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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNovel Notes - Chapter 3
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Novel Notes - Chapter 3 Post by :Ronald Category :Long Stories Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :May 2012 Read :809

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Novel Notes - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

We had much trouble with our heroine. Brown wanted her ugly. Brown's chief ambition in life is to be original, and his method of obtaining the original is to take the unoriginal and turn it upside down.

If Brown were given a little planet of his own to do as he liked with, he would call day, night, and summer, winter. He would make all his men and women walk on their heads and shake hands with their feet, his trees would grow with their roots in the air, and the old cock would lay all the eggs while the hens sat on the fence and crowed. Then he would step back and say, "See what an original world I have created, entirely my own idea!"

There are many other people besides Brown whose notion of originality would seem to be precisely similar.

I know a little girl, the descendant of a long line of politicians. The hereditary instinct is so strongly developed in her that she is almost incapable of thinking for herself. Instead, she copies in everything her elder sister, who takes more after the mother. If her sister has two helpings of rice pudding for supper, then she has two helpings of rice pudding. If her sister isn't hungry and doesn't want any supper at all, then she goes to bed without any supper.

This lack of character in the child troubles her mother, who is not an admirer of the political virtues, and one evening, taking the little one on her lap, she talked seriously to her.

"Do try to think for yourself," said she. "Don't always do just what Jessie does, that's silly. Have an idea of your own now and then. Be a little original."

The child promised she'd try, and went to bed thoughtful.

Next morning, for breakfast, a dish of kippers and a dish of kidneys were placed on the table, side by side. Now the child loved kippers with an affection that amounted almost to passion, while she loathed kidneys worse than powders. It was the one subject on which she did know her own mind.

"A kidney or a kipper for you, Jessie?" asked the mother, addressing the elder child first.

Jessie hesitated for a moment, while her sister sat regarding her in an agony of suspense.

"Kipper, please, ma," Jessie answered at last, and the younger child turned her head away to hide the tears.

"You'll have a kipper, of course, Trixy?" said the mother, who had noticed nothing.

"No, thank you, ma," said the small heroine, stifling a sob, and speaking in a dry, tremulous voice, "I'll have a kidney."

"But I thought you couldn't bear kidneys," exclaimed her mother, surprised.

"No, ma, I don't like 'em much."

"And you're so fond of kippers!"

"Yes, ma."

"Well, then, why on earth don't you have one?"

"'Cos Jessie's going to have one, and you told me to be original," and here the poor mite, reflecting upon the price her originality was going to cost her, burst into tears.

* * * * *

The other three of us refused to sacrifice ourselves upon the altar of Brown's originality. We decided to be content with the customary beautiful girl.

"Good or bad?" queried Brown.

"Bad," responded MacShaughnassy emphatically. "What do you say, Jephson?"

"Well," replied Jephson, taking the pipe from between his lips, and speaking in that soothingly melancholy tone of voice that he never varies, whether telling a joke about a wedding or an anecdote relating to a funeral, "not altogether bad. Bad, with good instincts, the good instincts well under control."

"I wonder why it is," murmured MacShaughnassy reflectively, "that bad people are so much more interesting than good."

"I don't think the reason is very difficult to find," answered Jephson. "There's more uncertainty about them. They keep you more on the alert. It's like the difference between riding a well-broken, steady-going hack and a lively young colt with ideas of his own. The one is comfortable to travel on, but the other provides you with more exercise. If you start off with a thoroughly good woman for your heroine you give your story away in the first chapter. Everybody knows precisely how she will behave under every conceivable combination of circumstances in which you can place her. On every occasion she will do the same thing--that is the right thing.

"With a bad heroine, on the other hand, you can never be quite sure what is going to happen. Out of the fifty or so courses open to her, she may take the right one, or she may take one of the forty-nine wrong ones, and you watch her with curiosity to see which it will be."

"But surely there are plenty of good heroines who are interesting," I said.

"At intervals--when they do something wrong," answered Jephson. "A consistently irreproachable heroine is as irritating as Socrates must have been to Xantippe, or as the model boy at school is to all the other lads. Take the stock heroine of the eighteenth-century romance. She never met her lover except for the purpose of telling him that she could not be his, and she generally wept steadily throughout the interview. She never forgot to turn pale at the sight of blood, nor to faint in his arms at the most inconvenient moment possible. She was determined never to marry without her father's consent, and was equally resolved never to marry anybody but the one particular person she was convinced he would never agree to her marrying. She was an excellent young woman, and nearly as uninteresting as a celebrity at home."

