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