Poor Man’s Pudding/Rich Man’s Crumbs
With a taste of actual poverty and a whiff of fake charity, Melville leaves us doubting whether our personal ethics have much improved.
For our final short story from Herman Melville, we offer a hearty helping of “Poor Man’s Pudding” and a scattering of “Rich Man’s Crumbs.” Like “The Paradise of Bachelors/The Tartarus of Maids,” this is a double story, each capable of standing alone but with a much greater main effect after having been sandwiched together. In “Bachelors/Maids,” Melville juxtaposed the incredible opulence enjoyed by a new species of aristocrat: the white-collar specialist whose occupation exists largely thanks to institutional support, special powers, and artificial privileges; then there was the battered and soul-sucked humanity crammed into “Satanic mills” across England, Old and New. If the lawyers’ decadence and leisure didn’t sicken you, surely the dehumanizing conditions in the maids’ “Rag Room” chamber of mechanical horrors should. Progress is all well and good, sure, but Melville’s terrifyingly realistic portrait demands we ask: At what cost?—Scratch that. At what cost to whom?
And so here we are with a final Melvillian bounty before us: “Poor Man’s Pudding/Rich Man’s Crumbs.” The story begins with two men walking through the snow—what one of them says is often called “Poor Man’s Manure.” Snow falls on all ground alike, and its gifts enrich all soils more or less equally. Melt some “Poor Man’s Manure,” bottle it up, and you’ve got yourself some “Poor Man’s Eye-Water” as a quick home medicinal. Put a cup of that “Eye-Water” into a baking mix for a wonderful egg substitute; or mix it into a “Poor Man’s Plaster” or medical poultice. This sort of euphemizing helped convince the speaker that America’s poor lived comparably well—really, just as well as America’s rich. In this twisted version of reality, Blandmour convinces himself that snow really is just as good at fertilizing crops as manure, purchased on the international market at often exorbitant rates. Standard rainwater was really just as good as actual medicine; and naturally, then, our narrator would assume that “Poor Man’s Pudding” is going to be every bit as tasty as the Rich Man’s delicacies. When actually confronted with a literal bowl of the stuff, Melville’s narrator can no longer stomach the conflict between euphemism and reality.
In the second half, the same narrator picks up in London a year after circumstances forced him to choke down a few spoonfuls of humility. As the story begins, he reflects on a recent banquet to honor a gaggle of European princes’ recent victory over Napoleon. The day before, Europe’s rulers had gorged themselves on the people’s produce. Behind them, they left crumbs: half-eaten pieces of pheasant, turnip tops and potato skins, that sort of thing. The narrator’s guide takes him to the spot of the feast, now a swirling sea of starving, thronging, mobbing Londoners scrambling to get their share of the Rich Man’s Crumbs. This is the grand event, we are assured, that constitutes an amazing charitable gift from the wealthy to the masses. For Melville and his now-chastened narrator, even this supposed charity is really a curse—a desperately needed contribution to individual well-being which always came at the cost of greater living standards for the powerful. It was a dehumanizing battle for survival pitting those most in need against one another. Our world and its societies have all come a long way from Melville’s Young America and human beings are fantastically richer now than they have ever been before, but still we have Melville’s central dilemma: progress remains unevenly distributed primarily because some have specifically worked to amass more for themselves and withold it from their fellows. We have achieved amazing things, but a certain callousness of the soul undoubtedly remains.
POOR MAN’S PUDDING
You see,” said poet Blandmour, enthusiastically—as some forty years ago we walked along the road in a soft, moist snowfall, toward the end of March—”you see, my friend, that the blessed almoner, Nature, is in all things beneficent ; and not only so, but considerate in her charities, as any discreet human philanthropist might be. This snow, now, which seems so unseasonable, is in fact just what a poor husbandman needs. Rightly is this soft March snow, falling just before seed-time, rightly it is called ‘Poor Man’s Manure.’ Distilling from kind heaven upon the soil, by a gentle penetration it nourishes every clod, ridge, and furrow. To the poor farmer it is as good as the rich farmer’s farmyard enrichments. And the poor man has no trouble to spread it, while the rich man has to spread his.”
“Perhaps so,” said I, without equal enthusiasm, brushing some of the damp flakes from my chest. “It may be as you say, dear Blandmour. But tell me, how is it that the wind drives yonder drifts of ‘Poor Man’s Manure’ off poor Coulter’s two-acre patch here, and piles it up yonder on rich Squire Teamster’s twenty-acre field?”
