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Three Men in a Boat
(To say nothing of the dog)

by Jerome K Jerome
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

(London, 1889)

From the hugely prolific JKJ, this was a new type of writing - as homely as speech, and so, to many critics, vulgar and plebeian. The Morning Post derided it as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders. Yet it sold over a million copies in its author's lifetime and has never ceased to be among the most popular of all books.

Abridged: GH.

Three Men in a Boat

THERE were four of us - George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency the dog. We were all feeling seedy, and getting quite nervous about it. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch - hay fever, I fancy. I discovered that I had typhoid fever - wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance - found, as I expected, that I had that too, - began to get interested and so started alphabetically - read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it. The only thing I didn't seem to have was housemaid's knee.

I explained to George and William Harris how I felt in the morning, and William Harris told us how he felt; and George gave us a clever and powerful piece of acting, illustrative of how he felt in the night. George FANCIES he is ill; but there's never anything really the matter with him, you know.

"What we want is rest and a complete change," said Harris. George said: "Let's go up the river." He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris's); and the hard work would give us a good appetite.

We arranged to start on the following Saturday from Kingston. Harris and I would go down in the morning, and take the boat up to Chertsey, and George (who goes to sleep at a bank from ten to four each day, except Saturdays, when they wake him up and put him outside at two), would meet us there.

Harris said: “Somebody give me a bit of pencil, and I'll make out a list."

The first list had to be discarded. It was clear that the upper reaches of the Thames would not allow of the navigation of a boat sufficiently large to take the things we had set down as indispensable!

George said: "You know we are on a wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can't do without." George comes out really quite sensible at times.

How many people, on that voyage up the river of life, pile the little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha'pence for; with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with - oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! - the dread of what will my neighbour think. Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. You will find the boat easier to pull, and if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water.

I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.

"We won't take a tent, suggested George; "we will have a boat with a cover. Now for breakfast we shall want a frying-pan" - (Harris said it was indigestible) - "a tea-pot and a kettle, and a methylated spirit stove." Harris said that we should be wanting to start at six in the morning.

* * *

Mrs. Poppets woke me up next morning: "Do you know that it's nearly nine o'clock, sir?" I woke Harris, and told him. He said: "I thought you wanted to get up at six?" "So I did," I answered; "why didn't you wake me?" "Get up, you fat-headed chunk!" roared Harris. "It's quarter to ten."

Our boat was waiting for us at Kingston just below bridge, and to it we wended our way, and round it we stored our luggage, and into it we stepped. "Are you all right, sir?" said the man. "Right it is," we answered; and with Harris at the sculls and I at the tiller-lines, and Montmorency, unhappy and deeply suspicious, in the prow, out we shot on to the waters which, for a fortnight, were to be our home.

* * *

IT was a glorious morning, late spring or early summer, when the year seems like a fair young maid, trembling with strange, wakening pulses on the brink of womanhood.

The quaint back streets of Kingston, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges. I mused on "Kyningestun," as it was called in the days when Saxon "kinges" were crowned there.

* * *

WE stopped under the willows by Kempton Park, and lunched. A pleasant grass plateau, along by the water's edge, overhung by willows. We had just commenced the third course - bread and jam - when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn't given the matter sufficient consideration, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we WERE trespassing, we would, without hesitation, believe it. Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam. I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly.

Of course, all he really wanted was a shilling. There are a certain number of riverside roughs who make quite an income, during the summer, by slouching about the banks and blackmailing weak-minded noodles in this way. If these men had their way they would close the river Thames altogether. They draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the boards to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

"Not a bit of it. Serve 'em all jolly well right, and I'd go and sing comic songs on the ruins."

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this blood-thirsty strain. You have never heard Harris sing a comic song, or you would understand the service I had rendered to mankind.

At Weybridge, the Wey (a pretty little stream), the Bourne, and the Basingstoke Canal all enter the Thames together. The lock is just opposite the town, and the first thing that we saw, when we came in view of it, was George's blazer on one of the lock gates, closer inspection showing that George was inside it.

George had rather a curious oilskin-covered parcel in his hand. It was round and flat at one end, with a long straight handle sticking out of it.

"What's that?" said Harris - "a frying-pan?" "No," said George, with a strange, wild look in his eyes; "they are all the rage this season. It's a banjo." "I never knew you played the banjo!" cried Harris and I. "Not exactly," replied George: "but I've got the instruction book!"

