THINK of a bitter east wind, a declining day, fast falling snow, and a short, muddy street in London, at the Far East. Put these thoughts together, and add to them the picture of a tall, stout man, in a rough greatcoat, with a large comforter round his neck, buffeting through the wind and storm. The darkness is coming rapidly, as a man with a basket on his head turns the corner of the street, and there are two of us on opposite sides. He cries loudly as he goes:
“Herrings! Three a penny! Red herrings, good and cheap at three a penny!”
So crying he passes
along the street, and crosses at its end, and comes to where I
am standing at the corner. Here he pauses, evidently wishing to
fraternize with somebody, as a relief from the dull time and
disappointed hopes of trade. I presume I appear a suitable
object, as he comes close to me, and commences conversation.
“Governor, what do you think of these 'ere herrings?” As he speaks, I note that he has three in his hand, while the remaining stock is deftly balanced in the basket on his head.
“Don't you think they're good?” and he offers me the opportunity of testing them by scent, which I courteously but firmly decline, “and don't you think they're cheap as well?”
I assert my decided opinion that they are good and cheap. “Then look you, governor, why can't I sell 'em? Here have I walked a mile and a half along this dismal place, offering these good and cheap 'uns; and nobody don't buy none!” “I do not at all wonder at that,” I answer. “Tell us, why not, governor; tell us, why not.” “The people have no work at all to do, and they are starving; there are plenty of houses round here that have not had a penny in them for many a day,” was my convincing but unsatisfactory reply.
“Ah! Then, governor,” he rejoined, “I've put my foot in it this time. I knew they were werry poor, but I thought three a penny 'ud tempt 'em. But if they haven't the ha'pence they can't spend 'em, sure enough; so there's nothing for it but to carry 'em back, and try and sell 'em elsewhere. I thought by selling cheap arter buying cheap, I could do them good, and earn a trifle for myself. But I'm done this time.”
“How much will you take for the lot?” I inquired. First a keen look at me, then down came the basket from his head, then a rapid calculation, then a grinning inquiry, “Do you mean profit an' all, governor?” “Yes.” “Then I'll take four shillin', and be glad to get 'em.”
I put my hand into my pocket, produced that amount, and transferred to it him. “Right! Governor, thank'ee! What'll I do with 'em?” he said, as he quickly transferred the coins to his own pocket. “Go round this corner into the middle of the road, shout with all your might, ‘Herrings for nothing!’ and give three to every man, woman, and child that comes to you, till the basket is emptied.”
On hearing these instructions he immediately reproduced the money, and carefully examined it piece by piece. Being satisfied of its genuineness, he again replaced it, and then looked very keenly and questioningly at me. “Well,” I said, “is it all right and good?” “Yes,” said he.
“Then the herrings are mine, and I can do as I like with them; but if you don't like to do as I tell you, give me my money back.” “All right, governor, an' they are yours; so if you say it, here goes!”
Accordingly, he proceeded into the middle of the adjoining street, and went along shouting aloud, “Herrings for nothing! Real good herrings for nothing!”
Out of sight myself, I stood at the corner to watch his progress; and speedily he neared a house where a tall woman I knew stood at the first floor window, looking out upon him. “Here you are, missus,” he bawled, “herrings for nothing! A fine chance for yer; come an' take 'em!”
The woman shook her head unbelievingly, and left the window. “Vot a fool!” said he, “but they won't be all so. Herrings for nothing!”
A little child came out to look at him; and he called to her, “Yer, my dear, take these in to your mother, tell her how cheap they are, herrings for nothing.”
But the child was afraid of him and them, and ran indoors. So down the street, in the snowy slush and mud, went the cheap fish, the vendor crying loudly as he went, “Herrings for nothing!” And then added savagely, “O you fools!”
Thus he reached the very end; and then turning to retrace his steps, he continued his double cry, and as he came, “Herrings for nothing!” And then in a lower but very audible key, “O you fools!”
“Well!” I said to him calmly, as he reached me at the corner. “Well!” he repeated, “if yer think so. When you gave the money for herrings as yer didn't want, I thought you was training for a lunatic 'sylum! Now I thinks as all the people round here are fit company for yer. But what'll I do with the herrings, if yer don't want 'em and they won't have 'em?” “We'll try again together,” I replied, “I will come with you this time, and we'll both shout.”
Into the road we both went; he shouted once more and for the last time, “ Herrings for nothing!”
Then I called out loudly also, “Will anyone have some herrings for tea?” They heard the voice, and they knew it well and they came out at once, in two's, three's, and six's, men, women, and children; all striving to reach the welcome food. As fast as I could take them from the basket, I handed three to each eager applicant, until all were speedily disposed of. When the basket was empty, the hungry crowd that had none was far greater than those that had been supplied; but they were too late, there were no more “herrings for nothing!”
Foremost among the disappointed was a tall woman of a bitter tongue, who began vehemently, “Why haven't I got any? Ain't I as good as they? Ain't my children as hungry as theirs? Why haven't I got any?”
Before I had time to reply, the vendor stretched out his arm toward her, saying, “Why, governor, that's the very woman as I offered 'em to at first, and she turned up her nose at 'em.”
“I didn't!” she rejoined passionately, “I didn't believe you meant it!”
“Yer goes without for your unbelief!” he replied. “Good night, and thank'ee governor!”
Perhaps you cannot help laughing at the quaint story, which is strictly true. But are you sure you would not have done as they did, been as unbelieving as they are? Nay, are you sure you are not ten thousand times worse than they are? Their unbelief only cost them a hungry stomach a little longer; but what may your unbelief cost you?
God, not man, God has sent His messengers to you repeatedly for many years to offer pardon for nothing! Peace for nothing! Salvation for nothing! He has sent to your houses, your homes, your hearts, the most loving and tender offers that even an Almighty God could frame; and what have you replied?
Have you taken the trouble to reply at all? Have you not turned away in utter scornful unbelief, like the woman, or run away in fear, like the little child?
Many have heard a voice they believed, and they have received the gifts of God. But you are still without a hope on earth, or a home in heaven, because you will not believe God's messengers when they offer you, by His commandment, all that you need for time and eternity, for nothing.
By J. C. Whitmore