“Ah! to be sure—yes—well; Coulter’s field, I suppose is sufficiently moist without further moistenings. Enough is as good as a feast, you know.”
“Yes,” replied I, “of this sort of damp fare,” shaking another shower of the damp flakes from my person. “But tell me, this warm spring snow may answer very well, as you say; but how is it with the cold snows of the long, long winters here?”
“Why, do you not remember the words of the Psalmist?—’The Lord giveth snow like wool’; meaning not only that snow is white as wool, but warm, too, as wool. For the only reason, as I take it, that wool is comfortable, is because air is entangled, and therefore warmed among its fibres. Just so, then, take the temperature of a December field when covered with this snow-fleece, and you will no doubt find it several degrees above that of the air. So you see the winter’s snow itself is beneficent: under the pretense of frost—a sort of gruff philanthropist—actually warming the earth which afterward is to be fertilizingly moistened by the gentle flakes of March.”
“I like to hear you talk, dear Blandmour; and guided by your benevolent heart, can only wish to poor Coulter plenty of this ‘Poor Man’s Manure.”
“But that is not all,” said Blandmour, eagerly. “Did you never hear of the ‘Poor Man’s Eye-water?”
“Take this soft March snow, melt it, and bottle it. It keeps pure as alcohol. The very best thing in the world for weak eyes, I have a whole demijohn of it myself. But the poorest man, afflicted in his eyes, can freely help himself to this same all-bountiful remedy. Now. what a kind provision is that!”
“Then ‘Poor Man’s Manure’ is ‘Poor Man’s Eye-water’ too?”
“Exactly. And what could be more economically contrived? One thing answering two ends—ends so very distinct.”
“Very distinct, indeed.”
“Ah! that is your way. Making sport of earnest. But never mind. We have been talking of snow; but common rain-water—such as falls all the year round—is still more kindly. Not to speak of its known fertilizing quality as to fields, consider it in one of its minor lights. Pray, did you ever hear of a ‘Poor Man’s Egg’?”
“Never. What is that, now?”
“Why, in making some culinary preparations of meal and flour, where eggs are recommended in the receipt-book, a substitute for the eggs may be had in a cup of cold rain-water, which acts as leaven. And so a cup of cold rainwater thus used is called by housewives a ‘Poor Man’s Egg.’ And many rich men’s housekeepers sometimes use it.”
“But only when they are out of hen’s eggs, I presume, dear Blandmour. But your talk is —I sincerely say it—most agreeable to me. Talk on.”
“Then there’s ‘Poor Man’s Plaster’ for wounds and other bodily harms; an alleviative and curative, compounded of simple, natural things; and so, being very cheap, is accessible to the poorest sufferers. Rich men often use ‘Poor Man’s Plaster’.”
“But not without the judicious advice of a fee’d physician, dear Blandmour.”
“Doubtless, they first consult the physician ; but that may be an unnecessary precaution.”
“Perhaps so. I do not gainsay it. Go on.”
“Well, then, did you ever eat of a ‘Poor Man’s Pudding’?”
“I never so much as heard of it before.”
“Indeed! Well, now you shall eat of one; and you shall eat it, too, as made, unprompted, by a poor man’s wife, and you shall eat it at a poor man’s table, and in a poor man’s house. Come now, and if after this eating, you do not say that a ‘Poor Man’s Pudding’ is as relishable as a rich man’s, I will give up the point altogether; which briefly is : that, through kind Nature, the poor, out of their very poverty, extract comfort.”
Not to narrate any more of our conversations upon this subject (for we had several—I being at that time the guest of Blandmour in the country, for the benefit of my health), suffice it that acting upon Blandmour’s hint, I introduced myself into Coulter’s house on a wet Monday noon (for the snow had thawed), under the innocent pretense of craving a pedestrian’s rest and refreshment for an hour or two.
