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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

On The Time Wasted In Looking Before One Leaps

Title:     On The Time Wasted In Looking Before One Leaps
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

Have you ever noticed the going out of a woman?

When a man goes out, he says--"I'm going out, shan't be long."

"Oh, George," cries his wife from the other end of the house, "don't go for a moment. I want you to--" She hears a falling of hats, followed by the slamming of the front door.

"Oh, George, you're not gone!" she wails. It is but the voice of despair. As a matter of fact, she knows he is gone. She reaches the hall, breathless.

"He might have waited a minute," she mutters to herself, as she picks up the hats, "there were so many things I wanted him to do."

She does not open the door and attempt to stop him, she knows he is already half-way down the street. It is a mean, paltry way of going out, she thinks; so like a man.

When a woman, on the other hand, goes out, people know about it. She does not sneak out. She says she is going out. She says it, generally, on the afternoon of the day before; and she repeats it, at intervals, until tea-time. At tea, she suddenly decides that she won't, that she will leave it till the day after to-morrow instead. An hour later she thinks she will go to-morrow, after all, and makes arrangements to wash her hair overnight. For the next hour or so she alternates between fits of exaltation, during which she looks forward to going out, and moments of despondency, when a sense of foreboding falls upon her. At dinner she persuades some other woman to go with her; the other woman, once persuaded, is enthusiastic about going, until she recollects that she cannot. The first woman, however, convinces her that she can.

"Yes," replies the second woman, "but then, how about you, dear? You are forgetting the Joneses."

"So I was," answers the first woman, completely non-plussed. "How very awkward, and I can't go on Wednesday. I shall have to leave it till Thursday, now."

"But _I_ can't go Thursday," says the second woman.

"Well, you go without me, dear," says the first woman, in the tone of one who is sacrificing a life's ambition.

"Oh no, dear, I should not think of it," nobly exclaims the second woman. "We will wait and go together, Friday!"

"I'll tell you what we'll do," says the first woman. "We will start early" (this is an inspiration), "and be back before the Joneses arrive."

They agree to sleep together; there is a lurking suspicion in both their minds that this may be their last sleep on earth. They retire early with a can of hot water. At intervals, during the night, one overhears them splashing water, and talking.

They come down very late for breakfast, and both very cross. Each seems to have argued herself into the belief that she has been lured into this piece of nonsense, against her better judgment, by the persistent folly of the other one. During the meal each one asks the other, every five minutes, if she is quite ready. Each one, it appears, has only her hat to put on. They talk about the weather, and wonder what it is going to do. They wish it would make up its mind, one way or the other. They are very bitter on weather that cannot make up its mind. After breakfast it still looks cloudy, and they decide to abandon the scheme altogether. The first woman then remembers that it is absolutely necessary for her, at all events, to go.

"But there is no need for you to come, dear," she says.

Up to that point the second woman was evidently not sure whether she wished to go or whether she didn't. Now she knows.

"Oh yes, I'll come," she says, "then it will be over!"

"I am sure you don't want to go," urges the first woman, "and I shall be quicker by myself. I am ready to start now."

The second woman bridles.

"_I_ shan't be a couple of minutes," she retorts. "You know, dear, it's generally I who have to wait for you."

"But you've not got your boots on," the first woman reminds her.

"Well, they won't take ANY time," is the answer. "But of course, dear, if you'd really rather I did not come, say so." By this time she is on the verge of tears.

"Of course, I would like you to come, dear," explains the first in a resigned tone. "I thought perhaps you were only coming to please me."

"Oh no, I'd LIKE to come," says the second woman.

"Well, we must hurry up," says the first; "I shan't be more than a minute myself, I've merely got to change my skirt."

Half-an-hour later you hear them calling to each other, from different parts of the house, to know if the other one is ready. It appears they have both been ready for quite a long while, waiting only for the other one.

"I'm afraid," calls out the one whose turn it is to be down-stairs, "it's going to rain."

"Oh, don't say that," calls back the other one.

"Well, it looks very like it."

"What a nuisance," answers the up-stairs woman; "shall we put it off?"

"Well, what do YOU think, dear?" replies the down-stairs.

They decide they will go, only now they will have to change their boots, and put on different hats.

For the next ten minutes they are still shouting and running about. Then it seems as if they really were ready, nothing remaining but for them to say "Good-bye," and go.

They begin by kissing the children. A woman never leaves her house without secret misgivings that she will never return to it alive. One child cannot be found. When it is found it wishes it hadn't been. It has to be washed, preparatory to being kissed. After that, the dog has to be found and kissed, and final instructions given to the cook.

Then they open the front door.

