One of the things that always annoyed Shelley about Byron was the fact that he never lost a bar bet—and a very unique kind of bar bet at that. Byron would walk into a pub full of strangers and declare: “I can identify any piece of pottery in the house. Blindfolded. If I lose, I pay you a thousand pounds. If I win, I drink for free until you run out of liquor or I pass out, whichever comes first.” It was a bet he always won, and it was a tribute to his lifestyle that passing out rarely came first.
“This is Mrs. Macready’s chamber pot,” he would announce, his eyes covered with a black kerchief. “This is the urn that your grandmother bought from an old Welsh tinker when she was twenty,” he would say, the moment it was handed to him. “This is the stein that the bartender always give that old miser at the end of the bar, the one who never leaves him any tips,” he would declare. “He thinks it’s his special stein, and it is; it’s special because the bartender always spits in it whenever he pours the old Scrooge a beer.”
“Teach me how to Do that,” Shelley would plead. But Byron would laugh and say: “You? You? Oh, Shelley—you couldn’t tell how many fingers a woman had if you kissed her hand.”
It was meant to hurt, and it did. It throbbed in Shelley’s soul like a stinger from a dying bumblebee, until one day Shelley decided that he was going to stump his overbearing friend by presenting him with a piece of pottery that he could not identify.
Now Byron despised the Navy—had no truck with it—couldn’t tell a yacht from a frigate, and had little use for anything nautical, except the occasional lonely sailor. So Shelley approached a friend of his father’s, an old Admiral, and after explaining his mission, asked to procure the meanest cuspidor from the lowest garbage scow in the fleet.
“I will go you one better,” said the Admiral, and produced an ordinary-looking porcelain vase with flowers painted on it. “Do you know how many warships this has christened?”
“Since it is still in one Piece,” Shelley said, “I would have to say None.”
“On the contrary,” said the Admiral “It has christened over eleven hundred ships of the line.”
“But how is that Possible?” Shelley asked.
“Because it is made of bronze and painted to look like a vase,” the Admiral explained. “And the bronze was part of the Golden Hind, Drake’s ship, when it circumnavigated the globe. We sailors are a superstitious lot, and this vase is one of our greatest secrets. Before every public ceremony, there is a private one conducted by all serving members of the Admiralty, where this bronze vase is filled with sea water from the Channel which is then splashed on the new ship’s prow. Your friend will never guess what it is.”
Thanking the Admiral profusely, Shelley took the vase, and bided his time. A week later, when Byron made his usual wager in a local bar, Shelley paid the bartender to announce that one of his relatives had just the thing for him to identify, and he would send a messenger to get it. Byron agreed and put on his blindfold, whereupon Shelley ran home, procured the vase, ran back to the bar, and handed it to the bartender.
“Here you go, sir,” the bartender declared, passing it on to Byron.
Byron held the object in front of his blindfolded eyes for the longest ten seconds of Shelley’s life. Then he raised it up with his right hand, gestured to it with his left, and declaimed: “Is this the vase that launched a thousand ships?”
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells