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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Angel and the Author, and Others By Jerome K. Jerome Characters: 14558

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


If only we had not lost our Tails!

A friend of mine thinks it a pity that we have lost our tails. He argues it would be so helpful if, like the dog, we possessed a tail that wagged when we were pleased, that stuck out straight when we were feeling mad.

"Now, do come and see us again soon," says our hostess; "don't wait to be asked. Drop in whenever you are passing."

We take her at her word. The servant who answers our knocking says she "will see." There is a scuffling of feet, a murmur of hushed voices, a swift opening and closing of doors. We are shown into the drawing-room, the maid, breathless from her search, one supposes, having discovered that her mistress is at home. We stand upon the hearthrug, clinging to our hat and stick as to things friendly and sympathetic: the suggestion forcing itself upon us is that of a visit to the dentist.

Our hostess enters wreathed in smiles. Is she really pleased to see us, or is she saying to herself, "Drat the man! Why must he choose the very morning I had intended to fix up the clean curtains?"

But she has to pretend to be delighted, and ask us to stay to lunch. It would save us hours of anxiety could we look beyond her smiling face to her tail peeping out saucily from a placket-hole. Is it wagging, or is it standing out rigid at right angles from her skirt?

But I fear by this time we should have taught our tails polite behaviour. We should have schooled them to wag enthusiastically the while we were growling savagely to ourselves. Man put on insincerity to hide his mind when he made himself a garment of fig-leaves to hide his body.

One sometimes wonders whether he has gained so very much. A small acquaintance of mine is being brought up on strange principles. Whether his parents are mad or not is a matter of opinion. Their ideas are certainly peculiar. They encourage him rather than otherwise to tell the truth on all occasions. I am watching the experiment with interest. If you ask him what he thinks of you, he tells you. Some people don't ask him a second time. They say:

"What a very rude little boy you are!"

"But you insisted upon it," he explains; "I told you I'd rather not say."

It does not comfort them in the least. Yet the result is, he is already an influence. People who have braved the ordeal, and emerged successfully, go about with swelled head.

And little Boys would always tell the Truth!

Politeness would seem to have been invented for the comfort of the undeserving. We let fall our rain of compliments upon the unjust and the just without distinction. Every hostess has provided us with the most charming evening of our life. Every guest has conferred a like blessing upon us by accepting our invitation. I remember a dear good lady in a small south German town organizing for one winter's day a sleighing party to the woods. A sleighing party differs from a picnic. The people who want each other cannot go off together and lose themselves, leaving the bores to find only each other. You are in close company from early morn till late at night. We were to drive twenty miles, six in a sledge, dine together in a lonely Wirtschaft, dance and sing songs, and afterwards drive home by moonlight. Success depends on every member of the company fitting into his place and assisting in the general harmony. Our chieftainess was fixing the final arrangements the evening before in the drawing-room of the pension. One place was still to spare.

"Tompkins!"

Two voices uttered the name simultaneously; three others immediately took up the refrain. Tompkins was our man-the cheeriest, merriest companion imaginable. Tompkins alone could be trusted to make the affair a success. Tompkins, who had only arrived that afternoon, was pointed out to our chieftainess. We could hear his good-tempered laugh from where we sat, grouped together at the other end of the room. Our chieftainess rose, and made for him direct.

Alas! she was a short-sighted lady-we had not thought of that. She returned in triumph, followed by a dismal-looking man I had met the year before in the Black Forest, and had hoped never to meet again. I drew her aside.

"Whatever you do," I said, "don't ask --- " (I forget his name. One of these days I'll forget him altogether, and be happier. I will call him Johnson.) "He would turn the whole thing into a funeral before we were half-way there. I climbed a mountain with him once. He makes you forget all your other troubles; that is the only thing he is good for."

"But who is Johnson?" she demanded. "Why, that's Johnson," I explained-"the thing you've brought over. Why on earth didn't you leave it alone? Where's your woman's instinct?"

