S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories
JOHN HENRY SMITH was one of those butchers who are accustomed to describe themselves as Purveyors of Meat, which means that he had two plate-glass windows, marble slabs, and paper frills round the necks of the dead sheep that ornamented his premises.
He carried on business in the High Street of Picklehampton, his shop being next door to the residence of J. Hingeston Smith, a surgeon of good repute and practice.
The coincidence of the initials of these two artists of the knife would have been less troublesome to the local postmaster but for the fact that, by one of those miscalculations which are frequently to be observed in the erection and numbering of the building of urban streets, No. 30 High Street was a considerable distance from No. 32, and the doctor's residence and the butcher's shop, being inserted between them, were known as No. 30a and No. 30b.
Even that would not have mattered but for the carelessness of the correspondents of these two admirable representatives of the great Smith family, of whom some would put no number upon their envelopes, and others would put the figure 30 without the following letter which would have more exactly indicated their destination.
The gentleman at No. 30, being named Porthwaite, made no claim upon such correspondence, and the post-master adjudicated upon it by a simple rule. Letters addressed to Dr. J. H. Smith were to be delivered to the practitioner upon the human body, and those addressed to J. H. Smith, Esq., were to be treated in the same manner. Only those addressed to Mr. J. H. Smith were to be first offered to the manipulator of inferior carcases.
This method of discrimination, being generally accurate, would have avoided friction but for one important periodic exception. At the end of each quarter, Mr. J. H. Smith would go through his ledger, and send out peremptory requests for payment to his more dilatory debtors; and these persons, when replying with doubtful promises, or appeals for more extended credit, were liable to approach their creditor with the more complimentary designation; and when the purveyor of meat had realised the fact that such letters were systematically delivered next door, he was sufficiently annoyed to mention the matter to his son-in-law, a schoolmaster named William Hitchins, questioning the propriety of the discrimination which the postmaster was exercising against him.
Mr. Hitchins felt the delicacy of the problem which had been thrust upon him, but he was of an honest disposition, a good Conservative, and well aware of the distinctions of Church and State by which our liberties broaden down in the manner so well described by the great Victorian poet. He answered firmly: "I'm afraid you can't make much fuss about that, Dad. It's a matter of status."
He thought status to be an inoffensive word, and was pleased with himself for having put the matter so neatly, but he saw that his respected relative by marriage frowned no less heavily than before.
"What's that, Bill?" the butcher asked uneasily.
Bill hesitated. "Well, you see," he began rather awkwardly, "everyone can't be a doctor. It's an expensive training. They have to pay out a lot of money, and work for years before they begin practising."
"I don't see much in that. My mother paid old Pickshank £30 for me to learn the butcherin' - and three years prenticed I were - and how does Jollyboy" - that was the name of the offending postmaster - "know that she didn't pay twice as much?"
"It isn't exactly that," answered the embarrassed schoolmaster. "You see, doctoring's not a trade, it's a profession. It isn't like selling meat. You charge so much a pound, and you're expected to get all you can, but a doctor's expected to do all he can, whether he's paid or not, and he often has to attend people who he knows won't pay him at all."
"I've let widow Gubbins have 1 lb. of the scrag end of the neck every Saturday for the last two year," protested the indignant butcher, "and a nice piece of the silverside of the round last Christmas, and who'll I ask to pay me for that? Don't I charge one-and-two for leg of Canterbury to everyone in Picklehampton except old Mrs. Palliser, and she one-and-four because we all know what she gets from them brewery shares? Isn't that difference enough? You don't want me to cheat the old lady, do you?"
The schoolmaster was silent before the genuine anger which he had now aroused, and the purveyor burst out again: "Don't I pay taxes as well as he? Don't I work as hard, and do less harm, it's as likely as not? Don't I pay my debts? Never a summons for thirty year come Thursday, when I signed the lease of this shop? Never a fuss over a wrong weight. . . I might have done time to hear the way you talk of your Ada's dad."
Bill felt that he hadn't talked very much since the conversation started, but that it would be an impolitic assertion to make. He endeavoured to turn the subject with the remark that his father-in-law not having done time was irrelevant. Many who had had that experience had a much better right to the title of esquire than the worthy surgeon. His readings of the biographies of the great had even suggested to his mind that no one is really eligible for the highest honours until he has been imprisoned by his fellow men.
