Christmas Eve had come around again, as it so often does, and London was at its brightest. Garbage collectors whistled at their work, policemen sang, “‘Noel, Noel,'” as they directed the traffic and one would not be far out in saying that happiness reigned supreme, except that Egbert Mulliner had got a funny feeling on the left side of his chest when he breathed. Probably nothing serious, but sufficiently funny to make him look in on Dr. Wilbraham Potter, an old school friend of his.
“And what can I do for you, Pudding?” asked Dr. Potter. It was a sobriquet that had been bestowed on Egbert at their mutual school, for even then his ample frame had invited criticism. He had started life a a bouncing baby, had grown into a bulbous boy, and was now, in his 42nd year, a man beneath whom weighing machines quivered like aspens. In common with all his ancestors, he had a passionate love of food; but while they had worked off their superfluous adipose tissue by jousting, going on crusades, dancing old English dances and what not, on him it had accumulated. Beside him, Orson Welles would have looked slender.
“I don’t think it’s anything much, Bill,” he replied, “but I thought I had better get a medical opinion. It’s a sort of pain…. Well, not a pain, exactly, more of a kind of funny feeling on the left side of my chest. It catches me when I breathe. What do you advise?”
“Stop breathing.” said Dr. Potter, for at Christmastime, even Harley Street physicians like their little joke. “All right, let’s have a look at you.” “H’m,” he said, the examination concluded. “Ha,” he added and threw in another “H’m” for good measure. “Yes, just as I supposed. You’re too fat.”
This surprised Egbert. He had sometimes thought he might be an ounce or two overweight, but he would never have applied such an adjective to himself.
“Would you call me fat?”
“I’d go further. I’d call you grossly obese, and the fat’s accumulating around your heart. We’ll have to get at least twenty pounds off you. If we don’t….”
“What happens if we don’t?”
“All the bother and expense of buying wreaths and turning out for your funeral.”
“Good heavens, Bill.”
“It’s no good saying ‘Good heavens.’ For a year, you’ve got to knock off all starchy foods, all rich foods; in fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you knocked off food altogether.”
It was a crushing blow, but there was good stuff in Egbert and he was prepared to follow doctor’s orders. Though nothing could make such a regime agreeable, he was confident that he could go through with it. It was not as if he were not used to roughing it. Many a time he had attended cocktail parties where the supply of sausages on those little wooden sticks had given out while he was still hungry and a sort of reserve strength had pulled him through.
His upper lip was stiff as he left the consulting room. It remained so till he was on the street, when all the stiffening suddenly went out of it. He had remembered his Aunt Serena, with whom, as usual, he would be taking Christmas dinner the next day.
As regarded his Aunt Serena, he was curiously situated. As from boyhood up he had shown no signs of possessing any intelligence whatsoever, he had gravitated naturally to England’s civil service, where all that was required of him was to drink tea at four o’clock and between lunch and four to do the Times crossword puzzle. But though he could drink tea as well as the next man and had a gift for crossword puzzles, he did not really like being in his country’s service, however civil. What he wanted was to buy a partnership in a friend’s interior-decorating firm, and this could only be done if Aunt Serena, who was extraordinarily rich, put up the money. He had often asked her to do so, but she had refused because she thought that haggling with customers about prices would bruise his gentle spirit.
He had planned to make an eloquent appeal to her after Christmas dinner, when she would be mellowed with food and drink; but how could he do that now? In what frame of mind would a touchy hostess, who prided herself on the lavishness of her hospitality, be to finance a nephew who refused every course of the banquet she had taken such pains to assemble? He would alienate her irretrievably as early as the soup course.
Two minutes later, he was back in Dr. Potter’s consulting room, agitation written on every feature of his practically circular face.
“Listen, Bill,” he said. “You were only kidding just now about that diet, weren’t you?”
“I was not.”
“Not a bit.”
“What would happen if I ate caviar, turtle soup, turkey, plum pudding, mince pies, biscuit tortoni, hot rolls with butter and crystallized fruit and drank a good deal of champagne, port, and liqueurs? Would I die?”
“Of course. But what a jolly death. Were you thinking of doing all that?”
“It’s what I shall have to do when I have Christmas dinner at my aunt’s. If I skip a single course, she will never speak to me again, and bang will go my interior-decorator partnership,” said Egbert, and, in the clear, concise way civil servants have, he explained the delicate position in which he found himself.
Dr. Potter listened attentively and, at the conclusion of the narrative, said, “H’m,” added “Ha” and then said “H’m” again. “You’re sure that your abstinence would offend this aunt of whom you speak?”
“She would never forgive me.”
“Then you must get out of this dinner.”
“I can’t get out of it.”
“You could if you had a good excuse.”
“She could hardly blame you if, for instance, you had contracted bubonic plague.”
“But I haven’t.”
“That can be arranged. I can inject a serum into you that will give you all the bubonic plague your heart could desire.”
Egbert weighed the suggestion. He appreciated its ingenuity, but nevertheless, he hesitated. There was something about it – he could not say what – that did not quite appeal to him. He sought further information.
“What’s bubonic plague like?”
“In what sense do you use the word ‘like?’ It’s just an ordinary sort of plague.”
“Is it painful?”
“I’ve never had it myself, but I’m told it gives you a sort of funny feeling.”
“Don’t you come out in spots?”
“I believe that is the usual procedure.”
“And your nose drops off?”
“So they tell me.” Egbert shook his head.
“I don’t think I’ll have it.”
“I could give you leprosy, if you prefer.”
