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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

On The Motherliness Of Man

Title:     On The Motherliness Of Man
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

It was only a piece of broken glass. From its shape and colour, I should say it had, in its happier days, formed portion of a cheap scent-bottle. Lying isolated on the grass, shone upon by the early morning sun, it certainly appeared at its best. It attracted him.

He cocked his head, and looked at it with his right eye. Then he hopped round to the other side, and looked at it with his left eye. With either optic it seemed equally desirable.

That he was an inexperienced young rook goes without saying. An older bird would not have given a second glance to the thing. Indeed, one would have thought his own instinct might have told him that broken glass would be a mistake in a bird's nest. But its glitter drew him too strongly for resistance. I am inclined to suspect that at some time, during the growth of his family tree, there must have occurred a mesalliance, perhaps worse. Possibly a strain of magpie blood?--one knows the character of magpies, or rather their lack of character--and such things have happened. But I will not pursue further so painful a train: I throw out the suggestion as a possible explanation, that is all.

He hopped nearer. Was it a sweet illusion, this flashing fragment of rainbow; a beautiful vision to fade upon approach, typical of so much that is un-understandable in rook life? He made a dart forward and tapped it with his beak. No, it was real--as fine a lump of jagged green glass as any newly-married rook could desire, and to be had for the taking. SHE would be pleased with it. He was a well-meaning bird; the mere upward inclination of his tail suggested earnest though possibly ill-directed endeavour.

He turned it over. It was an awkward thing to carry; it had so very many corners. But he succeeded at last in getting it firmly between his beak, and in haste, lest some other bird should seek to dispute with him its possession, at once flew off with it.

A second rook who had been watching the proceedings from the lime tree, called to a third who was passing. Even with my limited knowledge of the language I found it easy to follow the conversation: it was so obvious.



"What do you think? Zebulan's found a piece of broken bottle. He's going to line his nest with it."


"God's truth. Look at him. There he goes, he's got it in his beak."

"Well, I'm ----!"

And they both burst into a laugh.

But Zebulan heeded them not. If he overheard, he probably put down the whole dialogue to jealousy. He made straight for his tree. By standing with my left cheek pressed close against the window-pane, I was able to follow him. He is building in what we call the Paddock elms--a suburb commenced only last season, but rapidly growing. I wanted to see what his wife would say.

At first she said nothing. He laid it carefully down on the branch near the half-finished nest, and she stretched up her head and looked at it.

Then she looked at him. For about a minute neither spoke. I could see that the situation was becoming strained. When she did open her beak, it was with a subdued tone, that had a vein of weariness running through it.

"What is it?" she asked.

He was evidently chilled by her manner. As I have explained, he is an inexperienced young rook. This is clearly his first wife, and he stands somewhat in awe of her.

"Well, I don't exactly know what it's CALLED," he answered.


"No. But it's pretty, isn't it?" he added. He moved it, trying to get it where the sun might reach it. It was evident he was admitting to himself that, seen in the shade, it lost much of its charm.

"Oh, yes; very pretty," was the rejoinder; "perhaps you'll tell me what you're going to do with it."

The question further discomforted him. It was growing upon him that this thing was not going to be the success he had anticipated. It would be necessary to proceed warily.

"Of course, it's not a twig," he began.

"I see it isn't."

"No. You see, the nest is nearly all twigs as it is, and I thought--"

"Oh, you did think."

"Yes, my dear. I thought--unless you are of opinion that it's too showy--I thought we might work it in somewhere."

Then she flared out.

"Oh, did you? You thought that a good idea. An A1 prize idiot I seem to have married, I do. You've been gone twenty minutes, and you bring me back an eight-cornered piece of broken glass, which you think we might 'work into' the nest. You'd like to see me sitting on it for a month, you would. You think it would make a nice bed for the children to lie on. You don't think you could manage to find a packet of mixed pins if you went down again, I suppose. They'd look pretty 'worked in' somewhere, don't you think?--Here, get out of my way. I'll finish this nest by myself." She always had been short with him.

