A House-Boat on the Styx/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter 1: Charon Makes A Discovery

Charon, the Ferryman of renown, was cruising slowly along the Styx one pleasant Friday morning not long ago, and as he paddled idly on he chuckled mildly to himself as he thought of the monopoly in ferriage which in the course of years he had managed to build up.

"It’s a great thing," he said, with a smirk of satisfaction—"it’s a great thing to be the go-between between two states of being; to have the exclusive franchise to export and import shades from one state to the other, and withal to have had as clean a record as mine has been. Valuable as is my franchise, I never corrupted a public official in my life, and—"

Here Charon stopped his soliloquy and his boat simultaneously. As he rounded one of the many turns in the river a singular object met his gaze, and one, too, that filled him with misgiving. It was another craft, and that was a thing not to be tolerated. Had he, Charon, owned the exclusive right of way on the Styx all these years to have it disputed here in the closing decade of the Nineteenth Century? Had not he dealt satisfactorily with all, whether it was in the line of ferriage or in the providing of boats for pleasure-trips up the river? Had he not received expressions of satisfaction, indeed, from the most exclusive families of Hades with the very select series of picnics he had given at Charon’s Glen Island? No wonder, then, that the queer-looking boat that met his gaze, moored in a shady nook on the dark side of the river, filled him with dismay.

"Blow me for a landlubber if I like that!" he said, in a hardly audible whisper. "And shiver my timbers if I don’t find out what she’s there for. If anybody thinks he can run an opposition line to mine on this river he’s mightily mistaken. If it comes to competition, I can carry shades for nothing and still quaff the B. & G. yellow-label benzine three times a day without experiencing a financial panic. I’ll show ’em a thing or two if they attempt to rival me. And what a boat! It looks for all the world like a Florentine barn on a canal-boat."

Charon paddled up to the side of the craft, and, standing up in the middle of his boat, cried out,

"Ship ahoy!"

There was no answer, and the Ferryman hailed her again. Receiving no response to his second call, he resolved to investigate for himself; so, fastening his own boat to the stern-post of the stranger, he clambered on board. If he was astonished as he sat in his ferry-boat, he was paralyzed when he cast his eye over the unwelcome vessel he had boarded. He stood for at least two minutes rooted to the spot. His eye swept over a long, broad deck, the polish of which resembled that of a ball-room floor. Amidships, running from three-quarters aft to three-quarters forward, stood a structure that in its lines resembled, as Charon had intimated, a barn, designed by an architect enamoured of Florentine simplicity; but in its construction the richest of woods had been used, and in its interior arrangement and adornment nothing more palatial could be conceived.

"What’s the blooming thing for?" said Charon, more dismayed than ever. "If they start another line with a craft like this, I’m very much afraid I’m done for after all. I wouldn’t take a boat like mine myself if there was a floating palace like this going the same way. I’ll have to see the Commissioners about this, and find out what it all means. I suppose it’ll cost me a pretty penny, too, confound them!"

A prey to these unhappy reflections, Charon investigated further, and the more he saw the less he liked it. He was about to encounter opposition, and an opposition which was apparently backed by persons of great wealth—perhaps the Commissioners themselves. It was a consoling thought that he had saved enough money in the course of his career to enable him to live in comfort all his days, but this was not really what Charon was after. He wished to acquire enough to retire and become one of the smart set. It had been done in that section of the universe which lay on the bright side of the Styx, why not, therefore, on the other, he asked.

"I’m pretty well connected even if I am a boatman," he had been known to say. "With Chaos for a grandfather, and Erebus and Nox for parents, I’ve just as good blood in my veins as anybody in Hades. The Noxes are a mighty fine family, not as bright as the Days, but older; and we’re poor—that’s it, poor—and it’s money makes caste these days. If I had millions, and owned a railroad, they’d call me a yacht-owner. As I haven’t, I’m only a boatman. Bah! Wait and see! I’ll be giving swell functions myself some day, and these upstarts will be on their knees before me begging to be asked. Then I’ll get up a little aristocracy of my own, and I won’t let a soul into it whose name isn’t mentioned in the Grecian mythologies. Mention in Burke’s peerage and the Élite directories of America won’t admit anybody to Commodore Charon’s house unless there’s some other mighty good reason for it."

Foreseeing an unhappy ending to all his hopes, the old man clambered sadly back into his ancient vessel and paddled off into the darkness. Some hours later, returning with a large company of new arrivals, while counting up the profits of the day Charon again caught sight of the new craft, and saw that it was brilliantly lighted and thronged with the most famous citizens of the Erebean country. Up in the bow was a spirit band discoursing music of the sweetest sort. Merry peals of laughter rang out over the dark waters of the Styx. The clink of glasses and the popping of corks punctuated the music with a frequency which would have delighted the soul of the most ardent lover of commas, all of which so overpowered the grand master boatman of the Stygian Ferry Company that he dropped three oboli and an American dime, which he carried as a pocket-piece, overboard. This, of course, added to his woe; but it was forgotten in an instant, for some one on the new boat had turned a search-light directly upon Charon himself, and simultaneously hailed the master of the ferry-boat.

"Charon!" cried the shade in charge of the light. "Charon, ahoy!"

