Humorous Masterpieces from American Literature
By Various

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John William De Forest

(born, 1826.)



Father Higgins was not the kind of divine who easily finds preferment in the Catholic Church, or who would be apt to make a shining mark in any other.

Fat and red-faced and pudding-headed was Father Higgins; uncommonly in the way of good eating, and now and then disposed for good drinking; as lazy as he dared be, ignorant enough for a hermit, and simple enough for a monk. His chief excellence lay in his kindliness of heart, which would doubtless have made him very serviceable and comfortable to his fellow-men, had it not been for his indolence, his spare intellectual gifts, and perhaps a little leaven of selfishness.

Such as he was, however, Father Higgins had no small “consate” of himself, and sometimes thought that even a bishopric would not be “beyant his desarts.” He pleased himself with imagining how finely he would fill an episcopal chair, what apostolic labors he would accomplish in his diocese, what swarms of heretics or pagans he would convert, what a self-sacrificing and heroic life he would lead, and what a saintly name he would leave. One day, or to speak with a precision worthy of this true history, one evening, he became a bishop.

It happened on this wise. Father Higgins had ventured to treat himself to a spectacle. He had attended, for the first time in his life, an exhibition of legerdemain; this one being given by that celebrated master of the black-art, Professor Heller. He had seen the professor change turnips into gold watches, draw a dozen live pigeons in succession out of an empty box, send rings into ladies’ handkerchiefs at the other end of the hall, catch a bullet out of an exploded pistol in his hand, and perform other marvels equally irrational and disturbing. From this raree-show Father Higgins had gone home feeling that he had witnessed something about as unearthly as he was likely to be confronted with in the next world.

For an hour or more he sat in his elbow-chair, puzzling over the professor’s “diviltries,” and crossing himself at the remembrance of each one of them. It was black midnight, and stormy at that; there was such an uproar in the elm branches over his house as if all the Salem witches were holding Sabbath there; the whole village of Sableburg swarmed with windy rushings and shriekings and slammings. It was one of those midnights when the devil evidently “has business on his hand.”

Of a sudden there was a rustle in the room, and looking around to discover the cause of it, Father Higgins beheld a tall and dark man with startling black eyes, in whom he recognized Professor Heller.

“What’s yer will, sir?” demanded the Father, a good deal astonished, but not a bit frightened.

“I understand, sir, that you would like to be a bishop,” replied the professor, bowing politely, but seating himself unceremoniously.

“That’s thrue enough, sir,” replied Father Higgins, who somehow felt curiously at his ease, and disposed at once to be confidential with this utter stranger. “I’ve often imagined meself a bishop, an’ doin’ wondhers in me office. But it’s nonsinse.”

“What post would suit you?” inquired the visitor. “The diocese of New York?”

“No, no,” said the father. “I’m not ayqual to sich a risponsebility; that is, not at wanst, ye ondherstand. I’d like best to come up to sich a place as that gintly an’ by degrays. It’s been a drame av mine to begin my prefarmint as biship av some far-away continent or archypilago, like, an’ convart slathers av haythins an’ cannebals for a practice. It ud plase me imagenation to prache among corrils an’ coky-nuts an’ naked crachurs. Y’ are aware, I suppose, Misther Heller–or Professor Heller–av sich islands as Owyhee an’ the Marquesas, famous a’ready in the history av the Propaganda Fide. Jist suppose me havin’ me episkepal raysedence on wan av ’um, an’ makin’ me progresses to the others. There be great devoshin to a spiritual father among thim simple people, I’m thinkin.’ I’d be a god to ’um, like. Sich obeyjince ud jist shuit me. Yes, I’d enj’y bein’ Biship av the Cannebal Islands, or even av wan av um.”

“Faith is necessary,” replied Heller. “You must believe that you are to be Bishop of the Cannibal Islands.”

“Sure an’ it’s not aisy at this distance to belave in the islands thimselves, let alone bein’ spiritual father av the same,” smiled the priest. “Howandiver, there’s no harrum in tryin’ to belave, an’ so here goes for the exparimint. If ye’ll kape silence a bit, I’ll jist collect me moind on the subject, an’ we’ll see what happens.”

For a moment the gray, piggish eyes of the Father, and the black, gleaming, mysterious orbs of his visitor were fixed upon each other. In the next moment Heller, bowing with a ceremonious air of respect, inquired, “What are your commands, my lord bishop?”

