The Pursuit of the House-Boat by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter IV: On Board the House-Boat
Meanwhile the ladies were not having such a bad time, after all. Once having gained possession of the House-boat, they were loath to think of ever having to give it up again, and it is an open question in my mind if they would not have made off with it themselves had Captain Kidd and his men not done it for them.
"I'll never forgive these men for their selfishness in monopolizing all this," said Elizabeth, with a vicious stroke of a billiard-cue, which missed the cue-ball and tore a right angle in the cloth. "It is not right."
"No," said Portia. "It is all wrong; and when we get back home I'm going to give my beloved Bassanio a piece of my mind; and if he doesn't give in to me, I'll reverse my decision in the famous case of Shylock versus Antonio."
"Then I sincerely hope he doesn't give in," retorted Cleopatra, "for I swear by all my auburn locks that that was the very worst bit of injustice ever perpetrated. Mr. Shakespeare confided to me one night, at one of Mrs. Caesar's card-parties, that he regarded that as the biggest joke he ever wrote, and Judge Blackstone observed to Antony that the decision wouldn't have held in any court of equity outside of Venice. If you owe a man a thousand ducats, and it costs you three thousand to get them, that's your affair, not his. If it cost Antonio every drop of his bluest blood to pay the pound of flesh, it was Antonio's affair, not Shylock's. However, the world applauds you as a great jurist, when you have nothing more than a woman's keen instinct for sentimental technicalities."
"It would have made a horrid play, though, if it had gone on," shuddered Elizabeth.
"That may be, but, carried out realistically, it would have done away with a raft of bad actors," said Cleopatra. "I'm half sorry it didn't go on, and I'm sure it wouldn't have been any worse than compelling Brutus to fall on his sword until he resembles a chicken liver en brochette, as is done in that Julius Caesar play."
"Well, I'm very glad I did it," snapped Portia.
"I should think you would be," said Cleopatra. "If you hadn't done it, you'd never have been known. What was that?"
The boat had given a slight lurch.
"Didn't you hear a shuffling noise up on deck, Portia?" asked the Egyptian Queen.
"I thought I did, and it seemed as if the vessel had moved a bit," returned Portia, nervously; for, like most women in an advanced state of development, she had become a martyr to her nerves.
"It was merely the wash from one of Charon's new ferry-boats, I fancy," said Elizabeth, calmly. "It's disgusting, the way that old fellow allows these modern innovations to be brought in here! As if the old paddle-boats he used to carry shades in weren't good enough for the immigrants of this age! Really this Styx River is losing a great deal of its charm. Sir Walter and I were upset, while out rowing one day last summer, by the waves kicked up by one of Charon's excursion steamers going up the river with a party of picnickers from the city--the Greater Gehenna Chowder Club, I believe it was--on board of her. One might just as well live in the midst of the turmoil of a great city as try to get uninterrupted quiet here in the suburbs in these days. Charon isn't content to get rich slowly; he must make money by the barrelful, if he has to sacrifice all the comfort of everybody living on this river. Anybody'd think he was an American, the way he goes on; and everybody else here is the same way. The Erebeans are getting to be a race of shopkeepers."
"I think myself," sighed Cleopatra, "that Hades is being spoiled by the introduction of American ideas--it is getting by far too democratic for my tastes; and if it isn't stopped, it's my belief that the best people will stop coming here. Take Madame Recamier's salon as it is now and compare it with what it used to be! In the early days, after her arrival here, everybody went because it was the swell thing, and you'd be sure of meeting the intellectually elect. On the one hand you'd find Sophocles; on the other, Cicero; across the room would be Horace chatting gayly with some such person as myself. Great warriors, from Alexander to Bonaparte, were there, and glad of the opportunity to be there, too; statesmen like Macchiavelli; artists like Cellini or Tintoretto. You couldn't move without stepping on the toes of genius. But now all is different. The money-getting instinct has been aroused within them all, with the result that when I invited Mozart to meet a few friends at dinner at my place last autumn, he sent me a card stating his terms for dinners. Let me see, I think I have it with me; I've kept it by me for fear of losing it, it is such a complete revelation of the actual condition of affairs in this locality. Ah! this is it," she added, taking a small bit of pasteboard from her card-case. "Read that."
