A House-Boat on the Styx/Chapter 7

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A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter 7: A Discussion As To Ladies's Day
"I met Queen Elizabeth just now on the Row," said Raleigh, as he entered the house-boat and checked his cloak.

"Indeed?" said Confucius. "What if you did? Other people have met Queen Elizabeth. There’s nothing original about that."

"True; but she made a suggestion to me about this house-boat which I think is a good one. She says the women are all crazy to see the inside of it," said Raleigh.

"Thus proving that immortal woman is no different from mortal woman," retorted Confucius. "They want to see the inside of everything. Curiosity, thy name is woman."

"Well, I am sure I don’t see why men should arrogate to themselves the sole right to an investigating turn of mind," said Raleigh, impatiently. "Why shouldn’t the ladies want to see the inside of this club-house? It is a compliment to us that they should, and I for one am in favor of letting them, and I am going to propose that in the Ides of March we give a ladies’ day here."

"Then I shall go South for my health in the Ides of March," said Confucius, angrily. "What on earth is a club for if it isn’t to enable men to get away from their wives once in a while? When do people go to clubs? When they are on their way home—that’s when; and the more a man’s at home in his club, the less he’s at home when he’s at home. I suppose you’ll be suggesting a children’s day next, and after that a parrot’s or a canary-bird’s day."

"I had no idea you were such a woman-hater," said Raleigh, in astonishment. "What’s the matter? Were you ever disappointed in love?"

"I? How absurd!" retorted Confucius, reddening. "The idea of my ever being disappointed in love! I never met the woman who could bring me to my knees, although I was married in the other world. What became of Mrs. C. I never inquired. She may be in China yet, for aught I know. I regard death as a divorce."

"Your wife must be glad of it," said Raleigh, somewhat ungallantly; for, to tell the truth, he was nettled by Confucius’s demeanor. "I didn’t know, however, but that since you escaped from China and came here to Hades you might have fallen in love with some spirit of an age subsequent to your own—Mary Queen of Scots, or Joan of Arc, or some other spook—who rejected you. I can’t account for your dislike of women otherwise."

"Not I," said Confucius. "Hades would have a less classic name than it has for me if I were hampered with a family. But go along and have your ladies’ day here, and never mind my reasons for preferring my own society to that of the fair sex. I can at least stay at home that day. What do you propose to do—throw open the house to the wives of members, or to all ladies, irrespective of their husbands’ membership here?"

"I think the latter plan would be the better," said Raleigh. "Otherwise Queen Elizabeth, to whom I am indebted for the suggestion, would be excluded. She never married, you know."

"Didn’t she?" said Confucius. "No, I didn’t know it; but that doesn’t prove anything. When I went to school we didn’t study the history of the Elizabethan period. She didn’t have absolute sway over England, then?"

"She had; but what of that?" queried Raleigh.

"Do you mean to say that she lived and died an old maid from choice?" demanded Confucius.

"Certainly I do," said Raleigh. "And why should I not tell you that?"

"For a very good and sufficient reason," retorted Confucius, "which is, in brief, that I am not a marine. I may dislike women, my dear Raleigh, but I know them better than you do, gallant as you are; and when you tell me in one and the same moment that a woman holding absolute sway over men yet lived and died an old maid, you must not be indignant if I smile and bite the end of my thumb, which is the Chinese way of saying that’s all in your eye, Betty Martin."

"Believe it or not, you poor old back number," retorted Raleigh, hotly. "It alters nothing. Queen Elizabeth could have married a hundred times over if she had wished. I know I lost my head there completely."

"That shows, Sir Walter," said Dryden, with a grin, "how wrong you are. You lost your head to King James. Hi! Shakespeare, here’s a man doesn’t know who chopped his head off."

Raleigh’s face flushed scarlet. "’Tis better to have had a head and lost it," he cried, "than never to have had a head at all! Mark you, Dryden, my boy, it ill befits you to scoff at me for my misfortune, for dust thou art, and to dust thou hast returned, if word from t’other side about thy books and that which in and on them lies be true."

"Whate’er be said about my books," said Dryden, angrily, "be they read or be they not, ’tis mine they are, and none there be who dare dispute their authorship."

"Thus proving that men, thank Heaven, are still sane," ejaculated Doctor Johnson. "To assume the authorship of Dryden would be not so much a claim, my friend, as a confession."

"Shades of the mighty Chow!" cried Confucius. "An’ will ye hear the poets squabble! Egad! A ladies’ day could hardly introduce into our midst a more diverting disputation."

"We’re all getting a little high-flown in our phraseology," put in Shakespeare at this point. "Let’s quit talking in blank-verse and come down to business. I think a ladies’ day would be great sport. I’ll write a poem to read on the occasion."

"Then I oppose it with all my heart," said Doctor Johnson. "Why do you always want to make our entertainments commonplace? Leave occasional poems to mortals. I never knew an occasional poem yet that was worthy of an immortal."

"That’s precisely why I want to write one occasional poem. I’d make it worthy," Shakespeare answered. "Like this, for instance:

Most fair, most sweet, most beauteous of ladies,
The greatest charm in all ye realm of Hades.

Why, my dear Doctor, such an opportunity for rhyming Hades with ladies should not be lost."

