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Three Men on the Bummel

by Jerome K. Jerome

previous: CHAPTER XII


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 bullring 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 prizefighter 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 coarselooking 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 attention.

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

"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 where - anywhere.

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 Kneipe?"

"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 bed."

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 listened.

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

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

"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 him.

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 nightcab, 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 HIM."

"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., consolingly.

"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.

Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XIV

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