Startled by a consciousness of some wonderful change, doubtful in what land he was, or even in what age of the world, Father Higgins stared about him in expectation. A sunny shore, scattered groves of cocoa-nut trees, distant villages of circular huts, beyond them far-stretching forests and a smoking volcano; on the hither side bays alive with carved and painted canoes, near at hand a gathering crowd of half-naked savages–such were the objects that filled his vision.

“So this is me diocese,” he said, without feeling the least surprise. “Well, the climate is deloightful. Let us hope that the coky-nuts will agree wid us, an’ that the natives won’t urge upon us the blissins av martyrdom. Professor, what may be the spiritual condition av things hereaway, do ye think?”

“A clear field–not a convert yet. Your predecessor, who went through the office of being eaten a year ago, had not even learned the language.”

“The blissid saints watch over us! To hear the likes av that, whin I expected to be a god, like, among these wretches! Well, it’s our duty we must do, Heller; we mustn’t run away from our post; indade, we can’t. Moreover, I feel a sthrong confidence that the howly Catholic Church is to be greatly glorified by me on these islands. What do ye say now to meself exhibitin’ the gift av miracles an’ tongues? If I should discoorse to these cannebals in their own contimptible language, would it surprise ye, Heller?”

“No,” smiled the professor. “I have seen greater marvels in my time. I have seen men preach not merely words, but feelings and faiths, that they were ignorant of.”

Father Higgins, closely followed by Heller, now advanced to a green hillock, a few rods from the shelly and pebbly beach, knelt down upon the thin sward, and repeated a prayer. Meantime the population gathered; behind them canoe after canoe touched the shore; before them there was a swift, tumultuous hurrying from the villages; presently they were surrounded by a compact, eager, barbaric multitude. The babble of its wonder turned to silence as the priest rose, extended his fat hands, and commenced a sermon.

Father Higgins was not a bit astonished at hearing himself pour forth a torrent of words which he did not understand, nor at seeing in the faces of his wild listeners that they perfectly comprehended his discourse. It was merely a supernatural inspiration; it was but another exhibition of the heavenly gifts of the Church; he was as much at his ease as if he had been in the habit of working miracles from his cradle. At the close of his harangue he took out his breviary, and translated a prayer into the unknown tongue. Evidently the auditors understood this also, for while some crouched to earth in undisguisable terror, others looked upward as if expecting an answer from the sky.

Presently a savage, in a many-colored robe of feathers, stepped in front of the multitude, and uttered a few sentences.

“It’s a mighty quare providence that this miracle works ownly wan way," observed Father Higgins to Heller. “It’s meself can prache acceptably to this poor haythin, an’ it’s meself, loikewise, can’t sense a blissid word he gabbles.”

“He is comparing you with your predecessor,” exclaimed the professor. “He says the other man called himself a messenger from God; but as he could not talk Feejee, they saw that he was a liar, because God knows every language; and so, having found him a liar, they fattened him with fish and cocoa-nuts, and ate him. As for you, they admit that you are a heavenly personage, and they mean to worship you.”

“How came ye to larn the language, annyway?” demanded the priest.

“I have wandered to and fro in the earth a good deal,” replied Heller. “I have performed some of my best black-art in these islands.”

Father Higgins, rather bothered by these statements, was about to ask further questions, when he was seized by four sturdy natives, who mounted him upon their naked shoulders, while four others uplifted the professor in like manner, all then setting off rapidly toward the village, followed by the whole crowd in procession.

“An’ what if I should tell ye I had conscientious scruples agenst lettin’ meself be adored for a heavenly personage?” objected the good Father.

“Don’t think of it,” counselled Heller. “Being worshipped is infinitely more agreeable than being eaten. Besides, consider the interests of the Church. If you are set up as a god, you can use the position to sprinkle holy water on your adorers, and so convert the whole island without trouble.”

