Unit Seven: The Sampler
The author finds out that good intentions alone are not enough when his attempt to be kind to an old man leaves them both feeling worse than before.
In a certain store where they sell puddings, a number of these delicious things are laid out in a row during the Christmas season. Here you may select the one which is most to your taste, and you are even allowed to sample them before coming to a decision.
I have often wondered whether some people, who had no intention of making a purchase, would take advantage of this privilege. One day I asked this question of the shop girl, and I learned it was indeed the case.
"Now there's one old gentleman, for instance," she told me, "he comes here almost every week and samples each one of the puddings, though he never buys anything, and I suspect he never will. I remember him from last year before that, too. Well, let him come if he wants it, and welcome to it. And what's more, I hope there are a lot more stores where he can go and get his share. He looks as if he needed it all right, and I suppose they can afford it."
She was still speaking when an elderly gentleman limped up to the counter and began looking closely at the row of puddings with great interest.
"Why, that's the very gentleman I've been telling you about," whispered the shop girl." Just watch him now." And then turning to him:" Would you like to sample them, sir? Here's spoon for you to use."
The elderly gentleman, who was poorly but neatly dressed, accepted the spoon and began eagerly to sample one after another of the puddings, only braking off occasionally to wipe his red eyes with a large torn handkerchief.
"This is quite good."
"This is not bad either, but a little too heavy."
All the time it was quite evident that he sincerely believed that he might eventually buy one of these puddings, and I am positive that he did not for a moment feel that he was in any way cheating the store. Poor old chap! Probably he had come down in the world and this sampling was all that was left him from the time when he could afford to come and select his favorite pudding.
Amidst the crowd of happy, prosperous looking Christmas shoppers, the little black figure of the old man seemed pitiful and out of place, and in a burst of benevolence, I went up to him and said:
"Pardon me, sir, will you do me a favor? Let me purchase you one of these puddings. It would give me such pleasure."
He jumped back as if he had been stung, and the blood rushed into his wrinkled face.
"Excuse me," he said, with more dignity than I would have thought possible considering his appearance, "I do not believe I have the pleasure of knowing you. Undoubtedly you have mistaken me for someone else." And with a quick decision he turned to the shop girl and said in a loud voice, "Kindly pack me up this one here. I will take it with me." He pointed at one of the largest and most expensive of the puddings.
The girl took down the pudding from its stand and started to make a parcel of it, while he pulled out a worn little black pocketbook and began counting out shillings and pennies on to the counter. To save his "honour" he had been forced into a purchase which he could not possibly afford. How I longed for the power to unsay my tactless words! It was too late though, and I felt that the kindest thing I could do now would be walk away.
"You pay at the desk," the shop girl was telling him, but he did not seem to understand and kept trying to put the coins into her hand. And that was the last I saw or the old man. Now he can never go there to sample pudding any more.
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