A House-Boat on the Styx/Chapter 4
It was a beautiful night on the Styx, and the silvery surface of that picturesque stream was dotted with gondolas, canoes, and other craft to an extent that made Charon feel like a highly prosperous savings-bank. Within the house-boat were gathered a merry party, some of whom were on mere pleasure bent, others of whom had come to listen to a debate, for which the entertainment committee had provided, between the venerable patriarch Noah and the late eminent showman P. T. Barnum. The question to be debated was upon the resolution passed by the committee, that "The Animals of the Antediluvian Period were Far More Attractive for Show Purposes than those of Modern Make," and, singular to relate, the affirmative was placed in the hands of Mr. Barnum, while to Noah had fallen the task of upholding the virtues of the modern freak. It is with the party on mere pleasure bent that we have to do upon this occasion. The proceedings of the debating-party are as yet in the hands of the official stenographer, but will be made public as soon as they are ready.
The pleasure-seeking group were gathered in the smoking-room of the club, which was, indeed, a smoking-room of a novel sort, the invention of an unknown shade, who had sold all the rights to the club through a third party, anonymously, preferring, it seemed, to remain in the Elysian world, as he had been in the mundane sphere, a mute inglorious Edison. It was a simple enough scheme, and, for a wonder, no one in the world of substantialities has thought to take it up. The smoke was stored in reservoirs, just as if it were so much gas or water, and was supplied on the hot-air furnace principle from a huge furnace in the hold of the house-boat, into which tobacco was shovelled by the hired man of the club night and day. The smoke from the furnace, carried through flues to the smoking-room, was there received and stored in the reservoirs, with each of which was connected one dozen rubber tubes, having at their ends amber mouth-pieces. Upon each of these mouth-pieces was arranged a small meter registering the amount of smoke consumed through it, and for this the consumer paid so much a foot. The value of the plan was threefold. It did away entirely with ashes, it saved to the consumers the value of the unconsumed tobacco that is represented by the unsmoked cigar ends, and it averted the possibility of cigarettes.
Enjoying the benefits of this arrangement upon the evening in question were Shakespeare, Cicero, Henry VIII., Doctor Johnson, and others. Of course Boswell was present too, for a moment, with his note-book, and this fact evoked some criticism from several of the smokers.
"You ought to be up-stairs in the lecture-room, Boswell," said Shakespeare, as the great biographer took his seat behind his friend the Doctor. "Doesn’t the Gossip want a report of the debate?"
"It does," said Boswell; "but the Gossip endeavors always to get the most interesting items of the day, and Doctor Johnson has informed me that he expects to be unusually witty this evening, so I have come here."
"Excuse me for saying it, Boswell," said the Doctor, getting red in the face over this unexpected confession, "but, really, you talk too much."
"That’s good," said Cicero. "Stick that down, Boz, and print it. It’s the best thing Johnson has said this week."
Boswell smiled weakly, and said: "But, Doctor, you did say that, you know. I can prove it, too, for you told me some of the things you were going to say. Don’t you remember, you were going to lead Shakespeare up to making the remark that he thought the English language was the greatest language in creation, whereupon you were going to ask him why he didn’t learn it?"
"Get out of here, you idiot!" roared the Doctor. "You’re enough to give a man apoplexy."
"You’re not going back on the ladder by which you have climbed, are you, Samuel?" queried Boswell, earnestly.
"The wha-a-t?" cried the Doctor, angrily. "The ladder—on which I climbed? You? Great heavens! That it should come to this! . . . Leave the room—instantly! Ladder! By all that is beautiful—the ladder upon which I, Samuel Johnson, the tallest person in letters, have climbed! Go! Do you hear?"
Boswell rose meekly, and, with tears coursing down his cheeks, left the room.
"That’s one on you, Doctor," said Cicero, wrapping his toga about him. "I think you ought to order up three baskets of champagne on that."
"I’ll order up three baskets full of Boswell’s remains if he ever dares speak like that again!" retorted the Doctor, shaking with anger. "He—my ladder—why, it’s ridiculous."
"Yes," said Shakespeare, dryly. "That’s why we laugh."
"You were a little hard on him, Doctor," said Henry VIII. "He was a valuable man to you. He had a great eye for your greatness."
"Yes. If there’s any feature of Boswell that’s greater than his nose and ears, it’s his great I," said the Doctor.
"You’d rather have him change his I to a U, I presume," said Napoleon, quietly.
The Doctor waved his hand impatiently. "Let’s drop him," he said. "Dropping one’s biographer isn’t without precedent. As soon as any man ever got to know Napoleon well enough to write him up he sent him to the front, where he could get a little lead in his system."
"I wish I had had a Boswell all the same," said Shakespeare. "Then the world would have known the truth about me."
"It wouldn’t if he’d relied on your word for it," retorted the Doctor. "Hullo! here’s Hamlet."
As the Doctor spoke, in very truth the melancholy Dane appeared in the doorway, more melancholy of aspect than ever.
"What’s the matter with you?" asked Cicero, addressing the new-comer. "Haven’t you got that poison out of your system yet?"
"Not entirely," said Hamlet, with a sigh; "but it isn’t that that’s bothering me. It’s Fate."
"We’ll get out an injunction against Fate if you like," said Blackstone. "Is it persecution, or have you deserved it?"