"Ah, but you're not talking about good women now," I observed. "You're talking about some silly person's idea of a good woman."

"I quite admit it," replied Jephson. "Nor, indeed, am I prepared to say what is a good woman. I consider the subject too deep and too complicated for any mere human being to give judgment upon. But I _am talking of the women who conformed to the popular idea of maidenly goodness in the age when these books were written. You must remember goodness is not a known quantity. It varies with every age and every locality, and it is, generally speaking, your 'silly persons' who are responsible for its varying standards. In Japan, a 'good' girl would be a girl who would sell her honour in order to afford little luxuries to her aged parents. In certain hospitable islands of the torrid zone the 'good' wife goes to lengths that we should deem altogether unnecessary in making her husband's guest feel himself at home. In ancient Hebraic days, Jael was accounted a good woman for murdering a sleeping man, and Sarai stood in no danger of losing the respect of her little world when she led Hagar unto Abraham. In eighteenth-century England, supernatural stupidity and dulness of a degree that must have been difficult to attain, were held to be feminine virtues--indeed, they are so still--and authors, who are always among the most servile followers of public opinion, fashioned their puppets accordingly. Nowadays 'slumming' is the most applauded virtue, and so all our best heroines go slumming, and are 'good to the poor.'"

"How useful 'the poor' are," remarked MacShaughnassy, somewhat abruptly, placing his feet on the mantelpiece, and tilting his chair back till it stood at an angle that caused us to rivet our attention upon it with hopeful interest. "I don't think we scribbling fellows ever fully grasp how much we owe to 'the poor.' Where would our angelic heroines and our noble-hearted heroes be if it were not for 'the poor'? We want to show that the dear girl is as good as she is beautiful. What do we do? We put a basket full of chickens and bottles of wine on her arm, a fetching little sun-bonnet on her head, and send her round among the poor. How do we prove that our apparent scamp of a hero is really a noble young man at heart? Why, by explaining that he is good to the poor.

"They are as useful in real life as they are in Bookland. What is it consoles the tradesman when the actor, earning eighty pounds a week, cannot pay his debts? Why, reading in the theatrical newspapers gushing accounts of the dear fellow's invariable generosity to the poor. What is it stills the small but irritating voice of conscience when we have successfully accomplished some extra big feat of swindling? Why, the noble resolve to give ten per cent of the net profits to the poor.

"What does a man do when he finds himself growing old, and feels that it is time for him to think seriously about securing his position in the next world? Why, he becomes suddenly good to the poor. If the poor were not there for him to be good to, what could he do? He would be unable to reform at all. It's a great comfort to think that the poor will always be with us. They are the ladder by which we climb into heaven."

There was silence for a few moments, while MacShaughnassy puffed away vigorously, and almost savagely, at his pipe, and then Brown said: "I can tell you rather a quaint incident, bearing very aptly on the subject. A cousin of mine was a land-agent in a small country town, and among the houses on his list was a fine old mansion that had remained vacant for many years. He had despaired of ever selling it, when one day an elderly lady, very richly dressed, drove up to the office and made inquiries about it. She said she had come across it accidentally while travelling through that part of the country the previous autumn, and had been much struck by its beauty and picturesqueness. She added she was looking out for some quiet spot where she could settle down and peacefully pass the remainder of her days, and thought this place might possibly prove to be the very thing for her.

"My cousin, delighted with the chance of a purchaser, at once drove her across to the estate, which was about eight miles distant from the town, and they went over it together. My cousin waxed eloquent upon the subject of its advantages. He dwelt upon its quiet and seclusion, its proximity--but not too close proximity--to the church, its convenient distance from the village.

"Everything pointed to a satisfactory conclusion of the business. The lady was charmed with the situation and the surroundings, and delighted with the house and grounds. She considered the price moderate.

"'And now, Mr. Brown,' said she, as they stood by the lodge gate, 'tell me, what class of poor have you got round about?'

"'Poor?' answered my cousin; 'there are no poor.'

"'No poor!' exclaimed the lady. 'No poor people in the village, or anywhere near?'

