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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

On The Disadvantage Of Not Getting What One Wants

Title:     On The Disadvantage Of Not Getting What One Wants
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

Long, long ago, when you and I, dear Reader, were young, when the fairies dwelt in the hearts of the roses, when the moonbeams bent each night beneath the weight of angels' feet, there lived a good, wise man. Or rather, I should say, there had lived, for at the time of which I speak the poor old gentleman lay dying. Waiting each moment the dread summons, he fell a-musing on the life that stretched far back behind him. How full it seemed to him at that moment of follies and mistakes, bringing bitter tears not to himself alone but to others also. How much brighter a road might it have been, had he been wiser, had he known!

"Ah, me!" said the good old gentleman, "if only I could live my life again in the light of experience."

Now as he spoke these words he felt the drawing near to him of a Presence, and thinking it was the One whom he expected, raising himself a little from his bed, he feebly cried,

"I am ready."

But a hand forced him gently back, a voice saying, "Not yet; I bring life, not death. Your wish shall be granted. You shall live your life again, and the knowledge of the past shall be with you to guide you. See you use it. I will come again."

Then a sleep fell upon the good man, and when he awoke, he was again a little child, lying in his mother's arms; but, locked within his brain was the knowledge of the life that he had lived already.

So once more he lived and loved and laboured. So a second time he lay an old, worn man with life behind him. And the angel stood again beside his bed; and the voice said,

"Well, are you content now?"

"I am well content," said the old gentleman. "Let Death come."

"And have you understood?" asked the angel.

"I think so," was the answer; "that experience is but as of the memory of the pathways he has trod to a traveller journeying ever onward into an unknown land. I have been wise only to reap the reward of folly. Knowledge has ofttimes kept me from my good. I have avoided my old mistakes only to fall into others that I knew not of. I have reached the old errors by new roads. Where I have escaped sorrow I have lost joy. Where I have grasped happiness I have plucked pain also. Now let me go with Death that I may learn.."

Which was so like the angel of that period, the giving of a gift, bringing to a man only more trouble. Maybe I am overrating my coolness of judgment under somewhat startling circumstances, but I am inclined to think that, had I lived in those days, and had a fairy or an angel come to me, wanting to give me something--my soul's desire, or the sum of my ambition, or any trifle of that kind I should have been short with him.

"You pack up that precious bag of tricks of yours," I should have said to him (it would have been rude, but that is how I should have felt), "and get outside with it. I'm not taking anything in your line to-day. I don't require any supernatural aid to get me into trouble. All the worry I want I can get down here, so it's no good your calling. You take that little joke of yours,--I don't know what it is, but I know enough not to want to know,--and run it off on some other idiot. I'm not priggish. I have no objection to an innocent game of 'catch-questions' in the ordinary way, and when I get a turn myself. But if I've got to pay every time, and the stakes are to be my earthly happiness plus my future existence--why, I don't play. There was the case of Midas; a nice, shabby trick you fellows played off upon him! making pretence you did not understand him, twisting round the poor old fellow's words, just for all the world as though you were a pack of Old Bailey lawyers, trying to trip up a witness; I'm ashamed of the lot of you, and I tell you so--coming down here, fooling poor unsuspecting mortals with your nonsense, as though we had not enough to harry us as it was. Then there was that other case of the poor old peasant couple to whom you promised three wishes, the whole thing ending in a black pudding. And they never got even that. You thought that funny, I suppose. That was your fairy humour! A pity, I say, you have not, all of you, something better to do with your time. As I said before, you take that celestial 'Joe Miller' of yours and work it off on somebody else. I have read my fairy lore, and I have read my mythology, and I don't want any of your blessings. And what's more, I'm not going to have them. When I want blessings I will put up with the usual sort we are accustomed to down here. You know the ones I mean, the disguised brand--the blessings that no human being would think were blessings, if he were not told; the blessings that don't look like blessings, that don't feel like blessings; that, as a matter of fact, are not blessings, practically speaking; the blessings that other people think are blessings for us and that we don't. They've got their drawbacks, but they are better than yours, at any rate, and they are sooner over. I don't want your blessings at any price. If you leave one here I shall simply throw it out after you."

