Transcribed from the 1902 Harper and Brothers edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
A HOUSE-BOAT ON THE STYX by John Kendrick Bangs
CHAPTER I: CHARON MAKES A DISCOVERY
Charon, the Ferryman of renown, was cruising slowly along the Styx one pleasant Friday morning not long ago, and as he paddled idly on he chuckled mildly to himself as he thought of the monopoly in ferriage which in the course of years he had managed to build up.
"It's a great thing," he said, with a smirk of satisfaction—"it's a great thing to be the go-between between two states of being; to have the exclusive franchise to export and import shades from one state to the other, and withal to have had as clean a record as mine has been. Valuable as is my franchise, I never corrupted a public official in my life, and—"
Here Charon stopped his soliloquy and his boat simultaneously. As he rounded one of the many turns in the river a singular object met his gaze, and one, too, that filled him with misgiving. It was another craft, and that was a thing not to be tolerated. Had he, Charon, owned the exclusive right of way on the Styx all these years to have it disputed here in the closing decade of the Nineteenth Century? Had not he dealt satisfactorily with all, whether it was in the line of ferriage or in the providing of boats for pleasure-trips up the river? Had he not received expressions of satisfaction, indeed, from the most exclusive families of Hades with the very select series of picnics he had given at Charon's Glen Island? No wonder, then, that the queer-looking boat that met his gaze, moored in a shady nook on the dark side of the river, filled him with dismay.
"Blow me for a landlubber if I like that!" he said, in a hardly audible whisper. "And shiver my timbers if I don't find out what she's there for. If anybody thinks he can run an opposition line to mine on this river he's mightily mistaken. If it comes to competition, I can carry shades for nothing and still quaff the B. & G. yellow-label benzine three times a day without experiencing a financial panic. I'll show 'em a thing or two if they attempt to rival me. And what a boat! It looks for all the world like a Florentine barn on a canal-boat."
Charon paddled up to the side of the craft, and, standing up in the middle of his boat, cried out,
There was no answer, and the Ferryman hailed her again. Receiving no response to his second call, he resolved to investigate for himself; so, fastening his own boat to the stern-post of the stranger, he clambered on board. If he was astonished as he sat in his ferry-boat, he was paralyzed when he cast his eye over the unwelcome vessel he had boarded. He stood for at least two minutes rooted to the spot. His eye swept over a long, broad deck, the polish of which resembled that of a ball-room floor. Amidships, running from three-quarters aft to three-quarters forward, stood a structure that in its lines resembled, as Charon had intimated, a barn, designed by an architect enamoured of Florentine simplicity; but in its construction the richest of woods had been used, and in its interior arrangement and adornment nothing more palatial could be conceived.
"What's the blooming thing for?" said Charon, more dismayed than ever. "If they start another line with a craft like this, I'm very much afraid I'm done for after all. I wouldn't take a boat like mine myself if there was a floating palace like this going the same way. I'll have to see the Commissioners about this, and find out what it all means. I suppose it'll cost me a pretty penny, too, confound them!"
A prey to these unhappy reflections, Charon investigated further, and the more he saw the less he liked it. He was about to encounter opposition, and an opposition which was apparently backed by persons of great wealth—perhaps the Commissioners themselves. It was a consoling thought that he had saved enough money in the course of his career to enable him to live in comfort all his days, but this was not really what Charon was after. He wished to acquire enough to retire and become one of the smart set. It had been done in that section of the universe which lay on the bright side of the Styx, why not, therefore, on the other, he asked.
"I'm pretty well connected even if I am a boatman," he had been known to say. "With Chaos for a grandfather, and Erebus and Nox for parents, I've just as good blood in my veins as anybody in Hades. The Noxes are a mighty fine family, not as bright as the Days, but older; and we're poor—that's it, poor—and it's money makes caste these days. If I had millions, and owned a railroad, they'd call me a yacht-owner. As I haven't, I'm only a boatman. Bah! Wait and see! I'll be giving swell functions myself some day, and these upstarts will be on their knees before me begging to be asked. Then I'll get up a little aristocracy of my own, and I won't let a soul into it whose name isn't mentioned in the Grecian mythologies. Mention in Burke's peerage and the Elite directories of America won't admit anybody to Commodore Charon's house unless there's some other mighty good reason for it."
Foreseeing an unhappy ending to all his hopes, the old man clambered sadly back into his ancient vessel and paddled off into the darkness. Some hours later, returning with a large company of new arrivals, while counting up the profits of the day Charon again caught sight of the new craft, and saw that it was brilliantly lighted and thronged with the most famous citizens of the Erebean country. Up in the bow was a spirit band discoursing music of the sweetest sort. Merry peals of laughter rang out over the dark waters of the Styx. The clink of glasses and the popping of corks punctuated the music with a frequency which would have delighted the soul of the most ardent lover of commas, all of which so overpowered the grand master boatman of the Stygian Ferry Company that he dropped three oboli and an American dime, which he carried as a pocket-piece, overboard. This, of course, added to his woe; but it was forgotten in an instant, for some one on the new boat had turned a search-light directly upon Charon himself, and simultaneously hailed the master of the ferry- boat.
"Charon!" cried the shade in charge of the light. "Charon, ahoy!"
"Ahoy yourself!" returned the old man, paddling his craft close up to the stranger. "What do you want?"
"You," said the shade. "The house committee want to see you right away."
"What for?" asked Charon, cautiously.
"I'm sure I don't know. I'm only a member of the club, and house committees never let mere members know anything about their plans. All I know is that you are wanted," said the other.
"Who are the house committee?" queried the Ferryman.
"Sir Walter Raleigh, Cassius, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Doctor Johnson, and Confucius," replied the shade.
"Tell 'em I'll be back in an hour," said Charon, pushing off. "I've got a cargo of shades on board consigned to various places up the river. I've promised to get 'em all through to-night, but I'll put on a couple of extra paddles—two of the new arrivals are working their passage this trip—and it won't take as long as usual. What boat is this, anyhow?"
"The Nancy Nox, of Erebus."
"Thunder!" cried Charon, as he pushed off and proceeded on his way up the river. "Named after my mother! Perhaps it'll come out all right yet."
More hopeful of mood, Charon, aided by the two dead-head passengers, soon got through with his evening's work, and in less than an hour was back seeking admittance, as requested, to the company of Sir Walter Raleigh and his fellow-members on the house committee. He was received by these worthies with considerable effusiveness, considering his position in society, and it warmed the cockles of his aged heart to note that Sir Walter, who had always been rather distant to him since he had carelessly upset that worthy and Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the Styx far back in the last century, permitted him to shake three fingers of his left hand when he entered the committee-room.
"How do you do, Charon?" said Sir Walter, affably. "We are very glad to see you."
"Thank you, kindly, Sir Walter," said the boatman. "I'm glad to hear those words, your honor, for I've been feeling very bad since I had the misfortune to drop your Excellency and her Majesty overboard. I never knew how it happened, sir, but happen it did, and but for her Majesty's kind assistance it might have been the worse for us. Eh, Sir Walter?"
The knight shook his head menacingly at Charon. Hitherto he had managed to keep it a secret that the Queen had rescued him from drowning upon that occasion by swimming ashore herself first and throwing Sir Walter her ruff as soon as she landed, which he had used as a life-preserver.
"'Sh!" he said, sotto voce. "Don't say anything about that, my man."
"Very well, Sir Walter, I won't," said the boatman; but he made a mental note of the knight's agitation, and perceived a means by which that illustrious courtier could be made useful to him in his scheming for social advancement.
"I understood you had something to say to me," said Charon, after he had greeted the others.
"We have," said Sir Walter. "We want you to assume command of this boat."
The old fellow's eyes lighted up with pleasure.
"You want a captain, eh?" he said.
"No," said Confucius, tapping the table with a diamond-studded chop-stick. "No. We want a—er—what the deuce is it they call the functionary, Cassius?"
"Senator, I think," said Cassius.
Demosthenes gave a loud laugh.
"Your mind is still running on Senatorships, my dear Cassius. That is quite evident," he said. "This is not one of them, however. The title we wish Charon to assume is neither Captain nor Senator; it is Janitor."
"What's that?" asked Charon, a little disappointed. "What does a Janitor have to do?"
"He has to look after things in the house," explained Sir Walter. "He's a sort of proprietor by proxy. We want you to take charge of the house, and see to it that the boat is kept shipshape."
"Where is the house?" queried the astonished boatman.
"This is it," said Sir Walter. "This is the house, and the boat too. In fact, it is a house-boat."
"Then it isn't a new-fangled scheme to drive me out of business?" said Charon, warily.
"Not at all," returned Sir Walter. "It's a new-fangled scheme to set you up in business. We'll pay you a large salary, and there won't be much to do. You are the best man for the place, because, while you don't know much about houses, you do know a great deal about boats, and the boat part is the most important part of a house-boat. If the boat sinks, you can't save the house; but if the house burns, you may be able to save the boat. See?"
"I think I do, sir," said Charon.
"Another reason why we want to employ you for Janitor," said Confucius, "is that our club wants to be in direct communication with both sides of the Styx; and we think you as Janitor would be able to make better arrangements for transportation with yourself as boatman, than some other man as Janitor could make with you."
"Spoken like a sage," said Demosthenes.
