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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Furnished Apartments

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Furnished Apartments

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


"Oh, you have some rooms to let."


"Well, what is it?"

"'Ere's a gentleman about the rooms."

"Ask 'im in. I'll be up in a minute."

"Will yer step inside, sir? Mother'll be up in a minute."

So you step inside and after a minute "mother" comes slowly up the
kitchen stairs, untying her apron as she comes and calling down
instructions to some one below about the potatoes.

"Good-morning, sir," says "mother," with a washed-out smile. "Will
you step this way, please?"

"Oh, it's hardly worth while my coming up," you say. "What sort of
rooms are they, and how much?"

"Well," says the landlady, "if you'll step upstairs I'll show them to

So with a protesting murmur, meant to imply that any waste of time
complained of hereafter must not be laid to your charge, you follow
"mother" upstairs.

At the first landing you run up against a pail and a broom, whereupon
"mother" expatiates upon the unreliability of servant-girls, and bawls
over the balusters for Sarah to come and take them away at once. When
you get outside the rooms she pauses, with her hand upon the door, to
explain to you that they are rather untidy just at present, as the
last lodger left only yesterday; and she also adds that this is their
cleaning-day--it always is. With this understanding you enter, and
both stand solemnly feasting your eyes upon the scene before you. The
rooms cannot be said to appear inviting. Even "mother's" face betrays
no admiration. Untenanted "furnished apartments" viewed in the
morning sunlight do not inspire cheery sensations. There is a
lifeless air about them. It is a very different thing when you have
settled down and are living in them. With your old familiar household
gods to greet your gaze whenever you glance up, and all your little
knick-knacks spread around you--with the photos of all the girls that
you have loved and lost ranged upon the mantel-piece, and half a dozen
disreputable-looking pipes scattered about in painfully prominent
positions--with one carpet slipper peeping from beneath the coal-box
and the other perched on the top of the piano--with the well-known
pictures to hide the dingy walls, and these dear old friends, your
books, higgledy-piggledy all over the place--with the bits of old blue
china that your mother prized, and the screen she worked in those far
by-gone days, when the sweet old face was laughing and young, and the
white soft hair tumbled in gold-brown curls from under the
coal-scuttle bonnet--

Ah, old screen, what a gorgeous personage you must have been in your
young days, when the tulips and roses and lilies (all growing from one
stem) were fresh in their glistening sheen! Many a summer and winter
have come and gone since then, my friend, and you have played with the
dancing firelight until you have grown sad and gray. Your brilliant
colors are fast fading now, and the envious moths have gnawed your
silken threads. You are withering away like the dead hands that wove
you. Do you ever think of those dead hands? You seem so grave and
thoughtful sometimes that I almost think you do. Come, you and I and
the deep-glowing embers, let us talk together. Tell me in your silent
language what you remember of those young days, when you lay on my
little mother's lap and her girlish fingers played with your rainbow
tresses. Was there never a lad near sometimes--never a lad who would
seize one of those little hands to smother it with kisses, and who
would persist in holding it, thereby sadly interfering with the
progress of your making? Was not your frail existence often put in
jeopardy by this same clumsy, headstrong lad, who would toss you
disrespectfully aside that he--not satisfied with one--might hold both
hands and gaze up into the loved eyes? I can see that lad now through
the haze of the flickering twilight. He is an eager bright-eyed boy,
with pinching, dandy shoes and tight-fitting smalls, snowy shirt frill
and stock, and--oh! such curly hair. A wild, light-hearted boy! Can
he be the great, grave gentleman upon whose stick I used to ride
crosslegged, the care-worn man into whose thoughtful face I used to
gaze with childish reverence and whom I used to call "father?" You
say "yes," old screen; but are you quite sure? It is a serious charge
you are bringing. Can it be possible? Did he have to kneel down in
those wonderful smalls and pick you up and rearrange you before he was
forgiven and his curly head smoothed by my mother's little hand? Ah!
old screen, and did the lads and the lassies go making love fifty
years ago just as they do now? Are men and women so unchanged? Did
little maidens' hearts beat the same under pearl-embroidered bodices
as they do under Mother Hubbard cloaks? Have steel casques and
chimney-pot hats made no difference to the brains that work beneath
them? Oh, Time! great Chronos! and is this your power? Have you
dried up seas and leveled mountains and left the tiny human
heart-strings to defy you? Ah, yes! they were spun by a Mightier than
thou, and they stretch beyond your narrow ken, for their ends are made
fast in eternity. Ay, you may mow down the leaves and the blossoms,
but the roots of life lie too deep for your sickle to sever. You
refashion Nature's garments, but you cannot vary by a jot the
throbbings of her pulse. The world rolls round obedient to your laws,
but the heart of man is not of your kingdom, for in its birthplace "a
thousand years are but as yesterday."

