Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. — Friedrich Schiller

Adventures of Baron Munchausen - R. E. Raspe




The Baron's Wonderful Waistcoat


He Pays a Visit to Mount Etna


"Dear friends and comrades," began the Baron the next evening, as he entered the assembly somewhat late, "you must be kind enough to excuse my tardy appearance and also my receiving you in hunting costume—it is the fault of my waistcoat. As you see, it is made of leather, the hide of my wonderful dog, Boaster, of whom I am sure you have, often heard me talk. He was shot by a blundering sportsman who fired at him instead of a covey of partridges. I saw the mishap from a distance of about thirty paces, and when in dismay I rushed to the spot, the poor creature's eyes were already closed in death. He was just able to raise a paw in greeting and give one farewell bark before his spirit departed for the happy hunting-grounds. It is true the was only a dog, but what a dog. Several of you here knew him, therefore I need say nothing further.

"He was to me more than a mere dog; I have never since possessed or even known another like him. At first I intended to have him stuffed, but then I wished to have him nearer me than that, so I had a waistcoat made from his skin, that I might always carry part of him next my heart when I went hunting.

"A very strange thing happened with regard to this. The first time I wore this waistcoat, just as I was crossing a clover field in which there might be some partridges, I felt something tugging in the region of my heart. This oppression increased with every step I took, till at last I was forced to stand still in order to draw breath. At last it became so unbearable that I could not move at all, when suddenly one of the buttons flew off my waistcoat and landed about fifteen paces away to the left. About a dozen partridges flew up; I fired, and five of them fell at once to the ground. Picking them up and putting them in my game bag, I walked on.

"In a few minutes the feeling of oppression and the subsequent springing off of a button were repeated, and this happens every time I am near any game. The starting of every partridge, quail, or hare costs me a button, but this button always procures me a certain shot. You can see that there used to be two rows of eleven buttons each on my waistcoat, and that now only three are left. Next week I shall have the buttons renewed for the ninth time. What do you think of this proof of my dog's fidelity even after death?

"It is true that I am an old man now, but the recollection of my faithful dog always makes me sad. Come, fill up your glasses, comrades, and I will tell you another of my adventures, which just occurred to me as I was walking along.

"Some years ago I was on a visit to Sicily at a time when Mount Etna had begun to erupt and was casting up flames and ashes daily. At Catania I joined a party of English ladies and gentlemen and rode with them to the Casa Inglese (English House), where we spent the night. In the morning the mule-drivers and guides advised us to turn back, because the eruption of stones and lava had increased. The whole party, with the exception of myself, followed this advice, but I continued the ascent with a light heart, and reached the summit in about three hours' time. I walked three times round the edge of the crater, which looks like an enormous funnel; the view over sea and land is magnificent, but I was far more interested in investigating the interior of the mountain, and at last I made up my mind to jump down into the abyss. I soon found myself in a warm berth, and my body bruised and burnt by the hot cinders, which were continually flying round me; but to draw back now was impossible.

[Illustration] from Baron Munchausen by R. E. Raspe
I WAS IN THE PRESENCE OF VULCAN AND HIS CYCLOPS.


"Glowing cinders and stones rushed upwards, as I sank downwards with ever-increasing speed. Perhaps I became used to the heat and fell asleep, at any rate I lost consciousness for some time. At last I reached the ground, and the shock of the fall and the noisy clamor round me soon restored me to my senses. Opening my eyes, I found to any great astonishment that I was in the presence of Vulcan and his Cyclops. It is true then, though no one believes it, that Vulcan has his forge in the interior of Mount Etna. All, one needs to travel to find out all kinds of curious things!

"You can imagine the astonishment of Father Vulcan and his sooty companions at my sudden appearance.

"When I had introduced myself with proper ceremony, Vulcan limped to a cupboard and took out plaster and ointment, which he applied to my wounds with his own hand. His remedies were indeed wonderful, for not only did they heal me completely in a moment, but also restored all the burnt places in my clothing!

"A young Cyclops brought me a basin of warm sea-water to complete my toilet, and then my host led me into the presence of his consort, Venus, who was a wonderfully preserved woman considering her age of some thousands of years.

