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Novel Notes - Chapter 7 Post by :Ronald Category :Long Stories Author :Jerome K Jerome Date :May 2012 Read :2253

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Novel Notes - Chapter 7


Does man ever reform? Balzac says he doesn't. So far as my experience goes, it agrees with that of Balzac--a fact the admirers of that author are at liberty to make what use of they please.

When I was young and accustomed to take my views of life from people who were older than myself, and who knew better, so they said, I used to believe that he did. Examples of "reformed characters" were frequently pointed out to me--indeed, our village, situate a few miles from a small seaport town, seemed to be peculiarly rich in such. They were, from all accounts, including their own, persons who had formerly behaved with quite unnecessary depravity, and who, at the time I knew them, appeared to be going to equally objectionable lengths in the opposite direction. They invariably belonged to one of two classes, the low-spirited or the aggressively unpleasant. They said, and I believed, that they were happy; but I could not help reflecting how very sad they must have been before they were happy.

One of them, a small, meek-eyed old man with a piping voice, had been exceptionally wild in his youth. What had been his special villainy I could never discover. People responded to my inquiries by saying that he had been "Oh, generally bad," and increased my longing for detail by adding that little boys ought not to want to know about such things. From their tone and manner I assumed that he must have been a pirate at the very least, and regarded him with awe, not unmingled with secret admiration.

Whatever it was, he had been saved from it by his wife, a bony lady of unprepossessing appearance, but irreproachable views.

One day he called at our house for some purpose or other, and, being left alone with him for a few minutes, I took the opportunity of interviewing him personally on the subject.

"You were very wicked once, weren't you?" I said, seeking by emphasis on the "once" to mitigate what I felt might be the disagreeable nature of the question.

To my intense surprise, a gleam of shameful glory lit up his wizened face, and a sound which I tried to think a sigh, but which sounded like a chuckle, escaped his lips.

"Ay," he replied; "I've been a bit of a spanker in my time."

The term "spanker" in such connection puzzled me. I had been hitherto led to regard a spanker as an eminently conscientious person, especially where the shortcomings of other people were concerned; a person who laboured for the good of others. That the word could also be employed to designate a sinful party was a revelation to me.

"But you are good now, aren't you?" I continued, dismissing further reflection upon the etymology of "spanker" to a more fitting occasion.

"Ay, ay," he answered, his countenance resuming its customary aspect of resigned melancholy. "I be a brand plucked from the burning, I be. There beant much wrong wi' Deacon Sawyers, now."

"And it was your wife that made you good, wasn't it?" I persisted, determined, now that I had started this investigation, to obtain confirmation at first hand on all points.

At the mention of his wife his features became suddenly transformed. Glancing hurriedly round, to make sure, apparently, that no one but myself was within hearing, he leaned across and hissed these words into my ear--I have never forgotten them, there was a ring of such evident sincerity about them--

"I'd like to skin her, I'd like to skin her alive."

It struck me, even in the light of my then limited judgment, as an unregenerate wish; and thus early my faith in the possibility of man's reformation received the first of those many blows that have resulted in shattering it.

Nature, whether human or otherwise, was not made to be reformed. You can develop, you can check, but you cannot alter it.

You can take a small tiger and train it to sit on a hearthrug, and to lap milk, and so long as you provide it with hearthrugs to lie on and sufficient milk to drink, it will purr and behave like an affectionate domestic pet. But it is a tiger, with all a tiger's instincts, and its progeny to the end of all time will be tigers.

In the same way, you can take an ape and develop it through a few thousand generations until it loses its tail and becomes an altogether superior ape. You can go on developing it through still a few more thousands of generations until it gathers to itself out of the waste vapours of eternity an intellect and a soul, by the aid of which it is enabled to keep the original apish nature more or less under control.

But the ape is still there, and always will be, and every now and again, when Constable Civilisation turns his back for a moment, as during "Spanish Furies," or "September massacres," or Western mob rule, it creeps out and bites and tears at quivering flesh, or plunges its hairy arms elbow deep in blood, or dances round a burning nigger.

