The Dancing Partner


by Jerome K Jerome – from Novel Notes, London, 1893

‘This story,’ commenced MacShaugnassy, ‘comes from Furtwangen, a small town in the Black Forest.’ There lived there a very wonderful old fellow named Nicholaus Geibel. His business was the making of mechanical toys, at which work he had acquired an almost European reputation. He made rabbits that would emerge from the heart of a cabbage, flop their ears, smooth their whiskers, and disappear again; cats that would wash their faces, and mew so naturally that dogs would mistake them for real cats and fly at them; dolls with phonographs concealed within them, that would raise their hats and say, ‘Good morning; how do you do?’ and some that would even sing a song.

But, he was something more than a mere mechanic; he was an artist. His work was with him a hobby, almost a passion. His shop was filled with all manner of strange things that never would, or could, be sold — things he had made for the pure love of making them. He had contrived a mechanical donkey that would trot for two hours by means of stored electricity, and trot, too, much faster than the live article, and with less need for exertion on the part of the driver, a bird that would shoot up into the air, fly round and round in a circle, and drop to earth at the exact spot from where it started; a skeleton that, supported by an upright iron bar, would dance a hornpipe, a life-size lady doll that could play the fiddle, and a gentleman with a hollow inside who could smoke a pipe and drink more lager beer than any three average German students put together, which is saying much.

Indeed, it was the belief of the town that old Geibel could make a man capable of doing everything that a respectable man need want to do. One day he made a man who did too much, and it came about in this way:

“Young Doctor Follen had a baby, and the baby had a birthday. Its first birthday put Doctor Follen’s household into somewhat of a flurry, but on the occasion of its second birthday, Mrs. Doctor Follen gave a ball in honour of the event. Old Geibel and his daughter Olga were among the guests.

During the afternoon of the next day some three or four of Olga’s bosom friends, who had also been present at the ball, dropped in to have a chat about it. They naturally fell to discussing the men, and to criticizing their dancing. Old Geibel was in the room, but he appeared to be absorbed in his newspaper, and the girls took no notice of him.

‘There seem to be fewer men who can dance at every ball you go to,’ said one of the girls.

‘Yes, and don’t the ones who can give themselves airs,’ said another; ‘they make quite a favor of asking you.’

‘And how stupidly they talk,’ added a third. ‘They always say exactly the same things: “How charming you are looking to-night.” “Do you often go to Vienna? Oh, you should, it’s delightful.” “What a charming dress you have on.” “What a warm day it has been.” “Do you like Wagner?” I do wish they’d think of something new.’

‘Oh, I never mind how they talk,’ said a fourth. ‘If a man dances well he may be a fool for all I care.’

‘He generally is,’ slipped in a thin girl, rather spitefully.

‘I go to a ball to dance,’ continued the previous speaker, not noticing the interruption. ‘All I ask is that he shall hold me firmly, take me round steadily, and not get tired before I do.’

‘A clockwork figure would be the thing for you,’ said the girl who had interrupted.

‘Bravo!’ cried one of the others, clapping her hands, ‘what a capital idea!’

‘What’s a capital idea?’ they asked.

‘Why, a clockwork dancer, or, better still, one that would go by electricity and never run down.’

The girls took up the idea with enthusiasm.

‘Oh, what a lovely partner he would make,’ said one; ‘he would never kick you, or tread on your toes.’

‘Or tear your dress,’ said another.

‘Or get out of step.’

‘Or get giddy and lean on you.’

‘And he would never want to mop his face with his handkerchief. I do hate to see a man do that after every dance.’

‘And wouldn’t want to spend the whole evening in the supper-room.’

‘Why, with a phonograph inside him to grind out all the stock remarks, you would not be able to tell him from a real man,’ said the girl who had first suggested the idea.

‘Oh yes, you would,’ said the thin girl, ‘he would be so much nicer.’

Old Geibel had laid down his paper, and was listening with both his ears. On one of the girls glancing in his direction, however, he hurriedly hid himself again behind it.

After the girls were gone, he went into his workshop, where Olga heard him walking up and down, and every now and then chuckling to himself; and that night he talked to her a good deal about dancing and dancing men — asked what dances were most popular — what steps were gone through, with many other questions bearing on the subject.

Then for a couple of weeks he kept much to his factory, and was very thoughtful and busy, though prone at unexpected moments to break into a quiet low laugh, as if enjoying a joke that nobody else knew of.

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