“The Dancing Partner”
Jerome K. Jerome
from Novel Notes (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 forth. ‘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.
“A month later another ball took place in Furtwangen. On this occasion it was given by old Wenzel, the wealthy timber merchant, to celebrate his niece’s betrothal, and Geibel and his daughter were again among the invited.
“When the hour arrived to set out, Olga sought her father. Not finding him in the house, she tapped at the door of his workshop. He appeared in his shirt-sleeves, looking hot but radiant.
“Don’t wait for me,’ he said, ‘you go on, I’ll follow you. I’ve got something to finish.’
“As she turned to obey he called after her, ‘Tell them I’m going to bring a young man with me — such a nice young man, and an excellent dancer. All the girls will like him.’ Then he laughed and closed the door.
“Her father generally kept his doings secret from everybody, but she had a pretty shrewd suspicion of what he had been planning, and so, to a certain extent, was able to prepare the guests for what was coming. Anticipation ran high, and the arrival of the famous mechanist was eagerly awaited.
“At length the sound of wheels was heard outside, followed by a great commotion in the passage, and old Wenzel himself, his jolly face red with excitement and suppressed laughter, burst into the room and announced in stentorian tones:
“‘Herr Geibel — and a friend.’
“Herr Geibel and his ‘friend’ entered, greeted with shouts of laughter and applause, and advanced to the centre of the room.
“‘Allow me, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Herr Geibel, ‘to introduce you to my friend, Lieutenant Fritz. Fritz, my dear fellow, bow to the ladies and gentlemen.’
“Geibel placed his hand encouragingly on Fritz’s shoulder, and the Lieutenant bowed low, accompanying the action with a harsh clicking noise in his throat, unpleasantly suggestive of a death-rattle. But that was only a detail.
“‘He walks a little stiffly’ (old Geibel took his arm and walked him forward a few steps. He certainly did walk stiffly), ‘but then, walking is not his forte. He is essentially a dancing man. I have only been able to teach him the waltz as yet, but at that he is faultless. Come, which of you ladies may I introduce him to as a partner? He keeps perfect time; he never gets tired; he won’t kick you or tread on your dress; he will hold you as firmly as you like, and go as quickly or a slowly as you please; he never gets giddy; and he is full of conversation. Come, speak up for yourself, my boy.’
“The old gentleman twisted one of the buttons at the back of his coat, and immediately Fritz opened his mouth, and in thin tones that appeared to proceed from the back of his head, remarked suddenly, ‘May I have the pleasure?’ and then shut his mouth again with a snap.
“That Lieutenant Fritz had made a strong impression on the company was undoubted, yet none of the girls seemed inclined to dance with him. They looked askance at his waxen face, with its staring eyes and fixed smile, and shuddered. At last old Geibel came to the girl who had conceived the idea.
“‘It is your own suggestion, carried out to the letter,’ said Geibel, ‘an electric dancer. You owe it to the gentleman to give him a trial.’
“She was a bright, saucy little girl, fond of a frolic. Her host added his entreaties, and she consented.
“Herr Geibel fixed the figure to her. Its right arm was screwed round her waist, and held her firmly; its delicately jointed left hand was made to fasten upon her right. The old toymaker showed her how to regulate its speed, and how to stop it, and release herself.
“‘It will take you round in a complete circle,’ he explained; ‘be careful that no one knocks against you, and alters its course.’
“The music struck up. Old Geibel put the current in motion, and Annette and her strange partner began to dance.
“For a while everyone stood watching them. The figure performed its purpose admirably. Keeping perfect time and step, and holding its little partner tight clasped in an unyielding embrace, it revolved steadily, pouring forth at the same time a constant flow of squeaky conversation, broken by brief intervals of grinding silence.
“‘How charming you are looking tonight,’ it remarked in its thin, far-away voice. ‘What a lovely day it has been. Do you like dancing? How well our steps agree. You will give me another, won’t you? Oh, don’t be so cruel. What a charming gown you have on. Isn’t waltzing delightful? I could go on dancing for ever — with you. Have you had supper?’
