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A House-Boat on the Styx

A House-Boat on the Styx

Author:John Kendrick Bangs


Charon, the Ferryman of renown, was cruising slowly along the Styx one pleasant Friday morning not long ago, and as he paddled idly on he chuckled mildly to himself as he thought of the monopoly in ferriage which in the course of years he...
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  Charon, the Ferryman of renown, was cruising slowly along the Styx onepleasant Friday morning not long ago, and as he paddled idly on hechuckled mildly to himself as he thought of the monopoly in ferriagewhich in the course of years he had managed to build up.

  "It's a great thing," he said, with a smirk of satisfaction--"it's agreat thing to be the go-between between two states of being; to have theexclusive franchise to export and import shades from one state to theother, and withal to have had as clean a record as mine has been.Valuable as is my franchise, I never corrupted a public official in mylife, and--"

  Here Charon stopped his soliloquy and his boat simultaneously. As herounded one of the many turns in the river a singular object met hisgaze, and one, too, that filled him with misgiving. It was anothercraft, and that was a thing not to be tolerated. Had he, Charon, ownedthe exclusive right of way on the Styx all these years to have itdisputed here in the closing decade of the Nineteenth Century? Had nothe dealt satisfactorily with all, whether it was in the line of ferriageor in the providing of boats for pleasure-trips up the river? Had he notreceived expressions of satisfaction, indeed, from the most exclusivefamilies of Hades with the very select series of picnics he had given atCharon's Glen Island? No wonder, then, that the queer-looking boat thatmet his gaze, moored in a shady nook on the dark side of the river,filled him with dismay.

  "Blow me for a landlubber if I like that!" he said, in a hardly audiblewhisper. "And shiver my timbers if I don't find out what she's therefor. If anybody thinks he can run an opposition line to mine on thisriver he's mightily mistaken. If it comes to competition, I can carryshades for nothing and still quaff the B. & G. yellow-label benzine threetimes a day without experiencing a financial panic. I'll show 'em athing or two if they attempt to rival me. And what a boat! It looks forall the world like a Florentine barn on a canal-boat."

  Charon paddled up to the side of the craft, and, standing up in themiddle of his boat, cried out,

  "Ship ahoy!"

  There was no answer, and the Ferryman hailed her again. Receiving noresponse to his second call, he resolved to investigate for himself; so,fastening his own boat to the stern-post of the stranger, he clambered onboard. If he was astonished as he sat in his ferry-boat, he wasparalyzed when he cast his eye over the unwelcome vessel he had boarded.He stood for at least two minutes rooted to the spot. His eye swept overa long, broad deck, the polish of which resembled that of a ball-roomfloor. Amidships, running from three-quarters aft to three-quartersforward, stood a structure that in its lines resembled, as Charon hadintimated, a barn, designed by an architect enamoured of Florentinesimplicity; but in its construction the richest of woods had been used,and in its interior arrangement and adornment nothing more palatial couldbe conceived.

  "What's the blooming thing for?" said Charon, more dismayed than ever."If they start another line with a craft like this, I'm very much afraidI'm done for after all. I wouldn't take a boat like mine myself if therewas a floating palace like this going the same way. I'll have to see theCommissioners about this, and find out what it all means. I supposeit'll cost me a pretty penny, too, confound them!"

  A prey to these unhappy reflections, Charon investigated further, and themore he saw the less he liked it. He was about to encounter opposition,and an opposition which was apparently backed by persons of greatwealth--perhaps the Commissioners themselves. It was a consoling thoughtthat he had saved enough money in the course of his career to enable himto live in comfort all his days, but this was not really what Charon wasafter. He wished to acquire enough to retire and become one of the smartset. It had been done in that section of the universe which lay on thebright side of the Styx, why not, therefore, on the other, he asked.

  "I'm pretty well connected even if I am a boatman," he had been known tosay. "With Chaos for a grandfather, and Erebus and Nox for parents, I'vejust as good blood in my veins as anybody in Hades. The Noxes are amighty fine family, not as bright as the Days, but older; and we'repoor--that's it, poor--and it's money makes caste these days. If I hadmillions, and owned a railroad, they'd call me a yacht-owner. As Ihaven't, I'm only a boatman. Bah! Wait and see! I'll be giving swellfunctions myself some day, and these upstarts will be on their kneesbefore me begging to be asked. Then I'll get up a little aristocracy ofmy own, and I won't let a soul into it whose name isn't mentioned in theGrecian mythologies. Mention in Burke's peerage and the Elitedirectories of America won't admit anybody to Commodore Charon's houseunless there's some other mighty good reason for it."

  Foreseeing an unhappy ending to all his hopes, the old man clamberedsadly back into his ancient vessel and paddled off into the darkness.Some hours later, returning with a large company of new arrivals, whilecounting up the profits of the day Charon again caught sight of the newcraft, and saw that it was brilliantly lighted and thronged with the mostfamous citizens of the Erebean country. Up in the bow was a spirit banddiscoursing music of the sweetest sort. Merry peals of laughter rang outover the dark waters of the Styx. The clink of glasses and the poppingof corks punctuated the music with a frequency which would have delightedthe soul of the most ardent lover of commas, all of which so overpoweredthe grand master boatman of the Stygian Ferry Company that he droppedthree oboli and an American dime, which he carried as a pocket-piece,overboard. This, of course, added to his woe; but it was forgotten in aninstant, for some one on the new boat had turned a search-light directlyupon Charon himself, and simultaneously hailed the master of the ferry-boat.

