Chapter X: Story-Tellers' Night
It was Story-tellers' Night at the houseboat, and the
best talkers of Hades were impressed into the service.
Doctor Johnson was made chairman of the evening.
"Put him in the chair," said Raleigh. "That's the only
way to keep him from telling a story himself. If he starts
in on a tale he'll make it a serial sure as fate, but
if you make him the medium through which other story-tellers
are introduced to the club he'll be finely epigrammatic.
He can be very short and sharp when he's talking about
somebody else. Personality is his forte."
"Great scheme," said Diogenes, who was chairman of the
entertainment committee. "The nights over here are long,
but if Johnson started on a story they'd have to reach
twice around eternity and halfway back to give him time
to finish all he had to say."
"He's not very witty, in my judgment," said Carlyle,
who since his arrival in the other world has manifested
some jealousy of Solomon and Doctor Johnson.
"That's true enough," said Raleigh; "but he's strong,
and he's bound to say something that will put the audience
in sympathy with the man that he introduces, and that's
half the success of a Story-tellers' Night. I've told
stories myself. If your audience doesn't sympathize with
you you'd be better off at home putting the baby to bed."
And so it happened. Doctor Johnson was made chairman,
and the evening came. The Doctor was in great form. A
list of the story-tellers had been sent him in advance,
and he was prepared. The audience was about as select
a one as can be found in Hades. The doors were thrown
open to the friends of the members, and the smoke-furnace
had been filled with a very superior quality of Arcadian
mixture which Scott had brought back from a haunting-trip
to the home of "The Little Minister," at Thrums.
"Friends and fellow spooks," the Doctor began, when all
were seated on the visionary camp-stools — which, by the
way, are far superior to those in use in a world of realities,
because they do not creak in the midst of a fine point
demanding absolute silence for appreciation — "I do not
know why I have been chosen to preside over this gathering
of phantoms; it is the province of the presiding officer
on occasions of this sort to say pleasant things, which
he does not necessarily endorse, about the sundry persons
who are to do the story-telling. Now, I suppose you all
know me pretty well by this time. If there is anybody
who doesn't, I'll be glad to have him presented after
the formal work of the evening is over, and if I don't
like him I'll tell him so. You know that if I can be counted
upon for any one thing it is candor, and if I hurt the
feelings of any of these individuals whom I introduce
to-night, I want them distinctly to understand that it
is not because I love them less, but that I love truth
more. With this — ah — blanket apology, as it were, to cover
all possible emergencies that may arise during the evening,
I will begin. The first speaker on the programme, I regret
to observe, is my friend Goldsmith. Affairs of this kind
ought to begin with a snap, and while Oliver is a most
excellent writer, as a speaker he is a pebbleless Demosthenes.
If I had had the arrangement of the programme I should
have had Goldsmith tell his story while the rest of us
were down-stairs at supper. However, we must abide by
our programme, which is unconscionably long, for otherwise
we will never get through it. Those of you who agree with
me as to the pleasure of listening to my friend Goldsmith
will do well to join me in the grill-room while he is
speaking, where, I understand, there is a very fine line
of punches ready to be served. Modest Noll, will you kindly
inflict yourself upon the gathering, and send me word
when you get through, if you ever do, so that I may return
and present number two to the assembly, whoever or whatever
he may be?"
With these words the Doctor retired, and poor Goldsmith,
pale with fear, rose up to speak. It was evident that
he was quite as doubtful of his ability as a talker as
"I'm not much of a talker, or, as some say, speaker,"
he said. "Talking is not my forte, as Doctor Johnson has
told you, and I am therefore not much at it. Speaking
is not in my line. I cannot speak or talk, as it were,
because I am not particularly ready at the making of a
speech, due partly to the fact that I am not much of a
talker anyhow, and seldom if ever speak. I will therefore
not bore you by attempting to speak, since a speech by
one who like myself is, as you are possibly aware, not
a fluent nor indeed in any sense an eloquent speaker,
is apt to be a bore to those who will be kind enough to
listen to my remarks, but will read instead the first
five chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield."
"Who suggested any such night as this, anyhow?" growled
Carlyle. "Five chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield
for a starter! Lord save us, we'll need a Vicar of Sleepfield
if he's allowed to do this!"
"I move we adjourn," said Darwin.
"Can't something be done to keep these younger members
quiet?" asked Solomon, frowning upon Carlyle and Darwin.
"Yes," said Douglas Jerrold. "Let Goldsmith go on. He'll
have them asleep in ten minutes."
Meanwhile, Goldsmith was plodding earnestly through his
stint, utterly and happily oblivious of the effect he
was having upon his audience.
"This is awful," whispered Wellington to Bonaparte.
"Worse than Waterloo," replied the ex-Emperor, with a
grin; "but we can stop it in a minute. Artemas Ward told
me once how a camp-meeting he attended in the West broke
up to go outside and see a dog-fight. Can't you and I
pretend to quarrel? A personal assault by you on me will
wake these people up and discombobulate Goldsmith. Say
the word — only don't hit too hard."
"I'm with you," said Wellington. Whereupon, with a great
show of heat, he roared out, "You? Never! I'm more afraid
of a boy with a bean-snapper that I ever was of you!"
and followed up his remark by pulling Bonaparte's camp-chair
from under him, and letting the conqueror of Austerlitz
fall to the floor with a thud which I have since heard
described as dull and sickening.