smith’s guns.”

All laughed. But today I laugh alone. I am the Sole Survivor.


It would be easy to fill many pages with instances of Sole Survival, from my own experience. I could mention extinct groups composed wholly (myself excepted) of the opposing sex, all of whom, with the same exception, have long ceased their opposition, their warfare accomplished, their pretty noses blue and chill under the daisies. They were good girls, too, mostly, Heaven rest them! There were Maud and Lizzie and Nanette (ah, Nanette, indeed; she is the deadest of the whole bright band) and Emeline and—but really this is not discreet; one should not survive and tell.

The flame of a camp-fire stands up tall and straight toward the black sky. We feed it constantly with sage brush. A circling wall of darkness closes us in; but turn your back to the fire and walk a little away and you shall see the serrated summit-line of snow-capped mountains, ghastly cold in the moonlight. They are in all directions; everywhere they efface the great gold stars near the horizon, leaving the little green ones of the mid-heaven trembling viciously, as bleak as steel. At irregular intervals we hear the distant howling of a wolf—now on this side and again on that. We check our talk to listen; we cast quick glances toward our weapons, our saddles, our picketed horses: the wolves may be of the variety known as Sioux, and there are but four of us.

“What would you do, Jim,” said Hazen, “if we were surrounded by Indians?”

Jim Beckwourth was our guide—a life-long frontiersman, an old man “beated and chopped with tanned antiquity.” He had at one time been a chief of the Crows.

“I’d spit on that fire,” said Jim Beckwourth.

The old man has gone, I hope, where there is no fire to be quenched. And Hazen, and the chap with whom I shared my blanket that winter night on the plains—both gone. One might suppose that I would feel something of the natural exultation of a Sole Survivor; but as Byron found that

our thoughts take wildest flight

Even at the moment when they should array

Themselves in pensive order,

so I find that they sometimes array themselves in pensive order, even at the moment when they ought to be most hilarious.


Of reminiscences there is no end. I have a vast store of them laid up, wherewith to wile away the tedious years of my anecdotage—whenever it shall please Heaven to make me old. Some years that I passed in London as a working journalist are particularly rich in them. Ah! “we were a gallant company” in those days.

I am told that the English are heavy thinkers and dull talkers. My recollection is different; speaking from that, I should say they are no end clever with their tongues. Certainly I have not elsewhere heard such brilliant talk as among the artists and writers of London. Of course they were a picked lot; some of them had attained to some eminence in the world of intellect; others have achieved it since. But they were not all English by many. London draws the best brains of Ireland and Scotland, and there is always a small American contingent, mostly correspondents of the big New York journals.

The typical London journalist is a gentleman. He is usually a graduate of one or the other of the great universities. He is well paid and holds his position, whatever it may be, by a less precarious tenure than his American congener. He rather moves than “dabbles” in literature, and not uncommonly takes a hand at some of the many forms of art. On the whole, he is a good fellow, too, with a skeptical mind, a cynical tongue, and a warm heart. I found these men agreeable, hospitable, intelligent, amusing. We worked too hard, dined too well, frequented too many clubs, and went to bed too late in the forenoon. We were overmuch addicted to shedding the blood of the grape. In short, we diligently, conscientiously, and with a perverse satisfaction burned the candle of life at both ends and in the middle.

This was many a year ago. To-day a list of these men’s names with a cross against that of each one whom I know to be dead would look like a Roman Catholic cemetery. I could dine all the survivors at the table on which I write, and I should like to do so. But the dead ones, I must say, were the best diners.

But about Sole Surviving. There was a London publisher named John Camden Hotten. Among American writers he had a pretty dark reputation as a “pirate.” They accused him of republishing their books without their assent, which, in absence of international copyright, he had a legal, and it seems to me (a “sufferer”) a moral right to do. Through sympathy with their foreign confrères British writers also held him in high disesteem.

I knew Hotten very well, and one day I stood by what purported to be his body, which afterward I assisted to bury in the cemetery at Highgate. I am sure that it was his body, for I was uncommonly careful in the matter of identification, for a very good reason, which you shall know.

Aside from his “piracy,” Hotten had a wide renown as “a hard man to deal with.” For several months before his death he had owed me one hundred pounds sterling, and he could not possibly have been more reluctant to part with anything but a larger sum. Even to this day in reviewing the intelligent methods—ranging from delicate finesse to frank effrontery—by which that good man kept me out of mine own I am prostrated with admiration and consumed with envy. Finally by a lucky chance I got him at a disadvantage and seeing my power he sent his manager—a fellow named Chatto, who as a member of the firm of Chatto & Windus afterward succeeded to his business and methods—to negotiate. I was the most implacable creditor in the United Kingdom, and after two mortal hours of me in my most acidulated mood Chatto pulled out a check for the full amount, ready signed by Hotten in anticipation of defeat. Before handing it to me Chatto said: “This check is dated next Saturday. Of course you will not present it until then.”

To this I cheerfully consented.

“And now,” said Chatto, rising to go, “as everything is satisfactory I hope you will go out to Hotten’s house and have a friendly talk. It is his wish.”