"'You won't find a poor person within five miles of the estate,' he replied proudly. 'You see, my dear madam, this is a thinly populated and exceedingly prosperous county: this particular district especially so. There is not a family in it that is not, comparatively speaking, well-to- do.'

"'I'm sorry to hear that,' said the lady, in a tone of disappointment. 'The place would have suited me so admirably but for that.'

"'But surely, madam,' cried my cousin, to whom a demand for poor persons was an entirely new idea, 'you don't mean to say that you _want poor people! Why, we've always considered it one of the chief attractions of the property--nothing to shock the eye or wound the susceptibilities of the most tender-hearted occupant.'

"'My dear Mr. Brown,' replied the lady, 'I will be perfectly frank with you. I am becoming an old woman, and my past life has not, perhaps, been altogether too well spent. It is my desire to atone for the--er--follies of my youth by an old age of well-doing, and to that end it is essential that I should be surrounded by a certain number of deserving poor. I had hoped to find in this charming neighbourhood of yours the customary proportion of poverty and misery, in which case I should have taken the house without hesitation. As it is, I must seek elsewhere.'

"My cousin was perplexed, and sad. 'There are plenty of poor people in the town,' he said, 'many of them most interesting cases, and you could have the entire care of them all. There'd be no opposition whatever, I'm positive.'

"'Thank you,' replied the lady, 'but I really couldn't go as far as the town. They must be within easy driving distance or they are no good.'

"My cousin cudgelled his brains again. He did not intend to let a purchaser slip through his fingers if he could help it. At last a bright thought flashed into his mind. 'I'll tell you what we could do,' he said. 'There's a piece of waste land the other end of the village that we've never been able to do much with, in consequence of its being so swampy. If you liked, we could run you up a dozen cottages on that, cheap--it would be all the better their being a bit ramshackle and unhealthy--and get some poor people for you, and put into them.'

"The lady reflected upon the idea, and it struck her as a good one.

"'You see,' continued my cousin, pushing his advantage, 'by adopting this method you would be able to select your own poor. We would get you some nice, clean, grateful poor, and make the thing pleasant for you.'

"It ended in the lady's accepting my cousin's offer, and giving him a list of the poor people she would like to have. She selected one bedridden old woman (Church of England preferred); one paralytic old man; one blind girl who would want to be read aloud to; one poor atheist, willing to be converted; two cripples; one drunken father who would consent to be talked to seriously; one disagreeable old fellow, needing much patience; two large families, and four ordinary assorted couples.

"My cousin experienced some difficulty in securing the drunken father. Most of the drunken fathers he interviewed upon the subject had a rooted objection to being talked to at all. After a long search, however, he discovered a mild little man, who, upon the lady's requirements and charitable intentions being explained to him, undertook to qualify himself for the vacancy by getting intoxicated at least once a week. He said he could not promise more than once a week at first, he unfortunately possessing a strong natural distaste for all alcoholic liquors, which it would be necessary for him to overcome. As he got more used to them, he would do better.

"Over the disagreeable old man, my cousin also had trouble. It was hard to hit the right degree of disagreeableness. Some of them were so very unpleasant. He eventually made choice of a decayed cab-driver with advanced Radical opinions, who insisted on a three years' contract.

"The plan worked exceedingly well, and does so, my cousin tells me, to this day. The drunken father has completely conquered his dislike to strong drink. He has not been sober now for over three weeks, and has lately taken to knocking his wife about. The disagreeable fellow is most conscientious in fulfilling his part of the bargain, and makes himself a perfect curse to the whole village. The others have dropped into their respective positions and are working well. The lady visits them all every afternoon, and is most charitable. They call her Lady Bountiful, and everybody blesses her."

Brown rose as he finished speaking, and mixed himself a glass of whisky and water with the self-satisfied air of a benevolent man about to reward somebody for having done a good deed; and MacShaughnassy lifted up his voice and talked.

"I know a story bearing on the subject, too," he said. "It happened in a tiny Yorkshire village--a peaceful, respectable spot, where folks found life a bit slow. One day, however, a new curate arrived, and that woke things up considerably. He was a nice young man, and, having a large private income of his own, was altogether a most desirable catch. Every unmarried female in the place went for him with one accord.

"But ordinary feminine blandishments appeared to have no effect upon him. He was a seriously inclined young man, and once, in the course of a casual conversation upon the subject of love, he was heard to say that he himself should never be attracted by mere beauty and charm. What would appeal to him, he said, would be a woman's goodness--her charity and kindliness to the poor.

