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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Three Men on the Bummel -> Chapter 13

Three Men on the Bummel - Chapter 13

1. Chapter 1

2. Chapter 2

3. Chapter 3

4. Chapter 4

5. Chapter 5

6. Chapter 6

7. Chapter 7

8. Chapter 8

9. Chapter 9

10. Chapter 10

11. Chapter 11

12. Chapter 12

13. Chapter 13

14. Chapter 14


An examination into the character and behaviour of the German
student--The German Mensur--Uses and abuses of use--Views of an
impressionist--The humour of the thing--Recipe for making savages--
The Jungfrau: her peculiar taste in laces--The Kneipe--How to rub
a Salamander--Advice to the stranger--A story that might have ended
sadly--Of two men and two wives--Together with a bachelor.

On our way home we included a German University town, being wishful
to obtain an insight into the ways of student life, a curiosity
that the courtesy of German friends enabled us to gratify.

The English boy plays till he is fifteen, and works thence till
twenty. In Germany it is the child that works; the young man that
plays. The German boy goes to school at seven o'clock in the
summer, at eight in the winter, and at school he studies. The
result is that at sixteen he has a thorough knowledge of the
classics and mathematics, knows as much history as any man
compelled to belong to a political party is wise in knowing,
together with a thorough grounding in modern languages. Therefore
his eight College Semesters, extending over four years, are, except
for the young man aiming at a professorship, unnecessarily ample.
He is not a sportsman, which is a pity, for he should make good
one. He plays football a little, bicycles still less; plays French
billiards in stuffy cafes more. But generally speaking he, or the
majority of him, lays out his time bummeling, beer drinking, and
fighting. If he be the son of a wealthy father he joins a Korps--
to belong to a crack Korps costs about four hundred pounds a year.
If he be a middle-class young man, he enrols himself in a
Burschenschaft, or a Landsmannschaft, which is a little cheaper.
These companies are again broken up into smaller circles, in which
attempt is made to keep to nationality. There are the Swabians,
from Swabia; the Frankonians, descendants of the Franks; the
Thuringians, and so forth. In practice, of course, this results as
all such attempts do result--I believe half our Gordon Highlanders
are Cockneys--but the picturesque object is obtained of dividing
each University into some dozen or so separate companies of
students, each one with its distinctive cap and colours, and, quite
as important, its own particular beer hall, into which no other
student wearing his colours may come.

The chief work of these student companies is to fight among
themselves, or with some rival Korps or Schaft, the celebrated
German Mensur.

The Mensur has been described so often and so thoroughly that I do
not intend to bore my readers with any detailed account of it. I
merely come forward as an impressionist, and I write purposely the
impression of my first Mensur, because I believe that first
impressions are more true and useful than opinions blunted by
intercourse, or shaped by influence.

A Frenchman or a Spaniard will seek to persuade you that the bull-
ring is an institution got up chiefly for the benefit of the bull.
The horse which you imagined to be screaming with pain was only
laughing at the comical appearance presented by its own inside.
Your French or Spanish friend contrasts its glorious and exciting
death in the ring with the cold-blooded brutality of the knacker's
yard. If you do not keep a tight hold of your head, you come away
with the desire to start an agitation for the inception of the
bull-ring in England as an aid to chivalry. No doubt Torquemada
was convinced of the humanity of the Inquisition. To a stout
gentleman, suffering, perhaps, from cramp or rheumatism, an hour or
so on the rack was really a physical benefit. He would rise
feeling more free in his joints--more elastic, as one might say,
than he had felt for years. English huntsmen regard the fox as an
animal to be envied. A day's excellent sport is provided for him
free of charge, during which he is the centre of attraction.

