Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box, the first of an eventual three novels co-written with his son-in-law Lloyd Osbourne. I never associate Stevenson with comedy but he pulls off a grand farce here.

And then a remark of his uncle’s flashed into his memory: If you want to think clearly, put it all down on paper. ‘Well, the old boy knew a thing or two,’ said Morris. ‘I will try; but I don’t believe the paper was ever made that will clear my mind.’

He entered a place of public entertainment, ordered bread and cheese, and writing materials, and sat down before them heavily. He tried the pen. It was an excellent pen, but what was he to write? ‘I have it,’ cried Morris. ‘Robinson Crusoe and the double columns!’ He prepared his paper after that classic model, and began as follows:

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then Pitman has found it.

‘Stop a bit,’ said Morris. ‘I am letting the spirit of antithesis run away with me. Let’s start again.’

Bad. —— Good.
1. I have lost my uncle’s body.
1. But then I no longer require to bury it.

2. I have lost the tontine.
2.But I may still save that if Pitman disposes of the body, and
if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
3. But not if Pitman gives the body up to the police.

‘O, but in that case I go to gaol; I had forgot that,’ thought Morris. ‘Indeed, I don’t know that I had better dwell on that hypothesis at all; it’s all very well to talk of facing the worst; but in a case of this kind a man’s first duty is to his own nerve. Is there any answer to No. 3? Is there any possible good side to such a beastly bungle? There must be, of course, or where would be the use of this double-entry business? And—by George, I have it!’ he exclaimed; ‘it’s exactly the same as the last!’ And he hastily re-wrote the passage:

Bad. —— Good.
3. I have lost the leather business and the rest of my uncle’s
3. But not if I can find a physician who will stick at nothing.

‘This venal doctor seems quite a desideratum,’ he reflected. ‘I want him first to give me a certificate that my uncle is dead, so that I may get the leather business; and then that he’s alive—but here we are again at the incompatible interests!’ And he returned to his tabulation:

Bad. —— Good.
4. I have almost no money.
4. But there is plenty in the bank.

5. Yes, but I can’t get the money in the bank.
5. But—well, that seems unhappily to be the case.

6. I have left the bill for eight hundred pounds in Uncle
Joseph’s pocket.
6. But if Pitman is only a dishonest man, the presence of this
bill may lead him to keep the whole thing dark and throw the body
into the New Cut.

7. Yes, but if Pitman is dishonest and finds the bill, he will
know who Joseph is, and he may blackmail me.
7. Yes, but if I am right about Uncle Masterman, I can blackmail

8. But I can’t blackmail Michael (which is, besides, a very
dangerous thing to do) until I find out.
8. Worse luck!

9. The leather business will soon want money for current
expenses, and I have none to give.
9. But the leather business is a sinking ship.

10. Yes, but it’s all the ship I have.
10. A fact.

11. John will soon want money, and I have none to give.

12. And the venal doctor will want money down.

13. And if Pitman is dishonest and don’t send me to gaol, he will
want a fortune.

‘O, this seems to be a very one-sided business,’ exclaimed Morris. ‘There’s not so much in this method as I was led to think.’

The Crusoe reference is to an early episode in the novel (ch 4) when Robinson sits down to map out his situation – it was a long favorite of enlightenment readers but really does leave a large window for the grotesque-ing above.

I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me—for I was likely to have but few heirs—as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered, thus:—

I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery.But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable.But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society.But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.
I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast.But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me.But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

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