[The story here given was originally published in Lippincott;s Magazine. It is a good example of a certain class of American humorous sketches.]
TWO little notes are necessary by way of introduction.
The first is as follows, to Curtis Marston, Esq.:
“DEAR MARSTON, — Dine with me next Thursday, as six P.M., precisely. You must come. Monkhouse is to be there, and two others, and we want you to be on hand to put the said M. under an extinguisher. He tells such awful romances that he must be suppressed, and you are the man to do it.
No. 2, to Frederick Simmons, Esq.:
“DEAR FRED, — I don’t know why you select me. I never had a gift at telling crams, especially against such a superior artist in that line as Monkhouse. However, I will come and do what occurs to me on the spur of the moment.
The rest of the story Mr. Monkhouse shall tell himself.
“Come and dine with me, next Thursday. Bachelors’ dinner, — six precisely, and mean it: so don’t come dropping in at half-past.” This was what Fred Simmons said to me.
What I said to Fred was, “Thanks! I believe I will.”
I always dine with Fred when he asks me. First, because he was my classmate in college, and roomed in the same entry with me. Fred then was poor, and I was not. Now Fred is not, and I am. He used to dine with me then; now I dine with him. I figured up the account between us the other day, and I make it that Fred still owes me twenty-eight dinners and seventeen teas. The teas were coffee and cakes, you know, at Marm Haven’s, in School Street, before walking out on Saturday nights. And then interest, during twenty years. It only makes Fred’s conduct the more unprincipled.
Reason Number Two is, that Fred gives good dinners, — perhaps better than I used to give him. But then, in those days, our appetites were better, especially after the long walk over Williams River bridge, from Yalehaven to Botolphsville. At least, Fred’s was. He boarded in commons then, and college commons were — well, apt to induce a disregard of expense when we dined in the city on Saturdays. Now my appetite is the better of the two. I board at Mrs. McSkinner’s, and dine down town in Maiden Lane or thereabouts. I have no more money than before the war, but dinners are twice as dear.
Reason Three is, that I meet queer people at Fred’s. Others who dine there say the same thing, so that I know it is not prejudice on my part. It was only a month ago, after dining with Fred, when there was but one guest besides myself, — a man who writes for the papers. I heard of his saying the next day that Fred Simmons cultivated 141 more eccentricities in his kitchen-garden than any other man in ——. Will it do for me to tell the city’s name? No, I think not: we will say, “in Chicago Alanticensis.” I thought it was candid in the fellow to say so, for a queerer fish than he was, I never met.
One thing I do not fancy about Fred. He lets men tell such extravagant stories. I suppose he thinks them brilliant, and all that, but I never could see the wit or the humor. Fiction is my abomination. I would not send this paper to any magazine in which all the stories were not strictly true. I don’t mean “founded on fact,” — a compromised title which always reminds me of Mrs. McSkinner’s coffee, — but all fact, as I am assured by the editor all the stories in this periodical are.
I hate lying. When I was a little boy I once was guilty of a trifling inaccuracy of statement, — I now think, unintentionally. I was in consequence shut up in a dark closet for a whole week, until I had read through —and in fact learnt by heart — Amelia Opie’s “Illustrations of Lying,” a book which in my youth was deemed efficacious for reforming juvenile Ananiases and Sapphiræ. The horror of that experience has always since kept me from the least deviation.
But to return to my story. I read the other day in a newspaper, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The man who wrote that must have dined frequently with Fred. Truth at his dinner-table is the greatest stranger possible.
I went to Fred’s last Thursday. Of course I did not dine down town that day. And I was not late.
There were six of us at table, — four others, Fred, and me. It was a good dinner. But there was too much talking. And too much space between the courses. The time might have been filled up better, and where there are these delays men will drink more wine than they otherwise would. 142 The consequence is, they tell too long and too marvellous stories.
Fred calls this the “Feast of Reason, etc.” He should be ashamed of such a trite and absurd quotation. If he boarded at Mrs. McSkinner’s and dined at Fulton Market, he would know better than to talk when he should be eating.
One of the four guests (I don’t consider myself a guest at Fred’s, but l’ ami de la maison, — at least I used to be) was an Irishman, — an Irish gentleman, Fred called him. To my taste, gentlemen should be less prosy. He was full of his stories, — could not wait for dinner to be done, and the proper time for story-telling, if such a thing must be, to come. I was just getting ready — it was after the soup — to mention a little adventure of mine at Naples, — in the crater of Vesuvius, in fact, — because I really thought it might interest the company. Fred may have heard it before, but they had not, and it was suggested very neatly by the vermicelli. Fred cut in upon me by asking that provoking Patlander, that ferocious Fenian, if he had been much cheated by the hackmen in this country.