I knew a man once--or, rather, I knew of a man--who was a confirmed drunkard. He became and continued a drunkard, not through weakness, but through will. When his friends remonstrated with him, he told them to mind their own business, and to let him mind his. If he saw any reason for not getting drunk he would give it up. Meanwhile he liked getting drunk, and he meant to get drunk as often as possible.

He went about it deliberately, and did it thoroughly. For nearly ten years, so it was reported, he never went to bed sober. This may be an exaggeration--it would be a singular report were it not--but it can be relied upon as sufficiently truthful for all practical purposes.

Then there came a day when he did see a reason for not getting drunk. He signed no pledge, he took no oath. He said, "I will never touch another drop of drink," and for twenty-six years he kept his word.

At the end of that time a combination of circumstances occurred that made life troublesome to him, so that he desired to be rid of it altogether. He was a man accustomed, when he desired a thing within his reach, to stretch out his hand and take it. He reviewed the case calmly, and decided to commit suicide.

If the thing were to be done at all, it would be best, for reasons that if set forth would make this a long story, that it should be done that very night, and, if possible, before eleven o'clock, which was the earliest hour a certain person could arrive from a certain place.

It was then four in the afternoon. He attended to some necessary business, and wrote some necessary letters. This occupied him until seven. He then called a cab and drove to a small hotel in the suburbs, engaged a private room, and ordered up materials for the making of the particular punch that had been the last beverage he had got drunk on, six- and-twenty years ago.

For three hours he sat there drinking steadily, with his watch before him. At half-past ten he rang the bell, paid his bill, came home, and cut his throat.

For a quarter of a century people had been calling that man a "reformed character." His character had not reformed one jot. The craving for drink had never died. For twenty-six years he had, being a great man, held it gripped by the throat. When all things became a matter of indifference to him, he loosened his grasp, and the evil instinct rose up within him as strong on the day he died as on the day he forced it down.

That is all a man can do, pray for strength to crush down the evil that is in him, and to keep it held down day after day. I never hear washy talk about "changed characters" and "reformed natures" but I think of a sermon I once heard at a Wesleyan revivalist meeting in the Black Country.

"Ah! my friends, we've all of us got the devil inside us. I've got him, you've got him," cried the preacher--he was an old man, with long white hair and beard, and wild, fighting eyes. Most of the preachers who came "reviving," as it was called, through that district, had those eyes. Some of them needed "reviving" themselves, in quite another sense, before they got clear out of it. I am speaking now of more than thirty years ago.

"Ah! so us have--so us have," came the response.

"And you carn't get rid of him," continued the speaker.

"Not of oursel's," ejaculated a fervent voice at the end of the room, "but the Lord will help us."

The old preacher turned on him almost fiercely:--

"But th' Lord woan't," he shouted; "doan't 'ee reckon on that, lad. Ye've got him an' ye've got ta keep him. Ye carn't get rid of him. Th' Lord doan't mean 'ee to."

Here there broke forth murmurs of angry disapproval, but the old fellow went on, unheeding:--

"It arn't good for 'ee to get rid of him. Ye've just got to hug him tight. Doan't let him go. Hold him fast, and--LAM INTO HIM. I tell 'ee it's good, healthy Christian exercise."

We had been discussing the subject with reference to our hero. It had been suggested by Brown as an unhackneyed idea, and one lending itself, therefore, to comparative freshness of treatment, that our hero should be a thorough-paced scamp.

Jephson seconded the proposal, for the reason that it would the better enable us to accomplish artistic work. He was of opinion that we should be more sure of our ground in drawing a villain than in attempting to portray a good man.

MacShaughnassy thirded (if I may coin what has often appeared to me to be a much-needed word) the motion with ardour. He was tired, he said, of the crystal-hearted, noble-thinking young man of fiction. Besides, it made bad reading for the "young person." It gave her false ideas, and made her dissatisfied with mankind as he really is.

And, thereupon, he launched forth and sketched us his idea of a hero, with reference to whom I can only say that I should not like to meet him on a dark night.

Brown, our one earnest member, begged us to be reasonable, and reminded us, not for the first time, and not, perhaps, altogether unnecessarily, that these meetings were for the purpose of discussing business, not of talking nonsense.

Thus adjured, we attacked the subject conscientiously.

