Thursday, June 21, 2007

Never bet the devil your head

In my compendium of life knowledge I failed to neglect one important truth. If I had been alive in the 1800's, I probably would've been friends with Edgar Allen Poe. Yes, at times he was a bit creepy. When he wrote that story about digging up his cousin's corpse to remove her teeth & then put them in a pretty box, I probably would've said "Don't you think that's a little much Edgar?". Little known fact is that he was actually a funny guy at times. "The Raven" seems to get all the attention, but there's also a totally different, sarcastic side to his writing. This post is going to be lengthy so if you don't make it to the end, I would love to know about any other author's who's work was surprisingly outside their norm.

My favorite is called "Never bet the devil your head: a tale with a moral". There was always something refreshing about having a character named Toby Dammit in a house where swearing was frowned upon. Growing up, my brothers & I would read this aloud when we needed a laugh because you just can't say "Dammit, he said a-hem" without laughing. I'm all about the quasi cursing. I republish it here thanks to the Gutenburg Project. I've eliminated the forward because it was kind of lengthy & hard to read. The gist of it was that Poe had many critics who said his writing was pointless & without morals. He then produced this beautiful piece of work in response from which we learn the very important truth...never bet the devil your head.

Never Bet the Devil Your Head

A Tale With a Moral.
Edgar Allen Poe

Defuncti injuria ne afficiantur was a law of the twelve tables, and De
mortuis nil nisi bonum is an excellent injunction -- even if the dead in
question be nothing but dead small beer. It is not my design, therefore,
to vituperate my deceased friend, Toby Dammit. He was a sad dog, it is
true, and a dog's death it was that he died; but he himself was not to
blame for his vices. They grew out of a personal defect in his mother. She
did her best in the way of flogging him while an infant -- for duties to
her well -- regulated mind were always pleasures, and babies, like tough
steaks, or the modern Greek olive trees, are invariably the better for
beating -- but, poor woman! she had the misfortune to be left-handed, and
a child flogged left-handedly had better be left unflogged. The world
revolves from right to left. It will not do to whip a baby from left to
right. If each blow in the proper direction drives an evil propensity out,
it follows that every thump in an opposite one knocks its quota of
wickedness in. I was often present at Toby's chastisements, and, even by
the way in which he kicked, I could perceive that he was getting worse and
worse every day. At last I saw, through the tears in my eyes, that there
was no hope of the villain at all, and one day when he had been cuffed
until he grew so black in the face that one might have mistaken him for a
little African, and no effect had been produced beyond that of making him
wriggle himself into a fit, I could stand it no longer, but went down upon
my knees forthwith, and, uplifting my voice, made prophecy of his ruin.

The fact is that his precocity in vice was awful. At five months of age he
used to get into such passions that he was unable to articulate. At six
months, I caught him gnawing a pack of cards. At seven months he was in
the constant habit of catching and kissing the female babies. At eight
months he peremptorily refused to put his signature to the Temperance
pledge. Thus he went on increasing in iniquity, month after month, until,
at the close of the first year, he not only insisted upon wearing
moustaches, but had contracted a propensity for cursing and swearing, and
for backing his assertions by bets.

Through this latter most ungentlemanly practice, the ruin which I had
predicted to Toby Dammit overtook him at last. The fashion had "grown with
his growth and strengthened with his strength," so that, when he came to
be a man, he could scarcely utter a sentence without interlarding it with
a proposition to gamble. Not that he actually laid wagers -- no. I will do
my friend the justice to say that he would as soon have laid eggs. With
him the thing was a mere formula -- nothing more. His expressions on this
head had no meaning attached to them whatever. They were simple if not
altogether innocent expletives -- imaginative phrases wherewith to round
off a sentence. When he said "I'll bet you so and so," nobody ever thought
of taking him up; but still I could not help thinking it my duty to put
him down. The habit was an immoral one, and so I told him. It was a vulgar
one- this I begged him to believe. It was discountenanced by society --
here I said nothing but the truth. It was forbidden by act of Congress --
here I had not the slightest intention of telling a lie. I remonstrated --
but to no purpose. I demonstrated -- in vain. I entreated -- he smiled. I
implored -- he laughed. I preached- he sneered. I threatened -- he swore.
I kicked him -- he called for the police. I pulled his nose -- he blew it,
and offered to bet the Devil his head that I would not venture to try that
experiment again.