* * *

George towed us steadily on to Penton Hook. There we discussed the important question of camping, and we settled to push straight on for Runnymead, a quiet wooded part of the river, and where there is good shelter.

That canvas wanted more putting up than any of us had bargained for. It looked so simple in the abstract. You took five iron arches, like gigantic croquet hoops, and fitted them up over the boat, and then stretched the canvas over them: it would take quite ten minutes, we thought. That was an under-estimate.

They were not hoops, they were demons. First they would not fit into their sockets at all, and we had to jump on them, and kick them; and, when we were endeavouring to persuade one side of the hoop to do its duty, the other side would come behind us in a cowardly manner, and hit us over the head.

We got them fixed at last, and then we cleared the decks, and got out supper. We wanted that supper.

For five-and-thirty minutes not a sound was heard throughout the length and breadth of that boat, save the clank of cutlery and crockery, and the steady grinding of four sets of molars. Then a chorus of "Ah’s!". We lit our pipes, and sat, looking out on the quiet night, and talked.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk, and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god they have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

* * *

I WOKE at six the next morning; and found George awake too. The idea, overnight, had been that we should get up early in the morning, fling off our rugs and shawls, and spring into the river with a joyous shout. Somehow, now, the notion seemed less tempting.

"Well, who's going to be first in?" said Harris at last.

I thought I would dress; and I turned to do so; and, as I turned, a silly branch attacked me, and I was out mid-stream with a gallon of Thames water inside me before I knew what had happened.

"Is it all right?" sung out George. "Lovely," I spluttered back.

But I could not persuade them. I was very cold when I got back into the boat, and, in my hurry to get my shirt on, I accidentally jerked it into the water. It made me awfully wild, especially as George burst out laughing. I could not see anything to laugh at, and I told George so, and he only laughed the more. I never saw a man laugh so much. I quite lost my temper with him at last, and I pointed out to him what a drivelling maniac of an imbecile idiot he was; but he only roared the louder.

"Ar'n't you - you - going to get it out?" said George, between his shrieks. Which was when I realised, and told George:

"It isn't my shirt - it's YOURS!"

I never saw a man's face change so suddenly in all my life. "You silly cuckoo! Why can't you be more careful what you're doing? I tried to make him see the fun of the thing, but he could not. George is very dense at seeing a joke sometimes.

Harris proposed that we should have scrambled eggs for breakfast. He said he would cook them. It seemed, from his account, that he was quite famous for them. People who had once tasted his scrambled eggs never cared for any other food afterwards, but pined away and died when they could not get them.

The result was not altogether the success that Harris had anticipated. Six eggs had gone into the frying-pan, and all that came out was a teaspoonful of burnt and unappetizing looking mess. Harris said it was the fault of the frying-pan.

* * *

By Magna Charta Island, George asked if I remembered our first trip up the river, and when we landed at Datchet at ten o'clock at night, and wanted to go to bed. I answered that I did remember it. It will be some time before I forget it.

It was the Saturday before the August Bank Holiday. We passed a very pretty little hotel, with clematis over the porch; but there was no honeysuckle about it, and, for some reason or other, I had got my mind fixed on honeysuckle, and I said: "Oh, let's go on a bit further!."

So we came to another hotel. It had honey-suckle round at the side; but Harris did not like the look of a man who was leaning against the front door. He said he wore ugly boots: so we went on further.

We arrived at the Stag. "Oh, good evening," said George; "we want three beds, please."

"Very sorry, sir," said the landlord; "Three gentlemen sleeping on the billiard-table already, and two in the coffee-room. Can't possibly take you in to-night."

We picked up our things, and went over to the Manor House. The landlady met us with the greeting that we were the fourteenth party she had turned away within the last hour. As for our meek suggestions of stables, billiard-room, or coal-cellars, she laughed them all to scorn: all these nooks had been snatched up long ago.

The beershop was full, and so was the grocer’s. In the end we asked a heavenly messenger (rather well disguised as a small boy) if he knew of any lonely house whose feeble occupants (old ladies or paralysed gentlemen preferred), could be easily frightened into giving up their beds, or, if not, could he recommend us to an empty pigstye.

He found us a place in his good mother’s little four-roomed cottage and a 2ft. 6in. truckle bed, and George and I slept in that, and kept in by tying ourselves together with a sheet. We were not so uppish about what sort of hotel we would have, next time we went to Datchet.

