Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Our peck of dirt
OUR PECK OF DIRT.
“What a fellow you are, Routitout, can’t you let us enjoy our breakfast in peace?” good-humouredly remarked handsome Fred, as he balanced on his fork the bright purple end of a polony at a bachelor’s breakfast-party.
Now old Routitout wasn’t a bit of a curmudgeon, but when he took up any subject nothing could induce him to let it go until, like a puppy with a new rug, he had tugged it to pieces. The report of the debate in the House of Commons on the adulteration of food had, unluckily, just caught his eye, and accordingly he went into the subject, with which he was really well acquainted, with as much gusto as Tom Sayers, a week ago, went in at the Benicia Boy.
“It’s all very well to say, ‘I don’t care for adulteration,’” he authoritatively exclaimed, “but you must: this breakfast-table is built up of adulterations; take that polony you think so spicy, what will you say to finding your toes rotting off in a month or two, like an old post in damp ground?”
“Come, that won’t do, old fellow, why should we take in the dry rot with German sausages?”
“My dear boy, that is precisely what you must take your chance of, if you will eat these poisonbags without inquiring; why, in all probability, that sausage is made from putrid meat—you may always suspect bad meat where there is high seasoning, and there are hundreds of instances on record of people rotting away at their extremities, from eating these putrid German sausages.”
We all looked up; Bob Saunders in his amazement spilt a spoonful of yolk down his handsome whiskers, and there was a general pause. There is nothing like opening a conversation with a startling fact, and this old Routitout knew full well, and proceeded to take instant advantage of the sensation he had created.
“Fact!” said he, “here is an account” (pulling an old German newspaper out of his pocket) “of three German students who gradually rotted away from eating putrid sausages at Heidelburg.”
“Well, they may keep their polonies for me,” said Bob, “I stick to eggs; what can you make of them, old fellow?”
“Why in all probability, the one you are eating ought to have been by this time a grandfather. Laid in some remote village of France this time last year, it has lain ever since pickled in lime water. The antiquity of your London eggs is marvellous. They come over here by the million at a time, and you don’t suppose the Continental hens hold monster meetings to suit the time of the exporter?”
“I wish you would turn the conversation,” Bob replied. “I taste the lime quite strong, and must wash it down with a cup of coffee.”
“Bean-flour, you mean,” replied his tormentor, “and possibly something worse. Just turn it over in your mouth again, and see if there is a saw-dust smack in it. The fine dark Mocha you get in the New Cut, for instance, is adulterated with mahogany sawdust.”
My friend, Ned Allen, a bit of a heavy swell, who affected to admire now and then a plebeian thing, struck in here in his lisping way:—
“Well, I musth declare the finesth cup of coffee I ever tasthted was at four o’clock in the morning at an itinerant coffee-stand after Lady Charlotte’s ball—’twas really delicious!”
I saw old Routitout’s eye twinkle, as much as to say, ‘now thou art delivered into my hands.’ “Fine body in it, eh! Such a ‘horsey-doggy’ man as you should have recognised the flavour of, &c., &c.”
“Good God! what can you mean?” exclaimed Ned. “Oh! nothing, nothing; no doubt you felt a sinking after that old skinfllint’s supper, and wanted some animal food.”
“Animal food in coffee, prepostwous!”
“Ah! my dear friend, I don’t like to disturb your equanimity, but it is a noted fact that the strong coffees used by the itinerant coffee standkeepers get their flavour from the knackers’ yards. There are manufacturers over in the Borough, where they dry and pulverise horses’ blood for the sake of adulterating cheap coffees; and then the cream, how do you think they could give you such luscious cream in your coffee at a penny a cup?—why, simply enough, they thicken it with calves’ brains. If you don’t believe me, read ‘Rugg on London Milk,’ and see what he found in it with his microscope.”
“Well, I’m safe, then,” I interposed, “as I never touch anything but the best green.”