"Furthermore," said Cassius, "occasionally we shall want to have this boat towed up or down the river, according to the house committee's pleasure, and we think it would be well to have a Janitor who has some influence with the towing company which you represent."
"Can't this boat be moved without towing?" asked Charon.
"No," said Cassius.
"And I'm the only man who can tow it, eh?"
"You are," said Blackstone. "Worse luck."
"And you want me to be Janitor on a salary of what?"
"A hundred oboli a month," said Sir Walter, uneasily.
"Very well, gentlemen," said Charon. "I'll accept the office on a salary of two hundred oboli a month, with Saturdays off."
The committee went into executive session for five minutes, and on their return informed Charon that in behalf of the Associated Shades they accepted his offer.
"In behalf of what?" the old man asked.
"The Associated Shades," said Sir Walter. "The swellest organization in Hades, whose new house-boat you are now on board of. When shall you be ready to begin work?"
"Right away," said Charon, noting by the clock that it was the hour of midnight. "I'll start in right away, and as it is now Saturday morning, I'll begin by taking my day off."
CHAPTER II: A DISPUTED AUTHORSHIP
"How are you, Charon?" said Shakespeare, as the Janitor assisted him on board. "Any one here to-night?"
"Yes, sir," said Charon. "Lord Bacon is up in the library, and Doctor Johnson is down in the billiard-room, playing pool with Nero."
"Ha-ha!" laughed Shakespeare. "Pool, eh? Does Nero play pool?"
"Not as well as he does the fiddle, sir," said the Janitor, with a twinkle in his eye.
Shakespeare entered the house and tossed up an obolus. "Heads—Bacon; tails—pool with Nero and Johnson," he said.
The coin came down with heads up, and Shakespeare went into the pool-room, just to show the Fates that he didn't care a tuppence for their verdict as registered through the obolus. It was a peculiar custom of Shakespeare's to toss up a coin to decide questions of little consequence, and then do the thing the coin decided he should not do. It showed, in Shakespeare's estimation, his entire independence of those dull persons who supposed that in them was centred the destiny of all mankind. The Fates, however, only smiled at these little acts of rebellion, and it was common gossip in Erebus that one of the trio had told the Furies that they had observed Shakespeare's tendency to kick over the traces, and always acted accordingly. They never let the coin fall so as to decide a question the way they wanted it, so that unwittingly the great dramatist did their will after all. It was a part of their plan that upon this occasion Shakespeare should play pool with Doctor Johnson and the Emperor Nero, and hence it was that the coin bade him repair to the library and chat with Lord Bacon.
"Hullo, William," said the Doctor, pocketing three balls on the break. "How's our little Swanlet of Avon this afternoon?"
"Worn out," Shakespeare replied. "I've been hard at work on a play this morning, and I'm tired."
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," said Nero, grinning broadly.
"You are a bright spirit," said Shakespeare, with a sigh. "I wish I had thought to work you up into a tragedy."
"I've often wondered why you didn't," said Doctor Johnson. "He'd have made a superb tragedy, Nero would. I don't believe there was any kind of a crime he left uncommitted. Was there, Emperor?"
"Yes. I never wrote an English dictionary," returned the Emperor, dryly. "I've murdered everything but English, though."
"I could have made a fine tragedy out of you," said Shakespeare. "Just think what a dreadful climax for a tragedy it would be, Johnson, to have Nero, as the curtain fell, playing a violin solo."
"Pretty good," returned the Doctor. "But what's the use of killing off your audience that way? It's better business to let 'em live, I say. Suppose Nero gave a London audience that little musicale he provided at Queen Elizabeth's Wednesday night. How many purely mortal beings, do you think, would have come out alive?"
"Not one," said Shakespeare. "I was mighty glad that night that we were an immortal band. If it had been possible to kill us we'd have died then and there."
"That's all right," said Nero, with a significant shake of his head. "As my friend Bacon makes Ingo say, 'Beware, my lord, of jealousy.' You never could play a garden hose, much less a fiddle."
"What do you mean my attributing those words to Bacon?" demanded Shakespeare, getting red in the face.
"Oh, come now, William," remonstrated Nero. "It's all right to pull the wool over the eyes of the mortals. That's what they're there for; but as for us—we're all in the secret here. What's the use of putting on nonsense with us?"
"We'll see in a minute what the use is," retorted the Avonian. "We'll have Bacon down here." Here he touched an electric button, and Charon came in answer.
"Charon, bring Doctor Johnson the usual glass of ale. Get some ice for the Emperor, and ask Lord Bacon to step down here a minute."
"I don't want any ice," said Nero.
"Not now," retorted Shakespeare, "but you will in a few minutes. When we have finished with you, you'll want an iceberg. I'm getting tired of this idiotic talk about not having written my own works. There's one thing about Nero's music that I've never said, because I haven't wanted to hurt his feelings, but since he has chosen to cast aspersions upon my honesty I haven't any hesitation in saying it now. I believe it was one of his fiddlings that sent Nature into convulsions and caused the destruction of Pompeii—so there! Put that on your music rack and fiddle it, my little Emperor."
Nero's face grew purple with anger, and if Shakespeare had been anything but a shade he would have fared ill, for the enraged Roman, poising his cue on high as though it were a lance, hurled it at the impertinent dramatist with all his strength, and with such accuracy of aim withal that it pierced the spot beneath which in life the heart of Shakespeare used to beat.
"Good shot," said Doctor Johnson, nonchalantly. "If you had been a mortal, William, it would have been the end of you."
"You can't kill me," said Shakespeare, shrugging his shoulders. "I know seven dozen actors in the United States who are trying to do it, but they can't. I wish they'd try to kill a critic once in a while instead of me, though," he added. "I went over to Boston one night last week, and, unknown to anybody, I waylaid a fellow who was to play Hamlet that night. I drugged him, and went to the theatre and played the part myself. It was the coldest house you ever saw in your life. When the audience did applaud, it sounded like an ice-man chopping up ice with a small pick. Several times I looked up at the galleries to see if there were not icicles growing on them, it was so cold. Well, I did the best could with the part, and next morning watched curiously for the criticisms."
"Favorable?" asked the Doctor.
"They all dismissed me with a line," said the dramatist. "Said my conception of the part was not Shakespearian. And that's criticism!"
"No," said the shade of Emerson, which had strolled in while Shakespeare was talking, "that isn't criticism; that's Boston."
"Who discovered Boston, anyhow?" asked Doctor Johnson. "It wasn't Columbus, was it?"
"Oh no," said Emerson. "Old Governor Winthrop is to blame for that. When he settled at Charlestown he saw the old Indian town of Shawmut across the Charles."
"And Shawmut was the Boston microbe, was it?" asked Johnson.
"Yes," said Emerson.
"Spelt with a P, I suppose?" said Shakespeare. "P-S-H-A-W, Pshaw, M-U-T, mut, Pshawmut, so called because the inhabitants are always muttering pshaw. Eh?"
"Pretty good," said Johnson. "I wish I'd said that."
"Well, tell Boswell," said Shakespeare. "He'll make you say it, and it'll be all the same in a hundred years."
Lord Bacon, accompanied by Charon and the ice for Nero and the ale for Doctor Johnson, appeared as Shakespeare spoke. The philosopher bowed stiffly at Doctor Johnson, as though he hardly approved of him, extended his left hand to Shakespeare, and stared coldly at Nero.
"Did you send for me, William?" he asked, languidly.
"I did," said Shakespeare. "I sent for you because this imperial violinist here says that you wrote Othello."
"What nonsense," said Bacon. "The only plays of yours I wrote were Ham—"
"Sh!" said Shakespeare, shaking his head madly. "Hush. Nobody's said anything about that. This is purely a discussion of Othello."
"The fiddling ex-Emperor Nero," said Bacon, loudly enough to be heard all about the room, "is mistaken when he attributes Othello to me."
"Aha, Master Nero!" cried Shakespeare triumphantly. "What did I tell you?"
"Then I erred, that is all," said Nero. "And I apologize. But really, my Lord," he added, addressing Bacon, "I fancied I detected your fine Italian hand in that."
"No. I had nothing to do with the Othello," said Bacon. "I never really knew who wrote it."
"Never mind about that," whispered Shakespeare. "You've said enough."
"That's good too," said Nero, with a chuckle. "Shakespeare here claims it as his own."
Bacon smiled and nodded approvingly at the blushing Avonian.
"Will always was having his little joke," he said. "Eh, Will? How we fooled 'em on Hamlet, eh, my boy? Ha-ha-ha! It was the greatest joke of the century."
"Well, the laugh is on you," said Doctor Johnson. "If you wrote Hamlet and didn't have the sense to acknowledge it, you present to my mind a closer resemblance to Simple Simon than to Socrates. For my part, I don't believe you did write it, and I do believe that Shakespeare did. I can tell that by the spelling in the original edition."
"Shakespeare was my stenographer, gentlemen," said Lord Bacon. "If you want to know the whole truth, he did write Hamlet, literally. But it was at my dictation."
"I deny it," said Shakespeare. "I admit you gave me a suggestion now and then so as to keep it dull and heavy in spots, so that it would seem more like a real tragedy than a comedy punctuated with deaths, but beyond that you had nothing to do with it."
"I side with Shakespeare," put in Emerson. "I've seen his autographs, and no sane person would employ a man who wrote such a villanously bad hand as an amanuensis. It's no use, Bacon, we know a thing or two. I'm a New-Englander, I am."
