English Literature » Jerome K. Jerome » The Minor Poet’s Story

The Minor Poet’s Story by

“It doesn’t suit you at all,” I answered.

“You’re very disagreeable,” said she, “I shan’t ever ask your advice again.”

“Nobody,” I hastened to add, “would look well in it. You, of course, look less awful in it than any other woman would, but it’s not your style.”

“He means,” exclaimed the Minor Poet, “that the thing itself not being pre-eminently beautiful, it does not suit, is not in agreement with you. The contrast between you and anything approaching the ugly or the commonplace, is too glaring to be aught else than displeasing.”

“He didn’t say it,” replied the Woman of the World; “and besides it isn’t ugly. It’s the very latest fashion.”

“Why is it,” asked the Philosopher, “that women are such slaves to fashion? They think clothes, they talk clothes, they read clothes, yet they have never understood clothes. The purpose of dress, after the primary object of warmth has been secured, is to adorn, to beautify the particular wearer. Yet not one woman in a thousand stops to consider what colours will go best with her complexion, what cut will best hide the defects or display the advantages of her figure. If it be the fashion, she must wear it. And so we have pale-faced girls looking ghastly in shades suitable to dairy-maids, and dots waddling about in costumes fit and proper to six-footers. It is as if crows insisted on wearing cockatoo’s feathers on their heads, and rabbits ran about with peacocks’ tails fastened behind them.”

“And are not you men every bit as foolish?” retorted the Girton Girl. “Sack coats come into fashion, and dumpy little men trot up and down in them, looking like butter-tubs on legs. You go about in July melting under frock-coats and chimney-pot hats, and because it is the stylish thing to do, you all play tennis in still shirts and stand-up collars, which is idiotic. If fashion decreed that you should play cricket in a pair of top-boots and a diver’s helmet, you would play cricket in a pair of top-boots and a diver’s helmet, and dub every sensible fellow who didn’t a cad. It’s worse in you than in us; men are supposed to think for themselves, and to be capable of it, the womanly woman isn’t.”

“Big women and little men look well in nothing,” said the Woman of the World. “Poor Emily was five foot ten and a half, and never looked an inch under seven foot, whatever she wore. Empires came into fashion, and the poor child looked like the giant’s baby in a pantomime. We thought the Greek might help her, but it only suggested a Crystal Palace statue tied up in a sheet, and tied up badly; and when puff-sleeves and shoulder-capes were in and Teddy stood up behind her at a water-party and sang ‘Under the spreading chestnut-tree,’ she took it as a personal insult and boxed his ears. Few men liked to be seen with her, and I’m sure George proposed to her partly with the idea of saving himself the expense of a step-ladder, she reaches down his boots for him from the top shelf.”

“I,” said the Minor Poet, “take up the position of not wanting to waste my brain upon the subject. Tell me what to wear, and I will wear it, and there is an end of the matter. If Society says, ‘Wear blue shirts and white collars,’ I wear blue shirts and white collars. If she says, ‘The time has now come when hats should be broad-brimmed,’ I take unto myself a broad-brimmed hat. The question does not interest me sufficiently for me to argue it. It is your fop who refuses to follow fashion. He wishes to attract attention to himself by being peculiar. A novelist whose books pass unnoticed, gains distinction by designing his own necktie; and many an artist, following the line of least resistance, learns to let his hair grow instead of learning to paint.”

“The fact is,” remarked the Philosopher, “we are the mere creatures of fashion. Fashion dictates to us our religion, our morality, our affections, our thoughts. In one age successful cattle-lifting is a virtue, a few hundred years later company-promoting takes its place as a respectable and legitimate business. In England and America Christianity is fashionable, in Turkey, Mohammedanism, and ‘the crimes of Clapham are chaste in Martaban.’ In Japan a woman dresses down to the knees, but would be considered immodest if she displayed bare arms. In Europe it is legs that no pure-minded woman is supposed to possess. In China we worship our mother-in-law and despise our wife; in England we treat our wife with respect, and regard our mother-in-law as the bulwark of comic journalism. The stone age, the iron age, the age of faith, the age of infidelism, the philosophic age, what are they but the passing fashions of the world? It is fashion, fashion, fashion wherever we turn. Fashion waits beside our cradle to lead us by the hand through life. Now literature is sentimental, now hopefully humorous, now psychological, now new-womanly. Yesterday’s pictures are the laughing-stock of the up-to-date artist of to-day, and to-day’s art will be sneered at to-morrow. Now it is fashionable to be democratic, to pretend that no virtue or wisdom can exist outside corduroy, and to abuse the middle classes. One season we go slumming, and the next we are all socialists. We think we are thinking; we are simply dressing ourselves up in words we do not understand for the gods to laugh at us.”