I was greeted, not without much embarrassment—owing, I suppose to my dress—but still with unaffected and honest kindness. Dame Coulter was just leaving the wash-tub to get ready her one o’clock meal against her good man’s return from a deep wood about a mile distant among the hills, where he was chopping by day’s work—seventy-five cents per day and found himself. The washing being done outside the main building, under an infirm-looking old shed, the dame stood upon a half-rotten soaked board to protect her feet, as well as might be, from the penetrating damp of the bare ground; hence she looked pale and chill. But her paleness had still another and more secret cause— the paleness of a mother to be. A quiet, fathomless heart-trouble, too, couched beneath the mild, resigned blue of her soft and wife-like eye. But she smiled upon me, as apologizing for the unavoidable disorder of a Monday and a washing-day, and, conducting me into the kitchen, set me down in the best seat it had—an old-fashioned chair of an enfeebled constitution.
I thanked her; and sat rubbing my hands before the ineffectual low fire, and—unobservantly as I could—glancing now and then about the room, while the good woman, throwing on more sticks said she was sorry the room was no warmer. Something more she said, too—not repiningly, however—of the fuel, as old and damp; picked-up sticks in Squire Teamster’s forest, where her husband was chopping the sappy logs of the living tree for the Squire’s fires. It needed not her remark, whatever it was, to convince me of the inferior quality of the sticks; some being quite mossy and toad-stooled with long lying bedded among the accumulated dead leaves of many autumns. They made a sad hissing, and vain spluttering enough.
“You must rest yourself here till dinnertime, at least,” said the dame; “what I have you are heartily welcome to.”
I thanked her again, and begged her not to heed my presence in the least, but go on with her usual affairs.
I was struck by the aspect of the room. The house was old, and constitutionally damp. The window-sills had beads of exuded dampness upon them. The shriveled sashes shook in their frames, and the green panes of glass were clouded with the long thaw. On some little errand the dame passed into an adjoining chamber, leaving the door partly open. The floor of that room was carpetless, as the kitchen’s was. Nothing but bare necessaries were about me ; and those not of the best sort. Not a print on the wall but an old volume of Doddridge lay on the smoked chimney-shelf.
“You must have walked a long way, sir; you sigh so with weariness.”
“No, I am not nigh so weary as yourself, I dare say.”
“Oh, but I am accustomed to that; you are not, I should think,” and her soft, sad blue eye ran over my dress. “But I must sweep these shavings away; husband made him a new ax-helve this morning before sunrise, and I have been so busy washing, that I have had no time to clear up. But now they are just the thing I want for the fire. They’d be much better though, were they not so green.”
Now if Blandmour were here, thought I to myself, he would call those green shavings “Poor Man’s Matches,” or “Poor Man’s Tinder,” or some pleasant name of that sort.
“I do not know,” said the good woman, turning round to me again—as she stirred among her pots on the smoky fire—”I do not know how you will like our pudding. It is only rice, milk, and salt boiled together.”
“Ah, what they call ‘Poor Man’s Pudding,’ I suppose you mean?”
A quick flush, half resentful, passed over her face.
“We do not call it so, sir,” she said, and was silent.
Upbraiding myself for my inadvertence, I could not but again think to myself what Blandmour would have said, had he heard those words and seen that flush.
At last a slow, heavy footfall was heard; then a scraping at the door, and another voice said, “Come, wife; come, come—I must be back again in a jiff—if you say I must take all my meals at home, you must be speedy; because the Squire—Good-day, sir,” he exclaimed, now first catching sight of me as he entered the room. He turned toward his wife, inquiringly, and stood stock-still, while the moisture oozed from his patched boots to the floor.
“This gentleman stops here awhile to rest and refresh: he will take dinner with us, too. All will be ready now in a trice: so sit down on the bench, husband, and be patient, I pray. You see, sir,” she continued, turning to me, “William there wants, of mornings, to carry a cold meal into the woods with him, to save the long one-o’clock walk across the fields to and fro. But I won’t let him. A warm dinner is more than pay for the long walk.”
“I don’t know about that,” said William, shaking his head. “I have often debated in my mind whether it really paid. There’s not much odds, either way, between a wet walk after hard work, and a wet dinner before it. But I like to oblige a good wife like Martha. And you know, sir, that women will have their whimseys.”
“I wish they all had as kind whimseys as your wife has,” said I.
“Well, I’ve heard that some women ain’t all maple-sugar; but, content with dear Martha, I don’t know much about others.”
“You find rare wisdom in the woods,” mused I.
“Now, husband, if you ain’t too tired, just lend a hand to draw the table out.”
“Nay,” said I; “let him rest, and let me help.”
“No,” said William, rising.
“Sit still,” said his wife to me.