Use blinds one to everything one does not wish to see. Every third
German gentleman you meet in the street still bears, and will bear
to his grave, marks of the twenty to a hundred duels he has fought
in his student days. The German children play at the Mensur in the
nursery, rehearse it in the gymnasium. The Germans have come to
persuade themselves there is no brutality in it--nothing offensive,
nothing degrading. Their argument is that it schools the German
youth to coolness and courage. If this could be proved, the
argument, particularly in a country where every man is a soldier,
would be sufficiently one-sided. But is the virtue of the prize-
fighter the virtue of the soldier? One doubts it. Nerve and dash
are surely of more service in the field than a temperament of
unreasoning indifference as to what is happening to one. As a
matter of fact, the German student would have to be possessed of
much more courage not to fight. He fights not to please himself,
but to satisfy a public opinion that is two hundred years behind
the times.

All the Mensur does is to brutalise him. There may be skill
displayed--I am told there is,--but it is not apparent. The mere
fighting is like nothing so much as a broadsword combat at a
Richardson's show; the display as a whole a successful attempt to
combine the ludicrous with the unpleasant. In aristocratic Bonn,
where style is considered, and in Heidelberg, where visitors from
other nations are more common, the affair is perhaps more formal.
I am told that there the contests take place in handsome rooms;
that grey-haired doctors wait upon the wounded, and liveried
servants upon the hungry, and that the affair is conducted
throughout with a certain amount of picturesque ceremony. In the
more essentially German Universities, where strangers are rare and
not much encouraged, the simple essentials are the only things kept
in view, and these are not of an inviting nature.

Indeed, so distinctly uninviting are they, that I strongly advise
the sensitive reader to avoid even this description of them. The
subject cannot be made pretty, and I do not intend to try.

The room is bare and sordid; its walls splashed with mixed stains
of beer, blood, and candle-grease; its ceiling, smoky; its floor,
sawdust covered. A crowd of students, laughing, smoking, talking,
some sitting on the floor, others perched upon chairs and benches
form the framework.

In the centre, facing one another, stand the combatants, resembling
Japanese warriors, as made familiar to us by the Japanese tea-tray.
Quaint and rigid, with their goggle-covered eyes, their necks tied
up in comforters, their bodies smothered in what looks like dirty
bed quilts, their padded arms stretched straight above their heads,
they might be a pair of ungainly clockwork figures. The seconds,
also more or less padded--their heads and faces protected by huge
leather-peaked caps,--drag them out into their proper position.
One almost listens to hear the sound of the castors. The umpire
takes his place, the word is given, and immediately there follow
five rapid clashes of the long straight swords. There is no
interest in watching the fight: there is no movement, no skill, no
grace (I am speaking of my own impressions.) The strongest man
wins; the man who, with his heavily-padded arm, always in an
unnatural position, can hold his huge clumsy sword longest without
growing too weak to be able either to guard or to strike.

The whole interest is centred in watching the wounds. They come
always in one of two places--on the top of the head or the left
side of the face. Sometimes a portion of hairy scalp or section of
cheek flies up into the air, to be carefully preserved in an
envelope by its proud possessor, or, strictly speaking, its proud
former possessor, and shown round on convivial evenings; and from
every wound, of course, flows a plentiful stream of blood. It
splashes doctors, seconds, and spectators; it sprinkles ceiling and
walls; it saturates the fighters, and makes pools for itself in the
sawdust. At the end of each round the doctors rush up, and with
hands already dripping with blood press together the gaping wounds,
dabbing them with little balls of wet cotton wool, which an
attendant carries ready on a plate. Naturally, the moment the men
stand up again and commence work, the blood gushes out again, half
blinding them, and rendering the ground beneath them slippery. Now
and then you see a man's teeth laid bare almost to the ear, so that
for the rest of the duel he appears to be grinning at one half of
the spectators, his other side, remaining serious; and sometimes a
man's nose gets slit, which gives to him as he fights a singularly
supercilious air.

As the object of each student is to go away from the University
bearing as many scars as possible, I doubt if any particular pains
are taken to guard, even to the small extent such method of
fighting can allow. The real victor is he who comes out with the
greatest number of wounds; he who then, stitched and patched almost
to unrecognition as a human being, can promenade for the next
month, the envy of the German youth, the admiration of the German
maiden. He who obtains only a few unimportant wounds retires sulky
and disappointed.

