A House-Boat on the Styx/Chapter 6

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A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter 6: Some Theories, Darwinian And Otherwise

"I observe," said Doctor Darwin, looking up from a perusal of an asbestos copy of the London Times—"I observe that an American professor has discovered that monkeys talk. I consider that a very interesting fact."

"It undoubtedly is," observed Doctor Livingstone, "though hardly new. I never said anything about it over in the other world, but I discovered years ago in Africa that monkeys were quite as well able to hold a sustained conversation with each other as most men are."

"And I, too," put in Baron Munchausen, "have frequently conversed with monkeys. I made myself a master of their idioms during my brief sojourn in—ah—in—well, never mind where. I never could remember the names of places. The interesting point is that at one period of my life I was a master of the monkey language. I have even gone so far as to write a sonnet in Simian, which was quite as intelligible to the uneducated as nine-tenths of the sonnets written in English or American."

"Do you mean to say that you could acquire the monkey accent?" asked Doctor Darwin, immediately interested.

"In most instances," returned the Baron, suavely, "though of course not in all. I found the same difficulty in some cases that the German or the Chinaman finds when he tries to speak French. A Chinaman can no more say Trocadéro, for instance, as the Frenchman says it, than he can fly. That peculiar throaty aspirate the Frenchman gives to the first syllable, as though it were spelled trhoque, is utterly beyond the Chinese—and beyond the American, too, whose idea of the tonsillar aspirate leads him to speak of the trochedeero, naturally falling back upon troches to help him out of his laryngeal difficulties."

"You ought to have been on the staff of Punch, Baron," said Thackeray, quietly. "That joke would have made you immortal."

"I am immortal," said the Baron. "But to return to our discussion of the Simian tongue: as I was saying, there were some little points about the accent that I could never get, and, as in the case of the German and Chinaman with the French language, the trouble was purely physical. When you consider that in polite Simian society most of the talkers converse while swinging by their tails from the limb of a tree, with a sort of droning accent, which results from their swaying to and fro, you will see at once why it was that I, deprived by nature of the necessary apparatus with which to suspend myself in mid-air, was unable to quite catch the quality which gives its chief charm to monkey-talk."

"I should hardly think that a man of your fertile resources would have let so small a thing as that stand in his way," said Doctor Livingstone. "When a man is able to make a reputation for himself like yours, in which material facts are never allowed to interfere with his doing what he sets out to do, he ought not to be daunted by the need of a tail. If you could make a cherry-tree grow out of a deer’s head, I fail to see why you could not personally grow a tail, or anything else you might happen to need for the attainment of your ends."

"I was not so anxious to get the accent as all that," returned the Baron. "I don’t think it is necessary for a man to make a monkey of himself just for the pleasure of mastering a language. Reasoning similarly, a man to master the art of braying in a fashion comprehensible to the jackass of average intellect should make a jackass of himself, cultivate his ears, and learn to kick, so as properly to punctuate his sentences after the manner of most conversational beasts of that kind."

"Then you believe that jackasses talk, too, do you?" asked Doctor Darwin.

"Why not?" said the Baron. "If monkeys, why not donkeys? Certainly they do. All creatures have some means of communicating their thoughts to each other. Why man in his conceit should think otherwise I don’t know, unless it be that the birds and beasts in their conceit probably think that they alone of all the creatures in the world can talk."

"I haven’t a doubt," said Doctor Livingstone, "that monkeys listening to men and women talking think they are only jabbering."

"They’re not far from wrong in most cases if they do," said Doctor Johnson, who up to this time had been merely an interested listener. "I’ve thought that many a time myself."

"Which is perhaps, in a slight degree, a confirmation of my theory," put in Darwin. "If Doctor Johnson’s mind runs in the same channels that the monkey’s mind runs in, why may we not say that Doctor Johnson, being a man, has certain qualities of the monkey, and is therefore, in a sense, of the same strain?"

"You may say what you please," retorted Johnson, wrathfully, "but I’ll make you prove what you say about me."

"I wouldn’t if I were you," said Doctor Livingstone, in a peace-making spirit. "It would not be a pleasant task for you, compelling our friend to prove you descended from the ape. I should think you’d prefer to make him leave it unproved."

"Have monkeys Boswells?" queried Thackeray.

"I don’t know anything about ’em," said Johnson, petulantly.

"No more do I," said Darwin, "and I didn’t mean to be offensive, my dear Johnson. If I claim Simian ancestry for you, I claim it equally for myself."

"Well, I’m no snob," said Johnson, unmollified. "If you want to brag about your ancestors, do it. Leave mine alone. Stick to your own genealogical orchard."

"Well, I believe fully that we are all descended from the ape," said Munchausen. "There isn’t any doubt in my mind that before the flood all men had tails. Noah had a tail. Shem, Ham, and Japheth had tails. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe it. The Ark in a sense proved it. It would have been almost impossible for Noah and his sons to construct the Ark in the time they did with the assistance of only two hands apiece. Think, however, of how fast they could work with the assistance of that third arm. Noah could hammer a clapboard on to the Ark with two hands while grasping a saw and cutting a new board or planing it off with his tail. So with the others. We all know how much a third hand would help us at times."

"But how do you account for its disappearance?" put in Doctor Livingstone. "Is it likely they would dispense with such a useful adjunct?"

