On Memory by Jerome K. Jerome

“I remember, I remember,
In the days of chill November,
How the blackbird on the—”

I forget the rest. It is the beginning of the first piece of poetry I ever learned; for

“Hey, diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,”

I take no note of, it being of a frivolous character and lacking in the qualities of true poetry. I collected fourpence by the recital of “I remember, I remember.” I knew it was fourpence, because they told me that if I kept it until I got twopence more I should have sixpence, which argument, albeit undeniable, moved me not, and the money was squandered, to the best of my recollection, on the very next morning, although upon what memory is a blank.

That is just the way with Memory; nothing that she brings to us is complete. She is a willful child; all her toys are broken. I remember tumbling into a huge dust-hole when a very small boy, but I have not the faintest recollection of ever getting out again; and if memory were all we had to trust to, I should be compelled to believe I was there still.

At another time—some years later—I was assisting at an exceedingly interesting love scene; but the only thing about it I can call to mind distinctly is that at the most critical moment somebody suddenly opened the door and said, “Emily, you’re wanted,” in a sepulchral tone that gave one the idea the police had come for her. All the tender words she said to me and all the beautiful things I said to her are utterly forgotten.

Life altogether is but a crumbling ruin when we turn to look behind: a shattered column here, where a massive portal stood; the broken shaft of a window to mark my lady’s bower; and a moldering heap of blackened stones where the glowing flames once leaped, and over all the tinted lichen and the ivy clinging green.

For everything looms pleasant through the softening haze of time. Even the sadness that is past seems sweet. Our boyish days look very merry to us now, all nutting, hoop, and gingerbread. The snubbings and toothaches and the Latin verbs are all forgotten—the Latin verbs especially. And we fancy we were very happy when we were hobbledehoys and loved; and we wish that we could love again. We never think of the heartaches, or the sleepless nights, or the hot dryness of our throats, when she said she could never be anything to us but a sister—as if any man wanted more sisters!

Yes, it is the brightness, not the darkness, that we see when we look back. The sunshine casts no shadows on the past. The road that we have traversed stretches very fair behind us. We see not the sharp stones. We dwell but on the roses by the wayside, and the strong briers that stung us are, to our distant eyes, but gentle tendrils waving in the wind. God be thanked that it is so—that the ever-lengthening chain of memory has only pleasant links, and that the bitterness and sorrow of to-day are smiled at on the morrow.

It seems as though the brightest side of everything were also its highest and best, so that as our little lives sink back behind us into the dark sea of forgetfulness, all that which is the lightest and the most gladsome is the last to sink, and stands above the waters, long in sight, when the angry thoughts and smarting pain are buried deep below the waves and trouble us no more.

It is this glamour of the past, I suppose, that makes old folk talk so much nonsense about the days when they were young. The world appears to have been a very superior sort of place then, and things were more like what they ought to be. Boys were boys then, and girls were very different. Also winters were something like winters, and summers not at all the wretched-things we get put off with nowadays. As for the wonderful deeds people did in those times and the extraordinary events that happened, it takes three strong men to believe half of them.

I like to hear one of the old boys telling all about it to a party of youngsters who he knows cannot contradict him. It is odd if, after awhile, he doesn’t swear that the moon shone every night when he was a boy, and that tossing mad bulls in a blanket was the favorite sport at his school.

It always has been and always will be the same. The old folk of our grandfathers’ young days sang a song bearing exactly the same burden; and the young folk of to-day will drone out precisely similar nonsense for the aggravation of the next generation. “Oh, give me back the good old days of fifty years ago,” has been the cry ever since Adam’s fifty-first birthday. Take up the literature of 1835, and you will find the poets and novelists asking for the same impossible gift as did the German Minnesingers long before them and the old Norse Saga writers long before that. And for the same thing sighed the early prophets and the philosophers of ancient Greece. From all accounts, the world has been getting worse and worse ever since it was created. All I can say is that it must have been a remarkably delightful place when it was first opened to the public, for it is very pleasant even now if you only keep as much as possible in the sunshine and take the rain good-temperedly.

Yet there is no gainsaying but that it must have been somewhat sweeter in that dewy morning of creation, when it was young and fresh, when the feet of the tramping millions had not trodden its grass to dust, nor the din of the myriad cities chased the silence forever away. Life must have been noble and solemn to those free-footed, loose-robed fathers of the human race, walking hand in hand with God under the great sky. They lived in sunkissed tents amid the lowing herds. They took their simple wants from the loving hand of Nature. They toiled and talked and thought; and the great earth rolled around in stillness, not yet laden with trouble and wrong.

