Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
I ENCOUNTER THE OLD GENTLEMAN
There are moments of supreme embarrassment in the lives of persons given to veracity, — indeed it has been my own unusual experience in life that the truth well stuck to is twice as hard a proposition as a lie so obvious that no one is deceived by it at the outset. I cannot quite agree with my friend, Caddy Barlow, who says that in a tight place it is better to lie at once and be done with it than to tell the truth which will need forty more truths to explain it, but I must confess that in my forty years of absolute and conscientious devotion to truth I have found myself in holes far deeper than any my most mendacious of friends ever got into. I do not propose, however, to desert at this late hour the Goddess I have always worshipped because she leads me over a rough and rocky road, and whatever may be the hardships involved in my wooing I intend to the very end to remain the ever faithful slave of Mademoiselle Veracity. All of which I state here in prefatory mood, and in order, in so far as it is possible for me to do so, to disarm the incredulous and sniffy reader who may be inclined to doubt the truth of my story of how the manuscript of the following pages came into my possession. I am quite aware that to some the tale will appear absolutely and intolerably impossible. I know that if any other than I told it to me I should not believe it. Yet despite these drawbacks the story is in all particulars, essential and otherwise, absolutely truthful.
The facts are briefly these:
It was not, to begin with, a dark and dismal evening. The snow was not falling silently, clothing a sad and gloomy world in a mantle of white, and over the darkling moor a heavy mist was not rising, as is so frequently the case. There was no soul-stirring moaning of bitter winds through the leafless boughs; so far as I was aware nothing soughed within twenty miles of my bailiwick; and my dog, lying before a blazing log fire in my library, did not give forth an occasional growl of apprehension, denoting the presence or approach of an uncanny visitor from other and mysterious realms: and for two good reasons. The first reason is that it was midsummer when the thing happened, so that a blazing log fire in my library would have been an extravagance as well as an anachronism. The second is that I have no dog. In fact there was nothing unusual, or uncanny in the whole experience. It happened to be a bright and somewhat too sunny July day, which is not an unusual happening along the banks of the Hudson. You could see the heat, and if anything had soughed it could only have been the mercury in my thermometer. This I must say clicked nervously against the top of the glass tube and manifested an extraordinary desire to climb higher than the length of the tube permitted. Incidentally I may add, even if it be not believed, that the heat was so intense that the mercury actually did raise the whole thermometer a foot and a half above the mantel-shelf, and for two mortal hours, from midday until two by the Monastery Clock, held it suspended there in mid-air with no visible means of support. Not a breath of air was stirring, and the only sounds heard were the expanding creaks of the beams of my house, which upon that particular day increased eight feet in width and assumed a height which made it appear to be a three instead of a two story dwelling. There was little work doing in the house. The children played about in their bathing suits, and the only other active factor in my life of the moment was our hired man who was kept busy in the cellar pouring water on the furnace coal to keep it from spontaneously combusting.
We had just had luncheon, burning our throats with the iced tea and with considerable discomfort swallowing the simmering cold roast filet, which we had to eat hastily before the heat of the day transformed it into smoked beef. My youngest boy Willie perspired so copiously that we seriously thought of sending for a plumber to solder up his pores, and as for myself who have spent three summers of my life in the desert of Sahara in order to rid myself of nervous chills to which I was once unhappily subject, for the first time in my life I was impelled to admit that it was intolerably warm. And then the telephone bell rang.
"Great Scott!" I cried, "Who in thunder do you suppose wants to play golf on a day like this?" — for nowadays our telephone is used for no other purpose than the making or the breaking of golf engagements.
"Me," cried my eldest son, whose grammar is not as yet on a par with his activity. "I'll go."
The boy shot out of the dining room and ran to the telephone, returning in a few moments with the statement that a gentleman with a husky voice whose name was none of his business wished to speak with me on a matter of some importance to myself.
I was loath to go. My friends the book agents had recently acquired the habit of approaching me over the telephone, and I feared that here was another nefarious attempt to foist a thirty-eight volume tabloid edition of The World's Worst Literature upon me. Nevertheless I wisely determined to respond.
"Hello," I said, placing my lips against the rubber cup. "Hello there, who wants 91162 Nepperhan?"