The purveyor of meat, being unimpressed by his son-in-law's arguments, decided to call upon his brother Smith, and expostulate with him upon this discrimination of their correspondence. He was impelled to this foolishness rather by heat of temper than judgment, as an interval of cooler reflection would have shown him that, whatever grievance he might have, it was Mr. Jollyboy, and not his neighbour, who had sinned against him.
Unfortunately, this realisation only came to him when he stood face to face with the surgeon on the soft thickness of the carpet of his consulting-room, and was being gently indicated toward a seat by one who did not doubt that his awkwardly silent visitor had called for a professional consultation. It was a common experience that his male patients (unlike the women, who would usually be of an immediate fluency) would show some nervous delay or hesitation before commencing to explain the ills from which they desired relief, and Dr. Smith had acquired some expertness in guiding them over this preliminary awkwardness. When he observed that Mr. Smith, being comfortably seated, yet remained inarticulate for some moments, during which he had cleared his throat rather loudly two or three times, and put a restless hand to his neckerchief, he said, in his soothing suggestive voice: "Throat rather uncomfortable?"
"It is a bit ticklish," admitted the embarrassed butcher.
The surgeon rose, and laid a gently persuasive hand on his patient's arm. He led him to another chair at the side of the room, and switched on an electric bulb.
"We'd better see into this," he said, in the professionally-kindly manner to which he owed about half of his reputation, and nine-tenths of his practice.
In half a minute, he had a smaller searchlight exploring his neighbour's throat, and when this ordeal was over a somewhat dazed and frightened butcher was being told that he was in a "highly septic condition," but with the confident assurance that, as he had had the discretion to seek advice in time, he could rely upon a suitable operation to renew his endangered health.
The surgeon then turned the conversation adroitly to the state of trade, and to the heavy rents which are charged in the High Street of Picklehampton, and, after gaining some indications of the condition of his neighbour's worldly prosperity in this manner, he mentioned casually that his fee for the operation - a removal of tonsils which were in a really dangerously septic condition - would be forty guineas.
Mr. Smith, whose occupation led him to attach a high value to corporeal soundness, was seriously alarmed by the diagnosis which had been so unexpectedly thrust upon him. He felt as though a meat inspector were condemning his body as being unfit for food; but, from another angle, he could not think that the removal of what might be considered merely as a small quantity of offal could be worth so large a fee. He would have considered anything from a pound to thirty shillings would be fair, and indeed liberal remuneration.
He looked the surprise he felt as the surgeon brought out this figure, in the tone of one who alludes casually to a natural law, and his emotions stirred him to a nervous murmur of protest.
Dr. Smith did not affect to misunderstand this sound, with which he had become familiar on many similar occasions, but he replied at once, in a reassuring tone, that it was a particularly moderate fee. He mentioned that the removal of the tonsils of the daughter of a neighbouring ironfinder, Mr. Littlechin, had cost exactly twice the amount.
Mr. Smith reflected that the young lady's tonsils must almost certainly have been smaller than his, and fell to the silence of an astonished man.
At the earnest recommendation of his self-sought adviser, Mr. Smith went into a nursing-home, so that the operation, as he was assured, could be carried out in a thoroughly comfortable manner; and while he lay there, in the leisure of convalescence, he reflected upon the experience into which he had so unexpectedly blundered.
His mind was still occupied upon the basis of the social distinction which Mr. Jollyboy had so offensively indicated, and he determined that, when he returned to his business, it should be conducted according to the higher professional standards which his son-in-law had explained, and which had been so expensively illustrated.
It cannot be said that the purveying of meat was carried on very successfully at 30b High Street, Picklehampton, during the six months following Mr. Smith's return from the nursing home.
It is true that some of his poorer customers made purchases which must have been in excess of their own requirements; but the majority of the more affluent inhabitants of the district transferred their custom to Messrs. Preedy & Preedy, a firm which had its headquarters in the county town of Potminster, and had recently opened a branch at the further end of the street.