But the actual fighting is only the beginning of the fun. The
second act of the spectacle takes place in the dressing-room. The
doctors are generally mere medical students--young fellows who,
having taken their degree, are anxious for practice. Truth compels
me to say that those with whom I came in contact were coarse-
looking men who seemed rather to relish their work. Perhaps they
are not to be blamed for this. It is part of the system that as
much further punishment as possible must be inflicted by the
doctor, and the ideal medical man might hardly care for such job.
How the student bears the dressing of his wounds is as important as
how he receives them. Every operation has to be performed as
brutally as may be, and his companions carefully watch him during
the process to see that he goes through it with an appearance of
peace and enjoyment. A clean-cut wound that gapes wide is most
desired by all parties. On purpose it is sewn up clumsily, with
the hope that by this means the scar will last a lifetime. Such a
wound, judiciously mauled and interfered with during the week
afterwards, can generally be reckoned on to secure its fortunate
possessor a wife with a dowry of five figures at the least.

These are the general bi-weekly Mensurs, of which the average
student fights some dozen a year. There are others to which
visitors are not admitted. When a student is considered to have
disgraced himself by some slight involuntary movement of the head
or body while fighting, then he can only regain his position by
standing up to the best swordsman in his Korps. He demands and is
accorded, not a contest, but a punishment. His opponent then
proceeds to inflict as many and as bloody wounds as can be taken.
The object of the victim is to show his comrades that he can stand
still while his head is half sliced from his skull.

Whether anything can properly be said in favour of the German
Mensur I am doubtful; but if so it concerns only the two
combatants. Upon the spectators it can and does, I am convinced,
exercise nothing but evil. I know myself sufficiently well to be
sure I am not of an unusually bloodthirsty disposition. The effect
it had upon me can only be the usual effect. At first, before the
actual work commenced, my sensation was curiosity mingled with
anxiety as to how the sight would trouble me, though some slight
acquaintance with dissecting-rooms and operating tables left me
less doubt on that point than I might otherwise have felt. As the
blood began to flow, and nerves and muscles to be laid bare, I
experienced a mingling of disgust and pity. But with the second
duel, I must confess, my finer feelings began to disappear; and by
the time the third was well upon its way, and the room heavy with
the curious hot odour of blood, I began, as the American expression
is, to see things red.

I wanted more. I looked from face to face surrounding me, and in
most of them I found reflected undoubtedly my own sensations. If
it be a good thing to excite this blood thirst in the modern man,
then the Mensur is a useful institution. But is it a good thing?
We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who
do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that
underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his
savage instincts untouched. Occasionally he may be wanted, but we
never need fear his dying out. On the other hand, it seems unwise
to over-nourish him.

In favour of the duel, seriously considered, there are many points
to be urged. But the Mensur serves no good purpose whatever. It
is childishness, and the fact of its being a cruel and brutal game
makes it none the less childish. Wounds have no intrinsic value of
their own; it is the cause that dignifies them, not their size.
William Tell is rightly one of the heroes of the world; but what
should we think of the members of a club of fathers, formed with
the object of meeting twice a week to shoot apples from their sons'
heads with cross-bows? These young German gentlemen could obtain
all the results of which they are so proud by teasing a wild cat!
To join a society for the mere purpose of getting yourself hacked
about reduces a man to the intellectual level of a dancing Dervish.
Travellers tell us of savages in Central Africa who express their
feelings on festive occasions by jumping about and slashing
themselves. But there is no need for Europe to imitate them. The
Mensur is, in fact, the reductio ad absurdum of the duel; and if
the Germans themselves cannot see that it is funny, one can only
regret their lack of humour.

But though one may be unable to agree with the public opinion that
supports and commands the Mensur, it at least is possible to
understand. The University code that, if it does not encourage it,
at least condones drunkenness, is more difficult to treat
argumentatively. All German students do not get drunk; in fact,
the majority are sober, if not industrious. But the minority,
whose claim to be representative is freely admitted, are only saved
from perpetual inebriety by ability, acquired at some cost, to
swill half the day and all the night, while retaining to some
extent their five senses. It does not affect all alike, but it is
common in any University town to see a young man not yet twenty
with the figure of a Falstaff and the complexion of a Rubens
Bacchus. That the German maiden can be fascinated with a face, cut
and gashed till it suggests having been made out of odd materials
that never could have fitted, is a proved fact. But surely there
can be no attraction about a blotched and bloated skin and a "bay
window" thrown out to an extent threatening to overbalance the
whole structure. Yet what else can be expected, when the youngster
starts his beer-drinking with a "Fruhschoppen" at 10 a.m., and
closes it with a "Kneipe" at four in the morning?

