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Jerome K. Jerome >> Three Men in a Boat (page 10)


Where it is really the owners that are to blame, they ought to be shown up. The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the river Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

''Not a bit of it. Serve `em all jolly well right, and I'd go and sing comic songs on the ruins.''

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this blood-thirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events, and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

You have never heard Harris sing a comic song, or you would understand the service I had rendered to mankind. It is one of Harris's fixed ideas that he CAN sing a comic song; the fixed idea, on the contrary, among those of Harris's friends who have heard him try, is that he CAN'T and never will be able to, and that he ought not to be allowed to try.

When Harris is at a party, and is asked to sing, he replies: ''Well, I can only sing a COMIC song, you know;'' and he says it in a tone that implies that his singing of THAT, however, is a thing that you ought to hear once, and then die.

''Oh, that IS nice,'' says the hostess. ''Do sing one, Mr. Harris;'' and Harris gets up, and makes for the piano, with the beaming cheeriness of a generous-minded man who is just about to give somebody something.

''Now, silence, please, everybody'' says the hostess, turning round; ''Mr. Harris is going to sing a comic song!''

''Oh, how jolly!'' they murmur; and they hurry in from the conservatory, and come up from the stairs, and go and fetch each other from all over the house, and crowd into the drawing-room, and sit round, all smirking in anticipation.

Then Harris begins.

Well, you don't look for much of a voice in a comic song. You don't expect correct phrasing or vocalization. You don't mind if a man does find out, when in the middle of a note, that he is too high, and comes down with a jerk. You don't bother about time. You don't mind a man being two bars in front of the accompaniment, and easing up in the middle of a line to argue it out with the pianist, and then starting the verse afresh. But you do expect the words.

You don't expect a man to never remember more than the first three lines of the first verse, and to keep on repeating these until it is time to begin the chorus. You don't expect a man to break off in the middle of a line, and snigger, and say, it's very funny, but he's blest if he can think of the rest of it, and then try and make it up for himself, and, afterwards, suddenly recollect it, when he has got to an entirely different part of the song, and break off, without a word of warning, to go back and let you have it then and there. You don't Ц well, I will just give you an idea of Harris's comic singing, and then you can judge of it for yourself.

HARRIS (STANDING UP IN FRONT OF PIANO AND ADDRESSING THE EXPECTANT MOB): ''I'm afraid it's a very old thing, you know. I expect you all know it, you know. But it's the only thing I know. It's the Judge's song out of PINAFORE Ц no, I don't mean PINAFORE Ц I mean Ц you know what I mean Ц the other thing, you know. You must all join in the chorus, you know.''

[Murmurs of delight and anxiety to join in the chorus. Brilliant performance of prelude to the Judge's song in ''Trial by Jury'' by nervous Pianist. Moment arrives for Harris to join in. Harris takes no notice of it. Nervous pianist commences prelude over again, and Harris, commencing singing at the same time, dashes off the first two lines of the First Lord's song out of ''Pinafore.'' Nervous pianist tries to push on with prelude, gives it up, and tries to follow Harris with accompaniment to Judge's song out ''Trial by Jury,'' finds that doesn't answer, and tries to recollect what he is doing, and where he is, feels his mind giving way, and stops short.]

HARRIS (WITH KINDLY ENCOURAGEMENT): ''It's all right. You're doing it very well, indeed Ц go on.''

NERVOUS PIANIST: ''I'm afraid there's a mistake somewhere. What are you singing?''

HARRIS (PROMPTLY): ''Why the Judge's song out of Trial by Jury. Don't you know it?''

SOME FRIEND OF HARRIS'S (FROM THE BACK OF THE ROOM): ''No, you're not, you chuckle-head, you're singing the Admiral's song from PINAFORE.''

[Long argument between Harris and Harris's friend as to what Harris is really singing. Friend finally suggests that it doesn't matter what Harris is singing so long as Harris gets on and sings it, and Harris, with an evident sense of injustice rankling inside him, requests pianist to begin again. Pianist, thereupon, starts prelude to the Admiral's song, and Harris, seizing what he considers to be a favourable opening in the music, begins.]

HARRIS:

'' When I was young and called to the Bar.''

[GENERAL ROAR OF LAUGHTER, TAKEN BY HARRIS AS A COMPLIMENT. PIANIST, THINKING OF HIS WIFE AND FAMILY, GIVES UP THE UNEQUAL CONTEST AND RETIRES; HIS PLACE BEING TAKEN BY A STRONGER-NERVED MAN.]

THE NEW PIANIST (CHEERILY): ''Now then, old man, you start off, and I'll follow. We won't bother about any prelude.''

HARRIS (UPON WHOM THE EXPLANATION OF MATTERS HAS SLOWLY DAWNED Ц LAUGHING): ''By Jove! I beg your pardon. Of course Ц I've been mixing up the two songs. It was Jenkins confused me, you know. Now then.

[SINGING; HIS VOICE APPEARING TO COME FROM THE CELLAR, AND SUGGESTING THE FIRST LOW WARNINGS OF AN APPROACHING EARTHQUAKE.]

''When I was young I served a term As office-boy to an attorney's firm.''

(Aside to pianist): ''It is too low, old man; we'll have that over again, if you don't mind.'' SINGS FIRST TWO LINES OVER AGAIN, IN A HIGH FALSETTO THIS TIME. GREAT SURPRISE ON THE PART OF THE AUDIENCE. NERVOUS OLD LADY NEAR THE FIRE BEGINS TO CRY, AND HAS TO BE LED OUT.

