A Jug Of Syrup

Ambrose Bierce

24 Mar, 2014 03:52 PM

THIS narrative begins with the death of its hero. Silas Deemer died on
the I6th day of July, 1863; and two days later his remains were buried.
As he had been personally known to every man, woman and well-grown child
in the village, the funeral, as the local newspaper phrased it, 'was
largely at- tended.' In accordance with a custom of the time and place,
the coffin was opened at the graveside and the entire assembly of
friends and neighbours filed past, taking a last look at the face of the
dead. And then, before the eyes of all, Silas Deemer was put into the
ground. Some of the eyes were a trifle dim, but in a general way it may
be said that at that interment where was lack of neither observance nor
observation; Silas was indubitably dead, and none could have pointed out
any ritual delinquency that would have justified him in coming back from
the grave. Yet if human testimony is good for anything (and certainly it
once put an end to witchcraft in and about Salem) he came back.
I forgot to state that the death and burial of Silas Deemer occurred
in the little village of Hillbrook, where he had lived for thirty-one
years. He had been what is known in some parts of the Union (which is
admittedly a free country) as a 'merchant'; that is to say, he kept a
retail shop for the sale of such things as are commonly sold in shops of
that char- acter. His honesty had never been questioned, so far as is
known, and he was held in high esteem by all. The only thing that could
be urged against him by the most censorious was a too close attention to
business. It was not urged against him, though many another, who
manifested it in no greater degree, was less leniently judged. The
business to which Silas was devoted was mostly his own--that, pos-
sibly, may have made a difference.
At the time of Deemer's death nobody could recol- lect a single day,
Sundays excepted, that he had not passed in his 'store,' since he had
opened it more than a quarter-century before. His health having been
perfect during all that time, he had been unable to discern any validity
in whatever may or might have been urged to lure him astray from his
counter; and it is related that once when he was summoned to the county
seat as a witness in an important law case and did not attend, the
lawyer who had the hardihood to move that he be 'ad- monished' was
solemnly informed that the Court regarded the proposal with 'surprise.'
Judicial sur- prise being an emotion that attorneys are not com- monly
ambitious to arouse, the motion was hastily withdrawn and an agreement
with the other side effected as to what Mr. Deemer would have said if he
had been there--the other side pushing its advantage to the extreme and
making the supposi- titious testimony distinctly damaging to the
interests of its proponents. In brief, it was the general feeling in all
that region that Silas Deemer was the one immobile verity of Hillbrook,
and that his transla- tion in space would precipitate some dismal public
ill or strenuous calamity.
Mrs. Deemer and two grown daughters occupied the upper rooms of the
building, but Silas had never been known to sleep elsewhere than on a
cot behind the counter of the store. And there, quite by acci- dent, he
was found one night, dying, and passed away just before the time for
taking down the shut- ters. Though speechless, he appeared conscious,
and it was thought by those who knew him best that if the end had
unfortunately been delayed beyond the usual hour for opening the store
the effect upon him would have been deplorable.
Such had been Silas Deemer--such the fixity and invariety of his
life and habit, that the village humor- ist (who had once attended
college) was moved to bestow upon him the sobriquet of 'Old Ibidem,'
and, in the first issue of the local newspaper after the death, to
explain without offence that Silas had taken 'a day off.' It was more
than a day, but from the record it appears that well within a month Mr.
Deemer made it plain that he had not the leisure to be dead.
One of Hillbrook's most respected citizens was Alvan Creede, a
banker. He lived in the finest house in town, kept a carriage and was a
most estimable man variously. He knew something of the advan- tages of
travel, too, having been frequently in Boston, and once, it was thought,
in New York, though he modestly disclaimed that glittering distinction.
The matter is mentioned here merely as a contribution to an
understanding of Mr. Creede's worth, for either way it is creditable to
him--to his intelli- gence if he had put himself, even temporarily, into
contact with metropolitan culture; to his candour if he had not.
One pleasant summer evening at about the hour of ten Mr. Creede,
entering at his garden gate, passed up the gravel walk, which looked
very white in the moonlight, mounted the stone steps of his fine house
and pausing a moment inserted his latchkey in the door. As he pushed
this open he met his wife, who was crossing the passage from the parlour
to the library. She greeted him pleasantly and pulling the door farther
back held it for him to enter. Instead, he turned and, looking about his
feet in front of the threshold, uttered an exclamation of surprise.
