The Angel and the Author by Jerome K. Jerome - HTML preview

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CHAPTER VI

[Fire and the Foreigner.]

They are odd folk, these foreigners. There are moments of despair when I almost give them up--feel I don't care what becomes of them-- feel as if I could let them muddle on in their own way--wash my hands of them, so to speak, and attend exclusively to my own business: we all have our days of feebleness. They will sit outside a cafe on a freezing night, with an east wind blowing, and play dominoes. They will stand outside a tramcar, rushing through the icy air at fifteen miles an hour, and refuse to go inside, even to oblige a lady. Yet in railway carriages, in which you could grill a bloater by the simple process of laying it underneath the seat, they will insist on the window being closed, light cigars to keep their noses warm, and sit with the collars of their fur coats buttoned up around their necks.

In their houses they keep the double windows hermetically sealed for three or four months at a time: and the hot air quivering about the stoves scorches your face if you venture nearer to it than a yard. Travel can broaden the mind. It can also suggest to the Britisher that in some respects his countrymen are nothing near so silly as they are supposed to be. There was a time when I used to sit with my legs stretched out before the English coal fire and listen with respectful attention while people who I thought knew all about it explained to me how wicked and how wasteful were our methods.

All the heat from that fire, they told me, was going up the chimney. I did not like to answer them that notwithstanding I felt warm and cosy. I feared it might be merely British stupidity that kept me warm and cosy, not the fire at all. How could it be the fire? The heat from the fire was going up the chimney. It was the glow of ignorance that was making my toes tingle. Besides, if by sitting close in front of the fire and looking hard at it, I did contrive, by hypnotic suggestion, maybe, to fancy myself warm, what should I feel like at the other end of the room?

It seemed like begging the question to reply that I had no particular use for the other end of the room, that generally speaking there was room enough about the fire for all the people I really cared for, that sitting altogether round the fire seemed quite as sensible as sulking by one's self in a corner the other end of the room, that the fire made a cheerful and convenient focus for family and friends. They pointed out to me how a stove, blocking up the centre of the room, with a dingy looking fluepipe wandering round the ceiling, would enable us to sit ranged round the walls, like patients in a hospital waiting- room, and use up coke and potato-peelings.

Since then I have had practical experience of the scientific stove. I want the old- fashioned, unsanitary, wasteful, illogical, open fireplace. I want the heat to go up the chimney, instead of stopping in the room and giving me a headache, and making everything go round. When I come in out of the snow I want to see a fire--something that says to me with a cheerful crackle, "Hallo, old man, cold outside, isn't it? Come and sit down. Come quite close and warm your hands. That's right, put your foot under him and persuade him to move a yard or two. That's all he's been doing for the last hour, lying there roasting himself, lazy little devil. He'll get softening of the spine, that's what will happen to him. Put your toes on the fender. The tea will be here in a minute."

[My British Stupidity.]

I want something that I can toast my back against, while standing with coat tails tucked up and my hands in my pockets, explaining things to people. I don't want a comfortless, staring, white thing, in a corner of the room, behind the sofa--a thing that looks and smells like a family tomb. It may be hygienic, and it may be hot, but it does not seem to do me any good. It has its advantages: it contains a cupboard into which you can put things to dry. You can also forget them, and leave them there. Then people complain of a smell of burning, and hope the house is not on fire, and you ease their mind by explaining to them that it is probably only your boots. Complicated internal arrangements are worked by a key. If you put on too much fuel, and do not work this key properly, the thing explodes. And if you do not put on any coal at all and the fire goes out suddenly, then likewise it explodes. That is the only way it knows of calling attention to itself. On the Continent you know when the fire wants seeing to merely by listening:

"Sounded like the dining-room, that last explosion," somebody remarks.

"I think not," observes another, "I distinctly felt the shock behind me--my bedroom, I expect."

Bits of ceiling begin to fall, and you notice that the mirror over the sideboard is slowly coming towards you.

"Why it must be this stove," you say; "curious how difficult it is to locate sound."

You snatch up the children and hurry out of the room. After a while, when things have settled down, you venture to look in again. Maybe it was only a mild explosion. A ten- pound note and a couple of plumbers in the house for a week will put things right again. They tell me they are economical, these German stoves, but you have got to understand them. I think I have learnt the trick of them at last: and I don't suppose, all told, it has cost me more than fifty pounds. And now I am trying to teach the rest of the family. What I complain about the family is that they do not seem anxious to learn.

"You do it," they say, pressing the coal scoop into my hand: "it makes us nervous."

It is a pretty, patriarchal idea: I stand between the trusting, admiring family and these explosive stoves that are the terror of their lives. They gather round me in a group and watch me, the capable, all-knowing Head who fears no foreign stove. But there are days when I get tired of going round making up fires.

