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It was before the Idiot's marriage, and in the days when he was nothing more than a plain boarder in Mrs. Smithers-Pedagog's High-class Home for Single Gentlemen, that he put what the School-master termed his "alleged mind" on plans for the amelioration of the condition of the civilized.
"The trials of the barbarian are really nothing as compared with the tribulations of civilized man," he said, as the waitress passed him a piece of steak that had been burned to a crisp. "In the Cannibal Islands a cook who would send a piece of broiled missionary to her employer's table in this condition would herself be roasted before another day had dawned. We, however, must grin and bear it, because our esteemed landlady cannot find anywhere in this town a woman better suited for the labors of the kitchen than the blank she has had the misfortune to draw in the culinary lottery, familiarly known to us, her victims, as Bridget."
"This is an exceptional case," said Mr. Pedagog. "We haven't had a steak like this before in several weeks."
"True," returned the Idiot. "This is a sirloin, I believe. The last steak we had was a rump steak, and it was not burned to a crisp, I admit. It was only boiled, if I remember rightly, by mistake; Bridget having lost her fifth consecutive cousin in ten days the night before, and being in consequence so prostrated that she could not tell a gridiron from a lawn-mower."
"Well, you know the popular superstition, Mr. Idiot," said the Poet. "The devil sends the cooks."
"I don't believe it," retorted the Idiot. "That's one of those proverbs that haven't a particle of truth in 'em—nor a foundation in reason either, like 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth.' Of all absurd advice ever given to man by a thoughtless thinker, that, I think, bears the palm. I know a man who didn't look a gift horse in the mouth, and the consequence was that he accepted a horse that was twenty-eight years old. The beast died in his stables three days later, and the beneficiary had to pay five dollars to have him carted away. As for the devil sending the cooks, I haven't any faith in the theory. Any person who had come from the devil would know how to manage a fire better than ninety-nine per cent. of the cooks ever born. It would be a good thing if every one of 'em were forced to serve an apprenticeship with the Prince of Darkness. However, steak like this serves a good purpose. It serves to bind our little circle more firmly together. There's nothing like mutual suffering to increase the sympathy that should exist between men situated as we are; and as for Mrs. Smithers-Pedagog, I wish her to understand distinctly that I am criticising the cook and not herself. If this particular dainty had been prepared by her own fair hand, I doubt not I should want more of it."
"I thank you," returned the landlady, somewhat mollified by this remark. "If I had more time I should occasionally do the cooking myself, but, as it is, I am overwhelmed with work."
"I can bear witness to that," observed Mr. Whitechoker. "Mrs. Smithers-Pedagog is one of the most useful ladies in my congregation. If it were not for her, many a heathen would be going without garments to-day."
"Well, I don't like to criticise," said the Idiot, "but I think the heathen at home should be considered before the heathen abroad. If your congregation would have a guild to look after such heathen as the Poet and the Doctor and myself, I am convinced it would be more appreciated by those who benefited by its labors than it is at present by the barbarians who try to wear the misfits it sends out. A Christian whose plain but honest breakfast is well cooked is apt to be far more grateful than a barbarian who is wearing a pair of trousers made of calico and a coat three sizes too small in the body and nine sizes too large in the arms. I will go further. I believe that if the domestic heathen were cared for they would do much better work, would earn better pay, and would, out of mere gratitude, set apart a sufficiently large portion of their increased earnings to be devoted to the purchase of tailor-made costumes, which would please the cannibals better, far better, than the amateur creations they now get. I know I'd contribute some of my surplus."
"What would you have such a guild do?" queried Mr. Whitechoker.
"Do? There'd be so much for it to do that the members could hardly find time to rest," returned the Idiot. "Do? Why, my dear sir, take this house, for instance, and see what it could do here. What a boon it would be for me if some kind-hearted person would come here once a week and sew buttons on my clothes, darn my socks—in short, keep me mended. What better work for one who desires to make the world brighter, happier, and less sinful!"
"I fail to see how the world would be brighter, happier, or less sinful if your suspender-buttons were kept firm, and your stockings darned, and your wardrobe generally mended," said Mr. Pedagog. "I grant that such a guild would be doing a noble work if it would take you in hand and correct many of your impressions, revise your well-known facts so as to bring them more in accord with indubitable truths, and impart to your customs some of that polish which you so earnestly strive for in your dress."
