A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
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."
"Well, why should you have read them?" snarled Carlyle. "They were written after you moved over here, and they were good stuff. You needn't think because you quit, the whole world put up its shutters and went out of business. I did a few things myself which I fancy you never heard of."
"Oh, as for that," retorted Doctor Johnson, with a smile, "I've heard of you; you are the man who wrote the life of Frederick the Great in nine hundred and two volumes--"
"Seven!" snapped Carlyle.
"Well, seven then," returned Johnson. "I never saw the work, but I heard Frederick speaking of it the other day. Bonaparte asked him if he had read it, and Frederick said no, he hadn't time. Bonaparte cried, 'Haven't time? Why, my dear king, you've got all eternity.' 'I know it,' replied Frederick, 'but that isn't enough. Read a page or two, my dear Napoleon, and you'll see why.'"
"Frederick will have his joke," said Shakespeare, with a wink at Tennyson and a smile for the two philosophers, intended, no doubt, to put them in a more agreeable frame of mind. "Why, he even asked me the other day why I never wrote a tragedy about him, completely ignoring the fact that he came along many years after I had departed. I spoke of that, and he said, 'Oh, I was only joking.' I apologized. 'I didn't know that,' said I. 'And why should you?' said he. 'You're English.'"
"A very rude remark," said Johnson. "As if we English were incapable of seeing a joke!"
"Exactly," put in Carlyle. "It strikes me as the absurdest notion that the Englishman can't see a joke. To the mind that is accustomed to snap judgments I have no doubt the Englishman appears to be dull of apprehension, but the philosophy of the whole matter is apparent to the mind that takes the trouble to investigate. The Briton weighs everything carefully before he commits himself, and even though a certain point may strike him as funny, he isn't going to laugh until he has fully made up his mind that it is funny. I remember once riding down Piccadilly with Froude in a hansom cab. Froude had a copy of Punch in his hand, and he began to laugh immoderately over something. I leaned over his shoulder to see what he was laughing at. 'That isn't so funny,' said I, as I read the paragraph on which his eye was resting. 'No,' said Froude. 'I wasn't laughing at that. I was enjoying the joke that appeared in the same relative position in last week's issue.' Now that's the point--the whole point. The Englishman always laughs over last week's Punch, not this week's, and that is why you will find a file of that interesting journal in the home of all well-to-do Britons. It is the back number that amuses him--which merely proves that he is a deliberative person who weighs even his humor carefully before giving way to his emotions."
"What is the average weight of a copy of Punch?" drawled Artemas Ward, who had strolled in during the latter part of the conversation.
Shakespeare snickered quietly, but Carlyle and Johnson looked upon the intruder severely.
"We will take that question into consideration," said Carlyle. "Perhaps to-morrow we shall have a definite answer ready for you."
"Never mind," returned the humorist. "You've proved your point. Tennyson tells me you find life here dull, Shakespeare."
"Somewhat," said Shakespeare. "I don't know about the rest of you fellows, but I was not cut out for an eternity of ease. I must have occupation, and the stage isn't popular here. The trouble about putting on a play here is that our managers are afraid of libel suits. The chances are that if I should write a play with Cassius as the hero, Cassius would go to the first night's performance with a dagger concealed in his toga, with which to punctuate his objections to the lines put in his mouth. There is nothing I'd like better than to manage a theatre in this place, but think of the riots we'd have! Suppose, for an instant, that I wrote a play about Bonaparte! He'd have a box, and when the rest of you spooks called for the author at the end of the third act, if he didn't happen to like the play he'd greet me with a salvo of artillery instead of applause."
"He wouldn't if you made him out a great conqueror from start to finish," said Tennyson.
"No doubt," returned Shakespeare, sadly; "but in that event Wellington would be in the other stage-box, and I'd get the greeting from him."
"Why come out at all?" asked Johnson.
"Why come out at all?" echoed Shakespeare. "What fun is there in writing a play if you can't come out and show yourself at the first night? That's the author's reward. If it wasn't for the first-night business, though, all would be plain sailing."
"Then why don't you begin it the second night?" drawled Ward.
"How the deuce could you?" put in Carlyle.
"A most extraordinary proposition," sneered Johnson.
"Yes," said Ward; "but wait a week--you'll see the point then."
"There isn't any doubt in my mind," said Shakespeare, reverting to his original proposition, "that the only perfectly satisfactory life is under a system not yet adopted in either world--the one we have quitted or this. There we had hard work in which our mortal limitations hampered us grievously; here we have the freedom of the immortal with no hard work; in other words, now that we feel like fighting-cocks, there isn't any fighting to be done. The great life in my estimation, would be to return to earth and battle with mortal problems, but equipped mentally and physically with immortal weapons."
"Some people don't know when they are well off," said Beau Brummel. "This strikes me as being an ideal life. There are no tailors bills to pay--we are ourselves nothing but memories, and a memory can clothe himself in the shadow of his former grandeur--I clothe myself in the remembrance of my departed clothes, and as my memory is good I flatter myself I'm the best-dressed man here. The fact that there are ghosts of departed unpaid bills haunting my bedside at night doesn't bother me in the least, because the bailiffs that in the old life lent terror to an overdue account, thanks to our beneficent system here, are kept in the less agreeable sections of Hades. I used to regret that bailiffs were such low people, but now I rejoice at it. If they had been of a different order they might have proven unpleasant here."