The table set, in due time we all found ourselves with plates before us.
“You see what we have,” said Coulter—”salt pork, rye-bread, and pudding. Let me help you. I got this pork of the Squire; some of his last year’s pork, which he let me have on account. It isn’t quite as sweet as this year’s would be; but I find it hearty enough to work on, and that’s all I eat for. Only let the rheumatiz and other sicknesses keep clear of me, and I ask no flavors or favors from any. But you don’t eat of the pork!”
“I see,” said the wife, gently and gravely, “that the gentleman knows the difference between this year’s and last year’s pork. But perhaps he will like the pudding.”
I summoned up all my self-control, and smilingly assented to the proposition of the pudding, without by my looks casting any reflections upon the pork. But, to tell the truth, it was quite impossible for me (not being ravenous, but only a little hungry at that time) to eat of the latter. It had a yellowish crust all round it, and was rather rankish, I thought, to the taste. I observed, too, that the dame did not eat of it, though she suffered some to be put on her plate, and pretended to be busy with it when Coulter looked that way. But she ate of the rye-bread, and so did I.
“Now, then, for the pudding,” said Coulter. “Quick, wife; the Squire sits in his sitting-room window, looking far out across the fields. His time-piece is true.”
“He don’t play the spy on you, does he?” said I.
“Oh, no!—I don’t say that. He’s a good enough man. He gives me work. But he’s particular. Wife, help the gentleman. You see, sir, if I lose the Squire’s work, what will become of—” and, with a look for which I honored humanity, with sly significance, he glanced toward his wife; then, a little changing his voice, instantly continued—”that fine horse I am going to buy?”
“I guess,” said the dame, with a strange, subdued sort of inefficient pleasantry—”I guess that fine horse you sometimes so merrily dream of will long stay in the Squire’s stall. But sometimes his man gives me a Sunday ride.”
“A Sunday ride!” said I.
“You see,” resumed Coulter, “wife loves to go to church; but the nighest is four miles off, over yon snowy hills. So she can’t walk it; and I can’t carry her in my arms, though I have carried her up-stairs before now. But, as she says, the Squire’s man sometimes gives her a lift on the road; and for this cause it is that I speak of a horse I am going to have one of these fine sunny days. And already, before having it, I have christened it ‘Martha.’ But what am I about? Come, come, wife! The pudding! Help the gentleman, do! The Squire! the Squire! think of the Squire! and help round the pudding. There, one—two—three mouthfuls must do me. Good-by, wife, Good-by, sir, I’m off.”
And, snatching his soaked hat, the noble Poor Man hurriedly went out into the soak and the mire.
I suppose now, thinks I to myself, that Blandmour would poetically say, He goes to take a Poor Man’s saunter.
“You have a fine husband,” said I to the woman, as we were now left together.
“William loves me this day as on the wedding-day, sir. Some hasty words, but never a harsh one. I wish I were better and stronger for his sake. And, oh! sir, both for his sake and mine” (and the soft, blue, beautiful eyes turned into two well-springs), “how I wish little William and Martha lived—it is so lonely- like now. William named after him, and Martha for me.”
When a companion’s heart of itself overflows, the best one can do is to do nothing. I sat looking down on my as yet untasted pudding.
“You should have seen little William, sir. Such a bright, manly boy, only six years old— cold, cold now!”
Plunging my spoon into the pudding, I forced some into my mouth to stop it.
“And little Martha—Oh! sir, she was the beauty! Bitter, bitter! but needs must be borne!”
The mouthful of pudding now touched my palate, and touched it with a mouldy, briny taste. The rice, I knew, was of that damaged sort sold cheap; and the salt from the last year’s pork barrel.
“Ah, sir, if those little ones yet to enter the world were the same little ones which so sadly have left it; returning friends, not strangers, strangers, always strangers! Yet does a mother soon learn to love them; for certain, sir, they come from where the others have gone. Don’t you believe that, sir? Yes, I know all good people must. But, still, still—and I fear it is wicked, and very black-hearted, too—still, strive how I may to cheer me with thinking of little William and Martha in heaven, and with reading Dr. Doddridge there—still, still does dark grief leak in, just like the rain through our roof. I am left so lonesome now; day after day, all the day long, dear William is gone; and all the damp day long grief drizzles and drizzles down on my soul. But I pray to God to forgive me for this; and for the rest, manage it as well as I may.”
