the AMBROSE BIERCE site
AMBROSE AND GERTRUDE A One-Act Play by Don Swaim
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Gertrude Atherton, a handsome woman in her early thirties
Ambrose Bierce, a tall, distinguished man in his late forties
Place, Sunol Glen, California, in a small resort hotel, 1891
(The train's wheels spark as they stop, bits of smoke and fire. Atherton steps from the train to the platform. She carries a parasol and a small travel kit. Her hair is blond, swept high on her head. There's a single strand of pearls at her neck and she wears a blue dress and shoes with pointed toes. Bierce is wearing his usual black suit. He's a middle-aged man of striking good looks, with a bristling mustache, beetling brows, and beautiful hands. Bierce has a mysterious quality about him. That interests her.)
BIERCEYou're older than I thought, Mrs. Atherton. But attractive.
ATHERTONThat's indelicate of you, Mr. Bierce, to comment on a woman's age. I'm thirty-four. How old are you?
BIERCEI stand chastised, Mrs. Atherton. I'm forty-nine. ATHERTONHmmmm. Older than I thought. But attractive. BIERCEHe harumphs (They walk arm in arm to Bierce's hotel and pause along the way.) ATHERTONLet me say that I'm deeply sorry about the loss of your son. BIERCEI'm touched by the sentiment, my dear. To lose a son, just seventeen, to suicide as part of a murderous love triangle was deeply shocking, and I'm only now beginning to recover from it. ATHERTONI, too, lost a son -- although not from such violent circumstances. BIERCEOh? ATHERTONWhen he was just six. Of diphtheria. BIERCEI'm sorry for you as well. ATHERTONAnd I lost a husband. BIERCEI knew you were a widow. ATHERTONPoor George, for his health, went to sea and died of a hemorrhage after receiving a dose of morphine for a kidney stone attack. In Tahiti, they embalmed him in a barrel of rum and shipped him back. BIERCERum? I like the thought, Mrs. Atherton. ATHERTONIt's been bandied about that after the ship docked in San Francisco, they brought the barrel of rum with George's body inside to my door. Untrue, Mr. Bierce, untrue. The facts are much more conventional, and George is buried with his parents in the family mausoleum. I refused to look at George's body. I'm in horror of dead bodies. It was so difficult for me. I had to purchase a widow's attire. BIERCEDeath's always difficult... for the living. ATHERTONBut to be candid, I was glad to see the beggar go. Eleven years with George Henry Bowen Atherton served its purpose. BIERCEAnd that was? ATHERTONTo bring two children into the world. One of whom survives. My daughter Muriel resides with her grandmother while I attempt to develop my skills as a writer. BIERCEI have two remaining children, Mrs. Atherton. Leigh and Helen live with their mother. ATHERTONAnd what about your wife, Mr. Bierce? BIERCEI see her no longer, Mrs. Atherton. We've separated. ATHERTONMy sympathy. BIERCETwenty years with her also served its purpose. (They approach the hotel. White framed and pretty. She stumbles on a small stone. Bierce keeps her from falling) .
ATHERTONI'm clumsy, Mr. Bierce.BIERCENonsense, Mrs. Atherton. You simply stumbled.ATHERTONNo, I'm prone to accidents. Once, I drank part of a glass of ammonia thinking it was water and nearly had to have my stomach pumped. I'm a walking calamity.BIERCECalamities are of two kinds, misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.ATHERTONShe giggles.BIERCEI've been in isolation too much, my dear. William Randolph Hearst makes that possible by sending my check to wherever I choose to be. So I'm pleased to receive guests, especially one so attractive as you. Were all my visitors so comely I'd be a happy man, indeed. I've always believed that when God makes a beautiful woman, the devil opens a new register. (She looks at him skeptically, not appreciating his comment about the devil and a new register. They walk up the front steps and stop on the porch.)