Poverty was another vice which the peculiar physical deficiency of
Dammit's mother had entailed upon her son. He was detestably poor, and
this was the reason, no doubt, that his expletive expressions about
betting, seldom took a pecuniary turn. I will not be bound to say that I
ever heard him make use of such a figure of speech as "I'll bet you a
dollar." It was usually "I'll bet you what you please," or "I'll bet you
what you dare," or "I'll bet you a trifle," or else, more significantly
still, "I'll bet the Devil my head."

This latter form seemed to please him best; -- perhaps because it involved
the least risk; for Dammit had become excessively parsimonious. Had any
one taken him up, his head was small, and thus his loss would have been
small too. But these are my own reflections and I am by no means sure that
I am right in attributing them to him. At all events the phrase in
question grew daily in favor, notwithstanding the gross impropriety of a
man betting his brains like bank-notes: -- but this was a point which my
friend's perversity of disposition would not permit him to comprehend. In
the end, he abandoned all other forms of wager, and gave himself up to
"I'll bet the Devil my head," with a pertinacity and exclusiveness of
devotion that displeased not less than it surprised me. I am always
displeased by circumstances for which I cannot account. Mysteries force a
man to think, and so injure his health. The truth is, there was something
in the air with which Mr. Dammit was wont to give utterance to his
offensive expression -- something in his manner of enunciation -- which at
first interested, and afterwards made me very uneasy -- something which,
for want of a more definite term at present, I must be permitted to call
queer; but which Mr. Coleridge would have called mystical, Mr. Kant
pantheistical, Mr. Carlyle twistical, and Mr. Emerson hyperquizzitistical.
I began not to like it at all. Mr. Dammits soul was in a perilous state. I
resolved to bring all my eloquence into play to save it. I vowed to serve
him as St. Patrick, in the Irish chronicle, is said to have served the
toad, -- that is to say, "awaken him to a sense of his situation." I
addressed myself to the task forthwith. Once more I betook myself to
remonstrance. Again I collected my energies for a final attempt at
expostulation.

When I had made an end of my lecture, Mr. Dammit indulged himself in some
very equivocal behavior. For some moments he remained silent, merely
looking me inquisitively in the face. But presently he threw his head to
one side, and elevated his eyebrows to a great extent. Then he spread out
the palms of his hands and shrugged up his shoulders. Then he winked with
the right eye. Then he repeated the operation with the left. Then he shut
them both up very tight. Then he opened them both so very wide that I
became seriously alarmed for the consequences. Then, applying his thumb to
his nose, he thought proper to make an indescribable movement with the
rest of his fingers. Finally, setting his arms a-kimbo, he condescended to
reply.

I can call to mind only the beads of his discourse. He would be obliged to
me if I would hold my tongue. He wished none of my advice. He despised all
my insinuations. He was old enough to take care of himself. Did I still
think him baby Dammit? Did I mean to say any thing against his character?
Did I intend to insult him? Was I a fool? Was my maternal parent aware, in
a word, of my absence from the domiciliary residence? He would put this
latter question to me as to a man of veracity, and he would bind himself
to abide by my reply. Once more he would demand explicitly if my mother
knew that I was out. My confusion, he said, betrayed me, and he would be
willing to bet the Devil his head that she did not.

Mr. Dammit did not pause for my rejoinder. Turning upon his heel, he left
my presence with undignified precipitation. It was well for him that he
did so. My feelings had been wounded. Even my anger had been aroused. For
once I would have taken him up upon his insulting wager. I would have won
for the Arch-Enemy Mr. Dammit's little head -- for the fact is, my mamma
was very well aware of my merely temporary absence from home.

But Khoda shefa midêhed -- Heaven gives relief -- as the Mussulmans say
when you tread upon their toes. It was in pursuance of my duty that I had
been insulted, and I bore the insult like a man. It now seemed to me,
however, that I had done all that could be required of me, in the case of
this miserable individual, and I resolved to trouble him no longer with my
counsel, but to leave him to his conscience and himself. But although I
forebore to intrude with my advice, I could not bring myself to give up
his society altogether. I even went so far as to humor some of his less
reprehensible propensities; and there were times when I found myself
lauding his wicked jokes, as epicures do mustard, with tears in my eyes:
-- so profoundly did it grieve me to hear his evil talk.