Bitter and mouldy is the “Poor Man’s Pudding,” groaned I to myself, half choked with but one little mouthful of it, which would hardly go down.
I could stay no longer to hear of sorrows for which the sincerest sympathies could give no adequate relief; of a fond persuasion, to which there could be furnished no further proof than already was had—a persuasion, too, of that sort which much speaking is sure more or less to mar; of causeless self-upbraidings, which no expostulations could have dispelled, I offered no pay for hospitalities gratuitous and honorable as those of a prince. I knew that such offerings would have been more than declined; charity resented.
The native American poor never lose their delicacy or pride; hence, though unreduced to the physical degradation of the European pauper, they yet suffer more in mind than the poor of any other people in the world. Those peculiar social sensibilities nourished by our peculiar political principles, while they enhance the true dignity of a prosperous American, do but minister to the added wretchedness of the unfortunate; first, by prohibiting their acceptance of what little random relief charity may offer; and, second, by furnishing them with the keenest appreciation of the smarting distinction between their ideal of universal equality and their grindstone experience of the practical misery and infamy of poverty—a misery and infamy which is, ever has been, and ever will be, precisely the same in India, England, and America.
Under pretense that my journey called me forthwith, I bade the dame good-by; shook her cold hand; looked my last into her blue, resigned eye, and went out into the wet. But cheerless as it was, and damp, damp, damp—the heavy atmosphere charged with all sorts of incipiencies—I yet became conscious by the suddenness of the contrast, that the house air I had quitted was laden down with that peculiar deleterious quality, the height of which—insufferable to some visitants—will be found in a poorhouse ward.
This ill-ventilation in winter of the rooms of the poor—a thing, too, so stubbornly persisted in—is usually charged upon them as their disgraceful neglect of the most simple means to health. But the instinct of the poor is wiser than we think. The air which ventilates, likewise cools. And to any shiverer, ill-ventilated warmth is better than well-ventilated cold. Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
“Blandmour,” said I that evening, as after tea I sat on his comfortable sofa, before a blazing fire, with one of his two ruddy little children on my knee, “you are not what may rightly be called a rich man; you have a fair competence; no more. Is it not so? Well then, I do not include you, when I say, that if ever a rich man speaks prosperously to me of a Poor Man, I shall set it down as—I won’t mention the word.”
RICH MAN’S CRUMBS
IN the year 1814, during the summer following my first taste of the “Poor Man’s Pudding,” a sea-voyage was recommended to me by my physician. The Battle of Waterloo having closed the long drama of Napoleon’s wars, many strangers were visiting Europe. I arrived in London at the time the victorious princes were there assembled enjoying the Arabian Nights’ hospitalities of a grateful and gorgeous aristocracy, and the courtliest of gentlemen and kings—George the Prince Regent.
I had declined all letters but one to my banker. I wandered about for the best reception an adventurous traveler can have—the reception I mean, which unsolicited chance and accident throw in his venturous way.
But I omit all else to recount one hour’s hap under the lead of a very friendly man, whose acquaintance I made in the open street of Cheapside. He wore a uniform, and was some sort of a civic subordinate; I forget exactly what. He was off duty that day. His discourse was chiefly of the noble charities of London. He took me to two or three, and made admiring mention of many more.
“But,” said he, as we turned into Cheapside again, “if you are at all curious about such things, let me take you—if it be not too late— to one of the most interesting of all our Lord Mayor’s Charities, sir; nay, the charities not only of a Lord Mayor, but, I may truly say, in this one instance, of emperors, regents, and kings. You remember the event of yesterday?”
“That sad fire on the river-side, you mean, unhousing so many of the poor?”
“No. The grand Guildhall Banquet to the princes. Who can forget it? Sir, the dinner was served on nothing but solid silver and gold plate, worth at the least £200,000—that is, 1,000,000 of your dollars; while the mere expenditure of meats, wines, attendance and upholstery, etc., cannot be footed under £25,000 —120,000 dollars of your hard cash.”
“But, surely, my friend, you do not call that charity—feeding kings at that rate?”
“No. The feast came first yesterday; and the charity after—to-day. How else would you have it, where princes are concerned? But I think we shall be quite in time—come ; here we are at King Street, and down there is Guildhall. Will you go?”
“Gladly, my good friend. Take me where you will. I come but to roam and see.”
