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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesNovel Notes - Chapter 4
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Novel Notes - Chapter 4 Post by :Ronald Category :Long Stories Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :May 2012 Read :769

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Novel Notes - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

We held our next business meeting on my houseboat. Brown was opposed at first to my going down to this houseboat at all. He thought that none of us should leave town while the novel was still on hand.

MacShaughnassy, on the contrary, was of opinion that we should work better on a houseboat. Speaking for himself, he said he never felt more like writing a really great work than when lying in a hammock among whispering leaves, with the deep blue sky above him, and a tumbler of iced claret cup within easy reach of his hand. Failing a hammock, he found a deck chair a great incentive to mental labour. In the interests of the novel, he strongly recommended me to take down with me at least one comfortable deck chair, and plenty of lemons.

I could not myself see any reason why we should not be able to think as well on a houseboat as anywhere else, and accordingly it was settled that I should go down and establish myself upon the thing, and that the others should visit me there from time to time, when we would sit round and toil.

This houseboat was Ethelbertha's idea. We had spent a day, the summer before, on one belonging to a friend of mine, and she had been enraptured with the life. Everything was on such a delightfully tiny scale. You lived in a tiny little room; you slept on a tiny little bed, in a tiny, tiny little bedroom; and you cooked your little dinner by a tiny little fire, in the tiniest little kitchen that ever you did see. "Oh, it must be lovely, living on a houseboat," said Ethelbertha, with a gasp of ecstasy; "it must be like living in a doll's house."

Ethelbertha was very young--ridiculously young, as I think I have mentioned before--in those days of which I am writing, and the love of dolls, and of the gorgeous dresses that dolls wear, and of the many-windowed but inconveniently arranged houses that dolls inhabit--or are supposed to inhabit, for as a rule they seem to prefer sitting on the roof with their legs dangling down over the front door, which has always appeared to me to be unladylike: but then, of course, I am no authority on doll etiquette--had not yet, I think, quite departed from her. Nay, am I not sure that it had not? Do I not remember, years later, peeping into a certain room, the walls of which are covered with works of art of a character calculated to send any aesthetic person mad, and seeing her, sitting on the floor, before a red brick mansion, containing two rooms and a kitchen; and are not her hands trembling with delight as she arranges the three real tin plates upon the dresser? And does she not knock at the real brass knocker upon the real front door until it comes off, and I have to sit down beside her on the floor and screw it on again?

Perhaps, however, it is unwise for me to recall these things, and bring them forward thus in evidence against her, for cannot she in turn laugh at me? Did not I also assist in the arrangement and appointment of that house beautiful? We differed on the matter of the drawing-room carpet, I recollect. Ethelbertha fancied a dark blue velvet, but I felt sure, taking the wall-paper into consideration, that some shade of terra-cotta would harmonise best. She agreed with me in the end, and we manufactured one out of an old chest protector. It had a really charming effect, and gave a delightfully warm tone to the room. The blue velvet we put in the kitchen. I deemed this extravagance, but Ethelbertha said that servants thought a lot of a good carpet, and that it paid to humour them in little things, when practicable.

The bedroom had one big bed and a cot in it; but I could not see where the girl was going to sleep. The architect had overlooked her altogether: that is so like an architect. The house also suffered from the inconvenience common to residences of its class, of possessing no stairs, so that to move from one room to another it was necessary to burst your way up through the ceiling, or else to come outside and climb in through a window; either of which methods must be fatiguing when you come to do it often.

Apart from these drawbacks, however, the house was one that any doll agent would have been justified in describing as a "most desirable family residence"; and it had been furnished with a lavishness that bordered on positive ostentation. In the bedroom there was a washing-stand, and on the washing-stand there stood a jug and basin, and in the jug there was real water. But all this was as nothing. I have known mere ordinary, middle-class dolls' houses in which you might find washing-stands and jugs and basins and real water--ay, and even soap. But in this abode of luxury there was a real towel; so that a body could not only wash himself, but wipe himself afterwards, and that is a sensation that, as all dolls know, can be enjoyed only in the very first-class establishments.

Then, in the drawing-room, there was a clock, which would tick just so long as you continued to shake it (it never seemed to get tired); also a picture and a piano, and a book upon the table, and a vase of flowers that would upset the moment you touched it, just like a real vase of flowers. Oh, there was style about this room, I can tell you.