“That’s just the mistake you reading men always make,” he replied. “I dare say you innocently believe that green tea is made of the young tender leaves of the plant, but the real truth is, it is black tea painted—painted and bloomed like a worn-out old hag.”
Old Routitout dipped his huge fist into the caddy and took out a handful of young Hyson, and held it side-ways to the light on his open hand: “Do you see that beautiful pearly green colour, that’s called the glaze—a mixture of turmeric and Prussian blue. Think, my dear fellow, of the dose of poison you have been regularly taking every night and morning; perhaps you can now account for that dreadful nightmare you had last night. Old Sarah, the first and great Duchess of Marlborough, used to say that she was born before nerves came into fashion; and she never said a truer thing, for green tea came in about her time, and ‘the cup that cheers, but not inebriates,’ began to do its deadly work upon us Britons.”
“Do the Chinese drink green tea?” I inquired.
“Yes,” he replied, “the real young sprouts of the shrub, but not the glazed abomination sent over here;—that is manufactured by them expressly to suit the barbarian.”
“But is there no tea wholesome?” we all cried in astonishment.
“Yes,” retorted old Routitout, tartly, “your good strong Congou at 3'’s. 4'’d. is generally pure; black tea is mostly pure unless you happen to get some old tea-leaves redried. There are people who go about to club-houses to collect old tea-leaves, not to brush carpets with, but to recurl and dye, and sell again. If you happen to take a cup that tastes like hay, be sure that there has been a resurrection from the teapot. Hundreds of tons of it are made in London yearly.”
“Have an anchovy, Bob?”
“They ain’t anchovies,” interposed our old friend. “Do you think they can afford to give you real anchovies at a shilling a bottle? I tell you what they are, though, Dutch fish coloured and flavoured to suit the market; that strong red paste in which they swim is bole armenian, a ferruginous earth. You must eat your peck of dirt before you die, you know.”
“My dear Mr. Routitout,” interposed a quiet gentlemanly man of our party, “take a pinch of snuff to restore your equanimity.”
Our quiet friend might just as well have trodden at that moment on the tail of a puff adder.
Old Routitout took a pinch with a mock serenity, and said, “Yes, if I wished to be poisoned. Do you ever feel a weakness in your wrists, my dear friend, eh?”
“Good gracious me! no, sir!”
“Well, then, if you will only persist long enough in taking this kind of snuff, you will gradually find your hands fall powerless at the wrist, like the fore-paws of a kangaroo.”
Here was another sensation, and we all looked for some explanation.
“You think you are taking nothing but powdered tobacco,” said our old friend, glaring at the snuffer, “but I tell you there is either chromate of potash, chromate of lead, or red lead in it to give it a colour, and you get saturnine poisoning as a consequence.”
“Come, take a pickle?” archly interposed that incorrigible Bob, determined to rile our tormentor, “the vinegar won’t disagree with you.”
“You are verdant enough to suppose that is the natural colour of the vegetable, I suppose?” retorted old Routitout, harpooning a gherkin with his fork.
“To be sure I am, my Diogenes,” that youth replied, “come, get out of your tub and descant.”
“Then give Diogenes a steel fork, a knitting-needle—anything of bright steel will do to touch this verdant lie, and show you the ugly venomous thing it contains. Now, let that knife remain in the jar for an hour, and perhaps we shall learn the secret of these verdant pickles. The very vinegar is falsified.”
“While you are about it you may as well attack the whole cruet-stand!”
“Nothing easier in the world. That prime ‘Durham Mustard,’ for instance, is a delusion and a snare. There’s scarcely a bit of mustard that you can get pure at any price. This stuff is nothing more than 95 per cent. of wheaten-flour, just a dash of pure mustard, turmeric to paint it up to concert pitch, and black pepper to make it sting; and you have been labouring under the delusion all the while that you have been eating mustard, sir.”
