I Have a weakness for prawns. For seven years I lived in a barbarous colony where they had no prawns. I shall not name that colony, because I have no desire to deter people of taste from going there; but for seven years I saw nothing like a prawn except some wretched potted shrimps embalmed in grease and red pepper. Homeward bound some months ago in a mail steamer, we ran into Galle harbour for coals.
Now Galle is famed throughout the East for the most rapturous preparation of prawns, the most ecstatic aliment conceivable. To taste prawn curry at Ceylon makes one additionally grateful to Vasco de Gama for having found his way round the Cape. I had heard much on the voyage about these curried prawns and about the green cocoa-nut and artful concomitants used in preparing them, and the various accounts worked upon my fevered imagination till my brain was filled with prawns capering about like the lively monsters in a magnified drop of stagnant water.
“Any coals?” said the captain; “any news?” asked the passengers; “any prawns ?” whispered I, in a voice husky with emotion, for I trembled for the answer.
“Plenty prawns,” was the reply, and down the ship’s side I went into a sort of long washing-tub, kept from capsizing by a floating counterpoise about three yards off. My conductor was a Cingalese commissionnaire of pale gingerbread complexion, who was attired in a very small quantity of white calico and a tortoiseshell comb. We fought our way through mendicants, jewel-pedlers with their Birmingham rubbish tenderly bedded in white wool, and a bristling array of paper umbrellas thrust forward for purchase at sixpence each.
Through this ordeal I passed scatheless, all but a few shillings, for which I obtained an umbrella, two or three fans, a gold ring with rubies like red currants, an ebony walking-stick, and half a dozen pine-apples. We found an hotel, a stately Portuguese mansion of the olden time, through the door of which you might have driven a waggon of hay. The proprietor was smoking in a Manilla cane chair, with a boy and a feather brush behind to intimidate the flies; and when he understood that I had come several thousand miles to taste prawn curry, there was a glow of interest in his yellow countenance that was quite gratifying.
Arrangements were soon made. In four hours all that gastronomic science could accomplish would await my approval. A cheerful drive about the neighbourhood was suggested as a suitable preliminary. Tho regular handbook sort of thing to do at Galle is a drive to the cinnamon-gardens, where you cut odoriferous walking-sticks, fill your pockets with the fragrant bark, and come out quite spicy.
There was also a very ancient Buddhist temple, with a huge strongly-gilt heathen deity sitting cross legged on the altar, like a canonized tailor; and a Buddhist clergyman who chewed betel-nut and kept up a smothering supply of incense, and was very grateful for a two-ann a piece and half a cigar. That golden tailor was at least ten feet high as he sat, and he had eyes disproportionately large and disagreeably expressive, that seemed to roll about without keeping time, and to squint and leer through the murky vapour most abominably.
The cool shelter of the inn was grateful enough after the sweltering heat of the mid-day sun, so I put on a fresh suit of grass-cloth, dipped my head in Cologne-water, and composed my mind for dinner. The huge, stone-walled apartment in which my repast was prepared, had an earthy odour from the tiled floor, and a smell of cocoanut oil that must have been something like the atmosphere of Ali Baba’s oil-jars. I was the only dinner guest, and as I sat in the vast solitude, listening to footsteps echoing far and faint— what with the earthy smell and some burning josstick with its incense fumes curling slowly into the shadows of the lofty timber roof, I felt it was like dining in a cathedral.
A sort of grand servitor of the house in a specially fine cotton garment and an extra big tortoiseshell comb arranged the table in a style that only needed some orange blossoms and tin foil to look like a small wedding; and when I took my preliminary sip of sherry 1 felt it almost incumbent to make a little pleasant speech to myself, and return thanks in a proper soliloquy. The prawns were sublime. I seem to forget the accessories of sauce and vegetable.
Dr. Johnson once said of a lady that she had been so well dressed that he could not recollect what she had on, and my prawns were just as well dressed as that lady. Half an hour was spent in a dreamy enjoyment of a dry curry and Amontillado, my white attendant quietly looking on like a benign spectre. Talking would have spoiled the thing. I pointed to a slender-stemmed wine-glass of the substance of a soap bubble, and waved my hand with a gesture of confidence, as Captain Cook might have done to a Polynesian savage. The tortoiseshell comb bent gracefully as divining my desires, and moved away as gently as a tortoiseshell cat.
The wine was rich as ever ripened on a volcano. With delicately deferential but quietly decisive manner the spectre removed the dfibri of the first course. Green cocoa-nut curry was the next item in the programme. The first spoonful threw me into a paroxysm of astonishment and delight My bosom throbbed, and I think a tear fell into my fourth plate. A little slow music at this juncture would perhaps have tranquil Use the system. A melodious gurgling alone broke the silence.
Sparkling St. Peray of 1811, the year of the great comet. Candied pine-apple, jack fruit, maraschino, mango jam, cigars, and coffee, are all that I can clearly recollect afterwards, except that my ghostly guardian extended my legs on the telescope chair, undid my necktie, and sprinkled me with rosewater.
Perhaps it was the monotonous swinging of the punkah as it waved above my head like a dusty banner in a windy cathedral, or the angry droning of the mosquitos who could make no impression on my seasoned epidermis; but, at any rate, I found myself getting strangely drowsy, and everything growing misty and changing its aspect, just like a shilling’s worth of dissolving views, only without the music and bad grammar. And gradually a most portentous tightness came upon me, and I felt an inclination to curl like toasted bacon.
I struggled to rise, but felt a sense of general compression as though I were in a suit of plate armour a size too small, with an odd tendency to curvature. I was in a state of collapse, in fact, my nose and toes approximating, and at last was perfectly doubled up, in which condition I tapped my forehead pensively with my big toe, and thought about it.
And then the appalling truth opened on me — I was become a prawn!—a scaly monster with a florid complexion and a head fit for nothing. And methought I was seized by two Cingalese policemen in tortoiseshell hats, and carried before a great golden cross-legged magistrate, and I felt myself in the focus of his huge round eyes as though I had been fixed for a stereoscope.
“What’s this? ” said the gilt-gingerbread-looking fellow on the bench.
“Over-fed himself, please your worship,” said a sneaking, cotton-wrapped constable, as he referred to the charge, written with Indian ink on a talipot leaf.
“Pined a three months’ indigestion and costs,” was the severe sentence.
“Please, your worship,” I appealed, looking at his cruciform extremities through my upper eye-lashes, “three months’ indigestion will bring no end of distress around my domestic hearth — I mean my American cooking-stove.”
“Mere stomachache repentance,” said the obdurate “brute. “Call the next case.”
I gave a howl, and woke. Next morning I sent for Mr. Poodle’s pills— one of the “family boxes that contain four.” This was five months ago: I am now out of danger.