harry and smith were brothers. or at least people thought they were.
they were two old men who lived in a run-down house on the outskirts of town.
they didn’t do much except sit around and sometimes watch television.
once a week harry drove to the mall and picked up some supplies.
on most of his trips he treated himself to a big mac or a whopper at mcdonalds or burger king. and fries and a large black decaf.
smith never seemed to leave the house.
smith watched a little more television than harry.
if harry was watching he would sometimes change the channel.
smith never did - he just watched whatever was on when he turned it on.
they both spent long hours just staring into space.
and went for long periods without speaking to each other.
once they went for four years, seven months, and ten days without speaking and at another time four years, two months and three days.
as run down as their house was, and as remote from the mall and the town, it was still under constant surveillance, like everything else on the planet.
harry’s and smith’s existences were monitored by larry and eddie, two employees of the surveillance company.
harry and smith were just about larry and eddie’s favorite assignment, as they did not require much maintenance and only needed to be checked from time to time. their tapes could be run through very quickly.
after a long day of watching their fellow humans, larry and eddie liked to relax when their shift was over by going to the movies.
sometimes they went together, but more often separately because their tastes differed somewhat.
larry liked action movies, with macho heroes and lots of explosions and car chases.
eddie liked almost anything except romantic comedies. he liked animated features. he liked the coen brothers movies. jennifer lawrence was his favorite actress.
eddie wished jennifer lawrence would make a movie with the coen brothers.
“what a lot of rot!” exclaimed cameron, as soon as the door closed behind benson.
the other members - stafford, yates, and gray - who had listened to benson’s tale , were shocked at cameron’s outburst.
“look here,” stafford addressed cameron, “you don’t mean to say you are questioning benson’s story?”
cameron laughed. “but, my dear fellow, it is the stuff of a thousand tales for schoolboys, to be read under the covers by flashlight . the curious message, the shrunken head - and above all, the woman! the mysterious woman! really, i ask you!”
but stafford was having none of it. “you are doubting the word of a fellow clubman! in plain english, calling him a liar.”
cameron laughed again, more softly this time. “well, i don’t know about that. poor benson might be , shall we say, a bit delusional. perhaps he has suffered some sort of shock… or maybe he just got carried away with a good story.”
“none of your damned parliamentary shilly-shallying!” retorted stafford. “the plain fact is, you have called a fellow member of the club a liar! i doubt if such a perfidious proceeding has ever taken place within these walls. i am forced to demand satisfaction, sir!”
yates and gray were aghast. satisfaction! between two members of the club!
at this time duels had almost disappeared in britain, though the occasional rumor or account of one still floated through the clubs of london from time to time.
the smile faded from cameron’s lips. “if you will have it, then, i guess there is nothing else for it.” he bowed to stafford. “yates, will you do me the honor of being my second?"
“of course, of course, “ yates stammered. “although - i mean, yes, of course.”
“and i, of course,” added gray, “would be happy to second you, stafford.”
the matter was quickly settled. pistols the following dawn, at a spot in st james wood that gray, who seemed to have the most knowledge of such matters, assured them was adequate to the purpose.
leaving the club, cameron slowly wended his way through the deserted streets towards his lodgings.
the fog was especially thick.
suddenly cameron’s reverie was broken by the sound of a melodious female voice.
“mister cameron! mister cameron, may i beg a word wth you?”
cameron turned, and beheld what was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
she was wearing a dark cloak and dark hat, causing her pale face to appear to float in the foggy air.
“how may i be of service, miss?” cameron managed to ask.
“my name is miss davis.”
miss davis! the name of the mysterious woman in benson’s tale!
“you must not - i beg you - go through with your terrible assignation with mister stafford,” the young woman entreated cameron, as she approached closer to him.
cameron did not know what to be most astonished by - that the woman from benson’s tale had materialized, that she somehow knew of the pending duel - or simply by her mesmerizing beauty.
she continued speaking, though her words barely registered on the dazed cameron. she was speaking perfect english, but her accent was none that cameron recognized. nor were her finely chiseled features assignable to any particular race or nation - she seemed the very distillation of all the beauty of all the races of womankind!
cameron was dimly aware that the story she was telling was identical or at least similar in most particulars to that related earlier in the evening by benson.
“and, so once again,” she was saying, “i beg you not to go through with your meeting with mister stafford this coming morning.”
“i am sorry, miss,” cameron replied with a smile. “but that is quite impossible. quite impossible.”