Casual customers who had entered Mr. Smith's shop, undeterred by the absence of window-tickets, would not be served by an assistant, but approached by the burly proprietor, who would chat with them genially for a few minutes upon the state of trade, and the nature of their occupations, or that of their husbands, before he would put a price upon the joint which they desired to purchase, and it was then liable to appear an arbitrary or even fantastic figure to those who had no key to the method by which it had been decided.
But though the business might decline, there was no evidence of unhappiness on the face of its owner. His bank balance, which had previously been substantial, was still sufficient to resist the assaults of circumstances, and, whether as the result of the violent end of his tonsils, or from other causes, his health and spirits appeared to be maintained at a very enviable level, until the day when every inhabitant of Picklehampton was stirred to a pleasant excitement by the news that he had been arrested on an information laid against him by the executor of Mrs. Palliser, of whom we have heard already, and who had died during the previous month.
Mrs. Palliser had been increasingly erratic, and even childish, in her business dealings for several years, but she was a popular character, and received the indulgence which is accorded to wealthy people in such condition of health, while occasion has not yet arisen to dispute their wills.
When her executor, Mr. Abel Servitor, of the legal firm of Servitor, Porson & Servitor, found an outstanding account from Mr. J. H. Smith amounting to, £89 3s. 7d., for the meat supplied to her during the previous month, he first supposed that he was confronted by some clerical inaccuracy, such as the placing of shillings in the column intended for pounds, but when he discovered that the old lady had paid accounts for four previous months on the same scale, he was bound to take a more serious view of the matter.
He applied to Mr Smith for an explanation, and receiving a reply which he considered to be an audacious avowal of deliberate fraud, he felt that he must take such action as would bring the criminal to justice, and vindicate his administration of the estate.
The little court of Picklehampton was crowded when the well-known figure of the purveyor of meat entered the dock and it was observed that a full bench of magistrates had assembled to hear the case against him.
It was also to be observed that Mr. Smith's lawyer, Mr. Percival Clements (Sims, Barker & Co.) was engaged in a very animated though whispered colloquy with his client, which culminated in the first exciting incident of the day, when he rose and informed the court that he had decided to retire from the case.
The Chairman of the bench, a local land-owner, Mr. Benjamin Tidmarsh, who had been blessed by nature with the appearance of a benevolent bulldog, asked the accused whether he required time to arrange for other legal assistance, in which event the case should be put back until later in the day; but Mr. Smith replied with some emphasis that he had resolved to defend himself, and it proceeded accordingly.
It was opened by a young barrister, Mr. Seton-Seton, who outlined it in a manner which caused many astonished and indignant looks to be directed upon the exasperated butcher, who was only restrained from repeated interruptions by the sharp rebukes of the presiding magistrate.
It would be proved, said Mr. Seton-Seton, that Mr. Smith had served the deceased lady, and her husband before her, for more than twenty years, and there appeared to be no doubt that he had gained the confidence of his customers, so that his accounts had been paid for a long time past without the detailed examination to which they should have been subjected. It appeared also that Mrs. Palliser, who had been a lady of acute and vigorous intellect, had become careless during the later stages of the painful illness from which she died, particularly in the drawing of cheques, and there appeared to be no doubt - it was only fair to say that there was no suggestion of forgery - that about six months ago, possibly by some quite innocent clerical error, a monthly statement had been rendered by the accused showing about twenty times the correct amount as owing for the meat supplied during the period. Finding, probably to his own surprise, that he had received a cheque for the amount which his statement had showed as owing - an amount which it must have been obvious to him at once could not possible be correct - he had not only succumbed to the temptation to retain the money, but had conceived the daring and nefarious project of sending in a statement at the end of the next month containing what must have been deliberate errors of similar magnitude. This attempt proving successful, he had repeated the audacious fraud on two further occasions, receiving payments to a total of £343 4s. 4d. for a supply of meat of a true value of not more than £15, or £20 at the most, and, but for Mrs. Palliser's death, he would doubtless have received at least one further payment, for which his account had been already rendered on the same scale.
Mr. Seton-Seton then proceeded to call his witnesses, but as their evidence went no further than to confirm the case which he had set out, and as the facts were not disputed by the accused, who declined the invitation of the bench to cross-examine upon them, they need not detain us.