"That just proves what I said," said Johnson. "Any idiot can make ladies rhyme with Hades. It requires absolute genius to avoid the temptation. You are great enough to make Hades rhyme with bicycle if you choose to do it—but no, you succumb to the temptation to be commonplace. Bah! One of these modern drawing-room poets with three sections to his name couldn’t do worse."

"On general principles," said Raleigh, "Johnson is right. We invite these people here to see our club-house, not to give them an exhibition of our metrical powers, and I think all exercises of a formal nature should be frowned upon."

"Very well," said Shakespeare. "Go ahead. Have your own way about it. Get out your brow and frown. I’m perfectly willing to save myself the trouble of writing a poem. Writing real poetry isn’t easy, as you fellows would have discovered for yourselves if you’d ever tried it."

"To pass over the arrogant assumption of the gentleman who has just spoken, with the silence due to a proper expression of our contempt therefor," said Dryden, slowly, "I think in case we do have a ladies’ day here we should exercise a most careful supervision over the invitation list. For instance, wouldn’t it be awkward for our good friend Henry the Eighth to encounter the various Mrs. Henrys here? Would it not likewise be awkward for them to meet each other?"

"Your point is well taken," said Doctor Johnson. "I don’t know whether the King’s matrimonial ventures are on speaking terms with each other or not, but under any circumstances it would hardly be a pleasing spectacle for Katharine of Arragon to see Henry running his legs off getting cream and cakes for Anne Boleyn; nor would Anne like it much if, on the other hand, Henry chose to behave like a gentleman and a husband to Jane Seymour or Katharine Parr. I think, if the members themselves are to send out the invitations, they should each be limited to two cards, with the express understanding that no member shall be permitted to invite more than one wife."

"That’s going to be awkward," said Raleigh, scratching his head thoughtfully. "Henry is such a hot-headed fellow that he might resent the stipulation."

"I think he would," said Confucius. "I think he’d be as mad as a hatter at your insinuation that he would invite any of his wives, if all I hear of him is true; and what I’ve heard, Wolsey has told me."

"He knew a thing or two about Henry," said Shakespeare. "If you don’t believe it, just read that play of mine that Beaumont and Fletcher—er—ah—thought so much of."

"You came near giving your secret away that time, William," said Johnson, with a sly smile, and giving the Avonian a dig between the ribs.

"Secret! I haven’t any secret," said Shakespeare, a little acridly. "It’s the truth I’m telling you. Beaumont and Fletcher did admire Henry the Eighth."

"Thereby showing their conceit, eh?" said Johnson.

"Oh, of course, I didn’t write anything, did I?" cried Shakespeare. "Everybody wrote my plays but me. I’m the only person that had no hand in Shakespeare. It seems to me that joke is about worn out, Doctor. I’m getting a little tired of it myself; but if it amuses you, why, keep it up. I know who wrote my plays, and whatever you may say cannot affect the facts. Next thing you fellows will be saying that I didn’t write my own autographs."

"I didn’t say that," said Johnson, quietly. "Only there is no internal evidence in your autographs that you knew how to spell your name if you did. A man who signs his name Shixpur one day and Shikespeare the next needn’t complain if the Bank of Posterity refuses to honor his check."

"They’d honor my check quick enough these days," retorted Shakespeare. "When a man’s autograph brings five thousand dollars, or one thousand pounds, in the auction-room, there isn’t a bank in the world fool enough to decline to honor any check he’ll sign under a thousand dollars, or two hundred pounds."

"I fancy you’re right," put in Raleigh. "But your checks or your plays have nothing to do with ladies’ day. Let’s get to some conclusion in this matter."

"Yes," said Confucius. "Let’s. Ladies’ day is becoming a dreadful bore, and if we don’t hurry up the billiard-room will be full."

"Well, I move we get up a petition to the council to have it," said Dryden.

"I agree," said Confucius, "and I’ll sign it. If there’s one way to avoid having ladies’ day in the future, it’s to have one now and be done with it."

"All right," said Shakespeare. "I’ll sign too."

"As—er—Shixpur or Shikespeare?" queried Johnson.

"Let him alone," said Raleigh. "He’s getting sensitive about that; and what you need to learn more than anything else is that it isn’t manners to twit a man on facts. What’s bothering you, Dryden? You look like a man with an idea."

"It has just occurred to me," said Dryden, "that while we can safely leave the question of Henry the Eighth and his wives to the wisdom of the council, we ought to pay some attention to the advisability of inviting Lucretia Borgia. I’d hate to eat any supper if she came within a mile of the banqueting-hall. If she comes you’ll have to appoint a tasting committee before I’ll touch a drop of punch or eat a speck of salad."

"We might recommend the appointment of Raleigh to look after the fair Lucretia and see that she has no poison with her, or if she has, to keep her from dropping it into the salads," said Confucius, with a sidelong glance at Raleigh. "He’s the especial champion of woman in this club, and no doubt would be proud of the distinction."

"I would with most women," said Raleigh. "But I draw the line at Lucretia Borgia."

And so a petition was drawn up, signed, and sent to the council, and they, after mature deliberation, decided to have the ladies’ day, to which all the ladies in Hades, excepting Lucretia Borgia and Delilah, were to be duly invited, only the date was not specified. Delilah was excluded at the request of Samson, whose convincing muscles, rather than his arguments, completely won over all opposition to his proposition.