A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter XII: The House-Boat Disappears
Queen Elizabeth, attended by Ophelia and Xanthippe, was walking along the river-bank. It was a beautiful autumn day, although, owing to certain climatic peculiarities of Hades, it seemed more like midsummer. The mercury in the club thermometer was nervously clicking against the top of the crystal tube, and poor Cerberus was having all he could do with his three mouths snapping up the pestiferous little shades of by-gone gnats that seemed to take an almost unholy pleasure in alighting upon his various noses and ears.
Ophelia was doing most of the talking.
"I am sure I have never wished to ride one of them," she said, positively. "In the first place, I do not see where the pleasure of it comes in, and, in the second, it seems to me as if skirts must be dangerous. If they should catch in one of the pedals, where would I be?"
"In the hospital shortly, methinks," said Queen Elizabeth.
"Well, I shouldn't wear skirts," snapped Xanthippe. "If a man's wife can't borrow some of her husband's clothing to reduce her peril to a minimum, what is the use of having a husband? When I take to the bicycle, which, in spite of all Socrates can say, I fully intend to do, I shall have a man's wheel, and I shall wear Socrates' old dress- clothes. If Hades doesn't like it, Hades may suffer."
"I don't see how Socrates' clothes will help you," observed Ophelia. "He wore skirts himself, just like all the other old Greeks. His toga would be quite as apt to catch in the gear as your skirts."
Xanthippe looked puzzled for a moment. It was evident that she had not thought of the point which Ophelia had brought up--strong-minded ladies of her kind are apt sometimes to overlook important links in such chains of evidence as they feel called upon to use in binding themselves to their rights.
"The women of your day were relieved of that dress problem, at any rate," laughed Queen Elizabeth.
"The women of my day," retorted Xanthippe, "in matters of dress were the equals of their husbands--in my family particularly; now they have lost their rights, and are made to confine themselves still to garments like those of yore, while man has arrogated to himself the sole and exclusive use of sane habiliments. However, that is apart from the question. I was saying that I shall have a man's wheel, and shall wear Socrates' old dress-clothes to ride it in, if Socrates has to go out and buy an old dress-suit for the purpose."
The Queen arched her brows and looked inquiringly at Xanthippe for a moment.
"A magnificent old maid was lost to the world when you married," she said. "Feeling as you do about men, my dear Xanthippe, I don't see why you ever took a husband."
"Humph!" retorted Xanthippe. "Of course you don't. You didn't need a husband. You were born with something to govern. I wasn't."
"How about your temper?" suggested Ophelia, meekly.
Xanthippe sniffed frigidly at this remark.
"I never should have gone crazy over a man if I'd remained unmarried forty thousand years," she retorted, severely. "I married Socrates because I loved him and admired his sculpture; but when he gave up sculpture and became a thinker he simply tried me beyond all endurance, he was so thoughtless, with the result that, having ventured once or twice to show my natural resentment, I have been handed down to posterity as a shrew. I've never complained, and I don't complain now; but when a woman is married to a philosopher who is so taken up with his studies that when he rises in the morning he doesn't look what he is doing, and goes off to his business in his wife's clothes, I think she is entitled to a certain amount of sympathy."
"And yet you wish to wear his," persisted Ophelia.
"Turn about is fair-play," said Xanthippe. "I've suffered so much on his account that on the principle of averages he deserves to have a little drop of bitters in his nectar."
"You are simply the victim of man's deceit," said Elizabeth, wishing to mollify the now angry Xanthippe, who was on the verge of tears. "I understood men, fortunately, and so never married. I knew my father, and even if I hadn't been a wise enough child to know him, I should not have wed, because he married enough to last one family for several years."
"You must have had a hard time refusing all those lovely men, though," sighed Ophelia. "Of course, Sir Walter wasn't as handsome as my dear Hamlet, but he was very fetching."
"I cannot deny that," said Elizabeth, "and I didn't really have the heart to say no when he asked me; but I did tell him that if he married me I should not become Mrs. Raleigh, but that he should become King Elizabeth. He fled to Virginia on the next steamer. My diplomacy rid me of a very unpleasant duty."