Avoiding the main entrance of the hall, which was barred, he took me through some private way, and we found ourselves in a rear blind-walled place in the open air. I looked round amazed. The spot was grimy as a backyard in the Five Points. It was packed with a mass of lean, famished, ferocious creatures, struggling and fighting for some mysterious precedency, and all holding soiled blue tickets in their hands.
“There is no other way,” said my guide; “we can only get in with the crowd. Will you try it? I hope you have not on your drawing-room suit? What do you say? It will be well worth your sight. So noble a charity does not often offer. The one following the annual banquet of Lord Mayor’s day—fine a charity as that certainly is—is not to be mentioned with what will be seen to-day. Is it, ay?”
As he spoke, a basement door in the distance was thrown open, and the squalid mass made a rush for the dark vault beyond.
I nodded to my guide, and sideways we joined in with the rest. Ere long we found our retreat cut off by the yelping crowd behind, and I could not but congratulate myself on having a civic, as well as civil guide; one, too, whose uniform made evident his authority.
It was just the same as if I were pressed by a mob of cannibals on some pagan beach. The beings round me roared with famine. For in this mighty London misery but maddens. In the country it softens. As I gazed on the meagre, murderous pack, I thought of the blue eye of the gentle wife of poor Coulter. Some sort of curved, glittering steel thing (not a sword; I know not what it was), before worn in his belt, was now flourished overhead by my guide, menacing the creatures to forbear offering the stranger violence.
As we drove, slow and wedge-like, into the gloomy vault, the howls of the mass reverberated. I seemed seething in the Pit with the Lost. On and on, through the dark and damp, and then up a stone stairway to a wide portal ; when, diffusing, the pestiferous mob poured in bright day between painted walls and beneath a painted dome. I thought of the anarchic sack of Versailles.
A few moments more and I stood bewildered among the beggars in the famous Guildhall.
Where I stood—where the thronged rabble stood, less than twelve hours before sat His Imperial Majesty, Alexander of Russia; His Royal Majesty, Frederick William, King of Prussia; His Royal Highness, George, Prince Regent of England; His world-renowned Grace, the Duke of Wellington; with a mob of magnificoes, made up of conquering field marshals, earls, counts, and innumerable other nobles of mark.
The walls swept to and fro, like the foliage of a forest with blazonings of conquerors’ flags. Naught outside the hall was visible. No windows were within four-and-twenty feet of the floor. Cut off from all other sights, I was hemmed in by one splendid spectacle—splendid, I mean, everywhere, but as the eye fell toward the floor. That was foul as a hovel’s—as a kennel’s ; the naked boards being strewed with the smaller and more wasteful fragments of the feast, while the two long parallel lines, up and down the hall, of now unrobed, shabby, dirty pine-tables were piled with less trampled wrecks. The dyed banners were in keeping with the last night’s kings: the floor suited the beggars of to-day. The banners looked upon the floor as from his balcony Dives upon Lazarus. A line of liveried men kept back with their staves the impatient jam of the mob, who, otherwise, might have instantaneously converted the Charity into a Pillage. Another body of gowned and gilded officials distributed the broken meats—the cold victuals and crumbs of kings. One after another the beggars held up their dirty blue tickets, and were served with the plundered wreck of a pheasant, or the rim of a pasty—like the detached crown of an old hat—the solids and meats stolen out.
“What a noble charity,” whispered my guide. “See that pasty now, snatched by that pale girl; I dare say the Emperor of Russia ate of that last night.”
“Very probably,” murmured I; “it looks as though some omnivorous emperor or other had had a finger in that pie.”
“And see yon pheasant too—there—that one—the boy in the torn shirt has it now—look! The Prince Regent might have dined off that.”
The two breasts were gouged ruthlessly out, exposing the bare bones, embellished with the untouched pinions and legs.
“Yes, who knows!” said my guide, “his Royal Highness the Prince Regent might have eaten of that identical pheasant.”
“I don’t doubt it,” murmured I, “he is said to be uncommonly fond of the breast. But where is Napoleon’s head in a charger? I should fancy that ought to have been the principal dish.”
“You are merry. Sir, even Cossacks are charitable here in Guildhall. Look! the famous Platoff, the Hetman himself—(he was here last night with the rest)—no doubt he thrust a lance into yon pork-pie there. Look! the old shirtless man has it now. How he licks his chops over it, little thinking of or thanking the good, kind Cossack that left it him! Ah! another —a stouter has grabbed it. It falls; bless my soul! the dish is quite empty—only a bit of the hacked crust.”