“i see. you must do what you must do. in that case, if you should survive the dawn, i think we should meet again, if that is agreeable to you.”
“of course. i am at our service.”
“let us say, then,” miss davis replied. “waterloo bridge. waterloo bridge, at eight o’clock tomorrow evening.”
“waterloo bridge it is then.”
they parted. cameron proceeded on his way with a light heart.
the duel would be a bother, but really, what were the chances of his even being injured? it was all just a formality, for the sake of saving face. they would shoot over each other’s heads and that would be the end of it. stafford for all his bluster had no more real desire of harming him than he, cameron, had of harming stafford.
when the duel was over cameron would apologize to poor old benson - who, of course, could hardly be kept in the dark about it - for doubting his story.
and then -
but events did not play out as cameron anticipated. stafford shot him through the heart, killing him instantly.
gray proved himself more than adept at keeping the matter from the attention of the authorities.
benson was quite distraught about the whole affair, feeling himself somehow at fault, but in time they all forgot about it, and the days and nights at the club resumed their natural ebb and flow.
none of them, including benson, ever heard from miss davis again.
constance stood at the window of the music room ,looking out at the moors, and at the ever-drizzling rain.
“well, miss,” exclaimed her stepmother, as she entered the room in her widows weeds, “up to your old tricks, i see. staring out at the moors like a great booby. i would have thought your impending marriage to captain charlton would have roused even you to some sort of activity. do you not have invitations to write, dresses to be measured? instead i find you here in your usual vapid torpor.”
constance did not turn around. “but, mother,” she replied in her sweetest and most even tones - for she always respectfully addressed the widow of her late father, sir roger martingale , as “mother” - “i have explained to you on more than one occasion that i have no intention of marrying captain charlton, as faultless a gentleman as he appears to be.”
lady martingale sighed. “i thought this had been settled. i will ask you then - not on the first occasion, to borrow your phrase - what you plan to do, if you do not marry captain charlton? we have tried, god knows, to explain that the estate is bankrupt , that you have no dowry to speak of, and that captain charlton is a savior fallen from the skies in agreeing to marry you.”
when constance made np reply, her stepmother went on. “i ask you again, what plan do you have? will you take to the roads as a beggar? i do not know if you have talents as a beggar, but you surely have no others.”
“i could find work as a governess,” said constance.
“there are thousands of unfortunates in your position, aspiring - if that is the word - to becoming governesses. most of them have some accomplishments to offer as credentials - such as playing the piano or the harpsichord, or speaking french or italian - accomplishments pitiable in themselves, but which have eluded you.”
“something will happen,” said constance,
“something will happen!” exclaimed lady martingale.
“yes, i am not going to vanish into thin air, just because i do not choose to marry captain charlton.”
“the bishop is coming to dinner,” said lady martingale. “i will ask him to have a few words with you when he arrives.”
“i will listen to the bishop with all courtesy,” replied constance. “but i am not going to marry captain charlton.”
later that afternoon, when darkness had begun to cover the moors, a lamp was lit in the library, and constance stood before the bishop.
“well, my child,” the bishop began in his most cordial tones, but without entirely concealing his boredom and distaste at the task lady martingale had requested of him , “what is this about not marrying captain - captain - the worthy captain, eh? i am a man of the world and i can assure you that he is a most excellent match.”
“i do not choose to marry captain charlton.”
“and why not, eh?”
“because i want my freedom. i should be free to choose whom i wish to marry.”
“freedom. eh?" the bishop paused for a moment. "may i ask you a few questions , my dear?”
“did you choose the day of your birth?”
“not that i recall.”
“did you choose to be born a fair-faced briton, and not a woolly-headed blackamoor from africa, or a coolie in indo-china, or a gaucho from the pampas of argentina?”
“i do not remember doing so.”
“did you choose to be born in this splendid century, a subject of our beloved queen, rather than a subject of nebuchnednezzar or caesar?”
“i can not say.”
“and did you decide yourself to be born in good health, of good proportion and sound of breath and limb, and not some sort of crawling, gibbering monstrosity?”
“again i do not recall doing so,” constance persisted.
the bishop put his fingertips together and smiled. “well, in that case, why should you get to choose whom to marry, eh? what is the difference? one thing is as much the lord’s will as another, is it not?”
“i only know i do not wish to marry captain charlton.”
“and do you have any particular reasons to reject captain charlton?”