Dr. Potter clicked his tongue, annoyed. “You’re a hard man to help,” he said. “Well, it seems to me that the only thing you can do is have an accident.”
“What sort of accident?”
“Get yourself run over by a taxicab.”
“Yes, I suppose I could manage that. Have you ever been run over by a taxicab?”
“Dozens of times.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Just a kind of tickling sensation.”
Egbert mused awhile. “That does seem to be the best thing to do.”
“Much the best. Your aunt couldn’t expect you to have dinner with her if you were in the hospital. And no need to be actually run over. Just step into the street and stick a leg out. The charioteer will do the rest.”
Christmas Day dawned with its sprinkling of snow, its robin redbreasts, and all the things one has been led to expect and, as it progressed, Egbert’s determination to follow the doctor’s advice became solidified. He was not altogether persuaded of the accuracy of his doctor’s statement that getting mixed up with a taxicab caused merely a kind of tickling sensation, but even if the results were far worse, they must be faced.
As he walked to his aunt’s house, he was encouraged to see that there was no stint of the necessary vehicles. They whizzed to and fro in dozens and to extend a leg in front of one of them would be a task well within the scope of the least gifted man. It was simply a matter of making a selection. He rejected the first that came along because he disliked the driver’s mustache, the second because the cab was the wrong color, and he was just about to step in front of a third, which met all his qualifications, when he paused with leg in air. He had suddenly remembered that his aunt’s birthday was on February 11th, by which time he would be out of the hospital and expected as a guest at the dinner, fully equal to the one at Christmas, with which she always celebrated her natal day. Of course, it would be open to him to get knocked down by another taxicab on February the tenth; but if he yielded to this temptation, how would his superiors at the office react? Would they not shake their heads and say to one another, “Mulliner has got into a rut,” and feel that an employee so accident-prone was better dispensed with? Nobody likes to have someone on the payroll who is always getting run over by taxicabs. It was a possibility that froze his feet and caused both his chins to tremble. If he lost his position, he would be penniless. He would not even be able to beg his bread on the streets, for his medical advisor had expressly forbidden him bread. Better, he decided, to be disowned by his aunt than by the civil-service authorities, so, abandoning all thought of taxicabs, he continued on his way to his aunt’s residence and, coming to journey’s end, exchanged greetings with her in her ornate drawing room.
He delivered his Christmas gift and, in return, she pressed into his hand an oblong slip of paper.
“The money for your partnership, dear,” she said. “I was waiting till Christmas to let you have it.”
The irony of it, the sort of thing Thomas Hardy was so fond of, smote Egbert like a blow between the eyes with a wet fish. Here he was, grasping the check for which he had yearned so long, and a fat lot of good it was going to do him, because the moment he failed to tuck into the caviar, the turtle soup, the turkey, the plum pudding, the mince pies, the biscuit tortoni, the hock, the champagne, the port and the liqueurs, she would be writing to her bank to stop payment on the check. However, though, in the grip of a dull despair, he forced himself to simulate gratitude.
“Dear Aunt Serena,” he mumbled, “how can I thank you?”
“I thought you would be pleased, dear.”
“Oh, I am.”
“But now,” she said, “I am afraid I have a little disappointment for you. About dinner tonight. Do you read a magazine called Pure Diet and World Redemption?”
“Is that one that has all those pictures of girls without any clothes on?”
“No, that’s Playboy. I subscribe to that regularly. This one is all about vegetarianism. A copy was left here by mistake last week. I glanced at it idly and my whole outlook became changed. It said vegetarianism was an absolute vital essential prerequisite to a new order of civilization in which humanity will have become truly humane. I was profoundly impressed.”
Egbert, as far as was possible for one of his stoutness, leaped in his chair. A wild thought had flashed into his mind, such as it was. Not even if he had been the victim of bubonic plague could the feeling he waws feeling have been funnier.
“Do you mean….”
“It said that only thus can there come peace on Earth with a cessation of wars, the abolition of crime, disease, insanity, poverty and oppression. And you can’t say that wouldn’t be nice, can you, dear?”
“Do you mean,” cried Egbert, “that you have become a vegetarian?”
“There won’t be any turkey tonight?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“No turtle soup? No mince pies?”
“I know how disappointed you must be.”
Egbert, who had leaped in his chair, sprang from it like some lissome adagio dancer, a feat against the performance of which any knowledgeable bookmaker would have given odds of at least 100 to 8. His nose quivered, his ears wiggled, his eyes, usually devoid of any expression whatsoever, shone like twin stars. He had not felt such a gush of elation since his seventh birthday, when somebody had given him a box of chocolates and he had devoured the top layer and supposed that was the end and then had found that there was a second layer underneath. He put his arm round his aunt’s waist as far as it would go and kissed her fondly.
“Disappointed?” he said. “I couldn’t be more pleased. If there’s one thing I’m all for pushing along as much as possible, it’s the cessation of wars and the abolition of crime, disease, insanity, poverty and oppression. I’ve just become a vegetarian myself. I wouldn’t touch a turkey with a ten-foot pole. What shall we be having for dinner?”
“To start with, seaweed soup.”
“Then mock salmon. It is vegetable marrow colored pink.”
“Followed by nut cutlets with spinach.”
“And an orange.”
“We split one?”
“No, one each.”
“A positive orgy. God bless us, everyone,” said Egbert. He had a feeling that he had heard that before somewhere, but we cannot all be original and it seemed to him to sum up the situation about as neatly as a situation could be summed up.