To return to our present trip: nothing exciting happened, and we tugged steadily on to a little below Monkey Island, where we drew up and lunched on cold beef. I don't care for mustard as a rule, and it is very seldom that I take it at all, but It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard. We ate our beef in silence. Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting. We thought of the happy days of childhood, and sighed. We brightened up a bit, however, when George drew out a tin of pine-apple from the bottom of the hamper. We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.

Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out the bags. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.

Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors nearly put his eye out.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank. George held the tin and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down. It made one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead.

And at Marlow we left the boat by the bridge, and went and put up for the night at the "Crown."

* * *

MARLOW is one of the pleasantest river centres I know of. From Marlow up to Sonning is even fairer yet. Grand old Bisham Abbey is rich in melodramatic properties. It contains a tapestry bed-chamber, and a secret room hid high up in the thick walls.

It was while floating in his boat under the Bisham beeches that Shelley, who was then living at Marlow (you can see his house now, in West street), composed THE REVOLT OF ISLAM.

From Medmenham to sweet Hambledon Lock the river is full of peaceful beauty, but, after it passes Greenlands, the rather uninteresting looking river residence of my newsagent, until well the other side of Henley, it is somewhat bare and dull.

We got up tolerably early on the Monday morning at Marlow, and went for a bathe before breakfast. Montmorency made an awful ass of himself with a cat, and we had a good deal of trouble with steam launches.

There is a blatant bumptiousness about a steam launch that has the knack of rousing every evil instinct in my nature, and I yearn for the good old days, when you could go about and tell people what you thought of them with a hatchet and a bow and arrows. Yet, if I may do so, without appearing boastful, I think I can honestly say that our one small boat, during that week, caused more annoyance and delay and aggravation to the steam launches that we came across than all the other craft on the river put together.

"Steam launch, coming!" one of us would cry out, on sighting the enemy in the distance; and, in an instant, I would take the lines, Harris and George would sit down beside me, all of us with our backs to the launch, and the boat would drift out quietly into mid-stream.

"Why, George, bless me, if here isn't a steam launch!"

And George would answer: "Well, do you know, I THOUGHT I heard something!"

* * *

WE woke late the next morning, and, at Harris's earnest desire, partook of a plain breakfast, with "non dainties." We agreed that we would pull this morning, as a change from towing; and Harris thought the best arrangement would be that George and I should scull, and he steer. I did not chime in with this idea at all; I said I thought Harris would have been showing a more proper spirit if he had suggested that he and George should work, and let me rest a bit.

It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.

We came in sight of Reading about eleven. At the lock we came up with a steam launch, belonging to some friends of mine, and they towed us up to within about a mile of Streatley. It is very delightful being towed up by a launch. I prefer it myself to rowing. The run would have been more delightful still, if it had not been for a lot of wretched small boats that were continually getting in the way of our launch, and, to avoid running down which, we had to be continually easing and stopping. It is really most annoying, the manner in which these rowing boats get in the way of one's launch up the river; something ought to done to stop it.

My friends' launch cast us loose just below the grotto, and then Harris wanted to make out that it was my turn to pull. I could not get either George or Harris to see the matter in its proper light, so, to save argument, I took the sculls. I had not been pulling for more than a minute or so, when George noticed something black floating on the water, and we drew up to it. George leant over, as we neared it, and laid hold of it. And then he drew back with a cry, and a blanched face.

It was the dead body of a woman. It was not a beautiful face; it was too prematurely aged-looking, too thin and drawn, to be that; but it was a gentle, lovable face, in spite of its stamp of pinch and poverty, and upon it was that look of restful peace that comes to the faces of the sick sometimes when at last the pain has left them.

Fortunately for us - we having no desire to be kept hanging about coroners' courts - some men on the bank had seen the body too, and now took charge of it from us.

Of course it was the old, old vulgar tragedy. She had loved and been deceived - or had deceived herself. Anyhow, she had sinned - some of us do now and then - and her family and friends, had closed their doors against her. For a while she had kept both herself and the child on the six shillings a week. But six shillings a week does not keep body and soul together very unitedly.

She had wandered about the woods by the river's brink all day, and then, when evening fell and the grey twilight spread its dusky robe upon the waters, she stretched her arms out to the silent river that had known her sorrow and her joy. And the old river had taken her into its gentle arms, and had laid her weary head upon its bosom, and had hushed away the pain.