"Well," said Bacon, shrugging his shoulders as though the results of the controversy were immaterial to him, "have it so if you please. There isn't any money in Shakespeare these days, so what's the use of quarrelling? I wrote Hamlet, and Shakespeare knows it. Others know it. Ah, here comes Sir Walter Raleigh. We'll leave it to him. He was cognizant of the whole affair."
"I leave it to nobody," said Shakespeare, sulkily.
"What's the trouble?" asked Raleigh, sauntering up and taking a chair under the cue-rack. "Talking politics?"
"Not we," said Bacon. "It's the old question about the authorship of Hamlet. Will, as usual, claims it for himself. He'll be saying he wrote Genesis next."
"Well, what if he does?" laughed Raleigh. "We all know Will and his droll ways."
"No doubt," put in Nero. "But the question of Hamlet always excites him so that we'd like to have it settled once and for all as to who wrote it. Bacon says you know."
"I do," said Raleigh.
"Then settle it once and for all," said Bacon. "I'm rather tired of the discussion myself."
"Shall I tell 'em, Shakespeare?" asked Raleigh.
"It's immaterial to me," said Shakespeare, airily. "If you wish—only tell the truth."
"Very well," said Raleigh, lighting a cigar. "I'm not ashamed of it. I wrote the thing myself."
There was a roar of laughter which, when it subsided, found Shakespeare rapidly disappearing through the door, while all the others in the room ordered various beverages at the expense of Lord Bacon.
CHAPTER III: WASHINGTON GIVES A DINNER
It was Washington's Birthday, and the gentleman who had the pleasure of being Father of his Country decided to celebrate it at the Associated Shades' floating palace on the Styx, as the Elysium Weekly Gossip, "a Journal of Society," called it, by giving a dinner to a select number of friends. Among the invited guests were Baron Munchausen, Doctor Johnson, Confucius, Napoleon Bonaparte, Diogenes, and Ptolemy. Boswell was also present, but not as a guest. He had a table off to one side all to himself, and upon it there were no china plates, silver spoons, knives, forks, and dishes of fruit, but pads, pens, and ink in great quantity. It was evident that Boswell's reportorial duties did not end with his labors in the mundane sphere.
The dinner was set down to begin at seven o'clock, so that the guests, as was proper, sauntered slowly in between that hour and eight. The menu was particularly choice, the shades of countless canvas-back ducks, terrapin, and sheep having been called into requisition, and cooked by no less a person than Brillat-Savarin, in the hottest oven he could find in the famous cooking establishment superintended by the government. Washington was on hand early, sampling the olives and the celery and the wines, and giving to Charon final instructions as to the manner in which he wished things served.
The first guest to arrive was Confucius, and after him came Diogenes, the latter in great excitement over having discovered a comparatively honest man, whose name, however, he had not been able to ascertain, though he was under the impression that it was something like Burpin, or Turpin, he said.
At eight the brilliant company was arranged comfortably about the board. An orchestra of five, under the leadership of Mozart, discoursed sweet music behind a screen, and the feast of reason and flow of soul began.
"This is a great day," said Doctor Johnson, assisting himself copiously to the olives.
"Yes," said Columbus, who was also a guest—"yes, it is a great day, but it isn't a marker to a little day in October I wot of."
"Still sore on that point?" queried Confucius, trying the edge of his knife on the shade of a salted almond.
"Oh no," said Columbus, calmly. "I don't feel jealous of Washington. He is the Father of his Country and I am not. I only discovered the orphan. I knew the country before it had a father or a mother. There wasn't anybody who was willing to be even a sister to it when I knew it. But G. W. here took it in hand, groomed it down, spanked it when it needed it, and started it off on the career which has made it worth while for me to let my name be known in connection with it. Why should I be jealous of him?"
"I am sure I don't know why anybody anywhere should be jealous of anybody else anyhow," said Diogenes. "I never was and I never expect to be. Jealousy is a quality that is utterly foreign to the nature of an honest man. Take my own case, for instance. When I was what they call alive, how did I live?"
"I don't know," said Doctor Johnson, turning his head as he spoke so that Boswell could not fail to hear. "I wasn't there."
Boswell nodded approvingly, chuckled slightly, and put the Doctor's remark down for publication in The Gossip.
"You're doubtless right, there," retorted Diogenes. "What you don't know would fill a circulating library. Well—I lived in a tub. Now, if I believed in envy, I suppose you think I'd be envious of people who live in brownstone fronts with back yards and mortgages, eh?"
"I'd rather live under a mortgage than in a tub," said Bonaparte, contemptuously.
"I know you would," said Diogenes. "Mortgages never bothered you—but I wouldn't. In the first place, my tub was warm. I never saw a house with a brownstone front that was, except in summer, and then the owner cursed it because it was so. My tub had no plumbing in it to get out of order. It hadn't any flights of stairs in it that had to be climbed after dinner, or late at night when I came home from the club. It had no front door with a wandering key-hole calculated to elude the key ninety-nine times out of every hundred efforts to bring the two together and reconcile their differences, in order that their owner may get into his own house late at night. It wasn't chained down to any particular neighborhood, as are most brownstone fronts. If the neighborhood ran down, I could move my tub off into a better neighborhood, and it never lost value through the deterioration of its location. I never had to pay taxes on it, and no burglar was ever so hard up that he thought of breaking into my habitation to rob me. So why should I be jealous of the brownstone-house dwellers? I am a philosopher, gentlemen. I tell you, philosophy is the thief of jealousy, and I had the good-luck to find it out early in life."
"There is much in what you say," said Confucius. "But there's another side to the matter. If a man is an aristocrat by nature, as I was, his neighborhood never could run down. Wherever he lived would be the swell section, so that really your last argument isn't worth a stewed icicle."
"Stewed icicles are pretty good, though," said Baron Munchausen, with an ecstatic smack of his lips. "I've eaten them many a time in the polar regions."
"I have no doubt of it," put in Doctor Johnson. "You've eaten fried pyramids in Africa, too, haven't you?"
"Only once," said the Baron, calmly. "And I can't say I enjoyed them. They are rather heavy for the digestion."
"That's so," said Ptolemy. "I've had experience with pyramids myself."
"You never ate one, did you, Ptolemy?" queried Bonaparte.
"Not raw," said Ptolemy, with a chuckle. "Though I've been tempted many a time to call for a second joint of the Sphinx."
There was a laugh at this, in which all but Baron Munchausen joined.
"I think it is too bad," said the Baron, as the laughter subsided—"I think it is very much too bad that you shades have brought mundane prejudice with you into this sphere. Just because some people with finite minds profess to disbelieve my stories, you think it well to be sceptical yourselves. I don't care, however, whether you believe me or not. The fact remains that I have eaten one fried pyramid and countless stewed icicles, and the stewed icicles were finer than any diamond-back rat Confucius ever had served at a state banquet."
"Where's Shakespeare to-night?" asked Confucius, seeing that the Baron was beginning to lose his temper, and wishing to avoid trouble by changing the subject. "Wasn't he invited, General?"
"Yes," said Washington, "he was invited, but he couldn't come. He had to go over the river to consult with an autograph syndicate they've formed in New York. You know, his autographs sell for about one thousand dollars apiece, and they're trying to get up a scheme whereby he shall contribute an autograph a week to the syndicate, to be sold to the public. It seems like a rich scheme, but there's one thing in the way. Posthumous autographs haven't very much of a market, because the mortals can't be made to believe that they are genuine; but the syndicate has got a man at work trying to get over that. These Yankees are a mighty inventive lot, and they think perhaps the scheme can be worked. The Yankee is an inventive genius."
"It was a Yankee invented that tale about your not being able to prevaricate, wasn't it, George?" asked Diogenes.
Washington smiled acquiescence, and Doctor Johnson returned to Shakespeare.
"I'd rather have a morning-glory vine than one of Shakespeare's autographs," said he. "They are far prettier, and quite as legible."
"Mortals wouldn't," said Bonaparte.
"What fools they be!" chuckled Johnson.
At this point the canvas-back ducks were served, one whole shade of a bird for each guest.
"Fall to, gentlemen," said Washington, gazing hungrily at his bird. "When canvas-back ducks are on the table conversation is not required of any one."
"It is fortunate for us that we have so considerate a host," said Confucius, unfastening his robe and preparing to do justice to the fare set before him. "I have dined often, but never before with one who was willing to let me eat a bird like this in silence. Washington, here's to you. May your life be chequered with birthdays, and may ours be equally well supplied with feasts like this at your expense!"
The toast was drained, and the diners fell to as requested.
"They're great, aren't they?" whispered Bonaparte to Munchausen.
"Well, rather," returned the Baron. "I don't see why the mortals don't erect a statue to the canvas-back."
"Did anybody at this board ever have as much canvas-back duck as he could eat?" asked Doctor Johnson.
"Yes," said the Baron. "I did. Once."
"Oh, you!" sneered Ptolemy. "You've had everything."
"Except the mumps," retorted Munchausen. "But, honestly, I did once have as much canvas-back duck as I could eat."
"It must have cost you a million," said Bonaparte. "But even then they'd be cheap, especially to a man like yourself who could perform miracles. If I could have performed miracles with the ease which was so characteristic of all your efforts, I'd never have died at St. Helena."
