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"They do say," remarked Mrs. Wilkins, as she took the cover off the dish and gave a finishing polish to my plate with the cleanest corner of her apron, "that 'addicks, leastways in May, ain't, strictly speaking, the safest of food. But then, if you listen to all they say, it seems to me, we'd have to give up victuals altogether."
"The haddock, Mrs. Wilkins," I replied, "is a savoury and nourishing dish, the 'poor man's steak' I believe it is commonly called. When I was younger, Mrs. Wilkins, they were cheaper. For twopence one could secure a small specimen, for fourpence one of generous proportions. In the halcyon days of youth, when one's lexicon contained not the word failure (it has crept into later editions, Mrs. Wilkins, the word it was found was occasionally needful), the haddock was of much comfort and support to me, a very present help in time of trouble. In those days a kind friend, without intending it, nearly brought about my death by slow starvation. I had left my umbrella in an omnibus, and the season was rainy. The kind rich friend gave me a new umbrella; it was a rich man's umbrella; we made an ill-assorted pair. Its handle was of ivory, imposing in appearance, ornamented with a golden snake.
The unsympathetic Umbrella.
"Following my own judgment I should have pawned that umbrella, purchased one more suited to my state in life, and 'blued' the difference. But I was fearful of offending my one respectable acquaintance, and for weeks struggled on, hampered by this plutocratic appendage. The humble haddock was denied to me. Tied to this imposing umbrella, how could I haggle with fishmongers for haddocks. At first sight of me--or, rather, of my umbrella--they flew to icy cellars, brought up for my inspection soles at eighteenpence a pound, recommended me prime parts of salmon, which my landlady would have fried in a pan reeking with the mixed remains of pork chops, rashers of bacon and cheese. It was closed to me, the humble coffee shop, where for threepence I could have strengthened my soul with half a pint of cocoa and four "doorsteps"--satisfactory slices of bread smeared with a yellow grease that before the days of County Council inspectors they called butter. You know of them, Mrs. Wilkins? At sight of such nowadays I should turn up my jaded nose. But those were the days of my youth, Mrs. Wilkins. The scent of a thousand hopes was in my nostrils: so they smelt good to me. The fourpenny beefsteak pie, satisfying to the verge of repletion; the succulent saveloy, were not for the owner of the ivory-handled umbrella. On Mondays and Tuesdays, perhaps, I could enjoy life at the rate of five hundred a year--clean serviette a penny extra, and twopence to the waiter, whose income must have been at least four times my own. But from Wednesday to Saturday I had to wander in the wilderness of back streets and silent squares dinnerless, where there were not even to be found locusts and wild honey.
"It was, as I have said, a rainy season, and an umbrella of some sort was a necessity. Fortunately--or I might not be sitting here, Mrs. Wilkins, talking to you now--my one respectable acquaintance was called away to foreign lands, and that umbrella I promptly put 'up the spout.' You understand me?"
Mrs. Wilkins admitted she did, but was of opinion that twenty-five per cent., to say nothing of the halfpenny for the ticket every time, was a wicked imposition.
"It did not trouble me, Mrs. Wilkins," I replied, "in this particular instance. It was my determination never to see that umbrella again. The young man behind the counter seemed suspicious, and asked where I got it from. I told him that a friend had given it to me."
"'Did he know that he had given it to you?" demanded the young man.
"Upon which I gave him a piece of my mind concerning the character of those who think evil of others, and he gave me five and six, and said he should know me again; and I purchased an umbrella suited to my rank and station, and as fine a haddock as I have ever tasted with the balance, which was sevenpence, for I was feeling hungry.
"The haddock is an excellent fish, Mrs. Wilkins," I said, "and if, as you observe, we listened to all that was said we'd be hungrier at forty, with a balance to our credit at the bank, than ever we were at twenty, with 'no effects' beyond a sound digestion."
A Martyr to Health.