One fine day, having strolled out together, arm in arm, our route led us
in the direction of a river. There was a bridge, and we resolved to cross
it. It was roofed over, by way of protection from the weather, and the
archway, having but few windows, was thus very uncomfortably dark. As we
entered the passage, the contrast between the external glare and the
interior gloom struck heavily upon my spirits. Not so upon those of the
unhappy Dammit, who offered to bet the Devil his head that I was hipped.
He seemed to be in an unusual good humor. He was excessively lively -- so
much so that I entertained I know not what of uneasy suspicion. It is not
impossible that he was affected with the transcendentals. I am not well
enough versed, however, in the diagnosis of this disease to speak with
decision upon the point; and unhappily there were none of my friends of
the "Dial" present. I suggest the idea, nevertheless, because of a certain
species of austere Merry-Andrewism which seemed to beset my poor friend,
and caused him to make quite a Tom-Fool of himself. Nothing would serve
him but wriggling and skipping about under and over every thing that came
in his way; now shouting out, and now lisping out, all manner of odd
little and big words, yet preserving the gravest face in the world all the
time. I really could not make up my mind whether to kick or to pity him.
At length, having passed nearly across the bridge, we approached the
termination of the footway, when our progress was impeded by a turnstile
of some height. Through this I made my way quietly, pushing it around as
usual. But this turn would not serve the turn of Mr. Dammit. He insisted
upon leaping the stile, and said he could cut a pigeon-wing over it in the
air. Now this, conscientiously speaking, I did not think he could do. The
best pigeon-winger over all kinds of style was my friend Mr. Carlyle, and
as I knew he could not do it, I would not believe that it could be done by
Toby Dammit. I therefore told him, in so many words, that he was a
braggadocio, and could not do what he said. For this I had reason to be
sorry afterward; -- for he straightway offered to bet the Devil his head
that he could.

I was about to reply, notwithstanding my previous resolutions, with some
remonstrance against his impiety, when I heard, close at my elbow, a
slight cough, which sounded very much like the ejaculation "ahem!" I
started, and looked about me in surprise. My glance at length fell into a
nook of the frame -- work of the bridge, and upon the figure of a little
lame old gentleman of venerable aspect. Nothing could be more reverend
than his whole appearance; for he not only had on a full suit of black,
but his shirt was perfectly clean and the collar turned very neatly down
over a white cravat, while his hair was parted in front like a girl's. His
hands were clasped pensively together over his stomach, and his two eyes
were carefully rolled up into the top of his head.

Upon observing him more closely, I perceived that he wore a black silk
apron over his small-clothes; and this was a thing which I thought very
odd. Before I had time to make any remark, however, upon so singular a
circumstance, he interrupted me with a second "ahem!"

To this observation I was not immediately prepared to reply. The fact is,
remarks of this laconic nature are nearly unanswerable. I have known a
Quarterly Review non-plussed by the word "Fudge!" I am not ashamed to say,
therefore, that I turned to Mr. Dammit for assistance.

"Dammit," said I, "what are you about? don't you hear? -- the gentleman
says 'ahem!'" I looked sternly at my friend while I thus addressed him;
for, to say the truth, I felt particularly puzzled, and when a man is
particularly puzzled he must knit his brows and look savage, or else he is
pretty sure to look like a fool.

"Dammit," observed I -- although this sounded very much like an oath, than
which nothing was further from my thoughts -- "Dammit," I suggested --
"the gentleman says 'ahem!'"

I do not attempt to defend my remark on the score of profundity; I did not
think it profound myself; but I have noticed that the effect of our
speeches is not always proportionate with their importance in our own
eyes; and if I had shot Mr. D. through and through with a Paixhan bomb, or
knocked him in the head with the "Poets and Poetry of America," he could
hardly have been more discomfited than when I addressed him with those
simple words: "Dammit, what are you about?- don't you hear? -- the
gentleman says 'ahem!'"

"You don't say so?" gasped he at length, after turning more colors than a
pirate runs up, one after the other, when chased by a man-of-war. "Are you
quite sure he said that? Well, at all events I am in for it now, and may
as well put a bold face upon the matter. Here goes, then -- ahem!"

At this the little old gentleman seemed pleased -- God only knows why. He
left his station at the nook of the bridge, limped forward with a gracious
air, took Dammit by the hand and shook it cordially, looking all the while
straight up in his face with an air of the most unadulterated benignity
which it is possible for the mind of man to imagine.

"I am quite sure you will win it, Dammit," said he, with the frankest of
all smiles, "but we are obliged to have a trial, you know, for the sake of
mere form."