HARRIS (continuing):

''I swept the windows and I swept the door, And I Ц ''

No Ц no, I cleaned the windows of the big front door. And I polished up the floor Ц no, dash it Ц I beg your pardon Ц funny thing, I can't think of that line. And I Ц and I Ц Oh, well, we'll get on to the chorus, and chance it (SINGS):

`And I diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-de, Till now I am the ruler of the Queen's navee.'

Now then, chorus Ц it is the last two lines repeated, you know.

GENERAL CHORUS:

''And he diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-diddle-dee'd, Till now he is the ruler of the Queen's navee.''

And Harris never sees what an ass he is making of himself, and how he is annoying a lot of people who never did him any harm. He honestly imagines that he has given them a treat, and says he will sing another comic song after supper.

Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted; which, as it throws much light upon the inner mental working of human nature in general, ought, I think, to be recorded in these pages.

We were a fashionable and highly cultured party. We had on our best clothes, and we talked pretty, and were very happy Ц all except two young fellows, students, just returned from Germany, commonplace young men, who seemed restless and uncomfortable, as if they found the proceedings slow. The truth was, we were too clever for them. Our brilliant but polished conversation, and our high-class tastes, were beyond them. They were out of place, among us. They never ought to have been there at all. Everybody agreed upon that, later on.

We played MORCEAUX from the old German masters. We discussed philosophy and ethics. We flirted with graceful dignity. We were even humorous Ц in a high-class way.

Somebody recited a French poem after supper, and we said it was beautiful; and then a lady sang a sentimental ballad in Spanish, and it made one or two of us weep Ц it was so pathetic.

And then those two young men got up, and asked us if we had ever heard Herr Slossenn Boschen (who had just arrived, and was then down in the supper-room) sing his great German comic song.

None of us had heard it, that we could remember.

The young men said it was the funniest song that had ever been written, and that, if we liked, they would get Herr Slossenn Boschen, whom they knew very well, to sing it. They said it was so funny that, when Herr Slossenn Boschen had sung it once before the German Emperor, he (the German Emperor) had had to be carried off to bed.

They said nobody could sing it like Herr Slossenn Boschen; he was so intensely serious all through it that you might fancy he was reciting a tragedy, and that, of course, made it all the funnier. They said he never once suggested by his tone or manner that he was singing anything funny Ц that would spoil it. It was his air of seriousness, almost of pathos, that made it so irresistibly amusing.

We said we yearned to hear it, that we wanted a good laugh; and they went downstairs, and fetched Herr Slossenn Boschen.

He appeared to be quite pleased to sing it, for he came up at once, and sat down to the piano without another word.

''Oh, it will amuse you. You will laugh,'' whispered the two young men, as they passed through the room, and took up an unobtrusive position behind the Professor's back.

Herr Slossenn Boschen accompanied himself. The prelude did not suggest a comic song exactly. It was a weird, soulful air. It quite made one's flesh creep; but we murmured to one another that it was the German method, and prepared to enjoy it.

I don't understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since. Still, I did not want the people there to guess my ignorance; so I hit upon what I thought to be rather a good idea. I kept my eye on the two young students, and followed them. When they tittered, I tittered; when they roared, I roared; and I also threw in a little snigger all by myself now and then, as if I had seen a bit of humour that had escaped the others. I considered this particularly artful on my part.

I noticed, as the song progressed, that a good many other people seemed to have their eye fixed on the two young men, as well as myself. These other people also tittered when the young men tittered, and roared when the young men roared; and, as the two young men tittered and roared and exploded with laughter pretty continuously all through the song, it went exceedingly well.

And yet that German Professor did not seem happy. At first, when we began to laugh, the expression of his face was one of intense surprise, as if laughter were the very last thing he had expected to be greeted with. We thought this very funny: we said his earnest manner was half the humour. The slightest hint on his part that he knew how funny he was would have completely ruined it all. As we continued to laugh, his surprise gave way to an air of annoyance and indignation, and he scowled fiercely round upon us all (except upon the two young men who, being behind him, he could not see). That sent us into convulsions. We told each other that it would be the death of us, this thing. The words alone, we said, were enough to send us into fits, but added to his mock seriousness Ц oh, it was too much!

In the last verse, he surpassed himself. He glowered round upon us with a look of such concentrated ferocity that, but for our being forewarned as to the German method of comic singing, we should have been nervous; and he threw such a wailing note of agony into the weird music that, if we had not known it was a funny song, we might have wept.

He finished amid a perfect shriek of laughter. We said it was the funniest thing we had ever heard in all our lives. We said how strange it was that, in the face of things like these, there should be a popular notion that the Germans hadn't any sense of humour. And we asked the Professor why he didn't translate the song into English, so that the common people could understand it, and hear what a real comic song was like.

Then Herr Slossenn Boschen got up, and went on awful. He swore at us in German (which I should judge to be a singularly effective language for that purpose), and he danced, and shook his fists, and called us all the English he knew. He said he had never been so insulted in all his life.

It appeared that the song was not a comic song at all. It was about a young girl who lived in the Hartz Mountains, and who had given up her life to save her lover's soul; and he died, and met her spirit in the air; and then, in the last verse, he jilted her spirit, and went on with another spirit Ц I'm not quite sure of the details, but it was something very sad, I know. Herr Boschen said he had sung it once before the German Emperor, and he (the German Emperor) had sobbed like a little child. He (Herr Boschen) said it was generally acknowledged to be one of the most tragic and pathetic songs in the German language.

Title: Three Men in a Boat
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
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