"What's the odds where you died?" said Doctor Johnson. "If it hadn't been at St. Helena it would have been somewhere else, and you'd have found death as stuffy in one place as in another."
"Don't let's talk of death," said Washington. "I am sure the Baron's tale of how he came to have enough canvas-back is more diverting."
"I've no doubt it is more perverting," said Johnson.
"It happened this way," said Munchausen. "I was out for sport, and I got it. I was alone, my servant having fallen ill, which was unfortunate, since I had always left the filling of my cartridge-box to him, and underestimated its capacity. I started at six in the morning, and, not having hunted for several months, was not in very good form, so, no game appearing for a time, I took a few practice shots, trying to snip off the slender tops of the pine-trees that I encountered with my bullets, succeeding tolerably well for one who was a little rusty, bringing down ninety-nine out of the first one hundred and one, and missing the remaining two by such a close margin that they swayed to and fro as though fanned by a slight breeze. As I fired my one hundred and first shot what should I see before me but a flock of these delicate birds floating upon the placid waters of the bay!"
"Was this the Bay of Biscay, Baron?" queried Columbus, with a covert smile at Ptolemy.
"I counted them," said the Baron, ignoring the question, "and there were just sixty-eight. 'Here's a chance for the record, Baron,' said I to myself, and then I made ready to shoot them. Imagine my dismay, gentlemen, when I discovered that while I had plenty of powder left I had used up all my bullets. Now, as you may imagine, to a man with no bullets at hand, the sight of sixty-eight fat canvas-backs is hardly encouraging, but I was resolved to have every one of those birds; the question was, how shall I do it? I never can think on water, so I paddled quietly ashore and began to reflect. As I lay there deep in thought, I saw lying upon the beach before me a superb oyster, and as reflection makes me hungry I seized upon the bivalve and swallowed him. As he went down something stuck in my throat, and, extricating it, what should it prove to be but a pearl of surpassing beauty. My first thought was to be content with my day's find. A pearl worth thousands surely was enough to satisfy the most ardent lover of sport; but on looking up I saw those ducks still paddling contentedly about, and I could not bring myself to give them up. Suddenly the idea came, the pearl is as large as a bullet, and fully as round. Why not use it? Then, as thoughts come to me in shoals, I next reflected, 'Ah—but this is only one bullet as against sixty-eight birds:' immediately a third thought came, 'why not shoot them all with a single bullet? It is possible, though not probable.' I snatched out a pad of paper and a pencil, made a rapid calculation based on the doctrine of chances, and proved to my own satisfaction that at some time or another within the following two weeks those birds would doubtless be sitting in a straight line and paddling about, Indian file, for an instant. I resolved to await that instant. I loaded my gun with the pearl and a sufficient quantity of powder to send the charge through every one of the ducks if, perchance, the first duck were properly hit. To pass over wearisome details, let me say that it happened just as I expected. I had one week and six days to wait, but finally the critical moment came. It was at midnight, but fortunately the moon was at the full, and I could see as plainly as though it had been day. The moment the ducks were in line I aimed and fired. They every one squawked, turned over, and died. My pearl had pierced the whole sixty-eight."
"Ahem!" said Doctor Johnson. "It was a pity to lose the pearl."
"That," said Munchausen, "was the most interesting part of the story. I had made a second calculation in order to save the pearl. I deduced the amount of powder necessary to send the gem through sixty-seven and a half birds, and my deduction was strictly accurate. It fulfilled its mission of death on sixty-seven and was found buried in the heart of the sixty- eighth, a trifle discolored, but still a pearl, and worth a king's ransom."
Napoleon gave a derisive laugh, and the other guests sat with incredulity depicted upon every line of their faces.
"Do you believe that story yourself, Baron?" asked Confucius.
"Why not?" asked the Baron. "Is there anything improbable in it? Why should you disbelieve it? Look at our friend Washington here. Is there any one here who knows more about truth than he does? He doesn't disbelieve it. He's the only man at this table who treats me like a man of honor."
"He's host and has to," said Johnson, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well, Washington, let me put the direct question to you," said the Baron. "Say you aren't host and are under no obligation to be courteous. Do you believe I haven't been telling the truth?"
"My dear Munchausen," said the General, "don't ask me. I'm not an authority. I can't tell a lie—not even when I hear one. If you say your story is true, I must believe it, of course; but—ah—really, if I were you, I wouldn't tell it again unless I could produce the pearl and the wish-bone of one of the ducks at least."
Whereupon, as the discussion was beginning to grow acrimonious, Washington hailed Charon, and, ordering a boat, invited his guests to accompany him over into the world of realities, where they passed the balance of the evening haunting a vaudeville performance at one of the London music-halls.
CHAPTER IV: HAMLET MAKES A SUGGESTION
It was a beautiful night on the Styx, and the silvery surface of that picturesque stream was dotted with gondolas, canoes, and other craft to an extent that made Charon feel like a highly prosperous savings-bank. Within the house-boat were gathered a merry party, some of whom were on mere pleasure bent, others of whom had come to listen to a debate, for which the entertainment committee had provided, between the venerable patriarch Noah and the late eminent showman P. T. Barnum. The question to be debated was upon the resolution passed by the committee, that "The Animals of the Antediluvian Period were Far More Attractive for Show Purposes than those of Modern Make," and, singular to relate, the affirmative was placed in the hands of Mr. Barnum, while to Noah had fallen the task of upholding the virtues of the modern freak. It is with the party on mere pleasure bent that we have to do upon this occasion. The proceedings of the debating-party are as yet in the hands of the official stenographer, but will be made public as soon as they are ready.
The pleasure-seeking group were gathered in the smoking-room of the club, which was, indeed, a smoking-room of a novel sort, the invention of an unknown shade, who had sold all the rights to the club through a third party, anonymously, preferring, it seemed, to remain in the Elysian world, as he had been in the mundane sphere, a mute inglorious Edison. It was a simple enough scheme, and, for a wonder, no one in the world of substantialities has thought to take it up. The smoke was stored in reservoirs, just as if it were so much gas or water, and was supplied on the hot-air furnace principle from a huge furnace in the hold of the house-boat, into which tobacco was shovelled by the hired man of the club night and day. The smoke from the furnace, carried through flues to the smoking-room, was there received and stored in the reservoirs, with each of which was connected one dozen rubber tubes, having at their ends amber mouth-pieces. Upon each of these mouth-pieces was arranged a small meter registering the amount of smoke consumed through it, and for this the consumer paid so much a foot. The value of the plan was threefold. It did away entirely with ashes, it saved to the consumers the value of the unconsumed tobacco that is represented by the unsmoked cigar ends, and it averted the possibility of cigarettes.
Enjoying the benefits of this arrangement upon the evening in question were Shakespeare, Cicero, Henry VIII., Doctor Johnson, and others. Of course Boswell was present too, for a moment, with his note-book, and this fact evoked some criticism from several of the smokers.
"You ought to be up-stairs in the lecture-room, Boswell," said Shakespeare, as the great biographer took his seat behind his friend the Doctor. "Doesn't the Gossip want a report of the debate?"
"It does," said Boswell; "but the Gossip endeavors always to get the most interesting items of the day, and Doctor Johnson has informed me that he expects to be unusually witty this evening, so I have come here."
"Excuse me for saying it, Boswell," said the Doctor, getting red in the face over this unexpected confession, "but, really, you talk too much."
"That's good," said Cicero. "Stick that down, Boz, and print it. It's the best thing Johnson has said this week."
Boswell smiled weakly, and said: "But, Doctor, you did say that, you know. I can prove it, too, for you told me some of the things you were going to say. Don't you remember, you were going to lead Shakespeare up to making the remark that he thought the English language was the greatest language in creation, whereupon you were going to ask him why he didn't learn it?"
"Get out of here, you idiot!" roared the Doctor. "You're enough to give a man apoplexy."
"You're not going back on the ladder by which you have climbed, are you, Samuel?" queried Boswell, earnestly.
"The wha-a-t?" cried the Doctor, angrily. "The ladder—on which I climbed? You? Great heavens! That it should come to this! . . . Leave the room—instantly! Ladder! By all that is beautiful—the ladder upon which I, Samuel Johnson, the tallest person in letters, have climbed! Go! Do you hear?"
Boswell rose meekly, and, with tears coursing down his cheeks, left the room.
"That's one on you, Doctor," said Cicero, wrapping his toga about him. "I think you ought to order up three baskets of champagne on that."
"I'll order up three baskets full of Boswell's remains if he ever dares speak like that again!" retorted the Doctor, shaking with anger. "He—my ladder—why, it's ridiculous."
"Yes," said Shakespeare, dryly. "That's why we laugh."
"You were a little hard on him, Doctor," said Henry VIII. "He was a valuable man to you. He had a great eye for your greatness."
"Yes. If there's any feature of Boswell that's greater than his nose and ears, it's his great I," said the Doctor.
"You'd rather have him change his I to a U, I presume," said Napoleon, quietly.
The Doctor waved his hand impatiently. "Let's drop him," he said. "Dropping one's biographer isn't without precedent. As soon as any man ever got to know Napoleon well enough to write him up he sent him to the front, where he could get a little lead in his system."
"I wish I had had a Boswell all the same," said Shakespeare. "Then the world would have known the truth about me."
