A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter X: Story-Tellers' Night
It was Story-tellers' Night at the houseboat, and the best talkers of Hades were impressed into the service. Doctor Johnson was made chairman of the evening.
"Put him in the chair," said Raleigh. "That's the only way to keep him from telling a story himself. If he starts in on a tale he'll make it a serial sure as fate, but if you make him the medium through which other story-tellers are introduced to the club he'll be finely epigrammatic. He can be very short and sharp when he's talking about somebody else. Personality is his forte."
"Great scheme," said Diogenes, who was chairman of the entertainment committee. "The nights over here are long, but if Johnson started on a story they'd have to reach twice around eternity and halfway back to give him time to finish all he had to say."
"He's not very witty, in my judgment," said Carlyle, who since his arrival in the other world has manifested some jealousy of Solomon and Doctor Johnson.
"That's true enough," said Raleigh; "but he's strong, and he's bound to say something that will put the audience in sympathy with the man that he introduces, and that's half the success of a Story-tellers' Night. I've told stories myself. If your audience doesn't sympathize with you you'd be better off at home putting the baby to bed."
And so it happened. Doctor Johnson was made chairman, and the evening came. The Doctor was in great form. A list of the story- tellers had been sent him in advance, and he was prepared. The audience was about as select a one as can be found in Hades. The doors were thrown open to the friends of the members, and the smoke- furnace had been filled with a very superior quality of Arcadian mixture which Scott had brought back from a haunting-trip to the home of "The Little Minister," at Thrums.
"Friends and fellow-spooks," the Doctor began, when all were seated on the visionary camp-stools--which, by the way, are far superior to those in use in a world of realities, because they do not creak in the midst of a fine point demanding absolute silence for appreciation--"I do not know why I have been chosen to preside over this gathering of phantoms; it is the province of the presiding officer on occasions of this sort to say pleasant things, which he does not necessarily endorse, about the sundry persons who are to do the story-telling. Now, I suppose you all know me pretty well by this time. If there is anybody who doesn't, I'll be glad to have him presented after the formal work of the evening is over, and if I don't like him I'll tell him so. You know that if I can be counted upon for any one thing it is candor, and if I hurt the feelings of any of these individuals whom I introduce to-night, I want them distinctly to understand that it is not because I love them less, but that I love truth more. With this--ah--blanket apology, as it were, to cover all possible emergencies that may arise during the evening, I will begin. The first speaker on the programme, I regret to observe, is my friend Goldsmith. Affairs of this kind ought to begin with a snap, and while Oliver is a most excellent writer, as a speaker he is a pebbleless Demosthenes. If I had had the arrangement of the programme I should have had Goldsmith tell his story while the rest of us were down-stairs at supper. However, we must abide by our programme, which is unconscionably long, for otherwise we will never get through it. Those of you who agree with me as to the pleasure of listening to my friend Goldsmith will do well to join me in the grill-room while he is speaking, where, I understand, there is a very fine line of punches ready to be served. Modest Noll, will you kindly inflict yourself upon the gathering, and send me word when you get through, if you ever do, so that I may return and present number two to the assembly, whoever or whatever he may be?"
With these words the Doctor retired, and poor Goldsmith, pale with fear, rose up to speak. It was evident that he was quite as doubtful of his ability as a talker as was Johnson.
"I'm not much of a talker, or, as some say, speaker," he said. "Talking is not my forte, as Doctor Johnson has told you, and I am therefore not much at it. Speaking is not in my line. I cannot speak or talk, as it were, because I am not particularly ready at the making of a speech, due partly to the fact that I am not much of a talker anyhow, and seldom if ever speak. I will therefore not bore you by attempting to speak, since a speech by one who like myself is, as you are possibly aware, not a fluent nor indeed in any sense an eloquent speaker, is apt to be a bore to those who will be kind enough to listen to my remarks, but will read instead the first five chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield."
"Who suggested any such night as this, anyhow?" growled Carlyle. "Five chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield for a starter! Lord save us, we'll need a Vicar of Sleepfield if he's allowed to do this!"
"I move we adjourn," said Darwin.
"Can't something be done to keep these younger members quiet?" asked Solomon, frowning upon Carlyle and Darwin.
"Yes," said Douglas Jerrold. "Let Goldsmith go on. He'll have them asleep in ten minutes."
Meanwhile, Goldsmith was plodding earnestly through his stint, utterly and happily oblivious of the effect he was having upon his audience.
"This is awful," whispered Wellington to Bonaparte.
"Worse than Waterloo," replied the ex-Emperor, with a grin; "but we can stop it in a minute. Artemas Ward told me once how a camp- meeting he attended in the West broke up to go outside and see a dog- fight. Can't you and I pretend to quarrel? A personal assault by you on me will wake these people up and discombobulate Goldsmith. Say the word--only don't hit too hard."
"I'm with you," said Wellington. Whereupon, with a great show of heat, he roared out, "You? Never! I'm more afraid of a boy with a bean-snapper that I ever was of you!" and followed up his remark by pulling Bonaparte's camp-chair from under him, and letting the conqueror of Austerlitz fall to the floor with a thud which I have since heard described as dull and sickening.
The effect was instantaneous. Compared to a personal encounter between the two great figures of Waterloo, a reading from his own works by Goldsmith seemed lacking in the elements essential to the holding of an audience. Consequently, attention was centred in the belligerent warriors, and, by some odd mistake, when a peace-loving member of the assemblage, realizing the indecorousness of the incident, cried out, "Put him out! put him out!" the attendants rushed in, and, taking poor Goldsmith by his collar, hustled him out through the door, across the deck, and tossed him ashore without reference to the gang-plank. This accomplished, a personal explanation of their course was made by the quarrelling generals, and, peace having been restored, a committee was sent in search of Goldsmith with suitable apologies. The good and kindly soul returned, but having lost his book in the melee, much to his own gratification, as well as to that of the audience, he was permitted to rest in quiet the balance of the evening.