She caught up the offending object--it was a fairly heavy lump of glass--and flung it out of the tree with all her force. I heard it crash through the cucumber frame. That makes the seventh pane of glass broken in that cucumber frame this week. The couple in the branch above are the worst. Their plan of building is the most extravagant, the most absurd I ever heard of. They hoist up ten times as much material as they can possibly use; you might think they were going to build a block, and let it out in flats to the other rooks. Then what they don't want they fling down again. Suppose we built on such a principle? Suppose a human husband and wife were to start erecting their house in Piccadilly Circus, let us say; and suppose the man spent all the day steadily carrying bricks up the ladder while his wife laid them, never asking her how many she wanted, whether she didn't think he had brought up sufficient, but just accumulating bricks in a senseless fashion, bringing up every brick he could find. And then suppose, when evening came, and looking round, they found they had some twenty cart-loads of bricks lying unused upon the scaffold, they were to commence flinging them down into Waterloo Place. They would get themselves into trouble; somebody would be sure to speak to them about it. Yet that is precisely what those birds do, and nobody says a word to them. They are supposed to have a President. He lives by himself in the yew tree outside the morning-room window. What I want to know is what he is supposed to be good for. This is the sort of thing I want him to look into. I would like him to be worming underneath one evening when those two birds are tidying up: perhaps he would do something then. I have done all I can. I have thrown stones at them, that, in the course of nature, have returned to earth again, breaking more glass. I have blazed at them with a revolver; but they have come to regard this proceeding as a mere expression of light-heartedness on my part, possibly confusing me with the Arab of the Desert, who, I am given to understand, expresses himself thus in moments of deep emotion. They merely retire to a safe distance to watch me; no doubt regarding me as a poor performer, inasmuch as I do not also dance and shout between each shot. I have no objection to their building there, if they only would build sensibly. I want somebody to speak to them to whom they will pay attention.

You can hear them in the evening, discussing the matter of this surplus stock.

"Don't you work any more," he says, as he comes up with the last load, "you'll tire yourself."

"Well, I am feeling a bit done up," she answers, as she hops out of the nest and straightens her back.

"You're a bit peckish, too, I expect," he adds sympathetically. "I know I am. We will have a scratch down, and be off."

"What about all this stuff?" she asks, while titivating herself; "we'd better not leave it about, it looks so untidy."

"Oh, we'll soon get rid of that," he answers. "I'll have that down in a jiffy."

To help him, she seizes a stick and is about to drop it. He darts forward and snatches it from her.

"Don't you waste that one," he cries, "that's a rare one, that is. You see me hit the old man with it."

And he does. What the gardener says, I will leave you to imagine.

Judged from its structure, the rook family is supposed to come next in intelligence to man himself. Judging from the intelligence displayed by members of certain human families with whom I have come in contact, I can quite believe it. That rooks talk I am positive. No one can spend half-an-hour watching a rookery without being convinced of this. Whether the talk be always wise and witty, I am not prepared to maintain; but that there is a good deal of it is certain. A young French gentleman of my acquaintance, who visited England to study the language, told me that the impression made upon him by his first social evening in London was that of a parrot-house. Later on, when he came to comprehend, he, of course, recognized the brilliancy and depth of the average London drawing-room talk; but that is how, not comprehending, it impressed him at first. Listening to the riot of a rookery is much the same experience. The conversation to us sounds meaningless; the rooks themselves would probably describe it as sparkling.

