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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

When Is The Best Time To Be Merry?

Title:     When Is The Best Time To Be Merry?
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

There is so much I could do to improve things generally in and about Europe, if only I had a free hand. I should not propose any great fundamental changes. These poor people have got used to their own ways; it would be unwise to reform them all at once. But there are many little odds and ends that I could do for them, so many of their mistakes I could correct for them. They do not know this. If they only knew there was a man living in their midst willing to take them in hand and arrange things for them, how glad they would be. But the story is always the same. One reads it in the advertisements of the matrimonial column:

"A lady, young, said to be good-looking"--she herself is not sure on the point; she feels that possibly she may be prejudiced; she puts before you merely the current gossip of the neighbourhood; people say she is beautiful; they may be right, they may be wrong: it is not for her to decide--"well-educated, of affectionate disposition, possessed of means, desires to meet gentleman with a view to matrimony."

Immediately underneath one reads of a gentleman of twenty-eight, "tall, fair, considered agreeable." Really the modesty of the matrimonial advertiser teaches to us ordinary mortals quite a beautiful lesson. I know instinctively that were anybody to ask me suddenly:

"Do you call yourself an agreeable man?" I should answer promptly:

"An agreeable man! Of course I'm an agreeable man. What silly questions you do ask!" If he persisted in arguing the matter, saying:

"But there are people who do not consider you an agreeable man." I should get angry with him.

"Oh, they think that, do they?" I should say. "Well, you tell them from me, with my compliments, that they are a set of blithering idiots. Not agreeable! You show me the man who says I'm not agreeable. I'll soon let him know whether I'm agreeable or not."

These young men seeking a wife are silent on the subject of their own virtues. Such are for others to discover. The matrimonial advertiser confines himself to a simple statement of fact: he is considered agreeable."

He is domestically inclined, and in receipt of a good income. He is desirous of meeting a lady of serious disposition, with view to matrimony. If possessed of means--well, it is a trifle hardly worth considering one way or the other. He does not insist upon it; on the other hand he does not exclude ladies of means; the main idea is matrimony.

It is sad to reflect upon a young lady, said to be good-looking (let us say good-looking and be done with it: a neighbourhood does not rise up and declare a girl good-looking if she is not good-looking, that is only her modest way of putting it), let us say a young lady, good-looking, well-educated, of affectionate disposition--it is undeniably sad to reflect that such an one, matrimonially inclined, should be compelled to have recourse to the columns of a matrimonial journal. What are the young men in the neighbourhood thinking of? What more do they want? Is it Venus come to life again with ten thousand a year that they are waiting for! It makes me angry with my own sex reading these advertisements. And when one thinks of the girls that do get married!

But life is a mystery. The fact remains: here is the ideal wife seeking in vain for a husband. And here, immediately underneath--I will not say the ideal husband, he may have faults; none of us are perfect, but as men go a decided acquisition to any domestic hearth, an agreeable gentleman, fond of home life, none of your gad-abouts-- calls aloud to the four winds for a wife--any sort of a wife, provided she be of a serious disposition. In his despair, he has grown indifferent to all other considerations. "Is there in this world," he has said to himself, "one unmarried woman, willing to marry me, an agreeable man, in receipt of a good income." Possibly enough this twain have passed one another in the street, have sat side by side in the same tram-car, never guessing, each one, that the other was the very article of which they were in want to make life beautiful.

Mistresses in search of a servant, not so much with the idea of getting work out of her, rather with the object of making her happy, advertise on one page. On the opposite page, domestic treasures-- disciples of Carlyle, apparently, with a passionate love of work for its own sake--are seeking situations, not so much with the desire of gain as with the hope of finding openings where they may enjoy the luxury of feeling they are leading useful lives. These philanthropic mistresses, these toil-loving hand-maidens, have lived side by side in the same town for years, never knowing one another.

So it is with these poor European peoples. They pass me in the street. They do not guess that I am ready and willing to take them under my care, to teach them common sense with a smattering of intelligence--to be, as one might say, a father to them. They look at me. There is nothing about me to tell them that I know what is good for them better than they do themselves. In the fairy tales the wise man wore a conical hat and a long robe with twiddly things all round the edge. You knew he was a clever man. It avoided the necessity of explanation. Unfortunately, the fashion has gone out. We wise men have to wear just ordinary clothes. Nobody knows we are wise men. Even when we tell them so, they don't believe it. This it is that makes our task the more difficult.