"That is my case, your worships," Mr. Seton-Seton concluded, in the tone of one who has established a position of impregnable strength, and Mr. Tidmarsh looked at the prisoner, "Well?" he asked enquiringly.
Mr. Smith, although a man not normally wasteful of words, was fluent, and even - such is the effect of honest indignation - occasionally eloquent in his reply. He did not desire to give evidence. He did not dispute the facts. He was content to addr>
Transfer interrupted!od to refute the baseless and calumnious construction which had been placed upon them.
His speech was long and discursive, for he was unpractised in oratory, and it will be convenient to summarise it. He pointed out that his position was not that mf a mere middleman, buying goods from one direction to dispose of them in others. It might be said truly that, for the past thirty years, the health of Picklehampton had been in his conscientious and able hands.
On his knowledge and skill in a business to which he had been apprenticed in early youth, on his judgment of the beasts to buy, on the skill with which their existence was terminated, on the integrity which only vended such meat as was sound, fresh, and uncontaminated, had the health and happiness of Picklehampton depended for thirty years. What could be considered a just remuneration for such services, and by whom should they be rightly paid?
In answering that question he had been guided by the practice and example of another resident, who also laboured to maintain the health of the community, his neighbour and namesake, Dr. J. Hingeston Smith.
"He told me himself," he concluded, "that he charged John Littlechin eighty guineas for the same operation upon his daughter for which he charged me half that amount, and I afterwards learned that he had done it to Thomas Carstock for five. I have tried to charge my customers in the same way. If a carcase, with my expenses upon it, costs me 9¼d. a lb., I'm no better off, or maybe a bit worse, if I average its sale at that figure. I don't suppose Dr. Smith was much better off or worse because he took old Carstock's tonsils out for what he did. But there's a lot of difference between five guineas and eighty. So if I sell meat to my poor folk at 9¼d., or even give it away, I have to work out what people as well off as Mr. Littlechin ought to pay.
"I thought I knew what Mrs. Palliser's income was, and I charged her accordingly. But I've learnt since that I was wrong. I know now how well off she was, and when I go home tonight I shall send in a further account for the undercharges of the past five months."
He ended with a personal appeal to Mr. Tidmarsh, from whom he had purchased a considerable part of his English mutton during many previous years, as to whether his transactions had ever deviated from the straight path of rectitude, and with a suggestion that, if he had done wrong, the more imposing figure of Dr. J. Hingeston Smith should be standing beside him.
The Chairman grinned upon him appreciatively as his peroration ended.
"Smith," he said, "you're about the most impudent rogue that I have ever met; and I've seen some in that dock. What about restitution? You don't want to hold on to the old lady's money now you've got caught, do you?"
The magistrates' clerk looked up at Mr. Tidmarsh in some anxiety as to what he might be going to say next. An order for restitution may be a very proper proceeding, but compounding a felony from the bench is a very different matter, and Mr. Tidmarsh's methods were often such as to disturb the mind of the professional lawyer. But his offer, if such it could be considered, was not accepted. Mr. Smith felt that he could never purvey another joint with dignity or self-respect, should he make such a confession of wrong-doing as would be implied in the return of the money he had received.
Besides, he was not conscious of evil. He had the support of example and precedent. He had acted as he thought right, and had almost ruined an excellent business in pursuit of the ideal which had been set before him.
He replied that he had only charged what he thought fair, and not a shilling should be returned.
The bench consulted together. The Rev. Clement Dawman thought that the state of the butcher's mind required investigation. Dr. Feltwell said that you couldn't fine him enough for such a wholesale robbery. "He needs a few weeks' hard," was his uncompromising conclusion.
The Chairman was inclined to think that it was a case for the sessions. The clerk, being consulted, was of the same opinion.
In the end, it was resolved that Smith should be remanded in custody for a week, during which time there would be opportunity for observation as to the degree of mental responsibility which could be attributed to him.
Smith (we must now avoid calling him mister, for all readers of the daily press are aware that the designation ceases when an accused man is remanded without bail on a criminal charge, to be resumed if he be ultimately acquitted, or otherwise about three months after his sentence ends) was not entirely unhappy during his first week of captivity. He had the support of a good conscience, and he remembered what he had been told by his son-in-law concerning the manner in which the greatest men of every age had been imprisoned by their inferior contemporaries.