“Sure y’ are mighty well varsed in the precepts and customs av the Jesuit Fathers,” answered the priest, with a stare of wonder and admiration. “I moind me now that the missionaries in Chaynee baptized lashins av haythin babies under pretinse av rubbin’ um with medicine. An’ it’s a maxim that whin the ind is salvatory, the manes are justified. It’s a maxim, also, that y’ ave no business to lead yer felly-crachurs into sin. Now cannebalism is a sin; it ud be a sin capital for these fellies to ate us; an’, av coorse, it follies that it ud be a sin in me to timpt um to do it. But, by sufferin’ meself to be worshipped I prevint that same. So, I advise an’ counsel, Heller, that we go on as we are for a bit longer, until a proper time comes to expose the whole av the thrue faith.”

Beguiling the way with such like discourse, Father Higgins journeyed on to the nearest village, where his bearers halted before an unusually large hut, evidently serving as a temple. In the door of this building the principal chief took post, and waving his hand toward the crowd, made the following speech:

“Hear, O chiefs! hear, O priests of our religion ye men of Feejee, hear! The god who can come over the waters is greater than the god who can only abide upon the land, and shall have his house and his sacrifices. Whosoever disapproves of this, let him offer himself for the trial of the sacred poison; if he is not ready so to do, let him hereafter hold his peace and submit.”

No one objecting, the chief beckoned the bearers to follow him, and led the way into the temple. Mounting a platform eight or ten feet high, he advanced to an ugly scarecrow of an idol, slapped it, kicked it, and toppled it to the ground. Then, with vast labor and much joyful shouting, the ponderous form of Father Higgins was hoisted aloft, and installed in the seat of the dethroned deity. Next Professor Heller was set down upon his feet beside an altar which stood in front of the platform.

“What are ye afther doin’, Heller?” inquired the clergyman from his eminence.

“I am about to sacrifice to your divinity two green cocoa-nuts, two roasted bread-fruit, and half a dozen fishes,” was the answer.

“Well, I suppose it must be permitted,” sighed Father Higgins. “Go on wid yer sacrifice, me dear felly. I presume, av coorse, that it will be in ordher for me to ate some av it. Let the fishes be well cooked, by-the-way, and sarved wid some kind av sauce. I’d almost as lave be devoured meself as devour raw fishes.”

“Really, I have some scruples,” smiled the mischievous professor. “You might shock the devotional feelings of your new worshippers.”

“I insist upon it, Heller. I tell ye I won’t ate raw fishes to convart a continent av haythins, much less a little bit island av ’um.”

The fish being promptly broiled on the coals of the altar, were handed up to Father Higgins on a large leaf, together with one of the cocoa-nuts and a bread-fruit. The worthy man immediately proceeded to make a hearty meal, vastly to the delight and confirmation in the faith of his worshippers, they having never before been blessed with a god who could fairly and squarely eat his dinner. After another brief speech from the chief, and a benediction from the padre, the multitude dispersed.

“Is it me unavoidable duty to live on this perch, Heller?” demanded Father Higgins. “Me opinion is that in that case I shall get mightily tired av me mission. I’d about as lave be a parrot, an’ sit in a tin ring.”

“My dear Father, remember that blessed saint who roosted for twenty years on the top of a pillar,” urged the professor. “Stay where you are until you have got a firm grip on the faith of these cannibals.”

“Very good,” assented Higgins, with a yawn. “But get me a bucket of wather, me dear felly. Sure I must have some blessed an’ ready for use. The next time sarvice is conducted here I propose to sprinkle the worshippers. It’ll benefit um in more ways nor wan, if I’m a judge of ayther sowl or body.”

Such was the installation of Bishop Higgins, or, as the Feejeeans insisted upon considering him, Divinity Higgins, over the diocese of the Pacific.

There was something mysterious about the Cannibal Islands. Time flew like a bird there; the days seemed no more than minutes; they were coming, and they were gone. Events, emotions, changes of belief, transformations of character, succeeded each other with magical rapidity. Every thing was transacted at the wildest speed of dreams; and yet, what was strangest of all, every thing went smoothly and naturally; nothing excited astonishment. In a few days, or a few seconds, whatever the period of time might have been, Father Higgins enjoyed being Divinity Higgins.

“I think it best for the eventual spiritual interests av me paple that they should continue to worship me for a while longer,” he said to Heller. “Human nature in a savage state, ye see, wont go at wan jump from a log av wood to the thrue Deity. I’m playin’ the part av a steppin’-stone betwixt the two. Afther they’ve larned to lift their sowls to Higgins, they’ll be able to go a bit higher, say to the saints first, an’ thin to the blissid Vargin, an’ so on, wan step at a time, till they’ve got the whole av it. But it’ll be mortial slow, I’m doubtin’. I may have to bear an’ forbear as I am for an intire gineration av the poor crachurs.”