Those days are past now. The quiet childhood of Humanity, spent in the far-off forest glades and by the murmuring rivers, is gone forever; and human life is deepening down to manhood amid tumult, doubt, and hope. Its age of restful peace is past. It has its work to finish and must hasten on. What that work may be—what this world’s share is in the great design—we know not, though our unconscious hands are helping to accomplish it. Like the tiny coral insect working deep under the dark waters, we strive and struggle each for our own little ends, nor dream of the vast fabric we are building up for God.

Let us have done with vain regrets and longings for the days that never will be ours again. Our work lies in front, not behind us; and “Forward!” is our motto. Let us not sit with folded hands, gazing upon the past as if it were the building; it is but the foundation. Let us not waste heart and life thinking of what might have been and forgetting the may be that lies before us. Opportunities flit by while we sit regretting the chances we have lost, and the happiness that comes to us we heed not, because of the happiness that is gone.

Years ago, when I used to wander of an evening from the fireside to the pleasant land of fairy-tales, I met a doughty knight and true. Many dangers had he overcome, in many lands had been; and all men knew him for a brave and well-tried knight, and one that knew not fear; except, maybe, upon such seasons when even a brave man might feel afraid and yet not be ashamed. Now, as this knight one day was pricking wearily along a toilsome road, his heart misgave him and was sore within him because of the trouble of the way. Rocks, dark and of a monstrous size, hung high above his head, and like enough it seemed unto the knight that they should fall and he lie low beneath them. Chasms there were on either side, and darksome caves wherein fierce robbers lived, and dragons, very terrible, whose jaws dripped blood. And upon the road there hung a darkness as of night. So it came over that good knight that he would no more press forward, but seek another road, less grievously beset with difficulty unto his gentle steed. But when in haste he turned and looked behind, much marveled our brave knight, for lo! of all the way that he had ridden there was naught for eye to see; but at his horse’s heels there yawned a mighty gulf, whereof no man might ever spy the bottom, so deep was that same gulf. Then when Sir Ghelent saw that of going back there was none, he prayed to good Saint Cuthbert, and setting spurs into his steed rode forward bravely and most joyously. And naught harmed him.

There is no returning on the road of life. The frail bridge of time on which we tread sinks back into eternity at every step we take. The past is gone from us forever. It is gathered in and garnered. It belongs to us no more. No single word can ever be unspoken; no single step retraced. Therefore it beseems us as true knights to prick on bravely, not idly weep because we cannot now recall.

A new life begins for us with every second. Let us go forward joyously to meet it. We must press on whether we will or no, and we shall walk better with our eyes before us than with them ever cast behind.

A friend came to me the other day and urged me very eloquently to learn some wonderful system by which you never forgot anything. I don’t know why he was so eager on the subject, unless it be that I occasionally borrow an umbrella and have a knack of coming out, in the middle of a game of whist, with a mild “Lor! I’ve been thinking all along that clubs were trumps.” I declined the suggestion, however, in spite of the advantages he so attractively set forth. I have no wish to remember everything. There are many things in most men’s lives that had better be forgotten. There is that time, many years ago, when we did not act quite as honorably, quite as uprightly, as we perhaps should have done—that unfortunate deviation from the path of strict probity we once committed, and in which, more unfortunate still, we were found out—that act of folly, of meanness, of wrong. Ah, well! we paid the penalty, suffered the maddening hours of vain remorse, the hot agony of shame, the scorn, perhaps, of those we loved. Let us forget. Oh, Father Time, lift with your kindly hands those bitter memories from off our overburdened hearts, for griefs are ever coming to us with the coming hours, and our little strength is only as the day.

Not that the past should be buried. The music of life would be mute if the chords of memory were snapped asunder. It is but the poisonous weeds, not the flowers, that we should root out from the garden of Mnemosyne. Do you remember Dickens’ “Haunted Man”—how he prayed for forgetfulness, and how, when his prayer was answered, he prayed for memory once more? We do not want all the ghosts laid. It is only the haggard, cruel-eyed specters that we flee from. Let the gentle, kindly phantoms haunt us as they will; we are not afraid of them.