“Nothing to speak of,” said he, “after Dublin. I was seasoned there. You can’t satisfy a Dublin car-driver. We tried it once when I was in Her Majesty’s service, — Twenty-Sixth, line regiment. A bet was made at mess on the subject, and Arthur Ponsonby took it in ponies. If the man asked for more, he was to lose. Pon called a car to take a couple of us to the theatre, — the maker of the bet, and myself as umpire. The theatre was only a square off. When we alighted the pulled out a sovereign and tossed it to the driver, saying, ‘Here, Mickey, that will do you for our bit of a drive, won’t it?’ Pon meant to make it a sure thing; but he had overdone it. Mickey looked at the coin a moment to see if it was good, then at the faces of us 143 watching, and he seemed to have an instinct of what was up, for he pulled a regular blarney face and began: “Ah, yer ’onor, captain, sure it’s a purty piece, and ’ouldnt it be a shame in me to break it drinkin’ yer ’onor’s health? Couldn’t ye spare me the small sixpence to the back of it?’ Pon paid the bet, but he never could stand the chaffing he got in consequence.”
They all laughed at this trumpery anecdote, which I would soon have capped with a far better one, but just then the fish came on and I had to give my mind to the salmon: so I lost my chance.
After fish I was thinking of a very striking act which happened to me in Iceland, and just running over the heads in my mind before telling the story, when my vis-à-vis, an Englishman, struck in ahead of me. I do not say an English gentleman, for I do not consider that there is such a thing in existence: the English are a nation of snobs, always domineering and pushing out of the way better men. And no Englishman, in my experience, ever tells a story without embroidery. If you want to know what an Englishman is, just read Sir John Mandeville’s travels.
“Posonby of the Twenty-Sixth! Wasn’t he cousin to Merivale of the Sixteenth Light Dragoons!”
“Oh, yes, but quite a different style of man, I assure you.”
“I daresay he is; only the name somehow reminded me of Merivale. (I never taste salmon: capital salmon this, Mr. Simmons. I suppose it is as easy to bring it from Norway here as it is to us. Only a little more ice; and, by Jove! you seem to have ice in loads.) Well, as I was saying, I never see salmon without thinking of Merivale. The Sixteenth, you know, were famous for being the greatest puppies in the service, and Merivale was leading 144 the pack: at least between him and Charley Ffrench it was neck and neck. I met them once at the Marquis of Downshire’s.” (Why must an Englishman always lug in a lord?) “One night, in the smoking-room, Ffrench lisped out, ‘I thay, Motheth’ (he always called Merivale Moses, and Merivale always took it from him, thogh he would have had out any other man), — ‘I thay, Motheth, I thaw your fawin fwiend, Pwinth Thalm-Thalm, dining at the Wag and Famish; and, I thay, what do you think he wath doin?’ ‘’Pon my wawd, I don’t know. What did he do?’ drawled Merivale. ‘He took cold buttah with hith thalmon.’ ‘Did he daye?’ ”
I had a beautiful thing on the end of my tongue about gravy; only I could not get it into shape before a leg of Southdown mutton was brought in, which changed the subject somewhat. It was Southdown, and, as my mutton is not always tender, I confess I was eager to pay my respects to it; and when it went out I was in such a happy frame of mind that I could not think of the point of a good anecdote which the late Louis Philippe always used to tell when I dined with him at the Tuileries. No such good stories are told there now.
However, I do think Fred might have asked for it, and that would have given me time to think, as well as have recalled the anecdote. Instead of that, he turned to my neighbor (a Boston man) and asked if he was as fond of billiards as ever.
I say a Boston man, because he wore a coat and pantaloons and those absurd English side-whiskers, “Piccadilly weepers;” but I never feel sure that these Boston men are not string-mindeds in disguise. I have a small place in the custom-house, and if ever this infamous woman’s-rights business comes uppermost, why, voting implies holding office, and then where on earth shall I be?145
“I am glad you asked me that?” was the reply of the hateful Boston creature, “for it reminds me of a good thing I have for you. I do play billiards as much as ever, and I was at the T—— Club the other night playing with Bill Perkins, and I needed only one point to go out. It was a rather brilliant shot before me, and H—— and some others were looking on, which made me a bit nervous, especially as Bill was only ten behind me. I was so nervous, that I made a miss-cure, but after all got the point. H—— clapped his hands as soon as he saw it, and exclaimed, ‘How classical! — Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit.’ ”
“How very good!” said the Englishman. “Really, I did not suppose you did that sort of thing in America.”
I had a great mind to put him down with a smashing retort, only I would not help out the Bostonian; but the appearance of canvas-back ducks closed my mouth, or rather opened it to a better purpose.
“Next time!” thought I. Three fellows had had their innings, and the fourth man, Curtis, was as silent as I was. So I let Fred have his own way and get off his stupid stories about the English jduges, at which everybody laughed, as in duty bound: when Sosia tells stories, poor Amphitryon has to grin. I am not sure that I have the names quite correct, but everybody will understand what I mean, — that the man who goes out to dine has to applaud the jokes of the fellow who gives the dinner.
At last the fruits and ices came on, and then Fred said to me, “Monkhouse, shall I send you some of the ice?”
“No, thank you,” said I. “I once saw ice enough to last me a whole lifetime.”