"It wouldn't if he'd relied on your word for it," retorted the Doctor. "Hullo! here's Hamlet."
As the Doctor spoke, in very truth the melancholy Dane appeared in the doorway, more melancholy of aspect than ever.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Cicero, addressing the new-comer. "Haven't you got that poison out of your system yet?"
"Not entirely," said Hamlet, with a sigh; "but it isn't that that's bothering me. It's Fate."
"We'll get out an injunction against Fate if you like," said Blackstone. "Is it persecution, or have you deserved it?"
"I think it's persecution," said Hamlet. "I never wronged Fate in my life, and why she should pursue me like a demon through all eternity is a thing I can't understand."
"Maybe Ophelia is back of it," suggested Doctor Johnson. "These women have a great deal of sympathy for each other, and, candidly, I think you behaved pretty rudely to Ophelia. It's a poor way to show your love for a young woman, running a sword through her father every night for pay, and driving the girl to suicide with equal frequency, just to show theatre-goers what a smart little Dane you can be if you try."
"'Tisn't me does all that," returned Hamlet. "I only did it once, and even then it wasn't as bad as Shakespeare made it out to be."
"I put it down just as it was," said Shakespeare, hotly, "and you can't dispute it."
"Yes, he can," said Yorick. "You made him tell Horatio he knew me well, and he never met me in his life."
"I never told Horatio anything of the sort," said Hamlet. "I never entered the graveyard even, and I can prove an alibi."
"And, what's more, he couldn't have made the remark the way Shakespeare has it, anyhow," said Yorick, "and for a very good reason. I wasn't buried in that graveyard, and Hamlet and I can prove an alibi for the skull, too."
"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.
"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."
"Well, if you don't talk in your sleep, the play did a Christian service to the world," retorted Shakespeare. "But, really, Hamlet, I thought I did the square thing by you in that play. I meant to, anyhow; and if it has made you unhappy, I'm honestly sorry."
"Spoken like a man," said Yorick.
"I don't mind the play so much," said Hamlet, "but the way I'm represented by these fellows who play it is the thing that rubs me the wrong way. Why, I even hear that there's a troupe out in the western part of the United States that puts the thing on with three Hamlets, two ghosts, and a pair of blood-hounds. It's called the Uncle-Tom-Hamlet Combination, and instead of my falling in love with one crazy Ophelia, I am made to woo three dusky maniacs named Topsy on a canvas ice-floe, while the blood-hounds bark behind the scenes. What sort of treatment is that for a man of royal lineage?"
"It's pretty rough," said Napoleon. "As the poet ought to have said, 'Oh, Hamlet, Hamlet, what crimes are committed in thy name!'"
"I feel as badly about the play as Hamlet does," said Shakespeare, after a moment of silent thought. "I don't bother much about this wild Western business, though, because I think the introduction of the bloodhounds and the Topsies makes us both more popular in that region than we should be otherwise. What I object to is the way we are treated by these so-called first-class intellectual actors in London and other great cities. I've seen Hamlet done before a highly cultivated audience, and, by Jove, it made me blush."
"Me too," sighed Hamlet. "I have seen a man who had a walk on him that suggested spring-halt and locomotor ataxia combined impersonating my graceful self in a manner that drove me almost crazy. I've heard my 'To be or not to be' soliloquy uttered by a famous tragedian in tones that would make a graveyard yawn at mid-day, and if there was any way in which I could get even with that man I'd do it."
"It seems to me," said Blackstone, assuming for the moment a highly judicial manner—"it seems to me that Shakespeare, having got you into this trouble, ought to get you out of it."
"But how?" said Shakespeare, earnestly. "That's the point. Heaven knows I'm willing enough."
Hamlet's face suddenly brightened as though illuminated with an idea. Then he began to dance about the room with an expression of glee that annoyed Doctor Johnson exceedingly.
"I wish Darwin could see you now," the Doctor growled. "A kodak picture of you would prove his arguments conclusively."
"Rail on, O philosopher!" retorted Hamlet. "Rail on! I mind your railings not, for I the germ of an idea have got."
"Well, go quarantine yourself," said the Doctor. "I'd hate to have one of your idea microbes get hold of me."
"What's the scheme?" asked Shakespeare.
"You can write a play for me!" cried Hamlet. "Make it a farce-tragedy. Take the modern player for your hero, and let me play him. I'll bait him through four acts. I'll imitate his walk. I'll cultivate his voice. We'll have the first act a tank act, and drop the hero into the tank. The second act can be in a saw-mill, and we can cut his hair off on a buzz- saw. The third act can introduce a spile-driver with which to drive his hat over his eyes and knock his brains down into his lungs. The fourth act can be at Niagara Falls, and we'll send him over the falls; and for a grand climax we can have him guillotined just after he has swallowed a quart of prussic acid and a spoonful of powdered glass. Do that for me, William, and you are forgiven. I'll play it for six hundred nights in London, for two years in New York, and round up with a one-night stand in Boston."
"It sounds like a good scheme," said Shakespeare, meditatively. "What shall we call it?"
"Call it Irving," said Eugene Aram, who had entered. "I too have suffered."
"And let me be Hamlet's understudy," said Charles the First, earnestly.
"Done!" said Shakespeare, calling for a pad and pencil.
And as the sun rose upon the Styx the next morning the Bard of Avon was to be seen writing a comic chorus to be sung over the moribund tragedian by the shades of Charles, Aram, and other eminent deceased heroes of the stage, with which his new play of Irving was to be brought to an appropriate close.
This play has not as yet found its way upon the boards, but any enterprising manager who desires to consider it may address
Hamlet, The House-Boat, Hades-on-the-Styx.
He is sure to get a reply by return mail, unless Mephistopheles interferes, which is not unlikely, since Mephistopheles is said to have been much pleased with the manner in which the eminent tragedian has put him before the British and American public.
CHAPTER V: THE HOUSE COMMITTEE DISCUSS THE POETS
"There's one thing this house-boat needs," wrote Homer in the complaint- book that adorned the centre-table in the reading-room, "and that is a Poets' Corner. There are smoking-rooms for those who smoke, billiard- rooms for those who play billiards, and a card-room for those who play cards. I do not smoke, I can't play billiards, and I do not know a trey of diamonds from a silver salver. All I can do is write poetry. Why discriminate against me? By all means let us have a Poets' Corner, where a man can be inspired in peace."
For four days this entry lay in the book apparently unnoticed. On the fifth day the following lines, signed by Samson, appeared:
"I approve of Homer's suggestion. There should be a Poets' Corner here. Then the rest of us could have some comfort. While playing vingt-et-un with Diogenes in the card-room on Friday evening a poetic member of this club was taken with a most violent fancy, and it required the combined efforts of Diogenes and myself, assisted by the janitor, to remove the frenzied and objectionable member from the room. The habit some of our poets have acquired of giving way to their inspirations all over the club- house should be stopped, and I know of no better way to accomplish this desirable end than by the adoption of Homer's suggestion. Therefore I second the motion."
Of course the suggestion of two members so prominent as Homer and Samson could not well he ignored by the house committee, and it reluctantly took the subject in hand at an early meeting.
"I find here," said Demosthenes to the chairman, as the committee gathered, "a suggestion from Homer and Samson that this house-boat be provided with a Poets' Corner. I do not know that I approve of the suggestion myself, but in order to bring it before the committee for debate I am willing to make a motion that the request be granted."
"Excuse me," put in Doctor Johnson, "but where do you find that suggestion? 'Here' is not very definite. Where is 'here'?"
"In the complaint-book, which I hold in my hand," returned Demosthenes, putting a pebble in his mouth so that he might enunciate more clearly.
A frown ruffled the serenity of Doctor Johnson's brow.
"In the complaint-book, eh?" he said, slowly. "I thought house committees were not expected to pay any attention to complaints in complaint-books. I never heard of its being done before."
"Well, I can't say that I have either," replied Demosthenes, chewing thoughtfully on the pebble, "but I suppose complaint-books are the places for complaints. You don't expect people to write serial stories or dialect poems in them, do you?"
"That isn't the point, as the man said to the assassin who tried to stab him with the hilt of his dagger," retorted Doctor Johnson, with some asperity. "Of course, complaint-books are for the reception of complaints—nobody disputes that. What I want to have determined is whether it is necessary or proper for the complaints to go further."
"I fancy we have a legal right to take the matter up," said Blackstone, wearily; "though I don't know of any precedent for such action. In all the clubs I have known the house committees have invariably taken the ground that the complaint-book was established to guard them against the annoyance of hearing complaints. This one, however, has been forced upon us by our secretary, and in view of the age of the complainants I think we cannot well decline to give them a specific answer. Respect for age is de rigueur at all times, like clean hands. I'll second the motion."
"I think the Poets' Corner entirely unnecessary," said Confucius. "This isn't a class organization, and we should resist any effort to make it or any portion of it so. In fact, I will go further and state that it is my opinion that if we do any legislating in the matter at all, we ought to discourage rather than encourage these poets. They are always littering the club up with themselves. Only last Wednesday I came here with a guest—no less a person than a recently deceased Emperor of China—and what was the first sight that greeted our eyes?"
"I give it up," said Doctor Johnson. "It must have been a catacornered sight, whatever it was, if the Emperor's eyes slanted like yours."
"No personalities, please, Doctor," said Sir Walter Raleigh, the chairman, rapping the table vigorously with the shade of a handsome gavel that had once adorned the Roman Senate-chamber.