“Don’t be pessimistic,” retorted the Minor Poet, “pessimism is going out. You call such changes fashions, I call them the footprints of progress. Each phase of thought is an advance upon the former, bringing the footsteps of the many nearer to the landmarks left by the mighty climbers of the past upon the mountain paths of truth. The crowd that was satisfied with The Derby Day now appreciates Millet. The public that were content to wag their heads to The Bohemian Girl have made Wagner popular.”

“And the play lovers, who stood for hours to listen to Shakespeare,” interrupted the Philosopher, “now crowd to music-halls.”

“The track sometimes descends for a little way, but it will wind upwards again,” returned the Poet. “The music-hall itself is improving; I consider it the duty of every intellectual man to visit such places. The mere influence of his presence helps to elevate the tone of the performance. I often go myself!”

“I was looking,” said the Woman of the World, “at some old illustrated papers of thirty years ago, showing the men dressed in those very absurd trousers, so extremely roomy about the waist, and so extremely tight about the ankles. I recollect poor papa in them; I always used to long to fill them out by pouring in sawdust at the top.”

“You mean the peg-top period,” I said. “I remember them distinctly myself, but it cannot be more than three-and-twenty years ago at the outside.”

“That is very nice of you,” replied the Woman of the World, “and shows more tact than I should have given you credit for. It could, as you say, have been only twenty-three years ago. I know I was a very little girl at the time. I think there must be some subtle connection between clothes and thought. I cannot imagine men in those trousers and Dundreary whiskers talking as you fellows are talking now, any more than I could conceive of a woman in a crinoline and a poke bonnet smoking a cigarette. I think it must be so, because dear mother used to be the most easy-going woman in the world in her ordinary clothes, and would let papa smoke all over the house. But about once every three weeks she would put on a hideous old-fashioned black silk dress, that looked as if Queen Elizabeth must have slept in it during one of those seasons when she used to go about sleeping anywhere, and then we all had to sit up. ‘Look out, ma’s got her black silk dress on,’ came to be a regular formula. We could always make papa take us out for a walk or a drive by whispering it to him.”

“I can never bear to look at those pictures of by-gone fashions,” said the Old Maid, “I see the by-gone people in them, and it makes me feel as though the faces that we love are only passing fashions with the rest. We wear them for a little while upon our hearts, and think so much of them, and then there comes a time when we lay them by, and forget them, and newer faces take their place, and we are satisfied. It seems so sad.”

“I wrote a story some years ago,” remarked the Minor Poet, “about a young Swiss guide, who was betrothed to a laughing little French peasant girl.”

“Named Suzette,” interrupted the Girton Girl. “I know her. Go on.”

“Named Jeanne,” corrected the Poet, “the majority of laughing French girls, in fiction, are named Suzette, I am well aware. But this girl’s mother’s family was English. She was christened Jeanne after an aunt Jane, who lived in Birmingham, and from whom she had expectations.”

“I beg your pardon,” apologised the Girton Girl, “I was not aware of that fact. What happened to her?”

“One morning, a few days before the date fixed for the wedding,” said the Minor Poet, “she started off to pay a visit to a relative living in the village, the other side of the mountain. It was a dangerous track, climbing half-way up the mountain before it descended again, and skirting more than one treacherous slope, but the girl was mountain born and bred, sure-footed as a goat, and no one dreamed of harm.”

“She went over, of course,” said the Philosopher, “those sure-footed girls always do.”

“What happened,” replied the Minor Poet, “was never known. The girl was never seen again.”

“And what became of her lover?” asked the Girton Girl. “Was he, when next year’s snow melted, and the young men of the village went forth to gather Edelweiss, wherewith to deck their sweethearts, found by them dead, beside her, at the bottom of the crevasse?”

“No,” said the Poet; “you do not know this story, you had better let me tell it. Her lover returned the morning before the wedding day, to be met with the news. He gave way to no sign of grief, he repelled all consolation. Taking his rope and axe he went up into the mountain by himself. All through the winter he haunted the track by which she must have travelled, indifferent to the danger that he ran, impervious apparently to cold, or hunger, or fatigue, undeterred by storm, or mist, or avalanche. At the beginning of the spring he returned to the village, purchased building utensils, and day after day carried them back with him up into the mountain. He hired no labour, he rejected the proffered assistance of his brother guides. Choosing an almost inaccessible spot, at the edge of the great glacier, far from all paths, he built himself a hut, with his own hands; and there for eighteen years he lived alone.

“In the ‘season’ he earned good fees, being known far and wide as one of the bravest and hardiest of all the guides, but few of his clients liked him, for he was a silent, gloomy man, speaking little, and with never a laugh or jest on the journey. Each fall, having provisioned himself, he would retire to his solitary hut, and bar the door, and no human soul would set eyes on him again until the snows melted.