BIERCEI received some distressing news the other day, Mrs. Atherton. About my friend Prentice Mulford.ATHERTONI've read some of Mr. Mulford's little stories. About mining in the frontier, as I recall.BIERCEHe's dead.ATHERTONTerrible, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEThey found his body, wrapped in a blanket, in a small boat in Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. His banjo was by his side. No one knows how he died. Apparently, he was trying to sail from Manhattan to Sag Harbor at the time of his death. We'll never know. He wasn't yet sixty.ATHERTONQuite a mystery.BIERCEMulford was crazy in love, Mrs. Atherton. He had met a little tramp named Josie in London, a city I loved and he detested. He once called the British Museum an intellectual charnel house. Mulford decided to bring Josie to America. We all tried to talk him out of it, my friends Stoddard, and Miller, and I. After he returned to Sag Harbor, where he was born, he found out she'd been posing nude for commercial artists. For the extra money, she claimed. God knows Mulford wasn't bringing home any. Let me tell you how he found out about his wife's clandestine occupation. One day, he opened a package of cheap cigarettes and saw on it a picture of Josie. The girl was stark naked.ATHERTONShocking.BIERCEThey had words. They separated. He mourned for the girl, worthless as she was. He moved to a New Jersey swamp to live with the mosquitoes and snakes. He lived in a boat, became a virtual hermit. He wanted nothing, had nothing, but a few clothes, a little food, a spirit lamp, his pen and paper. A banjo. He turned out five-cent tracts about spiritualism, faith healing, and similar tommyrot. God knows Prentice Mulford wasn't endowed with much common sense. Although once, perhaps twenty years ago, he was the only one of a group of us sots to refuse to climb up a hill and pull down a Christian cross.ATHERTONThat seems to have been a sensible decision, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEPerhaps. But then he began taking part in seances, claimed to have talked to the ghosts of John Wilkes Booth, Socrates, and an Indian maiden named Wawona. What's the difference between mysticism and intellectual suicide?
(Bierce and Atherton sit in rocking chairs on the porch of the Sunol Glen Hotel and muse. They sip lemonade and watch some guests playing croquet on the lawn.)
ATHERTONMr. Bierce, you never answered my question.BIERCEWhich one, my dear?ATHERTONThe one I wrote you about some time ago. Why you appear to dislike dogs so much.BIERCEI can give you many reasons. (He snorts). Once, in St. Helena, I was walking through the woods with my daughter when a dog attacked us. The beast snapped at our legs and ankles. I saw an indolent looking fellow leaning against a tree, watching the whole thing, and I shouted at him to call his dog off. When he didn't, I pulled out my gun and shot the animal dead.ATHERTONMr. Bierce!BIERCEWhat was I to do? I walked over to the man and asked him why he hadn't called his dog away.ATHERTONWhat did he say?BIERCEThe fellow shrugged and said, 'Ah, shucks, that dog wasn't mine.'ATHERTON(She laughs) I hope you don't make a habit of shooting dogs, Mr. Bierce.BIERCENo more than I do shooting men, my dear. (He becomes a bit expansive) I think I can best summarize my antipathy for the beasts with a little verse I wrote: Snap-dogs, lap-dogs, always-on-tap-dogs,
Reekers and leakers.ATHERTON(She laughs again) Quite amusing, Mr. Bierce, but it still doesn't answer my question.BIERCEMy dear, the trouble with the modern dog is that he's the same old dog. Not an inch has the rascal advanced along the line of evolution. Take man for example.ATHERTONYes?BIERCEWe've ceased to squat upon our naked haunches and gnaw raw bones. But this canine childhood companion of our race, this dismal anachronism, this veteran inharmony in the scheme of things, has made no progress at all.ATHERTONPerhaps dogs weren't meant to make progress in human terms, Mr. Bierce. Perhaps they were always intended to be the companion to our breed.BIERCEBosh, Mrs. Atherton. Nothing in our existence is intended to be, dogs included. To believe that is to believe that some superior being orchestrates life.ATHERTONThat's certainly not unreasonable. Many intelligent people hold that belief.BIERCEI'd hate to deflate your views on religion, my dear. It would be unfair to one as young, naive, and pretty as you.ATHERTONYou're much too condescending to me, Mr. Bierce. My views about religion are, no doubt, not much different from yours. I'd prefer to hear your position on dogs.BIERCEMrs. Atherton, the dog is a detestable quadrupled. The word 'dog' is a term of contempt the world over. Poets