"There was a gent in Middle Temple Lane," said Mrs. Wilkins, "as I used to do for. It's my belief as 'e killed 'imself worrying twenty-four hours a day over what 'e called 'is 'ygiene. Leastways 'e's dead and buried now, which must be a comfort to 'imself, feeling as at last 'e's out of danger. All 'is time 'e spent taking care of 'imself--didn't seem to 'ave a leisure moment in which to live. For 'alf an hour every morning 'e'd lie on 'is back on the floor, which is a draughty place, I always 'old, at the best of times, with nothing on but 'is pyjamas, waving 'is arms and legs about, and twisting 'imself into shapes unnatural to a Christian. Then 'e found out that everything 'e'd been doing on 'is back was just all wrong, so 'e turned over and did tricks on 'is stomach--begging your pardon for using the word--that you'd 'ave thought more fit and proper to a worm than to a man. Then all that was discovered to be a mistake. There don't seem nothing certain in these matters. That's the awkward part of it, so it seems to me. 'E got 'imself a machine, by means of which 'e'd 'ang 'imself up to the wall, and behave for all the world like a beetle with a pin stuck through 'im, poor thing. It used to give me the shudders to catch sight of 'im through the 'alf-open door. For that was part of the game: you 'ad to 'ave a current of air through the room, the result of which was that for six months out of the year 'e'd be coughing and blowing 'is nose from morning to night. It was the new treatment, so 'e'd explain to me. You got yourself accustomed to draughts so that they didn't 'urt you, and if you died in the process that only proved that you never ought to 'ave been born.
"Then there came in this new Japanese business, and 'e'd 'ire a little smiling 'eathen to chuck 'im about 'is room for 'alf an hour every morning after breakfast. It got on my nerves after a while 'earing 'im being bumped on the floor every minute, or flung with 'is 'ead into the fire-place. But 'e always said it was doing 'im good. 'E'd argue that it freshened up 'is liver. It was 'is liver that 'e seemed to live for--didn't appear to 'ave any other interest in life. It was the same with 'is food. One year it would be nothing but meat, and next door to raw at that. One of them medical papers 'ad suddenly discovered that we were intended to be a sort of wild beast. The wonder to me is that 'e didn't go out 'unting chickens with a club, and bring 'em 'ome and eat 'em on the mat without any further fuss. For drink it would be boiling water that burnt my fingers merely 'andling the glass. Then some other crank came out with the information that every other crank was wrong--which, taken by itself, sounds natural enough--that meat was fatal to the 'uman system. Upon that 'e becomes all at once a raging, tearing vegetarian, and trouble enough I 'ad learning twenty different ways of cooking beans, which didn't make, so far as I could ever see, the slightest difference--beans they were, and beans they tasted like, whether you called them ragout a la maison, or cutlets a la Pompadour. But it seemed to please 'im.
He was never pig-headed.
"Then vegetarianism turned out to be the mistake of our lives. It seemed we made an error giving up monkeys' food. That was our natural victuals; nuts with occasional bananas. As I used to tell 'im, if that was so, then for all we 'ad got out of it we might just as well have stopped up a tree--saved rent and shoe leather. But 'e was one of that sort that don't seem able to 'elp believing everything they read in print. If one of those papers 'ad told 'im to live on the shells and throw away the nuts, 'e'd have made a conscientious endeavour to do so, contending that 'is failure to digest them was merely the result of vicious training--didn't seem to 'ave any likes or dislikes of 'is own. You might 'ave thought 'e was just a bit of public property made to be experimented upon.
"One of the daily papers interviewed an old gent, as said 'e was a 'undred, and I will say from 'is picture as any'ow 'e looked it. 'E said it was all the result of never 'aving swallowed anything 'ot, upon which my gentleman for a week lives on cold porridge, if you'll believe me; although myself I'd rather 'ave died at fifty and got it over. Then another paper dug up from somewhere a sort of animated corpse that said was a 'undred and two, and attributed the unfortunate fact to 'is always 'aving 'ad 'is food as 'ot as 'e could swallow it. A bit of sense did begin to dawn upon 'im then, but too late in the day, I take it. 'E'd played about with 'imself too long. 'E died at thirty-two, looking to all appearance sixty, and you can't say as 'ow it was the result of not taking advice."
