Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 20 - In — Street

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YET another invitation to dine from an unknown friend, and this time with a tinge of mystery to give it piquancy. My would-be host offered to give me what he believed to be one of the cheapest obtainable dinners in London, as well as one of the most amusing; but as an introduction is required before any guest is able to use this dining-place, I was asked, should I describe it, to give no clue as to its whereabouts.
As I waited for my host at a club which happened to be not far from the district in which I was to dine, I had vague ideas that I might be blindfolded and conveyed to our destination in a four-wheeled cab, and that some blood­curdling oath as to secrecy might be demanded of me. There was none of this. My host and I walked through a labyrinth of streets, and in due time, in an unpretentious locality, came to a wine-shop, the exterior of which somewhat resembled the good bottles of wine to be found within, in that it was dusty and had a suggestion of crust about it. Inside, the piles of [-144-] bottles reaching up to the ceiling, seen in a half- light, had something of a Rembrandtesque effect.
No sooner had my companion opened the door than we were faced by a lady in black, her hair parted in the centre, whom we had caught in a moment of arrested motion, for she had a bottle in either hand and was going towards the staircase at the corner of the shop. “Is the dinner to-night at six o’clock or at seven?” my host asked in French; and he was told that it was at six, and that he was in excellent time, for as yet there were only three up above ; and then I was introduced to Madame, and we three climbed the narrow staircase in company.
I had been warned that I would have to bring into use such French as I was master of; for the guests at this dinner were cosmopolitan, and the language of diplomacy was the currency for conversation; and so when on entering the room I was presented to a French lady and her husband, and to an Italian gentleman, and shook hands with them, I expressed my gratification at being admitted into this friendly circle with my best Parisian accent.
I looked round the room. In the centre was a dining table with a clean coarse tablecloth upon it, knives and forks and spoons and glass salt- cellars—and my attention was called later on to the excellence of the crystals of salt—and an array of black bottles, which those in the hostess s hands went to join, and siphons. There were two windows, with clean muslin curtains, looking out on the dingy street. Through an open door could be seen an inner room, a bedroom, with a [-145-] very large bed showing as the principal object in it. The walls of the dining-room were covered with a brown paper with a little pattern on it. By the fireplace were hung some photographs, amongst them one of the little French gentleman I had just been introduced to, who is a member of the Covent Garden orchestra, and had been taken holding in his hand his musical instrument; and on the wall opposite were some good portraits, the work of the Italian gentleman, who is an artist. There were lithographs and photo­graphs of scenes in Paris, and a print of the head of Napoleon III. Photographs and china figures were on the mantelpiece, a cottage piano between the two windows; a chiffonnier with glasses on it and a glazed cupboard completed the furniture of the room.
The guests were punctual, each lady as she came in, after the preliminary hand-shaking, going into the bedroom and putting her wraps upon the big bed; and soon Madame cried, "A table!"
    We settled down into our places, leaving space for some late-comers who were expected. At the head of the table was a dark lady with wavy hair, an actress in a company of French comedians playing in London. Next to her sat on one side the monsieur d’orchestre and his wife—and every newcomer made a point of inquiring after the musician’s health, for he had been, it seemed, ill, and was now convalescent—and on the other side an English major, with a waxed moustache and a flower in his button-hole, mighty fine, as old Pepys would have had it, and his good-looking
[-146-] wife. Other guests at table were a lady with white hair, who was the mother of a bright-eyed, good-looking young Frenchman with a velvet collar to his coat, who was playing with a troupe of mimes at one of the variety theatres, and who faced his mother at table; and the Italian artist who, with carefully brushed white hair, waxed moustache, and ample cravat, was as great a beau as the English major.
Under Madame’s superintendence a servant, bare of arm and in a print dress, brought in through the bedroom a great soup-tureen, and we at our end of the table, who had been drink­ing vermouth with my host, soon found platters of excellent croûte-au-pot before us.
The evening was warm, and at the request of Madame la Majoresse, as the Major’s wife was called, one of the windows was opened. The little bustle caused by this was subsiding when a good-looking French lady in green made her entrance, kissed Mdme. la Majoresse, shook hands with the rest of us, settled into a place next to the bright-eyed Frenchman, and immediately felt a terrible courant d’air. This, of course, had to be obviated; and after some discussion—and we all had our say—it was thought that if the door giving on to the staircase was shut the draught might vanish. The lady in green, who was a comedienne, had brought some tickets for stalls for the Opera, which she gave to Madame la Majoresse; and this turned the conversation to the Opera and the artistes singing this year. The bright-eyed little Frenchman had an anecdote to tell of how Noté,[-147-] on the evening of the Derby Day, had from the promenade of the Empire joined in the refrain of one of the beautiful Cavalieri’s songs, and how the house recognised his voice and applauded. Both the Italian artist and myself had been at the Empire that evening, and while we ate the boiled beef that succeeded the soup we discussed the matter, the Italian gentleman not having noticed the incident, I having an impression that some­thing of the kind had happened.
Then the lady in green made the terrible discovery that we were thirteen at table, and Madame, who had been hovering between the bedroom and the dining-room, with one eye on the dinner table and the other on the kitchen beyond, was prayed to sit down at table, which she did till the arrival of the two other guests— a lady, who had forsaken the operatic stage for matrimony, and her husband, who came in and so broke the spell.
A great bowl of macaroni succeeded the beef; and brought a volley of light-shafted chaff upon the Italian artist in whose honour it was sup­posed to be provided, and then we chinked glasses full of the excellent red wine, and interchanged international courtesies.
A third actress looked in for a moment or two just for a little chat with her friends amongst the diners, and then, to Madame’s great grief; for there was a most excellent poulet to come, the Major and the Majoresse had to depart to dress for the Opera, and the bright-eyed young Frenchman had to be off to the variety theatre. To make up for this deprivation, however, [-148-] another guest made his appearance, and was hailed with joy. A most merry little Frenchman, with a very pretty wit, the wag of the party, was the newcomer, a fumiste into whose hands had been given the rearrangement of the Savoy kitchen, and who had also seen to the kitchen of the Cecil. He was a person of much importance, but he joked with the bare-armed serving-maid and made her blush, and threw Madame into a fit of laughter, and chaffed all the rest of us just as if he had been an ordinary individual and not a European celebrity.
The chicken was as admirable as Madame had said it would be, and a great bowl of salad accompanied it; and then there came a sweet of some kind and cheese and excellent coffee—” all this we get for two shillings,” the Italian artist told me—and eventually when, after much hand­shaking, the greater portion of the guests had left, the fumiste came down to my end of the table and talked soldier’s talk, for he had been through the Great War, calling me “ Mon vieux colon,” while my host played the piano softly, and the lady who had sacrificed fame for the wedding-ring sang gently an old-fashioned French berceuse.
14th June.