"Thank you," said the Idiot, suavely. "But I don't wish to overburden the kind ladies to whom I refer. If my costumes could be looked after I might find time to look after my customs, and, I assure you, Mr. Pedagog, if at any time you will undertake to deliver a course of lectures on Etiquette, I will gladly subscribe for two orchestra-chairs and endeavor to occupy both of them. At any rate, to return to the main point, I claim that the world would be happier and brighter and less sinful if the domestic heathen were kept mended by such a guild, and I challenge any one here to deny, even on so slight a basis as the loose suspender-button, the truth of what I say. When I arise in the morning and find a button gone, do I make genial remarks about the joys of life? I do not. I use words. Sometimes one word, which need not be repeated here. I am unhappy, and, being unhappy, the world seems dark and dreary, and in speaking impatiently, though very much to the point, as I do, I am guilty of an offence that is sinful. With such a start in the morning, I come here to the table. Mr. Pedagog sees that I am not quite myself. He asks me if I am not feeling well, an irritating question at any time, but particularly so to a man with a suspender-button gone. I retort. He re-retorts, until our converse is warmer than the coffee, and our relations colder than the waffles. Finally I leave the house, slamming the door behind me, structurally weakening the house, and go to business, where I wreak my vengeance upon the second clerk, who takes it out of the office-boy, who goes home and vents his wrath on his little sister, who, goaded into recklessness, teases the baby until he yells and gets spanked by his mother for being noisy. Now, why should a loose suspender-button be allowed to subject that baby to such humiliation, and who can deny that, if it had been properly sewed on by a guild, such as I have mentioned, the baby never would have been spanked for the causes mentioned? What is your answer, Mr. Whitechoker?"
"Truly, I am so breathless at your logic that I cannot reason," said the Minister. "But haven't we digressed a little? We were speaking of cooks, and we conclude with a pathetic little allegory about a suspender-button and a baby that is not only teased but spanked."
"The baby could get the same spanking for reasons based on the shortcomings of the cooks," said the Idiot. "I am irritated when I am served with green pease hard enough to batter down Gibraltar if properly aimed; when my coffee is a warmed-over reminiscence of last night's demi-tasse, I leave the house in a frame of mind that bodes ill for the junior clerk, and the effect on the baby is ultimately the same."
"And—er—you'd have the ladies whose energies are now devoted towards the clothing of the heathen come here and do the cooking?" queried the School-master.
"I leave if they do," said the Doctor. "I have seen too much of the effects of amateur cookery in my profession to want any of it. They are good cooks in theory, but not in practice."
"There you have it!" said the Idiot, triumphantly. "Right in a nutshell. That's where the cooks are always weak. They have none of the theory and all of the practice. If they based practice on theory, they'd cook better. Wherefore let your theoretical cooks seek out the practical and instruct them in the principles of the culinary art. Think of what twelve ladies could do; twelve ladies trained in the sewing-circle to talk rapidly, working five hours a day apiece, could devote an hour a week to three hundred and sixty cooks, and tell them practically all they themselves know in that time; and if, in addition to this, twelve other ladies, forming an auxiliary guild, would make dresses and bonnets and things for the same cooks, instead of for the cannibals, it would keep them good-natured."
"Splendid scheme!" said the Doctor. "So practical. Your brain must weigh half an ounce."
"I've never had it weighed," said the Idiot, "but, I fancy, it's a good one. It's the only one I have, anyhow, and it's done me good service, and shows no signs of softening. But, returning to the cooks, good-nature is as essential to the making of a good cook as are apples to the making of a dumpling. You can't associate the word dumpling with ill-nature, and just as the poet throws himself into his work, and as he is of a cheerful or a mournful disposition, so does his work appear cheerful or mournful, so do the productions of a cook take on the attributes of their maker. A dyspeptic cook will prepare food in a manner so indigestible that it were ruin to partake of it. A light-hearted cook will make light bread; a pessimistic cook will serve flour bricks in lieu thereof."
"I think possibly you are right when you say that," said the Doctor. "I have myself observed that the people who sing at their work do the best work."
"But the worst singing," growled the School-master.
"That may be true," put in the Idiot; "but you cannot expect a cook on sixteen dollars a month to be a prima-donna. Now, if Mr. Whitechoker will undertake to start a sewing-circle in his church for people who don't care to wear clothing, but to sow the seeds of concord and good cookery throughout the kitchens of this land, I am prepared to prophesy that at the end of the year there will be more happiness and less depression in this part of the world; and once eliminate dyspepsia from our midst, and get civilization and happiness controvertible terms, then you will find your foreign missionary funds waxing so fat that instead of the amateur garments for the heathen you now send them, you will be able to open an account at Worth's and Poole's for every barbarian in creation. The scheme for the sewing on of suspender-buttons and the miscellaneous mending that needs to be done for lone-lorn savages like myself might be left in abeyance until the culinary scheme has been established. Bachelors constitute a class, a small class only, of humanity, but the regeneration of cooks is a universal need."
"I think your scheme is certainly a picturesque one and novel," said Mr. Whitechoker. "There seems to be a good deal in it. Don't you think so, Mr. Pedagog?"
"Yes—I do," said Mr. Pedagog, wearily. "A great deal—of language."
And amid the laugh at his expense which followed, the Idiot, joining in, departed.
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