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Jerome K. Jerome >> Three Men in a Boat (page 18)


Old ladies, not accustomed to the river, are always intensely nervous of steam launches. I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities with a party containing three ladies of this description. It was very exciting. At the first glimpse of every steam launch that came in view, they insisted on landing and sitting down on the bank until it was out of sight again. They said they were very sorry, but that they owed it to their families not to be fool-hardy.

We found ourselves short of water at Hambledon Lock; so we took our jar and went up to the lock-keeper's house to beg for some.

George was our spokesman. He put on a winning smile, and said:

''Oh, please could you spare us a little water?''

''Certainly,'' replied the old gentleman; ''take as much as you want, and leave the rest.''

''Thank you so much,'' murmured George, looking about him. ''Where where do you keep it?''

''It's always in the same place my boy,'' was the stolid reply: ''just behind you.''

''I don't see it,'' said George, turning round.

''Why, bless us, where's your eyes?'' was the man's comment, as he twisted George round and pointed up and down the stream. ''There's enough of it to see, ain't there?''

''Oh!'' exclaimed George, grasping the idea; ''but we can't drink the river, you know!''

''No; but you can drink SOME of it,'' replied the old fellow. ''It's what I've drunk for the last fifteen years.''

George told him that his appearance, after the course, did not seem a sufficiently good advertisement for the brand; and that he would prefer it out of a pump.

We got some from a cottage a little higher up. I daresay THAT was only river water, if we had known. But we did not know, so it was all right. What the eye does not see, the stomach does not get upset over.

We tried river water once, later on in the season, but it was not a success. We were coming down stream, and had pulled up to have tea in a backwater near Windsor. Our jar was empty, and it was a case of going without our tea or taking water from the river. Harris was for chancing it. He said it must be all right if we boiled the water. He said that the various germs of poison present in the water would be killed by the boiling. So we filled our kettle with Thames backwater, and boiled it; and very careful we were to see that it did boil.

We had made the tea, and were just settling down comfortably to drink it, when George, with his cup half-way to his lips, paused and exclaimed:

''What's that?''

''What's what?'' asked Harris and I.

''Why that!'' said George, looking westward.

Harris and I followed his gaze, and saw, coming down towards us on the sluggish current, a dog. It was one of the quietest and peacefullest dogs I have ever seen. I never met a dog who seemed more contented more easy in its mind. It was floating dreamily on its back, with its four legs stuck up straight into the air. It was what I should call a full-bodied dog, with a well-developed chest. On he came, serene, dignified, and calm, until he was abreast of our boat, and there, among the rushes, he eased up, and settled down cosily for the evening.

George said he didn't want any tea, and emptied his cup into the water. Harris did not feel thirsty, either, and followed suit. I had drunk half mine, but I wished I had not.

I asked George if he thought I was likely to have typhoid.

He said: ''Oh, no;'' he thought I had a very good chance indeed of escaping it. Anyhow, I should know in about a fortnight, whether I had or had not.

We went up the backwater to Wargrave. It is a short cut, leading out of the right-hand bank about half a mile above Marsh Lock, and is well worth taking, being a pretty, shady little piece of stream, besides saving nearly half a mile of distance.

Of course, its entrance is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters I wonder some of these riparian boors don't claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

Half-way up the backwater, we got out and lunched; and it was during this lunch that George and I received rather a trying shock.

Harris received a shock, too; but I do not think Harris's shock could have been anything like so bad as the shock that George and I had over the business.

You see, it was in this way: we were sitting in a meadow, about ten yards from the water's edge, and we had just settled down comfortably to feed. Harris had the beefsteak pie between his knees, and was carving it, and George and I were waiting with our plates ready.

''Have you got a spoon there?'' says Harris; ''I want a spoon to help the gravy with.''

The hamper was close behind us, and George and I both turned round to reach one out. We were not five seconds getting it. When we looked round again, Harris and the pie were gone!

It was a wide, open field. There was not a tree or a bit of hedge for hundreds of yards. He could not have tumbled into the river, because we were on the water side of him, and he would have had to climb over us to do it.

George and I gazed all about. Then we gazed at each other.

''Has he been snatched up to heaven?'' I queried.

''They'd hardly have taken the pie too,'' said George.

There seemed weight in this objection, and we discarded the heavenly theory.

''I suppose the truth of the matter is,'' suggested George, descending to the commonplace and practicable, ''that there has been an earthquake.''

And then he added, with a touch of sadness in his voice: ''I wish he hadn't been carving that pie.''

With a sigh, we turned our eyes once more towards the spot where Harris and the pie had last been seen on earth; and there, as our blood froze in our veins and our hair stood up on end, we saw Harris's head and nothing but his head sticking bolt upright among the tall grass, the face very red, and bearing upon it an expression of great indignation!

George was the first to recover.

''Speak!'' he cried, ''and tell us whether you are alive or dead and where is the rest of you?''

''Oh, don't be a stupid ass!'' said Harris's head. ''I believe you did it on purpose.''

''Did what?'' exclaimed George and I.

'' Why, put me to sit here darn silly trick! Here, catch hold of the pie.''

And out of the middle of the earth, as it seemed to us, rose the pie very much mixed up and damaged; and, after it, scrambled Harris tumbled, grubby, and wet.

He had been sitting, without knowing it, on the very verge of a small gully, the long grass hiding it from view; and in leaning a little back he had shot over, pie and all.