I am getting away, though, I fear, from my "furnished apartments," and
I hardly know how to get back. But I have some excuse for my
meanderings this time. It is a piece of old furniture that has led me
astray, and fancies gather, somehow, round old furniture, like moss
around old stones. One's chairs and tables get to be almost part of
one's life and to seem like quiet friends. What strange tales the
wooden-headed old fellows could tell did they but choose to speak! At
what unsuspected comedies and tragedies have they not assisted! What
bitter tears have been sobbed into that old sofa cushion! What
passionate whisperings the settee must have overheard!

New furniture has no charms for me compared with old. It is the old
things that we love--the old faces, the old books, the old jokes. New
furniture can make a palace, but it takes old furniture to make a
home. Not merely old in itself--lodging-house furniture generally is
that--but it must be old to us, old in associations and recollections.
The furniture of furnished apartments, however ancient it may be in
reality, is new to our eyes, and we feel as though we could never get
on with it. As, too, in the case of all fresh acquaintances, whether
wooden or human (and there is very little difference between the two
species sometimes), everything impresses you with its worst aspect.
The knobby wood-work and shiny horse-hair covering of the easy-chair
suggest anything but ease. The mirror is smoky. The curtains want
washing. The carpet is frayed. The table looks as if it would go
over the instant anything was rested on it. The grate is cheerless,
the wall-paper hideous. The ceiling appears to have had coffee spilt
all over it, and the ornaments--well, they are worse than the

There must surely be some special and secret manufactory for the
production of lodging-house ornaments. Precisely the same articles
are to be found at every lodging-house all over the kingdom, and they
are never seen anywhere else. There are the two--what do you call
them? they stand one at each end of the mantel-piece, where they are
never safe, and they are hung round with long triangular slips of
glass that clank against one another and make you nervous. In the
commoner class of rooms these works of art are supplemented by a
couple of pieces of china which might each be meant to represent a cow
sitting upon its hind legs, or a model of the temple of Diana at
Ephesus, or a dog, or anything else you like to fancy. Somewhere
about the room you come across a bilious-looking object, which at
first you take to be a lump of dough left about by one of the
children, but which on scrutiny seems to resemble an underdone cupid.
This thing the landlady calls a statue. Then there is a "sampler"
worked by some idiot related to the family, a picture of the
"Huguenots," two or three Scripture texts, and a highly framed and
glazed certificate to the effect that the father has been vaccinated,
or is an Odd Fellow, or something of that sort.

You examine these various attractions and then dismally ask what the
rent is.

"That's rather a good deal," you say on hearing the figure.

"Well, to tell you the truth," answers the landlady with a sudden
burst of candor, "I've always had" (mentioning a sum a good deal in
excess of the first-named amount), "and before that I used to have" (a
still higher figure).

What the rent of apartments must have been twenty years ago makes one
shudder to think of. Every landlady makes you feel thoroughly ashamed
of yourself by informing you, whenever the subject crops up, that she
used to get twice as much for her rooms as you are paying. Young men
lodgers of the last generation must have been of a wealthier class
than they are now, or they must have ruined themselves. I should have
had to live in an attic.