“Certainly,” assented the professor. “Nothing so injurious to weak eyes as too much light.”

“Y’ ’ave put it in a nutshell,” replied the priest. “Sure an’ that’s the rason we’re opposed to gineral schoolin’, an’ to readin’ the Bible to the children. Y’ are a masther mind, Heller, an’ ought to been in howly ordhers. An’ that brings me to another idee av high importince. There should be somebody to run about with howly wather an’ exthrame unction, an’ the like. Now that business wouldn’t shuit me pheesical conformation, an’ nayther would it shuit the character I have to bear. It’s betther that you should do the outside trampin’, Heller. Ye know the tradditions an’ docthrines av the Church well enough, an’ y’ are a dab at Latin. As for yer not bein’ av the prastely office, I’ll jist lay hands on ye an’ qualify ye for the same. If it happens to be a bit irregular, why, the ind justifies the manes, ye remimber, or the ancient Fathers are all wrong, which is onpossible. An’ now, Heller, do tell these poor, benighted, lazy loons that I must have me coky-nuts fresh, an’ as great a variety av fish as can be procured in these wathers. The chap that preshumes to bring me an owld coky-nut I’ll curse his basket an’ his shtore.”

After a brief missionary effort, Heller reported that the whole population of the island, barring a few obstinate seniors, had been baptized.

“That’s well, me son,” replied Father Higgins. “I s’pose y’ ’ave done it rather on the wholesale, sprinklin’ a hundred or so at a fling, but I’ve no doubt y’ ’ave done it the best ye could in the time y’ ’ave had; and surely it’s a great work, no matter how done. As for the apostates–I mane the fellows that stick to their owld haythinism–it might be well to make an example av a few av thim, jist for the encouragemint av the faithful. Suppose ye should organize an inquisition, or howly office, Heller, an’ conduct the proceedin’s yerself intirely, be way av seein’ that they are regular an’ effective? Y’ are parfectly able for it, wid your knowledge av Church history.”

It was not long before Heller was able to state that all the old fogies and silver-grays who remained alive had been converted.

“Ah, but isn’t that blissid news!” responded Father Higgins, joyfully. “An’ wouldn’t me brethren, the other biships, be glad to hear that same concernin’ their dioceses! That’s betther nor coky-nuts–of which, be-the-way, I’m gettin’ a bit tired. I wondher, Heller, if some av these other islands wouldn’t furnish us a change of diet? If we could find pataties an’ grapes, it ud be a blessin’ to body an’ sowl. Surely it ud be a good deed to bring all this archypilago into the thrue faith. Couldn’t the chafe, now, take an army out in his doubled-barrelled canoes, an’ commince the work av convarsion? Tell him if he’ll do that same, I’ll grant him all the indulgences he can think av.”

Another magical moment of these lightning-like days brought about important events. With an armament of scores of canoes and hundreds of warriors the chief invaded a large island, and was beaten in a bloody battle by its painim inhabitants, escaping with but a remnant of his followers. Then came a counter invasion. The worshippers of Father Higgins fought for their deity under his eye; the unbelievers were defeated and driven with great slaughter to their dug-outs. But as the hostile fleet still held command of the sea and hovered menacingly off the coast, keeping the faithful under arms and preventing them from fishing, the good Father decided that peace was necessary.

“This livin’ on coky-nuts and bread-fruits intirely is bad for the stomich, Heller,” he observed. “We must come to an ondherstandin’ wid these raskilly infidels an’ idolaters. See if ye can’t make tarms wid um.”

The adroit Heller soon arranged a secret treaty with the enemy to the following effect: Their chief, Umbaho, was to be universal king and his orthodox rival, Patoo-patoo, was to be beheaded; polygamy, cannibalism, and the use of the sacred poison were to continue in force; both islands were to adore Father Higgins and bring him sacrifices.