The Kneipe is what we should call a stag party, and can be very
harmless or very rowdy, according to its composition. One man
invites his fellow-students, a dozen or a hundred, to a cafe, and
provides them with as much beer and as many cheap cigars as their
own sense of health and comfort may dictate, or the host may be the
Korps itself. Here, as everywhere, you observe the German sense of
discipline and order. As each new comer enters all those sitting
round the table rise, and with heels close together salute. When
the table is complete, a chairman is chosen, whose duty it is to
give out the number of the songs. Printed books of these songs,
one to each two men, lie round the table. The chairman gives out
number twenty-nine. "First verse," he cries, and away all go, each
two men holding a book between them exactly as two people might
hold a hymn-book in church. There is a pause at the end of each
verse until the chairman starts the company on the next. As every
German is a trained singer, and as most of them have fair voices,
the general effect is striking.

Although the manner may be suggestive of the singing of hymns in
church, the words of the songs are occasionally such as to correct
this impression. But whether it be a patriotic song, a sentimental
ballad, or a ditty of a nature that would shock the average young
Englishman, all are sung through with stern earnestness, without a
laugh, without a false note. At the end, the chairman calls
"Prosit!" Everyone answers "Prosit!" and the next moment every
glass is empty. The pianist rises and bows, and is bowed to in
return; and then the Fraulein enters to refill the glasses.

Between the songs, toasts are proposed and responded to; but there
is little cheering, and less laughter. Smiles and grave nods of
approval are considered as more seeming among German students.

A particular toast, called a Salamander, accorded to some guest as
a special distinction, is drunk with exceptional solemnity.

"We will now," says the chairman, "a Salamander rub" ("Einen
Salamander reiben"). We all rise, and stand like a regiment at

"Is the stuff prepared?" ("Sind die stoffe parat?") demands the

"Sunt," we answer, with one voice.

"Ad exercitium Salamandri," says the chairman, and we are ready.

"Eins!" We rub our glasses with a circular motion on the table.

"Zwei!" Again the glasses growl; also at "Drei!"

"Drink!" ("Bibite!")

And with mechanical unison every glass is emptied and held on high.

"Eins!" says the chairman. The foot of every empty glass twirls
upon the table, producing a sound as of the dragging back of a
stony beach by a receding wave.

"Zwei!" The roll swells and sinks again.

"Drei!" The glasses strike the table with a single crash, and we
are in our seats again.

The sport at the Kneipe is for two students to insult each other
(in play, of course), and to then challenge each other to a
drinking duel. An umpire is appointed, two huge glasses are
filled, and the men sit opposite each other with their hands upon
the handles, all eyes fixed upon them. The umpire gives the word
to go, and in an instant the beer is gurgling down their throats.
The man who bangs his perfectly finished glass upon the table first
is victor.

Strangers who are going through a Kneipe, and who wish to do the
thing in German style, will do well, before commencing proceedings,
to pin their name and address upon their coats. The German student
is courtesy itself, and whatever his own state may be, he will see
to it that, by some means or another, his guest gets safely home
before the morning. But, of course, he cannot be expected to
remember addresses.

A story was told me of three guests to a Berlin Kneipe which might
have had tragic results. The strangers determined to do the thing
thoroughly. They explained their intention, and were applauded,
and each proceeded to write his address upon his card, and pin it
to the tablecloth in front of him. That was the mistake they made.
They should, as I have advised, have pinned it carefully to their
coats. A man may change his place at a table, quite unconsciously
he may come out the other side of it; but wherever he goes he takes
his coat with him.