There is a Misanthrope I know who hardly ever goes into Society. I argued the question with him one day. "Why should I?" he replied; "I know, say, a dozen men and women with whom intercourse is a pleasure; they have ideas of their own which they are not afraid to voice. To rub brains with such is a rare and goodly thing, and I thank Heaven for their friendship; but they are sufficient for my leisure. What more do I require? What is this 'Society' of which you all make so much ado? I have sampled it, and I find it unsatisfying. Analyze it into its elements, what is it? Some person I know very slightly, who knows me very slightly, asks me to what you call an 'At Home.' The evening comes, I have done my day's work and I have dined. I have been to a theatre or concert, or I have spent a pleasant hour or so with a friend. I am more inclined for bed than anything else, but I pull myself together, dress, and drive to the house. While I am taking off my hat and coat in the hall, a man enters I met a few hours ago at the Club. He is a man I have very little opinion of, and he, probably, takes a similar view of me. Our minds have no thought in common, but as it is necessary to talk, I tell him it is a warm evening. Perhaps it is a warm evening, perhaps it isn't; in either case he agrees with me. I ask him if he is going to Ascot. I do not care a straw whether he is going to Ascot or not. He says he is not quite sure, but asks me what chance Passion Flower has for the Thousand Guineas. I know he doesn't value my opinion on the subject at a brass farthing--he would be a fool if he did, but I cudgel my brains to reply to him, as though he were going to stake his shirt on my advice. We reach the first floor, and are mutually glad to get rid of one another. I catch my hostess' eye. She looks tired and worried; she would be happier in bed, only she doesn't know it. She smiles sweetly, but it is clear she has not the slightest idea who I am, and is waiting to catch my name from the butler. I whisper it to him. Perhaps he will get it right, perhaps he won't; it is quite immaterial. They have asked two hundred and forty guests, some seventy-five of whom they know by sight, for the rest, any chance passer-by, able, as the theatrical advertisements say, 'to dress and behave as a gentleman,' would do every bit as well. Indeed, I sometimes wonder why people go to the trouble and expense of invitation cards at all. A sandwich-man outside the door would answer the purpose. 'Lady Tompkins, At Home, this afternoon from three to seven; Tea and Music. Ladies and Gentlemen admitted on presentation of visiting card. Afternoon dress indispensable.' The crowd is the thing wanted; as for the items, well, tell me, what is the difference, from the Society point of view, between one man in a black frock-coat and another?

"I remember being once invited to a party at a house in Lancaster Gate. I had met the woman at a picnic. In the same green frock and parasol I might have recognized her the next time I saw her. In any other clothes I did not expect to. My cabman took me to the house opposite, where they were also giving a party. It made no difference to any of us. The hostess--I never learnt her name--said it was very good of me to come, and then shunted me off on to a Colonial Premier (I did not catch his name, and he did not catch mine, which was not extraordinary, seeing that my hostess did not know it) who, she whispered to me, had come over, from wherever it was (she did not seem to be very sure) principally to make my acquaintance. Half through the evening, and by accident, I discovered my mistake, but judged it too late to say anything then. I met a couple of people I knew, had a little supper with them, and came away. The next afternoon I met my right hostess--the lady who should have been my hostess. She thanked me effusively for having sacrificed the previous evening to her and her friends; she said she knew how seldom I went out: that made her feel my kindness all the more. She told me that the Brazilian Minister's wife had told her that I was the cleverest man she had ever met. I often think I should like to meet that man, whoever he may be, and thank him.

"But perhaps the butler does pronounce my name rightly, and perhaps my hostess actually does recognize me. She smiles, and says she was so afraid I was not coming. She implies that all the other guests are but as a feather in her scales of joy compared with myself. I smile in return, wondering to myself how I look when I do smile. I have never had the courage to face my own smile in the looking-glass. I notice the Society smile of other men, and it is not reassuring. I murmur something about my not having been likely to forget this evening; in my turn, seeking to imply that I have been looking forward to it for weeks. A few men shine at this sort of thing, but they are a small percentage, and without conceit I regard myself as no bigger a fool than the average male. Not knowing what else to say, I tell her also that it is a warm evening. She smiles archly as though there were some hidden witticism in the remark, and I drift away, feeling ashamed of myself. To talk as an idiot when you ARE an idiot brings no discomfort; to behave as an idiot when you have sufficient sense to know it, is painful. I hide myself in the crowd, and perhaps I'll meet a woman I was introduced to three weeks ago at a picture gallery. We don't know each other's names, but, both of us feeling lonesome, we converse, as it is called. If she be the ordinary type of woman, she asks me if I am going on to the Johnsons'. I tell her no. We stand silent for a moment, both thinking what next to say. She asks me if I was at the Thompsons' the day before yesterday. I again tell her no. I begin to feel dissatisfied with myself that I was not at the Thompsons'. Trying to get even with her, I ask her if she is going to the Browns' next Monday. (There are no Browns, she will have to say, No.) She is not, and her tone suggests that a social stigma rests upon the Browns. I ask her if she has been to Barnum's Circus; she hasn't, but is going. I give her my impressions of Barnum's Circus, which are precisely the impressions of everybody else who has seen the show.

