The Pleasure Cruise

by Rudyard Kipling

(with apologies to Lucian)


CHARON. (in the uniform of the Captain of a Pleasure Cruiser) Steady, you fellows! Though my boat has been changed to this tall-sterned sea-castle, I am still responsible for the full tale of you.

THE DEAD MEN. But we have leave to see again the land of our birth. Tie up, and let us go ashore!

CHARON. Willingly, though I warn you, you will twice as willing return. In case, however, any should forget the other half of his ticket, Hermes here will conduct you. Lock up the bar! They do not draw their extra Lethe till they come back.

HERMES. (in the uniform of a Platoon-Sergeant). At your service, gentlemen. What are your destinations and desires?

THE DEAD MEN. (confusedly). I will go first to see all my children still weeping for me…. And I to console my widow in her dreams…. And I to press a thin kiss upon the shoulders of my sweetheart…. And I to snuff the scent of the liquors of upper Lethe that I loved so to drink.

HERMES. That is the only sensible fellow in the batch But be off on your supposed businesses. When you are satisfied, meet me at the Statue of Achilles. I shall walk there with these others who pull such long faces over what can’t be helped. (The DEAD MEN disperse about the Island.) Tell me now, Damasius, as we journey to the City, how came you to be pitched into Charon’s boat so early in the War? — for I understand you were no mean athlete.

DAMASIUS. I fell over a hole hidden by bushes; breaking both my legs ere I had accomplished anything.

HERMES. Such obstacles can be avoided by one who sees clearly.

DAMASIUS. You forget that I had been trained for fifteen seasons upon ground not only flat, but daily flattened by means of rollers.

HERMES. I see. Then that rough ground gave you Hades. And you, Chrysippus, whom I picked up in such a filthy condition?

CHRYSIPPUS. I had been instructed since my seventh year by the Philosophers of the Pavilion to fix my mind upon figures clad in pure white, moving over grass at fore-ordained distances.

HERMES. This after you were of full age?

CHRYSIPPUS. More particularly so, because it then became my vocation. Had the figures continued white and near, I should have won victories, but they being remote and earth-coloured, I … [missing].

HERMES. Certainly, your own Mother would not know you now. And you, you unphilosophical lout, Atkeinos, how did you put [your] foot in it?

ATKEINOS. We were despatched thrice against unbroken iron fences on which we hung like flies in frost.

HERMES. What, then, of the catapults whose bolts, in war, batter down expressly such things?

ATKEINOS. They were few at the first and their bolts so hard to procure that we were restricted to six casts in the day.

HERMES. But, later, surely, there were many?

ATKEINOS. Many indeed and those of the best. But, by that time, many indeed of the men were dead, and those of the best.

HERMES. And you, yonder, with the blue gums and the shrunk belly, how did you manage your transfer?

A DEAD MAN. By drinking water with which mules and dead men had had to do.

HERMES. Incontinent! You should have waited for waters purified by art.

A DEAD MAN. In all that country over against the shore of India there was not then one such pailful. So we died on those barges in our own dung and flux. A man must drink, Hermes.

HERMES. Some of you seem to have been at the liquor already. Whom do you ghosts pommel and drag by the hair here? Let go, dogs, and tell me your grievance against him.

A DEAD MAN. We were one hundred and forty entitled to live out our days.

HERMES. That lies with Atropos. What followed?

A DEAD MAN. This widow-maker with half a skull led us to perdition through dreadful night.

HERMES. You battling meantime, like heroes?

A DEAD MAN. We could not see. We knew not our right from our left beneath those lights. So forty [of us] were slain at a blast.

HERMES. You make more noise over it than over eight hundred and eighty thousand [dead]. (To OFFICER.) And what have you to say for yourself?

THE OFFICER. Look at the remains of my face. My own hand did it.

HERMES. Since death was so certain at that time, what made you kill yourself?

THE OFFICER. I was commanded to lead these uneasy children not in the least trained for war, to discover an enemy. But the enemy discovering us first, my men howled and fled. I, seeing this, turned my weapon against myself.

HERMES. Little you gained! Those who ran fastest united to swear that you were in all respects incompetent.

THE OFFICER. I knew that tale would arise [as their defence], so I crooked my finger more firmly.

HERMES. .What odds? You were not the only one, but all is forgotten now. (To DEAD MEN.) There is no need to spoil this fine day with brawling. Behold the City! We can moll about just as we please, for I assure you, we shall not be jostled by admirers.

THE DEAD MEN. Aie! Aie! Aie! Aie! The pleasant places where we were once so satisfied in the flesh!

HERMES. Remember you do not feel hunger or thirst, and fancy, if you like, that your lives were given for the good of this very State.

DAMASIUS. I see no change in the State — least of all in the amusements.

HERMES. You cast no shadows now, but when you did were you ever able to step off your shadows?

CHRYSIPPUS. To me my death was so terrible that I imagined all would take warning by it.

HERMES. One must cry very loud to be heard above the flute-players. What a pity you cannot address them in orations!