The card was passed about, and all the ladies were much astonished-- and naturally so, for it ran this wise:
NOTICE TO HOSTESSES.
Owing to the very great, constantly growing, and at times vexatious demands upon his time socially,
HERR WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
takes this method of announcing to his friends that on and after January 1, 1897, his terms for functions will be as follows:
Dinners with conversation on the Marks Theory of Music 500 Dinners with conversation on the Theory of Music, illustrated 750 Dinners without any conversation 300 Receptions, public, with music 1000 " " private, 750 Encores (single) 100 Three encores for 150 Autographs 10
Positively no Invitations for Five-o'Clock Teas or Morning Musicales considered.
"Well, I declare!" tittered Elizabeth, as she read. "Isn't that extraordinary? He's got the three-name craze, too!"
"It's perfectly ridiculous," said Cleopatra. "But it's fairer than Artemus Ward's plan. Mozart gives notice of his intentions to charge you; but with Ward it's different. He comes, and afterwards sends a bill for his fun. Why, only last week I got a 'quarterly statement' from him showing a charge against me of thirty-eight dollars for humorous remarks made to my guests at a little chafing-dish party I gave in honor of Balzac, and, worst of all, he had marked it 'Please remit.' Even Antony, when he wrote a sonnet to my eyebrow, wouldn't let me have it until he had heard whether or not Boswell wanted it for publication in the Gossip. With Rubens giving chalk-talks for pay, Phidias doing 'Five-minute Masterpieces in Putty' for suburban lyceums, and all the illustrious in other lines turning their genius to account through the entertainment bureaus, it's impossible to have a salon now."
"You are indeed right," said Madame Recamier, sadly. "Those were palmy days when genius was satisfied with chicken salad and lemonade. I shall never forget those nights when the wit and wisdom of all time were--ah--were on tap at my house, if I may so speak, at a cost to me of lights and supper. Now the only people who will come for nothing are those we used to think of paying to stay away. Boswell is always ready, but you can't run a salon on Boswell."
"Well," said Portia, "I sincerely hope that you won't give up the functions altogether, because I have always found them most delightful. It is still possible to have lights and supper."
"I have a plan for next winter," said Madame Recamier, "but I suppose I shall be accused of going into the commercial side of it if I adopt it. The plan is, briefly, to incorporate my salon. That's an idea worthy of an American, I admit; but if I don't do it I'll have to give it up entirely, which, as you intimate, would be too bad. An incorporated salon, however, would be a grand thing, if only because it would perpetuate the salon. 'The Recamier Salon (Limited)' would be a most excellent title, and, suitably capitalized would enable us to pay our lions sufficiently. Private enterprise is powerless under modern conditions. It's as much as I can afford to pay for a dinner, without running up an expensive account for guests; and unless we get up a salon-trust, as it were, the whole affair must go to the wall."
"How would you make it pay?" asked Portia. "I can't see where your dividends would come from."
"That is simple enough," said Madame Recamier. "We could put up a large reception-hall with a portion of our capital, and advertise a series of nights--say one a week throughout the season. These would be Warriors' Night, Story-tellers' Night, Poets' Night, Chafing-dish Night under the charge of Brillat-Savarin, and so on. It would be understood that on these particular evenings the most interesting people in certain lines would be present, and would mix with outsiders, who should be admitted only on payment of a certain sum of money. The commonplace inhabitants of this country could thus meet the truly great; and if I know them well, as I think I do, they'll pay readily for the privilege. The obscure love to rub up against the famous here as well as they do on earth."
"You'd run a sort of Social Zoo?" suggested Elizabeth.
"Precisely; and provide entertainment for private residences too. An advertisement in Boswell's paper, which everybody buys--"
"And which nobody reads," said Portia.