I feel confident I should have answered in that strain, and I feel it would have done good. Somebody ought to have spoken plainly, because with fairies and angels of that sort fooling about, no one was ever safe for a moment. Children could hardly have been allowed outside the door. One never could have told what silly trick some would-be funny fairy might be waiting to play off on them. The poor child would not know, and would think it was getting something worth having. The wonder to me is that some of those angels didn't get tarred and feathered.

I am doubtful whether even Cinderella's luck was quite as satisfying as we are led to believe. After the carpetless kitchen and the black beetles, how beautiful the palace must have seemed--for the first year, perhaps for the first two. And the Prince! how loving, how gallant, how tender--for the first year, perhaps for the first two. And after? You see he was a Prince, brought up in a Court, the atmosphere of which is not conducive to the development of the domestic virtues; and she--was Cinderella. And then the marriage altogether was rather a hurried affair. Oh yes, she is a good, loving little woman; but perhaps our Royal Highness-ship did act too much on the impulse of the moment. It was her dear, dainty feet that danced their way into our heart. How they flashed and twinkled, eased in those fairy slippers. How like a lily among tulips she moved that night amid the over-gorgeous Court dames. She was so sweet, so fresh, so different to all the others whom we knew so well. How happy she looked as she put her trembling little hand in ours. What possibilities might lie behind those drooping lashes. And we were in amorous mood that night, the music in our feet, the flash and glitter in our eyes. And then, to pique us further, she disappeared as suddenly and strangely as she had come. Who was she? Whence came she? What was the mystery surrounding her? Was she only a delicious dream, a haunting phantasy that we should never look upon again, never clasp again within our longing arms? Was our heart to be for ever hungry, haunted by the memory of--No, by heavens, she is real, and a woman. Here is her dear slipper, made surely to be kissed. Of a size too that a man may well wear within the breast of his doublet. Had any woman--nay, fairy, angel, such dear feet! Search the whole kingdom through, but find her, find her. The gods have heard our prayers, and given us this clue. "Suppose she be not all she seemed. Suppose she be not of birth fit to mate with our noble house!" Out upon thee, for an earth-bound, blind curmudgeon of a Lord High Chancellor. How could a woman, whom such slipper fitted, be but of the noblest and the best, as far above us, mere Princelet that we are, as the stars in heaven are brighter than thy dull old eyes! Go, search the kingdom, we tell thee, from east to west, from north to south, and see to it that thou findest her, or it shall go hard with thee. By Venus, be she a swineherd's daughter, she shall be our Queen--an she deign to accept of us, and of our kingdom.

Ah well, of course, it was not a wise piece of business, that goes without saying; but we were young, and Princes are only human. Poor child, she could not help her education, or rather her lack of it. Dear little thing, the wonder is that she has contrived to be no more ignorant than she is, dragged up as she was, neglected and overworked. Nor does life in a kitchen, amid the companionship of peasants and menials, tend to foster the intellect. Who can blame her for being shy and somewhat dull of thought? not we, generous-minded, kind-hearted Prince that we are. And she is very affectionate. The family are trying, certainly; father-in-law not a bad sort, though a little prosy when upon the subject of his domestic troubles, and a little too fond of his glass; mamma-in-law, and those two ugly, ill-mannered sisters, decidedly a nuisance about the palace. Yet what can we do? they are our relations now, and they do not forget to let us know it. Well, well, we had to expect that, and things might have been worse. Anyhow she is not jealous--thank goodness.

So the day comes when poor little Cinderella sits alone of a night in the beautiful palace. The courtiers have gone home in their carriages. The Lord High Chancellor has bowed himself out backwards. The Gold-Stick-in-Waiting and the Grooms of the Chamber have gone to their beds. The Maids of Honour have said "Good-night," and drifted out of the door, laughing and whispering among themselves. The clock strikes twelve--one--two, and still no footstep creaks upon the stair. Once it followed swiftly upon the "good-night" of the maids, who did not laugh or whisper then.