'Why!--what the devil,' he said, 'has become of that jug?'
'What jug, Alvan?' his wife inquired, not very sympathetically.
'A jug of maple syrup--I brought it along from the store and set it
down here to open the door. What the--'
'There, there, Alvan, please don't swear again,' said the lady,
interrupting. Hillbrook, by the way, is not the only place in
Christendom where a vestigal polytheism forbids the taking in vain of
the Evil One's name.
The jug of maple syrup which the easy ways of village life had
permitted Hillbrook's foremost citi- zen to carry home from the store
was not there.
'Are you quite sure, Alvan?'
'My dear, do you suppose a man does not know when he is carrying a
jug? I bought that syrup at Deemer's as I was passing. Deemer himself
drew it and lent me the jug, and I--'
The sentence remains to this day unfinished. Mr. Creede staggered
into the house, entered the parlour and dropped into an arm-chair,
trembling in every limb. He had suddenly remembered that Silas Deemer
was three weeks dead.
Mrs. Creede stood by her husband, regarding him with surprise and
'For Heaven's sake,' she said, 'what ails you?' Mr. Creede's ailment
having no obvious relation to the interests of the better land he did
not appar- ently deem it necessary to expound it on that de- mand; he
said nothing--merely stared. There were long moments of silence broken
by nothing but the measured ticking of the clock, which seemed some-
what slower than usual, as if it were civilly granting them an extension
of time in which to recover their wits.
'Jane, I have gone mad--that is it.' He spoke thickly and hurriedly.
'You should have told me; you must have observed my symptoms before they
became so pronounced that I have observed them myself. I thought I was
passing Deemer's store; it was open and lit up--that is what I thought;
of course it is never open now. Silas Deemer stood at his desk behind
the counter. My God, Jane, I saw him as distinctly as I see you.
Remembering that you had said you wanted some maple syrup, I went in and
bought some--that is all--I bought two quarts of maple syrup from Silas
Deemer, who is dead and underground, but nevertheless drew that syrup
from a cask and handed it to me in a jug. He talked with me, too, rather
gravely, I remember, even more so than was his way, but not a word of
what he said can I now recall. But I saw him-- good Lord, I saw and
talked with him--and he is dead So I thought, but I'm mad, Jane, I'm as
crazy as a beetle; and you have kept it from me.'
This monologue gave the woman time to collect what faculties she
'Alvan,' she said, 'you have given no evidence of insanity, believe
me. This was undoubtedly an illu- sion--how should it be anything else?
That would be too terrible! But there is no insanity; you are working
too hard at the bank. You should not have attended the meeting of
directors this evening; any- one could see that you were ill; I knew
something would occur.'
It may have seemed to him that the prophecy had lagged a bit,
awaiting the event, but he said nothing of that, being concerned with
his own con- dition. He was calm now, and could think coherently.
'Doubtless the phenomenon was subjective,' he said, with a somewhat
ludicrous transition to the slang of science. 'Granting the possibility
of spiritual apparition and even materialization, yet the appari- tion
and materialization of a half-gallon brown clay jug--a piece of coarse,
heavy pottery evolved from nothing--that is hardly thinkable.'
As he finished speaking, a child ran into the room --his little
daughter. She was clad in a bedgown. Hastening to her father she threw
her arms about his neck, saying: 'You naughty papa, you forgot to come
in and kiss me. We heard you open the gate and got up and looked out.
And, papa dear, Eddy says mayn't he have the little jug when it is
As the full import of that revelation imparted it- self to Alvan
Creede's understanding he visibly shuddered. For the child could not
have heard a word of the conversation.
The estate of Silas Deemer being in the hands of an administrator
who had thought it best to dispose of the 'business,' the store had been
closed ever since the owner's death, the goods having been removed by
another 'merchant' who had purchased them en bloc. The rooms above were
vacant as well, for the widow and daughters had gone to another town.
On the evening immediately after Alvan Creede's adventure (which had
somehow 'got out') a crowd of men, women and children thronged the
sidewalk opposite the store. That the place was haunted by the spirit of
the late Silas Deemer was now well known to every resident of Hillbrook,
though many affected disbelief. Of these the hardiest, and in a general
way the youngest, threw stones against the front of the building, the
only part accessible, but carefully missed the unshuttered windows.
