A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
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.