Stories Worth Rereading: “Herrings for Nothing”

I want you to think of a bitter, east windy day, fast-falling snow, and a short, muddy street in London. Put these thoughts together, and add to them the picture of a tall, stout man, in a rough greatcoat, and with a large comforter round his neck, buffeting through wind and storm. The darkness is coming rapidly, as a man with a basket on his head turns the corner of the street, and there are two of us on opposite sides. He cries loudly as he goes: “Herrings! three a penny! Red herrings, good and cheap, three a penny!” So crying, he passes along the street, crosses at its end, and comes to where I am standing at the corner. Here he pauses, evidently wishing to fraternize with somebody, as a relief from the dull time and disappointed hopes of trade. I presume I appear a suitable object, as he comes close to me and begins conversation:—

“Governor, what do you think of these yer herrings?”—three in his hand, while the remaining stock are deftly balanced in the basket on his head. “Don’t you think they’re good?” and he offered me the opportunity of testing them by scent, which I courteously but firmly declined, “and don’t you think they’re cheap as well?”

I asserted my decided opinion that they were good and cheap.

“Then, look you, governor, why can’t I sell ’em? Yet have I walked a mile and a half along this dismal place, offering these good and cheap ‘uns; and nobody don’t buy none!”

“I do not wonder at all at that,” I answered, to his astonishment.

“Tell us why not, governor.”

“The people have no work, and are starving; there are plenty of houses round here that have not a single penny in them,” was my reply.

“Ah! then, governor,” he rejoined, “I’ve put my foot in it this time; I knew they was werry poor, but I thought three a penny ‘ud tempt ’em. But if they haven’t the ha-pence, they can’t spend ’em, sure enough; so there’s nothing for it but to carry ’em back, and try and sell ’em elsewhere. I thought by selling cheap, arter buying cheap, I could do them good, and earn a trifle for myself. But I’m done this time.”

“How much will you take for the lot?” I inquired.

First a keen look at me, then down came the basket from his head, then a rapid calculation, then a grinning inquiry, “Do you mean profit an’ all, governor?”


“Then I’ll take four shillin’, and be glad to get ’em.”

I put my hand in my pocket, produced that amount, and handed it to him.

“Right, governor, thank’ee! Now what’ll I do with ’em?” he said, as he quickly transferred the coins to his own pocket.

“Go round this corner into the middle of the road, and shout with all your might, ‘Herrings for nothing!’ and give three to every man, woman, or child that comes to you, till the basket is emptied.”

On hearing these instructions, he immediately reproduced the money, and examined it. Being satisfied of its genuineness, he again replaced it, and then looked keenly and questioningly at me.

“Well,” I said, “is it all right and good?”

“Yes,” replied he.

“Then the herrings are my property, and I can do as I like with them; but if you do not like to do as I tell you, give me back my money.”

“All right, governor, an’ they are yours; so if you say it, here goes!” Accordingly, he proceeded into the middle of the adjoining street, and went along, shouting aloud: “Herrings for nothing! Good red herrings for nothing!”

Out of sight myself, I stood at the corner to watch his progress; and speedily he neared the house where a tall woman stood at the first-floor window, looking out upon him.

“Here you are, missus,” he bawled, “herrings for nothing! A fine chance for yer! Come an’ take ’em.”

The woman shook her head unbelievingly, and left the window.

“Vot a fool!” said he. “But they won’t be all so. Herrings for nothing!” A little child came out to look at him, and he called to her, “Yer, my dear, take these in to your mother. Tell her how cheap they are—herrings for nothing.” But the child was afraid of him and them, and ran indoors.

So down the street, in the snowy slush and mud, went the cheap fish, the vender crying loudly as he went, “Herrings for nothing!” and then adding savagely, “O you fools!” Thus he reached the very end; and, turning to retrace his steps, he continued his double cry as he came, “Herrings for nothing!” and then in a lower key, “O you fools!”

“Well?” I said to him calmly, as he reached me at the corner.

“Well!” he replied, “if yer think so! When you gave me the money for herrings as yer didn’t want, I thought you was training for a lunatic ‘sylum. Now I thinks all the people round here are fit company for yer. But what’ll I do with the herrings, if yer don’t want ’em and they won’t have ’em?”

“We will try again together,” I replied. “I will come with you, and we will both shout.”

Into the road we both went; and he shouted, “Herrings for nothing!” and then I called out also, “Will any one have some herrings for tea?”

They heard the voice, and they knew it well; and they came out at once, in twos and threes and sixes, men and women and children, all striving eagerly to reach the welcome food.

As fast as I could take them from the basket, I handed three to each eager applicant, until all were speedily disposed of. When the basket was empty, the hungry crowd who had none, was far greater than those that had been supplied; but they were too late; there were no more herrings.

Foremost among the disappointed was the tall woman, who, with a bitter tongue, began vehemently: “Why haven’t I got any? Ain’t I as good as they? Ain’t my children as hungry as theirs?”

Before I had time to reply, the vender stretched out his arm toward her, saying, “Why, governor, that’s the very woman as I offered ’em to first, and she turned up her nose at ’em.”

“I didn’t,” she rejoined passionately; “I didn’t believe you meant it!”

“Yer just goes without, then, for yer unbelief!” he replied. “Good night, and thank’ee, governor!”

You smile at the story, which is strictly true. Are you sure you are not ten thousand times worse? Their unbelief cost them only a hungry stomach; but what may your unbelief of God’s offer cost you? God—not man—God has sent his messenger to you repeatedly for years, to offer pardon for nothing! Salvation for nothing! He has sent to your homes, your hearts, the most loving and tender offers that even an Almighty could frame; and what have you replied? Have you not turned away, in scornful unbelief, like the woman?

God says, “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;… I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh.” Prov. I:24-26. But he also says, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Isa. 55:1. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3: 16.

Answer him. Will you have it?

C. J. Whitmore.


Ho, every one that thirsteth,
Come to the living stream,
And satisfy your longing soul
Where silver fountains gleam.

Come, weary, faint, and hungry;
Before you now is spread
A rich supply for all your needs;
Receive the living Bread.

Why do you linger longer?
Come while ’tis called today.
Here’s milk and honey without price;
O, do not turn away!

Why feed on husks that perish?
Enter the open door.
Thy Saviour stands with outstretched hands;
Eat, drink, and want no more.