"Great heavens!" she cried, "I thought it was Tompkins. I've invited him, and he's accepted."

She was a stickler for politeness, and would not hear of his being told that he had been mistaken for an agreeable man, but that the error, most fortunately, had been discovered in time. He started a row with the driver of the sledge, and devoted the journey outwards to an argument on the fiscal question. He told the proprietor of the hotel what he thought of German cooking, and insisted on having the windows open. One of our party-a German student-sang, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,"-which led to a heated discussion on the proper place of sentiment in literature, and a general denunciation by Johnson of Teutonic characteristics in general. We did not dance. Johnson said that, of course, he spoke only for himself, but the sight of middle-aged ladies and gentlemen catching hold of each other round the middle and jigging about like children was to him rather a saddening spectacle, but to the young such gambolling was natural. Let the young ones indulge themselves. Only four of our party could claim to be under thirty with any hope of success. They were kind enough not to impress the fact upon us. Johnson enlivened the journey back by a searching analysis of enjoyment: Of what did it really consist?

Yet, on wishing him "Good-night," our chieftainess thanked him for his company in precisely the same terms she would have applied to Tompkins, who, by unflagging good humour and tact, would have made the day worth remembering to us all for all time.

And everyone obtained his just Deserts!

We pay dearly for our want of sincerity. We are denied the payment of praise: it has ceased to have any value. People shake me warmly by the hand and tell me that they like my books. It only bores me. Not that I am superior to compliment-nobody is-but because I cannot be sure that they mean it. They would say just the same had they never read a line I had written. If I visit a house and find a book of mine open face downwards on the window-seat, it sends no thrill of pride through my suspicious mind. As likely as not, I tell myself, the following is the conversation that has taken place between my host and hostess the day before my arrival:

"Don't forget that man J--- is coming down to-morrow."

"To-morrow! I wish you would tell me of these things a little earlier."

"I did tell you-told you last week. Your memory gets worse every day."

"You certainly never told me, or I should have remembered it. Is he anybody important?"

"Oh, no

; writes books."

"What sort of books?-I mean, is he quite respectable?"

"Of course, or I should not have invited him. These sort of people go everywhere nowadays. By the by, have we got any of his books about the house?"

"I don't think so. I'll look and see. If you had let me know in time I could have ordered one from Mudie's."

"Well, I've got to go to town; I'll make sure of it, and buy one."

"Seems a pity to waste money. Won't you be going anywhere near Mudie's?"

"Looks more appreciative to have bought a copy. It will do for a birthday present for someone."

On the other hand, the conversation may have been very different. My hostess may have said:

"Oh, I am glad he's coming. I have been longing to meet him for years."

She may have bought my book on the day of publication, and be reading it through for the second time. She may, by pure accident, have left it on her favourite seat beneath the window. The knowledge that insincerity is our universal garment has reduced all compliment to meaningless formula. A lady one evening at a party drew me aside. The chief guest-a famous writer-had just arrived.

"Tell me," she said, "I have so little time for reading, what has he done?"

I was on the point of replying when an inveterate wag, who had overheard her, interposed between us.

"'The Cloister and the Hearth,'" he told her, "and 'Adam Bede.'"

He happened to know the lady well. She has a good heart, but was ever muddle-headed. She thanked that wag with a smile, and I heard her later in the evening boring most evidently that literary lion with elongated praise of the "Cloister and the Hearth" and "Adam Bede." They were among the few books she had ever read, and talking about them came easily to her. She told me afterwards that she had found that literary lion a charming man, but-

"Well," she laughed, "he has got a good opinion of himself. He told me he considered both books among the finest in the English language."

It is as well always to make a note of the author's name. Some people never do-more particularly playgoers. A well-known dramatic author told me he once took a couple of colonial friends to a play of his own. It was after a little dinner at Kettner's; they suggested the theatre, and he thought he would give them a treat. He did not mention to them that he was the author, and they never looked at the programme. Their faces as the play proceeded lengthened; it did not seem to be their school of comedy. At the end of the first act they sprang to their feet.

