During the summer of the year 509 B. C. Lucius Junius Brutus (no relation to the later Brutus who took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar) was struggling up a hill near Rome in company with Ludwig Büchner, brother of the German poet and playwright, Georg Büchner, and William Buckland, an English geologist. Büchner died at an early age and wore a beard, and Buckland was asleep, lying on one of several beds. Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick and a general in the Prussian army, entered naked and lay down on another bed. Brutus, too, was trying to sleep. With them were four girls: Christine, the daughter of Gustav-Adolph and queen of Sweden; Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo; Clairon, the French actress; and Constance de Castille, the second wife of Louis VII.
Brutus picked up four pennies and decided two of them were lighter than the others. “Why, two of you must be as big as she is,” he said. Clairon, who had a figure she was not ashamed to display, stood up and challenged him. “How much do you think I weight?” she asked. Brutus could see she was as fat as Constance, if not Christine or Chryseis and he decided to back down. He went out to the john, where he had some trouble with the light. It wouldn’t come on and made a funny noise. Brutus was afraid there would be an explosion. He turned the switch off and went back to the girls. The room was crowded now with new arrivals.
Among them was the Maréchal Davout, one of Napoleon’s lieutenants, who was talking about the allowance he received for his expenses. “Two dollars a day is not enough,” he was saying. “It’s terrible not to have money when you’re in school. You’re left out of everything.” He pointed out the window, where boys were diving from trees into a pond. The pond was shallow and the boys waded out. These were the three sons of Charles Gates Dawes, the American statesman. They were joined by Sir Humphry Davy, the chemist, who brought three suitcases so they could have dry clothes. Together they marched up the road towards the window. Sir Humphry carried the suitcases on sticks out in front of him.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian, Francis Deak, was saying goodbye to Edmondo De Amicis, the Italian author of the schoolboy’s notebook known as Great Hearts. Deak was eating Christmas rock candy out of his pocket. He only had three pieces. Edmondo was fond of candy and had taken the rest, although Deak also suspected Mme. Deshoulières who stood nearby. Mme. Deshoulières wore an ugly traveling costume in which she appeared positively repulsive.
Going home, Diaz De La Pena, the painter, had to choose between several modes of travel. He could either catch the bus, or go downstairs to the Sixth Avenue subway, or go upstairs to the Eighth Avenue subway. He decided to go down and jumped on an escalator, which turned out not to go down at all but to run level like a moving sidewalk. While foolishly riding level like this Diaz De La Pena passed an English-speaking Mexican cattle buyer who had shaved off his mustache.
Thieves had kidnapped the philosophers, Descartes and Diderot, and tied them up in a corner. Diaz De La Pena, busy commuter, passed right by. He didn’t have time to worry about other people’s problems. The thieves quickly pounced on two more philosophers, Diogenes who complained bitterly and Eugen Duhring who thought the whole thing was a joke. The subway platform where all this took place was small and dingy and surrounded by chains. A boy with a walkie-talkie raised his aerial and began broadcasting danger signals. The thieves heard, however, and one approached Diaz De La Pena. He shook his fist in the painter’s face. “Is that you making that noise?”
Luckily, a friend passed just at that moment, and Diaz De La Pena hailed him. Adam Elsheimer was a colleague, a fellow painter. Under his arm he carried a book of prints and photographs. He and Diaz De La Pena thumbed through the book. They were looking for figures to cut out to make collages. One particular figure – an old time movie star talking to a man in uniform – Elsheimer found enormously attractive.
“Look!” he cried. “She real. She’s coming off the page!”
And so she did – accompanied by a small orchestra, music and all – just like in the movies! Elsheimer was not slow in winning a dance with her. The people in town, however, were of a snobbish sort, and they insisted that newcomers live a certain period of time in the lower echelons of society before being allowed to move in the better circles.
The dancing girl, who turned out to be none other than Elisabeth de Bavière, the queen of Belgium and wife of Albert the First, was incensed at this insult. “The very idea!” she raged. “Do they think I drove those ambulances for nothing?”
Elisabeth was not the kind to wait upon other people’s whims. She intended to break right in on the higher-ups. She gave Elsheimer a watery kiss and pressed her body tight against him. She was wearing a flimsy nightgown. Already she had loosened a bow.
Elsheimer felt some disappointment when he realized they were married. He had hoped to enjoy a somewhat broader range of experiences before settling down to the life of a husband. He woke up muttering sighs of resignation. “Well, well,” he repeated again and again. Elisabeth came in while he was dressing, but there was no embarrassment, since they were married and had slept together.
Outside the house a bunch of gypsies gathered at the back door like cats waiting to be fed. The two children waited on the back porch until Elsheimer pushed open the door to the kitchen. Then they came in, although no one greeted their mother who was also in the kitchen. Apparently this is the custom among the Danes.