"They read the advertisements," retorted Madame Recamier. "As I was saying, an advertisement could be placed in Boswell's paper as follows: 'Are you giving a Function? Do you want Talent? Get your Genius at the Recamier Salon (Limited).' It would be simply magnificent as a business enterprise. The common herd would be tickled to death if they could get great people at their homes, even if they had to pay roundly for them."
"It would look well in the society notes, wouldn't it, if Mr. John Boggs gave a reception, and at the close of the account it said, 'The supper was furnished by Calizetti, and the genius by the Recamier Salon (Limited)'?" suggested Elizabeth, scornfully.
"I must admit," replied the French lady, "that you call up an unpleasant possibility, but I don't really see what else we can do if we want to preserve the salon idea. Somebody has told these talented people that they have a commercial value, and they are availing themselves of the demand."
"It is a sad age!" sighed Elizabeth.
"Well, all I've got to say is just this," put in Xanthippe: "You people who get up functions have brought this condition of affairs on yourselves. You were not satisfied to go ahead and indulge your passion for lions in a moderate fashion. Take the case of Demosthenes last winter, for instance. His wife told me that he dined at home three times during the winter. The rest of the time he was out, here, there, and everywhere, making after-dinner speeches. The saving on his dinner bills didn't pay his pebble account, much less remunerate him for his time, and the fearful expense of nervous energy to which he was subjected. It was as much as she could do, she said, to keep him from shaving one side of his head, so that he couldn't go out, the way he used to do in Athens when he was afraid he would be invited out and couldn't scare up a decent excuse for refusing."
"Did he do that?" cried Elizabeth, with a roar of laughter.
"So the cyclopaedias say. It's a good plan, too," said Xanthippe. "Though Socrates never had to do it. When I got the notion Socrates was going out too much, I used to hide his dress clothes. Then there was the case of Rubens. He gave a Carbon Talk at the Sforza's Thursday Night Club, merely to oblige Madame Sforza, and three weeks later discovered that she had sold his pictures to pay for her gown! You people simply run it into the ground. You kill the goose that when taken at the flood leads on to fortune. It advertises you, does the lion no good, and he is expected to be satisfied with confectionery, material and theoretical. If they are getting tired of candy and compliments, it's because you have forced too much of it upon them."
"They like it, just the same," retorted Recamier. "A genius likes nothing better than the sound of his own voice, when he feels that it is falling on aristocratic ears. The social laurel rests pleasantly on many a noble brow."
"True," said Xanthippe. "But when a man gets a pile of Christmas wreaths a mile high on his head, he begins to wonder what they will bring on the market. An occasional wreath is very nice, but by the ton they are apt to weigh on his mind. Up to a certain point notoriety is like a woman, and a man is apt to love it; but when it becomes exacting, demanding instead of permitting itself to be courted, it loses its charm."
"That is Socratic in its wisdom," smiled Portia.
"But Xanthippic in its origin," returned Xanthippe. "No man ever gave me my ideas."
As Xanthippe spoke, Lucretia Borgia burst into the room.
"Hurry and save yourselves!" she cried. "The boat has broken loose from her moorings, and is floating down the stream. If we don't hurry up and do something, we'll drift out to sea!"
"What!" cried Cleopatra, dropping her cue in terror, and rushing for the stairs. "I was certain I felt a slight motion. You said it was the wash from one of Charon's barges, Elizabeth."
"I thought it was," said Elizabeth, following closely after.
"Well, it wasn't," moaned Lucretia Borgia. "Calpurnia just looked out of the window and discovered that we were in mid-stream."
The ladies crowded anxiously about the stair and attempted to ascend, Cleopatra in the van; but as the Egyptian Queen reached the doorway to the upper deck, the door opened, and the hard features of Captain Kidd were thrust roughly through, and his strident voice rang out through the gathering gloom. "Pipe my eye for a sardine if we haven't captured a female seminary!" he cried.
And one by one the ladies, in terror, shrank back into the billiard- room, while Kidd, overcome by surprise, slammed the door to, and retreated into the darkness of the forward deck to consult with his followers as to "what next."