and essayists have written of the virtues of individual dogs, but no one has ever eulogized the species. Man loves his own dog but not all dogs.ATHERTONOf course man loves his -- or her -- dog, Mr. Bierce. Because the dog returns the love.BIERCEPrecisely, my dear. Man loves his own dog because that thrifty creature, ever cadging when not marauding, tickles man's vanity by fawning upon him as the visible source of steaks and bones. And also because the graceless beast insults everyone else, harming as many as he dares.ATHERTONThat's an exaggeration, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEI never exaggerate, young lady. The dog's an encampment of fleas and a reservoir of sinful smells. He has no manners. No discrimination. His loyalty's given to the person that feeds him, whether his master is honorable or a blackguard.ATHERTONYour criticism could apply to humans as well as dogs. Have you not known humans to be encampments of fleas and reservoirs of sinful smells?BIERCE(He throws up his hands) It's hopeless speaking to you on this subject, Mrs. Atherton. Women adore not only dogs but the entire disgusting species. Then, of course, a woman will love anything.ATHERTONThat, sir, is an insult.BIERCEWomen even love men who love dogs. Tell me, Mrs. Atherton, have you ever kissed a dog?ATHERTONCertainly I've kissed a dog. And cats as well. Fuzzy, furry, vulnerable little creatures, they are.BIERCEAha! Likely you've kissed more dogs and cats than men.ATHERTONIf that's true, remember that I'm a widow, sir, and my preferred state.BIERCEIt's my opinion that the female, widow or not, who holds a dog to her heart is without other lodgers, namely those of the human male species.ATHERTONRidiculous. You seem to have as poor an opinion of women as you do dogs, and I resent it. I didn't take a two-hour train ride all the way to Sunol to be insulted by you.BIERCEI meant no personal insult. But if that's the way you feel about it, Mrs. Atherton, you're welcome to take the next train out.ATHERTONPerhaps I will.BIERCEGood. (The two sit in angry silence. They hear the click of the croquet balls being struck by mallets. A horse fly zooms across the porch and circles around Atherton's head. She angrily brushes at it with her hand. Bierce, trying to make amends, shakes the lemonade pitcher, the ice tinkling)BIERCEWould you care for some more lemonade, Mrs. Atherton?ATHERTONNot at the moment, Mr. Bierce.
(Bierce refills his glass.)
ATHERTON (cont'd)See here, Mr. Bierce. I came here to discuss literature with you, not dogs.BIERCEAs I recall, it was you who raised the subject.ATHERTONAnd now I'm trying to raise the conversation to higher level.BIERCEThen proceed, my dear.ATHERTONThe novel.BIERCE(He shakes his head) Don't waste your time thinking about the novel, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONWaste my time? That's precisely what I want to write. I've already written four of them, with varying results. And because of discrimination against women writers I've had to use a pseudonym.BIERCEYes, that silly one you employed. Asmodeus.ATHERTONSo you remember.BIERCEMy dear, I still read the Argonaut, even though I have no use for its owner, Frank Pixley. I once worked for the bugger, after all.ATHERTONMr. Pixley paid me one-hundred-fifty dollars for The Randolphs of Redwoods. That very first attempt at a novel of mine was published as a serial.BIERCEAnd how do you feel about that first attempt at a novel?ATHERTONEmbarrassed.BIERCEUnderstandably.ATHERTONMy next novel was published under the name of Fran Lin. A contraction of my mother's maiden name.BIERCEAre you proud of it? The novel, I mean.ATHERTONIt was published, Mr. Bierce. Readers bought it.BIERCESo what? Madam, in any one quarter-century there can't be more than half a dozen novels that posterity will take the trouble to read.ATHERTONHang posterity, Mr. Bierce. I intend to write for now.BIERCEAnd I'm telling you that contemporary novels are only read by reviewers and the multitude. They'll read anything as long as it's long, untrue, and new.ATHERTONRidiculous. You're asserting we must read only the classics.BIERCEReaders of taste illuminate their minds and warm their hearts in Scott's suffusing glow. The strange, heatless glimmer of Hawthorne fascinates more and more. The Thousand-and-One Nights is the captain of tale-telling.ATHERTONIf we were to listen to you, Mr. Bierce, there'd be no novels written today at all. There'd be no challengers to rival Scott and Hawthorne. We'd all be stuck in the past.BIERCE(He sputters) You're starting to annoy me, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONAnd you're long past annoying me, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEDammit! (He