"He's only a Chinaman!" muttered Johnson.
"What was the sight that greeted your eyes, Confucius?" asked Cassius.
"Omar Khayyam stretched over five of the most comfortable chairs in the library," returned Confucius; "and when I ventured to remonstrate with him he lost his temper, and said I'd spoiled the whole second volume of the Rubaiyat. I told him he ought to do his rubaiyatting at home, and he made a scene, to avoid which I hastened with my guest over to the billiard-room; and there, stretched at full length on the pool-table, was Robert Burns trying to write a sonnet on the cloth with chalk in less time than Villon could turn out another, with two lines start, on the billiard-table with the same writing materials. Now I ask you, gentlemen, if these things are to be tolerated? Are they not rather to be reprehended, whether I am a Chinaman or not?"
"What would you have us do, then?" asked Sir Walter Raleigh, a little nettled. "Exclude poets altogether? I was one, remember."
"Oh, but not much of one, Sir Walter," put in Doctor Johnson, deprecatingly.
"No," said Confucius. "I don't want them excluded, but they should be controlled. You don't let a shoemaker who has become a member of this club turn the library sofas into benches and go pegging away at boot-making, so why should you let the poets turn the place into a verse factory? That's what I'd like to know."
"I don't know but what your point is well taken," said Blackstone, "though I can't say I think your parallels are very parallel. A shoemaker, my dear Confucius, is somewhat different from a poet."
"Certainly," said Doctor Johnson. "Very different—in fact, different enough to make a conundrum of the question—what is the difference between a shoemaker and a poet? One makes the shoes and the other shakes the muse—all the difference in the world. Still, I don't see how we can exclude the poets. It is the very democracy of this club that gives it life. We take in everybody—peer, poet, or what not. To say that this man shall not enter because he is this or that or the other thing would result in our ultimately becoming a class organization, which, as Confucius himself says, we are not and must not be. If we put out the poet to please the sage, we'll soon have to put out the sage to please the fool, and so on. We'll keep it up, once the precedent is established, until finally it will become a class club entirely—a Plumbers' Club, for instance—and how absurd that would be in Hades! No, gentlemen, it can't be done. The poets must and shall be preserved."
"What's the objection to class clubs, anyhow?" asked Cassius. "I don't object to them. If we could have had political organizations in my day I might not have had to fall on my sword to get out of keeping an engagement I had no fancy for. Class clubs have their uses."
"No doubt," said Demosthenes. "Have all the class clubs you want, but do not make one of this. An Authors' Club, where none but authors are admitted, is a good thing. The members learn there that there are other authors than themselves. Poets' Clubs are a good thing; they bring poets into contact with each other, and they learn what a bore it is to have to listen to a poet reading his own poem. Pugilists' Clubs are good; so are all other class clubs; but so also are clubs like our own, which takes in all who are worthy. Here a poet can talk poetry as much as he wants, but at the same time he hears something besides poetry. We must stick to our original idea."
"Then let us do something to abate the nuisance of which I complain," said Confucius. "Can't we adopt a house rule that poets must not be inspired between the hours of 11 A.M. and 5 P.M., or in the evening after eight; that any poet discovered using more than five arm-chairs in the composition of a quatrain will be charged two oboli an hour for each chair in excess of that number; and that the billiard-marker shall be required to charge a premium of three times the ordinary fee for tables used by versifiers in lieu of writing-pads?"
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," said Sir Walter Raleigh. "I, as a poet would not object to that. I do all my work at home, anyhow."
"There's another phase of this business that we haven't considered yet, and it's rather important," said Demosthenes, taking a fresh pebble out of his bonbonniere. "That's in the matter of stationery. This club, like all other well-regulated clubs, provides its members with a suitable supply of writing materials. Charon informs me that the waste-baskets last week turned out forty-two reams of our best correspondence paper on which these poets had scribbled the first draft of their verses. Now I don't think the club should furnish the poets with the raw material for their poems any more than, to go back to Confucius's shoemaker, it should supply leather for our cobblers."
"What do you mean by raw material for poems?" asked Sir Walter, with a frown.
"Pen, ink, and paper. What else?" said Demosthenes.
"Doesn't it take brains to write a poem?" said Raleigh.
"Doesn't it take brains to make a pair of shoes?" retorted Demosthenes, swallowing a pebble in his haste.
"They've got a right to the stationery, though," put in Blackstone. "A clear legal right to it. If they choose to write poems on the paper instead of boring people to death with letters, as most of us do, that's their own affair."
"Well, they're very wasteful," said Demosthenes.
"We can meet that easily enough," observed Cassius. "Furnish each writing-table with a slate. I should think they'd be pleased with that. It's so much easier to rub out the wrong word."
"Most poets prefer to rub out the right word," growled Confucius. "Besides, I shall never consent to slates in this house-boat. The squeaking of the pencils would be worse than the poems themselves."
"That's true," said Cassius. "I never thought of that. If a dozen poets got to work on those slates at once, a fife corps wouldn't be a circumstance to them."
"Well, it all goes to prove what I have thought all along," said Doctor Johnson. "Homer's idea is a good one, and Samson was wise in backing it up. The poets need to be concentrated somewhere where they will not be a nuisance to other people, and where other people will not be a nuisance to them. Homer ought to have a place to compose in where the vingt-et- un players will not interrupt his frenzies, and, on the other hand, the vingt-et-un and other players should be protected from the wooers of the muse. I'll vote to have the Poets' Corner, and in it I move that Cassius's slate idea be carried out. It will be a great saving, and if the corner we select be far enough away from the other corners of the club, the squeaking of the slate-pencils need bother no one."
"I agree to that," said Blackstone. "Only I think it should be understood that, in granting the petition of the poets, we do not bind ourselves to yield to doctors and lawyers and shoemakers and plumbers in case they should each want a corner to themselves."
"A very wise idea," said Sir Walter. Whereupon the resolution was suitably worded, and passed unanimously.
Just where the Poets' Corner is to be located the members of the committee have not as yet decided, although Confucius is strongly in favor of having it placed in a dingy situated a quarter of a mile astern of the house-boat, and connected therewith by a slight cord, which can be easily cut in case the squeaking of the poets' slate-pencils becomes too much for the nervous system of the members who have no corner of their own.
CHAPTER VI: SOME THEORIES, DARWINIAN AND OTHERWISE
"I observe," said Doctor Darwin, looking up from a perusal of an asbestos copy of the London Times—"I observe that an American professor has discovered that monkeys talk. I consider that a very interesting fact."
"It undoubtedly is," observed Doctor Livingstone, "though hardly new. I never said anything about it over in the other world, but I discovered years ago in Africa that monkeys were quite as well able to hold a sustained conversation with each other as most men are."
"And I, too," put in Baron Munchausen, "have frequently conversed with monkeys. I made myself a master of their idioms during my brief sojourn in—ah—in—well, never mind where. I never could remember the names of places. The interesting point is that at one period of my life I was a master of the monkey language. I have even gone so far as to write a sonnet in Simian, which was quite as intelligible to the uneducated as nine-tenths of the sonnets written in English or American."
"Do you mean to say that you could acquire the monkey accent?" asked Doctor Darwin, immediately interested.
"In most instances," returned the Baron, suavely, "though of course not in all. I found the same difficulty in some cases that the German or the Chinaman finds when he tries to speak French. A Chinaman can no more say Trocadero, for instance, as the Frenchman says it, than he can fly. That peculiar throaty aspirate the Frenchman gives to the first syllable, as though it were spelled trhoque, is utterly beyond the Chinese—and beyond the American, too, whose idea of the tonsillar aspirate leads him to speak of the trochedeero, naturally falling back upon troches to help him out of his laryngeal difficulties."
"You ought to have been on the staff of Punch, Baron," said Thackeray, quietly. "That joke would have made you immortal."
"I am immortal," said the Baron. "But to return to our discussion of the Simian tongue: as I was saying, there were some little points about the accent that I could never get, and, as in the case of the German and Chinaman with the French language, the trouble was purely physical. When you consider that in polite Simian society most of the talkers converse while swinging by their tails from the limb of a tree, with a sort of droning accent, which results from their swaying to and fro, you will see at once why it was that I, deprived by nature of the necessary apparatus with which to suspend myself in mid-air, was unable to quite catch the quality which gives its chief charm to monkey-talk."
"I should hardly think that a man of your fertile resources would have let so small a thing as that stand in his way," said Doctor Livingstone. "When a man is able to make a reputation for himself like yours, in which material facts are never allowed to interfere with his doing what he sets out to do, he ought not to be daunted by the need of a tail. If you could make a cherry-tree grow out of a deer's head, I fail to see why you could not personally grow a tail, or anything else you might happen to need for the attainment of your ends."
"I was not so anxious to get the accent as all that," returned the Baron. "I don't think it is necessary for a man to make a monkey of himself just for the pleasure of mastering a language. Reasoning similarly, a man to master the art of braying in a fashion comprehensible to the jackass of average intellect should make a jackass of himself, cultivate his ears, and learn to kick, so as properly to punctuate his sentences after the manner of most conversational beasts of that kind."
"Then you believe that jackasses talk, too, do you?" asked Doctor Darwin.