"There are two things I have keenly regretted ever since; first, that I did not ask from which firm I could obtain the wonderful ointment or the recipe from which Vulcan prepared it, and secondly, that I omitted to find out what means Venus used to preserve her beauty. I have some aunts who would be very grateful for the information, though they are by no means as old as Venus.

'Both Vulcan and his wife treated me with the greatest kindness, though the lady never conversed with me without a mocking smile and a certain look of compassion on her lovely face as if she were always thinking, 'I am really sorry for you, poor earthworm!' I must admit that I was often annoyed by the gracious condescension of a heathen goddess. As for Vulcan, he was the embodiment of kindness and affability, conducting me in person over his subterranean kingdom. He showed me the different work-shops where the Cyclops forged various implements for ordinary use: in one were joiners' or cabinet-makers' tools, in another ploughs and other agricultural implements, and other contained files and saws, or all kinds of instruments of warfare. I also noticed various passages branching right and left, all closed by heavy iron doors on which was written in flaming letters, 'To Mount Vesuvius,' or, 'To Mount Hekla,' or the name of some other active or extinct volcano. On one of these doors was the word 'Stromboli,' and under it in forty-eight different languages, 'No admittance.'

"'Where does that lead to?' I asked.

"'Oh,' replied Vulcan, indifferently, as he walked on, 'that is a little workshop in which many things are made that people are not allowed to see, and therefore we grant no admittance.' Then he muttered something to himself which I could not quite hear, but I fancied I caught the words, 'Man-traps and spring-guns.'

"The same afternoon I asked Venus, in the course of conversation, whether she had often been inside Stromboli.

"'Never,' she replied, 'the entrance is forbidden. I only know that my husband does his private work there, including among other things the thunder-bolts for Father Zeus.'

"I skilfully turned the conversation to other subjects, but determined to find out the secret of this workshop at the earliest opportunity. The next day Vulcan was called away for a short time to settle a dispute among the work-people, and I crept softly to the forbidden door. Although it was not locked, I hesitated for some time to open it; at last I did so, and was just about to close it behind me, when a fearful clasp of thunder pealed forth, and in eight-and-forty different languages the warning flamed out on the wall, 'Man-traps and spring-guns!'

"I stopped for a moment, undecided whether, in spite of the warning, I should not walk down the magically illuminated passage, when suddenly a rough hand seized me by the collar and (though I hardly like confessing it), I was soundly belabored by the Cyclops.

"At last, with the words 'Hold, enough,' Vulcan rescued me from the claws of his dependents, but only to drag me into a dark passage, and holding me at arm's length over a gloomy well, cast me into it, saying angrily, 'Ungrateful mortal, as a punishment for your prying curiosity, return to the world of misery from whence you came.'

"I fell and fell with ever-increasing rapidity, till the horror of my mind deprived me of all reflection. Suddenly I was aroused by falling into a large body of water illumined by the rays of the setting sun! I soon reached the surface and had to rely on my swimming capacities for escape. But in which direction should I swim? Any other in my place would have despaired, but I only gazed calmly round me—nothing but sky and sea, the latter unpleasantly cold after the mild temperature of Vulcan's shop. At last I perceived a huge iceberg about five miles away. I swam up to it, and, my limbs being stiff with cold, climbed with great difficulty to the summit. On the other side of the iceberg I saw a canoe containing five savages and one European, all busily engaged in catching seals. I hailed these men as loudly as I could, and then, having attracted their notice, slid rapidly down the smooth and slippery side of the iceberg into the sea close to the canoe. I was helped on board, and, in answer to my question, the European—a Dutchman—told we that he was the sole survivor of a crew, which had been wrecked on a hitherto undiscovered island in the Pacific—all the others had been drowned.

"Everything now became quite clear to me; what I had taken for a well must have been a shaft through the centre of the earth, and I had passed from Mount Etna straight into the South Seas! My only regret was that I had noticed so little on the journey. If any one of you should imitate my leap into Mount Etna, I sincerely trust that you will be far more particular in your observations than it was possible for me to be."