“The Cossacks, my friend, are said to be immoderately fond of fat,” observed I. “The Hetman was hardly so charitable as you thought.”
“A noble charity, upon the whole, for all that. See, even Gog and Magog yonder, at the other end of the hall fairly laugh out their delight at the scene.”
“But don’t you think, though,” hinted I, “that the sculptor, whoever he was, carved the laugh too much into a grin—a sort of sardonical grin?”
“Well, that’s as you take it, sir. But see— now I’d wager a guinea the Lord Mayor’s lady dipped her golden spoon into yonder golden-hued jelly. See, the jelly-eyed old body has slipped it, in one broad gulp, down his throat.”
“Peace to that jelly!” breathed I.
“What a generous, noble, magnanimous charity this is! unheard of in any country but England, which feeds her very beggars with golden-hued jellies.”
“But not three times every day, my friend. And do you really think that jellies are the best sort of relief you can furnish to beggars? Would not plain beef and bread, with something to do, and be paid for, be better?”
“But plain beef and bread were not eaten here. Emperors, and prince-regents, and kings, and field marshals don’t often dine on plain beef and bread. So the leavings are according. Tell me, can you expect that the crumbs of kings can be like the crumbs of squirrels?”
“You! I mean you! stand aside, or else be served and away! Here, take this pasty, and be thankful that you taste of the same dish with her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire. Graceless ragamuffin, do you hear?”
These words were bellowed at me through the din by a red-gowned official nigh the board.
“Surely he does not mean me” said I to my guide; “he has not confounded me with the rest.”
“One is known by the company he keeps,” smiled my guide. “See! not only stands your hat awry and bunged on your head, but your coat is fouled and torn. Nay,” he cried to the red-gown, “this is an unfortunate friend; a simple spectator, I assure you.”
“Ah! is that you, old lad?” responded the red-gown, in familiar recognition of my guide —a personal friend as it seemed; “well, convey your friend out forthwith. Mind the grand crash; it will soon be coming; hark! now! away with him!”
Too late. The last dish had been seized. The yet unglutted mob raised a fierce yell, which wafted the banners like a strong gust, and filled the air with a reek as from sewers. They surged against the tables, broke through all barriers, and billowed over the hall—their bare tossed arms like the dashed ribs of a wreck. It seemed to me as if a sudden impotent fury of fell envy possessed them. That one half-hour’s peep at the mere remnants of the glories of the Banquets of Kings; the unsatisfying mouthfuls of disemboweled pasties, plundered pheasants, and half-sucked jellies, served to remind them of the intrinsic contempt of the alms. In this sudden mood, or whatever mysterious thing it was that now seized them, these Lazaruses seemed ready to spew up in repentant scorn the contumelious crumbs of Dives.
“This way, this way! stick like a bee to my back,” intensely whispered my guide. “My friend there has answered my beck, and thrown open yon private door for us two. Wedge—wedge—in quick, there goes your bunged hat—never stop for your coat-tail—hit that man—strike him down! hold! jam! now! wrench along for your life! ha! here we breathe freely ; thank God! You faint. Ho!”
“Never mind. This fresh air revives me.”
I inhaled a few more breaths of it, and felt ready to proceed.
“And now conduct me, my good friend, by some front passage into Cheapside, forthwith. I must home.”
“Not by the sidewalk though. Look at your dress. I must get a hack for you.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said I, ruefully eyeing my tatters, and then glancing in envy at the close-buttoned coat and flat cap of my guide, which defied all tumblings and tearings.
“There, now, sir,” said the honest fellow, as he put me into the hack, and tucked in me and my rags, “when you get back to your own country, you can say you have witnessed the greatest of all England’s noble charities. Of course, you will make reasonable allowances for the unavoidable jam. Good-by. Mind, Jehu”—addressing the driver on the box “this is a gentleman you carry. He is just from the Guildhall Charity, which accounts for his appearance. Go on now. London Tavern, Fleet Street, remember, is the place.”
“Now, Heaven in its kind mercy save me from the noble charities of London,” sighed I, as that night I lay bruised and battered on my bed; “and Heaven save me equally from the ‘Poor Man’s Pudding’ and the ‘Rich Man’s Crumbs.’”