At last the door opens, and the Prince enters, none too pleased at finding Cinderella still awake. "So sorry I'm late, my love--detained on affairs of state. Foreign policy very complicated, dear. Have only just this moment left the Council Chamber."

And little Cinderella, while the Prince sleeps, lies sobbing out her poor sad heart into the beautiful royal pillow, embroidered with the royal arms and edged with the royal monogram in lace. "Why did he ever marry me? I should have been happier in the old kitchen. The black beetles did frighten me a little, but there was always the dear old cat; and sometimes, when mother and the girls were out, papa would call softly down the kitchen stairs for me to come up, and we would have such a merry evening together, and sup off sausages: dear old dad, I hardly ever see him now. And then, when my work was done, how pleasant it was to sit in front of the fire, and dream of the wonderful things that would come to me some day. I was always going to be a Princess, even in my dreams, and live in a palace, but it was so different to this. Oh, how I hate it, this beastly palace where everybody sneers at me--I know they do, though they bow and scrape, and pretend to be so polite. And I'm not clever and smart as they are. I hate them. I hate these bold-faced women who are always here. That is the worst of a palace, everybody can come in. Oh, I hate everybody and everything. Oh, god-mamma, god-mamma, come and take me away. Take me back to my old kitchen. Give me back my old poor frock. Let me dance again with the fire-tongs for a partner, and be happy, dreaming."

Poor little Cinderella, perhaps it would have been better had god-mamma been less ambitious for you, dear; had you married some good, honest yeoman, who would never have known that you were not brilliant, who would have loved you because you were just amiable and pretty; had your kingdom been only a farmhouse, where your knowledge of domestic economy, gained so hardly, would have been useful; where you would have shone instead of being overshadowed; where Papa would have dropped in of an evening to smoke his pipe and escape from his domestic wrangles; where you would have been REAL Queen.

But then you know, dear, you would not have been content. Ah yes, with your present experience--now you know that Queens as well as little drudges have their troubles; but WITHOUT that experience? You would have looked in the glass when you were alone; you would have looked at your shapely hands and feet, and the shadows would have crossed your pretty face. "Yes," you would have said to yourself--"John is a dear, kind fellow, and I love him very much, and all that, but--" and the old dreams, dreamt in the old low-ceilinged kitchen before the dying fire, would have come back to you, and you would have been discontented then as now, only in a different way. Oh yes, you would, Cinderella, though you gravely shake your gold-crowned head. And let me tell you why. It is because you are a woman, and the fate of all us, men and women alike, is to be for ever wanting what we have not, and to be finding, when we have it, that it is not what we wanted. That is the law of life, dear. Do you think as you lie upon the floor with your head upon your arms, that you are the only woman whose tears are soaking into the hearthrug at that moment? My dear Princess, if you could creep unseen about your City, peeping at will through the curtain-shielded windows, you would come to think that all the world was little else than a big nursery full of crying children with none to comfort them. The doll is broken: no longer it sweetly squeaks in answer to our pressure, "I love you, kiss me." The drum lies silent with the drumstick inside; no longer do we make a brave noise in the nursery. The box of tea-things we have clumsily put our foot upon; there will be no more merry parties around the three-legged stool. The tin trumpet will not play the note we want to sound; the wooden bricks keep falling down; the toy cannon has exploded and burnt our fingers. Never mind, little man, little woman, we will try and mend things tomorrow.