I saw Curtis give a sort of waking-up start, and then fix his eyes on me as if he was going to begin a regular yarn. I hate that sort of thing, and I was bound to get before him, if only for the sake of the rest: so I gave up my 146 chance for the fruit (with a pang, I confess, for I do not get fruit, especially out of season, every day), and began at once: “When I was in the South Pacific, gentlemen ——”
Here Fred looked queerly and shrugged his shoulders, which was not polite at his own table. I should like to know why I have not as good a right to have been in the South Pacific as he, if he is a rich man?
I went straight on: “When I was in the South Pacific, on board the razee Independence, — her captain, Commodore Connor, was a friend of mine, and offered me a passage home from Valparaiso, — no, I mean from Quito —” (by the way, is Quito a seaport? one’s geography slips away from one so; but I could not stop to ask, for they were all watching to cut in) — “we were becalmed off the island of Juan Fernandez. It was in S. lat. 63° 30’, W. long. 104° 22’ (nothing like being accurate in these details), and we saw a huge iceberg approaching us. It was a dead calm, but the ice came on very rapidly. It must have been at least five miles in circumference, and quite a mile high out of water.
“Connor was in a dreadful fright, and I confess I was not quite easy as I watched the enormous mass slowly heaving and settling, and every minute fragments the size of Trinity Church tumbling down its sides. Its color was ——”
“Never mind that,” said Fred: “we have all seen Church’s and Bradford’s pictures, and read Dana’s ‘Two Years before the Mast.’ Skip to the catastrophe: did it run over you?”
“No, sir,” I retorted: “it did not. On it came, and on, till the boldest held his breath for a time. Every man in the ship was on deck, the nimble topmen swarming far out upon the yards, and the gold bands of the officers’ caps gleaming along the quarter-deck. On it came, and the 147 ship was beginning to rock helplessly upon the swell which drove before the mighty mass.
“Conner was just ordering out the boats to try and two the ship off, when I called his attention to something I had just discovered. (My eyes were very good in those days.) I said, ‘Conner, see that black speck coming down the side of the berg?’ He turned his glass upon it, — a capital Dollond I had given him, — and exclaimed, ‘It is a bear.’ ‘Conner,’ said I, ‘who ever saw a black bear on ice? It is a man and a brother.’ Conner turned red as a beet, but presently, after another look, replied, ‘By George! I believe you are right, and he is making signals to us; but we can’t help him: no boat would live in that sea which is breaking at the base of the berg, and we’ve enough to do to save ourselves.’
“The berg, however, must have gone aground, — they are very deep, you know, under water, — for it remained stationary; only the attraction was sucking us in imperceptibly. We saw him reach the water’s edge; and how he did it I can’t tell, — I was not near enough to see, — but presently he was coming off to us.
“You might have heard a pin drop on the deck, gentlemen, such was the breathless silence of all, which the stern discipline of a man-of-war permitted no one to break. We made out that it was a man in a canoe, — a Marquesas Island canoe; and the strangest thing of all was that he had nothing to propel it with but an umbrella. He neared the side, and Conner and I went to the gangway to hail him. He was dressed in superb sealskins, which would have been a fortune in New York, and he managed his umbrella wonderfully, shooting his light bark along like a racing-wherry. The first words he said were, ‘I thought you were in a bad way when I first sighted you, but my craft has come to anchor: so you are all right now. There 148 is a breeze creeping up on the other side of the berg, and you will have it in twenty minutes strong enough to take you clear. To tell you the truth, I was in a great funk when I saw you, for, allowing the half f you to be drowned, I should have hardly more than enough to dine the rest; and if there is anything I hate it is to give short commons.’ ‘Then you won’t come aboard?’ said Conner. ‘That’s a good one! No, I rather think not. Man-o’-war accommodations are a little too close’ (he said ‘clust,’ and then I knew he was a Yankee, and remarked so to Conner) ‘quarters for a man who for a month has had a whole iceberg to himself. However, I won’t brag, for the berg is shrinking as we get up into the warm latitudes. I shall have to leave pretty soon; but as you are bound round the Horn and I am for the Sandwich Islands, I guess I won’t trouble you. There Is one thing you can do for me, Captain Conner. (B’lieve I’ve the honor of addressing Captain Conner, of the U. S. razee Independence?) Would you oblige me with your reckoning?’ Conner called the First Luff to the side, and they gave him the figures, just as I told you a moment ago. That is why I remembered them so distinctly. ‘Pretty well, pretty well!’ said he. ‘I make you three seconds out of your true latitude, and perhaps a trifle more to the east’ard than you tink; but that is near enough for navy men. I have to be a little more particular, my craft makes so much leeway. I’ll report you, commodore, wherever I conclude to put in. Good-by.’ And with that he made off for his berg again.
“Conner ordered the first cutter and gig both to pull after him, but I give you my word, gentlemen, he just walked away from them hand over hand; and before they were half-way to the berg, he was climbing up it with his canoe on his back.”149
Here I stopped to take breath and a sip of sherry, when that wretched Curtis, whom I thought I had silenced, burst out:
“Thank heaven! I can break the long silence I have kept for fifteen years upon the most remarkable adventure of my life, because nobody would, I thought, believe me. You are my witness, sir: I WAS THAT MAN!”
If ever I dine at Fred’s table again, he’ll know it, — that’s all.