Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 13 - Willis's Rooms (King Street)

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CHAPTER XIII

WILLIS’S ROOMS (KING STREET)

I WAS getting to the end of a tiring day in a dingy office in Fleet Street, and the little printer’s devil, who was sitting on a chair in the corner by the fire playing cat’s-cradle, had brought word that all that was now wanted from me were a few short notes.
  
It is not easy when one is brain-tired to be playfully humorous as to the European Concert, and I had struggled through a few lines, only to lay down my pen and take up a bundle of ex­changes and a pair of scissors, when one of the clerks in the outer office brought me in a card and a letter. The card was that of Miss Madge Morgan, with below in a feminine handwriting “George Swanston Clarke,” and the letter was from an old schoolfellow and friend, a banker in a country town, asking me to put Miss Morgan in the way of seeing one or two places in London which she wished to visit. Somehow the “George Swanston Clarke” seemed familiar, so I told the clerk that I would be out in a moment, the scissors went “click, click, click,” the printer’s [-96-] devil was dispatched with a silent malediction, my day’s work was done, and I went out to greet Miss Morgan and bring her into the office.
  
She was a very neat and very tidy little person, of a neatness of dress that was almost primness but she had dark-brown hair parted in the middle, with a shine of gold where it rippled, and dark-brown eyes with a glint of fun in them that were a relief to her general sense of earnestness.
  
I gave her our best chair and asked what I could do for her. It had been my bad luck, it seems, to have to send “George Swanston Clarke” back a short story; but I had added a few words, which were not unkind, to the usual formula and that had emboldened her to ask our mutual friend for an introduction. She had come up from the country town where she was one of the chief teachers at the ladies’ college to get some local colour for a novel she was going to write.
  
I murmured that I should be delighted to do anything I could to help her, and she explained: The novel is to be called “The Education of an Angel.” The principal characters in the book are to be two good angels and two bad angels sent again to earth, and, as she wished to be up-to-date, she particularly wanted to see behind the scenes of a variety theatre, where the temptation was to take place, and the Amphitryon Club, where the hero and heroine first meet at dinner.
  
I promised her an introduction to Mr. Hitchens, of the Empire, and Mr. Slater, of the [-97-] Alhambra, smiling mentally at the disappoint­ment in store for her, for “behind the scenes” at the two big variety theatres is ruled with an iron discipline, and told her I was sorry that, as the Amphitryon had ceased to exist, I could not help her in that.
  
Miss Morgan looked very blank; evidently the Amphitryon chapter was one of her pet ones, and I told her, hoping to comfort her, that a number of the former patrons of the Amphitryon now dine regularly at Willis’s rooms; that M. Edouard Fayat, who was once at the Amphitryon, is manager; and that if she did not mind a very dull dog as host, and if 8.30 was not too late, I should be very glad if she would dine with me there that evening, and Miss Morgan smiled again and said, “Thank you very much.”
  
I called at Willis’s on my way homeward to dress and saw M. Fayat, c1ean-shaved and rotund, with a touch of the P’tit Caporal about him and tried to order dinner; but I found my tired brain had no more imagination for a menu than it had for a paragraph, and when M. Fayat asked whether I would leave the dinner to him I was glad to do so, premising that it must not be an expensive one. All the tables in the upstairs rooms were taken, but there was a comfortable one downstairs for two which I could have, and to be sure of the celebrities who usually dined I looked through the book where the names of the givers of dinners are recorded.
  
At half-past eight to the second my guest drove up in a hansom. I was prepared for a primness of attire, but instead found the little [-98-] governess looking very nice in a low-necked black silk dress, with a tiny diamond heart hung round her neck by a little gold chain.
  
