by Wilkie Collins
LADIES and gentlemen. Give me five minutes' sympathy and attention. I have something serious to say to you.
I am a married man, with an income which is too miserably limited to be worth mentioning.
About a month since, my wife advanced me one step nearer to the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, by presenting me with another child. On five previous occasions her name had appeared in the List of British Mothers which adorns the daily Supplement of the Times newspaper. At each of these trying periods (I speak entirely of myself when I use the word "trying") she was attended by the same monthly nurse. On this last, and sixth, occasion we were not so fortunate as to secure the services of our regular functionary. She was already engaged; and a new nurse, with excellent recommendations, was therefore employed in her stead. When I first heard of her, and was told that her name was Mrs. Bullwinkle, I laughed. It was then the beginning of the month. It is now the end of it, and I write down that once comical name with a settled gravity which nothing can disturb.
"We all know Mrs. Gamp. My late monthly nurse is the exact antipodes of her. Mrs. Bullwinkle is tall and dignified; her complexion is fair; her Grecian nose is innocent of all convivial coloring; her figure is not more than agreeably plump; her manners are icily composed; her dress is quiet and neat; her age cannot be more than five-and-thirty; her style of conversation, when she talks, is flowing and grammatical--upon the whole, she appears to be a woman who is much too lady-like for her station in life. When I first met Mrs. Bullwinkle on the stairs, I felt inclined to apologize for my wife's presumption in engaging her services. Though I checked this absurd impulse, I could not resist answering the new nurse's magnificent courtesy by expressing a polite hope that she would find her situation everything that she could wish, under my roof.
"I am not accustomed to exact much, sir," said Mrs. Bullwinkle. "The cook seems, I am rejoiced to say, to be an intelligent and attentive person. I have been giving her some little hints on the subject of my meals. I have ventured to tell her that I eat little and often; and I think she thoroughly understands me."
I am ashamed to say I was not so sharp as the cook. I did not thoroughly understand Mrs. Bullwinkle until it became my duty, through my wife's inability to manage our domestic business, to settle the weekly bills. I then became sensible of an alarming increase in our household expenditure. If I had given two dinner-parties in the course of the week, the bills could not have been more exorbitant: the butcher, the baker, and the grocer could not have taken me at a heavier pecuniary disadvantage. My heart sank as I thought of my miserable income. I looked up piteously from the bills to the cook for an explanation.
The cook looked back at me compassionately, shook her head, and said:
I reckoned up additional joints, additional chops, additional steaks, fillets, kidneys, gravy beef. I told off a terrible supplement to the usual family consumption of bread, flour, tea, sugar, and alcoholic liquids. I appealed to the cook again; and again the cook shook her head, and said:
My miserable income obliges me to look after sixpences as other men look after five-pound notes. Ruin sat immovable on the pile of weekly bills, and stared me sternly in the face. I went up into my wife's room. The new nurse was not there. The unhappy partner of my pecuniary embarrassments was reading a novel. My innocent infant was smiling in his sleep. I had taken the bills with me. Ruin followed them upstairs, and sat spectral on one side of the bed, while I sat on the other.
"Don't be alarmed, love," I said, "if you hear the police in the house. Mrs. Bullwinkle has a large family, and feeds them all out of our provisions. A search shall be instituted, and slumbering Justice shall be aroused. Look at these joints, these chops, these steaks, these fillets, these kidneys, these gravy beefs!"
My wife shook her head, exactly as the cook had shaken hers; and answered, precisely as the cook had answered:
"But where does she hide it all?" I exclaimed.
My wife shut her eyes and shuddered.
"John!" she said, "I have privately consulted the doctor; and the doctor says Mrs. Bullwinkle is a cow."
"If the doctor had to pay these bills," I retorted, savagely, "he would not be quite so free with his jokes."
"He is in earnest, dear. He explained to me, what I never knew before, that a cow is an animal with many stomachs--"
"What!" I cried out, in amazement; "do you mean to tell me that all these joints, these chops, these steaks, these fillets, these kidneys, these gravy beefs--these loaves, these muffins, these mixed biscuits--these teas, these sugars, these brandies, gins, sherries, and beers have disappeared in one week down Mrs. Bullwinkle's throat?"
"All, John," said my wife, sinking back on the pillow with a groan.