composes himself. After all, he's dealing with a mere child.) Let me try to explain to you, Mrs. Atherton, that the modern novel's the lowest form of imagination. It's a diluted story filled with trivialities and nonessentials. I've never seen one that couldn't be cut by a half or three-quarters.ATHERTONSir, the novel affords the writer the opportunity of developing character in the way a short story can't. It allows the telling of a story that may take place over many years, generations in fact, with many, many characters.BIERCENo, no, no. The novel bears the same relation to literature that a panorama bears to painting. A panorama lacks that basic quality needed in art: unity and totality of effect. As it can't be seen all at once, the panorama's parts must be viewed successively. It's the same with a story too long to be read in a single sitting.ATHERTONJust because you've never written one, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEWhat?ATHERTONYou heard me. I've read your stories in the Examiner. Your Civil War stories, your ghost stories. They may be models of craftsmanship and style but they cry out for development. For amplification.BIERCEYou have the temerity to tell me how my stories should be written?ATHERTONSomebody should, Mr. Bierce. In fact, your stories have no humanity. They're as cold as ice. And since they don't touch our hearts, your stories will never be remembered.BIERCEI don't write the kind of silly, trite, romantic pap that you do, Mrs. Atherton. And don't ever try to tell me your work will ever be remembered. If, indeed, you find some intelligence, other than myself, to read it.ATHERTONPap you say? You gave me encouragement. You told me of my potential. I have your letters stating so. And now you call my work pap?BIERCEObviously I was mistaken in my analysis of your potential.ATHERTONYou're jealous, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEWhat the Sam Hill...ATHERTONYes, jealous. Because you can't write novels. And you know I can. And will! Any clever, cultivated mind with a modicum of talent, such as you...BIERCEModicum?ATHERTON...can manage a short story. But it takes a special person with a special endowment to master the novel. You don't have it, Mr. Bierce. All you can do is to criticize and to write bloodless short stories, twaddle, and mean-spirited verse.BIERCETwaddle? Mean-spirited? How dare you come here to criticize me in that way?ATHERTONI'm not the only one who's critical of you, Mr. Bierce. I remember what William Greer Harrison wrote about you in the Argonaut.BIERCEHarrison? Who gives a damn what he says. Harrison's a better broker than a poet. All he has is his pen to suck and his thumbs to count.ATHERTONMr. Harrison wrote that today the world laughs at Ambrose Bierce...BIERCEEnough!ATHERTONThat you plagiarize from yourself...BIERCENo more!ATHERTONThat you're the most complete literary failure of the century...BIERCECease, dammit!ATHERTONThat you're only a sign-post marking the wreck of an utterly wasted life and the grave of a literary bully.BIERCEHow dare you show me such little respect.ATHERTONOh, ho, so you expected me to be a pilgrim carrying incense, wending my way to the shrine in order to sit at the feet of the Master.BIERCEI'm outraged.ATHERTONYes, the Master. That's what your sycophants call you. Master, indeed! (Bierce gets to his feet. His face is red. His eyes tear with anger.)
BIERCEExcuse me, Mrs. Atherton. I must take your leave for a while.ATHERTONMr. Bierce... (She reaches out her hand.)BIERCEI'm having a little trouble breathing.
(He steps backward, bows, then leaves the porch and walks across the lawn, stabbing his walking stick into the ground. She sips her lemonade and watches him disappear into a grove of trees. She's satisfied at first, then feels a pang of conscience. Given a few more years, he could be old enough to be her father. He's had a terrible bereavement, has parted from his wife. His health is delicate. Perhaps she hasn't been as respectful to him as she should. He's almost a legend in Western letters, after all. And she has, in effect, imposed herself on him, has sought him out.)
(Atherton discovers Bierce sitting on a log among the trees.)
ATHERTONMr. Bierce, I'm afraid I was terribly rude to you.BIERCEIndeed, young lady.ATHERTONI don't know what possessed me. You have my sincerest apology.BIERCE(He's calmer now) Perhaps I overreacted, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONA truce, Mr. Bierce?BIERCE(He stands) A truce, Mrs. Atherton. (They shake hands. He holds her hand slightly longer than he should.)
BIERCE (cont'd)I believe it's time for lunch, my dear. (Arm in arm they stroll through the woods and back to the hotel.)