"Let's chuck this rot," suggested one.

"Let's go to the Empire," suggested the other. The well-known dramatist followed them out. He thinks the fault must have been with the dinner.

A young friend of mine-a man of good family-contracted a mésalliance: that is, he married the daughter of a Canadian farmer, a frank, amiable girl, bewitchingly pretty, with more character in her little finger than some girls possess in their whole body. I met him one day, some three months after his return to London.

And only people would do Parlour Tricks who do them well!

"Well," I asked him, "how is it shaping?"

"She is the dearest girl in the world," he answered. "She has only got one fault; she believes what people say."

"She will get over that," I suggested.

"I hope she does," he replied; "it's awkward at present."

"I can see it leading her into difficulty," I agreed.

"She is not accomplished," he continued. He seemed to wish to talk about it to a sympathetic listener. "She never pretended to be accomplished. I did not marry her for her accomplishments. But now she is beginning to think she must have been accomplished all the time, without knowing it. She plays the piano like a schoolgirl on a parents' visiting-day. She told them she did not play-not worth listening to-at least, she began by telling them so. They insisted that she did, that they had heard about her playing, and were thirsting to enjoy it. She is good nature itself. She would stand on her head if she thought it would give real joy to anyone. She took it they really wanted to hear her, and so let 'em have it. They tell her that her touch is something quite out of the common-which is the truth, if only she could understand it-why did she never think of taking up music as a profession? By this time she is wondering herself that she never did. They are not satisfied with hearing her once. They ask for more, and they get it. The other evening I had to keep quiet on my chair while she thumped through four pieces one after the other, including the Beethoven Sonata. We knew it was the Beethoven Sonata. She told us before she started it was going to be the Beethoven Sonata, otherwise, for all any of us could have guessed, it might have been the 'Battle of Prague.' We all sat round with wooden faces, staring at our boots. Afterwards those of them that couldn't get near enough to her to make a fool of her crowded round me. Wanted to know why I had never told them I had discovered a musical prodigy. I'll lose my temper one day and pull somebody's nose, I feel I shall. She's got a recitation; whether intended to be serious or comic I had never been able to make up my mind. The way she gives it confers upon it all the disadvantages of both. It is chiefly concerned with an angel and a child. But a dog comes into it about the middle, and from that point onward it is impossible to tell who is talking-sometimes you think it is the angel, and then it sounds more like the dog. The child is the easiest to follow: it talks all the time through its nose. If I have heard that recitation once I have heard it fifty times; and now she is busy learning an encore.

And all the World had Sense!

"What hurts me most," he went on, "is having to watch her making herself ridiculous. Yet what am I to do? If I explain things to her she will be miserable and ashamed of herself; added to which her frankness-perhaps her greatest charm-will be murdered. The trouble runs through everything. She won't take my advice about her frocks. She laughs, and repeats to me-well, the lies that other women tell a girl who is spoiling herself by dressing absurdly; especially when she is a pretty girl and they are anxious she should go on spoiling herself. She bought a hat last week, one day when I was not with her. It only wants the candles to look like a Christmas tree. They insist on her taking it off so they may examine it more closely, with the idea of having one built like it for themselves; and she sits by delighted, and explains to them the secret of the thing. We get to parties half an hour before the opening time; she is afraid of being a minute late. They have told her that the party can't begin without her-isn't worth calling a party till she's there. We are always the last to go. The other people don't matter, but if she goes they will feel the whole thing has been a failure. She is dead for want of sleep, and they are sick and tired of us; but if I look at my watch they talk as if their hearts were breaking, and she thinks me a brute for wanting to leave friends so passionately attached to us.

"Why do we all play this silly game; what is the sense of it?" he wanted to know.

I could not tell him.

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