Ambrose Bierce

(24 June 1842 - 26 December 1913 / Horse Cave Creek, Ohio)

Metempsychosis - Poem by Ambrose Bierce

DRAMATIS PERSONAE.

ST. JOHN _a Presidential Candidate_
MCDONALD _a Defeated Aspirant_
MRS. HAYES _an Ex-President_
PITTS-STEVENS _a Water Nymph_

_Scene_-A Small Lake in the Alleghany Mountains.

ST. JOHN:

Hours I've immersed my muzzle in this tarn
And, quaffing copious potations, tried
To suck it dry; but ever as I pumped
Its waters into my distended skin
The labor of my zeal extruded them
In perspiration from my pores; and so,
Rilling the marginal declivity,
They fell again into their source. Ah, me!
Could I but find within these ancient hills
Some long extinct volcano, by the rains
Of countless ages in its crater brimmed
Like a full goblet, I would lay me down
Prone on the outer slope, and o'er its edge
Arching my neck, I'd siphon out its store
And flood the valleys with my sweat for aye.
So should I be accounted as a god,
Even as Father Nilus is. What's that?
Methought I heard some sawyer draw his file
With jarring, stridulous cacophany
Across his notchy blade, to set its teeth
And mine on edge. Ha! there it goes again!

_Song, within_.

Cold water's the milk of the mountains,
And Nature's our wet-nurse. O then,
Glue thou thy blue lips to her fountains
Forever and ever, amen!

ST. JOHN:

Why surely there's congenial company
Aloof-the spirit, I suppose, that guards
This sacred spot; perchance some water-nymph
Who laving in the crystal flood her limbs
Has taken cold, and so, with raucous voice
Afflicts the sensitive membrane of mine ear
The while she sings my sentiments.
_(Enter Pitts-Stevens.)_
Hello!
What fiend is this?

PITTS-STEVENS:

'Tis I, be not afraid.

ST. JOHN:

And who, thou antiquated crone, art thou?
I ne'er forget a face, but names I can't
So well remember. I have seen thee oft.
When in the middle season of the night,
Curved with a cucumber, or knotted hard
With an eclectic pie, I've striven to keep
My head and heels asunder, thou has come,
With sociable familiarity,
Into my dream, but not, alas, to bless.

PITTS-STEVENS:

My name's Pitts-Stevens, age just seventeen years;
Talking teetotaler, professional
Beauty.

ST. JOHN:

What dost them here?

PITTS-STEVENS:

I'm come, fair sir,
With paint and brush to blazon on these rocks
The merits of my master's nostrum-so:
_(Paints rapidly.)_
'McDonald's Vinegar Bitters!'

ST. JOHN:

What are they?

PITTS-STEVENS:

A woman suffering from widowhood
Took a full bottle and was cured. A man
There was-a murderer; the doctors all
Had given him up-he'd but an hour to live.
He swallowed half a glassful. He is dead,
But not of Vinegar Bitters. A wee babe
Lay sick and cried for it. The mother gave
That innocent a spoonful and it smoothed
Its pathway to the tomb. 'Tis warranted
To cause a boy to strike his father, make
A pig squeal, start the hair upon a stone,
Or play the fiddle for a country dance.
_(Enter McDonald, reading a Sunday-school book.)_
Good morrow, sir; I trust you're well.

MCDONALD:

H'lo, Pitts!
Observe, good friends, I have a volume here
Myself am author of-a noble book
To train the infant mind (delightful task!)
It tells how one Samantha Brown, age, six,
A gutter-bunking slave to rum, was saved
By Vinegar Bitters, went to church and now
Has an account at the Pacific Bank.
I'll read the whole work to you.

ST JOHN:
Heaven forbid!
I've elsewhere an engagement.

PITTS-STEVENS:
I am deaf.

MCDONALD _(reading regardless):_

'Once on a time there lived'--

_(Enter Mrs. Hayes.)_
Behold our queen!

ALL:

Her eyes upon the ground
Before her feet she low'rs,
Walking, in thought profound,
As 'twere, upon all fours.
Her visage is austere,
Her gait a high parade;
At every step you hear
The sloshing lemonade!

MRS. HAYES _(to herself):_

Once, sitting in the White House, hard at work
Signing State papers (Rutherford was there,
Knitting some hose) a sudden glory fell
Upon my paper. I looked up and saw
An angel, holding in his hand a rod
Wherewith he struck me. Smarting with the blow
I rose and (cuffing Rutherford) inquired:
'Wherefore this chastisement?' The angel said:
'Four years you have been President, and still
There's rum!'-then flew to Heaven. Contrite, I swore
Such oath as lady Methodist might take,
My second term should medicine my first.
The people would not have it that way; so
I seek some candidate who'll take my soul-
My spirit of reform, fresh from my breast,
And give me his instead; and thus equipped
With my imperious and fiery essence,
Drive the Drink-Demon from the land and fill
The people up with water till their teeth
Are all afloat.

(_St. John discovers himself_.)
What, _you_?

ST. JOHN:

Aye, Madam, I'll
Swap souls with you and lead the cold sea-green
Amphibians of Prohibition on,
Pallid of nose and webbed of foot, swim-bladdered,
Gifted with gills, invincible!

MRS. HAYES:

Enough,
Stand forth and consummate the interchange.

(_While McDonald and Pitts-Stevens modestly turn their
backs, the latter blushing a delicate shrimp-pink, St. John and
Mrs. Hayes effect an exchange of immortal parts. When the
transfer is complete McDonald turns and advances, uncorking
a bottle of Vinegar Bitters_.)

MCDONALD (_chanting_):

Nectar compounded of simples
Cocted in Stygian shades-
Acids of wrinkles and pimples
From faces of ancient maids-
Acrid precipitates sunken
From tempers of scolding wives
Whose husbands, uncommonly drunken,
Are commonly found in dives,-
With this I baptize and appoint thee
(_to St. John_.)
To marshal the vinophobe ranks.
In the name of Dambosh I anoint thee
(_pours the liquid down St. John's back_.)
As King of aquatical cranks!

(_The liquid blisters the royal back, and His Majesty starts
on a dead run, energetically exclaiming. Exit St. John_.)

MRS. HAYES:

My soul! My soul! I'll never get it back
Unless I follow nimbly on his track.
(_Exit Mrs. Hayes_.)

PITTS-STEVENS:

O my! he's such a beautiful young man!
I'll follow, too, and catch him if I can.
(_Exit Pitts-Stevens_.)

MCDONALD:

He scarce is visible, his dust so great!
Methinks for so obscure a candidate
He runs quite well. But as for Prohibition-
I mean myself to hold the first position.

(_Produces a pocket flask, topes a cruel quantity of double-distilled
thunder-and-lightning out of it, smiles so grimly as to
darken all the stage and sings_):

Though fortunes vary let all be merry,
And then if e'er a disaster befall,
At Styx's ferry is Charon's wherry
In easy call.

Upon a ripple of golden tipple
That tipsy ship'll convey you best.
To king and cripple, the bottle's the nipple
Of Nature's breast!


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Poem Submitted: Friday, September 28, 2012



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