On Saturday morning I went. In pursuance, doubtless, of his design when he antedated that check he had died of a pork pie promptly on the stroke of twelve o’clock the night before—which invalidated the check! I have met American publishers who thought they knew something about the business of drinking champagne out of writers’ skulls. If this narrative—which, upon my soul, is every word true—teaches them humility by showing that genuine commercial sagacity is not bounded by geographical lines it will have served its purpose.

Having assured myself that Mr. Hotten was really no more, I drove furiously bank-ward, hoping that the sad tidings had not preceded me—and they had not.

Alas! on the route was a certain tap-room greatly frequented by authors, artists, newspaper men and “gentlemen of wit and pleasure about town.”

Sitting about the customary table were a half-dozen or more choice spirits—George Augustus Sala, Henry Sampson, Tom Hood the younger, Captain Mayne Reid, and others less known to fame. I am sorry to say my somber news affected these sinners in a way that was shocking. Their levity was a thing to shudder at. As Sir Boyle Roche might have said, it grated harshly upon an ear that had a dubious check in its pocket. Having uttered their hilarious minds by word of mouth all they knew how, these hardy and impenitent offenders set about writing “appropriate epitaphs.” Thank Heaven, all but one of these have escaped my memory, one that I wrote myself. At the close of the rites, several hours later, I resumed my movement against the bank. Too late—the old, old story of the hare and the tortoise was told again. The “heavy news” had overtaken and passed me as I loitered by the wayside.

All attended the funeral—Sala, Sampson, Hood, Reid, and the undistinguished others, including this present Sole Survivor of the group. As each cast his handful of earth upon the coffin I am very sure that, like Lord Brougham on a somewhat similar occasion, we all felt more than we cared to express. On the death of a political antagonist whom he had not treated with much consideration his lordship was asked, rather rudely, “Have you no regrets now that he is gone?”

After a moment of thoughtful silence he replied, with gravity, “Yes; I favor his return.”


One night in the summer of 1880 I was driving in a light wagon through the wildest part of the Black Hills in South Dakota. I had left Deadwood and was well on my way to Rockerville with thirty thousand dollars on my person, belonging to a mining company of which I was the general manager. Naturally, I had taken the precaution to telegraph my secretary at Rockerville to meet me at Rapid City, then a small town, on another route; the telegram was intended to mislead the “gentlemen of the road” whom I knew to be watching my movements, and who might possibly have a confederate in the telegraph office. Beside me on the seat of the wagon sat Boone May.

Permit me to explain the situation. Several months before, it had been the custom to send a “treasure-coach” twice a week from Deadwood to Sidney, Nebraska. Also, it had been the custom to have this coach captured and plundered by “road agents.” So intolerable had this practice become—even iron-clad coaches loopholed for rifles proving a vain device—that the mine owners had adopted the more practicable plan of importing from California a half-dozen of the most famous “shotgun messengers” of Wells, Fargo & Co.—fearless and trusty fellows with an instinct for killing, a readiness of resource that was an intuition, and a sense of direction that put a shot where it would do the most good more accurately than the most careful aim. Their feats of marksmanship were so incredible that seeing was scarcely believing.

In a few weeks these chaps had put the road agents out of business and out of life, for they attacked them wherever found. One sunny Sunday morning two of them strolling down a street of Deadwood recognized five or six of the rascals, ran back to their hotel for their rifles, and returning killed them all!

Boone May was one of these avengers. When I employed him, as a messenger, he was under indictment for murder. He had trailed a “road agent” across, the Bad Lands for hundreds of miles, brought him back to within a few miles of Deadwood and picketed him out for the night. The desperate man, tied as he was, had attempted to escape, and May found it expedient to shoot and bury him. The grave by the roadside is perhaps still pointed out to the curious. May gave himself up, was formally charged with murder, released on his own recognizance, and I had to give him leave of absence to go to court and be acquitted. Some of the New York directors of my company having been good enough to signify their disapproval of my action in employing “such a man,” I could do no less than make some recognition of their dissent, and thenceforth he was borne upon the pay-rolls as “Boone May, Murderer.” Now let me get back to my story.

I knew the road fairly well, for I had previously traveled it by night, on horseback, my pockets bulging with currency and my free hand holding a cocked revolver the entire distance of fifty miles. To make the journey by wagon with a companion was luxury. Still, the drizzle of rain was uncomfortable. May sat hunched up beside me, a rubber poncho over his shoulders and a Winchester rifle in its leathern case between his knees. I thought him a trifle off his guard, but said nothing. The road, barely visible, was rocky, the wagon rattled, and alongside ran a roaring stream. Suddenly we heard through it all the clinking of a horse’s shoes directly behind, and simultaneously the short, sharp words of authority: “Throw up your hands!”

With an involuntary jerk at the reins I brought my team to its haunches and reached for my revolver. Quite needless: with the quickest movement that I had ever seen in anything but a cat—almost before the words were out of the horseman’s mouth—May had thrown himself backward across the back of the seat, face upward, and the muzzle of his rifle was within a yard of the fellow’s breast! What further occurred among the three of us there in the gloom of the forest has, I fancy, never been accurately related.