"No, it isn’t; but there are various ways of accounting for its loss," said Munchausen. "They may have overworked it building the Ark; Shem, Ham, or Japheth may have had his caught in the door of the Ark and cut off in the hurry of the departure; plenty of things may have happened to eliminate it. Men lose their hair and their teeth; why might not a man lose a tail? Scientists say that coming generations far in the future will be toothless and bald. Why may it not be that through causes unknown to us we are similarly deprived of something our forefathers had?"

"The only reason for man’s losing his hair is that he wears a hat all the time," said Livingstone. "The Derby hat is the enemy of hair. It is hot, and dries up the scalp. You might as well try to raise watermelons in the Desert of Sahara as to try to raise hair under the modern hat. In fact, the modern hat is a furnace."

"Well, it’s a mighty good furnace," observed Munchausen. "You don’t have to put coal on the modern hat."

"Perhaps," interposed Thackeray, "the ancients wore their hats on their tails."

"Well, I have a totally different theory," said Johnson.

"You always did have," observed Munchausen.

"Very likely," said Johnson. "To be commonplace never was my ambition."

"What is your theory?" queried Livingstone.

"Well—I don’t know," said Johnson, "if it be worth expressing."

"It may be worth sending by freight," interrupted Thackeray. "Let us have it."

"Well, I believe," said Johnson—"I believe that Adam was a monkey."

"He behaved like one," ejaculated Thackeray.

"I believe that the forbidden tree was a tender one, and therefore the only one upon which Adam was forbidden to swing by his tail," said Johnson.

"Clear enough—so far," said Munchausen.

"But that the possession of tails by Adam and Eve entailed a love of swinging thereby, and that they could not resist the temptation to swing from every limb in Eden, and that therefore, while Adam was off swinging on other trees, Eve took a swing on the forbidden tree; that Adam, returning, caught her in the act, and immediately gave way himself and swung," said Johnson.

"Then you eliminate the serpent?" queried Darwin.

"Not a bit of it," Johnson answered. "The serpent was the tail. Look at most snakes to-day. What are they but unattached tails?"

"They do look it," said Darwin, thoughtfully.

"Why, it’s clear as day," said Johnson. "As punishment Adam and Eve lost their tails, and the tail itself was compelled to work for a living and do its own walking."

"I never thought of that," said Darwin. "It seems reasonable."

"It is reasonable," said Johnson.

"And the snakes of the present day?" queried Thackeray.

"I believe to be the missing tails of men," said Johnson. "Somewhere in the world is a tail for every man and woman and child. Where one’s tail is no one can ever say, but that it exists simultaneously with its owner I believe. The abhorrence man has for snakes is directly attributable to his abhorrence for all things which have deprived him of something that is good. If Adam’s tail had not tempted him to swing on the forbidden tree, we should all of us have been able through life to relax from business cares after the manner of the monkey, who is happy from morning until night."

"Well, I can’t see that it does us any good to sit here and discuss this matter," said Doctor Livingstone. "We can’t reach any conclusion. The only way to settle the matter, it seems to me, is to go directly to Adam, who is a member of this club, and ask him how it was."

"That’s a great idea," said Thackeray, scornfully. "You’d look well going up to a man and saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, but—ah—were you ever a monkey?’"

"To say nothing of catechising a man on the subject of an old and dreadful scandal," put in Munchausen. "I’m surprised at you, Livingstone. African etiquette seems to have ruined your sense of propriety."

"I’d just as lief ask him," said Doctor Johnson. "Etiquette? Bah! What business has etiquette to stand in the way of human knowledge? Conventionality is the last thing men of brains should strive after, and I, for one, am not going to be bound by it."

Here Doctor Johnson touched the electric bell, and in an instant the shade of a buttons appeared.

"Boy, is Adam in the club-house to-day?" asked the sage.

"I’ll go and see, sir," said the boy, and he immediately departed.

"Good boy that," said Thackeray.

"Yes; but the service in this club is dreadful, considering what we might have," said Darwin. "With Aladdin a member of this club, I don’t see why we can’t have his lamp with genii galore to respond. It certainly would be more economical."

"True; but I, for one, don’t care to fool with genii," said Munchausen. "When one member can summon a servant who is strong enough to take another member and do him up in a bottle and cast him into the sea, I have no use for the system. Plain ordinary mortal shades are good enough for me."

As Munchausen spoke, the boy returned.

"Mr. Adam isn’t here to-day, sir," he said, addressing Doctor Johnson. "And Charon says he’s not likely to be here, sir, seeing as how his account is closed, not having been settled for three months."

"Good," said Thackeray. "I was afraid he was here. I don’t want to have him asked about his Eden experiences in my behalf. That’s personality."

"Well, then, there’s only one other thing to do," said Darwin. "Munchausen claims to be able to speak Simian. He might seek out some of the prehistoric monkeys and put the question to them."

"No, thank you," said Munchausen. "I’m a little rusty in the language, and, besides, you talk like an idiot. You might as well speak of the human language as the Simian language. There are French monkeys who speak monkey French, African monkeys who talk the most barbarous kind of Zulu monkey patois, and Congo monkey slang, and so on. Let Johnson send his little Boswell out to drum up information. If there is anything to be found out he’ll get it, and then he can tell it to us. Of course he may get it all wrong, but it will be entertaining, and we’ll never know any difference."

Which seemed to the others a good idea, but whatever came of it I have not been informed.