Our table had a cross of flowers on it and a two-branched silver candlestick, the wax candles in which had red shades. We settled ourselves in our places, the head-waiter placed a mossy nest of plovers’ eggs upon the table, Miss Morgan began to look rapidly round her surroundings, while I took up the menu and glanced down it. This was it:-

OEufs de pluviers.
Soupe Henri IV.
Barbué au vin de Bourgogne.
Noisettes de pré-salé à la Dubarry.
Haricots verts nouveaux de Poissy.
Pommes nouvelles.
Poulet de grain polonaise.
Coeurs de romaine en salade.
Asperges d’Argenteuil. Sauce mousseline.
Fraises a l’orange.

    Miss Morgan would have none of the plovers’ eggs, nor would she be tempted by the other delicacies offered her in their place.
  
“Have you begun to absorb your local colouring?” I asked, and she was anxious in return to know if it would seem outré to take notes, and being encouraged thereto produced a workmanlike note-book. “Did you notice, as you came in, the window, six arched, with its ‘Déjeuners, dîners, soupers, patissier,’ etc., on it ? and the tall commissionaire and the little page? “ Miss Morgan nodded her head and jotted all these [-99-] down. Then the soup was brought. A simple soup enough, as its name would promise, but excellently hot. “Now for the interior,” and Miss Morgan picked up her pencil again. “You might note that it is as close a transcript of a Parisian restaurant as could be found in London, the white walls with great mirrors let into the shining wood, the scarlet couches by the wall, the chairs with their quaint backs and scarlet seats all savour of Paris,” and Miss Morgan jotted all this down. Then the brill, reposing in its brown sauce, with little hillocks of mush­rooms around it, was shown to us, a bottle of old hock, carefully decanted, was put on the table, and I, at least, cared for the time nothing for local colour, for the sauce yin de Bourgogne was delicious, and the hock was golden.
  
But Miss Morgan was trifling with her pencil, and, looking over her page, I found that she had noted the dumb-waiter in the centre of the restaurant piled high with fruit and bundles or asparagus, with the duck press of shining silver, the dame de comptoir in black at her little desk with a little clock above it, and the great clock of enamel and ormolu, the principal ornament of the room. The noisettes I thought a little too dry; but I could get no opinion from Miss Morgan except that she thought the little potato­filled open cases on which they were served were pretty.
  
I pointed out to her, as a purely French touch, the black apron of the wine waiter, the distin­guishing mark from the others, all white-aproned explained the position of the room upstairs, and [-100-] where the distant music of the band came from gave her some reminiscences of Willis’s in past days, and then waxed eloquent over the poulet polonaise, which, with its savoury accompaniment of rice and chicken liver, was excellent.
  
But Miss Morgan wanted now to know who all the guests at the tables were. There were two grandes dames, Lady A. and Lady B., there were a couple of Guardsmen I knew, there was Sir George Lewis, the British Fouché—Miss Morgan noted that—there was a handsome lady in black with many black sequins, there was an ex-soldier, now a power on the Stock Exchange, and a number of other well-groomed men whom I did not know. But this I was aware would not satisfy Miss Morgan, so my previous glimpse at the book of the tables came in useful, and the unknown men became minor members of the Ministry, lords, poets, editors, and composers. Miss Morgan wrote them all down, and was happy.
  
The asparagus and the strawberries were excellent, and over the latter, served in a silver dish over a silver bowl of ice, Miss Morgan for the first time became enthusiastic. The coffee, too, and the liqueurs were good.
  
I paid the bill—two dinners, ,£1:5s.; one bottle 131,  6s. ; café, 1s.; liqueurs, 2s.—total, £1:14s.; and in explanation of the lack of detail, told Miss Morgan that in the old days of the Amphitryon we who were not over-wealthy used, when we gave a dinner, to go to Emile and ask him to do the best he could for us at 12s. 6d. a head. But though I told her this I was [-101-] perfectly aware that I had been treated too kindly by the management, and that the bill should have been of larger proportions.
  
I put Miss Morgan into a cab, amid thanks on her part and many messages to our common friend on mine.
  
I shall be interested to read the Amphitryon chapter in “The Education of an Angel,” by “George Swanston Clarke.”
  
26th April.