Brown's idea was that the man should be an out-and-out blackguard, until about the middle of the book, when some event should transpire that would have the effect of completely reforming him. This naturally brought the discussion down to the question with which I have commenced this chapter: Does man ever reform? I argued in the negative, and gave the reasons for my disbelief much as I have set them forth here. MacShaughnassy, on the other hand, contended that he did, and instanced the case of himself--a man who, in his early days, so he asserted, had been a scatterbrained, impracticable person, entirely without stability.

I maintained that this was merely an example of enormous will-power enabling a man to overcome and rise superior to the defects of character with which nature had handicapped him.

"My opinion of you," I said, "is that you are naturally a hopelessly irresponsible, well-meaning ass. But," I continued quickly, seeing his hand reaching out towards a complete Shakespeare in one volume that lay upon the piano, "your mental capabilities are of such extraordinary power that you can disguise this fact, and make yourself appear a man of sense and wisdom."

Brown agreed with me that in MacShaughnassy's case traces of the former disposition were clearly apparent, but pleaded that the illustration was an unfortunate one, and that it ought not to have weight in the discussion.

"Seriously speaking," said he, "don't you think that there are some experiences great enough to break up and re-form a man's nature?"

"To break up," I replied, "yes; but to re-form, no. Passing through a great experience may shatter a man, or it may strengthen a man, just as passing through a furnace may melt or purify metal, but no furnace ever lit upon this earth can change a bar of gold into a bar of lead, or a bar of lead into one of gold."

I asked Jephson what he thought. He did not consider the bar of gold simile a good one. He held that a man's character was not an immutable element. He likened it to a drug--poison or elixir--compounded by each man for himself from the pharmacopoeia of all things known to life and time, and saw no impossibility, though some improbability, in the glass being flung aside and a fresh draught prepared with pain and labour.

"Well," I said, "let us put the case practically; did you ever know a man's character to change?"

"Yes," he answered, "I did know a man whose character seemed to me to be completely changed by an experience that happened to him. It may, as you say, only have been that he was shattered, or that the lesson may have taught him to keep his natural disposition ever under control. The result, in any case, was striking."

We asked him to give us the history of the case, and he did so.

"He was a friend of some cousins of mine," Jephson began, "people I used to see a good deal of in my undergraduate days. When I met him first he was a young fellow of twenty-six, strong mentally and physically, and of a stern and stubborn nature that those who liked him called masterful, and that those who disliked him--a more numerous body--termed tyrannical. When I saw him three years later, he was an old man of twenty-nine, gentle and yielding beyond the border-line of weakness, mistrustful of himself and considerate of others to a degree that was often unwise. Formerly, his anger had been a thing very easily and frequently aroused. Since the change of which I speak, I have never known the shade of anger to cross his face but once. In the course of a walk, one day, we came upon a young rough terrifying a small child by pretending to set a dog at her. He seized the boy with a grip that almost choked him, and administered to him a punishment that seemed to me altogether out of proportion to the crime, brutal though it was.

"I remonstrated with him when he rejoined me.

"'Yes,' he replied apologetically; 'I suppose I'm a hard judge of some follies.' And, knowing what his haunted eyes were looking at, I said no more.

"He was junior partner in a large firm of tea brokers in the City. There was not much for him to do in the London office, and when, therefore, as the result of some mortgage transactions, a South Indian tea plantation fell into the hands of the firm, it was suggested that he should go out and take the management of it. The plan suited him admirably. He was a man in every way qualified to lead a rough life; to face a by no means contemptible amount of difficulty and danger, to govern a small army of native workers more amenable to fear than to affection. Such a life, demanding thought and action, would afford his strong nature greater interest and enjoyment than he could ever hope to obtain amid the cramped surroundings of civilisation.

"Only one thing could in reason have been urged against the arrangement, that thing was his wife. She was a fragile, delicate girl, whom he had married in obedience to that instinct of attraction towards the opposite which Nature, for the purpose of maintaining her average, has implanted in our breasts--a timid, meek-eyed creature, one of those women to whom death is less terrible than danger, and fate easier to face than fear. Such women have been known to run screaming from a mouse and to meet martyrdom with heroism. They can no more keep their nerves from trembling than an aspen tree can stay the quivering of its leaves.