"Is he through?" said Johnson, poking his head in at the door when order was restored.
"Yes, sir," said Boswell; "that is to say, he has retired permanently from the field. He didn't finish, though."
"Fellow-spooks," began Johnson once more, "now that you have been delighted with the honeyed eloquence of the last speaker, it is my privilege to present to you that eminent fabulist Baron Munchausen, the greatest unrealist of all time, who will give you an exhibition of his paradoxical power of lying while standing."
The applause which greeted the Baron was deafening. He was, beyond all doubt, one of the most popular members of the club.
"Speaking of whales," said he, leaning gracefully against the table.
"Nobody has mentioned 'em," said Johnson.
"True," retorted the Baron; "but you always suggest them by your apparently unquenchable thirst for spouting--speaking of whales, my friend Jonah, as well as the rest of you, may be interested to know that I once had an experience similar to his own, and, strange to say, with the identical whale."
Jonah arose from his seat in the back of the room. "I do not wish to be unpleasant," he said, with a strong effort to be calm, "but I wish to ask if Judge Blackstone is in the room."
"I am," said the Judge, rising. "What can I do for you?"
"I desire to apply for an injunction restraining the Baron from using my whale in his story. That whale, your honor, is copyrighted," said Jonah. "If I had any other claim to the affection of mankind than the one which is based on my experience with that leviathan, I would willingly permit the Baron to introduce him into his story; but that whale, your honor, is my stock in trade--he is my all."
"I think Jonah's point is well taken," said Blackstone, turning to the Baron. "It would be a distinct hardship, I think, if the plaintiff in this action were to be deprived of the exclusive use of his sole accessory. The injunction prayed for is therefore granted. The court would suggest, however, that the Baron continue with his story, using another whale for the purpose."
"It is impossible," said Munchausen, gloomily. "The whole point of the story depends upon its having been Jonah's whale. Under the circumstances, the only thing I can do is to sit down. I regret the narrowness of mind exhibited by my friend Jonah, but I must respect the decision of the court."
"I must take exception to the Baron's allusion to my narrowness of mind," said Jonah, with some show of heat. "I am simply defending my rights, and I intend to continue to do so if the whole world unites in considering my mind a mere slot scarcely wide enough for the insertion of a nickel. That whale was my discovery, and the personal discomfort I endured in perfecting my experience was such that I resolved to rest my reputation upon his broad proportions only--to sink or swim with him--and I cannot at this late day permit another to crowd me out of his exclusive use."
Jonah sat down and fanned himself, and the Baron, with a look of disgust on his face, left the room.
"Up to his old tricks," he growled as he went. "He queers everything he goes into. If I'd known he was a member of this club I'd never have joined."
"We do not appear to be progressing very rapidly," said Doctor Johnson, rising. "So far we have made two efforts to have stories told, and have met with disaster each time. I don't know but what you are to be congratulated, however, on your escape. Very few of you, I observe, have as yet fallen asleep. The next number on the programme, I see, is Boswell, who was to have entertained you with a few reminiscences; I say was to have done so, because he is not to do so."
"I'm ready," said Boswell, rising.
"No doubt," retorted Johnson, severely, "but I am not. You are a man with one subject--myself. I admit it's a good subject, but you are not the man to treat of it--here. You may suffice for mortals, but here it is different. I can speak for myself. You can go out and sit on the banks of the Vitriol Reservoir and lecture to the imps if you want to, but when it comes to reminiscences of me I'm on deck myself, and I flatter myself I remember what I said and did more accurately than you do. Therefore, gentlemen, instead of listening to Boswell at this point, you will kindly excuse him and listen to me. Ahem! When I was a boy--"
"Excuse me," said Solomon, rising; "about how long is this--ah--this entertaining discourse of yours to continue?"
"Until I get through," returned Johnson, wrathfully.
"Are you aware, sir, that I am on the programme?" asked Solomon.
"I am," said the Doctor. "With that in mind, for the sake of our fellow-spooks who are present, I am very much inclined to keep on forever. When I was a boy--"
Carlyle rose up at this point.
"I should like to ask," he said, mildly, "if this is supposed to be an audience of children? I, for one, have no wish to listen to the juvenile stories of Doctor Johnson. Furthermore, I have come here particularly to-night to hear Boswell. I want to compare him with Froude. I therefore protest against--"
"There is a roof to this house-boat," said Doctor Johnson. "If Mr. Carlyle will retire to the roof with Boswell I have no doubt he can be accommodated. As for Solomon's interruption, I can afford to pass that over with the silent contempt it deserves, though I may add with propriety that I consider his most famous proverbs the most absurd bits of hack-work I ever encountered; and as for that story about dividing a baby between two mothers by splitting it in two, it was grossly inhuman unless the baby was twins. When I was a boy--"
As the Doctor proceeded, Carlyle and Solomon, accompanied by the now angry Boswell, left the room, and my account of the Story-tellers' Night must perforce stop; because, though I have never heretofore confessed it, all my information concerning the house-boat on the Styx has been derived from the memoranda of Boswell. It may be interesting to the reader to learn, however, that, according to Boswell's account, the Story-tellers' Night was never finished; but whether this means that it broke up immediately afterwards in a riot, or that Doctor Johnson is still at work detailing his reminiscences, I am not aware, and I cannot at the moment of writing ascertain, for Boswell, when I have the pleasure of meeting him, invariably avoids the subject.