God help her! and all other sinners, if any more there be.

* * *

WE stayed two days at Streatley, and got our clothes washed. We had tried washing them ourselves, in the river, under George's superintendence, and it had been a failure. The washerwoman said she felt she owed it to herself to charge us just three times the usual prices for that wash. She said it had not been been more in the nature of excavating.

The neighbourhood of Streatley and Goring is a great fishing centre. The river abounds in pike, roach, dace, gudgeon, and eels, just here; and you can sit and fish for them all day.

Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.

George and I called in at a little river-side inn, for a rest, and other things. We went into the parlour and sat down. There was an old fellow there, smoking a long clay pipe, and we naturally began chatting.

Then, during a pause ensued in the conversation, our eyes rested upon a dusty old glass-case, fixed very high up above the chimney-piece, and containing a monstrous trout. George asked the old man how much he thought it weighed.

"Eighteen pounds six ounces," said our friend. "Yes, it wur sixteen year ago, that I landed him, just below the bridge with a minnow.”

And out he went, and left us alone.

We were still looking at it, when the local carrier, who had just stopped at the inn, came to the door of the room with a pot of beer in his hand, and he also looked at the fish. "Good-sized trout, that," said George, turning round to him. "Ah!" said the carrier, “It was nearly five years ago that I caught that trout."

Five minutes afterwards, a third man came in, and described how he had caught it early one morning.

He went in his turn, and when he was gone, the landlord came in to us. We told him the various histories we had heard about his trout, and he was immensely amused, and told us the real history of the fish. It seemed that he had caught it himself, when he was quite a lad; not by any art or skill, but by that unaccountable luck that appears to always wait upon a boy when he plays the wag from school, and goes out fishing on a sunny afternoon.

It really was a most astonishing trout. It excited George so much that he climbed up on the back of a chair to get a better view of it. And then the chair slipped, and George clutched wildly at the trout-case to save himself, and down it came with a crash.

That trout lay shattered into a thousand fragments - I say a thousand, but they may have only been nine hundred. We thought it strange and unaccountable that a stuffed trout should break up into little pieces like that. That trout was plaster-of-Paris.

* * *

WE left Streatley early the next morning, and pulled up to Culham, and slept under the canvas, in the backwater there.

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

At Abingdon, the river passes by the streets. Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order - quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull. In in St. Helen's Church there is a monument to W. Lee, who died in 1637, "had in his lifetime issue from his loins two hundred lacking but three." Mr. W. Lee - five times Mayor - was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

* * *

WE spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

We hoisted the cover before we had lunch, and kept it up all the afternoon, just leaving a little space in the bow, from which one of us could paddle and keep a look-out. In this way we made nine miles, and pulled up for the night a little below Day's Lock.

I cannot honestly say that we had a merry evening. The rain poured down with quiet persistency. Everything in the boat was damp and clammy. Supper was not a success. Harris babbled of soles and white-sauce, and passed the remains of his pie to Montmorency, who declined it, and, apparently insulted by the offer, went and sat over at the other end of the boat by himself.

After that, we mixed ourselves some toddy, and sat round and talked. George told us about a man he had known, who had slept out in a damp boat, and it had given him rheumatic fever, and he had died in great agony ten days afterwards. This naturally led to some pleasant chat about sciatica, fevers, chills, lung diseases, and bronchitis.

There seemed to be a desire for something frolicksome to follow upon this conversation, and in a weak moment I suggested that George should get out his banjo, and see if he could not give us a comic song.

I had always regarded "Two Lovely Black Eyes" as rather a commonplace tune until that evening. The rich vein of sadness that George extracted from it quite surprised me. Harris sobbed like a little child, and the dog howled till I thought his heart or his jaw must surely break.

The rain continued to pour down, and we sat, wrapped up in our mackintoshes, underneath the canvas, and drifted slowly down. On one point we were all agreed, and that was that, come what might, we would go through with this job to the bitter end. We had come out for a fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the river we meant to have. If it killed us!

Nobody spoke. We looked at one another, and each one seemed to see his own mean and guilty thoughts reflected in the faces of the others.

Twenty minutes later, three figures, followed by a shamed-looking dog, might have been seen creeping stealthily from the boat-house at the "Swan" towards the railway station.

You'll love the book... ISBN 978-1-326-80644-6

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