The Damned Thing - Ambrose Bierce

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The Damned Thing

It was night. Eight men were sitting together in an empty room of a small house. The only pieces of furniture were a simple wooden table and eight chairs. The only light came from a lamp on the table. One of the men was reading a book. He held the book close to the lamp, so that he could see the words on the pages.

There was a ninth man in the room. He owned the house. He was lying on the table, beneath a white sheet. The ninth man was dead.

It was quiet in the house. Outside, there were the sounds of birds and insects in the trees around the house. Visitors from the city always noticed these strange cries and calls. But the men in the room took no notice of these sounds. They heard them every day. Seven of the men were farmers and woodsmen. They worked in the fields and forests every day of the year. The skin on their faces had been burned by the sun and the wind. They were wearing hats with broad brims.

The man with the book did not look like the others. He was not wearing a broad-brimmed hat. His face was smooth, intelligent and handsome. He looked like an educated, important man. He was a coroner.

All of the men were here this evening to do an important job. An inquest was taking place in the room. The men had come to look at the dead body on the table. They had to answer this question: How did this man die?

The coroner was reading a diary. It belonged to the dead man. The coroner and the seven men were waiting for a witness to attend the dead man's inquest.

Suddenly, they heard the sound of a horse galloping on the road. Someone was riding quickly toward the house. The horse stopped outside, the door opened and a young man came in.

«I'm late. I'm sorry,» he said.

«We've been waiting for you,» said the coroner. «We must finish this job tonight. Hugh Morgan must be buried tomorrow morning. Where have you been?»

«I went to the telegraph office and sent a telegram,» said the young man. «I've written a report about Hugh Morgan's death. The report will be in the San Francisco newspapers tomorrow. I'm a reporter. I write stories for the newspapers.»

«You're not here to tell us a newspaper story,» said the coroner. «You're here to tell us what happened to Mr Morgan. You must tell the truth. You must swear that you'll do this.»

«Yes. I'll tell you the truth,» said the young man. «Rut you might not believe me.»

«That isn't a good beginning,» said the coroner. «Is your newspaper report different from the story that you're going to tell us?»

For a moment, the young man had an angry expression on his face. «I've come here to tell you what really happened,» he said. «I promise that I'll tell you the truth. Everything that I say to you will be true. You can read what I wrote for the newspaper. These are the true facts. This is what I saw and heard and did. The report isn't fiction.»

«Let's begin,» said the coroner.

The men took off their hats. The young man lifted his right hand and began to speak slowly and clearly.

«I swear before God. I will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,» he said.

«What is your name?» asked the coroner.

«William Harker.»

«Age?»

«Twenty-seven.»

«Did you know the dead man, Hugh Morgan?»

«Yes, I did.»

«Were you with him when he died?»

«I was near him.»

«Tell us what happened,» said the coroner. «Why were you with Mr Morgan, and what did you see?»

«I was visiting him,» said Harker. «Morgan and I were good friends. I live in San Francisco, but I often came here to stay with Morgan. We hunted birds and animals in the forest, and we caught fish in the rivers. Morgan and I went hunting and fishing together many times.»

«Tell us what happened on the day that Mr Morgan died,» said the coroner.

«We left this house at sunrise,» said Harker. «We wanted to hunt quails. We took Morgan's dog with us and we both carried shotguns. Morgan told me, 'There's a field of wild oats over the hill. There are many good, large quails there. They'll be good to eat.' So we went to the field. But we found something bigger than quails.»

«What do you mean?» asked the coroner. «Did you find an animal?»

«Yes-er-no,» said Harker. «I don't know what kind of animal it was. But I saw the oats moving in the field. Something was coming toward us. I couldn't see the animal, but I guessed that it was big. Morgan didn't say anything. He lifted his gun and aimed it at the oats.»

Harker stopped speaking and looked toward the window.

«Please continue, Mr Harker,» said the coroner. «What happened next?»

«I pointed at the moving plants,» replied Harker. «I said, 'Morgan! If that's a deer, you won't be able to kill it with a shotgun. You'll need a more powerful gun-a rifle. But maybe it's something bigger than a deer. It might be a bear, or a mountain lion!' But Morgan didn't reply. He just aimed his gun at the oats and stared. I began to be afraid. Our shotguns wouldn't stop an angry bear or a lion.»

«Mr Harker, you say that it was a big animal,» said the coroner. «Do you know the difference between a bear and a lion and a deer?»

«Yes, I do, sir,» said the young man quickly and angrily. «And that's the strangest part of this story. I saw the oats moving. And I heard something coming through the plants. But I couldn't see what it was. A big thing was moving toward us, but I couldn't see it.»