Chatting thus, the three famous spirits passed slowly along the path until they came to the sheltered nook in which the house-boat lay at anchor.
"There's a case in point," said Xanthippe, as the house-boat loomed up before them. "All that luxury is for men; we women are not permitted to cross the gangplank. Our husbands and brothers and friends go there; the door closes on them, and they are as completely lost to us as though they never existed. We don't know what goes on in there. Socrates tells me that their amusements are of a most innocent nature, but how do I know what he means by that? Furthermore, it keeps him from home, while I have to stay at home and be entertained by my sons, whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica rightly calls dull and fatuous. In other words, club life for him, and dulness and fatuity for me."
"I think myself they're rather queer about letting women into that boat," said Queen Elizabeth. "But it isn't Sir Walter's fault. He told me he tried to have them establish a Ladies' Day, and that they agreed to do so, but have since resisted all his efforts to have a date set for the function."
"It would be great fun to steal in there now, wouldn't it," giggled Ophelia. "There doesn't seem to be anybody about to prevent our doing so."
"That's true," said Xanthippe. "All the windows are closed, as if there wasn't a soul there. I've half a mind to take a peep in at the house."
"I am with you," said Elizabeth, her face lighting up with pleasure. It was a great novelty, and an unpleasant one to her, to find some place where she could not go. "Let's do it," she added.
So the three women tiptoed softly up the gang-plank, and, silently boarding the house-boat, peeped in at the windows. What they saw merely whetted their curiosity.
"I must see more," cried Elizabeth, rushing around to the door, which opened at her touch. Xanthippe and Ophelia followed close on her heels, and shortly they found themselves, open-mouthed in wondering admiration, in the billiard-room of the floating palace, and Richard, the ghost of the best billiard-room attendant in or out of Hades, stood before them.
"Excuse me," he said, very much upset by the sudden apparition of the ladies. "I'm very sorry, but ladies are not admitted here."
"We are equally sorry," retorted Elizabeth, assuming her most imperious manner, "that your masters have seen fit to prohibit our being here; but, now that we are here, we intend to make the most of the opportunity, particularly as there seem to be no members about. What has become of them all?"
Richard smiled broadly. "I don't know where they are," he replied; but it was evident that he was not telling the exact truth.
"Oh, come, my boy," said the Queen, kindly, "you do know. Sir Walter told me you knew everything. Where are they?"
"Well, if you must know, ma'am," returned Richard, captivated by the Queen's manner, "they've all gone down the river to see a prize-fight between Goliath and Samson."
"See there!" cried Xanthippe. "That's what this club makes possible. Socrates told me he was coming here to take luncheon with Carlyle, and they've both of 'em gone off to a disgusting prize-fight!"
"Yes, ma'am, they have," said Richard; "and if Goliath wins, I don't think Mr. Socrates will get home this evening."
"Betting, eh?" said Xanthippe, scornfully.
"Yes, ma'am," returned Richard.
"More club!" cried Xanthippe.
"Oh no, ma'am," said Richard. "Betting is not allowed in the club; they're very strict about that. But the shore is only ten feet off, ma'am, and the gentlemen always go ashore and make their bets."
During this little colloquy Elizabeth and Ophelia were wandering about, admiring everything they saw.
"I do wish Lucretia Borgia and Calpurnia could see this. I wonder if the Caesars are on the telephone," Elizabeth said. Investigation showed that both the Borgias and the Caesars were on the wire, and in short order the two ladies had been made acquainted with the state of affairs at the house-boat; and as they were both quite as anxious to see the interior of the much-talked-of club-house as the others, they were not long in arriving. Furthermore, they brought with them half a dozen more ladies, among whom were Desdemona and Cleopatra, and then began the most extraordinary session the house-boat ever knew. A meeting was called, with Elizabeth in the chair, and all the best ladies of the Stygian realms were elected members. Xanthippe, amid the greatest applause, moved that every male member of the organization be expelled for conduct unworthy of a gentleman in attending a prize-fight, and encouraging two such horrible creatures as Goliath and Samson in their nefarious pursuits. Desdemona seconded the motion, and it was carried without a dissenting voice, although Mrs. Caesar, with becoming dignity, merely smiled approval, not caring to take part too actively in the proceedings.