(In the dining room they sit by a window, the sun pouring in. They've finished their meal and are drinking coffee.)ATHERTONDo you feel the same way about cats as you do dogs, Mr. Bierce?BIERCEAbsolutely not, Mrs. Atherton. Cats have a distinctly useful purpose.ATHERTONOh?BIERCECats are a soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong.ATHERTONThat's not particularly funny, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEIt wasn't particularly intended to be funny, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONAt times, I question your humor, sir.BIERCEAnd I question humor that fails the test of wit.ATHERTONMr. Bierce, as much as I respect you as a writer, I find you too often caustic and biting.BIERCEWe've covered this ground, young lady. You were well aware of my writing, my work, and my reputation long before you stepped on the train to pay homage to me.ATHERTONHomage?BIERCE(A little embarrassed by the slip) A figure of speech, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONI suppose I did have some curiosity...BIERCEAbout me?ATHERTONAs to why you are so hated... and loved.BIERCEDid you know we're all hypnotists?ATHERTONI haven't given the subject thought.BIERCEHypnotism's a mysterious force. Why is one person loved better than a another who may be more worthy of love?ATHERTONYou're not saying that hypnotism...BIERCEYes. The person who's better loved than the more worthy candidate has what's called personal magnetism. Some people actually have the quality to draw other persons to them just like a magnet attracts steel. Have you, Mrs. Atherton, ever, by oral argument, convinced anyone that he was wrong and you were right?ATHERTON(She thinks for a moment) Occasionally.BIERCEBut not often. I venture to say that if you did succeed, it wasn't by your cogency and eloquence, it was by unconscious hypnotism that you did the trick.ATHERTONOh, blather.BIERCEYour success in convincing another person depends on the degree of your hypnotic power, your opportunities of exerting it, and his susceptibility to it. Look at the members of Congress. They vote predictably, no matter how convincing the arguments to pass or defeat certain legislation. And generally they do the bidding of their more magnetic party leaders. Converting the heathen can't be done by talking, Mrs. Atherton, nor will logical argument make one loved. I admit that my ability to hypnotize is somewhat limited. As a result, I'm quite content to be hated...and occasionally loved.ATHERTONYour argument's quite specious, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEIs it now?ATHERTONWho's to say that one person is more worthy of love than another? What do you mean by worthy? Love has ramifications all of its own and has nothing to do with worthiness, personal magnetism, or hypnosis. Try again.BIERCEYou dismiss my argument cavalierly, young lady.ATHERTONThen perhaps you are right, Mr. Bierce. Your own ability to hypnotize is quite limited. And I don't appreciate being referred to as 'young lady.' I'm a woman in my thirties.BIERCE(He glares at her) You're indeed an emancipated woman.BIERCE(She sniffs) Hardly, sir. I won't become emancipated until women's suffrage comes about. When do you suppose that'll be? Twenty or thirty years from now?BIERCEWhat's the rush, Mrs. Atherton? Men and women have survived without suffrage since time immemorial. What's a few more years?ATHERTONPrecisely what I'd expect you to say. What's the hurry? After all, you have the right to vote.BIERCEPerhaps I'm old fashioned...ATHERTONYou?BIERCE...but I'd like to know how the enlargement of a woman's sphere by her entrance into various activities of commercial, professional, industrial, and political life benefits the sex? Whatever employment women have obtained has been by displacing men who would otherwise be supporting women. Where's the general advantage?ATHERTONThe general advantage, sir, is that it gives women the same opportunity as men to succeed -- and in the same fields. It allows women to broaden their minds and horizons in the very way that men do. And I believe that's salutary for the general population.BIERCEMrs. Atherton, no woman's under obligation to sacrifice herself to the good of her sex by foregoing needed employment in the hope that it may fall to a man gifted with dependent women. But it's my opinion that the enlargement of women's opportunities hasn't benefited the sex as a whole. And I believe it's distinctly damaged the race.ATHERTONThey'd never