This is not one of those Great Travel books: it does not describe sailing across the world’s dangerous seas or a brave journey up the Amazon river. It is only a small journey, in a small boat. But it is still an adventure – an adventure that you or I or anyone could experience … and tell stories about afterwards.
Who are the heroes of this journey? They are George, Harris, and ‘J’ (and of course, Montmorency the dog): three young men that we could meet anywhere, in any century. They fall in the river and lose things, they argue and laugh, and tell each other stories. They are full of exciting plans and enthusiasm, but they can’t get out of bed in the morning. They want to be great adventurers, but actually, when it rains, they would prefer to be in comfortable chairs in front of a warm fire.
Do our heroes enjoy their adventures on the river? Do they ever learn to cook eggs over a camp fire, or to open a tin without a tin-opener? But this is their story: the story of three men – and the dog – in a boat.
There were four of us – George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, and we were smoking and talking about how bad we were – ill, I mean, of course.
We were all feeling in poor health, and we were getting quite worried about it. Harris said that he felt really bad sometimes, and he did not know what he was doing. And then George said that he felt bad, too, and that he did not know what he was doing either. With me it was my heart. I knew it was my heart because I had read something in a magazine about the symptoms of a bad heart. I had all of them.
It is a most extraordinary thing, but every time I read about an illness, I realize that I have it too – and that my symptoms are very bad! In fact, my health has always been a worry, I remember …
One day I had a little health problem, and I went to the British Museum Library to read about it. I took the book off the library shelf, and I began to read. After some time, I turned over the page and I began to read about another illness. I don’t remember the name of the illness, but I know it was something really terrible. I read about half a page – and then I knew that I had that disease too.
I sat there for a time, cold with horror. Slowly, I began to turn over more pages. I came to a disease which was worse than the last one. I began to read about it and, as I expected, I had that disease too. Then I began to get really interested in myself, so I went back to the beginning of the book. I started with the letter ‘a’ and I read from ‘a’ to ‘z’. I found that there was only one disease which I did not have. This made me a little unhappy. Why didn’t I have that disease too?
When I walked into that reading-room, I was a happy, healthy young man. When I left I was a very sick man, close to death …
But I was talking about my heart – nobody understood how ill I really was. I had this bad heart when I was a boy. It was with me all the time. I knew that it was my heart because I had all the symptoms of a bad heart. The main symptom was that I did not want to work. Of course, nobody understood that the problem was my heart. Doctors were not so clever then. They just thought that I was lazy!
‘Why, you lazy boy, you,’ they used to say. ‘Get up and do some work for once in your life!’ They did not understand that I was ill.
And they did not give me medicine for this illness – they hit me on the side of the head. It is very strange, but those blows on my head often made the illness go away for a time. Sometimes just one blow made the sickness disappear and made me want to start work immediately…