"Or if luck be against me, she is possibly a smart woman, that is to say, her conversation is a running fire of spiteful remarks at the expense of every one she knows, and of sneers at the expense of every one she doesn't. I always feel I could make a better woman myself, out of a bottle of vinegar and a penn'orth of mixed pins. Yet it usually takes one about ten minutes to get away from her.

"Even when, by chance, one meets a flesh-and-blood man or woman at such gatherings, it is not the time or place for real conversation; and as for the shadows, what person in their senses would exhaust a single brain cell upon such? I remember a discussion once concerning Tennyson, considered as a social item. The dullest and most densely-stupid bore I ever came across was telling how he had sat next to Tennyson at dinner. 'I found him a most uninteresting man,' so he confided to us; 'he had nothing to say for himself--absolutely nothing.' I should like to resuscitate Dr. Samuel Johnson for an evening, and throw him into one of these 'At Homes' of yours."

My friend is an admitted misanthrope, as I have explained; but one cannot dismiss him as altogether unjust. That there is a certain mystery about Society's craving for Society must be admitted. I stood one evening trying to force my way into the supper room of a house in Berkeley Square. A lady, hot and weary, a few yards in front of me was struggling to the same goal.

"Why," remarked she to her companion, "why do we come to these places, and fight like a Bank Holiday crowd for eighteenpenny-worth of food?"

"We come here," replied the man, whom I judged to be a philosopher, "to say we've been here."

I met A----- the other evening, and asked him to dine with me on Monday. I don't know why I ask A----- to dine with me, but about once a month I do. He is an uninteresting man.

"I can't," he said, "I've got to go to the B-----s'; confounded nuisance, it will be infernally dull."

"Why go?" I asked.

"I really don't know," he replied.

A little later B----- met me, and asked me to dine with him on Monday.

"I can't," I answered, "some friends are coming to us that evening. It's a duty dinner, you know the sort of thing."

"I wish you could have managed it," he said, "I shall have no one to talk to. The A-----s are coming, and they bore me to death."

"Why do you ask him?" I suggested.

"Upon my word, I really don't know," he replied.

But to return to our rooks. We were speaking of their social instincts. Some dozen of them--the "scallywags" and bachelors of the community, I judge them to be--have started a Club. For a month past I have been trying to understand what the affair was. Now I know: it is a Club.

And for their Club House they have chosen, of course, the tree nearest my bedroom window. I can guess how that came about; it was my own fault, I never thought of it. About two months ago, a single rook--suffering from indigestion or an unhappy marriage, I know not--chose this tree one night for purposes of reflection. He woke me up: I felt angry. I opened the window, and threw an empty soda-water bottle at him. Of course it did not hit him, and finding nothing else to throw, I shouted at him, thinking to frighten him away. He took no notice, but went on talking to himself. I shouted louder, and woke up my own dog. The dog barked furiously, and woke up most things within a quarter of a mile. I had to go down with a boot-jack--the only thing I could find handy--to soothe the dog. Two hours later I fell asleep from exhaustion. I left the rook still cawing.

The next night he came again. I should say he was a bird with a sense of humour. Thinking this might happen, I had, however, taken the precaution to have a few stones ready. I opened the window wide, and fired them one after another into the tree. After I had closed the window, he hopped down nearer, and cawed louder than ever. I think he wanted me to throw more stones at him: he appeared to regard the whole proceeding as a game. On the third night, as I heard nothing of him, I flattered myself that, in spite of his bravado, I had discouraged him. I might have known rooks better.