“As she grew more familiar with the uncanny creature, the girl’s nervousness wore off, and she entered into the fun of the thing.
“‘Oh, he’s just lovely,’ she cried, laughing; ‘I could go on dancing with him all my life.’
“Couple after couple now joined them, and soon all the dancers in the room were whirling round behind them. Nicholaus Geibel stood looking on, beaming with childish delight at his success.
“Old Wenzel approached him, and whispered something in his ear. Geibel laughed and nodded, and the two worked their way quietly towards the door.
“‘This is the young people’s house to-night,’ said Wenzel, as soon as they were outside; ‘you and I will have a quiet pipe and glass of hock, over in the counting-house.’
“Meanwhile the dancing grew more fast and furious. Little Annette loosened the screw regulating her partner’s rate of progress, and the figure flew round with her swifter and swifter. Couple after couple dropped out exhausted, but they only went the faster, till at length they remained dancing alone.
“Madder and madder became the waltz. The music lagged behind: the musicians, unable to keep pace, ceased, and sat staring. The younger guests applauded, but the older faces began to grow anxious.
“‘Hadn’t you better stop, dear,’ said one of the women, ‘you’ll make yourself so tired.’
“But Annette did not answer.
“‘I believe she’s fainted,’ cried out a girl who had caught sight of her face as it was swept by.
“One of the men sprang forward and clutched at the figure, but its impetus threw him down on to the floor, where its steel-cased feet laid bare his cheek. The thing evidently did not intend to part with its prize so easily.
“Had any one retained a cool head, the figure, one cannot help thinking, might easily have been stopped. Two or three men acting in concert might have lifted it bodily off the floor, or have jammed it into a corner. But few human heads are capable of remaining cool under excitement. Those who are not present think how stupid must have been those who were; those who are reflect afterwards how simple it would have been to do this, that, or the other, if only they had thought of it at the time.
“The women grew hysterical. The men shouted contradictory directions to one another. Two of them made a bungling rush at the figure, which had the end result of forcing it out of its orbit at the centre of the room, and sending it crashing against the walls and furniture. A stream of blood showed itself down the girl’s white frock, and followed her along the floor. The affair was becoming horrible. The women rushed screaming from the room. The men followed them.
“One sensible suggestion was made: ‘Find Geibel — fetch Geibel.’
“No one had noticed him leave the room, no one knew where he was. A party went in search of him. The others, too unnerved to go back into the ballroom, crowded outside the door and listened. They could hear the steady whir of the wheels upon the polished floor as the thing spun round and round; the dull thud as every now and again it dashed itself and its burden against some opposing object and ricocheted off in a new direction.
“And everlastingly it talked in that thin ghostly voice, repeating over and over the same formula: ‘How charming you look to-night. What a lovely day it has been. Oh, don’t be so cruel. I could go on dancing for ever — with you. Have you had supper?’
“Of course they sought Geibel everywhere but where he was. They looked in every room in the house, then they rushed off in a body to his own place, and spent precious minutes waking up his deaf old housekeeper. At last it occurred to one of the party that Wenzel was missing also, and then the idea of the counting-house across the yard presented itself to them, and there they found him.
“He rose up, very pale, and followed them; and he and old Wenzel forced their way through the crowd of guests gathered outside, and entered the room, and locked the door behind them.
“From within there came the muffled sound of low voices and quick steps, followed by a confused scuffling noise, then silence, then the low voices again.
“After a time the door opened, and those near it pressed forward to enter, but old Wenzel’s broad head and shoulders barred the way.
“I want you — and you, Bekler,’ he said, addressing a couple of the elder men. His voice was calm, but his face was deadly white. ‘The rest of you, please go — get the women away as quickly as you can.’
“From that day old Nicholaus Geibel confined himself to the making of mechanical rabbits, and cats that mewed and washed their faces.”