He had reason to regret that his tender for the supply of the prison beef had not been ¼d. lb. lower, in which case it would certainly have been accepted, and he was correctly confident that he would have been better fed. He would have been very glad of an extra blanket. Beyond those details, he had few discomforts, and no regrets.
He was offered two books from the prison library, which he accepted, though he was indifferent to their titles, and, after a time, being weary of his own thoughts, he took up one of them, and discovered it to be a volume of Aesop's Fables, with which he had no previous familiarity.
He read a number of these anecdotes with interest, though finding it hard to believe that they were veracious narratives; but it occurred to him, after a time, that, whether true or not, they contained some shrewdness of observation, and the occasional salt of a deeper wisdom.
But he read nothing which appeared to have any personal application, until he came to the account of the man who owned an ass and a dog, and the former animal, observing that the dog would jump on his master's lap, and was petted and rewarded for that audacity, whereas he himself, doing his duty patiently, but attempting no such familiarities, was overloaded and beaten, decided that, should he qualify by the same methods, he might also expect to share the favours which he observed. On which thought, he had jumped in through the window, and attempted, as best he might, to seat himself on the knees of his astounded owner.
But the poor ass had not merely failed to gain the rewards which he had anticipated. He had - such is the injustice of man - been ejected with ignominy, and beaten with many stripes.
Smith, who slept badly owing to the economy of blankets already mentioned, had a dream in the night, the details of which he could not afterwards remember distinctly, but it remained fixed in his mind that he had been engaged in some form of competition with Dr. J. Hingeston Smith, in the course of which he had developed into an unmistakable ass.
It is an opinion which some will share; and though he did not adopt it with any confidence, and preferred the six months in the second division which was his ultimate fate to the ignominy of any public confession of error or offer of restitution, yet it was a doubt which continued to disturb his mind, even after he had served his sentence, and become Mr. Smith again in the accustomed donation to the Christmas Fund which was regularly opened in its benevolent columns.
Such was Mr. Smith's experimental effort to introduce the higher ethical standards of the professional to the commercial world, and such its abortive issue. It ended without any revolutionary consequences, even within the narrow limits of Picklehampton, and it remains to chronicle only one concluding episode.
It was about three weeks after the defeated but unrepentant butcher had resumed his supervision of a business the conduct of which, during his unavoidable absence, had been restored by an intelligent wife and an unimaginative manager to the normal order of such establishments, that Dr. J. Hingeston Smith entered the shop.
Mr. Smith, who had made no further effort to emulate the ethical standards of his professional neighbour, told the assistant who had bustled forward, to attend to another customer, of whom there were several present at the time, and himself advanced, with some grimness of jaw, to this unexpected encounter.
"I want," Dr. Smith said, "a beefsteak. I am particular in what I eat, and I should be obliged if you would yourself select it for me."
Mr. Smith made no audible reply, but he picked up a suitable knife, and advanced upon a side of excellent beef which was suspended at the rear of the shop. He cut the steak with the skill and judgment which long experience gave, and it was one which the most exacting of chefs would have felt it an honour to grill.
He laid it on the counter for a moment, for the admiration of his brother artist, and then commenced to wrap it up without the ceremony of weighing.
Dr. J. Hingeston Smith pulled out a wallet of notes. "The price will be?" he enquired courteously.
Mr. J. Henry Smith spoke for the first time. "Forty guineas," he said. His voice was irresolute, and yet there sounded in it a latent obstinacy. In his eyes was the weary look of a dog approached by another from whom he has about equal expectation of a snarl or a wagging tail.
"It is a price," Dr. Smith replied, with the same grave courtesy as before, "which I am well able to pay."
He counted out the money, and then extended a hand which the butcher took in a hearty grip.
"Had you charged me less," Dr. Smith said, "I would never have spoken to you again."
There was some difference of opinion among those who heard of the incident during the next twenty-four hours (which is to say the whole population of Picklehampton) as to which of the principals in this encounter had carried off the honours of war, but we may conclude that the ancient borough had two citizens of whom it had no reason to be ashamed.