But the glory of the house was its kitchen. There were all things that heart could desire in this kitchen, saucepans with lids that took on and off, a flat-iron and a rolling-pin. A dinner service for three occupied about half the room, and what space was left was filled up by the stove--a _real stove! Think of it, oh ye owners of dolls' houses, a stove in which you could burn real bits of coal, and on which you could boil real bits of potato for dinner--except when people said you mustn't, because it was dangerous, and took the grate away from you, and blew out the fire, a thing that hampers a cook.

I never saw a house more complete in all its details. Nothing had been overlooked, not even the family. It lay on its back, just outside the front door, proud but calm, waiting to be put into possession. It was not an extensive family. It consisted of four--papa, and mamma, and baby, and the hired girl; just the family for a beginner.

It was a well-dressed family too--not merely with grand clothes outside, covering a shameful condition of things beneath, such as, alas! is too often the case in doll society, but with every article necessary and proper to a lady or gentleman, down to items that I could not mention. And all these garments, you must know, could be unfastened and taken off. I have known dolls--stylish enough dolls, to look at, some of them--who have been content to go about with their clothes gummed on to them, and, in some cases, nailed on with tacks, which I take to be a slovenly and unhealthy habit. But this family could be undressed in five minutes, without the aid of either hot water or a chisel.

Not that it was advisable from an artistic point of view that any of them should. They had not the figure that looks well in its natural state--none of them. There was a want of fulness about them all. Besides, without their clothes, it might have been difficult to distinguish the baby from the papa, or the maid from the mistress, and thus domestic complications might have arisen.

When all was ready for their reception we established them in their home. We put as much of the baby to bed as the cot would hold, and made the papa and mamma comfortable in the drawing-room, where they sat on the floor and stared thoughtfully at each other across the table. (They had to sit on the floor because the chairs were not big enough.) The girl we placed in the kitchen, where she leant against the dresser in an attitude suggestive of drink, embracing the broom we had given her with maudlin affection. Then we lifted up the house with care, and carried it cautiously into another room, and with the deftness of experienced conspirators placed it at the foot of a small bed, on the south-west corner of which an absurdly small somebody had hung an absurdly small stocking.

To return to our own doll's house, Ethelbertha and I, discussing the subject during our return journey in the train, resolved that, next year, we ourselves would possess a houseboat, a smaller houseboat, if possible, than even the one we had just seen. It should have art-muslin curtains and a flag, and the flowers about it should be wild roses and forget-me- nots. I could work all the morning on the roof, with an awning over me to keep off the sun, while Ethelbertha trimmed the roses and made cakes for tea; and in the evenings we would sit out on the little deck, and Ethelbertha would play the guitar (she would begin learning it at once), or we could sit quiet and listen to the nightingales.

For, when you are very, very young you dream that the summer is all sunny days and moonlight nights, that the wind blows always softly from the west, and that roses will thrive anywhere. But, as you grow older, you grow tired of waiting for the gray sky to break. So you close the door and come in, and crouch over the fire, wondering why the winds blow ever from the east: and you have given up trying to rear roses.

I knew a little cottage girl who saved up her money for months and months so as to buy a new frock in which to go to a flower-show. But the day of the flower-show was a wet day, so she wore an old frock instead. And all the fete days for quite a long while were wet days, and she feared she would never have a chance of wearing her pretty white dress. But at last there came a fete day morning that was bright and sunny, and then the little girl clapped her hands and ran upstairs, and took her new frock (which had been her "new frock" for so long a time that it was now the oldest frock she had) from the box where it lay neatly folded between lavender and thyme, and held it up, and laughed to think how nice she would look in it.

But when she went to put it on, she found that she had out-grown it, and that it was too small for her every way. So she had to wear a common old frock after all.

Things happen that way, you know, in this world. There were a boy and girl once who loved each other very dearly. But they were both poor, so they agreed to wait till he had made enough money for them to live comfortably upon, and then they would marry and be happy. It took him a long while to make, because making money is very slow work, and he wanted, while he was about it, to make enough for them to be very happy upon indeed. He accomplished the task eventually, however, and came back home a wealthy man.

Then they met again in the poorly-furnished parlour where they had parted. But they did not sit as near to each other as of old. For she had lived alone so long that she had grown old-maidish, and she was feeling vexed with him for having dirtied the carpet with his muddy boots. And he had worked so long earning money that he had grown hard and cold like the money itself, and was trying to think of something affectionate to say to her.

So for a while they sat, one each side of the paper "fire-stove ornament," both wondering why they had shed such scalding tears on that day they had kissed each other good-bye; then said "good-bye" again, and were glad.