Incre- dulity had not grown to malice. A few venturesome souls crossed
the street and rattled the door in its frame; struck matches and held
them near the win- dow; attempted to view the black interior. Some of
the spectators invited attention to their wit by shouting and groaning
and challenging the ghost to a foot-race.
After a considerable time had elapsed without any manifestation, and
many of the crowd had gone away, all those remaining began to observe
that the interior of the store was suffused with a dim, yellow light. At
this all demonstrations ceased; the intrepid souls about the door and
windows fell back to the opposite side of the street and were merged in
the crowd; the small boys ceased throwing stones. No- body spoke above
his breath; all whispered ex- citedly and pointed to the now steadily
growing light. How long a time had passed since the first faint glow had
been observed none could have guessed, but eventually the illumination
was bright enough to reveal the whole interior of the store; and there,
standing at his desk behind the counter Silas Deemer was distinctly
The effect upon the crowd was marvellous. It be- gan rapidly to melt
away at both flanks, as the timid left the place. Many ran as fast as
their legs would let them; others moved off with greater dig- nity,
turning occasionally to look backward over the shoulder. At last a score
or more, mostly men, remained where they were, speechless, staring,
excited. The apparition inside gave them no atten- tion; it was
apparently occupied with a book of accounts.
Presently three men left the crowd on the side- walk as if by a
common impulse and crossed the street. One of them, a heavy man, was
about to set his shoulder against the door when it opened, ap- parently
without human agency, and the courageous investigators passed in. No
sooner had they crossed the threshold than they were seen by the awed
observers outside to be acting in the most unaccount- able way. They
thrust out their hands before them, pursued devious courses, came into
violent collision with the counter, with boxes and barrels on the floor,
and with one another. They turned awkwardly hither and thither and
seemed trying to escape, but unable to retrace their steps. Their voices
were heard in exclamations and curses. But in no way did the apparition
of Silas Deemer manifest an interest in what was going on.
By what impulse the crowd was moved none ever recollected, but the
entire mass--men, women, children, dogs--made a simultaneous and
tumultu- ous rush for the entrance. They congested the doorway, pushing
for precedence--resolving them- selves at length into a line and moving
up step by step. By some subtle spiritual or physical alchemy
observation had been transmuted into action--the sightseers had become
participants in the spectacle--the audience had usurped the stage.
To the only spectator remaining on the other side of the
street--Alvan Creede, the banker-- the interior of the store with its
inpouring crowd continued in full illumination; all the strange things
going on there were clearly visible. To those inside all was black
darkness. It was as if each person as he was thrust in at the door had
been stricken blind, and was maddened by the mischance. They groped with
aimless imprecision, tried to force their way out against the current,
pushed and elbowed, struck at random, fell and were trampled, rose and
trampled in their turn. They seized one another by the gar- ments, the
hair, the beard--fought like animals, cursed, shouted, called one
another opprobrious and obscene names. When, finally, Alvan Creede had
seen the last person of the line pass into that awful tumult the light
that had illuminated it was suddenly quenched and all was as black to
him as to those within. He turned away and left the place.
In the early morning a curious crowd had gath- ered about
'Deemer's.' It was composed partly of those who had run away the night
before, but now had the courage of sunshine, partly of honest folk going
to their daily toil. The door of the store stood open; the place was
vacant, but on the walls, the floor, the furniture, were shreds of
clothing and tan- gles of hair. Hillbrook militant had managed some- how
to pull itself out and had gone home to medi- cine its hurts and swear
that it had been all night in bed. On the dusty desk, behind the
counter, was the sales book. The entries in it, in Deemer's handwrit-
ing, had ceased on the 16th day of July, the last of his life. There was
no record of a later sale to Alvan Creede.
That is the entire story--except that men's pas- sions having
subsided and reason having resumed its immemorial sway, it was confessed
in Hillbrook that, considering the harmless and honourable char- acter
of his first commercial transaction under the new conditions, Silas
Deemer, deceased, might properly have been suffered to resume business
at the old stand without mobbing. In that judgment the local historian
from whose unpublished work these facts are compiled had the
thoughtfulness to signify his concurrence.

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