“i do not need any particular reasons.”
the bishop raised his eyes to the ceiling. “she does not need any particular reasons. such, dear lord, is the bitter fruit of attempting to educate the weaker sex.”
constance made no reply. for his part, the bishop felt that he had done his duty by lady martingale, and he wanted his dinner.
the bishop rose from his chair. “i have enjoyed our conversation, miss. it is always instructive to me as a clergyman to talk to the younger generation.” and with that he departed.
constance stood for some minutes looking out at the now completely darkened moors, before joining her stepmother and the bishop and her brothers charles and arthur for dinner.
he went down the back stairs of the palace - actually not “the” palace but one of hundreds scattered through his vast realms - and out onto the empty streets of the provincial capital.
the emperor was happy the streets were deserted. they had been filled for days with an endless and tiresome throng of provincial dignitaries, provincial bureaucrats, provincial citizens, slaves, and peasants, all assembled to pay homage to his, marshak xvii’s, greatness.
it was still dark. when the sun came up it would reveal a modest city but one filled with statues of himself and various monuments and other edifices dedicated to his glory.
and this was just one small provincial capital in a world full of gleaming cities, all likewise dedicated to his greatness.
how tired he was of it all! he wished he had never defeated the empires of atlantis and berlius and caldron.
a tear glittered in the corner of his eye.
just then he noticed an old beggar woman sitting on the sidewalk , so he pulled himself together.
“good morning, citizen,” the emperor addressed the old woman.
“what is good about it?” she replied.
the emperor reached into his pocket. “well, i can give you this nice shiny coin. that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick or being thrown into a dungeon, eh?”
he advanced to give the old woman the coin and she looked uo into his face.
“oh, it’s you, “ she said. “haven’t we had enough of you the last few days?”
“yes,” the emperor chuckled. “i can understand how you feel. i feel that way myself. but here, take the coin.”
the old woman took the coin. “with your picture on it, i see.”
“yes, i am afraid so,” sighed the emperor.
“why so sad, my friend? “ the old woman asked, as she tucked the coin away in the folds of her wretched garment.
“ah, i just wish i could get away!” cried the emperor. “i wish i could be forgotten!” he hung his head. but i will never be forgotten, i am afraid."
“oh, i think you might be mistaken there. just give it time.”
“but i cover the earth! my name is on every building, in every street. how i wish i had never conquered atlantis and the rest of them! now, there is no escape!”
“give it time, my friend. you will be as forgotten as the rest of us. and so will the empire, and atlantis, and all the other empires - or if they are remembered, only as names - only as stories that no one believes.”
the emperor shook his head. “i appreciate the thought, but - “
“give it time,” the old woman repeated. “you will be forgotten just like everybody else.”
“oh, how i wish i could believe it!” the emperor cried.
“how i wish i could believe it!” he repeated, as dawn began to come up over the provincial city.
johnny henderson was brought up to be a good person.
but he turned out to be a bad person.
his mama wanted him to be a preacher man.
his papa beat him, but not nearly enough.
he fell in with a bad crowd.
they robbed banks and drank hard liquor and raised hell.
johnny never rose to prominence in the ranks of the gang.
he died in a hail of gunfire outside terre haute indiana.
the other members of the gang always remembered him as a good guy, who could be counted on, but not very bright.
when johnny died he was sent to hell.
after being assigned to a bunk in hell, and getting to know some of the guys, and the demons who ran the place, he was given the opportunity to say goodbye to one person in heaven.
he chose his mama, who had passed away peacefully a few years previously, after baking a pan of her famous biscuits.
hello mama, johnny said.
hello johnny. i am sorry to see you come to this pass.
i am sorry too. johnny said. but it is not as bad as all that. i am lucky enough to be together with a pretty good bunch of guys. attila the hun, genghis khan, pontius pilate, pope john xxi, baby face nelson, and others. though i must day i am more impressed with them than they are with me.
pontius pilate! johnny’s mama exclaimed.
you would be surprised, he is a great guy with a great sense of humor.
well, i have some good friends here in heaven, johnny’s mama replied. aunt minnie is here, and mrs rogers from the church bake sales, and president james garfield, and william jennings bryan -
william jennings bryan! you mean to tell me they let that old fraud into heaven!
well, johnny, the lord and st peter let him in, so it is not for us to say. and he is a very nice gentleman, always very courteous.
mama, i see our time is up, so on that note i will leave you.