Only just in time.
"On this subject of health we are much too ready to follow advice," I agreed. "A cousin of mine, Mrs. Wilkins, had a wife who suffered occasionally from headache. No medicine relieved her of them--not altogether. And one day by chance she met a friend who said: 'Come straight with me to Dr. Blank,' who happened to be a specialist famous for having invented a new disease that nobody until the year before had ever heard of. She accompanied her friend to Dr. Blank, and in less than ten minutes he had persuaded her that she had got this new disease, and got it badly; and that her only chance was to let him cut her open and have it out. She was a tolerably healthy woman, with the exception of these occasional headaches, but from what that specialist said it was doubtful whether she would get home alive, unless she let him operate on her then and there, and her friend, who appeared delighted, urged her not to commit suicide, as it were, by missing her turn.
"The result was she consented, and afterwards went home in a four-wheeled cab, and put herself to bed. Her husband, when he returned in the evening and was told, was furious. He said it was all humbug, and by this time she was ready to agree with him. He put on his hat, and started to give that specialist a bit of his mind. The specialist was out, and he had to bottle up his rage until the morning. By then, his wife now really ill for the first time in her life, his indignation had reached boiling point. He was at that specialist's door at half-past nine o'clock. At half-past eleven he came back, also in a four-wheeled cab, and day and night nurses for both of them were wired for. He also, it appeared, had arrived at that specialist's door only just in time.
"There's this appendy--whatever they call it," commented Mrs. Wilkins, "why a dozen years ago one poor creature out of ten thousand may possibly 'ave 'ad something wrong with 'is innards. To-day you ain't 'ardly considered respectable unless you've got it, or 'ave 'ad it. I 'ave no patience with their talk. To listen to some of them you'd think as Nature 'adn't made a man--not yet: would never understand the principle of the thing till some of these young chaps 'ad shown 'er 'ow to do it."
How to avoid Everything.
"They have now discovered, Mrs. Wilkins," I said, "the germ of old age. They are going to inoculate us for it in early youth, with the result that the only chance of ever getting rid of our friends will be to give them a motor-car. And maybe it will not do to trust to that for long. They will discover that some men's tendency towards getting themselves into trouble is due to some sort of a germ. The man of the future, Mrs. Wilkins, will be inoculated against all chance of gas explosions, storms at sea, bad oysters, and thin ice. Science may eventually discover the germ prompting to ill-assorted marriages, proneness to invest in the wrong stock, uncontrollable desire to recite poetry at evening parties. Religion, politics, education--all these things are so much wasted energy. To live happy and good for ever and ever, all we have to do is to hunt out these various germs and wring their necks for them--or whatever the proper treatment may be. Heaven, I gather from medical science, is merely a place that is free from germs."
"We talk a lot about it," thought Mrs. Wilkins, "but it does not seem to me that we are very much better off than before we took to worrying ourselves for twenty-four 'ours a day about 'ow we are going to live. Lord! to read the advertisements in the papers you would think as 'ow flesh and blood was never intended to 'ave any natural ills. 'Do you ever 'ave a pain in your back?' because, if so, there's a picture of a kind gent who's willing for one and sixpence halfpenny to take it quite away from you--make you look forward to scrubbing floors, and standing over the wash-tub six 'ours at a stretch like to a beanfeast. 'Do you ever feel as though you don't want to get out of bed in the morning?' that's all to be cured by a bottle of their stuff--or two at the outside. Four children to keep, and a sick 'usband on your 'ands used to get me over it when I was younger. I used to fancy it was just because I was tired.
The one Cure-All.
"There's some of them seem to think," continued Mrs. Wilkins, "that if you don't get all you want out of this world, and ain't so 'appy as you've persuaded yourself you ought to be, that it's all because you ain't taking the right medicine. Appears to me there's only one doctor as can do for you, all the others talk as though they could, and 'e only comes to each of us once, and then 'e makes no charge."
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