"Well, that set the petticoats all thinking. They saw that in studying fashion plates and practising expressions they had been going upon the wrong tack. The card for them to play was 'the poor.' But here a serious difficulty arose. There was only one poor person in the whole parish, a cantankerous old fellow who lived in a tumble-down cottage at the back of the church, and fifteen able-bodied women (eleven girls, three old maids, and a widow) wanted to be 'good' to him.

"Miss Simmonds, one of the old maids, got hold of him first, and commenced feeding him twice a day with beef-tea; and then the widow boarded him with port wine and oysters. Later in the week others of the party drifted in upon him, and wanted to cram him with jelly and chickens.

"The old man couldn't understand it. He was accustomed to a small sack of coals now and then, accompanied by a long lecture on his sins, and an occasional bottle of dandelion tea. This sudden spurt on the part of Providence puzzled him. He said nothing, however, but continued to take in as much of everything as he could hold. At the end of a month he was too fat to get through his own back door.

"The competition among the women-folk grew keener every day, and at last the old man began to give himself airs, and to make the place hard for them. He made them clean his cottage out, and cook his meals, and when he was tired of having them about the house, he set them to work in the garden.

"They grumbled a good deal, and there was a talk at one time of a sort of a strike, but what could they do? He was the only pauper for miles round, and knew it. He had the monopoly, and, like all monopolises, he abused his position.

"He made them run errands. He sent them out to buy his 'baccy,' at their own expense. On one occasion he sent Miss Simmonds out with a jug to get his supper beer. She indignantly refused at first, but he told her that if she gave him any of her stuck-up airs out she would go, and never come into his house again. If she wouldn't do it there were plenty of others who would. She knew it and went.

"They had been in the habit of reading to him--good books with an elevating tendency. But now he put his foot down upon that sort of thing. He said he didn't want Sunday-school rubbish at his time of life. What he liked was something spicy. And he made them read him French novels and seafaring tales, containing realistic language. And they didn't have to skip anything either, or he'd know the reason why.

"He said he liked music, so a few of them clubbed together and bought him a harmonium. Their idea was that they would sing hymns and play high- class melodies, but it wasn't his. His idea was--'Keeping up the old girl's birthday' and 'She winked the other eye,' with chorus and skirt dance, and that's what they sang.

"To what lengths his tyranny would have gone it is difficult to say, had not an event happened that brought his power to a premature collapse. This was the curate's sudden and somewhat unexpected marriage with a very beautiful burlesque actress who had lately been performing in a neighbouring town. He gave up the Church on his engagement, in consequence of his _fiancee's objection to becoming a minister's wife. She said she could never 'tumble to' the district visiting.

"With the curate's wedding the old pauper's brief career of prosperity ended. They packed him off to the workhouse after that, and made him break stones."

* * * * *

At the end of the telling of his tale, MacShaughnassy lifted his feet off the mantelpiece, and set to work to wake up his legs; and Jephson took a hand, and began to spin us stories.

But none of us felt inclined to laugh at Jephson's stories, for they dealt not with the goodness of the rich to the poor, which is a virtue yielding quick and highly satisfactory returns, but with the goodness of the poor to the poor, a somewhat less remunerative investment and a different matter altogether.

For the poor themselves--I do not mean the noisy professional poor, but the silent, fighting poor--one is bound to feel a genuine respect. One honours them, as one honours a wounded soldier.

In the perpetual warfare between Humanity and Nature, the poor stand always in the van. They die in the ditches, and we march over their bodies with the flags flying and the drums playing.

One cannot think of them without an uncomfortable feeling that one ought to be a little bit ashamed of living in security and ease, leaving them to take all the hard blows. It is as if one were always skulking in the tents, while one's comrades were fighting and dying in the front.

They bleed and fall in silence there. Nature with her terrible club, "Survival of the Fittest"; and Civilisation with her cruel sword, "Supply and Demand," beat them back, and they give way inch by inch, fighting to the end. But it is in a dumb, sullen way, that is not sufficiently picturesque to be heroic.

I remember seeing an old bull-dog, one Saturday night, lying on the doorstep of a small shop in the New Cut. He lay there very quiet, and seemed a bit sleepy; and, as he looked savage, nobody disturbed him. People stepped in and out over him, and occasionally in doing so, one would accidentally kick him, and then he would breathe a little harder and quicker.