There is another tale with much the same moral that I learnt at school out of a copy-book. If I remember rightly, it runs somewhat like this:--

Once upon a time there lived a wise grasshopper and a foolish ant. All through the pleasant summer weather the grasshopper sported and played, gambolling with his fellows in and out among the sun-beams, dining sumptuously each day on leaves and dew-drops, never troubling about the morrow, singing ever his one peaceful, droning song.

But there came the cruel winter, and the grasshopper, looking around, saw that his friends, the flowers, lay dead, and knew thereby that his own little span was drawing near its close.

Then he felt glad that he had been so happy, and had not wasted his life. "It has been very short," said he to himself; "but it has been very pleasant, and I think I have made the best use of it. I have drunk in the sunshine, I have lain on the soft, warm air, I have played merry games in the waving grass, I have tasted the juice of the sweet green leaves. I have done what I could. I have spread my wings, I have sung my song. Now I will thank God for the sunny days that are passed, and die."

Saying which, he crawled under a brown leaf, and met his fate in the way that all brave grasshoppers should; and a little bird that was passing by picked him up tenderly and buried him.

Now when the foolish ant saw this, she was greatly puffed up with Pharisaical conceit. "How thankful I ought to be," said she, "that I am industrious and prudent, and not like this poor grasshopper. While he was flitting about from flower to flower, enjoying himself, I was hard at work, putting by against the winter. Now he is dead, while I am about to make myself cosy in my warm home, and eat all the good things that I have been saving up."

But, as she spoke, the gardener came along with his spade, and levelled the hill where she dwelt to the ground, and left her lying dead amidst the ruins.

Then the same kind little bird that had buried the grasshopper came and picked her out and buried her also; and afterwards he composed and sang a song, the burthen of which was, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." It was a very pretty song, and a very wise song, and a man who lived in those days, and to whom the birds, loving him and feeling that he was almost one of themselves, had taught their language, fortunately overheard it and wrote it down, so that all may read it to this day.

Unhappily for us, however, Fate is a harsh governess, who has no sympathy with our desire for rosebuds. "Don't stop to pick flowers now, my dear," she cries, in her sharp, cross tones, as she seizes our arm and jerks us back into the roadway; "we haven't time to-day. We will come back again to-morrow, and you shall pick them then."

And we have to follow her, knowing, if we are experienced children, that the chances are that we shall never come that way to-morrow; or that, if we do, the roses will be dead.

Fate would not hear of our having a houseboat that summer,--which was an exceptionally fine summer,--but promised us that if we were good and saved up our money, we should have one next year; and Ethelbertha and I, being simple-minded, inexperienced children, were content with the promise, and had faith in its satisfactory fulfilment.

As soon as we reached home we informed Amenda of our plan. The moment the girl opened the door, Ethelbertha burst out with:--"Oh! can you swim, Amenda?"

"No, mum," answered Amenda, with entire absence of curiosity as to why such a question had been addressed to her, "I never knew but one girl as could, and she got drowned."

"Well, you'll have to make haste and learn, then," continued Ethelbertha, "because you won't be able to walk out with your young man, you'll have to swim out. We're not going to live in a house any more. We're going to live on a boat in the middle of the river."

Ethelbertha's chief object in life at this period was to surprise and shock Amenda, and her chief sorrow that she had never succeeded in doing so. She had hoped great things from this announcement, but the girl remained unmoved. "Oh, are you, mum," she replied; and went on to speak of other matters.

I believe the result would have been the same if we had told her we were going to live in a balloon.

I do not know how it was, I am sure. Amenda was always most respectful in her manner. But she had a knack of making Ethelbertha and myself feel that we were a couple of children, playing at being grown up and married, and that she was humouring us.

Amenda stayed with us for nearly five years--until the milkman, having saved up sufficient to buy a "walk" of his own, had become practicable--but her attitude towards us never changed. Even when we came to be really important married people, the proprietors of a "family," it was evident that she merely considered we had gone a step further in the game, and were playing now at being fathers and mothers.

By some subtle process she contrived to imbue the baby also with this idea. The child never seemed to me to take either of us quite seriously. She would play with us, or join with us in light conversation; but when it came to the serious affairs of life, such as bathing or feeding, she preferred her nurse.

Ethelbertha attempted to take her out in the perambulator one morning, but the child would not hear of it for a moment.

"It's all right, baby dear," explained Ethelbertha soothingly. "Baby's going out with mamma this morning."

"Oh no, baby ain't," was baby's rejoinder, in effect if not in words. "Baby don't take a hand in experiments--not this baby. I don't want to be upset or run over."

Poor Ethel! I shall never forget how heart-broken she was. It was the want of confidence that wounded her.