What happened when the Club was being formed, I take it, was this:

"Where shall we fix upon for our Club House?" said the secretary, all other points having been disposed of. One suggested this tree, another suggested that. Then up spoke this particular rook:

"I'll tell you where," said he, "in the yew tree opposite the porch. And I'll tell you for why. Just about an hour before dawn a man comes to the window over the porch, dressed in the most comical costume you ever set eyes upon. I'll tell you what he reminds me of--those little statues that men use for decorating fields. He opens the window, and throws a lot of things out upon the lawn, and then he dances and sings. It's awfully interesting, and you can see it all from the yew tree."

That, I am convinced, is how the Club came to fix upon the tree next my window. I have had the satisfaction of denying them the exhibition they anticipated, and I cheer myself with the hope that they have visited their disappointment upon their misleader.

There is a difference between Rook Clubs and ours. In our clubs the respectable members arrive early, and leave at a reasonable hour; in Rook Clubs, it would appear, this principle is reversed. The Mad Hatter would have liked this Club--it would have been a club after his own heart. It opens at half-past two in the morning, and the first to arrive are the most disreputable members. In Rook-land the rowdy-dowdy, randy-dandy, rollicky-ranky boys get up very early in the morning and go to bed in the afternoon. Towards dawn, the older, more orderly members drop in for reasonable talk, and the Club becomes more respectable. The tree closes about six. For the first two hours, however, the goings-on are disgraceful. The proceedings, as often as not, open with a fight. If no two gentlemen can be found to oblige with a fight, the next noisiest thing to fall back upon is held to be a song. It is no satisfaction to me to be told that rooks cannot sing. _I_ know that, without the trouble of referring to the natural history book. It is the rook who does not know it; HE thinks he can; and as a matter of fact, he does. You can criticize his singing, you can call it what you like, but you can't stop it--at least, that is my experience. The song selected is sure to be one with a chorus. Towards the end it becomes mainly chorus, unless the soloist be an extra powerful bird, determined to insist upon his rights.

The President knows nothing of this Club. He gets up himself about seven--three hours after all the others have finished breakfast--and then fusses round under the impression that he is waking up the colony, the fat-headed old fool. He is the poorest thing in Presidents I have ever heard of. A South American Republic would supply a better article. The rooks themselves, the married majority, fathers of families, respectable nestholders, are as indignant as I am. I hear complaints from all quarters.

Reflection comes to one as, towards the close of these chill afternoons in early spring, one leans upon the paddock gate watching the noisy bustling in the bare elms.

So the earth is growing green again, and love is come again unto the hearts of us old sober-coated fellows. Oh, Madam, your feathers gleam wondrous black, and your bonnie bright eye stabs deep. Come, sit by our side, and we'll tell you a tale such as rook never told before. It's the tale of a nest in a topmost bough, that sways in the good west wind. It's strong without, but it's soft within, where the little green eggs lie safe. And there sits in that nest a lady sweet, and she caws with joy, for, afar, she sees the rook she loves the best. Oh, he has been east, and he has been west, and his crop it is full of worms and slugs, and they are all for her.

We are old, old rooks, so many of us. The white is mingling with the purple black upon our breasts. We have seen these tall elms grow from saplings; we have seen the old trees fall and die. Yet each season come to us again the young thoughts. So we mate and build and gather that again our old, old hearts may quiver to the thin cry of our newborn.

Mother Nature has but one care, the children. We talk of Love as the Lord of Life: it is but the Minister. Our novels end where Nature's tale begins. The drama that our curtain falls upon, is but the prologue to her play. How the ancient Dame must laugh as she listens to the prattle of her children. "Is Marriage a Failure?" "Is Life worth Living?" "The New Woman versus the Old." So, perhaps, the waves of the Atlantic discuss vehemently whether they shall flow east or west.