"Oh, George," calls out the first woman, turning round again. "Are you there?"

"Hullo," answers a voice from the distance. "Do you want me?"

"No, dear, only to say good-bye. I'm going."

"Oh, good-bye."

"Good-bye, dear. Do you think it's going to rain?"

"Oh no, I should not say so."



"Have you got any money?"

Five minutes later they come running back; the one has forgotten her parasol, the other her purse.

And speaking of purses, reminds one of another essential difference between the male and female human animal. A man carries his money in his pocket. When he wants to use it, he takes it out and lays it down. This is a crude way of doing things, a woman displays more subtlety. Say she is standing in the street, and wants fourpence to pay for a bunch of violets she has purchased from a flower-girl. She has two parcels in one hand, and a parasol in the other. With the remaining two fingers of the left hand she secures the violets. The question then arises, how to pay the girl? She flutters for a few minutes, evidently not quite understanding why it is she cannot do it. The reason then occurs to her: she has only two hands and both these are occupied. First she thinks she will put the parcels and the flowers into her right hand, then she thinks she will put the parasol into her left. Then she looks round for a table or even a chair, but there is not such a thing in the whole street. Her difficulty is solved by her dropping the parcels and the flowers. The girl picks them up for her and holds them. This enables her to feel for her pocket with her right hand, while waving her open parasol about with her left. She knocks an old gentleman's hat off into the gutter, and nearly blinds the flower-girl before it occurs to her to close it. This done, she leans it up against the flower-girl's basket, and sets to work in earnest with both hands. She seizes herself firmly by the back, and turns the upper part of her body round till her hair is in front and her eyes behind. Still holding herself firmly with her left hand--did she let herself go, goodness knows where she would spin to;--with her right she prospects herself. The purse is there, she can feel it, the problem is how to get at it. The quickest way would, of course, be to take off the skirt, sit down on the kerb, turn it inside out, and work from the bottom of the pocket upwards. But this simple idea never seems to occur to her. There are some thirty folds at the back of the dress, between two of these folds commences the secret passage. At last, purely by chance, she suddenly discovers it, nearly upsetting herself in the process, and the purse is brought up to the surface. The difficulty of opening it still remains. She knows it opens with a spring, but the secret of that spring she has never mastered, and she never will. Her plan is to worry it generally until it does open. Five minutes will always do it, provided she is not flustered.

At last it does open. It would be incorrect to say that she opens it. It opens because it is sick of being mauled about; and, as likely as not, it opens at the moment when she is holding it upside down. If you happen to be near enough to look over her shoulder, you will notice that the gold and silver lies loose within it. In an inner sanctuary, carefully secured with a second secret spring, she keeps her coppers, together with a postage-stamp and a draper's receipt, nine months old, for elevenpence three-farthings.

I remember the indignation of an old Bus-conductor, once. Inside we were nine women and two men. I sat next the door, and his remarks therefore he addressed to me. It was certainly taking him some time to collect the fares, but I think he would have got on better had he been less bustling; he worried them, and made them nervous.

"Look at that," he said, drawing my attention to a poor lady opposite, who was diving in the customary manner for her purse, "they sit on their money, women do. Blest if you wouldn't think they was trying to 'atch it."

At length the lady drew from underneath herself an exceedingly fat purse.

"Fancy riding in a bumpby bus, perched up on that thing," he continued. "Think what a stamina they must have." He grew confidential. "I've seen one woman," he said, "pull out from underneath 'er a street doorkey, a tin box of lozengers, a pencil-case, a whopping big purse, a packet of hair-pins, and a smelling-bottle. Why, you or me would be wretched, sitting on a plain door-knob, and them women goes about like that all day. I suppose they gets used to it. Drop 'em on an eider-down pillow, and they'd scream. The time it takes me to get tuppence out of them, why, it's 'eart-breaking. First they tries one side, then they tries the other. Then they gets up and shakes theirselves till the bus jerks them back again, and there they are, a more 'opeless 'eap than ever. If I 'ad my way I'd make every bus carry a female searcher as could over'aul 'em one at a time, and take the money from 'em. Talk about the poor pickpocket. What I say is, that a man as finds his way into a woman's pocket--well, he deserves what he gets."

But it was the thought of more serious matters that lured me into reflections concerning the over-carefulness of women. It is a theory of mine--wrong possibly; indeed I have so been informed--that we pick our way through life with too much care. We are for ever looking down upon the ground. Maybe, we do avoid a stumble or two over a stone or a brier, but also we miss the blue of the sky, the glory of the hills. These books that good men write, telling us that what they call "success" in life depends on our flinging aside our youth and wasting our manhood in order that we may have the means when we are eighty of spending a rollicking old age, annoy me. We save all our lives to invest in a South Sea Bubble; and in skimping and scheming, we have grown mean, and narrow, and hard. We will put off the gathering of the roses till tomorrow, to-day it shall be all work, all bargain-driving, all plotting. Lo, when to-morrow comes, the roses are blown; nor do we care for roses, idle things of small marketable value; cabbages are more to our fancy by the time to-morrow comes.