"Ahem!" replied my friend, taking off his coat, with a deep sigh, tying a
pocket-handkerchief around his waist, and producing an unaccountable
alteration in his countenance by twisting up his eyes and bringing down
the corners of his mouth -- "ahem!" And "ahem!" said he again, after a
pause; and not another word more than "ahem!" did I ever know him to say
after that. "Aha!" thought I, without expressing myself aloud -- "this is
quite a remarkable silence on the part of Toby Dammit, and is no doubt a
consequence of his verbosity upon a previous occasion. One extreme induces
another. I wonder if he has forgotten the many unanswerable questions
which he propounded to me so fluently on the day when I gave him my last
lecture? At all events, he is cured of the transcendentals."

"Ahem!" here replied Toby, just as if he had been reading my thoughts, and
looking like a very old sheep in a revery.

The old gentleman now took him by the arm, and led him more into the shade
of the bridge -- a few paces back from the turnstile. "My good fellow,"
said he, "I make it a point of conscience to allow you this much run. Wait
here, till I take my place by the stile, so that I may see whether you go
over it handsomely, and transcendentally, and don't omit any flourishes of
the pigeon-wing. A mere form, you know. I will say 'one, two, three, and
away.' Mind you, start at the word 'away'" Here he took his position by
the stile, paused a moment as if in profound reflection, then looked up
and, I thought, smiled very slightly, then tightened the strings of his
apron, then took a long look at Dammit, and finally gave the word as
agreed upon-

_One -- two -- three -- and -- away!_

Punctually at the word "away," my poor friend set off in a strong gallop.
The stile was not very high, like Mr. Lord's -- nor yet very low, like
that of Mr. Lord's reviewers, but upon the whole I made sure that he would
clear it. And then what if he did not? -- ah, that was the question --
what if he did not? "What right," said I, "had the old gentleman to make
any other gentleman jump? The little old dot-and-carry-one! who is he? If
he asks me to jump, I won't do it, that's flat, and I don't care who the
devil he is." The bridge, as I say, was arched and covered in, in a very
ridiculous manner, and there was a most uncomfortable echo about it at all
times -- an echo which I never before so particularly observed as when I
uttered the four last words of my remark.

But what I said, or what I thought, or what I heard, occupied only an
instant. In less than five seconds from his starting, my poor Toby had
taken the leap. I saw him run nimbly, and spring grandly from the floor of
the bridge, cutting the most awful flourishes with his legs as he went up.
I saw him high in the air, pigeon-winging it to admiration just over the
top of the stile; and of course I thought it an unusually singular thing
that he did not continue to go over. But the whole leap was the affair of
a moment, and, before I had a chance to make any profound reflections,
down came Mr. Dammit on the flat of his back, on the same side of the
stile from which he had started. At the same instant I saw the old
gentleman limping off at the top of his speed, having caught and wrapt up
in his apron something that fell heavily into it from the darkness of the
arch just over the turnstile. At all this I was much astonished; but I had
no leisure to think, for Dammit lay particularly still, and I concluded
that his feelings had been hurt, and that he stood in need of my
assistance. I hurried up to him and found that he had received what might
be termed a serious injury. The truth is, he had been deprived of his
head, which after a close search I could not find anywhere; so I
determined to take him home and send for the homoeopathists. In the
meantime a thought struck me, and I threw open an adjacent window of the
bridge, when the sad truth flashed upon me at once. About five feet just
above the top of the turnstile, and crossing the arch of the foot-path so
as to constitute a brace, there extended a flat iron bar, lying with its
breadth horizontally, and forming one of a series that served to
strengthen the structure throughout its extent. With the edge of this
brace it appeared evident that the neck of my unfortunate friend had come
precisely in contact.

He did not long survive his terrible loss. The homoeopathists did not give
him little enough physic, and what little they did give him he hesitated
to take. So in the end he grew worse, and at length died, a lesson to all
riotous livers. I bedewed his grave with my tears, worked a bar sinister
on his family escutcheon, and, for the general expenses of his funeral,
sent in my very moderate bill to the transcendentalists. The scoundrels
refused to pay it, so I had Mr. Dammit dug up at once, and sold him for
dog's meat.

1 comment:

ellesappelle said...

That is the COOLEST story ever!

I loved this line: "The truth is, he had been deprived of his
head, which after a close search I could not find anywhere; so I
determined to take him home and send for the homoeopathists." :D

and... "I bedewed his grave with my tears."

Thanks so much for sharing that!