Ah me! the world grows very full of ghosts as we grow older. We need not seek in dismal church-yards nor sleep in moated granges to see the shadowy faces and hear the rustling of their garments in the night. Every house, every room, every creaking chair has its own particular ghost. They haunt the empty chambers of our lives, they throng around us like dead leaves whirled in the autumn wind. Some are living, some are dead. We know not. We clasped their hands once, loved them, quarreled with them, laughed with them, told them our thoughts and hopes and aims, as they told us theirs, till it seemed our very hearts had joined in a grip that would defy the puny power of Death. They are gone now; lost to us forever. Their eyes will never look into ours again and their voices we shall never hear. Only their ghosts come to us and talk with us. We see them, dim and shadowy, through our tears. We stretch our yearning hands to them, but they are air.

Ghosts! They are with us night and day. They walk beside us in the busy street under the glare of the sun. They sit by us in the twilight at home. We see their little faces looking from the windows of the old school-house. We meet them in the woods and lanes where we shouted and played as boys. Hark! cannot you hear their low laughter from behind the blackberry-bushes and their distant whoops along the grassy glades? Down here, through the quiet fields and by the wood, where the evening shadows are lurking, winds the path where we used to watch for her at sunset. Look, she is there now, in the dainty white frock we knew so well, with the big bonnet dangling from her little hands and the sunny brown hair all tangled. Five thousand miles away! Dead for all we know! What of that? She is beside us now, and we can look into her laughing eyes and hear her voice. She will vanish at the stile by the wood and we shall be alone; and the shadows will creep out across the fields and the night wind will sweep past moaning. Ghosts! they are always with us and always will be while the sad old world keeps echoing to the sob of long good-bys, while the cruel ships sail away across the great seas, and the cold green earth lies heavy on the hearts of those we loved.

But, oh, ghosts, the world would be sadder still without you. Come to us and speak to us, oh you ghosts of our old loves! Ghosts of playmates, and of sweethearts, and old friends, of all you laughing boys and girls, oh, come to us and be with us, for the world is very lonely, and new friends and faces are not like the old, and we cannot love them, nay, nor laugh with them as we have loved and laughed with you. And when we walked together, oh, ghosts of our youth, the world was very gay and bright; but now it has grown old and we are growing weary, and only you can bring the brightness and the freshness back to us.

Memory is a rare ghost-raiser. Like a haunted house, its walls are ever echoing to unseen feet. Through the broken casements we watch the flitting shadows of the dead, and the saddest shadows of them all are the shadows of our own dead selves.

Oh, those young bright faces, so full of truth and honor, of pure, good thoughts, of noble longings, how reproachfully they look upon us with their deep, clear eyes!

I fear they have good cause for their sorrow, poor lads. Lies and cunning and disbelief have crept into our hearts since those preshaving days—and we meant to be so great and good.

It is well we cannot see into the future. There are few boys of fourteen who would not feel ashamed of themselves at forty.

I like to sit and have a talk sometimes with that odd little chap that was myself long ago. I think he likes it too, for he comes so often of an evening when I am alone with my pipe, listening to the whispering of the flames. I see his solemn little face looking at me through the scented smoke as it floats upward, and I smile at him; and he smiles back at me, but his is such a grave, old-fashioned smile. We chat about old times; and now and then he takes me by the hand, and then we slip through the black bars of the grate and down the dusky glowing caves to the land that lies behind the firelight. There we find the days that used to be, and we wander along them together. He tells me as we walk all he thinks and feels. I laugh at him now and then, but the next moment I wish I had not, for he looks so grave I am ashamed of being frivolous. Besides, it is not showing proper respect to one so much older than myself—to one who was myself so very long before I became myself.

We don’t talk much at first, but look at one another; I down at his curly hair and little blue bow, he up sideways at me as he trots. And some-how I fancy the shy, round eyes do not altogether approve of me, and he heaves a little sigh, as though he were disappointed. But after awhile his bashfulness wears off and he begins to chat. He tells me his favorite fairy-tales, he can do up to six times, and he has a guinea-pig, and pa says fairy-tales ain’t true; and isn’t it a pity? ‘cos he would so like to be a knight and fight a dragon and marry a beautiful princess. But he takes a more practical view of life when he reaches seven, and would prefer to grow up be a bargee, and earn a lot of money. Maybe this is the consequence of falling in love, which he does about this time with the young lady at the milk shop aet. six. (God bless her little ever-dancing feet, whatever size they may be now!) He must be very fond of her, for he gives her one day his chiefest treasure, to wit, a huge pocket-knife with four rusty blades and a corkscrew, which latter has a knack of working itself out in some mysterious manner and sticking into its owner’s leg. She is an affectionate little thing, and she throws her arms round his neck and kisses him for it, then and there, outside the shop. But the stupid world (in the person of the boy at the cigar emporium next door) jeers at such tokens of love. Whereupon my young friend very properly prepares to punch the head of the boy at the cigar emporium next door; but fails in the attempt, the boy at the cigar emporium next door punching his instead.