Motherhood is the law of the Universe. The whole duty of man is to be a mother. We labour: to what end? the children--the woman in the home, the man in the community. The nation takes thought for its future: why? In a few years its statesmen, its soldiers, its merchants, its toilers, will be gathered unto their fathers. Why trouble we ourselves about the future? The country pours its blood and treasure into the earth that the children may reap. Foolish Jacques Bonhomie, his addled brain full of dreams, rushes with bloody hands to give his blood for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. He will not live to see, except in vision, the new world he gives his bones to build--even his spinning word-whipped head knows that. But the children! they shall live sweeter lives. The peasant leaves his fireside to die upon the battle-field. What is it to him, a grain in the human sand, that Russia should conquer the East, that Germany should be united, that the English flag should wave above new lands? the heritage his fathers left him shall be greater for his sons. Patriotism! what is it but the mother instinct of a people?

Take it that the decree has gone forth from Heaven: There shall be no more generations, with this life the world shall die. Think you we should move another hand? The ships would rot in the harbours, the grain would rot in the ground. Should we paint pictures, write books, make music? hemmed in by that onward creeping sea of silence. Think you with what eyes husband and wife would look on one another. Think you of the wooing--the spring of Love dried up; love only a pool of stagnant water.

How little we seem to realize this foundation of our life. Herein, if nowhere else, lies our eternity. This Ego shall never die--unless the human race from beginning to end be but a passing jest of the Gods, to be swept aside when wearied of, leaving room for new experiments. These features of mine--we will not discuss their aesthetic value--shall never disappear; modified, varied, but in essential the same, they shall continue in ever increasing circles to the end of Time. This temperament of mine--this good and evil that is in me, it shall grow with every age, spreading ever wider, combining, amalgamating. I go into my children and my children's children, I am eternal. I am they, they are I. The tree withers and you clear the ground, thankful if out of its dead limbs you can make good firewood; but its spirit, its life, is in fifty saplings. The tree dies not, it changes.

These men and women that pass me in the street, this one hurrying to his office, this one to his club, another to his love, they are the mothers of the world to come.

This greedy trickster in stocks and shares, he cheats, he lies, he wrongs all men--for what? Follow him to his luxurious home in the suburbs: what do you find? A man with children on his knee, telling them stories, promising them toys. His anxious, sordid life, for what object is it lived? That these children may possess the things that he thinks good for them. Our very vices, side by side with our virtues, spring from this one root, Motherhood. It is the one seed of the Universe. The planets are but children of the sun, the moon but an offspring of the earth, stone of her stone, iron of her iron. What is the Great Centre of us all, life animate and inanimate--if any life be inanimate? Is the eternal universe one dim figure, Motherhood, filling all space?

This scheming Mother of Mayfair, angling for a rich son-in-law! Not a pleasing portrait to look upon, from one point of view. Let us look at it, for a moment, from another. How weary she must be! This is her third "function" to-night; the paint is running off her poor face. She has been snubbed a dozen times by her social superiors, openly insulted by a Duchess; yet she bears it with a patient smile. It is a pitiful ambition, hers: it is that her child shall marry money, shall have carriages and many servants, live in Park Lane, wear diamonds, see her name in the Society Papers. At whatever cost to herself, her daughter shall, if possible, enjoy these things. She could so much more comfortably go to bed, and leave the child to marry some well-to-do commercial traveller. Justice, Reader, even for such. Her sordid scheming is but the deformed child of Motherhood.

Motherhood! it is the gamut of God's orchestra, savageness and cruelty at the one end, tenderness and self-sacrifice at the other.

The sparrow-hawk fights the hen: he seeking food for his brood, she defending hers with her life. The spider sucks the fly to feed its myriad young; the cat tortures the mouse to give its still throbbing carcase to her kittens, and man wrongs man for children's sake. Perhaps when the riot of the world reaches us whole, not broken, we shall learn it is a harmony, each jangling discord fallen into its place around the central theme, Motherhood.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: On The Motherliness Of Man