But these are reminiscences of other days, having no connection with the days of which I am--or should be--writing; and to wander from one matter to another is, in a teller of tales, a grievous sin, and a growing custom much to be condemned. Therefore I will close my eyes to all other memories, and endeavour to see only that little white and green houseboat by the ferry, which was the scene of our future collaborations.

Houseboats then were not built to the scale of Mississippi steamers, but this boat was a small one, even for that primitive age. The man from whom we hired it described it as "compact." The man to whom, at the end of the first month, we tried to sub-let it, characterised it as "poky." In our letters we traversed this definition. In our hearts we agreed with it.

At first, however, its size--or, rather, its lack of size--was one of its chief charms in Ethelbertha's eyes. The fact that if you got out of bed carelessly you were certain to knock your head against the ceiling, and that it was utterly impossible for any man to put on his trousers except in the saloon, she regarded as a capital joke.

That she herself had to take a looking-glass and go upon the roof to do her back hair, she thought less amusing.

Amenda accepted her new surroundings with her usual philosophic indifference. On being informed that what she had mistaken for a linen- press was her bedroom, she remarked that there was one advantage about it, and that was, that she could not tumble out of bed, seeing there was nowhere to tumble; and, on being shown the kitchen, she observed that she should like it for two things--one was that she could sit in the middle and reach everything without getting up; the other, that nobody else could come into the apartment while she was there.

"You see, Amenda," explained Ethelbertha apologetically, "we shall really live outside."

"Yes, mum," answered Amenda, "I should say that would be the best place to do it."

If only we could have lived more outside, the life might have been pleasant enough, but the weather rendered it impossible, six days out of the seven, for us to do more than look out of the window and feel thankful that we had a roof over our heads.

I have known wet summers before and since. I have learnt by many bitter experiences the danger and foolishness of leaving the shelter of London any time between the first of May and the thirty-first of October. Indeed, the country is always associate in my mind with recollections of long, weary days passed in the pitiless rain, and sad evenings spent in other people's clothes. But never have I known, and never, I pray night and morning, may I know again, such a summer as the one we lived through (though none of us expected to) on that confounded houseboat.

In the morning we would be awakened by the rain's forcing its way through the window and wetting the bed, and would get up and mop out the saloon. After breakfast I would try to work, but the beating of the hail upon the roof just over my head would drive every idea out of my brain, and, after a wasted hour or two, I would fling down my pen and hunt up Ethelbertha, and we would put on our mackintoshes and take our umbrellas and go out for a row. At mid-day we would return and put on some dry clothes, and sit down to dinner.

In the afternoon the storm generally freshened up a bit, and we were kept pretty busy rushing about with towels and cloths, trying to prevent the water from coming into the rooms and swamping us. During tea-time the saloon was usually illuminated by forked lightning. The evenings we spent in baling out the boat, after which we took it in turns to go into the kitchen and warm ourselves. At eight we supped, and from then until it was time to go to bed we sat wrapped up in rugs, listening to the roaring of the thunder, and the howling of the wind, and the lashing of the waves, and wondering whether the boat would hold out through the night.

Friends would come down to spend the day with us--elderly, irritable people, fond of warmth and comfort; people who did not, as a rule, hanker after jaunts, even under the most favourable conditions; but who had been persuaded by our silly talk that a day on the river would be to them like a Saturday to Monday in Paradise.

They would arrive soaked; and we would shut them up in different bunks, and leave them to strip themselves and put on things of Ethelbertha's or of mine. But Ethel and I, in those days, were slim, so that stout, middle-aged people in our clothes neither looked well nor felt happy.

Upon their emerging we would take them into the saloon and try to entertain them by telling them what we had intended to do with them had the day been fine. But their answers were short, and occasionally snappy, and after a while the conversation would flag, and we would sit round reading last week's newspapers and coughing.

The moment their own clothes were dry (we lived in a perpetual atmosphere of steaming clothes) they would insist upon leaving us, which seemed to me discourteous after all that we had done for them, and would dress themselves once more and start off home, and get wet again before they got there.

We would generally receive a letter a few days afterwards, written by some relative, informing us that both patients were doing as well as could be expected, and promising to send us a card for the funeral in case of a relapse.

Our chief recreation, our sole consolation, during the long weeks of our imprisonment, was to watch from our windows the pleasure-seekers passing by in small open boats, and to reflect what an awful day they had had, or were going to have, as the case might be.

In the forenoon they would head up stream--young men with their sweethearts; nephews taking out their rich old aunts; husbands and wives (some of them pairs, some of them odd ones); stylish-looking girls with cousins; energetic-looking men with dogs; high-class silent parties; low- class noisy parties; quarrelsome family parties--boatload after boatload they went by, wet, but still hopeful, pointing out bits of blue sky to each other.