  "Charon!" cried the shade in charge of the light. "Charon, ahoy!"

  "Ahoy yourself!" returned the old man, paddling his craft close up to thestranger. "What do you want?"

  "You," said the shade. "The house committee want to see you right away."

  "What for?" asked Charon, cautiously.

  "I'm sure I don't know. I'm only a member of the club, and housecommittees never let mere members know anything about their plans. All Iknow is that you are wanted," said the other.

  "Who are the house committee?" queried the Ferryman.

  "Sir Walter Raleigh, Cassius, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Doctor Johnson,and Confucius," replied the shade.

  "Tell 'em I'll be back in an hour," said Charon, pushing off. "I've gota cargo of shades on board consigned to various places up the river. I'vepromised to get 'em all through to-night, but I'll put on a couple ofextra paddles--two of the new arrivals are working their passage thistrip--and it won't take as long as usual. What boat is this, anyhow?"

  "The _Nancy Nox_, of Erebus."

  "Thunder!" cried Charon, as he pushed off and proceeded on his way up theriver. "Named after my mother! Perhaps it'll come out all right yet."

  More hopeful of mood, Charon, aided by the two dead-head passengers, soongot through with his evening's work, and in less than an hour was backseeking admittance, as requested, to the company of Sir Walter Raleighand his fellow-members on the house committee. He was received by theseworthies with considerable effusiveness, considering his position insociety, and it warmed the cockles of his aged heart to note that SirWalter, who had always been rather distant to him since he had carelesslyupset that worthy and Queen Elizabeth in the middle of the Styx far backin the last century, permitted him to shake three fingers of his lefthand when he entered the committee-room.

  "How do you do, Charon?" said Sir Walter, affably. "We are very glad tosee you."

  "Thank you, kindly, Sir Walter," said the boatman. "I'm glad to hearthose words, your honor, for I've been feeling very bad since I had themisfortune to drop your Excellency and her Majesty overboard. I neverknew how it happened, sir, but happen it did, and but for her Majesty'skind assistance it might have been the worse for us. Eh, Sir Walter?"

  The knight shook his head menacingly at Charon. Hitherto he had managedto keep it a secret that the Queen had rescued him from drowning uponthat occasion by swimming ashore herself first and throwing Sir Walterher ruff as soon as she landed, which he had used as a life-preserver.

  "'Sh!" he said, _sotto voce_. "Don't say anything about that, my man."

  "Very well, Sir Walter, I won't," said the boatman; but he made a mentalnote of the knight's agitation, and perceived a means by which thatillustrious courtier could be made useful to him in his scheming forsocial advancement.

  "I understood you had something to say to me," said Charon, after he hadgreeted the others.

  "We have," said Sir Walter. "We want you to assume command of thisboat."

  The old fellow's eyes lighted up with pleasure.

  "You want a captain, eh?" he said.

  "No," said Confucius, tapping the table with a diamond-studdedchop-stick. "No. We want a--er--what the deuce is it they call thefunctionary, Cassius?"

  "Senator, I think," said Cassius.

  Demosthenes gave a loud laugh.

  "Your mind is still running on Senatorships, my dear Cassius. That isquite evident," he said. "This is not one of them, however. The titlewe wish Charon to assume is neither Captain nor Senator; it is Janitor."

  "What's that?" asked Charon, a little disappointed. "What does a Janitorhave to do?"

  "He has to look after things in the house," explained Sir Walter. "He'sa sort of proprietor by proxy. We want you to take charge of the house,and see to it that the boat is kept shipshape."

  "Where is the house?" queried the astonished boatman.

  "This is it," said Sir Walter. "This is the house, and the boat too. Infact, it is a house-boat."

  "Then it isn't a new-fangled scheme to drive me out of business?" saidCharon, warily.

  "Not at all," returned Sir Walter. "It's a new-fangled scheme to set youup in business. We'll pay you a large salary, and there won't be much todo. You are the best man for the place, because, while you don't knowmuch about houses, you do know a great deal about boats, and the boatpart is the most important part of a house-boat. If the boat sinks, youcan't save the house; but if the house burns, you may be able to save theboat. See?"

  "I think I do, sir," said Charon.

  "Another reason why we want to employ you for Janitor," said Confucius,"is that our club wants to be in direct communication with both sides ofthe Styx; and we think you as Janitor would be able to make betterarrangements for transportation with yourself as boatman, than some otherman as Janitor could make with you."

  "Spoken like a sage," said Demosthenes.

  "Furthermore," said Cassius, "occasionally we shall want to have thisboat towed up or down the river, according to the house committee'spleasure, and we think it would be well to have a Janitor who has someinfluence with the towing company which you represent."

  "Can't this boat be moved without towing?" asked Charon.

  "No," said Cassius.

  "And I'm the only man who can tow it, eh?"

  "You are," said Blackstone. "Worse luck."

  "And you want me to be Janitor on a salary of what?"

  "A hundred oboli a month," said Sir Walter, uneasily.

  "Very well, gentlemen," said Charon. "I'll accept the office on a salaryof two hundred oboli a month, with Saturdays off."

  The committee went into executive session for five minutes, and on theirreturn informed Charon that in behalf of the Associated Shades theyaccepted his offer.

  "In behalf of what?" the old man asked.

  "The Associated Shades," said Sir Walter. "The swellest organization inHades, whose new house-boat you are now on board of. When shall you beready to begin work?"

  "Right away," said Charon, noting by the clock that it was the hour ofmidnight. "I'll start in right away, and as it is now Saturday morning,I'll begin by taking my day off."