Nor is it sufficient to understand only one particular stove. The practical foreigner prides himself upon having various stoves, adapted to various work. Hitherto I have been speaking only of the stove supposed to be best suited to reception rooms and bedrooms. The hall is provided with another sort of stove altogether: an iron stove this, that turns up its nose at coke and potato-peelings. If you give it anything else but the best coal it explodes. It is like living surrounded by peppery old colonels, trying to pass a peaceful winter among these passionate stoves. There is a stove in the kitchen to be used only for roasting: this one will not look at anything else but wood. Give it a bit of coal, meaning to be kind, and before you are out of the room it has exploded.

Then there is a trick stove specially popular in Belgium. It has a little door at the top and another little door at the bottom, and looks like a pepper-caster. Whether it is happy or not depends upon those two little doors. There are times when it feels it wants the bottom door shut and the top door open, or vice versa, or both open at the same time, or both shut--it is a fussy little stove.

Ordinary intelligence does not help you much with this stove. You want to be bred in the country. It is a question of instinct: you have to have Belgian blood in your veins to get on comfortably with it. On the whole, it is a mild little stove, this Belgian pet. It does not often explode: it only gets angry, and throws its cover into the air, and flings hot coals about the room. It lives, generally speaking, inside an iron cupboard with two doors. When you want it, you open these doors, and pull it out into the room. It works on a swivel. And when you don't want it you try to push it back again, and then the whole thing tumbles over, and the girl throws her hands up to Heaven and says, "Mon Dieu!" and screams for the cook and the femme journee, and they all three say "Mon Dieu!" and fall upon it with buckets of water. By the time everything has been extinguished you have made up your mind to substitute for it just the ordinary explosive stove to which you are accustomed.

[I am considered Cold and Mad.]

In your own house you can, of course, open the windows, and thus defeat the foreign stove. The rest of the street thinks you mad, but then the Englishman is considered by all foreigners to be always mad. It is his privilege to be mad. The street thinks no worse of you than it did before, and you can breathe in comfort. But in the railway carriage they don't allow you to be mad. In Europe, unless you are prepared to draw at sight upon the other passengers, throw the conductor out of the window, and take the train in by yourself, it is useless arguing the question of fresh air. The rule abroad is that if any one man objects to the window being open, the window remains closed. He does not quarrel with you: he rings the bell, and points out to the conductor that the temperature of the carriage has sunk to little more than ninety degrees, Fahrenheit. He thinks a window must be open.

The conductor is generally an old soldier: he understands being shot, he understands being thrown out of window, but not the laws of sanitation. If, as I have explained, you shoot him, or throw him out on the permanent way, that convinces him. He leaves you to discuss the matter with the second conductor, who, by your action, has now, of course, become the first conductor. As there are generally half a dozen of these conductors scattered about the train, the process of educating them becomes monotonous. You generally end by submitting to the law.

Unless you happen to be an American woman. Never did my heart go out more gladly to America as a nation than one spring day travelling from Berne to Vevey. We had been sitting for an hour in an atmosphere that would have rendered a Dante disinclined to notice things. Dante, after ten minutes in that atmosphere, would have lost all interest in the show. He would not have asked questions. He would have whispered to Virgil:

"Get me out of this, old man, there's a good fellow!"

[Sometimes I wish I were an American Woman.]

The carriage was crowded, chiefly with Germans. Every window was closed, every ventilator shut. The hot air quivered round our feet Seventeen men and four women were smoking, two children were sucking peppermints, and an old married couple were eating their lunch, consisting chiefly of garlic. At a junction, the door was thrown open. The foreigner opens the door a little way, glides in, and closes it behind him. This was not a foreigner, but an American lady, en voyage, accompanied by five other American ladies. They marched in carrying packages. They could not find six seats together, so they scattered up and down the carriage. The first thing that each woman did, the moment she could get her hands free, was to dash for the nearest window and haul it down.

"Astonishes me," said the first woman, "that somebody is not dead in this carriage."

Their idea, I think, was that through asphyxiation we had become comatose, and, but for their entrance, would have died unconscious.

"It is a current of air that is wanted," said another of the ladies.

So they opened the door at the front of the carriage and four of them stood outside on the platform, chatting pleasantly and admiring the scenery, while two of them opened the door at the other end, and took photographs of the Lake of Geneva. The carriage rose and cursed them in six languages. Bells were rung: conductors came flying in. It was all of no use. Those American ladies were cheerful but firm. They argued with volubility: they argued standing in the open doorway. The conductors, familiar, no doubt, with the American lady and her ways, shrugged their shoulders and retired. The other passengers undid their bags and bundles, and wrapped themselves up in shawls and Jaeger nightshirts.

I met the ladies afterwards in Lausanne. They told me they had been condemned to a fine of forty francs apiece. They also explained to me that they had not the slightest intention of paying it.