And then comes school life, with its bitter little sorrows and its joyous shoutings, its jolly larks, and its hot tears falling on beastly Latin grammars and silly old copy-books. It is at school that he injures himself for life—as I firmly believe—trying to pronounce German; and it is there, too, that he learns of the importance attached by the French nation to pens, ink, and paper. “Have you pens, ink, and paper?” is the first question asked by one Frenchman of another on their meeting. The other fellow has not any of them, as a rule, but says that the uncle of his brother has got them all three. The first fellow doesn’t appear to care a hang about the uncle of the other fellow’s brother; what he wants to know now is, has the neighbor of the other fellow’s mother got ’em? “The neighbor of my mother has no pens, no ink, and no paper,” replies the other man, beginning to get wild. “Has the child of thy female gardener some pens, some ink, or some paper?” He has him there. After worrying enough about these wretched inks, pens, and paper to make everybody miserable, it turns out that the child of his own female gardener hasn’t any. Such a discovery would shut up any one but a French exercise man. It has no effect at all, though, on this shameless creature. He never thinks of apologizing, but says his aunt has some mustard.

So in the acquisition of more or less useless knowledge, soon happily to be forgotten, boyhood passes away. The red-brick school-house fades from view, and we turn down into the world’s high-road. My little friend is no longer little now. The short jacket has sprouted tails. The battered cap, so useful as a combination of pocket-handkerchief, drinking-cup, and weapon of attack, has grown high and glossy; and instead of a slate-pencil in his mouth there is a cigarette, the smoke of which troubles him, for it will get up his nose. He tries a cigar a little later on as being more stylish—a big black Havanna. It doesn’t seem altogether to agree with him, for I find him sitting over a bucket in the back kitchen afterward, solemnly swearing never to smoke again.

And now his mustache begins to be almost visible to the naked eye, whereupon he immediately takes to brandy-and-sodas and fancies himself a man. He talks about “two to one against the favorite,” refers to actresses as “Little Emmy” and “Kate” and “Baby,” and murmurs about his “losses at cards the other night” in a style implying that thousands have been squandered, though, to do him justice, the actual amount is most probably one-and-twopence. Also, if I see aright—for it is always twilight in this land of memories—he sticks an eyeglass in his eye and stumbles over everything.

His female relations, much troubled at these things, pray for him (bless their gentle hearts!) and see visions of Old Bailey trials and halters as the only possible outcome of such reckless dissipation; and the prediction of his first school-master, that he would come to a bad end, assumes the proportions of inspired prophecy.

He has a lordly contempt at this age for the other sex, a blatantly good opinion of himself, and a sociably patronizing manner toward all the elderly male friends of the family. Altogether, it must be confessed, he is somewhat of a nuisance about this time.

It does not last long, though. He falls in love in a little while, and that soon takes the bounce out of him. I notice his boots are much too small for him now, and his hair is fearfully and wonderfully arranged. He reads poetry more than he used, and he keeps a rhyming dictionary in his bedroom. Every morning Emily Jane finds scraps of torn-up paper on the floor and reads thereon of “cruel hearts and love’s deep darts,” of “beauteous eyes and lovers’ sighs,” and much more of the old, old song that lads so love to sing and lassies love to listen to while giving their dainty heads a toss and pretending never to hear.

The course of love, however, seems not to have run smoothly, for later on he takes more walking exercise and less sleep, poor boy, than is good for him; and his face is suggestive of anything but wedding-bells and happiness ever after.

And here he seems to vanish. The little, boyish self that has grown up beside me as we walked is gone.

I am alone and the road is very dark. I stumble on, I know not how nor care, for the way seems leading nowhere, and there is no light to guide.

But at last the morning comes, and I find that I have grown into myself.

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