"Why not?" said the Baron. "If monkeys, why not donkeys? Certainly they do. All creatures have some means of communicating their thoughts to each other. Why man in his conceit should think otherwise I don't know, unless it be that the birds and beasts in their conceit probably think that they alone of all the creatures in the world can talk."
"I haven't a doubt," said Doctor Livingstone, "that monkeys listening to men and women talking think they are only jabbering."
"They're not far from wrong in most cases if they do," said Doctor Johnson, who up to this time had been merely an interested listener. "I've thought that many a time myself."
"Which is perhaps, in a slight degree, a confirmation of my theory," put in Darwin. "If Doctor Johnson's mind runs in the same channels that the monkey's mind runs in, why may we not say that Doctor Johnson, being a man, has certain qualities of the monkey, and is therefore, in a sense, of the same strain?"
"You may say what you please," retorted Johnson, wrathfully, "but I'll make you prove what you say about me."
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Doctor Livingstone, in a peace-making spirit. "It would not be a pleasant task for you, compelling our friend to prove you descended from the ape. I should think you'd prefer to make him leave it unproved."
"Have monkeys Boswells?" queried Thackeray.
"I don't know anything about 'em," said Johnson, petulantly.
"No more do I," said Darwin, "and I didn't mean to be offensive, my dear Johnson. If I claim Simian ancestry for you, I claim it equally for myself."
"Well, I'm no snob," said Johnson, unmollified. "If you want to brag about your ancestors, do it. Leave mine alone. Stick to your own genealogical orchard."
"Well, I believe fully that we are all descended from the ape," said Munchausen. "There isn't any doubt in my mind that before the flood all men had tails. Noah had a tail. Shem, Ham, and Japheth had tails. It's perfectly reasonable to believe it. The Ark in a sense proved it. It would have been almost impossible for Noah and his sons to construct the Ark in the time they did with the assistance of only two hands apiece. Think, however, of how fast they could work with the assistance of that third arm. Noah could hammer a clapboard on to the Ark with two hands while grasping a saw and cutting a new board or planing it off with his tail. So with the others. We all know how much a third hand would help us at times."
"But how do you account for its disappearance?" put in Doctor Livingstone. "Is it likely they would dispense with such a useful adjunct?"
"No, it isn't; but there are various ways of accounting for its loss," said Munchausen. "They may have overworked it building the Ark; Shem, Ham, or Japheth may have had his caught in the door of the Ark and cut off in the hurry of the departure; plenty of things may have happened to eliminate it. Men lose their hair and their teeth; why might not a man lose a tail? Scientists say that coming generations far in the future will be toothless and bald. Why may it not be that through causes unknown to us we are similarly deprived of something our forefathers had?"
"The only reason for man's losing his hair is that he wears a hat all the time," said Livingstone. "The Derby hat is the enemy of hair. It is hot, and dries up the scalp. You might as well try to raise watermelons in the Desert of Sahara as to try to raise hair under the modern hat. In fact, the modern hat is a furnace."
"Well, it's a mighty good furnace," observed Munchausen. "You don't have to put coal on the modern hat."
"Perhaps," interposed Thackeray, "the ancients wore their hats on their tails."
"Well, I have a totally different theory," said Johnson.
"You always did have," observed Munchausen.
"Very likely," said Johnson. "To be commonplace never was my ambition."
"What is your theory?" queried Livingstone.
"Well—I don't know," said Johnson, "if it be worth expressing."
"It may be worth sending by freight," interrupted Thackeray. "Let us have it."
"Well, I believe," said Johnson—"I believe that Adam was a monkey."
"He behaved like one," ejaculated Thackeray.
"I believe that the forbidden tree was a tender one, and therefore the only one upon which Adam was forbidden to swing by his tail," said Johnson.
"Clear enough—so far," said Munchausen.
"But that the possession of tails by Adam and Eve entailed a love of swinging thereby, and that they could not resist the temptation to swing from every limb in Eden, and that therefore, while Adam was off swinging on other trees, Eve took a swing on the forbidden tree; that Adam, returning, caught her in the act, and immediately gave way himself and swung," said Johnson.
"Then you eliminate the serpent?" queried Darwin.
"Not a bit of it," Johnson answered. "The serpent was the tail. Look at most snakes to-day. What are they but unattached tails?"
"They do look it," said Darwin, thoughtfully.
"Why, it's clear as day," said Johnson. "As punishment Adam and Eve lost their tails, and the tail itself was compelled to work for a living and do its own walking."
"I never thought of that," said Darwin. "It seems reasonable."
"It is reasonable," said Johnson.
"And the snakes of the present day?" queried Thackeray.
"I believe to be the missing tails of men," said Johnson. "Somewhere in the world is a tail for every man and woman and child. Where one's tail is no one can ever say, but that it exists simultaneously with its owner I believe. The abhorrence man has for snakes is directly attributable to his abhorrence for all things which have deprived him of something that is good. If Adam's tail had not tempted him to swing on the forbidden tree, we should all of us have been able through life to relax from business cares after the manner of the monkey, who is happy from morning until night."
"Well, I can't see that it does us any good to sit here and discuss this matter," said Doctor Livingstone. "We can't reach any conclusion. The only way to settle the matter, it seems to me, is to go directly to Adam, who is a member of this club, and ask him how it was."
"That's a great idea," said Thackeray, scornfully. "You'd look well going up to a man and saying, 'Excuse me, sir, but—ah—were you ever a monkey?'"
"To say nothing of catechising a man on the subject of an old and dreadful scandal," put in Munchausen. "I'm surprised at you, Livingstone. African etiquette seems to have ruined your sense of propriety."
"I'd just as lief ask him," said Doctor Johnson. "Etiquette? Bah! What business has etiquette to stand in the way of human knowledge? Conventionality is the last thing men of brains should strive after, and I, for one, am not going to be bound by it."
Here Doctor Johnson touched the electric bell, and in an instant the shade of a buttons appeared.
"Boy, is Adam in the club-house to-day?" asked the sage.
"I'll go and see, sir," said the boy, and he immediately departed.
"Good boy that," said Thackeray.
"Yes; but the service in this club is dreadful, considering what we might have," said Darwin. "With Aladdin a member of this club, I don't see why we can't have his lamp with genii galore to respond. It certainly would be more economical."
"True; but I, for one, don't care to fool with genii," said Munchausen. "When one member can summon a servant who is strong enough to take another member and do him up in a bottle and cast him into the sea, I have no use for the system. Plain ordinary mortal shades are good enough for me."
As Munchausen spoke, the boy returned.
"Mr. Adam isn't here to-day, sir," he said, addressing Doctor Johnson. "And Charon says he's not likely to be here, sir, seeing as how his account is closed, not having been settled for three months."
"Good," said Thackeray. "I was afraid he was here. I don't want to have him asked about his Eden experiences in my behalf. That's personality."
"Well, then, there's only one other thing to do," said Darwin. "Munchausen claims to be able to speak Simian. He might seek out some of the prehistoric monkeys and put the question to them."
"No, thank you," said Munchausen. "I'm a little rusty in the language, and, besides, you talk like an idiot. You might as well speak of the human language as the Simian language. There are French monkeys who speak monkey French, African monkeys who talk the most barbarous kind of Zulu monkey patois, and Congo monkey slang, and so on. Let Johnson send his little Boswell out to drum up information. If there is anything to be found out he'll get it, and then he can tell it to us. Of course he may get it all wrong, but it will be entertaining, and we'll never know any difference."
Which seemed to the others a good idea, but whatever came of it I have not been informed.
CHAPTER VII: A DISCUSSION AS TO LADIES' DAY
"I met Queen Elizabeth just now on the Row," said Raleigh, as he entered the house-boat and checked his cloak.
"Indeed?" said Confucius. "What if you did? Other people have met Queen Elizabeth. There's nothing original about that."
"True; but she made a suggestion to me about this house-boat which I think is a good one. She says the women are all crazy to see the inside of it," said Raleigh.
"Thus proving that immortal woman is no different from mortal woman," retorted Confucius. "They want to see the inside of everything. Curiosity, thy name is woman."
"Well, I am sure I don't see why men should arrogate to themselves the sole right to an investigating turn of mind," said Raleigh, impatiently. "Why shouldn't the ladies want to see the inside of this club-house? It is a compliment to us that they should, and I for one am in favor of letting them, and I am going to propose that in the Ides of March we give a ladies' day here."
"Then I shall go South for my health in the Ides of March," said Confucius, angrily. "What on earth is a club for if it isn't to enable men to get away from their wives once in a while? When do people go to clubs? When they are on their way home—that's when; and the more a man's at home in his club, the less he's at home when he's at home. I suppose you'll be suggesting a children's day next, and after that a parrot's or a canary-bird's day."
"I had no idea you were such a woman-hater," said Raleigh, in astonishment. "What's the matter? Were you ever disappointed in love?"
"I? How absurd!" retorted Confucius, reddening. "The idea of my ever being disappointed in love! I never met the woman who could bring me to my knees, although I was married in the other world. What became of Mrs. C. I never inquired. She may be in China yet, for aught I know. I regard death as a divorce."
"Your wife must be glad of it," said Raleigh, somewhat ungallantly; for, to tell the truth, he was nettled by Confucius's demeanor. "I didn't know, however, but that since you escaped from China and came here to Hades you might have fallen in love with some spirit of an age subsequent to your own—Mary Queen of Scots, or Joan of Arc, or some other spook—who rejected you. I can't account for your dislike of women otherwise."