Life is a thing to be lived, not spent, to be faced, not ordered. Life is not a game of chess, the victory to the most knowing; it is a game of cards, one's hand by skill to be made the best of. Is it the wisest who is always the most successful? I think not. The luckiest whist-player I ever came across was a man who was never QUITE certain what were trumps, and whose most frequent observation during the game was "I really beg your pardon," addressed to his partner; a remark which generally elicited the reply, "Oh, don't apologize. All's well that ends well." The man I knew who made the most rapid fortune was a builder in the outskirts of Birmingham, who could not write his name, and who, for thirty years of his life, never went to bed sober. I do not say that forgetfulness of trumps should be cultivated by whist-players. I think my builder friend might have been even more successful had he learned to write his name, and had he occasionally--not overdoing it--enjoyed a sober evening. All I wish to impress is, that virtue is not the road to success--of the kind we are dealing with. We must find other reasons for being virtuous; maybe, there are some. The truth is, life is a gamble pure and simple, and the rules we lay down for success are akin to the infallible systems with which a certain class of idiot goes armed each season to Monte Carlo. We can play the game with coolness and judgment, decide when to plunge and when to stake small; but to think that wisdom will decide it, is to imagine that we have discovered the law of chance. Let us play the game of life as sportsmen, pocketing our winnings with a smile, leaving our losings with a shrug. Perhaps that is why we have been summoned to the board and the cards dealt round: that we may learn some of the virtues of the good gambler; his self-control, his courage under misfortune, his modesty under the strain of success, his firmness, his alertness, his general indifference to fate. Good lessons these, all of them. If by the game we learn some of them our time on the green earth has not been wasted. If we rise from the table having learned only fretfulness and self-pity I fear it has been.

The grim Hall Porter taps at the door: "Number Five hundred billion and twenty-eight, your boatman is waiting, sir."

So! is it time already? We pick up our counters. Of what use are they? In the country the other side of the river they are no tender. The blood-red for gold, and the pale-green for love, to whom shall we fling them? Here is some poor beggar longing to play, let us give them to him as we pass out. Poor devil! the game will amuse him--for a while.

Keep your powder dry, and trust in Providence, is the motto of the wise. Wet powder could never be of any possible use to you. Dry, it may be, WITH the help of Providence. We will call it Providence, it is a prettier name than Chance--perhaps also a truer.

Another mistake we make when we reason out our lives is this: we reason as though we were planning for reasonable creatures. It is a big mistake. Well-meaning ladies and gentlemen make it when they picture their ideal worlds. When marriage is reformed, and the social problem solved, when poverty and war have been abolished by acclamation, and sin and sorrow rescinded by an overwhelming parliamentary majority! Ah, then the world will be worthy of our living in it. You need not wait, ladies and gentlemen, so long as you think for that time. No social revolution is needed, no slow education of the people is necessary. It would all come about to-morrow, IF ONLY WE WERE REASONABLE CREATURES.

Imagine a world of reasonable beings! The Ten Commandments would be unnecessary: no reasoning being sins, no reasoning creature makes mistakes. There would be no rich men, for what reasonable man cares for luxury and ostentation? There would be no poor: that I should eat enough for two while my brother in the next street, as good a man as I, starves, is not reasonable. There would be no difference of opinion on any two points: there is only one reason. You, dear Reader, would find, that on all subjects you were of the same opinion as I. No novels would be written, no plays performed; the lives of reasonable creatures do not afford drama. No mad loves, no mad laughter, no scalding tears, no fierce unreasoning, brief-lived joys, no sorrows, no wild dreams--only reason, reason everywhere.

But for the present we remain unreasonable. If I eat this mayonnaise, drink this champagne, I shall suffer in my liver. Then, why do I eat it? Julia is a charming girl, amiable, wise, and witty; also she has a share in a brewery. Then, why does John marry Ann? who is short-tempered, to say the least of it, who, he feels, will not make him so good a house-wife, who has extravagant notions, who has no little fortune. There is something about Ann's chin that fascinates him--he could not explain to you what. On the whole, Julia is the better-looking of the two. But the more he thinks of Julia, the more he is drawn towards Ann. So Tom marries Julia and the brewery fails, and Julia, on a holiday, contracts rheumatic fever, and is a helpless invalid for life; while Ann comes in for ten thousand pounds left to her by an Australian uncle no one had ever heard of.