Boone May is long dead of yellow fever in Brazil, and I am the Sole Survivor.


There was a famous prima donna with whom it was my good fortune to cross the Atlantic to New York. In truth I was charged by a friend of both with the agreeable duty of caring for her safety and comfort. Madame was gracious, clever, altogether charming, and before the voyage was two days old a half-dozen of the men aboard, whom she had permitted me to present, were heels over head in love with her, as I was myself.

Our competition for her favor did not make us enemies; on the contrary we were drawn together into something like an offensive and defensive alliance by a common sorrow—the successful rivalry of a singularly handsome Italian who sat next her at table. So assiduous was he in his attentions that my office as the lady’s guide, philosopher and friend was nearly a sinecure, and as to the others, they had hardly one chance a day to prove their devotion: that enterprising son of Italy dominated the entire situation. By some diabolical prevision he anticipated Madame’s every need and wish—placed her reclining-chair in the most sheltered spots on deck, smothered her in layer upon layer of wraps, and conducted himself, generally, in the most inconsiderate way. Worse still, Madame accepted his good offices with a shameless grace “which said as plain as whisper in the ear” that there was a perfect understanding between them. What made it harder to bear was the fellow’s faulty civility to the rest of us; he seemed hardly aware of our existence.

Our indignation was not loud, but deep. Every day in the smoking-room we contrived the most ingenious and monstrous, plans for his undoing in this world and the next; the least cruel being a project to lure him to the upper deck on a dark night and send him unshriven to his account by way of the lee rail; but as none of us knew enough Italian to tell him the needful falsehood that scheme of justice came to nothing, as did all the others. At the wharf in New York we parted from Madame more in sorrow than in anger, and from her conquering cavalier with polite manifestations of the contempt we did not feel.

That evening I called on her at her hotel, facing Union Square. Soon after my arrival there was an audible commotion out in front: the populace, headed by a brass band and incited, doubtless, by pure love of art, had arrived to do honor to the great singer. There was music—a serenade—followed by shoutings of the lady’s name. She seemed a trifle nervous, but I led her to the balcony, where she made a very pretty little speech, piquant with her most charming accent. When the tumult and shouting had died we reentered her apartment to resume our conversation. Would it please monsieur to have a glass, of wine? It would. She left the room for a moment; then came the wine and glasses on a tray, borne by that impossible Italian! He had a napkin across his arm—he was a servant.

Barring some of the band and the populace, I am doubtless the Sole Survivor, for Madame has for a number of years had a permanent engagement Above, and my faith in Divine Justice does not permit me to think that the servile wretch who cast down the mighty from their seat among the Sons of Hope was suffered to live out the other half of his days.


A dinner of seven in an old London tavern—a good dinner, the memory whereof is not yet effaced from the tablets of the palate. A soup, a plate of white-bait belemoned and red-peppered with exactness, a huge joint of roast beef, from which we sliced at will, flanked by various bottles of old dry Sherry and crusty Port—such Port! (And we are expected to be patriots in a country where it cannot be procured! And the Portuguese are expected to love the country which, having it, sends it away!) That was the dinner—there was Stilton cheese; it were shameful not to mention the Stilton. Good, wholesome, and toothsome it was, rich and nutty. The Stilton that we get here, clouted in tin-foil, is monstrous poor stuff, hardly better than our American sort. After dinner there were walnuts and coffee and cigars. I cannot say much for the cigars; they are not over-good in England: too long at sea, I suppose.

On the whole, it was a memorable dinner. Even its non-essential features were satisfactory. The waiter was fascinatingly solemn, the floor snowily sanded, the company sufficiently distinguished in literature and art for me to keep track of them through the newspapers. They are dead—as dead as Queen Anne, every mother’s son of them! I am in my favorite rôle of Sole Survivor. It has become habitual to me; I rather like it.

Of the company were two eminent gastronomes—call them Messrs. Guttle and Swig—who so acridly hated each other that nothing but a good dinner could bring them under the same roof. (They had had a quarrel, I think, about the merit of a certain Amontillado—which, by the way, one insisted, despite Edgar Allan Poe, who certainly knew too much of whiskey to know much of wine, is a Sherry.) After the cloth had been removed and the coffee, walnuts and cigars brought in, the company stood, and to an air extemporaneously composed by Guttle, sang the following shocking and reprehensible song, which had been written during the proceedings by this present Sole Survivor. It will serve as fitly to conclude this feast of unreason as it did that:

The Song

Jack Satan’s the greatest of gods,

And Hell is the best of abodes.

’Tis reached through the Valley of Clods

By seventy beautiful roads.

Hurrah for the Seventy Roads!

Hurrah for the clods that resound

With a hollow, thundering sound!

Hurrah for the Best of Abodes!

We’ll serve him as long as we’ve breath—

Jack Satan, the greatest of gods.

To all of his enemies, death!—

A home in the Valley of Clods.

Hurrah for the thunder of clods

That smother the souls of his foes!

Hurrah for the spirit that goes

To dwell with the Greatest of Gods!

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005