“’Pon my honour, I have,” replied Bob; “but what about the vinegar?”
“When do you particularly like vinegar?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I like a dash on a native, taken standing at an oyster-stall, just to cool one’s coppers after the—opera.”
“Just so,” said Mr. Routitout, gravely drawing from his pocket a note-book. “I’ll let Dr. Hassall have a word with you—this is what he says for your especial comfort: ‘We have found some samples of vinegar to consist of little else but sulphuric acid coloured with sugar: it is in low coffee-houses and oyster-stalls that such vinegar is not uncommonly met with.’ So you see, my friend, you are in the habit of ‘cooling your coppers’ with vitriol, sir, vitriol!”
“Now, then,” said Bob, not half liking it, “serve out the pepper, my boy.”
“Well, pepper—what you call pepper—is mainly flour and linseed-meal, flavoured with D. P. D.”
“What in the name of all that is sacred is D. P. D.?”
“Oh, D. P. D. is short for dust of pepper dust—the sweepings of the mills. The manufacturers supply it to the grocers in barrels, so that they can falsify at pleasure.”
“Don’t forget the soy while you are about it.”
“Well, that’s nothing more than treacle and salt, so says Hassall, and the fish-sauce nothing but vinegar and catsup coloured—with what do you think?”
“Minute chips of charred deal!”
“Come,” I interposed, “after all these disagreeables, allow me to recommend you one of these sweetmeats. What will you have?—a mutton chop, a rasher of bacon, or an oyster all done in sugar—or here’s a cock coloured to the life.”
“Charming bird, certainly; and so you recommend this cock for a delicate stomach?”
“Well, drop it in your pocket, and I dare say one of the little Routitouts will not make wry faces about it.”
“Won’t they! I think I know something about this amiable bird. Look at his bright yellow beak—well, that’s only chromate of lead, and those blood-red wattles—there is nothing more injurious in their colour than vermilion. Those beautiful stripes of yellow on the wings are gamboge, and the verdant stand on which he is strutting is arseniate of copper, or Scheele’s green—three deadly poisons and a drastic purge! Perhaps now you would like one of your younkers to have a suck at this game pullet?”
“Not so bad as that, old fellow!” I replied, furtively dropping out of my pocket a coloured bonbon intended for the little one at home. “A slight indigestion, perhaps, that a dose of grey-powder would put to rights in a day.”
“I am very glad you mentioned grey powder—mercury and chalk that should be; for, let me tell you, you may find the remedy worse than the disease.”
“Why, do you know, sir,” he said, raising his voice, “that they sometimes make this infantile remedy out of the scrapings of looking-glasses?”
“And what are the scrapings of looking-glasses composed of?”
“Why, an amalgam of tin, antimony, and arsenic, as a foil for the mercury. They sell this abominable stuff at 8d. a-pound, and if you happen to buy grey powder in a low neighbourhood, you stand a very good chance of getting some of it. Not content with poisoning and loading our food with all sorts of indigestible rubbish, they next proceed to adulterate the drugs we depend upon to cure us.”
“Well, upon my word,” said Bob, “here we’ve been jollifying at this elegant '’déjeûner à la fourchette, and eating all the delicacies of the season, when in comes this learned wretch and turns it all into gall and wormwood. Let us see what we’ve really taken. Why, there’s a whole paint-box of paints to begin with—Prussian blue, turmeric, bole armenian—”
“Stop a bit,” cried old Routitout, “those preserves look very red,—there’s cochineal in them; put down cochineal.”
“Very well, cochineal,—blue, yellow, red and scarlet,—four coats of paint for delicate stomachs.”
“Now, then, for the minerals; sulphur in the sulphuric acid, lead in my friend’s rappee.”
“Stop a minute,” eagerly interposed Routitout, “again let me examine the knife,” and rushing to the pickle-jar he triumphantly returned, “Copper! I told you so—look at the coating on the knife. Copper, by jingo!”
