J., George, and Harris are smoking together, comparing their relative ailments. Harris and George say they are often prone to fits of giddiness, and J. complains about his liver. J. tells the reader that whenever he reads a description of a disease (often found in advertisements for medicine) he feels certain that he suffers from it.
This is the first of many instances of the men complaining that working too hard has made them unwell. It’s obvious to the reader that they’re actually healthy young men, however, who are being hypochondriacs. Affecting illness allows the men to make more of a case for their leisure time and facilitates the idea of going on a river trip to restore their well-being.
Continuing on with his medical complaints, J. relates an experience at the British Museum. In this anecdote, he visits to read up on his sickness (the rather harmless hay fever). On flicking through an encyclopedia of diseases, he feels he shows the symptoms of all of them except for “housemaid’s knee.” He could be of great use to the medical profession, he feels, as a resource for students to encounter a wide range of problems.
J. would be a remarkable case indeed if he had every disease in the encyclopedia, but he doesn’t. In fact, it’s clear that he knows he’s exaggerating—he’s not being naïve or paranoid about being ill but is affecting that pose because that’s what he and his friends do to justify their leisure time (and to allay accusations of laziness). Telling the reader he didn’t have “housemaid’s knee” is a kind of joke, suggesting he knows he isn’t really sick.
J. goes to see a doctor he knows to tell him he has every disease under the sun (apart from housemaid’s knee). After examining his patient, the doctor gives him a hit on the chest and headbutts him gently, before sending him on his way with a prescription.
The doctor doesn’t want hypochondriacs wasting his time, so firmly tells J. to go away. This lets the reader know that the men aren’t really ill.
Upon arriving at the chemist’s, J. learns that the prescription is not for any medicine but instead for beefsteak, beer, regular walking, and plenty of sleep. And, says the note, “don’t stuff your head with things you don’t understand.” J. follows these directions and, at the point of writing, is still living.
J. talks about how people have mistaken him for being lazy all his life, when in fact, he asserts, his idleness has been the result of a bad liver. The three men continue to discuss their various maladies. Mrs. Poppet brings them a meal, which they duly eat. Harris and George suggest that what the men really need is a proper rest, a get-away of some sort.
The first suggestion is that they go to the sea—but J. is quick to bring up the issue of seasickness. He tells a story about someone he knows: this man had booked himself on a week’s voyage around the coast. Asked whether he would like to pay for his meals on an individual basis or buy a discounted ticket for all of them at once, he chooses the latter. Unfortunately, the choppy sea makes him so queasy that he hardly eats anything and, once on land, watches the ship disappear with “two pounds’ worth of food on board that belongs to me.”
The anecdote about the seasick man demonstrates that it’s not always as easy to be “at leisure” as it might seem. In fact, in this instance the man’s entire holiday is ruined at his considerable expense. This is also the first example in the book of nature refusing to conform to people’s desire for leisure—the man wants to have a restful time but the sea—being the sea—is choppy and makes him sick. The state of leisure is actually quite hard to come by, and, once achieved, remains precarious and subject to nature’s whims.
George suggests that a river trip might be a better idea. Harris says this would suit him to a “T”, though he’s not sure what that “T” means. J. agrees too. The three men are all keen, but, according to J., Montmorency the dog isn’t. The dog, J. notes, doesn’t care for scenery nor smoke, both of which the men love. But, being just one vote to the others’ three, it is decided that the boat trip up the Thames is the right idea.
The river seems like a better idea because the water is much calmer than the sea. The men envisage an easy, relaxing trip that will rejuvenate them. On the surface, it sounds like a straightforward plan, but, as will soon become clear, they don’t have the practical skills to prepare fully and underestimate the difficulties that the trip will present.