Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Dream of Queer Fishes

by H. S. S.

(A MODERN PROSE-IDYLL.)

“As the sleeping hound dreams of the chase, so the fisherman dreams of fishes.” Thus says the old Greek poet Theocritus; and that the same thing is true even to the present day may be seen from the strange dream dreamed by Joe, the Commissioner of Fisheries, as he was on his way to America to manage the fishy business of the firm of Salisbury and Co., whose service he had lately entered. Now Joe was thoroughly familiar with every kind of bait and fishing-tackle, having been apprenticed as a youth to a grand old fisherman, a regular old piscatorial hand, who carried on certain deep-sea fisheries, in which Joe soon became very expert, and was regarded by his master as his right-hand man. But unfortunately Joe had been always on the look-out for bettering himself, until at last he and the old man had words, and Joe rashly gave a month’s notice and left the service on his own account, but finding it did not prosper, and being still very bitter against his old employer, he had become commercial traveller to the rival firm abovementioned—a post for which he was specially qualified, through his proficiency in the piscatorial language usually known as “Billingsgate.”

So Joe was now in mid-voyage for America; and it happened that one night, after thinking a great deal by day of the fishy business on which he embarked, he dreamed that he had fallen overboard and was surrounded by a vast multitude of fishes. Herring, mackerel, mullet, whiting, turbot, cod, haddock, soles, eels, oysters—every fish, great and small, was there, from a whale to a sprat. It was, in fact, a Public Meeting of sea-fish into which Joe had suddenly entered and just at that very moment the chair (a relic of a sunken vessel) was being taken by the Old Man of the Sea. It was a great annoyance to Joe in his dream to find that there was an Old Man even in this submarine assembly, especially as he seemed to detect in his features a lurking resemblance to his old employer; but what alarmed him still more was the hostile feeling which evidently animated the scaly meeting against himself. Each fish as he sailed round to his seat rolled a glassy eye on Joe with a very sinister expression; but Joe, smart fellow that he was, cocked his eyeglass in return and did his best to stare them out of countenance. Now fish, as we all know, are dumb; so in this Public Meeting there could not, on their part at least, be any delivery of speeches; yet, strange to say, Joe’s conscience told him clearly enough what was the object of the meeting and how he himself was concerned with it. These fish were met for the purpose of demanding Home Rule, which he, as Commissioner of Fisheries, had the power of giving them—nay, more, which he had formerly pledged himself to give them (such was the extraordinary conviction by which he was possessed in his nightmare) and had since broken his promise.

Every eye was now turned on Joe, and there was a twinkle on the features of the Old Man of the Sea as he invited him by a courteous gesture to reply to the complaints which, though unspoken, were plainly understood. What was Joe to say, and in what language could he address a company of fishes? Suddenly the happy thought occurred to him that he might address them in Billingsgate; so, leaping on an old fragment of a wreck, he poured out one of his vigorous harangues. The upshot of his speech, as far as it could afterwards be remembered—for, as is the way in dreams, it was rather vague and illogical—was that the Home Rule he had once promised them was not what they now demanded, but Canadian Home Rule, and that as they were a shoal of rascally, gaping, cold-blooded conspirators, he was now determined not to give them any Home Rule at all. He further managed to recommend them, in choicest Billingsgate, one and all to go about their business—the herrings to be cured, the mackerel to be pickled, the oysters to be scalloped, the cod to be crimped, the lobsters to be potted, and the eels to be skinned alive. Such was Joe’s spirited oration; but, if the truth be told, he soon repented of it, for he quickly found that he had got a pretty kettle of fish on his hands. So far from knocking under to Joe’s bluster, the fish had one and all got their backs—or rather, their dorsal fins—up, and came round him in vast numbers, with the evident intent of making him food for fishes. In vain poor Joe, who now inwardly cursed himself for his temerity, entreated them to shake fins and be friends again, promising to use his influence with his new employer to obtain for each one of them three acres of good submarine pasturage and a sea-cow. For they would have none of it—nothing but Home Rule would satisfy them, and it seemed even that was now to be preceded by the execution of Joe. For at a signal from the Old Man of the Sea, whose face wore a stern yet half-amused expression, a sword-fish appeared on the scene, while two large eels, even more slippery than Joe himself, began to pinch Joe and lead him towards a block of water-logged timber which lay on the ocean floor. It was a fearful moment; for, as is usual in nightmares, Joe could stir neither hand nor foot, and even his voice failed him as he tried to call aloud to his old pals to come to his assistance. However, just as the sword-fish was about to strike, Joe woke with a cry and found himself once more in his comfortable cabin.

Such was Joe’s dream, which he remembered for a long time afterwards, the thing which dwelt longest in his memory being perhaps the sort of pitying half-smile on the face of the Old Man of the Sea when poor Joe, in the extremity of his despair, offered the three acres and a sea-cow as a substitute for the Home Rule which he had promised and afterwards refused.

Published: The Commonweal, November 19, 1887