Read CHAPTER XIV of Mr. Munchausen, free online book, by John Kendrick Bangs, on


“Uncle Munch,” said Diavolo one afternoon as a couple of bicyclers sped past the house at breakneck speed, “which would you rather have, a bicycle or a horse?”

“Well, I must say, my boy, that is a difficult question to answer,” Mr. Munchausen replied after scratching his head dubiously for a few minutes.  “You might as well ask a man which he prefers, a hammock or a steam-yacht.  To that question I should reply that if I wanted to sell it, I’d rather have a steam-yacht, but for a pleasant swing on a cool piazza in midsummer or under the apple-trees, a hammock would be far preferable.  Steam-yachts are not much good to swing in under an apple tree, and very few piazzas that I know of are big enough ­”

“Oh, now, you know what I mean, Uncle Munch,” Diavolo retorted, tapping Mr. Munchausen upon the end of his nose, for a twinkle in Mr. Munchausen’s eye seemed to indicate that he was in one of his chaffing moods, and a greater tease than Mr. Munchausen when he felt that way no one has ever known.  “I mean for horse-back riding, which would you rather have?”

“Ah, that’s another matter,” returned Mr. Munchausen, calmly.  “Now I know how to answer your question.  For horse-back riding I certainly prefer a horse; though, on the other hand, for bicycling, bicycles are better than horses.  Horses make very poor bicycles, due no doubt to the fact that they have no wheels.”

Diavolo began to grow desperate.

“Of course,” Mr. Munchausen went on, “all I have to say in this connection is based merely on my ideas, and not upon any personal experience.  I’ve been horse-back riding on horses, and bicycling on bicycles, but I never went horse-back riding on a bicycle, or bicycling on horseback.  I should think it might be exciting to go bicycling on horse-back, but very dangerous.  It is hard enough for me to keep a bicycle from toppling over when I’m riding on a hard, straight, level well-paved road, without experimenting with my wheel on a horse’s back.  However if you wish to try it some day and will get me a horse with a back as big as Trafalgar Square I’m willing to make the effort.”

Angelica giggled.  It was lots of fun for her when Mr. Munchausen teased Diavolo, though she didn’t like it quite so much when it was her turn to be treated that way.  Diavolo wanted to laugh too, but he had too much dignity for that, and to conceal his desire to grin from Mr. Munchausen he began to hunt about for an old newspaper, or a lump of coal or something else he could make a ball of to throw at him.

“Which would you rather do, Angelica,” Mr. Munchausen resumed, “go to sea in a balloon or attend a dumb-crambo party in a chicken-coop?”

“I guess I would,” laughed Angelica.

“That’s a good answer,” Mr. Munchausen put in.  “It is quite as intelligent as the one which is attributed to the Gillyhooly bird.  When the Gillyhooly bird was asked his opinion of giraffes, he scratched his head for a minute and said,

  “’The question hath but little wit
    That you have put to me,
  But I will try to answer it
    With prompt candidity.

  The automobile is a thing
    That’s pleasing to the mind;
  And in a lustrous diamond ring
    Some merit I can find.

  Some persons gloat o’er French Chateaux;
    Some dote on lemon ice;
  While others gorge on mixed gateaux,
    Yet have no use for mice.

  I’m very fond of oyster-stew,
    I love a patent-leather boot,
  But after all, ’twixt me and you,
    The fish-ball is my favourite fruit.’”

“Hoh” jeered Diavolo, who, attracted by the allusion to a kind of bird of which he had never heard before, had given up the quest for a paper ball and returned to Mr. Munchausen’s side, “I don’t think that was a very intelligent answer.  It didn’t answer the question at all.”

“That’s true, and that is why it was intelligent,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “It was noncommittal.  Some day when you are older and know less than you do now, you will realise, my dear Diavolo, how valuable a thing is the reply that answereth not.”

Mr. Munchausen paused long enough to let the lesson sink in and then he resumed.

“The Gillyhooly bird is a perfect owl for wisdom of that sort,” he said.  “It never lets anybody know what it thinks; it never makes promises, and rarely speaks except to mystify people.  It probably has just as decided an opinion concerning giraffes as you or I have, but it never lets anybody into the secret.”

“What is a Gillyhooly bird, anyhow?” asked Diavolo.

“He’s a bird that never sings for fear of straining his voice; never flies for fear of wearying his wings; never eats for fear of spoiling his digestion; never stands up for fear of bandying his legs and never lies down for fear of injuring his spine,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “He has no feathers, because, as he says, if he had, people would pull them out to trim hats with, which would be painful, and he never goes into debt because, as he observes himself, he has no hope of paying the bill with which nature has endowed him, so why run up others?”

“I shouldn’t think he’d live long if he doesn’t eat?” suggested Angelica.

“That’s the great trouble,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “He doesn’t live long.  Nothing so ineffably wise as the Gillyhooly bird ever does live long.  I don’t believe a Gillyhooly bird ever lived more than a day, and that, connected with the fact that he is very ugly and keeps himself out of sight, is possibly why no one has ever seen one.  He is known only by hearsay, and as a matter of fact, besides ourselves, I doubt if any one has ever heard of him.”

Diavolo eyed Mr. Munchausen narrowly.

“Speaking of Gillyhooly birds, however, and to be serious for a moment,” Mr. Munchausen continued flinching nervously under Diavolo’s unyielding gaze; “I never told you about the poetic June-bug that worked the typewriter, did I?”

“Never heard of such a thing,” cried Diavolo.  “The idea of a June-bug working a typewriter.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Angelica, “he hasn’t got any fingers.”

