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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNovel Notes - Chapter 12
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Novel Notes - Chapter 12 Post by :Ronald Category :Long Stories Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :May 2012 Read :973

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Novel Notes - Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

How much more of our--fortunately not very valuable--time we devoted to this wonderful novel of ours, I cannot exactly say. Turning the dogs'- eared leaves of the dilapidated diary that lies before me, I find the record of our later gatherings confused and incomplete. For weeks there does not appear a single word. Then comes an alarmingly business-like minute of a meeting at which there were--"Present: Jephson, MacShaughnassy, Brown, and Self"; and at which the "Proceedings commenced at 8.30." At what time the "proceedings" terminated, and what business was done, the chronicle, however, sayeth not; though, faintly pencilled in the margin of the page, I trace these hieroglyphics: "3.14.9-2.6.7," bringing out a result of "1.8.2." Evidently an unremunerative night.

On September 13th we seem to have become suddenly imbued with energy to a quite remarkable degree, for I read that we "Resolved to start the first chapter at once"--"at once" being underlined. After this spurt, we rest until October 4th, when we "Discussed whether it should be a novel of plot or of character," without--so far as the diary affords indication--arriving at any definite decision. I observe that on the same day "Mac told a story about a man who accidentally bought a camel at a sale." Details of the story are, however, wanting, which, perhaps, is fortunate for the reader.

On the 16th, we were still debating the character of our hero; and I see that I suggested "a man of the Charley Buswell type."

Poor Charley, I wonder what could have made me think of him in connection with heroes; his lovableness, I suppose--certainly not his heroic qualities. I can recall his boyish face now (it was always a boyish face), the tears streaming down it as he sat in the schoolyard beside a bucket, in which he was drowning three white mice and a tame rat. I sat down opposite and cried too, while helping him to hold a saucepan lid over the poor little creatures, and thus there sprang up a friendship between us, which grew.

Over the grave of these murdered rodents, he took a solemn oath never to break school rules again, by keeping either white mice or tame rats, but to devote the whole of his energies for the future to pleasing his masters, and affording his parents some satisfaction for the money being spent upon his education.

Seven weeks later, the pervadence throughout the dormitory of an atmospheric effect more curious than pleasing led to the discovery that he had converted his box into a rabbit hutch. Confronted with eleven kicking witnesses, and reminded of his former promises, he explained that rabbits were not mice, and seemed to consider that a new and vexatious regulation had been sprung upon him. The rabbits were confiscated. What was their ultimate fate, we never knew with certainty, but three days later we were given rabbit-pie for dinner. To comfort him I endeavoured to assure him that these could not be his rabbits. He, however, convinced that they were, cried steadily into his plate all the time that he was eating them, and afterwards, in the playground, had a stand-up fight with a fourth form boy who had requested a second helping.

That evening he performed another solemn oath-taking, and for the next month was the model boy of the school. He read tracts, sent his spare pocket-money to assist in annoying the heathen, and subscribed to _The Young Christian and _The Weekly Rambler_, an Evangelical Miscellany (whatever that may mean). An undiluted course of this pernicious literature naturally created in him a desire towards the opposite extreme. He suddenly dropped _The Young Christian and _The Weekly Rambler_, and purchased penny dreadfuls; and taking no further interest in the welfare of the heathen, saved up and bought a second-hand revolver and a hundred cartridges. His ambition, he confided to me, was to become "a dead shot," and the marvel of it is that he did not succeed.

Of course, there followed the usual discovery and consequent trouble, the usual repentance and reformation, the usual determination to start a new life.

Poor fellow, he lived "starting a new life." Every New Year's Day he would start a new life--on his birthday--on other people's birthdays. I fancy that, later on, when he came to know their importance, he extended the principle to quarter days. "Tidying up, and starting afresh," he always called it.