“One year, however, as the spring days wore on, and he did not appear among the guides, as was his wont, the elder men, who remembered his story and pitied him, grew uneasy; and, after much deliberation, it was determined that a party of them should force their way up to his eyrie. They cut their path across the ice where no foot among them had trodden before, and finding at length the lonely snow-encompassed hut, knocked loudly with their axe-staves on the door; but only the whirling echoes from the glacier’s thousand walls replied, so the foremost put his strong shoulder to the worn timber and the door flew open with a crash.

“They found him dead, as they had more than half expected, lying stiff and frozen on the rough couch at the farther end of the hut; and, beside him, looking down upon him with a placid face, as a mother might watch beside her sleeping child, stood Jeanne. She wore the flowers pinned to her dress that she had gathered when their eyes had last seen her. The girl’s face that had laughed back to their good-bye in the village, nineteen years ago.

“A strange steely light clung round her, half illuminating, half obscuring her, and the men drew back in fear, thinking they saw a vision, till one, bolder than the rest, stretched out his hand and touched the ice that formed her coffin.

“For eighteen years the man had lived there with this face that he had loved. A faint flush still lingered on the fair cheeks, the laughing lips were still red. Only at one spot, above her temple, the wavy hair lay matted underneath a clot of blood.”

The Minor Poet ceased.

“What a very unpleasant way of preserving one’s love!” said the Girton Girl.

“When did the story appear?” I asked. “I don’t remember reading it.”

“I never published it,” explained the Minor Poet. “Within the same week two friends of mine, one of whom had just returned from Norway and the other from Switzerland, confided to me their intention of writing stories about girls who had fallen into glaciers, and who had been found by their friends long afterwards, looking as good as new; and a few days later I chanced upon a book, the heroine of which had been dug out of a glacier alive three hundred years after she had fallen in. There seemed to be a run on ice maidens, and I decided not to add to their number.”

“It is curious,” said the Philosopher, “how there seems to be a fashion even in thought. An idea has often occurred to me that has seemed to me quite new, and taking up a newspaper I have found that some man in Russia or San Francisco has just been saying the very same thing in almost the very same words. We say a thing is ‘in the air’; it is more true than we are aware of. Thought does not grow in us. It is a thing apart, we simply gather it. All truths, all discoveries, all inventions, they have not come to us from any one man. The time grows ripe for them, and from this corner of the earth and from that, hands, guided by some instinct, grope for and grasp them. Buddha and Christ seize hold of the morality needful to civilisation, and promulgate it, unknown to one another, the one on the shores of the Ganges, the other by the Jordan. A dozen forgotten explorers, feeling America, prepared the way for Columbus to discover it. A deluge of blood is required to sweep away old follies, and Rousseau and Voltaire, and a myriad others are set to work to fashion the storm clouds. The steam-engine, the spinning loom is ‘in the air.’ A thousand brains are busy with them, a few go further than the rest. It is idle to talk of human thought; there is no such thing. Our minds are fed as our bodies with the food God has provided for us. Thought hangs by the wayside, and we pick it and cook it, and eat it, and cry out what clever ‘thinkers’ we are!”

“I cannot agree with you,” replied the Minor Poet, “if we were simply automata, as your argument would suggest, what was the purpose of creating us?”

“The intelligent portion of mankind has been asking itself that question for many ages,” returned the Philosopher.

“I hate people who always think as I do,” said the Girton Girl; “there was a girl in our corridor who never would disagree with me. Every opinion I expressed turned out to be her opinion also. It always irritated me.”

“That might have been weak-mindedness,” said the Old Maid, which sounded ambiguous.

“It is not so unpleasant as having a person always disagreeing with you,” said the Woman of the World. “My cousin Susan never would agree with any one. If I came down in red she would say, ‘Why don’t you try green, dear? every one says you look so well in green’; and when I wore green she would say, ‘Why have you given up red dear? I thought you rather fancied yourself in red.’ When I told her of my engagement to Tom, she burst into tears and said she couldn’t help it. She had always felt that George and I were intended for one another; and when Tom never wrote for two whole months, and behaved disgracefully in—in other ways, and I told her I was engaged to George, she reminded me of every word I had ever said about my affection for Tom, and of how I had ridiculed poor George. Papa used to say, ‘If any man ever tells Susan that he loves her, she will argue him out of it, and will never accept him until he has jilted her, and will refuse to marry him every time he asks her to fix the day.”’

“Is she married?” asked the Philosopher.

“Oh, yes,” answered the Woman of the World, “and is devoted to her children. She lets them do everything they don’t want to.”

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