I have been told of a young man, who chose his wife with excellent care. Said he to himself, very wisely, "In the selection of a wife a man cannot be too circumspect." He convinced himself that the girl was everything a helpmate should be. She had every virtue that could be expected in a woman, no faults, but such as are inseparable from a woman. Speaking practically, she was perfection. He married her, and found she was all he had thought her. Only one thing could he urge against her--that he did not like her. And that, of course, was not her fault.

How easy life would be did we know ourselves. Could we always be sure that tomorrow we should think as we do today. We fall in love during a summer holiday; she is fresh, delightful, altogether charming; the blood rushes to our head every time we think of her. Our ideal career is one of perpetual service at her feet. It seems impossible that Fate could bestow upon us any greater happiness than the privilege of cleaning her boots, and kissing the hem of her garment--if the hem be a little muddy that will please us the more. We tell her our ambition, and at that moment every word we utter is sincere. But the summer holiday passes, and with it the holiday mood, and winter finds us wondering how we are going to get out of the difficulty into which we have landed ourselves. Or worse still, perhaps, the mood lasts longer than is usual. We become formally engaged. We marry--I wonder how many marriages are the result of a passion that is burnt out before the altar-rails are reached?--and three months afterwards the little lass is broken-hearted to find that we consider the lacing of her boots a bore. Her feet seem to have grown bigger. There is no excuse for us, save that we are silly children, never sure of what we are crying for, hurting one another in our play, crying very loudly when hurt ourselves.

I knew an American lady once who used to bore me with long accounts of the brutalities exercised upon her by her husband. She had instituted divorce proceedings against him. The trial came on, and she was highly successful. We all congratulated her, and then for some months she dropped out of my life. But there came a day when we again found ourselves together. One of the problems of social life is to know what to say to one another when we meet; every man and woman's desire is to appear sympathetic and clever, and this makes conversation difficult, because, taking us all round, we are neither sympathetic nor clever--but this by the way.

Of course, I began to talk to her about her former husband. I asked her how he was getting on. She replied that she thought he was very comfortable.

"Married again?" I suggested.

"Yes," she answered.

"Serve him right," I exclaimed, "and his wife too." She was a pretty, bright-eyed little woman, my American friend, and I wished to ingratiate myself. "A woman who would marry such a man, knowing what she must have known of him, is sure to make him wretched, and we may trust him to be a curse to her."

My friend seemed inclined to defend him.

"I think he is greatly improved," she argued.

"Nonsense!" I returned, "a man never improves. Once a villain, always a villain."

"Oh, hush!" she pleaded, "you mustn't call him that."

"Why not?" I answered. "I have heard you call him a villain yourself."

"It was wrong of me," she said, flushing. "I'm afraid he was not the only one to be blamed; we were both foolish in those days, but I think we have both learned a lesson."

I remained silent, waiting for the necessary explanation.

"You had better come and see him for yourself," she added, with a little laugh; "to tell the truth, I am the woman who has married him. Tuesday is my day, Number 2, K---- Mansions," and she ran off, leaving me staring after her.

I believe an enterprising clergyman who would set up a little church in the Strand, just outside the Law Courts, might do quite a trade, re-marrying couples who had just been divorced. A friend of mine, a respondent, told me he had never loved his wife more than on two occasions--the first when she refused him, the second when she came into the witness-box to give evidence against him.

"You are curious creatures, you men," remarked a lady once to another man in my presence. "You never seem to know your own mind."

She was feeling annoyed with men generally. I do not blame her, I feel annoyed with them myself sometimes. There is one man in particular I am always feeling intensely irritated against. He says one thing, and acts another. He will talk like a saint and behave like a fool, knows what is right and does what is wrong. But we will not speak further of him. He will be all he should be one day, and then we will pack him into a nice, comfortably-lined box, and screw the lid down tight upon him, and put him away in a quiet little spot near a church I know of, lest he should get up and misbehave himself again.

The other man, who is a wise man as men go, looked at his fair critic with a smile.

"My dear madam," he replied, "you are blaming the wrong person. I confess I do not know my mind, and what little I do know of it I do not like. I did not make it, I did not select it. I am more dissatisfied with it than you can possibly be. It is a greater mystery to me than it is to you, and I have to live with it. You should pity not blame me."