I think as a young man he was better than most of us. But he lacked that great gift which is the distinguishing feature of the English-speaking race all the world over, the gift of hypocrisy. He seemed incapable of doing the slightest thing without getting found out; a grave misfortune for a man to suffer from, this.

Dear simple-hearted fellow, it never occurred to him that he was as other men--with, perhaps, a dash of straightforwardness added; he regarded himself as a monster of depravity. One evening I found him in his chambers engaged upon his Sisyphean labour of "tidying up." A heap of letters, photographs, and bills lay before him. He was tearing them up and throwing them into the fire.

I came towards him, but he stopped me. "Don't come near me," he cried, "don't touch me. I'm not fit to shake hands with a decent man."

It was the sort of speech to make one feel hot and uncomfortable. I did not know what to answer, and murmured something about his being no worse than the average.

"Don't talk like that," he answered excitedly; "you say that to comfort me, I know; but I don't like to hear it. If I thought other men were like me I should be ashamed of being a man. I've been a blackguard, old fellow, but, please God, it's not too late. To-morrow morning I begin a new life."

He finished his work of destruction, and then rang the bell, and sent his man downstairs for a bottle of champagne.

"My last drink," he said, as we clicked glasses. "Here's to the old life out, and the new life in."

He took a sip and flung the glass with the remainder into the fire. He was always a little theatrical, especially when most in earnest.

For a long while after that I saw nothing of him. Then, one evening, sitting down to supper at a restaurant, I noticed him opposite to me in company that could hardly be called doubtful.

He flushed and came over to me. "I've been an old woman for nearly six months," he said, with a laugh. "I find I can't stand it any longer."

"After all," he continued, "what is life for but to live? It's only hypocritical to try and be a thing we are not. And do you know"--he leant across the table, speaking earnestly--"honestly and seriously, I'm a better man--I feel it and know it--when I am my natural self than when I am trying to be an impossible saint."

That was the mistake he made; he always ran to extremes. He thought that an oath, if it were only big enough, would frighten away Human Nature, instead of serving only as a challenge to it. Accordingly, each reformation was more intemperate than the last, to be duly followed by a greater swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction.

Being now in a thoroughly reckless mood, he went the pace rather hotly. Then, one evening, without any previous warning, I had a note from him. "Come round and see me on Thursday. It is my wedding eve."

I went. He was once more "tidying up." All his drawers were open, and on the table were piled packs of cards, betting books, and much written paper, all, as before, in course of demolition.

I smiled: I could not help it, and, no way abashed, he laughed his usual hearty, honest laugh.

"I know," he exclaimed gaily, "but this is not the same as the others."

Then, laying his hand on my shoulder, and speaking with the sudden seriousness that comes so readily to shallow natures, he said, "God has heard my prayer, old friend. He knows I am weak. He has sent down an angel out of Heaven to help me."

He took her portrait from the mantelpiece and handed it me. It seemed to me the face of a hard, narrow woman, but, of course, he raved about her.

As he talked, there fluttered to the ground from the heap before him an old restaurant bill, and, stooping, he picked it up and held it in his hand, musing.

"Have you ever noticed how the scent of the champagne and the candles seems to cling to these things?" he said lightly, sniffing carelessly at it. "I wonder what's become of her?"

"I think I wouldn't think about her at all to-night," I answered.

He loosened his hand, letting the paper fall into the fire.

"My God!" he cried vehemently, "when I think of all the wrong I have done--the irreparable, ever-widening ruin I have perhaps brought into the world--O God! spare me a long life that I may make amends. Every hour, every minute of it shall be devoted to your service."

As he stood there, with his eager boyish eyes upraised, a light seemed to fall upon his face and illumine it. I had pushed the photograph back to him, and it lay upon the table before him. He knelt and pressed his lips to it.

"With your help, my darling, and His," he murmured.

The next morning he was married. She was a well-meaning girl, though her piety, as is the case with most people, was of the negative order; and her antipathy to things evil much stronger than her sympathy with things good. For a longer time than I had expected she kept him straight--perhaps a little too straight. But at last there came the inevitable relapse.