Soon the kitchen filled with a crowd and there was a lively hubbub of activity. The table was set for chicken dinner. Among the guests Elsheimer was pleased to see Louis Elzevir, the printer, and Balthazar Emerigon who wrote the celebrated thesis on insurance. Emerson came also, and the two Emery’s, Michel Particelli and Jacques-André. Then someone handed Elsheimer a teletype message addressed to a Mihail Eminesco. Elsheimer wasn’t sure who Eminesco was and asked Maurice Emmanuel, the composer, if Eminesco was the same as the man referred to as “Emin Pasha.”
“No,” said Emmanuel, “Eminesco is the new terminal manager.”
The former manager, Engelbrekt, had been promoted. Elsheimer recalled now, and he recounted an amusing incident involving Eminesco who was supposed to be the greatest of all Romanian poets but who worked as a shoe salesman.
At the buffet table Saint Gontran, who was not overly fond of chicken, ordered roast beef. This turned out to be lamb, but Saint Gontran was in a hurry and did not mind even if he knew the difference. The roast lamb was gigantic and weighed several tons. It had to be hoisted aloft by block and tackle. Workmen with huge saws labored over it to cut slices and to pull out the veins which ran through the meat like tree roots in the ground.
Louise-Marie de Gonzaga, who was first married to Ladislas VII and later to Jean II-Casimir V, discussed the relative merits of lamb and roast beef with the Lady Aubry, Olympia de Gouges. “That will be $1.52,” said a waiter, presenting the check to Saint Gontran. The saint had received two portions of potatoes and some spinach with his roast lamb. “Well, it’s a good slice of meat, anyway,” he consoled himself.
The saint was one of the few at the party who had a car, and he generously offered to drive some of the others home. Charles Gordon, an English explorer known as “Pasha” Gordon, and Gorgias, the sophist, piled into the back seat. No one could determine what these two had in common or even begin to guess what they might find to talk about. Saint Gontran’s chauffeur had disappeared again. So the saint himself did the driving. They made it as far as the front gate where a man stopped them and asked if they wanted a taxi to the Empire State Building. At first it seemed like a good idea, but when they arrived at the “taxi,” they all had to crowd into the cab of a truck. Driving was an old man who somebody hinted was the writer, Remy de Gourmont. Of course, there wasn’t room in the small cab for all who wanted to go. The girls had to sit on top of others’ heads.
Joseph von Gorres, one of the animators of the nineteenth century Romantic movement and of Catholic mysticism in Germany, soon grew tired of the cramped conditions and got out to walk. As part of the day’s festivities Elsheimer had arranged a performance of The Threepenny Opera. Gorres entered the audience shed and took a seat. To his surprise a girl among the cast left the stage and joined him on the bench. She was very talkative, and revealed things about herself which to Gorres could not have been more intriguing if they had come from the pen of Isidore of Seville himself.
She introduced herself. “I’m Juliana Krudener,” she said. “I’m Russian and a mystic. One autobiographical novel to my credit… And not entirely innocent in the affair known as the Holy Alliance!”
Juliana went upstairs, then returned, carrying a baby. She asked Gorres about the setup where he lived, whether there would be anybody there to cause embarrassment. He assured her the party would break up by midnight. “Where did you get the baby?” he asked.
“I adopted him,” Juliana answered. And this was all she would say.
They went into a bar, an expensive, cocktail-lounge type of place, where they encountered the physicist, Irving Langmuir. Langmuir came from Brooklyn and moderated a popular all-night radio program. He was now busy conducting an experiment in one corner of the bar. Under elaborately controlled conditions, with all the assistants wearing raincoats, bubbles of air were made to hold up small ships floating in a tub of water.
Juliana swished her hand around the tub, agitating the water. Then Langmuir discovered that the air in his clothes would buoy him up, and he went floating down the street. “Look!” he shouted. “I’m not swimming! Let’s see how far I can get!” These antics completely discredited the experiment. Juliana, the mystic, went floating along with him. “See you in Newport News!” he called to her. My god, he thought, what if she is that La Motta woman who was mixed up in the Necklace Scandal?
“We better cut this out, or we’ll end up in Richmond!” he shouted. He put his feet down, stopped floating and walked out of the water. Juliana followed, talking about the Methodist, John Wesley. “He takes these funny little short strides,” she laughed. “He’s short and skinny.”
The corner where they came out was crowded with on-lookers. Among others Langmuir recognized the bearded Henri Monnier; Friedrich von Hardenberg, who was called Novalis; Chris Oberkampf, wearing the cross Bonaparte gave him; and Sir Charles Algernon Parsons. Sir Charles was interested in steam turbines and, no doubt, had come to witness the experiment. His wife came with him, leading the family dog, which was long and thin.
Langmuir tried his best to avoid the dog but moved the wrong way and brushed against it. “Well, no matter,” he whispered.