And after all, Cinderella dear, you do live in a fine palace, and you have jewels and grand dresses and--No, no, do not be indignant with ME. Did not you dream of these things AS WELL AS of love? Come now, be honest. It was always a prince, was it not, or, at the least, an exceedingly well-to-do party, that handsome young gentleman who bowed to you so gallantly from the red embers? He was never a virtuous young commercial traveller, or cultured clerk, earning a salary of three pounds a week, was he, Cinderella? Yet there are many charming commercial travellers, many delightful clerks with limited incomes, quite sufficient, however, to a sensible man and woman desiring but each other's love. Why was it always a prince, Cinderella? Had the palace and the liveried servants, and the carriages and horses, and the jewels and the dresses, NOTHING to do with the dream?

No, Cinderella, you were human, that is all. The artist, shivering in his conventional attic, dreaming of Fame!-do you think he is not hoping she will come to his loving arms in the form Jove came to Danae? Do you think he is not reckoning also upon the good dinners and the big cigars, the fur coat and the diamond studs, that her visits will enable him to purchase?

There is a certain picture very popular just now. You may see it, Cinderella, in many of the shop-windows of the town. It is called "The Dream of Love," and it represents a beautiful young girl, sleeping in a very beautiful but somewhat disarranged bed. Indeed, one hopes, for the sleeper's sake, that the night is warm, and that the room is fairly free from draughts. A ladder of light streams down from the sky into the room, and upon this ladder crowd and jostle one another a small army of plump Cupids, each one laden with some pledge of love. Two of the Imps are emptying a sack of jewels upon the floor. Four others are bearing, well displayed, a magnificent dress (a "confection," I believe, is the proper term) cut somewhat low, but making up in train what is lacking elsewhere. Others bear bonnet boxes from which peep stylish toques and bewitching hoods. Some, representing evidently wholesale houses, stagger under silks and satins in the piece. Cupids are there from the shoemakers with the daintiest of bottines. Stockings, garters, and even less mentionable articles, are not forgotten. Caskets, mirrors, twelve-buttoned gloves, scent-bottles and handkerchiefs, hair-pins, and the gayest of parasols, has the God of Love piled into the arms of his messengers. Really a most practical, up-to-date God of Love, moving with the times! One feels that the modern Temple of Love must be a sort of Swan and Edgar's; the god himself a kind of celestial shop-walker; while his mother, Venus, no doubt superintends the costume department. Quite an Olympian Whiteley, this latter-day Eros; he has forgotten nothing, for, at the back of the picture, I notice one Cupid carrying a rather fat heart at the end of a string.

You, Cinderella, could give good counsel to that sleeping child. You would say to her--"Awake from such dreams. The contents of a pawnbroker's store-room will not bring you happiness. Dream of love if you will; that is a wise dream, even if it remain ever a dream. But these coloured beads, these Manchester goods! are you then--you, heiress of all the ages--still at heart only as some poor savage maiden but little removed above the monkeys that share the primeval forest with her? Will you sell your gold to the first trader that brings you THIS barter? These things, child, will only dazzle your eyes for a few days. Do you think the Burlington Arcade is the gate of Heaven?"

Ah, yes, I too could talk like that--I, writer of books, to the young lad, sick of his office stool, dreaming of a literary career leading to fame and fortune. "And do you think, lad, that by that road you will reach Happiness sooner than by another? Do you think interviews with yourself in penny weeklies will bring you any satisfaction after the first halfdozen? Do you think the gushing female who has read all your books, and who wonders what it must feel like to be so clever, will be welcome to you the tenth time you meet her? Do you think press cuttings will always consist of wondering admiration of your genius, of paragraphs about your charming personal appearance under the heading, 'Our Celebrities'? Have you thought of the Uncomplimentary criticisms, of the spiteful paragraphs, of the everlasting fear of slipping a few inches down the greasy pole called 'popular taste,' to which you are condemned to cling for life, as some lesser criminal to his weary tread-mill, struggling with no hope but not to fall! Make a home, lad, for the woman who loves you; gather one or two friends about you; work, think, and play, that will bring you happiness. Shun this roaring gingerbread fair that calls itself, forsooth, the 'World of art and letters.' Let its clowns and its contortionists fight among themselves for the plaudits and the halfpence of the mob. Let it be with its shouting and its surging, its blare and its cheap flare. Come away, the summer's night is just the other side of the hedge, with its silence and its stars."