In the evening they would return, drenched and gloomy, saying disagreeable things to one another.

One couple, and one couple only, out of the many hundreds that passed under our review, came back from the ordeal with pleasant faces. He was rowing hard and singing, with a handkerchief tied round his head to keep his hat on, and she was laughing at him, while trying to hold up an umbrella with one hand and steer with the other.

There are but two explanations to account for people being jolly on the river in the rain. The one I dismissed as being both uncharitable and improbable. The other was creditable to the human race, and, adopting it, I took off my cap to this damp but cheerful pair as they went by. They answered with a wave of the hand, and I stood looking after them till they disappeared in the mist.

I am inclined to think that those young people, if they be still alive, are happy. Maybe, fortune has been kind to them, or maybe she has not, but in either event they are, I am inclined to think, happier than are most people.

Now and again, the daily tornado would rage with such fury as to defeat its own purpose by prematurely exhausting itself. On these rare occasions we would sit out on the deck, and enjoy the unwonted luxury of fresh air.

I remember well those few pleasant evenings: the river, luminous with the drowned light, the dark banks where the night lurked, the storm-tossed sky, jewelled here and there with stars.

It was delightful not to hear for an hour or so the sullen thrashing of the rain; but to listen to the leaping of the fishes, the soft swirl raised by some water-rat, swimming stealthily among the rushes, the restless twitterings of the few still wakeful birds.

An old corncrake lived near to us, and the way he used to disturb all the other birds, and keep them from going to sleep, was shameful. Amenda, who was town-bred, mistook him at first for one of those cheap alarm clocks, and wondered who was winding him up, and why they went on doing it all night; and, above all, why they didn't oil him.

He would begin his unhallowed performance about dusk, just as every respectable bird was preparing to settle down for the night. A family of thrushes had their nest a few yards from his stand, and they used to get perfectly furious with him.

"There's that fool at it again," the female thrush would say; "why can't he do it in the daytime if he must do it at all?" (She spoke, of course, in twitters, but I am confident the above is a correct translation.)

After a while, the young thrushes would wake up and begin chirping, and then the mother would get madder than ever.

"Can't you say something to him?" she would cry indignantly to her husband. "How do you think the children can get to sleep, poor things, with that hideous row going on all night? Might just as well be living in a saw-mill."

Thus adjured, the male thrush would put his head over the nest, and call out in a nervous, apologetic manner:--

"I say, you know, you there, I wish you wouldn't mind being quiet a bit. My wife says she can't get the children to sleep. It's too bad, you know, 'pon my word it is."

"Gor on," the corncrake would answer surlily. "You keep your wife herself quiet; that's enough for you to do." And on he would go again worse than before.

Then a mother blackbird, from a little further off, would join in the fray.

"Ah, it's a good hiding he wants, not a talking to. And if I was a cock, I'd give it him." (This remark would be made in a tone of withering contempt, and would appear to bear reference to some previous discussion.)

"You're quite right, ma'am," Mrs. Thrush would reply. "That's what I tell my husband, but" (with rising inflection, so that every lady in the plantation might hear) "_he wouldn't move himself, bless you--no, not if I and the children were to die before his eyes for want of sleep."

"Ah, he ain't the only one, my dear," the blackbird would pipe back, "they're all alike"; then, in a voice more of sorrow than of anger:--"but there, it ain't their fault, I suppose, poor things. If you ain't got the spirit of a bird you can't help yourself."

I would strain my ears at this point to hear if the male blackbird was moved at all by these taunts, but the only sound I could ever detect coming from his neighbourhood was that of palpably exaggerated snoring.

By this time the whole glade would be awake, expressing views concerning that corncrake that would have wounded a less callous nature.

"Blow me tight, Bill," some vulgar little hedge-sparrow would chirp out, in the midst of the hubbub, "if I don't believe the gent thinks 'e's a- singing."

"'Tain't 'is fault," Bill would reply, with mock sympathy. "Somebody's put a penny in the slot, and 'e can't stop 'isself."

Irritated by the laugh that this would call forth from the younger birds, the corncrake would exert himself to be more objectionable than ever, and, as a means to this end, would commence giving his marvellous imitation of the sharpening of a rusty saw by a steel file.

But at this an old crow, not to be trifled with, would cry out angrily:--

"Stop that, now. If I come down to you I'll peck your cranky head off, I will."

And then would follow silence for a quarter of an hour, after which the whole thing would begin again.

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