I called upon him, in answer to an excited message, and found him in the depths of despair. It was the old story, human weakness, combined with lamentable lack of the most ordinary precautions against being found out. He gave me details, interspersed with exuberant denunciations of himself, and I undertook the delicate task of peace-maker.

It was a weary work, but eventually she consented to forgive him. His joy, when I told him, was boundless.

"How good women are," he said, while the tears came into his eyes. "But she shall not repent it. Please God, from this day forth, I'll--"

He stopped, and for the first time in his life the doubt of himself crossed his mind. As I sat watching him, the joy died out of his face, and the first hint of age passed over it.

"I seem to have been 'tidying up and starting afresh' all my life," he said wearily; "I'm beginning to see where the untidiness lies, and the only way to get rid of it."

I did not understand the meaning of his words at the time, but learnt it later on.

He strove, according to his strength, and fell. But by a miracle his transgression was not discovered. The facts came to light long afterwards, but at the time there were only two who knew.

It was his last failure. Late one evening I received a hurriedly-scrawled note from his wife, begging me to come round.

"A terrible thing has happened," it ran; "Charley went up to his study after dinner, saying he had some 'tidying up,' as he calls it, to do, and did not wish to be disturbed. In clearing out his desk he must have handled carelessly the revolver that he always keeps there, not remembering, I suppose, that it was loaded. We heard a report, and on rushing into the room found him lying dead on the floor. The bullet had passed right through his heart."

Hardly the type of man for a hero! And yet I do not know. Perhaps he fought harder than many a man who conquers. In the world's courts, we are compelled to judge on circumstantial evidence only, and the chief witness, the man's soul, cannot very well be called.

I remember the subject of bravery being discussed one evening at a dinner party, when a German gentleman present related an anecdote, the hero of which was a young Prussian officer.

"I cannot give you his name," our German friend explained--"the man himself told me the story in confidence; and though he personally, by virtue of his after record, could afford to have it known, there are other reasons why it should not be bruited about.

"How I learnt it was in this way. For a dashing exploit performed during the brief war against Austria he had been presented with the Iron Cross. This, as you are well aware, is the most highly-prized decoration in our army; men who have earned it are usually conceited about it, and, indeed, have some excuse for being so. He, on the contrary, kept his locked in a drawer of his desk, and never wore it except when compelled by official etiquette. The mere sight of it seemed to be painful to him. One day I asked him the reason. We are very old and close friends, and he told me.

"The incident occurred when he was a young lieutenant. Indeed, it was his first engagement. By some means or another he had become separated from his company, and, unable to regain it, had attached himself to a line regiment stationed at the extreme right of the Prussian lines.

"The enemy's effort was mainly directed against the left centre, and for a while our young lieutenant was nothing more than a distant spectator of the battle. Suddenly, however, the attack shifted, and the regiment found itself occupying an extremely important and critical position. The shells began to fall unpleasantly near, and the order was given to 'grass.'

"The men fell upon their faces and waited. The shells ploughed the ground around them, smothering them with dirt. A horrible, griping pain started in my young friend's stomach, and began creeping upwards. His head and heart both seemed to be shrinking and growing cold. A shot tore off the head of the man next to him, sending the blood spurting into his face; a minute later another ripped open the back of a poor fellow lying to the front of him.

"His body seemed not to belong to himself at all. A strange, shrivelled creature had taken possession of it. He raised his head and peered about him. He and three soldiers--youngsters, like himself, who had never before been under fire--appeared to be utterly alone in that hell. They were the end men of the regiment, and the configuration of the ground completely hid them from their comrades.

"They glanced at each other, these four, and read one another's thoughts. Leaving their rifles lying on the grass, they commenced to crawl stealthily upon their bellies, the lieutenant leading, the other three following.

