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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


36. [Plate 30]
The Miser

Here's a jolly tale for a change. It's about a miser. Not just any miser either, but a flint-hearted, grasping, cinder-souled old curmudgeon, the sort of fellow who is the delight of pranksters everywhere. Because one can do anything at all to them, you see, and nobody minds. All the world laughs when they get their come-uppance.

One day, some merry lads hatched a delightful plot to teach the miser a lesson. First they made the usual elaborate preparations. Then one of their number, the closest thing (and not very close at that) to a friend that the miser had, remarked casually that he'd heard gold was going out of fashion.

"Out of fashion?" the miser cried. "Not likely! Why, gold is as solid an investment, sir, as… as… as gold itself!"; Gold was all he had. It was the wife he never married, the children he never had. Late at night, he stroked it lovingly and crooned softly over it.

"Think what you will," the prankster said with an insouciant shrug, and left.

The hook was set.

Over the next several days, a consortium of practical jokers employed all the classic tricks of a major "sting" on the miser. They separated him from reality. They fed him doctored newspapers. They plonked him down in front of rigged radios. They staged conversations that were meant to be overheard.

GOLD TUMBLES! the headlines read. "There was panic in the markets today, as an precious metals fell to unprecedented lows," the radio reported. "I took my bullion and lashed it together with steel cable," a businessman confided to a friend, as he got up from a nearby table. "At least it can serve as an anchor for my boat."

When the waitress saw that the businessman had left a gold coin as a tip, she threw it after him with a curse.

The miser was devastated. He believed every word. Clutching his gold to him, he sank to his knees. "But gold is all I have!" he cried. "Gold is all I have!" That night he hung himself from a rafter, with his bags of gold tied to his belt so their weight would help speed him to his end.

Humor is the great leveler. A pompous man slips on a banana peel! A society woman falls on her prat! A politician is hit in the face with a pie! All humor is rooted in pain, humiliation, and exaggeration. We laugh at extremes of behavior that would horrify us in real life.

That's why this story is so funny.


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This is the 36th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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