You and I, Cinderella, are experienced people, and can therefore offer good advice, but do you think we should be listened to?

"Ah, no, my Prince is not as yours. Mine will love me always, and I am peculiarly fitted for the life of a palace. I have the instinct and the ability for it. I am sure I was made for a princess. Thank you, Cinderella, for your well-meant counsel, but there is much difference between you and me."

That is the answer you would receive, Cinderella; and my young friend would say to me, "Yes, I can understand YOUR finding disappointment in the literary career; but then, you see, our cases are not quite similar. _I_ am not likely to find much trouble in keeping my position. _I_ shall not fear reading what the critics say of ME. No doubt there are disadvantages, when you are among the ruck, but there is always plenty of room at the top. So thank you, and goodbye."

Besides, Cinderella dear, we should not quite mean it--this excellent advice. We have grown accustomed to these gew-gaws, and we should miss them in spite of our knowledge of their trashiness: you, your palace and your little gold crown; I, my mountebank's cap, and the answering laugh that goes up from the crowd when I shake my bells. We want everything. All the happiness that earth and heaven are capable of bestowing. Creature comforts, and heart and soul comforts also; and, proud-spirited beings that we are, we will not be put off with a part. Give us only everything, and we will be content. And, after all, Cinderella, you have had your day. Some little dogs never get theirs. You must not be greedy. You have KNOWN happiness. The palace was Paradise for those few months, and the Prince's arms were about you, Cinderella, the Prince's kisses on your lips; the gods themselves cannot take THAT from you.

The cake cannot last for ever if we will eat of it so greedily. There must come the day when we have picked hungrily the last crumb--when we sit staring at the empty board, nothing left of the feast, Cinderella, but the pain that comes of feasting.

It is a naive confession, poor Human Nature has made to itself, in choosing, as it has, this story of Cinderella for its leading moral:--Be good, little girl. Be meek under your many trials. Be gentle and kind, in spite of your hard lot, and one day--you shall marry a prince and ride in your own carriage. Be brave and true, little boy. Work hard and wait with patience, and in the end, with God's blessing, you shall earn riches enough to come back to London town and marry your master's daughter.

You and I, gentle Reader, could teach these young folks a truer lesson, an we would. We know, alas! that the road of all the virtues does not lead to wealth, rather the contrary; else how explain our limited incomes? But would it be well, think you, to tell them bluntly the truth--that honesty is the most expensive luxury a man can indulge in; that virtue, if persisted in, leads, generally speaking, to a six-roomed house in an outlying suburb? Maybe the world is wise: the fiction has its uses.

I am acquainted with a fairly intelligent young lady. She can read and write, knows her tables up to six times, and can argue. I regard her as representative of average Humanity in its attitude towards Fate; and this is a dialogue I lately overheard between her and an older lady who is good enough to occasionally impart to her the wisdom of the world--

"I've been good this morning, haven't I?"

"Yes--oh yes, fairly good, for you."

"You think Papa WILL take me to the circus to-night?"

"Yes, if you keep good. If you don't get naughty this afternoon."

A pause.

"I was good on Monday, you may remember, nurse."

"Tolerably good."

"VERY good, you said, nurse."

"Well, yes, you weren't bad."

"And I was to have gone to the pantomime, and I didn't."

"Well, that was because your aunt came up suddenly, and your Papa couldn't get another seat. Poor auntie wouldn't have gone at all if she hadn't gone then."

"Oh, wouldn't she?"


Another pause.

"Do you think she'll come up suddenly to-day?"

"Oh no, I don't think so."

"No, I hope she doesn't. I want to go to the circus to-night. Because, you see, nurse, if I don't it will discourage me."

So, perhaps the world is wise in promising us the circus. We believe her at first. But after a while, I fear, we grow discouraged.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: On The Disadvantage Of Not Getting What One Wants