One of the first things I should take in hand, were European affairs handed over to my control, would be the rearrangement of the Carnival. As matters are, the Carnival takes place all over Europe in February. At Nice, in Spain, or in Italy, it may be occasionally possible to feel you want to dance about the streets in thin costume during February. But in more northern countries during Carnival time I have seen only one sensible masker; he was a man who had got himself up as a diver. It was in Antwerp. The rain was pouring down in torrents; a cheery, boisterous John Bull sort of an east wind was blustering through the streets at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. Pierrots, with frozen hands, were blowing blue noses. An elderly Cupid had borrowed an umbrella from a cafe and was waiting for a tram. A very little devil was crying with the cold, and wiping his eyes with the end of his own tail. Every doorway was crowded with shivering maskers. The diver alone walked erect, the water streaming from him.

February is not the month for open air masquerading. The "confetti," which has come to be nothing but coloured paper cut into small discs, is a sodden mass. When a lump of it strikes you in the eye, your instinct is not to laugh gaily, but to find out the man who threw it and to hit him back. This is not the true spirit of Carnival. The marvel is that, in spite of the almost invariably adverse weather, these Carnivals still continue. In Belgium, where Romanism still remains the dominant religion, Carnival maintains itself stronger than elsewhere in Northern Europe.

At one small town, Binche, near the French border, it holds uninterrupted sway for three days and two nights, during which time the whole of the population, swelled by visitors from twenty miles round, shouts, romps, eats and drinks and dances. After which the visitors are packed like sardines into railway trains. They pin their tickets to their coats and promptly go to sleep. At every station the railway officials stumble up and down the trains with lanterns. The last feeble effort of the more wakeful reveller, before he adds himself to the heap of snoring humanity on the floor of the railway carriage, is to change the tickets of a couple of his unconscious companions. In this way gentlemen for the east are dragged out by the legs at junctions, and packed into trains going west; while southern fathers are shot out in the chill dawn at lonely northern stations, to find themselves greeted with enthusiasm by other people's families.

At Binche, they say--I have not counted them myself--that thirty thousand maskers can be seen dancing at the same time. When they are not dancing they are throwing oranges at one another. The houses board up their windows. The restaurants take down their mirrors and hide away the glasses. If I went masquerading at Binche I should go as a man in armour, period Henry the Seventh.

"Doesn't it hurt," I asked a lady who had been there, "having oranges thrown at you? Which sort do they use, speaking generally, those fine juicy ones--Javas I think you call them--or the little hard brand with skins like a nutmeg-grater? And if both sorts are used indiscriminately, which do you personally prefer?"

"The smart people," she answered, "they are the same everywhere--they must be extravagant--they use the Java orange. If it hits you in the back I prefer the Java orange. It is more messy than the other, but it does not leave you with that curious sensation of having been temporarily stunned. Most people, of course, make use of the small hard orange. If you duck in time, and so catch it on the top of your head, it does not hurt so much as you would think. If, however, it hits you on a tender place--well, myself, I always find that a little sal volatile, with old cognac--half and half, you understand--is about the best thing. But it only happens once a year," she added.

Nearly every town gives prizes for the best group of maskers. In some cases the first prize amounts to as much as two hundred pounds. The butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers, join together and compete. They arrive in wagons, each group with its band. Free trade is encouraged. Each neighbouring town and village "dumps" its load of picturesque merry-makers.

It is in these smaller towns that the spirit of King Carnival finds happiest expression. Almost every third inhabitant takes part in the fun. In Brussels and the larger towns the thing appears ridiculous. A few hundred maskers force their way with difficulty through thousands of dull-clad spectators, looking like a Spanish river in the summer time, a feeble stream, dribbling through acres of muddy bank. At Charleroi, the centre of the Belgian Black Country, the chief feature of the Carnival is the dancing of the children. A space is specially roped off for them.

If by chance the sun is kind enough to shine, the sight is a pretty one. How they love the dressing up and the acting, these small mites! One young hussy--she could hardly have been more than ten-- was gotten up as a haughty young lady. Maybe some elder sister had served as a model. She wore a tremendous wig of flaxen hair, a hat that I guarantee would have made its mark even at Ascot on the Cup Day, a skirt that trailed two yards behind her, a pair of what had once been white kid gloves, and a blue silk parasol. Dignity! I have seen the offended barmaid, I have met the chorus girl--not by appointment, please don't misunderstand me, merely as a spectator--up the river on Sunday. But never have I witnessed in any human being so much hauteur to the pound avoir-dupois as was carried through the streets of Charleroi by that small brat. Companions of other days, mere vulgar boys and girls, claimed acquaintance with her. She passed them with a stare of such utter disdain that it sent them tumbling over one another backwards. By the time they had recovered themselves sufficiently to think of an old tin kettle lying handy in the gutter she had turned the corner.