"Ahoy yourself!" returned the old man, paddling his craft close up to the stranger. "What do you want?"

"You," said the shade. "The house committee want to see you right away."

"What for?" asked Charon, cautiously.

"I’m sure I don’t know. I’m only a member of the club, and house committees never let mere members know anything about their plans. All I know is that you are wanted," said the other.

"Who are the house committee?" queried the Ferryman.

"Sir Walter Raleigh, Cassius, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Doctor Johnson, and Confucius," replied the shade.

"Tell ’em I’ll be back in an hour," said Charon, pushing off. "I’ve got a cargo of shades on board consigned to various places up the river. I’ve promised to get ’em all through to-night, but I’ll put on a couple of extra paddles—two of the new arrivals are working their passage this trip—and it won’t take as long as usual. What boat is this, anyhow?"

"The Nancy Nox, of Erebus."

"Thunder!" cried Charon, as he pushed off and proceeded on his way up the river. "Named after my mother! Perhaps it’ll come out all right yet."

More hopeful of mood, Charon, aided by the two dead-head passengers, soon got through with his evening’s work, and in less than an hour was back seeking admittance, as requested, to the company of Sir Walter Raleigh and his fellow-members on the house committee. He was received by these worthies with considerable effusiveness, considering his position in society, and it warmed the cockles of his aged heart to note that Sir Walter, who had always been rather distant to him since he had carelessly upset that worthy and Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the Styx far back in the last century, permitted him to shake three fingers of his left hand when he entered the committee-room.

"How do you do, Charon?" said Sir Walter, affably. "We are very glad to see you."

"Thank you, kindly, Sir Walter," said the boatman. "I’m glad to hear those words, your honor, for I’ve been feeling very bad since I had the misfortune to drop your Excellency and her Majesty overboard. I never knew how it happened, sir, but happen it did, and but for her Majesty’s kind assistance it might have been the worse for us. Eh, Sir Walter?"

The knight shook his head menacingly at Charon. Hitherto he had managed to keep it a secret that the Queen had rescued him from drowning upon that occasion by swimming ashore herself first and throwing Sir Walter her ruff as soon as she landed, which he had used as a life-preserver.

"’Sh!" he said, sotto voce. "Don’t say anything about that, my man."

"Very well, Sir Walter, I won’t," said the boatman; but he made a mental note of the knight’s agitation, and perceived a means by which that illustrious courtier could be made useful to him in his scheming for social advancement.

"I understood you had something to say to me," said Charon, after he had greeted the others.

"We have," said Sir Walter. "We want you to assume command of this boat."

The old fellow’s eyes lighted up with pleasure.

"You want a captain, eh?" he said.

"No," said Confucius, tapping the table with a diamond-studded chop-stick. "No. We want a—er—what the deuce is it they call the functionary, Cassius?"

"Senator, I think," said Cassius.

Demosthenes gave a loud laugh.

"Your mind is still running on Senatorships, my dear Cassius. That is quite evident," he said. "This is not one of them, however. The title we wish Charon to assume is neither Captain nor Senator; it is Janitor."

"What’s that?" asked Charon, a little disappointed. "What does a Janitor have to do?"

"He has to look after things in the house," explained Sir Walter. "He’s a sort of proprietor by proxy. We want you to take charge of the house, and see to it that the boat is kept shipshape."

"Where is the house?" queried the astonished boatman.

"This is it," said Sir Walter. "This is the house, and the boat too. In fact, it is a house-boat."

"Then it isn’t a new-fangled scheme to drive me out of business?" said Charon, warily.

"Not at all," returned Sir Walter. "It’s a new-fangled scheme to set you up in business. We’ll pay you a large salary, and there won’t be much to do. You are the best man for the place, because, while you don’t know much about houses, you do know a great deal about boats, and the boat part is the most important part of a house-boat. If the boat sinks, you can’t save the house; but if the house burns, you may be able to save the boat. See?"

"I think I do, sir," said Charon.

"Another reason why we want to employ you for Janitor," said Confucius, "is that our club wants to be in direct communication with both sides of the Styx; and we think you as Janitor would be able to make better arrangements for transportation with yourself as boatman, than some other man as Janitor could make with you."

"Spoken like a sage," said Demosthenes.

"Furthermore," said Cassius, "occasionally we shall want to have this boat towed up or down the river, according to the house committee’s pleasure, and we think it would be well to have a Janitor who has some influence with the towing company which you represent."

"Can’t this boat be moved without towing?" asked Charon.

"No," said Cassius.

"And I’m the only man who can tow it, eh?"

"You are," said Blackstone. "Worse luck."

"And you want me to be Janitor on a salary of what?"

"A hundred oboli a month," said Sir Walter, uneasily.

"Very well, gentlemen," said Charon. "I’ll accept the office on a salary of two hundred oboli a month, with Saturdays off."

The committee went into executive session for five minutes, and on their return informed Charon that in behalf of the Associated Shades they accepted his offer.

"In behalf of what?" the old man asked.

"The Associated Shades," said Sir Walter. "The swellest organization in Hades, whose new house-boat you are now on board of. When shall you be ready to begin work?"

"Right away," said Charon, noting by the clock that it was the hour of midnight. "I’ll start in right away, and as it is now Saturday morning, I’ll begin by taking my day off."