“Seems to me they’re mighty sevare tarms,” commented the Father. “I’d ’a been glad to get howld av a bit av timporal sovereighnty, don’t you see? Moreover, I’m sorry about that poor divil, Patoo-patoo; he was my first convart. Annyway, I’ll give um full absolution, so that death can’t hurt um sariously, an’ I’ll canonize him as a martyr. Saint Patoo-patoo! If that don’t satisfy um, an’ if he ain’t willin’ to die for the extinsion av the faith, he’s no thrue belayver, and desarves no pity. So jist see to gettin’ um off aisy.”

After another brief period of time, such as periods of time were in these mysterious islands, Father Higgins found himself the acknowledged divinity of the whole archipelago.

“This cannebalism an’ polygamy an’ the like greatly distresses me, however,” he confessed to Heller. “Be moments I’m timpted to unfold the naked truth, an’ bring these paple square up to the canons of the Church at wanst. But it ud be risky. We read av times, ye know, Heller, that God winked at. No doubt it’s me duty, as a divinity, to go on winkin’ at these polygamies an’ cannebalisms a bit longer. Slow an’ aisy is me motto, an’ I’ve noticed it’s the way of Providence mostly. Sure it was so at home in Sableburg, ye know, Heller; we didn’t average a convart in twinty years.”

Now ensued an event which troubled the holy Father more than any thing that had yet occurred during his episcopate. Two German priests, Heller informed him, had landed on one of the islands of the archipelago, and were preaching the pure doctrines of the Christian faith, denouncing cannibalism and polygamy, and otherwise sapping the established religion.

“Some av the New Catholics, I’ll warrant ye!” exclaimed Higgins, indignantly. “Some of thim blatherskites av the Döllinger school, come over here to stir up sedition in the Church, as though they hadn’t made worry enough in the owld counthries. An’ what business has Dutchmen here, annyway, whin an Irishman has begun the good worrk? They’ve no right to take the labor of convartin’ these haythins out of me hands that a-way. Me conscience won’t allow me to permit such distarbances an’ innovations. See if ye can’t get um to lave the islands peaceable, Heller. If they won’t, I shall have to let Umbaho settle wid um afther his fashion.”

An embassy to the missionaries having obtained from them no other response than that they would welcome martyrdom rather than relinquish their labors, Umbaho was dispatched against them at the head of a sufficient army, with instructions to treat them as enemies of Feejee and of the unity of the Church.

But instead of slaughtering the missionaries, Umbaho was converted by them. He renounced cannibalism, polygamy, and the sacred poison; he denied Father Higgins. Accompanied by one of the Germans, he returned to Feejee at the head of his army, bent on establishing the true Christian faith.

“We must press a lot av min, an’ beat um,” responded the good Father, when Heller informed him of the approach and purposes of the chief. “Tell the faithful to give no quarter; tell um to desthroy ivery wan of these schismatics; an’ as for the Dutchman, burrn him at the stake, as they used to do in the good owld times.”

A great battle ensued; the adherents of Higginsism were defeated and dispersed; the door of the temple opened to Umbaho and the German. Father Higgins, by this time a helpless mass of fat, swaying perilously on his unsteady platform, looked down upon them with terror through the smoke of his altar.

“Sacrilegious wretch!” cried the German, God has put an end to thy mad and selfish and wicked dominion.”

“I wish I had niver been a biship!” screamed Father Higgins at the top of his voice, as he rolled off the platform.

All the way from the Cannibal Islands he fell and tumbled and dropped, until, with a dull thump, he alighted upon the floor of his own study.

“There! y’ ’ave rolled out av yer chair agen, Father Higgins,” said his housekeeper, who at that moment entered the room to order him to bed, as was her merciful custom.

“So I have,” returned the Father, picking himself up. “An’ sarved me right, too. I thought I was the biggest raskil on the face av the earth. I wondher if it’s true. The Lord presarve me from the timptation av great power, or I’ll abuse it, an’ abuse me felly-men and the Church!"–Harper’s Magazine, May, 1872.


Bayard Taylor  •  William Allen Butler  •  John William De Forest  •  John Townsend Trowbridge  •  Oliver Bell Bunce  •  Charles Dudley Warner  •  Frances Lee Pratt  •  Louisa May Alcott  •  William Wirt Howe  •  Artemus Ward  •  Frank R. Stockton  •  Andrew Scoggin  •  Samuel Langhorne Clemens  •  Fitz Hugh Ludlow  •  Thomas Bailey Aldrich