"Not I," said Confucius. "Hades would have a less classic name than it has for me if I were hampered with a family. But go along and have your ladies' day here, and never mind my reasons for preferring my own society to that of the fair sex. I can at least stay at home that day. What do you propose to do—throw open the house to the wives of members, or to all ladies, irrespective of their husbands' membership here?"
"I think the latter plan would be the better," said Raleigh. "Otherwise Queen Elizabeth, to whom I am indebted for the suggestion, would be excluded. She never married, you know."
"Didn't she?" said Confucius. "No, I didn't know it; but that doesn't prove anything. When I went to school we didn't study the history of the Elizabethan period. She didn't have absolute sway over England, then?"
"She had; but what of that?" queried Raleigh.
"Do you mean to say that she lived and died an old maid from choice?" demanded Confucius.
"Certainly I do," said Raleigh. "And why should I not tell you that?"
"For a very good and sufficient reason," retorted Confucius, "which is, in brief, that I am not a marine. I may dislike women, my dear Raleigh, but I know them better than you do, gallant as you are; and when you tell me in one and the same moment that a woman holding absolute sway over men yet lived and died an old maid, you must not be indignant if I smile and bite the end of my thumb, which is the Chinese way of saying that's all in your eye, Betty Martin."
"Believe it or not, you poor old back number," retorted Raleigh, hotly. "It alters nothing. Queen Elizabeth could have married a hundred times over if she had wished. I know I lost my head there completely."
"That shows, Sir Walter," said Dryden, with a grin, "how wrong you are. You lost your head to King James. Hi! Shakespeare, here's a man doesn't know who chopped his head off."
Raleigh's face flushed scarlet. "'Tis better to have had a head and lost it," he cried, "than never to have had a head at all! Mark you, Dryden, my boy, it ill befits you to scoff at me for my misfortune, for dust thou art, and to dust thou hast returned, if word from t'other side about thy books and that which in and on them lies be true."
"Whate'er be said about my books," said Dryden, angrily, "be they read or be they not, 'tis mine they are, and none there be who dare dispute their authorship."
"Thus proving that men, thank Heaven, are still sane," ejaculated Doctor Johnson. "To assume the authorship of Dryden would be not so much a claim, my friend, as a confession."
"Shades of the mighty Chow!" cried Confucius. "An' will ye hear the poets squabble! Egad! A ladies' day could hardly introduce into our midst a more diverting disputation."
"We're all getting a little high-flown in our phraseology," put in Shakespeare at this point. "Let's quit talking in blank-verse and come down to business. I think a ladies' day would be great sport. I'll write a poem to read on the occasion."
"Then I oppose it with all my heart," said Doctor Johnson. "Why do you always want to make our entertainments commonplace? Leave occasional poems to mortals. I never knew an occasional poem yet that was worthy of an immortal."
"That's precisely why I want to write one occasional poem. I'd make it worthy," Shakespeare answered. "Like this, for instance:
Most fair, most sweet, most beauteous of ladies, The greatest charm in all ye realm of Hades.
Why, my dear Doctor, such an opportunity for rhyming Hades with ladies should not be lost."
"That just proves what I said," said Johnson. "Any idiot can make ladies rhyme with Hades. It requires absolute genius to avoid the temptation. You are great enough to make Hades rhyme with bicycle if you choose to do it—but no, you succumb to the temptation to be commonplace. Bah! One of these modern drawing-room poets with three sections to his name couldn't do worse."
"On general principles," said Raleigh, "Johnson is right. We invite these people here to see our club-house, not to give them an exhibition of our metrical powers, and I think all exercises of a formal nature should be frowned upon."
"Very well," said Shakespeare. "Go ahead. Have your own way about it. Get out your brow and frown. I'm perfectly willing to save myself the trouble of writing a poem. Writing real poetry isn't easy, as you fellows would have discovered for yourselves if you'd ever tried it."
"To pass over the arrogant assumption of the gentleman who has just spoken, with the silence due to a proper expression of our contempt therefor," said Dryden, slowly, "I think in case we do have a ladies' day here we should exercise a most careful supervision over the invitation list. For instance, wouldn't it be awkward for our good friend Henry the Eighth to encounter the various Mrs. Henrys here? Would it not likewise be awkward for them to meet each other?"
"Your point is well taken," said Doctor Johnson. "I don't know whether the King's matrimonial ventures are on speaking terms with each other or not, but under any circumstances it would hardly be a pleasing spectacle for Katharine of Arragon to see Henry running his legs off getting cream and cakes for Anne Boleyn; nor would Anne like it much if, on the other hand, Henry chose to behave like a gentleman and a husband to Jane Seymour or Katharine Parr. I think, if the members themselves are to send out the invitations, they should each be limited to two cards, with the express understanding that no member shall be permitted to invite more than one wife."
"That's going to be awkward," said Raleigh, scratching his head thoughtfully. "Henry is such a hot-headed fellow that he might resent the stipulation."
"I think he would," said Confucius. "I think he'd be as mad as a hatter at your insinuation that he would invite any of his wives, if all I hear of him is true; and what I've heard, Wolsey has told me."
"He knew a thing or two about Henry," said Shakespeare. "If you don't believe it, just read that play of mine that Beaumont and Fletcher—er—ah—thought so much of."
"You came near giving your secret away that time, William," said Johnson, with a sly smile, and giving the Avonian a dig between the ribs.
"Secret! I haven't any secret," said Shakespeare, a little acridly. "It's the truth I'm telling you. Beaumont and Fletcher did admire Henry the Eighth."
"Thereby showing their conceit, eh?" said Johnson.
"Oh, of course, I didn't write anything, did I?" cried Shakespeare. "Everybody wrote my plays but me. I'm the only person that had no hand in Shakespeare. It seems to me that joke is about worn out, Doctor. I'm getting a little tired of it myself; but if it amuses you, why, keep it up. I know who wrote my plays, and whatever you may say cannot affect the facts. Next thing you fellows will be saying that I didn't write my own autographs?"
"I didn't say that," said Johnson, quietly. "Only there is no internal evidence in your autographs that you knew how to spell your name if you did. A man who signs his name Shixpur one day and Shikespeare the next needn't complain if the Bank of Posterity refuses to honor his check."
"They'd honor my check quick enough these days," retorted Shakespeare. "When a man's autograph brings five thousand dollars, or one thousand pounds, in the auction-room, there isn't a bank in the world fool enough to decline to honor any check he'll sign under a thousand dollars, or two hundred pounds."
"I fancy you're right," put in Raleigh. "But your checks or your plays have nothing to do with ladies' day. Let's get to some conclusion in this matter."
"Yes," said Confucius. "Let's. Ladies' day is becoming a dreadful bore, and if we don't hurry up the billiard-room will be full."
"Well, I move we get up a petition to the council to have it," said Dryden.
"I agree," said Confucius, "and I'll sign it. If there's one way to avoid having ladies' day in the future, it's to have one now and be done with it."
"All right," said Shakespeare. "I'll sign too."
"As—er—Shixpur or Shikespeare?" queried Johnson.
"Let him alone," said Raleigh. "He's getting sensitive about that; and what you need to learn more than anything else is that it isn't manners to twit a man on facts. What's bothering you, Dryden? You look like a man with an idea."
"It has just occurred to me," said Dryden, "that while we can safely leave the question of Henry the Eighth and his wives to the wisdom of the council, we ought to pay some attention to the advisability of inviting Lucretia Borgia. I'd hate to eat any supper if she came within a mile of the banqueting-hall. If she comes you'll have to appoint a tasting committee before I'll touch a drop of punch or eat a speck of salad."
"We might recommend the appointment of Raleigh to look after the fair Lucretia and see that she has no poison with her, or if she has, to keep her from dropping it into the salads," said Confucius, with a sidelong glance at Raleigh. "He's the especial champion of woman in this club, and no doubt would be proud of the distinction."
"I would with most women," said Raleigh. "But I draw the line at Lucretia Borgia."
And so a petition was drawn up, signed, and sent to the council, and they, after mature deliberation, decided to have the ladies' day, to which all the ladies in Hades, excepting Lucretia Borgia and Delilah, were to be duly invited, only the date was not specified. Delilah was excluded at the request of Samson, whose convincing muscles, rather than his arguments, completely won over all opposition to his proposition.
CHAPTER VIII: A DISCONTENTED SHADE
"It seems to me," said Shakespeare, wearily, one afternoon at the club—"that this business of being immortal is pretty dull. Didn't somebody once say he'd rather ride fifty years on a trolley in Europe than on a bicycle in Cathay?"
"I never heard any such remark by any self-respecting person," said Johnson.
"I said something like it," observed Tennyson.
Doctor Johnson looked around to see who it was that spoke.
"You?" he cried. "And who, pray, may you be?"
"My name is Tennyson," replied the poet.
"And a very good name it is," said Shakespeare.
"I am not aware that I ever heard the name before," said Doctor Johnson. "Did you make it yourself?"
"I did," said the late laureate, proudly.
"In what pursuit?" asked Doctor Johnson.
"Poetry," said Tennyson. "I wrote 'Locksley Hall' and 'Come into the Garden, Maude.'"
"Humph!" said Doctor Johnson. "I never read 'em."