There are moods in which I fall to envying those old hermits who frankly, and with courageous cowardice, shirked the problem of life. There are days when I dream of an existence unfettered by the thousand petty strings with which our souls lie bound to Lilliputia land. I picture myself living in some Norwegian sater, high above the black waters of a rockbound fiord. No other human creature disputes with me my kingdom. I am alone with the whispering fir forests and the stars. How I live I am not quite sure. Once a month I could journey down into the villages and return laden. I should not need much. For the rest, my gun and fishing-rod would supply me. I would have with me a couple of big dogs, who would talk to me with their eyes, so full of dumb thought, and together we would wander over the uplands, seeking our dinner, after the old primitive fashion of the men who dreamt not of ten-course dinners and Savoy suppers. I would cook the food myself, and sit down to the meal with a bottle of good wine, such as starts a man's thoughts (for I am inconsistent, as I acknowledge, and that gift of civilization I would bear with me into my hermitage). Then in the evening, with pipe in mouth, beside my log-wood fire, I would sit and think, until new knowledge came to me. Strengthened by those silent voices that are drowned in the roar of Streetland, I might, perhaps, grow into something nearer to what it was intended that a man should be--might catch a glimpse, perhaps, of the meaning of life.

No, no, my dear lady, into this life of renunciation I would not take a companion, certainly not of the sex you are thinking of, even would she care to come, which I doubt. There are times when a man is better without the woman, when a woman is better without the man. Love drags us from the depths, makes men and women of us, but if we would climb a little nearer to the stars we must say good-bye to it. We men and women do not show ourselves to each other at our best; too often, I fear, at our worst. The woman's highest ideal of man is the lover; to a man the woman is always the possible beloved. We see each other's hearts, but not each other's souls. In each other's presence we never shake ourselves free from the earth. Match-making mother Nature is always at hand to prompt us. A woman lifts us up into manhood, but there she would have us stay. "Climb up to me," she cries to the lad, walking with soiled feet in muddy ways; "be a true man that you may be worthy to walk by my side; be brave to protect me, kind and tender, and true; but climb no higher, stay here by my side." The martyr, the prophet, the leader of the world's forlorn hopes, she would wake from his dream. Her arms she would fling about his neck holding him down.

To the woman the man says, "You are my wife. Here is your America, within these walls, here is your work, your duty." True, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand, but men and women are not made in moulds, and the world's work is various. Sometimes to her sorrow, a woman's work lies beyond the home. The duty of Mary was not to Joseph.

The hero in the popular novel is the young man who says, "I love you better than my soul." Our favourite heroine in fiction is the woman who cries to her lover, "I would go down into Hell to be with you." There are men and women who cannot answer thus--the men who dream dreams, the women who see visions--impracticable people from the Bayswater point of view. But Bayswater would not be the abode of peace it is had it not been for such.

Have we not placed sexual love on a pedestal higher than it deserves? It is a noble passion, but it is not the noblest. There is a wider love by the side of which it is but as the lamp illumining the cottage, to the moonlight bathing the hills and valleys. There were two women once. This is a play I saw acted in the daylight. They had been friends from girlhood, till there came between them the usual trouble--a man. A weak, pretty creature not worth a thought from either of them; but women love the unworthy; there would be no over-population problem did they not; and this poor specimen, ill-luck had ordained they should contend for.

Their rivalry brought out all that was worst in both of them. It is a mistake to suppose love only elevates; it can debase. It was a mean struggle for what to an onlooker must have appeared a remarkably unsatisfying prize. The loser might well have left the conqueror to her poor triumph, even granting it had been gained unfairly. But the old, ugly, primeval passions had been stirred in these women, and the wedding-bells closed only the first act.

The second is not difficult to guess. It would have ended in the Divorce Court had not the deserted wife felt that a finer revenge would be secured to her by silence.

In the third, after an interval of only eighteen months, the man died--the first piece of good fortune that seems to have occurred to him personally throughout the play. His position must have been an exceedingly anxious one from the beginning. Notwithstanding his flabbiness, one cannot but regard him with a certain amount of pity--not unmixed with amusement. Most of life's dramas can be viewed as either farce or tragedy according to the whim of the spectator. The actors invariably play them as tragedy; but then that is the essence of good farce acting.

Thus was secured the triumph of legal virtue and the punishment of irregularity, and the play might be dismissed as uninterestingly orthodox were it not for the fourth act, showing how the wronged wife came to the woman she had once wronged to ask and grant forgiveness. Strangely as it may sound, they found their love for one another unchanged. They had been long parted: it was sweet to hold each other's hands again. Two lonely women, they agreed to live together. Those who knew them well in this later time say that their life was very beautiful, filled with graciousness and nobility.

I do not say that such a story could ever be common, but it is more probable than the world might credit. Sometimes the man is better without the woman, the woman without the man.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: On The Time Wasted In Looking Before One Leaps