Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Incidents in a Retired Life
By Frederick William Shelton (1814–1881)
 
From “Up the River”

LAST year I had a solitary peach upon a solitary tree, for the early frost frustrated the delicious crop. This only one, which, from its golden color, might be entitled El Dorado, I watched with fear and trembling from day to day, patiently waiting for the identical time when I should buoy it up carefully in my hand, that its pulp should not be bruised, tear off its thin peel, admonished that the time had come by a gradual releasing of the fruit from its adhesion to the stem, and I appointed the next day for the ceremonial of plucking. The morrow dawned, as bright a day as ever dawned upon the earth, and on a near approach I found it still there, and said, with chuckling gratification, “There is some delicacy in thieves.” Alas! on reaching it, somebody had taken a large bite out of the ripest cheek, but with a sacrilegious witticism had left it sticking to the stem. The detestable prints of the teeth which bit it were still in it, and a wasp was gloating at its core. Had he taken the whole peach I should have vented my feelings in a violence of indignation unsuited to a balmy garden. But as he was joker enough to bite only its sunny side, I must forgive him, as one who has some element of salvation in his character, because he is disposed to look at the bright side of things. What is a peach? A mere globe of succulent and delicious pulp, which I would rather be deprived of than cultivate bad feelings, even toward thieves. Wherever you find rogues whose deeds involve a saline element of wit, make up your mind that they are no rogues.
  1
 
  THIS morning the Shanghai hen laid another egg, of a rich brunette complexion, which we took away, and replaced by a common vulgar egg, intending to reserve the Shanghai’s in a cool place until the time of incubation. Very much amused was I with the sequel. The proud and haughty superiority of the breed manifested itself by detecting the cheat and resenting the insult. Shang and Eng flew at the supposititious egg with the utmost indignation and picked it to pieces, scratching the remnants of the shell from the nest…. There is one peculiarity of these fowls which deserves to be mentioned. When I removed mine from the basket I thought that the worthy donor had clipped their wings to prevent them from flying away or scaling the hennery. On further knowledge I have learned that their style and fashion is that of the jacket-sleeve and bobtail coat. Their eminent domesticity is clearly signified by this, because they cannot get over an ordinary fence, and would not if they could. It is because they have no disposition to do this, that Nature has cropped them of their superfluous wings and given them a plumage suitable to their desires. “Their sober wishes never learn to stray.” They often come into the kitchen, but never go abroad to associate with common fowls, but remain at home in dignified retirement. Another thing remarkable and quite renowned about this is the Oriental courtesy and politeness of the cock. If you throw a piece of bread, he waits till the hen helps herself first, and often carries it to her in his own beak. The feathered people in the East, and those not feathered, are far superior to ours in those elaborate and delightful forms of manner which add a charm and zest to life. This has been from the days of Abraham until now. There are no common people in these realms. All are polite, and the very roosters illustrate the best principles laid down in any book of etiquette. Book of Etiquette! What is conventionalism without the inborn sense? Can any man or beast be taught to be mechanically polite? Not at all—not at all!…  2
  I have received a present of a pair of Cochin-Chinas, a superb cock and a dun-colored hen. I put them with my other fowls in the cellar, to protect them for a short time from the severity of the weather. My Shanghai rooster had for several nights been housed up; for on one occasion, when the cold was snapping, he was discovered under the lee of a stone wall, standing on one leg, taking no notice of the approach of any one, and nearly gone. When brought in, he backed up against the red-hot kitchen stove, and burned his tail off. Before this he had no feathers in the rear to speak of, and now he is bobtailed indeed. Anne sewed upon him a jacket of carpet, and put him in a tea-box for the night; and it was ludicrous on the next morning to see him lifting up his head above the square prison-box and crowing lustily to greet the day. But before breakfast-time he had a dreadful fit. He retreated against the wall, he fell upon his side, he kicked, and he “carried on”; but when the carpet was taken off he came to himself, and ate corn with a voracious appetite. His indisposition was, no doubt, occasioned by a rush of blood to the head from the tightness of the bandages. When Shanghai and Cochin met together in the cellar, they enacted in that dusky hole all the barbarities of a profane cockpit. I heard a sound as if from the tumbling of barrels, followed by a dull, thumping noise, like spirit-rappings, and went below, where the first object which met my eye was a mouse creeping along the beam out of an excavation in my pineapple cheese. As for the fowls, instead of salutation after the respectful manner of their country—which is expressed thus: Shang knocks knees to Cochin, bows three times, touches the ground, and makes obeisance—they were engaged in a bloody fight, unworthy of Celestial poultry. With their heads down, eyes flashing, and red as vipers, and with a feathery frill or ruffle about their necks, they were leaping at each other, to see who should hold dominion over the ash-heap. It put me exactly in mind of two Scythians or two Greeks in America, where each wished to be considered the only Scythian or only Greek in the country. A contest or emulation is at all times highly animating and full of zest, whether two scholars write, two athletes strive, two boilers strain, or two cocks fight. Every lazy dog in the vicinity is immediately at hand. I looked on until I saw the Shanghai’s peepers darkened and his comb streaming with blood. These birds contended for some days after for preeminence on the lawn, and no flinching could be observed on either part, although the Shanghai was by one-third the smaller of the two. At last the latter was thoroughly mortified; his eyes wavered and wandered vaguely, as he stood opposite the foe; he turned tail and ran. From that moment he became the veriest coward, and submitted to every indignity without attempting to resist. He suffered himself to be chased about the lawn, fled from the Indian meal, and was almost starved. Such submission on his part at last resulted in peace, and the two rivals walked side by side without fighting, and ate together, with a mutual concession, of the corn. This, in turn, engendered a degree of presumption on the part of the Shanghai cock; and one day, when the dew sparkled and the sun shone peculiarly bright, he so far forgot himself as to ascend a hillock and venture on a tolerably triumphant crow. It showed a lack of judgment; his cock-a-doodle-doo proved fatal. Scarcely had he done so, when Cochin-China rushed upon him, tore out his feathers, and flogged him so severely that it was doubtful whether he would remain with us. Now, alas! he presents a sad spectacle; his comb frozen off, his tail burned off, and his head knocked to a jelly. While the corn jingles in the throats of his compeers when they eagerly snap it, as if they were eating from a pile of shilling pieces or fi’penny bits, he stands aloof and grubs in the ground. How changed!  3
 
 
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