"That she was totally unfitted for, and would be made wretched by the life to which his acceptance of the post would condemn her might have readily occurred to him, had he stopped to consider for a moment her feelings in the matter. But to view a question from any other standpoint than his own was not his habit. That he loved her passionately, in his way, as a thing belonging to himself, there can be no doubt, but it was with the love that such men have for the dog they will thrash, the horse they will spur to a broken back. To consult her on the subject never entered his head. He informed her one day of his decision and of the date of their sailing, and, handing her a handsome cheque, told her to purchase all things necessary to her, and to let him know if she needed more; and she, loving him with a dog-like devotion that was not good for him, opened her big eyes a little wider, but said nothing. She thought much about the coming change to herself, however, and, when nobody was by, she would cry softly; then, hearing his footsteps, would hastily wipe away the traces of her tears, and go to meet him with a smile.

"Now, her timidity and nervousness, which at home had been a butt for mere chaff, became, under the new circumstances of their life, a serious annoyance to the man. A woman who seemed unable to repress a scream whenever she turned and saw in the gloom a pair of piercing eyes looking out at her from a dusky face, who was liable to drop off her horse with fear at the sound of a wild beast's roar a mile off, and who would turn white and limp with horror at the mere sight of a snake, was not a companionable person to live with in the neighbourhood of Indian jungles.

"He himself was entirely without fear, and could not understand it. To him it was pure affectation. He had a muddled idea, common to men of his stamp, that women assume nervousness because they think it pretty and becoming to them, and that if one could only convince them of the folly of it they might be induced to lay it aside, in the same way that they lay aside mincing steps and simpering voices. A man who prided himself, as he did, upon his knowledge of horses, might, one would think, have grasped a truer notion of the nature of nervousness, which is a mere matter of temperament. But the man was a fool.

"The thing that vexed him most was her horror of snakes. He was unblessed--or uncursed, whichever you may prefer--with imagination of any kind. There was no special enmity between him and the seed of the serpent. A creature that crawled upon its belly was no more terrible to him than a creature that walked upon its legs; indeed, less so, for he knew that, as a rule, there was less danger to be apprehended from them. A reptile is only too eager at all times to escape from man. Unless attacked or frightened, it will make no onset. Most people are content to acquire their knowledge of this fact from the natural history books. He had proved it for himself. His servant, an old sergeant of dragoons, has told me that he has seen him stop with his face six inches from the head of a hooded cobra, and stand watching it through his eye-glass as it crawled away from him, knowing that one touch of its fangs would mean death from which there could be no possible escape. That any reasoning being should be inspired with terror--sickening, deadly terror--by such pitifully harmless things, seemed to him monstrous; and he determined to try and cure her of her fear of them.

"He succeeded in doing this eventually somewhat more thoroughly than he had anticipated, but it left a terror in his own eyes that has not gone out of them to this day, and that never will.

"One evening, riding home through a part of the jungle not far from his bungalow, he heard a soft, low hiss close to his ear, and, looking up, saw a python swing itself from the branch of a tree and make off through the long grass. He had been out antelope-shooting, and his loaded rifle hung by his stirrup. Springing from the frightened horse, he was just in time to get a shot at the creature before it disappeared. He had hardly expected, under the circumstances, to even hit it. By chance the bullet struck it at the junction of the vertebrae with the head, and killed it instantly. It was a well-marked specimen, and, except for the small wound the bullet had made, quite uninjured. He picked it up, and hung it across the saddle, intending to take it home and preserve it.

"Galloping along, glancing down every now and again at the huge, hideous thing swaying and writhing in front of him almost as if still alive, a brilliant idea occurred to him. He would use this dead reptile to cure his wife of her fear of living ones. He would fix matters so that she should see it, and think it was alive, and be terrified by it; then he would show her that she had been frightened by a mere dead thing, and she would feel ashamed of herself, and be healed of her folly. It was the sort of idea that would occur to a fool.

"When he reached home, he took the dead snake into his smoking-room; then, locking the door, the idiot set out his prescription. He arranged the monster in a very natural and life-like position. It appeared to be crawling from the open window across the floor, and any one coming into the room suddenly could hardly avoid treading on it. It was very cleverly done.