Two miserably clad urchins, unable to scrape together the few sous necessary for the hire of a rag or two, had nevertheless determined not to be altogether out of it. They had managed to borrow a couple of white blouses--not what you would understand by a white blouse, dear Madame, a dainty thing of frills and laces, but the coarse white sack the street sweeper wears over his clothes. They had also borrowed a couple of brooms. Ridiculous little objects they looked, the tiny head of each showing above the great white shroud as gravely they walked, the one behind the other, sweeping the mud into the gutter. They also were of the Carnival, playing at being scavengers.

Another quaint sight I witnessed. The "serpentin" is a feature of the Belgian Carnival. It is a strip of coloured paper, some dozen yards long, perhaps. You fling it as you would a lassoo, entangling the head of some passer-by. Naturally, the object most aimed at by the Belgian youth is the Belgian maiden. And, naturally also, the maiden who finds herself most entangled is the maiden who--to use again the language of the matrimonial advertiser--"is considered good-looking." The serpentin about her head is the "feather in her cap" of the Belgian maiden on Carnival Day. Coming suddenly round the corner I almost ran into a girl. Her back was towards me. It was a quiet street. She had half a dozen of these serpentins. Hurriedly, with trembling hands, she was twisting them round and round her own head. I looked at her as I passed. She flushed scarlet. Poor little snub-nosed pasty-faced woman! I wish she had not seen me. I could have bought sixpenny-worth, followed her, and tormented her with them; while she would have pretended indignation-- sought, discreetly, to escape from me.

Down South, where the blood flows quicker, King Carnival is, indeed, a jolly old soul. In Munich he reigns for six weeks, the end coming with a mad two days revel in the streets. During the whole of the period, folks in ordinary, every-day costume are regarded as curiosities; people wonder what they are up to. From the Grafin to the Dienstmadchen, from the Herr Professor to the "Piccolo," as they term the small artist that answers to our page boy, the business of Munich is dancing, somewhere, somehow, in a fancy costume. Every theatre clears away the stage, every cafe crowds its chairs and tables into corners, the very streets are cleared for dancing. Munich goes mad.

Munich is always a little mad. The maddest ball I ever danced at was in Munich. I went there with a Harvard University professor. He had been told what these balls were like. Ever seeking knowledge of all things, he determined to take the matter up for himself and examine it. The writer also must ever be learning. I agreed to accompany him. We had not intended to dance. Our idea was that we could be indulgent spectators, regarding from some coign of vantage the antics of the foolish crowd. The professor was clad as became a professor. Myself, I wore a simply-cut frock-coat, with trousering in French grey. The doorkeeper explained to us that this was a costume ball; he was sorry, but gentlemen could only be admitted in evening dress or in masquerade.

It was half past one in the morning. We had sat up late on purpose; we had gone without our dinner; we had walked two miles. The professor suggested pinning up the tails of his clerically-cut coat and turning in his waistcoat. The doorkeeper feared it would not be quite the same thing. Besides, my French grey trousers refused to adapt themselves. The doorkeeper proposed our hiring a costume--a little speculation of his own; gentlemen found it simpler sometimes, especially married gentlemen, to hire a costume in this manner, changing back into sober garments before returning home. It reduced the volume of necessary explanation.

"Have you anything, my good man," said the professor, "anything that would effect a complete disguise?"

The doorkeeper had the very thing--a Chinese arrangement, with combined mask and wig. It fitted neatly over the head, and was provided with a simple but ingenious piece of mechanism by means of which much could be done with the pigtail. Myself the doorkeeper hid from view under the cowl of a Carmelite monk.

"I do hope nobody recognises us," whispered my friend the professor as we entered.

I can only hope sincerely that they did not. I do not wish to talk about myself. That would be egotism. But the mystery of the professor troubles me to this day. A grave, earnest gentleman, the father of a family, I saw him with my own eyes put that ridiculous pasteboard mask over his head. Later on--a good deal later on--I found myself walking again with him through silent star-lit streets. Where he had been in the interval, and who then was the strange creature under the Chinaman's mask, will always remain to me an unsolved problem.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: When Is The Best Time To Be Merry?