Stepping in from the weak cold rain that had been falling for as long as anyone could remember, John hung his cloak on the peg by the door and slumped into an empty chair by the fire.
This is how the first line of “A Night at Sir Toby’s” originally read when I wrote it two days ago as a comment on Open Source Theology (you should go there, by the way, for the great follow-on comments). Later I wasn’t so sure about that word “weak.” “Weak rain”: when I said it aloud to myself it sounded confusing. Was the rain puny, or had it been raining for seven days? Later in the day, when I posted the story again here (see the immediately preceding post), I decided to change “weak” to “thin”: Stepping in from the thin cold rain… Same idea, an interesting adjective for rain – I’ll keep it.
That night I’m reading a short story by Anton Chekhov – “The House with the Mansard: An Artist’s Story.” The narrator is recalling one of his last visits to the home of the two girls who feature prominently in his story:
For some reason I remember and love all these petty details and, although nothing special happened, I still have a vivid memory of that whole day. After dinner Zhenya read, lying in the deep armchair, and I sat on the lowest step of the veranda. We did not talk. The sky was overcast, and a thin, fine rain began to fall.
Wait a minute… what was that – “a thin, fine rain”? I know I had not gotten to this portion of Chekhov’s story before making the subtle change in my own.
Last night I was reading to my daughter from a novel by Jerome K. Jerome called Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog). This is a rather ridiculous book about a rowing excursion up the Thames and all the little misadventures that befall the three men, and the dog, on the way. Having finished supper, two of the travelers have gone into Henley, one of the riverside towns:
Henley was getting ready for the regatta, and was full of bustle. We met a goodish number of men we knew about the town, and in their pleasant company the time slipped by somewhat quickly; that it was nearly eleven o’clock before we set off on our four-mile walk home—as we had learned to call our little craft by that time. It was a dismal night, coldish, with a thin rain falling…
I had already told my daughter about the Chekhov passage, so she was too was struck by what had just happened. For two consecutive nights thin rain fell in our apartment. Is this such a hackneyed phrase that, if I were to pick up any book at random and select a ten-page passage, I would be sure to encounter it? Both of these books are more than a hundred years old; perhaps it’s a quaint archaism? And what if I hadn’t changed my own story: would the rain have fallen weakly on the Russian countryside and the English riverbank?