"Some few hundred yards in front of them rose a small, steep hill. If they could reach this it would shut them out of sight. They hastened on, pausing every thirty yards or so to lie still and pant for breath, then hurrying on again, quicker than before, tearing their flesh against the broken ground.

"At last they reached the base of the slope, and slinking a little way round it, raised their heads and looked back. Where they were it was impossible for them to be seen from the Prussian lines.

"They sprang to their feet and broke into a wild race. A dozen steps further they came face to face with an Austrian field battery.

"The demon that had taken possession of them had been growing stronger the further they had fled. They were not men, they were animals mad with fear. Driven by the same frenzy that prompted other panic-stricken creatures to once rush down a steep place into the sea, these four men, with a yell, flung themselves, sword in hand, upon the whole battery; and the whole battery, bewildered by the suddenness and unexpectedness of the attack, thinking the entire battalion was upon them, gave way, and rushed pell-mell down the hill.

"With the sight of those flying Austrians the fear, as independently as it had come to him, left him, and he felt only a desire to hack and kill. The four Prussians flew after them, cutting and stabbing at them as they ran; and when the Prussian cavalry came thundering up, they found my young lieutenant and his three friends had captured two guns and accounted for half a score of the enemy.

"Next day, he was summoned to headquarters.

"'Will you be good enough to remember for the future, sir,' said the Chief of the Staff, 'that His Majesty does not require his lieutenants to execute manoeuvres on their own responsibility, and also that to attack a battery with three men is not war, but damned tomfoolery. You ought to be court-martialled, sir!'

"Then, in somewhat different tones, the old soldier added, his face softening into a smile: 'However, alertness and daring, my young friend, are good qualities, especially when crowned with success. If the Austrians had once succeeded in planting a battery on that hill it might have been difficult to dislodge them. Perhaps, under the circumstances, His Majesty may overlook your indiscretion.'

"'His Majesty not only overlooked it, but bestowed upon me the Iron Cross,' concluded my friend. 'For the credit of the army, I judged it better to keep quiet and take it. But, as you can understand, the sight of it does not recall very pleasurable reflections.'"

* * * * *

To return to my diary, I see that on November 14th we held another meeting. But at this there were present only "Jephson, MacShaughnassy, and Self"; and of Brown's name I find henceforth no further trace. On Christmas eve we three met again, and my notes inform me that MacShaughnassy brewed some whiskey-punch, according to a recipe of his own, a record suggestive of a sad Christmas for all three of us. No particular business appears to have been accomplished on either occasion.

Then there is a break until February 8th, and the assemblage has shrunk to "Jephson and Self." With a final flicker, as of a dying candle, my diary at this point, however, grows luminous, shedding much light upon that evening's conversation.

Our talk seems to have been of many things--of most things, in fact, except our novel. Among other subjects we spoke of literature generally.

"I am tired of this eternal cackle about books," said Jephson; "these columns of criticism to every line of writing; these endless books about books; these shrill praises and shrill denunciations; this silly worship of novelist Tom; this silly hate of poet Dick; this silly squabbling over playwright Harry. There is no soberness, no sense in it all. One would think, to listen to the High Priests of Culture, that man was made for literature, not literature for man. Thought existed before the Printing Press; and the men who wrote the best hundred books never read them. Books have their place in the world, but they are not its purpose. They are things side by side with beef and mutton, the scent of the sea, the touch of a hand, the memory of a hope, and all the other items in the sum- total of our three-score years and ten. Yet we speak of them as though they were the voice of Life instead of merely its faint echo. Tales are delightful _as tales--sweet as primroses after the long winter, restful as the cawing of rooks at sunset. But we do not write 'tales' now; we prepare 'human documents' and dissect souls."

He broke off abruptly in the midst of his tirade. "Do you know what these 'psychological studies,' that are so fashionable just now, always make me think of?" he said. "One monkey examining another monkey for fleas.