Juliana was now talking to one of her lovers, the Archbishop Quelen, a rival of John Wesley. A tall man, he reminded Langmuir of Abel Rémusat, the sinologist who used to lecture at the Hotel Lambert. Quelen and some others were competing in a running contest. In turn, each stepped forward to announce the name of his school.
“Chateau de Langeais,” one called out. “Loches!” another boasted. “Luxembourg!” “Mans!” “Notre Dame!” “The Opera!”
The identifications rang out one after the other.
Somebody among the spectators shouted, “Let ‘Skitch’ run! He used to be a runner!”
He was referring to Sir Charles, who was once a track man. But Sir Charles pointed to the other runners who were already well under way. “No, man,” he replied. “Look how far ahead they are. What’s the use of starting now?”
And he joined the scientific detachment on a visit to the supermarket. Waiting in line, Sir Charles found his way blocked by a group buying cakes, among whom was the physicist, Gustav Hertz, who won a prize for his theory of luminescence. An attendant leaned over the counter and said to Parsons, “What’s yours, young man? Or old man. Some of them don’t like ‘young man,’” she continued. “So I say, ‘old man.’”
Sir Charles ignored all this chatter. “Young man” was good enough for him. He passed the crowd buying cakes and looked into the ice cream case. Next to him stood the Hungarian chemist, Georg von Hevesy, who, like Gustav Hertz, had also won a prize. His prize consisted of a pint of vanilla ice cream, and when Parsons ordered a pint of vanilla, the clerk mistook him for Hevesy. He had to explain that he was not the prize-winner and would pay for his ice cream at the checkout counter.
She handed over the pint of vanilla along with a wooden spoon, two apples and a paper bag. Sir Charles carried everything to the checkout counter, where he chanced upon Hidari Jingoro, who was buying a patent medicine remedy for a troublesome disease. The greatest Japanese wrestler of the Seventeenth Century, and he was unable to rid himself of herpes!
Already he had bought a new coat on the promise that it would bring a rapid cure. But it did not work. Now the woman at the checkout counter was helping him administer a new cure. He had to drop medicine in the palm of his hand at the same time he held a pill there. During the operation he and the woman talked about sex.
“Why did you marry a man interested in politics, when you don’t like politics?” Hidari asked. “It’s hard to keep down what with those horsehair shirts!”
“Yes,” he woman answered, “and then what with those beds squeaking all night!”
Behind them Baltasar Gracian could see boats floating on the river as light as beds.
At home all the family gathered together except the father. Gracian’s older brother, Harold Gracian, was going to express his views concerning Baltasar’s life plans. The younger Gracian considered his brother a meddling fool, and only showed up at the family meeting to tell him so,
They sat around the dining room table, and for a while discussed the day’s game in the World Series. Baltasar had difficulty following. They went into great detail about various plays, but wouldn’t give a simple answer about who won the game.
Then his mother turned to him and asked which deck of cards he would choose, meaning, “What are you going to do with your life?”
Baltasar stood up from the table. “I don’t believe in any after-life,” he declared. “I want my life now. And that consists in writing a book.”
By this time he was so far away they couldn’t possibly have heard. He turned back, circling a coal truck parked at the building next door. Feathers or fluffs of wool were falling out of the top. No one could determine where it came from. “Why didn’t the same thing happen to us?” Baltasar asked his mother.
“Well,” she said, “we didn’t have them raise it, and it was a simple operation. So we didn’t have that trouble.”
Suddenly there was a cry from the house. “He’s not dead! Father’s not dead!” A child ran in, tears streaming from her eyes. Everyone went to see. Father’s face had been stretched around a wooden frame, and the rest of his body was represented by sticks and bits and pieces of wood, which were kept in a small box. There was great fear among the family that father would one day return and avenge his murder.
The police were called in – or the army. They wore the uniforms of Confederate soldiers, and although they were able to catch the ghost, they couldn’t hold him. He killed several of their number and then avenged himself on three men in particular. These were Thomas Henry Huxley, who had been so anxious to demonstrate the affinities between man and the ape; Nicholas Iorga, founder of the Nationalist Democratic Party in Romania; and Pierre Jurieu, the protestant theologian celebrated for his polemics with Bossuet.
All three seemed to know they would die and, though frightened, they were resigned to their fate. Iorga died victim of a great sword which he had been handling shortly before. The ghost cut his throat with it and then used the same sword to dispatch Huxley. With Huxley he not only cut the throat but sliced the body in half at the belt.
The officers stood looking at the mutilated body, while the third victim, Jurieu, went to take a bath. The ghost was standing in the tub full of water, and Jurieu sensed he was there but didn’t know for sure until after his bath, when he was kneeling to wash out the bottom of the tub and felt the ghost’s foot.
There was a scuffle. The ghost tried to force Jurieu’s head beneath the water. He couldn’t do it, however. So he pounded down with all his strength on top of Jurieu’s skull which was hanging out over the edge of the tub. In a moment blood and brains poured forth, spattering the tiles.