Some time in the small hours, the chairman suggested that to make
things more comfortable for those still upright, all the gentlemen
unable to keep their heads off the table should be sent home.
Among those to whom the proceedings had become uninteresting were
the three Englishmen. It was decided to put them into a cab in
charge of a comparatively speaking sober student, and return them.
Had they retained their original seats throughout the evening all
would have been well; but, unfortunately, they had gone walking
about, and which gentleman belonged to which card nobody knew--
least of all the guests themselves. In the then state of general
cheerfulness, this did not to anybody appear to much matter. There
were three gentlemen and three addresses. I suppose the idea was
that even if a mistake were made, the parties could be sorted out
in the morning. Anyhow, the three gentlemen were put into a cab,
the comparatively speaking sober student took the three cards in
his hand, and the party started amid the cheers and good wishes of
the company.

There is this advantage about German beer: it does not make a man
drunk as the word drunk is understood in England. There is nothing
objectionable about him; he is simply tired. He does not want to
talk; he wants to be let alone, to go to sleep; it does not matter

The conductor of the party stopped his cab at the nearest address.
He took out his worst case; it was a natural instinct to get rid of
that first. He and the cabman carried it upstairs, and rang the
bell of the Pension. A sleepy porter answered it. They carried
their burden in, and looked for a place to drop it. A bedroom door
happened to be open; the room was empty; could anything be better?-
-they took it in there. They relieved it of such things as came
off easily, and laid it in the bed. This done, both men, pleased
with themselves, returned to the cab.

At the next address they stopped again. This time, in answer to
their summons, a lady appeared, dressed in a tea gown, with a book
in her hand. The German student looked at the top one of two cards
remaining in his hand, and enquired if he had the pleasure of
addressing Frau Y. It happened that he had, though so far as any
pleasure was concerned that appeared to be entirely on his side.
He explained to Frau Y. that the gentleman at that moment asleep
against the wall was her husband. The reunion moved her to no
enthusiasm; she simply opened the bedroom door, and then walked
away. The cabman and the student took him in, and laid him on the
bed. They did not trouble to undress him, they were feeling tired!
They did not see the lady of the house again, and retired therefore
without adieus.

The last card was that of a bachelor stopping at an hotel. They
took their last man, therefore, to that hotel, passed him over to
the night porter, and left him.

To return to the address at which the first delivery was made, what
had happened there was this. Some eight hours previously had said
Mr. X. to Mrs. X.: "I think I told you, my dear, that I had an
invitation for this evening to what, I believe, is called a

"You did mention something of the sort," replied Mrs. X. "What is
a Kneipe?"

"Well, it's a sort of bachelor party, my dear, where the students
meet to sing and talk and--and smoke, and all that sort of thing,
you know."

"Oh, well, I hope you will enjoy yourself!" said Mrs. X., who was a
nice woman and sensible.

"It will be interesting," observed Mr. X. "I have often had a
curiosity to see one. I may," continued Mr. X.,--"I mean it is
possible, that I may be home a little late."

"What do you call late?" asked Mrs. X.

"It is somewhat difficult to say," returned Mr. X. "You see these
students, they are a wild lot, and when they get together--And
then, I believe, a good many toasts are drunk. I don't know how it
will affect me. If I can see an opportunity I shall come away
early, that is if I can do so without giving offence; but if not--"

Said Mrs. X., who, as I remarked before, was a sensible woman:
"You had better get the people here to lend you a latchkey. I
shall sleep with Dolly, and then you won't disturb me whatever time
it may be."

"I think that an excellent idea of yours," agreed Mr. X. "I should
hate disturbing you. I shall just come in quietly, and slip into

Some time in the middle of the night, or maybe towards the early
morning, Dolly, who was Mrs. X.'s sister, sat up in bed and

"Jenny," said Dolly, "are you awake?"

"Yes, dear," answered Mrs. X. "It's all right. You go to sleep

"But whatever is it?" asked Dolly. "Do you think it's fire?"

"I expect," replied Mrs. X., "that it's Percy. Very possibly he
has stumbled over something in the dark. Don't you worry, dear;
you go to sleep."