DAMASIUS. Surely they know by now that war is not of words but for the life.

HERMES. Was there not in your day one of your Generals, a man entitled to consideration, telling you that very thing? How did you take it?

CHRYSIPPUS. Most of us mocked at his white hairs. Some, however, went politely about our pleasures, which he as mildly as possible wished us to diminish a little, in order that we might learn to man the walls.

DAMASIUS. Since we are dead let us be just. We ourselves in those days were hostile witnesses at home, for we asserted that all virtue lay in the games.

CHRYSIPPUS. Then you, like a snapped stick, broke because the ground was a little broken!

DAMASIUS. Were you any better with your white-and-green ball-parlours?

CHRYSIPPUS.Yet bear witness, ye Gods, we stood to it — suffered and perished; though it was all in vain….

THE DEAD MEN. Vain as the Sun on the dead. But this Philosopher-fellow here, who smiles upon us, took no hand in the War except to talk comfortingly to the enemy out of side-doors and from back-gates.

HERMES. Hands off him! Do not bandy reproach with a prophet. He seems in good fettle. (To PHILOSOPHER) How was it, my friend, that you escaped so comfortably?

PHILOSOPHER. Justice protected me when I swore that my actions were directed towards my own salvation.

HERMES. Well, you cannot deny that that has been settled. But it is the sleekness of your carcass which I [take the liberty to] admire.

PHILOSOPHER. Naturally I ate and drank. A man must live, Hermes.

THE DEAD MEN. But — but — but — but —

HERMES. Stop quacking while I question this bird. (To PHILOSOPHER) For how long did you eat?

PHILOSOPHER. Through fifteen hundred days.

HERMES. Multiply that by three, some of you Quarter-Master Sergeants. We think in millions here.

THE DEAD MEN. It makes four thousand five hundred full meals, but — but — listen, Hermes! The bread and the wine for each meal was brought to his mouth by the blood or the lives of fifteen thousand men who died in that single service.

HERMES. Except that he has already been judged, I would call him a somewhat gluttonous devourer of his own damnation.

PHILOSOPHER. That is only a matter of opinion in which I am now justified, for I hear that the head of my School [of thought] has become head of all [the State] here.

HERMES. It is true. Stop cursing, you dead! Yonder is the Statue of Achilles and here are the fortunate ones who have just visited their families.

THE DEAD MEN (by the Statue of Achilles). We have seen our wives and mistresses. They do not desire us, even in their dreams!

HERMES. I suppose, then, you were in the habit of maintaining twenty years’ lamentation for men who fell in those old wars in which you took no interest. And what else did you find out?

A DEAD MAN. Most of the living here are persuaded that except through the sin of their own rulers there would be no more war; and they say they will never suffer any war to be waged.

HERMES. That, as I understand it, is a counsel to which the enemy must also agree.

THE DEAD MEN. By no means, for the rulers and the demus and many women and especially the Priests asseverate that it needs always two persons to make war.

HERMES. By no means if the one possess naught but riches and the other a sharpened sword. However, as your guide, I am glad you were amused.

THE DEAD MEN. How can we, even in death, forbear to grieve when we see the land bared both of armed men and catapults? … And more than half the ships of old are not! … Nor can those that are left be got ready without borrowings and makeshifts.

HERMES. That is because the womenfolk and specially their handmaidens must nowadays have their hair weekly made as to ripple by the public tire-women.

DAMASIUS. How has a woman’s headgear to do with the phalanxes?

CHRYSIPPUS. Or with the surge-dividing beaks?

HERMES. Because all power is with the demus, of which to-day the greater part are women, or men who wait on their desires or fears or, expenses.

DAMASIUS. But the power of women in themselves is dreadfully sufficient.

HERMES. Not for these new women. Lacking men, since so many of you stout fellows shipped with Charon, they have taken, as it were, the State for bed-fellow, and conceive strange things.

THE DEAD MEN. There is but one conceivable end to the matter. The land lies naked to the covert strife of vengeance. How shall it endure?

HERMES. As it is now, for a certain time during which the demagogues will deliver up, by means of well-chosen words, all the arms, possessions, islands and commerce of the State, one by one or altogether, to the enemy, according to [their] fears or [his] threats.

CHRYSIPPUS. But after that, at any rate, the people will be left in peace?

HERMES. On the contrary. It is then that their bodies will pay the debt of shame. To be utterly defenceless wakens in the victor the strong lust of killing for pleasure and of enslaving for profit, as indeed is already practised among the Scythians.

DAMASIUS. So the island now stands again with shut eyes on the brink of Fate?

HERMES. Their eyes, they assert, are now opened.

CHRYSIPPUS. I have looked into the eyes of the very newly dead. Why is it, O Compeller of Shades, that they are always filled with such questioning surprise?

HERMES. By my Wand of Office, I have been too busy to consider such trifles! Nor, indeed, need you. When we return to the Ship you will each drink down the special long glass of Lethe, to which, by pity, you are entitled. It is made of triple strength for just such cases as yours.