It was impossible to look at the bills and believe it. I questioned and cross-questioned my wife, and still elicited nothing but the one bewildering answer: "All, John." Determined--for I am a man of a logical and judicial mind--to have this extraordinary and alarming case properly investigated, I took out my pocketbook and pencil, and asked my wife if she felt strong enough to make a few private entries for my satisfaction. Finding that she willingly accepted the responsibility, I directed her to take down, from her own personal investigation, a statement of Mrs. Bullwinkle's meals, and of the time at which she partook of each of them, for twenty-four hours, beginning with one morning and ending with another. After making this arrangement, I descended to the parlor, and took the necessary business measures for using the cook as a check upon her mistress. Having carefully instructed her to enter on the kitchen slate everything that was sent up to Mrs. Bullwinkle for twenty-four hours, I felt that my machinery for investigating the truth was now complete. If the statement of the mistress, in bed on the second floor, agreed with the statement of the cook, in the distant sphere of the kitchen, there could be no doubt that I had obtained reliable information on the mysterious subject of Mrs. Bullwinkle's meals.
In due time the two reports were sent in, and I had an opportunity of understanding at last what "eating little and often" really meant, in the case of my wife's monthly nurse. Except in one particular, to be hereafter adverted to, both statements agreed exactly. Here is the list, accompanied by a correct time-table, of Mrs. Bullwinkle's meals, beginning with the morning of Monday and ending with the morning of Tuesday. I certify, on my honor as a British husband and housekeeper, that the copy is correctly taken from my wife's entries in my pocketbook, checked impartially by the cook's slate:*
7. Breakfast. -- Tea, Toast, Half - quartern Loaf, Butter, Eggs, Bacon.
9.30. First Morning Snack.--A glass of pale Sherry, and a plate of Mixed Biscuits.
11. Second Morning Snack.--A basin of Beef-lea, and a tumbler of Brandy-and-water.
12.45. Dinner.--A Roast Loin of Mutton and Mashed Potatoes. With Dinner, Ale, spiced and warmed. After Dinner, a tumbler of Hot Gin-and-water.
3. Afternoon Snack. --A glass of pale Sherry, and a plate of Mixed Biscuits.
4.30. Tea and Muffins.
7. Evening Snack.--Stewed Cheese, Toast, and a tumbler of Brandy-and-water.
9. Supper. --Nice juicy Steak, and two glasses of Beer. Second Course. -- Stewed Cheese, and a tumbler of Gin-and-water.
* This time-table is no invention of mine. It is accurately copied from an "original document" sent to me by the victim of a monthly nurse.
ADDITIONAL PARTICULARS. (Not vouched for by the cook's slate.)--During the night of Monday Mrs. Bullwinkle partook, at intervals, of Caudle. At 4.30 A.M., on the morning of Tuesday, my wife was awakened by hearing the nurse walking up and down the room, and sighing bitterly. The following conversation then took place between them:
My Wife. Are you ill?
Mrs. Bullwinkle. No. Hungry.
I can certify that the above list correctly, and even moderately, represents Mrs. Bullwinkle's daily bill of fare for one month. I can assert, from my own observation, that every dish, at every hour of the day, which went up to her full, invariably came down from her empty. Mrs. Bullwinkle was not a wasteful eater. She could fully appreciate, in roast meat, for example, the great value of "lean"; but she was not, on that account, insensible to the humbler merits of fat, skin, and "outside." All--emphatically, all--was fish that came to her net; and the net itself, as I can personally testify, was never once overweighted and never out of order. I have watched, in the case of this perfectly unparalleled human cormorant, for symptoms of apoplexy, or at least of visible repletion, with a dreadful and absorbing interest; and have on no occasion been rewarded by making the smallest discovery. Mrs. Bullwinkle was never, while in my service, even so much as partially intoxicated. Her face was never flushed; her articulation was never thickened; her brain was never confused; her movements were never uncertain. After the breakfast, the two morning snacks, and the dinner-- all occurring within the space of six hours--she could move about the room with unimpeded freedom of action; could keep my wife and the baby in a state of the strictest discipline; could courtesy magnificently when the unoffending master, whom she was eating out of house and home, entered the room, preserving her color, her equilibrium, and her stay-laces, when she sank down and when she swelled up again, without the vestige of an apparent effort. During the month of her devastating residence under my roof, she had two hundred and forty-eight meals, including the snacks; and she went out of the house no larger and no redder than she came in. After the statement of one such fact as that, further comment is superfluous.
I leave this case in the hands of the medical and the married public. I present it, as a problem, to physiological science. I offer it, as a warning, to British husbands with limited incomes. While I write these lines, while I give my married countrymen this friendly caution, my wife is weeping over the tradesmen's bills; my children are on half-allowance of food; my cook is worked off her legs; my purse is empty. Young husbands, and persons about to marry, commit to memory the description here given of my late monthly nurse! Avoid a tall and dignified woman, with a flowing style of conversation and impressively lady-like manners! Beware, my struggling friends, my fellow-toilers along the heavily-taxed highways of domestic happiness--beware of Mrs. Bullwinkle!