But so soon as Dolly had dozed off again, Mrs. X., who was a good
wife, thought she would steal off softly and see to it that Percy
was all right. So, putting on a dressing-gown and slippers, she
crept along the passage and into her own room. To awake the
gentleman on the bed would have required an earthquake. She lit a
candle and stole over to the bedside.

It was not Percy; it was not anyone like Percy. She felt it was
not the man that ever could have been her husband, under any
circumstances. In his present condition her sentiment towards him
was that of positive dislike. Her only desire was to get rid of

But something there was about him which seemed familiar to her.
She went nearer, and took a closer view. Then she remembered.
Surely it was Mr. Y., a gentleman at whose flat she and Percy had
dined the day they first arrived in Berlin.

But what was he doing here? She put the candle on the table, and
taking her head between her hands sat down to think. The
explanation of the thing came to her with a rush. It was with this
Mr. Y. that Percy had gone to the Kneipe. A mistake had been made.
Mr. Y. had been brought back to Percy's address. Percy at this
very moment -

The terrible possibilities of the situation swam before her.
Returning to Dolly's room, she dressed herself hastily, and
silently crept downstairs. Finding, fortunately, a passing night-
cab, she drove to the address of Mrs. Y. Telling the man to wait,
she flew upstairs and rang persistently at the bell. It was opened
as before by Mrs. Y., still in her tea-gown, and with her book
still in her hand.

"Mrs. X.!" exclaimed Mrs. Y. "Whatever brings you here?"

"My husband!" was all poor Mrs. X. could think to say at the
moment, "is he here?"

"Mrs. X.," returned Mrs. Y., drawing herself up to her full height,
"how dare you?"

"Oh, please don't misunderstand me!" pleaded Mrs. X. "It's all a
terrible mistake. They must have brought poor Percy here instead
of to our place, I'm sure they must. Do please look and see."

"My dear," said Mrs. Y., who was a much older woman, and more
motherly, "don't excite yourself. They brought him here about half
an hour ago, and, to tell you the truth, I never looked at him. He
is in here. I don't think they troubled to take off even his
boots. If you keep cool, we will get him downstairs and home
without a soul beyond ourselves being any the wiser.

Indeed, Mrs. Y. seemed quite eager to help Mrs. X.

She pushed open the door, and Mrs. X, went in. The next moment she
came out with a white, scared face.

"It isn't Percy," she said. "Whatever am I to do?"

"I wish you wouldn't make these mistakes," said Mrs. Y., moving to
enter the room herself.

Mrs. X. stopped her. "And it isn't your husband either."

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Y.

"It isn't really," persisted Mrs. X. "I know, because I have just
left him, asleep on Percy's bed."

"What's he doing there?" thundered Mrs. Y.

"They brought him there, and put him there," explained Mrs. X.,
beginning to cry. "That's what made me think Percy must be here."

The two women stood and looked at one another; and there was
silence for awhile, broken only by the snoring of the gentleman the
other side of the half-open door.

"Then who is that, in there?" demanded Mrs. Y., who was the first
to recover herself.

"I don't know," answered Mrs. X., "I have never seen him before.
Do you think it is anybody you know?"

But Mrs. Y. only banged to the door.

"What are we to do?" said Mrs. X.

"I know what _I_ am going to do," said Mrs. Y. "I'm coming back
with you to fetch my husband."

"He's very sleepy," explained Mrs. X.

"I've known him to be that before," replied Mrs. Y., as she
fastened on her cloak.

"But where's Percy?" sobbed poor little Mrs. X., as they descended
the stairs together.

"That my dear," said Mrs. Y., "will be a question for you to ask

"If they go about making mistakes like this," said Mrs. X., "it is
impossible to say what they may not have done with him."

"We will make enquiries in the morning, my dear," said Mrs. Y.,

"I think these Kneipes are disgraceful affairs," said Mrs. X. "I
shall never let Percy go to another, never--so long as I live."

"My dear," remarked Mrs. Y., "if you know your duty, he will never
want to." And rumour has it that he never did.

But, as I have said, the mistake was in pinning the card to the
tablecloth instead of to the coat. And error in this world is
always severely punished.

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