"You are right, my dear Brummel," interposed Munchausen. "This life is far preferable to that in the other sphere. Any of you gentlemen who happen to have had the pleasure of reading my memoirs must have been struck with the tremendous difficulties that encumbered my progress. If I wished for a rare liqueur for my luncheon, a liqueur served only at the table of an Oriental potentate, more jealous of it than of his one thousand queens, I had to raise armies, charter ships, and wage warfare in which feats of incredible valor had to be performed by myself alone and unaided to secure the desired thimbleful. I have destroyed empires for a bon-bon at great expense of nervous energy."
"That's very likely true," said Carlyle. "I should think your feats of strength would have wrecked your imagination in time."
"Not so," said Munchausen. "On the contrary, continuous exercise served only to make it stronger. But, as I was going to say, in this life we have none of these fearful obstacles--it is a life of leisure; and if I want a bird and a cold bottle at any time, instead of placing my life in peril and jeopardizing the peace of all mankind to get it, I have only to summon before me the memory of some previous bird and cold bottle, dine thereon like a well-ordered citizen, and smoke the spirit of the best cigar my imagination can conjure up."
"You miss my point," said Shakespeare. "I don't say this life is worse or better than the other we used to live. What I do say is that a combination of both would suit me. In short, I'd like to live here and go to the other world every day to business, like a suburban resident who sleeps in the country and makes his living in the city. For instance, why shouldn't I dwell here and go to London every day, hire an office there, and put out a sign something like this:
I guess I'd find plenty to do."
"Guess again," said Tennyson. "My dear boy, you forget one thing. You are out of date. People don't go to the theatres to hear you, they go to see the people who do you."
"That is true," said Ward. "And they do do you, my beloved William. It's a wonder to me you are not dizzy turning over in your grave the way they do you."
"Can it be that I can ever be out of date?" asked Shakespeare. "I know, of course, that I have to be adapted at times; but to be wholly out of date strikes me as a hard fate."
"You're not out of date," interposed Carlyle; "the date is out of you. There is a great demand for Shakespeare in these days, but there isn't any stuff."
"Then I should succeed," said Shakespeare.
"No, I don't think so," returned Carlyle. "You couldn't stand the pace. The world revolves faster to-day than it did in your time--men write three or four plays at once. This is what you might call a Type-writer Age, and to keep up with the procession you'd have to work as you never worked before."
"That is true," observed Tennyson. "You'd have to learn to be ambidextrous, so that you could keep two type-writing machines going at once; and, to be perfectly frank with you, I cannot even conjure up in my fancy a picture of you knocking out a tragedy with the right hand on one machine, while your left hand is fashioning a farce- comedy on another."
"He might do as a great many modern writers do," said Ward; "go in for the Paper-doll Drama. Cut the whole thing out with a pair of scissors. As the poet might have said if he'd been clever enough:
Oh, bring me the scissors,
Oh, bring me a dress
So bring me the scissors,
"You draw a very blue picture, it seems to me," said Shakespeare, sadly.
"Well, it's true," said Carlyle. "The world isn't at all what it used to be in any one respect, and you fellows who made great reputations centuries ago wouldn't have even the ghost of a show now. I don't believe Homer could get a poem accepted by a modern magazine, and while the comic papers are still printing Diogenes' jokes the old gentleman couldn't make enough out of them in these days to pay taxes on his tub, let alone earning his bread."
"That is exactly so," said Tennyson. "I'd be willing to wager too that, in the line of personal prowess, even D'Artagnan and Athos and Porthos and Aramis couldn't stand London for one day."
"Or New York either," said Mr. Barnum, who had been an interested listener. "A New York policeman could have managed that quartet with one hand."
"Then," said Shakespeare, "in the opinion of you gentlemen, we old- time lions would appear to modern eyes to be more or less stuffed?"
"That's about the size of it," said Carlyle.
"But you'd draw," said Barnum, his face lighting up with pleasure. "You'd drive a five-legged calf to suicide from envy. If I could take you and Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte and Nero over for one circus season we'd drive the mint out of business."
"There's your chance, William," said Ward. "You write a play for Bonaparte and Caesar, and let Nero take his fiddle and be the orchestra. Under Barnum's management you'd get enough activity in one season to last you through all eternity."
"You can count on me," said Barnum, rising. "Let me know when you've got your plan laid out. I'd stay and make a contract with you now, but Adam has promised to give me points on the management of wild animals without cages, so I can't wait. By-by."
"Humph!" said Shakespeare, as the eminent showman passed out. "That's a gay proposition. When monkeys move in polite society William Shakespeare will make a side-show of himself for a circus."
"They do now," said Thackeray, quietly.
Which merely proved that Shakespeare did not mean what he said; for in spite of Thackeray's insinuation as to the monkeys and polite society, he has not yet accepted the Barnum proposition, though there can be no doubt of its value from the point of view of a circus manager.