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.”