He said he had never felt so surprised in all his life, as when he first felt himself going, without being able to conjecture in the slightest what had happened. He thought at first that the end of the world had come.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ''Who shall escape calumny?''

Who, indeed!

CHAPTER XIV.

WARGRAVE. WAXWORKS. SONNING. OUR STEW. MONTMORENCY IS SARCASTIC.

FIGHT BETWEEN MONTMORENCY AND THE TEA-KETTLE. GEORGE'S BANJO STUDIES. MEET WITH DISCOURAGEMENT. DIFFICULTIES IN THE WAY OF THE MUSICAL AMATEUR. LEARNING TO PLAY THE BAGPIPES. HARRIS FEELS SAD AFTER SUPPER. GEORGE AND I GO FOR A WALK. RETURN HUNGRY AND WET. THERE IS A STRANGENESS ABOUT HARRIS. HARRIS AND THE SWANS, A REMARKABLE STORY. HARRIS HAS A TROUBLED NIGHT.

WE caught a breeze, after lunch, which took us gently up past Wargrave and Shiplake. Mellowed in the drowsy sunlight of a summer's afternoon, Wargrave, nestling where the river bends, makes a sweet old picture as you pass it, and one that lingers long upon the retina of memory.

The ''George and Dragon'' at Wargrave boasts a sign, painted on the one side by Leslie, R.A., and on the other by Hodgson of that ilk. Leslie has depicted the fight; Hodgson has imagined the scene, ''After the Fight'' George, the work done, enjoying his pint of beer.

Day, the author of SANDFORD AND MERTON, lived and more credit to the place still was killed at Wargrave. In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ''have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.'' Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

It is rumoured in the town that once, many years ago, a boy appeared who really never had done these things or at all events, which was all that was required or could be expected, had never been known to do them and thus won the crown of glory. He was exhibited for three weeks afterwards in the Town Hall, under a glass case.

What has become of the money since no one knows. They say it is always handed over to the nearest wax-works show.

Shiplake is a pretty village, but it cannot be seen from the river, being upon the hill. Tennyson was married in Shiplake Church.

The river up to Sonning winds in and out through many islands, and is very placid, hushed, and lonely. Few folk, except at twilight, a pair or two of rustic lovers, walk along its banks. `Arry and Lord Fitznoodle have been left behind at Henley, and dismal, dirty Reading is not yet reached. It is a part of the river in which to dream of bygone days, and vanished forms and faces, and things that might have been, but are not, confound them.

We got out at Sonning, and went for a walk round the village. It is the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river. It is more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar. Every house is smothered in roses, and now, in early June, they were bursting forth in clouds of dainty splendour. If you stop at Sonning, put up at the ''Bull,'' behind the church. It is a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.

We roamed about sweet Sonning for an hour or so, and then, it being too late to push on past Reading, we decided to go back to one of the Shiplake islands, and put up there for the night. It was still early when we got settled, and George said that, as we had plenty of time, it would be a splendid opportunity to try a good, slap-up supper. He said he would show us what could be done up the river in the way of cooking, and suggested that, with the vegetables and the remains of the cold beef and general odds and ends, we should make an Irish stew.

It seemed a fascinating idea. George gathered wood and made a fire, and Harris and I started to peel the potatoes. I should never have thought that peeling potatoes was such an undertaking. The job turned out to be the biggest thing of its kind that I had ever been in. We began cheerfully, one might almost say skittishly, but our light-heartedness was gone by the time the first potato was finished. The more we peeled, the more peel there seemed to be left on; by the time we had got all the peel off and all the eyes out, there was no potato left at least none worth speaking of. George came and had a look at it it was about the size of a pea-nut. He said:

''Oh, that won't do! You're wasting them. You must scrape them.''

So we scraped them, and that was harder work than peeling. They are such an extraordinary shape, potatoes all bumps and warts and hollows. We worked steadily for five-and-twenty minutes, and did four potatoes. Then we struck. We said we should require the rest of the evening for scraping ourselves.

I never saw such a thing as potato-scraping for making a fellow in a mess. It seemed difficult to believe that the potato-scrapings in which Harris and I stood, half smothered, could have come off four potatoes. It shows you what can be done with economy and care.

George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. George stirred it all up, and then he said that there seemed to be a lot of room to spare, so we overhauled both the hampers, and picked out all the odds and ends and the remnants, and added them to the stew. There were half a pork pie and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put

CHAPTER XV.

HOUSEHOLD DUTIES. LOVE OF WORK. THE OLD RIVER HAND, WHAT HE DOES AND WHAT HE TELLS YOU HE HAS DONE. SCEPTICISM OF THE NEW GENERATION. EARLY BOATING RECOLLECTIONS. RAFTING. GEORGE DOES THE THING IN STYLE. THE OLD BOATMAN, HIS METHOD. SO CALM, SO FULL OF PEACE. THE BEGINNER. PUNTING. A SAD ACCIDENT. PLEASURES OF FRIENDSHIP. SAILING, MY FIRST EXPERIENCE. POSSIBLE REASON WHY WE WERE NOT DROWNED.

We woke late the next morning, and, at Harris's earnest desire, partook of a plain breakfast, with ''non dainties.'' Then we cleaned up, and put everything straight (a continual labour, which was beginning to afford me a pretty clear insight into a question that had often posed me namely, how a woman with the work of only one house on her hands manages to pass away her time), and, at about ten, set out on what we had determined should be a good day's journey.

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