“Very well,—lead, copper.”
“And if any of you had happened to have sweetened your tooth with that cock of magnificent plumage, there would have been an addition of mercury and arseniate of copper, a pretty metallic currency to put into your blood’s circulation with your breakfast, and then for a gentle alterative to-morrow morning—antimony, mercury, and arsenic, alias grey powder, would be likely to set matters right with a vengeance,” and old Routitout laughed a demoniac laugh, “and, stop a bit, you have not done yet—there’s lime in the eggs, sand in the sugar, horse-blood in the coffee, and, perhaps, mahogany saw-dust; just throw these little items in to make it ‘thick and slab.’”
“Bob,” said I, turning very briskly upon our tormentor, “let’s wash our mouths out with a glass of beer.”
“Here’s to you,” he said, watching with his clear blue eye the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim.’
“I dare say now you think that fine head is a recommendation to your tipple. The author of a practical treatise on brewing, however, lets us into a secret; the heading, he tells us, is a mixture of half alum and half copperas ground to a fine powder, and is so-called for giving to porter and ales the beautiful head of froth which constitutes one of its peculiar properties, and which landlords are so anxious to raise to gratify their customers. That fine flavour of malt is produced by mixing salts of steel with cocculus indicus, Spanish liquorice, treacle, tobacco, and salt.”
“But there’s nothing of the kind in pale ale,” I replied.”
“Well,” said he, in a half-disappointed tone, “they used to take about strychnine, though I believe that’s all bosh, but you can’t deny the camomiles.”
“But what’s the use of disenchanting us in this way, if tradesmen are all robbers together?” I inquired. “What remedy have we?”
“That’s just the thing the House of Commons at this very moment are trying to give you. Mr. Scholefield’s bill on the adulteration of food, which was originally intended to hit the adulterator very hard, is emasculated enough, for fear of interfering with trade; but there will be some protection for the intelligent classes, it is true. Any article suspected of being adulterated, may be publicly analysed, and if found to be sophisticated, the guilty party will be liable to a fine: this will lead to the better class of tradesmen warranting their goods as pure, and the middle and upper classes will, in the end, reap the benefit of Dr. Hassall’s investigations, and Mr. Scholefield’s bill—but as for the poor, God help them! They pay dear for what they have, and never, by any chance, have it pure; and as they can’t afford to have suspected articles analysed, they must go to the wall, as of old. We want a little touch of French despotism in these matters. Every drop of milk brought into Paris is tested at the barriers by the lactometer, to see if the ‘Iron-tailed cow’ has been guilty of diluting it—if so, the whole of it is remorselessly thrown into the gutter—the Paris milk is very pure in consequence. If a tradesman adulterates any article of food offered for sale, he is first fined, and then made publicly to confess his fault, by means of a large placard in his window, setting forth the exact nature of the trick he has played upon his customers. Imagine some of our leading tradesmen obliged to sit in sackcloth and ashes, and suffer this moral pillory! One or two rogues thus exposed, would have a marvellous effect in keeping the sand out of the sugar, and the burnt beans out of the coffee, &c., &c.”
“Now then, old fellow, as you have worked yourself round into a good humour again, take a weed?”
“Not the slightest objection in life, for it’s the only thing to be got unsophisticated—there is plenty of bad tobacco, it is true—but we know it is tobacco. There are many tales going, about the fine qualities of British tobacco grown in the Camberwell cabbage-beds—but it’s all fudge.”
“Come,” said I. “Let’s take a constitutional in the fresh air after this lecture?”
“Fresh air, indeed,” all our old friend’s savageness was evidently reviving. “Fresh air with every gully hole sending forth streams of sulphuretted hydrogen, and sulphuric acid, impregnating all the water—where on earth do you find your fresh air?”
Where he would have ended there is no telling, had not Bob slily tempted him with a thumping principe, on which his mouth closed with immense satisfaction to all parties concerned.