"That finished, he picked out a book from the shelves, opened it, and laid it face downward upon the couch. When he had completed all things to his satisfaction he unlocked the door and came out, very pleased with himself.

"After dinner he lit a cigar and sat smoking a while in silence.

"'Are you feeling tired?' he said to her at length, with a smile.

"She laughed, and, calling him a lazy old thing, asked what it was he wanted.

"'Only my novel that I was reading. I left it in my den. Do you mind? You will find it open on the couch.'

"She sprang up and ran lightly to the door.

"As she paused there for a moment to look back at him and ask the name of the book, he thought how pretty and how sweet she was; and for the first time a faint glimmer of the true nature of the thing he was doing forced itself into his brain.

"'Never mind,' he said, half rising, 'I'll--'; then, enamoured of the brilliancy of his plan, checked himself; and she was gone.

"He heard her footsteps passing along the matted passage, and smiled to himself. He thought the affair was going to be rather amusing. One finds it difficult to pity him even now when one thinks of it.

"The smoking-room door opened and closed, and he still sat gazing dreamily at the ash of his cigar, and smiling.

"One moment, perhaps two passed, but the time seemed much longer. The man blew the gray cloud from before his eyes and waited. Then he heard what he had been expecting to hear--a piercing shriek. Then another, which, expecting to hear the clanging of the distant door and the scurrying back of her footsteps along the passage, puzzled him, so that the smile died away from his lips.

"Then another, and another, and another, shriek after shriek.

"The native servant, gliding noiselessly about the room, laid down the thing that was in his hand and moved instinctively towards the door. The man started up and held him back.

"'Keep where you are,' he said hoarsely. 'It is nothing. Your mistress is frightened, that is all. She must learn to get over this folly.' Then he listened again, and the shrieks ended with what sounded curiously like a smothered laugh; and there came a sudden silence.

"And out of that bottomless silence, Fear for the first time in his life came to the man, and he and the dusky servant looked at each other with eyes in which there was a strange likeness; and by a common instinct moved together towards the place where the silence came from.

"When the man opened the door he saw three things: one was the dead python, lying where he had left it; the second was a live python, its comrade apparently, slowly crawling round it; the third a crushed, bloody heap in the middle of the floor.

"He himself remembered nothing more until, weeks afterwards, he opened his eyes in a darkened, unfamiliar place, but the native servant, before he fled screaming from the house, saw his master fling himself upon the living serpent and grasp it with his hands, and when, later on, others burst into the room and caught him staggering in their arms, they found the second python with its head torn off.

"That is the incident that changed the character of my man--if it be changed," concluded Jephson. "He told it me one night as we sat on the deck of the steamer, returning from Bombay. He did not spare himself. He told me the story, much as I have told it to you, but in an even, monotonous tone, free from emotion of any kind. I asked him, when he had finished, how he could bear to recall it.

"'Recall it!' he replied, with a slight accent of surprise; 'it is always with me.'"

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Novel Notes - Chapter 11 Novel Notes - Chapter 11

Novel Notes - Chapter 11
CHAPTER XISaid Brown one evening, "There is but one vice, and that is selfishness." Jephson was standing before the fire lighting his pipe. He puffed the tobacco into a glow, threw the match into the embers, and then said: "And the seed of all virtue also." "Sit down and get on with your work," said MacShaughnassy from the sofa where he lay at full length with his heels on a chair; "we're discussing the novel. Paradoxes not admitted during business hours." Jephson, however, was in an argumentative mood. "Selfishness," he continued, "is merely another name for Will. Every

Novel Notes - Chapter 6 Novel Notes - Chapter 6

Novel Notes - Chapter 6
CHAPTER VI"Cats," remarked Jephson to me, one afternoon, as we sat in the punt discussing the plot of our novel, "cats are animals for whom I entertain a very great respect. Cats and Nonconformists seem to me the only things in this world possessed of a practicable working conscience. Watch a cat doing something mean and wrong--if ever one gives you the chance; notice how anxious she is that nobody should see her doing it; and how prompt, if detected, to pretend that she was not doing it--that she was not even thinking of doing it--that, as a matter