"And what, after all, does our dissecting pen lay bare?" he continued. "Human nature? or merely some more or less unsavoury undergarment, disguising and disfiguring human nature? There is a story told of an elderly tramp, who, overtaken by misfortune, was compelled to retire for a while to the seclusion of Portland. His hosts, desiring to see as much as possible of their guest during his limited stay with them, proceeded to bath him. They bathed him twice a day for a week, each time learning more of him; until at last they reached a flannel shirt. And with that they had to be content, soap and water proving powerless to go further.

"That tramp appears to me symbolical of mankind. Human Nature has worn its conventions for so long that its habit has grown on to it. In this nineteenth century it is impossible to say where the clothes of custom end and the natural man begins. Our virtues are taught to us as a branch of 'Deportment'; our vices are the recognised vices of our reign and set. Our religion hangs ready-made beside our cradle to be buttoned upon us by loving hands. Our tastes we acquire, with difficulty; our sentiments we learn by rote. At cost of infinite suffering, we study to love whiskey and cigars, high art and classical music. In one age we admire Byron and drink sweet champagne: twenty years later it is more fashionable to prefer Shelley, and we like our champagne dry. At school we are told that Shakespeare is a great poet, and that the Venus di Medici is a fine piece of sculpture; and so for the rest of our lives we go about saying what a great poet we think Shakespeare, and that there is no piece of sculpture, in our opinion, so fine as the Venus di Medici. If we are Frenchmen we adore our mother; if Englishmen we love dogs and virtue. We grieve for the death of a near relative twelve months; but for a second cousin we sorrow only three. The good man has his regulation excellencies to strive after, his regulation sins to repent of. I knew a good man who was quite troubled because he was not proud, and could not, therefore, with any reasonableness, pray for humility. In society one must needs be cynical and mildly wicked: in Bohemia, orthodoxly unorthodox. I remember my mother expostulating with a friend, an actress, who had left a devoted husband and eloped with a disagreeable, ugly, little low comedian (I am speaking of long, long ago).

"'You must be mad,' said my mother; 'what on earth induced you to take such a step?'

"'My dear Emma,' replied the lady; 'what else was there for me? You know I can't act. I had to do _something to show I was 'an artiste!'

"We are dressed-up marionettes. Our voice is the voice of the unseen showman, Convention; our very movements of passion and pain are but in answer to his jerk. A man resembles one of those gigantic bundles that one sees in nursemaids' arms. It is very bulky and very long; it looks a mass of delicate lace and rich fur and fine woven stuffs; and somewhere, hidden out of sight among the finery, there is a tiny red bit of bewildered humanity, with no voice but a foolish cry.

"There is but one story," he went on, after a long pause, uttering his own thoughts aloud rather than speaking to me. "We sit at our desks and think and think, and write and write, but the story is ever the same. Men told it and men listened to it many years ago; we are telling it to one another to-day; we shall be telling it to one another a thousand years hence; and the story is: 'Once upon a time there lived a man, and a woman who loved him.' The little critic cries that it is not new, and asks for something fresh, thinking--as children do--that there are strange things in the world."

* * * * *

At that point my notes end, and there is nothing in the book beyond. Whether any of us thought any more of the novel, whether we ever met again to discuss it, whether it were ever begun, whether it were ever abandoned--I cannot say. There is a fairy story that I read many, many years ago that has never ceased to haunt me. It told how a little boy once climbed a rainbow. And at the end of the rainbow, just behind the clouds, he found a wondrous city. Its houses were of gold, and its streets were paved with silver, and the light that shone upon it was as the light that lies upon the sleeping world at dawn. In this city there were palaces so beautiful that merely to look upon them satisfied all desires; temples so perfect that they who once knelt therein were cleansed of sin. And all the men who dwelt in this wondrous city were great and good, and the women fairer than the women of a young man's dreams. And the name of the city was, "The city of the things men meant to do."


(THE END)
Jerome K Jerome's Book: Novel Notes

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