call you progressive, would they, Mr. Bierce?BIERCENot without a fight, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONWhat you do, sir, is to sit back and survey the world around you, find fault with it, cynically ridicule it, and not once offer a suggestion as to how to advance society.BIERCEI'm not employed to advance society.ATHERTONNo one's employed to advance society, but most thinking people are obliged to try.BIERCEI view myself as an observer. And did I understand you to suggest that I'm not a thinking person?ATHERTONOh, Mr. Bierce, how you think! But you support no cause, see no need for change. You deal in ridicule and sarcasm. You play the cynic's role. You stand for nothing.BIERCEI think I've had about enough of you, Mrs. Atherton. No matter what I say...ATHERTONNo matter what you say you talk like an old crank.BIERCEHow dare you.ATHERTONI dare, Mr. Bierce, I dare indeed. (They sip their coffee in silence. Bierce refuses to look at Atherton until she withdraws a small, flat case from her purse and removes a cigarette. She puts the cigarette in her mouth.)BIERCEMrs. Atherton...ATHERTONMay I have a light please, Mr. Bierce?BIERCEThe hotel frowns on women...ATHERTONWho smoke? In their precious dining room? I'm sure I'll have no difficulty if you intervene on my behalf, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEThere are those who feel it improper.ATHERTONThen I'm sure you'll be able to convince them otherwise. (Bierce reluctantly finds a match in his coat. She places her hand on his as he lights the cigarette. Atherton inhales and returns the smoke through her nostrils. She inhales again. Releases the smoke.)BIERCEI'm somewhat tired and my breathing's a little delicate, Mrs. Atherton. I need a slight rest. Perhaps you'd care to accompany me to my room. Unless you're shy...or afraid.ATHERTONI'm neither shy nor afraid, Mr. Bierce. I'm not a conventional woman, as you've seen.
(They walk to a portion of the stage representing a small room containing a single chair, a table and lamp, a chest-of drawers, and a narrow bed. There is a bottle of chloroform on the table by a window. Bierce motions for her to occupy the chair while he sprawls on the bed. Atherton, now feeling awkward, wishes that they had returned to the porch instead. Bierce closes his eyes and breathes deeply. Uncomfortable and ignored, Atherton squirms in her chair.)
ATHERTONMr. Bierce? (No answer)ATHERTON (cont'd)Mr. Bierce?BIERCEYes?ATHERTONAre you falling asleep?BIERCENo, no, my dear.ATHERTONMr. Bierce?BIERCEYes?ATHERTONYou're sure you're not going to sleep?BIERCESimply resting my eyes.ATHERTONYour eyes need resting?BIERCEYes.ATHERTONPerhaps I should...BIERCE(Sharply) Perhaps, Mrs. Atherton, if you'll be silent for a few moments then I'll regain my vigor.ATHERTON(She stands) Be silent? You're rude, Mr. Bierce.BIERCE(He opens his eyes) I, rude? I simply asked for a few moments of quiet.ATHERTONIf it's solitude you wish, I can certainly arrange that. I didn't come all the way to Sunol on the train for solitude.BIERCE(He sits up) You're starting to become hysterical, Mrs. Atherton.ATHERTONThe pot calling the kettle black, I'd say.BIERCEYou're challenging my sanity, Mrs. Atherton. And sanity is the state of mind which immediately precedes and follows murder.ATHERTONIs that a threat?BIERCEI'm too much of a gentleman to threaten a naive girl such as yourself.ATHERTONA gentleman? Really, sir. A gentleman doesn't fling himself on a bed in a woman's presence -- not a girl's -- close his eyes, and start to snore.BIERCEDammit, I did not snore. (His face and ears turn red. His breathing becomes coarse. He gasps for air. He gropes for the chloroform bottle but bumps it from the side table. The bottle smashes as it falls to the floor. The room fills with sweet, sickening fumes. Atherton runs to the window and opens it to allow the vapor to dissipate. Then she returns to the bed and puts her hand on his arm.)ATHERTONMr. Bierce, are you all right?BIERCEThe asthma. (He chokes)ATHERTONThe broken bottle. It smells like chloroform.BIERCEFor my breathing. (He gasps)ATHERTONLie back, Mr. Bierce, lie back. (Wheezing, he reclines on the bed.)ATHERTONLet me get you something.BIERCE(He waves his hand) No. Just give me a minute. (Bierce, breathing heavily, gradually composes himself. His eyes close. He snores. Atherton again begins to feel pangs of guilt for goading the man as she had. But not too much guilt.)ATHERTON(Speaking to Bierce, but knowing he's asleep) You