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    Never Bet the Devil Your Head

    by Edgar Allan Poe
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    A Tale With a Moral.

    "_CON tal que las costumbres de un autor_,"
    says Don Thomas de las Torres,
    in the preface to his "Amatory Poems" _"sean puras y castas, importo muy
    poco que no sean igualmente severas sus obras"_ -- meaning, in plain
    English, that, provided the morals of an author are pure personally, it
    signifies nothing what are the morals of his books. We presume that Don
    Thomas is now in Purgatory for the assertion. It would be a clever thing,
    too, in the way of poetical justice, to keep him there until his "Amatory
    Poems" get out of print, or are laid definitely upon the shelf through
    lack of readers. Every fiction should have a moral; and, what is more to
    the purpose, the critics have discovered that every fiction has. Philip
    Melanchthon, some time ago, wrote a commentary upon the
    "Batrachomyomachia," and proved that the poet's object was to excite a
    distaste for sedition. Pierre la Seine, going a step farther, shows that
    the intention was to recommend to young men temperance in eating and
    drinking. Just so, too, Jacobus Hugo has satisfied himself that, by
    Euenis, Homer meant to insinuate John Calvin; by Antinous, Martin Luther;
    by the Lotophagi, Protestants in general; and, by the Harpies, the Dutch.
    Our more modern Scholiasts are equally acute. These fellows demonstrate a
    hidden meaning in "The Antediluvians," a parable in Powhatan," new views
    in "Cock Robin," and transcendentalism in "Hop O' My Thumb." In short, it
    has been shown that no man can sit down to write without a very profound
    design. Thus to authors in general much trouble is spared. A novelist, for
    example, need have no care of his moral. It is there -- that is to say, it
    is somewhere -- and the moral and the critics can take care of themselves.
    When the proper time arrives, all that the gentleman intended, and all
    that he did not intend, will be brought to light, in the "Dial," or the
    "Down-Easter," together with all that he ought to have intended, and the
    rest that he clearly meant to intend: -- so that it will all come very
    straight in the end.

    There is no just ground, therefore, for the charge brought against me by
    certain ignoramuses -- that I have never written a moral tale, or, in more
    precise words, a tale with a moral. They are not the critics predestined
    to bring me out, and develop my morals: -- that is the secret. By and by
    the "North American Quarterly Humdrum" will make them ashamed of their
    stupidity. In the meantime, by way of staying execution -- by way of
    mitigating the accusations against me -- I offer the sad history appended,
    -- a history about whose obvious moral there can be no question whatever,
    since he who runs may read it in the large capitals which form the title
    of the tale. I should have credit for this arrangement -- a far wiser one
    than that of La Fontaine and others, who reserve the impression to be
    conveyed until the last moment, and thus sneak it in at the fag end of
    their fables.

    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.
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