«Did you speak to Mr Morgan again?» asked the coroner. «Yes,» said Harker. «I shouted, 'What is it?' But Morgan didn't reply. The animal-or thing-was coming closer and Morgan got ready to fire his gun. Suddenly he said, 'It's that Damned Thing!' He was terrified.»

«Did Mr Morgan know what it was?» asked the coroner. «Is that what you believe, Mr Harker?»

«Yes, sir,» Harker replied. «I believe that Morgan had seen it before. Then he fired his gun and I heard a terrible sound. It was the scream of a wild animal.»

«And did you fire your gun too?» asked the coroner.

«No, I didn't. I couldn't,» replied Harker. «The smoke from Morgan's gun was in my eyes. I couldn't see where to aim my own gun. Then, suddenly, Morgan dropped his gun and started to run.»

«He left you ?» asked the coroner.

«Well, I was surprised,» said Harker. «But I didn't have time to think about it. Something knocked me to the ground.»

«What knocked you down?» asked the coroner.

«Well, I didn't see it. But it was soft and heavy. It moved very fast.»

«And then what happened?»

«I heard wild screams near me. They were like the sounds made by dogs who are fighting. Then I saw that Morgan was fighting. He was on the ground. He was fighting for his life.»

«Fighting what?» asked the coroner.

«I-I don't know,» said the young man. «I couldn't see anything, or anyone. But Morgan was on the ground and there was a strange movement in the air around him. I don't know how to describe it. It seemed as if the fight was happening under water. Sometimes I couldn't see one of Morgan's hands. Sometimes his head disappeared. Then his whole body moved again.»

«And did you try to help Mr Morgan?» asked the coroner.

«Of course I did. I ran toward him. But I found him like this...» Harker pointed to the dead body on the table.

«And where was the animal?» asked the coroner.

«I don't know. I only saw the oats moving again. They moved as if there was wind blowing across them. The thing- whatever it was-went into the woods. My friend was dead. I came into town to get a police officer.»

«Very well,» said the coroner, «we'll examine the body.»

He lifted the white sheet off Morgan's body. Then he removed a handkerchief that was tied around the dead man's head. The handkerchief kept Morgan's mouth closed. The other men looked closely. One of them held the lamp high.

Its light shone on the body of the dead man.

Hugh Morgan's throat had been torn open. There were many terrible deep injuries all over his body. His clothes were soaked with blood.

«Gentlemen, you've heard Mr Harker's story,» said the coroner. «You've seen Mr Morgan's body. What shall we write on the death certificate? Did a wild animal kill Mr Morgan, or was he murdered? We must decide.»

The seven men went out of the room and spoke together quietly for two or three minutes.

William Harker turned toward the coroner.

«I see that you have Morgan's diary, sir,» he said. «Have you read it? Does it tell us anything important?»

«I've read it quickly,» said the coroner, «No, it doesn't tell us anything about the cause of Mr Morgan's death.»

The seven men came back into the room. One of them stood in front of the coroner and spoke.

«We believe that Hugh Morgan was killed by a mountain lion,» he said.

«Thank you, gentlemen,» said the coroner. «Everyone can leave now. Mr Morgan will be buried in the morning. I'll send for an undertaker.»

That was the end of the inquest. But it was not quite the end of the story.

William Harker was a writer. He wanted to read Hugh Morgan's diary and write a story about his friend's death. He stayed in the town after Morgan was buried. A few days later, Morgan's property and belongings were sold. William Harker bought the diary.

Hugh Morgan had been a lonely man who had written all his thoughts in his diary. But he had not always written days and dates in the diary. And some of the pages in the book were torn. Other pages were missing. This is what Morgan had written before his death:

My dog is behaving strangely. He barks and turns around again and again. He looks at something that isn't there. He runs after something that he can't see. This has happened several times.

1 September

Tonight, I was looking at the stars in the sky above the hill. Then something strange happened. Someone-or something-moved between me and the stars. The stars suddenly looked like a pool when you drop a stone in the water. Am I going crazy?

27 September

It's been here again. It moves around the house. Now I keep my gun beside me always. Does this Thing only come at night? Today I saw footprints in the soft ground, near the house. What's happening here? Am I going crazy?

2 October

I shall not leave my home. I will not run away because of this Thing. But it might make me crazy.

5 October

I've invited my friend, Harker, to stay here. I'll say nothing. Maybe he'll find an answer. Maybe he'll see the Thing too.

Can the dog see it? I'm sure that the dog hears it. It hears things that I can't hear. Can the dog see things that I can't see? Perhaps that is the answer. If there are sounds that men can't hear, are there colors that men can't see? Is the Damned Thing a color that men can't see?

— THE END -

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