The men having thus been disposed of in a summary fashion, Richard was elected Janitor in Charon's place, and the club was entirely reorganized, with Cleopatra as permanent President. The meeting then adjourned, and the invaders set about enjoying their newly acquired privileges. The smoking-room was thronged for a few moments, but owing to the extraordinary strength of the tobacco which the faithful Richard shovelled into the furnace, it developed no enduring popularity, Xanthippe, with a suddenly acquired pallor, being the first to renounce the pastime as revolting.
So fast and furious was the enjoyment of these thirsty souls, so long deprived of their rights, that night came on without their observing it, and with the night was brought the great peril into which they were thrown, and from which at the moment of writing they had not been extricated, and which, to my regret, has cut me off for the present from any further information connected with the Associated Shades and their beautiful lounging-place. Had they not been so intent upon the inner beauties of the House-boat on the Styx they might have observed approaching, under the shadow of the westerly shore, a long, rakish craft propelled by oars, which dipped softly and silently and with trained precision in the now jet-black waters of the Styx. Manning the oars were a dozen evil-visaged ruffians, while in the stern of the approaching vessel there sat a grim-faced, weather-beaten spirit, armed to the teeth, his coat sleeves bearing the skull and cross-bones, the insignia of piracy.
This boat, stealing up the river like a thief in the night, contained Captain Kidd and his pirate crew, and their mission was a mission of vengeance. To put the matter briefly and plainly, Captain Kidd was smarting under the indignity which the club had recently put upon him. He had been unanimously blackballed, even his proposer and seconder, who had been browbeaten into nominating him for membership, voting against him.
"I may be a pirate," he cried, when he heard what the club had done, "but I have feelings, and the Associated Shades will repent their action. The time will come when they'll find that I have their club- house, and they have--its debts."
It was for this purpose that the great terror of the seas had come upon this, the first favorable opportunity. Kidd knew that the house-boat was unguarded; his spies had told him that the members had every one gone to the fight, and he resolved that the time had come to act. He did not know that the Fates had helped to make his vengeance all the more terrible and withering by putting the most attractive and fashionable ladies of the Stygian country likewise in his power; but so it was, and they, poor souls, while this fiend, relentless and cruel, was slowly approaching, sang on and danced on in blissful unconsciousness of their peril.
In less than five minutes from the time when his sinister-craft rounded the bend Kidd and his crew had boarded the house-boat, cut her loose from her moorings, and in ten minutes she had sailed away into the great unknown, and with her went some of the most precious gems in the social diadem of Hades.
The rest of my story is soon told. The whole country was aroused when the crime was discovered, but up to the date of this narrative no word has been received of the missing craft and her precious cargo. Raleigh and Caesar have had the seas scoured in search of her, Hamlet has offered his kingdom for her return, but unavailingly; and the men of Hades were cast into a gloom from which there seems to be no relief.
Socrates alone was unaffected.
"They'll come back some day, my dear Raleigh," he said, as the knight buried his face, weeping, in his hands. "So why repine? I'll never lose my Xanthippe--permanently, that is. I know that, for I am a philosopher, and I know there is no such thing as luck. And we can start another club."
"Very likely," sighed Raleigh, wiping his eyes. "I don't mind the club so much, but to think of those poor women--"
"Oh, they're all right," returned Socrates, with a laugh. "Caesar's wife is along, and you can't dispute the fact that she's a good chaperon. Give the ladies a chance. They've been after our club for years; now let 'em have it, and let us hope that they like it. Order me up a hemlock sour, and let's drink to their enjoyment of club life."
Which was done, and I, in spirit, drank with them, for I sincerely hope that the "New Women" of Hades are having a good time.