"I think it’s persecution," said Hamlet. "I never wronged Fate in my life, and why she should pursue me like a demon through all eternity is a thing I can’t understand."
"Maybe Ophelia is back of it," suggested Doctor Johnson. "These women have a great deal of sympathy for each other, and, candidly, I think you behaved pretty rudely to Ophelia. It’s a poor way to show your love for a young woman, running a sword through her father every night for pay, and driving the girl to suicide with equal frequency, just to show theatre-goers what a smart little Dane you can be if you try."
"’Tisn’t me does all that," returned Hamlet. "I only did it once, and even then it wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare made it out to be."
"I put it down just as it was," said Shakespeare, hotly, "and you can’t dispute it."
"Yes, he can," said Yorick. "You made him tell Horatio he knew me well, and he never met me in his life."
"I never told Horatio anything of the sort," said Hamlet. "I never entered the graveyard even, and I can prove an alibi."
"And, what’s more, he couldn’t have made the remark the way Shakespeare has it, anyhow," said Yorick, "and for a very good reason. I wasn’t buried in that graveyard, and Hamlet and I can prove an alibi for the skull, too."
"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.
"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."
"Well, if you don’t talk in your sleep, the play did a Christian service to the world," retorted Shakespeare. "But, really, Hamlet, I thought I did the square thing by you in that play. I meant to, anyhow; and if it has made you unhappy, I’m honestly sorry."
"Spoken like a man," said Yorick.
"I don’t mind the play so much," said Hamlet, "but the way I’m represented by these fellows who play it is the thing that rubs me the wrong way. Why, I even hear that there’s a troupe out in the western part of the United States that puts the thing on with three Hamlets, two ghosts, and a pair of blood-hounds. It’s called the Uncle-Tom-Hamlet Combination, and instead of my falling in love with one crazy Ophelia, I am made to woo three dusky maniacs named Topsy on a canvas ice-floe, while the blood-hounds bark behind the scenes. What sort of treatment is that for a man of royal lineage?"
"It’s pretty rough," said Napoleon. "As the poet ought to have said, ‘Oh, Hamlet, Hamlet, what crimes are committed in thy name!’"
"I feel as badly about the play as Hamlet does," said Shakespeare, after a moment of silent thought. "I don’t bother much about this wild Western business, though, because I think the introduction of the bloodhounds and the Topsies makes us both more popular in that region than we should be otherwise. What I object to is the way we are treated by these so-called first-class intellectual actors in London and other great cities. I’ve seen Hamlet done before a highly cultivated audience, and, by Jove, it made me blush."
"Me too," sighed Hamlet. "I have seen a man who had a walk on him that suggested spring-halt and locomotor ataxia combined impersonating my graceful self in a manner that drove me almost crazy. I’ve heard my ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy uttered by a famous tragedian in tones that would make a graveyard yawn at mid-day, and if there was any way in which I could get even with that man I’d do it."
"It seems to me," said Blackstone, assuming for the moment a highly judicial manner—"it seems to me that Shakespeare, having got you into this trouble, ought to get you out of it."
"But how?" said Shakespeare, earnestly. "That’s the point. Heaven knows I’m willing enough."
Hamlet’s face suddenly brightened as though illuminated with an idea. Then he began to dance about the room with an expression of glee that annoyed Doctor Johnson exceedingly.
"I wish Darwin could see you now," the Doctor growled. "A kodak picture of you would prove his arguments conclusively."
"Rail on, O philosopher!" retorted Hamlet. "Rail on! I mind your railings not, for I the germ of an idea have got."
"Well, go quarantine yourself," said the Doctor. "I’d hate to have one of your idea microbes get hold of me."
"What’s the scheme?" asked Shakespeare.
"You can write a play for me!" cried Hamlet. "Make it a farce-tragedy. Take the modern player for your hero, and let me play him. I’ll bait him through four acts. I’ll imitate his walk. I’ll cultivate his voice. We’ll have the first act a tank act, and drop the hero into the tank. The second act can be in a saw-mill, and we can cut his hair off on a buzz-saw. The third act can introduce a spile-driver with which to drive his hat over his eyes and knock his brains down into his lungs. The fourth act can be at Niagara Falls, and we’ll send him over the falls; and for a grand climax we can have him guillotined just after he has swallowed a quart of prussic acid and a spoonful of powdered glass. Do that for me, William, and you are forgiven. I’ll play it for six hundred nights in London, for two years in New York, and round up with a one-night stand in Boston."
"It sounds like a good scheme," said Shakespeare, meditatively. "What shall we call it?"
"Call it Irving," said Eugene Aram, who had entered. "I too have suffered."
"And let me be Hamlet’s understudy," said Charles the First, earnestly.
"Done!" said Shakespeare, calling for a pad and pencil.
And as the sun rose upon the Styx the next morning the Bard of Avon was to be seen writing a comic chorus to be sung over the moribund tragedian by the shades of Charles, Aram, and other eminent deceased heroes of the stage, with which his new play of Irving was to be brought to an appropriate close.
This play has not as yet found its way upon the boards, but any enterprising manager who desires to consider it may address
- The House-Boat,
He is sure to get a reply by return mail, unless Mephistopheles interferes, which is not unlikely, since Mephistopheles is said to have been much pleased with the manner in which the eminent tragedian has put him before the British and American public.