At last a passer-by, feeling something wet beneath his feet, looked down, and found that he was standing in a pool of blood, and, looking to see where it came from, found that it flowed in a thick, dark stream from the step on which the dog was lying.

Then he stooped down and examined the dog, and the dog opened its eyes sleepily and looked at him, gave a grin which may have implied pleasure, or may have implied irritation at being disturbed, and died.

A crowd collected, and they turned the dead body of the dog over on its side, and saw a fearful gash in the groin, out of which oozed blood, and other things. The proprietor of the shop said the animal had been there for over an hour.

I have known the poor to die in that same grim, silent way--not the poor that you, my delicately-gloved Lady Bountiful and my very excellent Sir Simon DoGood, know, or that you would care to know; not the poor who march in processions with banners and collection-boxes; not the poor that clamour round your soup kitchens and sing hymns at your tea meetings; but the poor that you don't know are poor until the tale is told at the coroner's inquest--the silent, proud poor who wake each morning to wrestle with Death till night-time, and who, when at last he overcomes them, and, forcing them down on the rotting floor of the dim attic, strangles them, still die with their teeth tight shut.

There was a boy I came to know when I was living in the East End of London. He was not a nice boy by any means. He was not quite so clean as are the good boys in the religious magazines, and I have known a sailor to stop him in the street and reprove him for using indelicate language.

He and his mother and the baby, a sickly infant of about five months old, lived in a cellar down a turning off Three Colt Street. I am not quite sure what had become of the father. I rather think he had been "converted," and had gone off round the country on a preaching tour. The lad earned six shillings a week as an errand-boy; and the mother stitched trousers, and on days when she was feeling strong and energetic would often make as much as tenpence, or even a shilling. Unfortunately, there were days when the four bare walls would chase each other round and round, and the candle seem a faint speck of light, a very long way off; and the frequency of these caused the family income for the week to occasionally fall somewhat low.

One night the walls danced round quicker and quicker till they danced away altogether, and the candle shot up through the ceiling and became a star and the woman knew that it was time to put away her sewing.

"Jim," she said: she spoke very low, and the boy had to bend over her to hear, "if you poke about in the middle of the mattress you'll find a couple of pounds. I saved them up a long while ago. That will pay for burying me. And, Jim, you'll take care of the kid. You won't let it go to the parish."

Jim promised.

"Say 'S'welp me Gawd,' Jim."

"S'welp me Gawd, mother."

Then the woman, having arranged her worldly affairs, lay back ready, and Death struck.

Jim kept his oath. He found the money, and buried his mother; and then, putting his household goods on a barrow, moved into cheaper apartments--half an old shed, for which he paid two shillings a week.

For eighteen months he and the baby lived there. He left the child at a nursery every morning, fetching it away each evening on his return from work, and for that he paid fourpence a day, which included a limited supply of milk. How he managed to keep himself and more than half keep the child on the remaining two shillings I cannot say. I only know that he did it, and that not a soul ever helped him or knew that there was help wanted. He nursed the child, often pacing the room with it for hours, washed it, occasionally, and took it out for an airing every Sunday.

Notwithstanding all which care, the little beggar, at the end of the time above mentioned, "pegged out," to use Jimmy's own words.

The coroner was very severe on Jim. "If you had taken proper steps," he said, "this child's life might have been preserved." (He seemed to think it would have been better if the child's life had been preserved. Coroners have quaint ideas!) "Why didn't you apply to the relieving officer?"

"'Cos I didn't want no relief," replied Jim sullenly. "I promised my mother it should never go on the parish, and it didn't."

The incident occurred, very luckily, during the dead season, and the evening papers took the case up, and made rather a good thing out of it. Jim became quite a hero, I remember. Kind-hearted people wrote, urging that somebody--the ground landlord, or the Government, or some one of that sort--ought to do something for him. And everybody abused the local vestry. I really think some benefit to Jim might have come out of it all if only the excitement had lasted a little longer. Unfortunately, however, just at its height a spicy divorce case cropped up, and Jim was crowded out and forgotten.

I told the boys this story of mine, after Jephson had done telling his, and, when I had finished, we found it was nearly one o'clock. So, of course, it was too late to do any more work to the novel that evening.

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