Curious, that in lodgings the rule of life is reversed. The higher
you get up in the world the lower you come down in your lodgings. On
the lodging-house ladder the poor man is at the top, the rich man
underneath. You start in the attic and work your way down to the
first floor.

A good many great men have lived in attics and some have died there.
Attics, says the dictionary, are "places where lumber is stored," and
the world has used them to store a good deal of its lumber in at one
time or another. Its preachers and painters and poets, its
deep-browed men who will find out things, its fire-eyed men who will
tell truths that no one wants to hear--these are the lumber that the
world hides away in its attics. Haydn grew up in an attic and
Chatterton starved in one. Addison and Goldsmith wrote in garrets.
Faraday and De Quincey knew them well. Dr. Johnson camped cheerfully
in them, sleeping soundly--too soundly sometimes--upon their
trundle-beds, like the sturdy old soldier of fortune that he was,
inured to hardship and all careless of himself. Dickens spent his
youth among them, Morland his old age--alas! a drunken, premature old
age. Hans Andersen, the fairy king, dreamed his sweet fancies beneath
their sloping roofs. Poor, wayward-hearted Collins leaned his head
upon their crazy tables; priggish Benjamin Franklin; Savage, the
wrong-headed, much troubled when he could afford any softer bed than a
doorstep; young Bloomfield, "Bobby" Burns, Hogarth, Watts the
engineer--the roll is endless. Ever since the habitations of men were
reared two stories high has the garret been the nursery of genius.

No one who honors the aristocracy of mind can feel ashamed of
acquaintanceship with them. Their damp-stained walls are sacred to
the memory of noble names. If all the wisdom of the world and all its
art--all the spoils that it has won from nature, all the fire that it
has snatched from heaven--were gathered together and divided into
heaps, and we could point and say, for instance, these mighty truths
were flashed forth in the brilliant _salon_ amid the ripple of light
laughter and the sparkle of bright eyes; and this deep knowledge was
dug up in the quiet study, where the bust of Pallas looks serenely
down on the leather-scented shelves; and this heap belongs to the
crowded street; and that to the daisied field--the heap that would
tower up high above the rest as a mountain above hills would be the
one at which we should look up and say: this noblest pile of
all--these glorious paintings and this wondrous music, these trumpet
words, these solemn thoughts, these daring deeds, they were forged and
fashioned amid misery and pain in the sordid squalor of the city
garret. There, from their eyries, while the world heaved and throbbed
below, the kings of men sent forth their eagle thoughts to wing their
flight through the ages. There, where the sunlight streaming through
the broken panes fell on rotting boards and crumbling walls; there,
from their lofty thrones, those rag-clothed Joves have hurled their
thunderbolts and shaken, before now, the earth to its foundations.

Huddle them up in your lumber-rooms, oh, world! Shut them fast in and
turn the key of poverty upon them. Weld close the bars, and let them
fret their hero lives away within the narrow cage. Leave them there
to starve, and rot, and die. Laugh at the frenzied beatings of their
hands against the door. Roll onward in your dust and noise and pass
them by, forgotten.

But take care lest they turn and sting you. All do not, like the
fabled phoenix, warble sweet melodies in their agony; sometimes they
spit venom--venom you must breathe whether you will or no, for you
cannot seal their mouths, though you may fetter their limbs. You can
lock the door upon them, but they burst open their shaky lattices and
call out over the house-tops so that men cannot but hear. You hounded
wild Rousseau into the meanest garret of the Rue St. Jacques and
jeered at his angry shrieks. But the thin, piping tones swelled a
hundred years later into the sullen roar of the French Revolution, and
civilization to this day is quivering to the reverberations of his

As for myself, however, I like an attic. Not to live in: as
residences they are inconvenient. There is too much getting up and
down stairs connected with them to please me. It puts one
unpleasantly in mind of the tread-mill. The form of the ceiling
offers too many facilities for bumping your head and too few for
shaving. And the note of the tomcat as he sings to his love in the
stilly night outside on the tiles becomes positively distasteful when
heard so near.