"Is that you?" came the answering question, and, as my boy had indicated, in a voice whose chief quality was huskiness.
"I guess so," I replied facetiously; — "It was this morning, but the heat has affected me somewhat, and I don't feel as much like myself as I might. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, but you can do a lot for yourself," was the astonishing answer. "Pretty hot for literary work, isn't it?" the voice added sympathetically.
"Very," said I. "Fact is I can't seem to do anything these days but perspire."
"That's what I thought; and when you can't work ruin stares you in the face, eh? Now I have a manuscript — "
"Oh Lord!" I cried. "Don't. There are millions in the same fix. Even my cook writes."
"Don't know about that," he returned instantly. "But I do know that there's millions in my manuscript. And you can have it for the asking. How's that for an offer?"
"Very kind, thank you," said I. "What's the nature of your story?"
"It's extremely good-natured," he answered promptly.
I laughed. The twist amused me.
"That isn't what I meant exactly," said I, "though it has some bearing on the situation. Is it a Henry James dandy, or does it bear the mark of Caine? Is it realism or fiction?"
"Realism," said he. "Fiction isn't in my line."
"Well, I'll tell you," I replied; "you send it to me by post and I'll look it over. If I can use it I will."
"Can't do it," said he. "There isn't any post-office where I am."
"What?" I cried. "No post-office? Where in Hades are you?"
"Gehenna," he answered briefly. "The transportation between your country and mine is all one way," he added. "If it wasn't the population here would diminish."
"Then how the deuce am I to get hold of your stuff?" I demanded.
"That's easy. Send your stenographer to the 'phone and I'll dictate it," he answered.
The novelty of the situation appealed to me. Even if my new found acquaintance were some funny person nearer at hand than Gehenna trying to play a practical joke upon me, still it might be worth while to get hold of the story he had to tell. Hence I agreed to his proposal.
"All right, sir," said I. "I'll do it. I'll have him here to-morrow morning at nine o'clock sharp. What's your number? I'll ring you up."
"Never mind that," he replied. "I'm merely a tapster on your wires. I'll ring you up as soon as I've had breakfast and then we can get to work."
"Very good," said I. "And may I ask your name?"
"Certainly," he answered. "I'm Munchausen."
"What? The Baron?" I roared, delighted.
"Well — I used to be Baron," he returned with a tinge of sadness in his voice, "but here in Gehenna we are all on an equal footing. I'm plain Mr. Munchausen of Hades now. But that's a detail. Don't forget. Nine o'clock. Good-bye."
"Wait a moment, Baron," I cried. "How about the royalties on this book?"
"Keep 'em for yourself," he replied. "We have money to burn over here. You are welcome to all the earthly rights of the book. I'm satisfied with the returns on the Asbestos Edition, already in its 468th thousand. Good-bye."
There was a rattle as of the hanging up of the receiver, a short sharp click and a ring, and I realised that he had gone.
The next morning in response to a telegraphic summons my stenographer arrived and when I explained the situation to him he was incredulous, but orders were orders and he remained. I could see, however, that as nine o'clock approached he grew visibly nervous, which indicated that he half believed me anyhow, and when at nine to the second the sharp ring of the 'phone fell upon our ears he jumped as if he had been shot.
"Hello," said I again. "That you, Baron?"
"The same," the voice replied. "Stenographer ready?"
"Yes," said I.
The stenographer walked to the desk, placed the receiver at his ear, and with trembling voice announced his presence. There was a response of some kind, and then more calmly he remarked, "Fire ahead, Mr. Munchausen," and began to write rapidly in short-hand.
Two days later he handed me a type-written copy of the following stories. The reader will observe that they are in the form of interviews, and it should be stated here that they appeared originally in the columns of the Sunday edition of the Gehenna Gazette, a publication of Hades which circulates wholly among the best people of that country, and which, if report saith truly, would not print a line which could not be placed in the hands of children, and to whose columns such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jonah and Ananias are frequent contributors.
Indeed, on the statement of Mr. Munchausen, all the interviews herein set forth were between himself as the principal and the Hon. Henry B. Ananias as reporter, or were scrupulously edited by the latter before being published.