Elephant to mouse: "Well if you aren't about the tiniest, teeniest, most insignificant little squirt I ever saw . . ."

Mouse to elephant: "Lissen, I been sick !"

Surely the millstones of Right and Wrong would have ground each other to powder centuries ago were it not for that subtle lubricant, the excuse.

Undoubtedly, I say, the human ego would have withered like a geranium in the desert if we weren't able to irrigate the dusty truth a little with this charming, sly institution of self-forgiveness.

"The serpent beguiled me," said Eve. Oh yeah.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, deceit, "the malice added to lying by which one, in addition to uttering an untruth, attempts to make another believe it," can be present even when there is no lie.

"Indeed, one can deceive by telling the truth," scowls Mother Church. However, deceit, like lying in general, is a venial sin unless you cause someone serious harm. That means you won't go to hell for it.

Excuses can be impressionist: "I thought that was what you wanted."

Or post-impressionist: "My boss (sergeant, coach, editor, the devil, etc.) made me do it."

Or minimalist: "Aquila moscas non captat," as Claudis I used to say, that is, "The eagle does not snap at flies." A fine all-purpose excuse.

Or fauve: On a T-shirt -- "I Wuz Jest Gonna."

Or rococo: "The dog ate my homework." The Excuse in History

Napoleon after Moscow: "It's only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous."

Napoleon after Waterloo: "My stomach hurst."

Samuel Johnson, when asked whatever had made him describe in his dictionary a pastern as "a horse's knee," replied with his customary briskness: "Ignorance, madame, pure ignorance."

Ordered by flag singal to retreat at Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson put his blind eye to the telescope ("I have only one eye, and I have a right to be blind sometimes") and stormed ahead to victory.

Robert Falcon scott, upon arriving at the South Pole and finding Amundsen's flag already there: "Great God! This is an awful place". He was only too right.

"Conditions are fundamentally sound." That's what they were saying on Wall Street the day before the Great Fall. "Prosperity is just around the corner." That's what Herbert Hoover was still saying five years later in the Depression. (It wasn't prosperity, it was Roosevelt that was just around the corner.)

Ronald Reagan (after Jack Dempsey): "Honey, I forgot to duck."

The White House is a lush garden of excuses, from Eisenhower's curious comments about the U-2 spy flights to Kennedy's famous cold that caused him to cancel a speech in Chicago -- it wasn't a cold, it was Cuba. And those "military observers" in Vietnam, and Tonkin Gulf, and the 18 lost minutes of tape . . . oh, it can be a depressing business.

And then there was Roberto Duran. Classic Alibis

Last month a juror in Tulsa, Okla., asked to be excused because his wife was going to conceive a baby.

"You mean deliver it," said Judge Thomas Brett.

No, insisted the juror, she was going to conceive it.

Brett excused the man. "I don't know what you mean," he said, "but in any event I think you ought to be there."

A washington man recently invited some friends for dinner at a restaurant here. They all arrived . . . but no host. The minutes crawled. At last he phoned. He would be right along. He had just been giving the family boa constrictor its weekly bath, and the six-foot snake had been fooling around and had got itself into the toilet, and a plumber had to be rounded up -- on a Saturday night -- and that was what he had been doing all this time. The boa was as good as new, he added.

And then there was the drunken driver who told a D.C. policeman at 3 a.m. that he was speeding "so I could get home before the cops stopped me."

That was why he was driving without lights, you see.

And the guy who broke his date because when he was out jogging that morning he was struck by lightning, and he thought he should stay home and rest. The Excuse as Moral Aspirin

Do you suppose there is anyone in the wide world who never, ever commits one? Hard to imagine. Of course, there are addicts.But for most of us the excuse is a trick discovered in childhood and used sparingly if not guiltily. Almost as soon as we learned that talking could achieve what squalling used to (and was easier on the throat), we also found out that talking could save us from the hairbrush sometimes.

We even found out how to be cute. I once had 12 aunts and uncles, and after Christmas I had to write thank-you letters to them all. If I delayed too long I was kept i the house until I finished them. One year I put it off so long that I had to start each letter, "Dear Aunt, I broke my finger playing hockey and couldn't write sooner . . ."

Now that was not only deceitful but a lie. I didn't even play hockey. But the aunts and uncles were amused because I was 8.

You learn those things in school. In fact, the excuse is one of the main skills you pick up there. Remember the kid who brought his teacher a rumpled note on school paper that said, "Dear Teacher, Please execus Andrew today his ant is sick"?

Now that is a rare and elegant category of excuse, Excusare Praecox, delivered before the act even takes place. At the other end of the scale is E. Momentaneus, the inspired retort under extreme pressure. A friend of mine was caught with lipstick. Her mother loomed up before her like the Last Judgment. "You! Are Wearing Lipstick!" (This was in a different era, you realize.)

"Oh, no," the daughter flashed. "I was just sucking on this red pencil."

You have to love a girl who never quits.

There was a Boston pitcher named Clifton G. Curtis who in 1910-11 lost 23 games in a row.

"Oh well," he said. "You can't win 'em all."