“That shows all you know about it,” retorted Mr. Munchausen.  “You think because you are half-way right you are all right.  However, if you don’t want to hear the story of the June-bug that worked the type-writer, I won’t tell it.  My tongue is tired, anyhow.”

“Please go on,” said Diavolo.  “I want to hear it.”

“So do I,” said Angelica.  “There are lots of stories I don’t believe that I like to hear ­’Jack the Giant-killer’ and ‘Cinderella,’ for instance.”

“Very well,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “I’ll tell it, and you can believe it or not, as you please.  It was only two summers ago that the thing happened, and I think it was very curious.  As you may know, I often have a great lot of writing to do and sometimes I get very tired holding a pen in my hand.  When you get old enough to write real long letters you’ll know what I mean.  Your writing hand will get so tired that sometimes you’ll wish some wizard would come along smart enough to invent a machine by means of which everything you think can be transferred to paper as you think it, without the necessity of writing.  But as yet the only relief to the man whose hand is worn out by the amount of writing he has to do is the use of the type-writer, which is hard only on the fingers.  So to help me in my work two summers ago I bought a type-writing machine, and put it in the great bay-window of my room at the hotel where I was stopping.  It was a magnificent hotel, but it had one drawback ­it was infested with June-bugs.  Most summer hotels are afflicted with mosquitoes, but this one had June-bugs instead, and all night long they’d buzz and butt their heads against the walls until the guests went almost crazy with the noise.

“At first I did not mind it very much.  It was amusing to watch them, and my friends and I used to play a sort of game of chance with them that entertained us hugely.  We marked the walls off in squares which we numbered and then made little wagers as to which of the squares a specially selected June-bug would whack next.  To simplify the game we caught the chosen June-bug and put some powdered charcoal on his head, so that when he butted up against the white wall he would leave a black mark in the space he hit.  It was really one of the most exciting games of that particular kind that I ever played, and many a rainy day was made pleasant by this diversion.

“But after awhile like everything else June-bug Roulette as we called it began to pall and I grew tired of it and wished there never had been such a thing as a June-bug in the world.  I did my best to forget them, but it was impossible.  Their buzzing and butting continued uninterrupted, and toward the end of the month they developed a particularly bad habit of butting the electric call button at the side of my bed.  The consequence was that at all hours of the night, hall-boys with iced-water, and house-maids with bath towels, and porters with kindling-wood would come knocking at my door and routing me out of bed ­summoned of course by none other than those horrible butting insects.  This particular nuisance became so unendurable that I had to change my room for one which had no electric bell in it.

“So things went, until June passed and July appeared.  The majority of the nuisances promptly got out but one especially vigorous and athletic member of the tribe remained.  He became unbearable and finally one night I jumped out of bed either to kill him or to drive him out of my apartment forever, but he wouldn’t go, and try as I might I couldn’t hit him hard enough to kill him.  In sheer desperation I took the cover of my typewriting machine and tried to catch him in that.  Finally I succeeded, and, as I thought, shook the heedless creature out of the window promptly slamming the window shut so that he might not return; and then putting the type-writer cover back over the machine, I went to bed again, but not to sleep as I had hoped.  All night long every second or two I’d hear the type-writer click.  This I attributed to nervousness on my part.  As far as I knew there wasn’t anything to make the type-writer click, and the fact that I heard it do so served only to convince me that I was tired and imagined that I heard noises.

“The next morning, however, on opening the machine I found that the June-bug had not only not been shaken out of the window, but had actually spent the night inside of the cover, butting his head against the keys, having no wall to butt with it, and most singular of all was the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, the insect had butted out a verse which read: 

  “’I’m glad I haven’t any brains,
    For there can be no doubt
  I’d have to give up butting
    If I had, or butt them out.’”

“Mercy!  Really?” cried Angelica.

“Well I can’t prove it,” said Mr. Munchausen, “by producing the June-bug, but I can show you the hotel, I can tell you the number of the room; I can show you the type-writing machine, and I have recited the verse.  If you’re not satisfied with that I’ll have to stand your suspicions.”

“What became of the June-bug?” demanded Diavolo.

“He flew off as soon as I lifted the top of the machine,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “He had all the modesty of a true poet and did not wish to be around while his poem was being read.”

“It’s queer how you can’t get rid of June-bugs, isn’t it, Uncle Munch,” suggested Angelica.

“Oh, we got rid of ’em next season all right,” said Mr. Munchausen.  “I invented a scheme that kept them away all the following summer.  I got the landlord to hang calendars all over the house with one full page for each month.  Then in every room we exposed the page for May and left it that way all summer.  When the June-bugs arrived and saw these, they were fooled into believing that June hadn’t come yet, and off they flew to wait.  They are very inconsiderate of other people’s comfort,” Mr. Munchausen concluded, “but they are rigorously bound by an etiquette of their own.  A self-respecting June-bug would no more appear until the June-bug season is regularly open than a gentleman of high society would go to a five o’clock tea munching fresh-roasted peanuts.  And by the way, that reminds me I happen to have a bag of peanuts right here in my pocket.”

Here Mr. Munchausen, transferring the luscious goobers to Angelica, suddenly remembered that he had something to say to the Imps’ father, and hurriedly left them.

“Do you suppose that’s true, Diavolo?” whispered Angelica as their friend disappeared.

“Well it might happen,” said Diavolo, “but I’ve a sort of notion that it’s ’maginary like the Gillyhooly bird.  Gimme a peanut.”