are insufferable, indeed. I despise people who are so unalterably convinced of their own genius and correctness that they dismiss out of hand the views of others. Besides, too many Californians consider you to be the final arbiter on matters ranging from literature to politics. Who are you anyway, but a middle-aged blowhard, convinced of your own infallibility. Still, there's something vulnerable about you. A blusterer who tries desperately to hide your susceptibility with wind and steam. You're a melancholy man. (She pauses) And quite beautiful.BIERCE(He opens his eyes) Did you say something, Mrs. Atherton?ATHERTONI said, how are you, Mr. Bierce?BIERCEI'm better now. Sometimes I need to rest after a meal. The asthma...ATHERTONMr. Bierce. (She puts her hand on his. He takes it, squeezes it.) I was angry. Perhaps I was hard on you.BIERCENo, no, my dear. I was hard on you.ATHERTONNonsense, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEAnd you're right, Mrs. Atherton. I can't write novels.ATHERTONBut you're a great writer.BIERCEI'm a hack. A failure. I'm in the employ of William Randolph Hearst. The money he spends for an Egyptian mummy in its case would feed me for a year. Two years, three. I've spent virtually my entire life writing and have little to show for it but three slim volumes of humor published in England when I was very, very young, and a tiny book of stories. I labor for a man I barely respect. A man who's not content to cover the news. He creates it, and then trumpets his meager triumphs in vile and obscene headlines. He wants to orchestrate a war for the sake of circulation. By God, some day he'll do it. And my name's associated with William Randolph Hearst.ATHERTONBut your stories...BIERCEThey've all been published in newspapers. Read, then discarded. Used for wrapping fish and garbage.ATHERTONThe stories in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians are brilliant, Mr. Bierce.BIERCEBut bloodless. Cold as ice. Twaddle.ATHERTONI'm sorry I said that. Your fiction is as good as any I've ever read. No one has written about the Civil War with such clarity and keenness.BIERCEThank you, my dear. (He rolls his legs to the floor and sits up on the bed) And I didn't mean it when I said your fiction was pap. You're a fine novelist and someday you'll be a great one.ATHERTONI know, Mr. Bierce.BIERCE(He looks at his watch) Your train is about to arrive, Mrs. Atherton.
(He holds her hand as he walks her to the station to catch the evening train. Not far from the platform is a pigsty. They hear the grunts.)BIERCELook at the pigs, Mrs. Atherton. Doing what pigs do.ATHERTONWhich is not unlike what humans do.BIERCEMrs. Atherton, a pig's closely allied to the human race by the splendor and vivacity of its appetite, which, however, is inferior in scope, because the pig sticks at being a pig.ATHERTONA pity humans don't do the same.BIERCEI must apologize for being so cantankerous, my dear. The stress of losing my son and the flare up of my asthma made me somewhat disagreeable.ATHERTONDon't apologize, Mr. Bierce. I thrive on disagreement.BIERCEIndisputable, Mrs. Atherton. (They hear the whistle as the train approaches. Suddenly, Bierce seizes her in his arms and put his lips on hers. She doesn't struggle but she doesn't kiss him back. His mouth presses against hers but there's a hard resistance. Like stone. He stops and steps back.)ATHERTON(She throws back her head and laughs) The Almighty God Bierce! Master of style! The god on Olympus at whose feet pilgrims come to worship!BIERCEYou're an outrage.ATHERTONTrying to kiss a woman by a pigsty.BIERCEYou detestable little vixen.ATHERTONThe Master. (He grabs her by the arm and half drags her to the train platform. They get there just as the locomotive pulls it, its wheels gnashing and grinding like Bierce's teeth.)BIERCEI never want to see you as long as you live.ATHERTON(She laughs some more)BIERCEI've had a horrible day. And you're the one who's made it horrible.ATHERTONIsn't that odd, Mr. Bierce. I've had a wonderful day. I've learned something about you.BIERCEWhat, pray?ATHERTONThat the Master's human. And a pitiful human at that. (She skips aboard the train and waves.) Shall we stay in touch, Mr. Bierce?
© 2002 by Don Swaim. Public performance, in whole or in part, without permission or acknowledgement of the author is prohibited. Queries welcome, of course.
Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web
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