No, for living in give me a suit of rooms on the first floor of a
Piccadilly mansion (I wish somebody would!); but for thinking in let
me have an attic up ten flights of stairs in the densest quarter of
the city. I have all Herr Teufelsdrockh's affection for attics.
There is a sublimity about their loftiness. I love to "sit at ease
and look down upon the wasps' nest beneath;" to listen to the dull
murmur of the human tide ebbing and flowing ceaselessly through the
narrow streets and lanes below. How small men seem, how like a swarm
of ants sweltering in endless confusion on their tiny hill! How petty
seems the work on which they are hurrying and skurrying! How
childishly they jostle against one another and turn to snarl and
scratch! They jabber and screech and curse, but their puny voices do
not reach up here. They fret, and fume, and rage, and pant, and die;
"but I, mein Werther, sit above it all; I am alone with the stars."

The most extraordinary attic I ever came across was one a friend and I
once shared many years ago. Of all eccentrically planned things, from
Bradshaw to the maze at Hampton Court, that room was the most
eccentric. The architect who designed it must have been a genius,
though I cannot help thinking that his talents would have been better
employed in contriving puzzles than in shaping human habitations. No
figure in Euclid could give any idea of that apartment. It contained
seven corners, two of the walls sloped to a point, and the window was
just over the fireplace. The only possible position for the bedstead
was between the door and the cupboard. To get anything out of the
cupboard we had to scramble over the bed, and a large percentage of
the various commodities thus obtained was absorbed by the bedclothes.
Indeed, so many things were spilled and dropped upon the bed that
toward night-time it had become a sort of small cooperative store.
Coal was what it always had most in stock. We used to keep our coal
in the bottom part of the cupboard, and when any was wanted we had to
climb over the bed, fill a shovelful, and then crawl back. It was an
exciting moment when we reached the middle of the bed. We would hold
our breath, fix our eyes upon the shovel, and poise ourselves for the
last move. The next instant we, and the coals, and the shovel, and
the bed would be all mixed up together.

I've heard of the people going into raptures over beds of coal. We
slept in one every night and were not in the least stuck up about it.

But our attic, unique though it was, had by no means exhausted the
architect's sense of humor. The arrangement of the whole house was a
marvel of originality. All the doors opened outward, so that if any
one wanted to leave a room at the same moment that you were coming
downstairs it was unpleasant for you. There was no ground-floor--its
ground-floor belonged to a house in the next court, and the front door
opened direct upon a flight of stairs leading down to the cellar.
Visitors on entering the house would suddenly shoot past the person
who had answered the door to them and disappear down these stairs.
Those of a nervous temperament used to imagine that it was a trap laid
for them, and would shout murder as they lay on their backs at the
bottom till somebody came and picked them up.

It is a long time ago now that I last saw the inside of an attic. I
have tried various floors since but I have not found that they have
made much difference to me. Life tastes much the same, whether we
quaff it from a golden goblet or drink it out of a stone mug. The
hours come laden with the same mixture of joy and sorrow, no matter
where we wait for them. A waistcoat of broadcloth or of fustian is
alike to an aching heart, and we laugh no merrier on velvet cushions
than we did on wooden chairs. Often have I sighed in those
low-ceilinged rooms, yet disappointments have come neither less nor
lighter since I quitted them. Life works upon a compensating balance,
and the happiness we gain in one direction we lose in another. As our
means increase, so do our desires; and we ever stand midway between
the two. When we reside in an attic we enjoy a supper of fried fish
and stout. When we occupy the first floor it takes an elaborate
dinner at the Continental to give us the same amount of satisfaction.

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