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THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
I HAVE a vague remembrance of having as a small boy been taken round the
Houses of Lords and Commons as a holiday treat. The Houses cannot have been
sitting at the time, and the only thing that I remembered was the fact that the
Lords sat on red seats, the Commons on green.
I did once, in later years, make an attempt to gain admission to hear a debate; but, after some waiting, the legislator to whom I had sent in my card came out with rather a long face. He had moved heaven and earth, he said, to find a place for me, but it was impossible. However, he suggested, brightening up, there was nothing to prevent our going together to the Aquarium over the way, which we should find much more amusing.
The House of Commons was, therefore, quite new ground to me, and I was very pleased when the Rising Legislator asked me if I would not dine some night with him in the House and hear a debate afterwards.
The House of Commons is a nice comforting [-183-] address to give a cabman, and as I drove down Westminsterwards I felt that in the eyes of one individual I was that glorious person, an M.P.
But, if my cabman thought I was the member for somewhere or another, he was soon undeceived. We bowled into Palace Yard as if the place belonged to me, and pulled up at an arched door, where a policeman was on guard. I mentioned the Rising Legislator’s name, but the policeman, who, though hard-hearted, had excellent manners, could not admit me except on the personal appearance of my host.
“Then where am I to go?” I said, appealing to the better side of that policeman’s nature, and he told me to go out of the yard and turn to the right, and I would be admitted at the first door. The cabman, who had been listening, must have been satisfied with the fare I gave him, for he invited me to get into the cab again, and said he would take me round to the right place in a jiffy. Though friendly, there was a distinct familiarity now in the cabman’s manner. I had ceased to be an M.P. in his eyes.
The policeman at this other door was not hard-hearted, and directed me up a long lobby, on either side of which were gentlemen of various periods, in very white marble. Every policeman I passed I mentioned the Rising Legislator’s name to, just as a guarantee of good faith, and I was passed on to a central lobby, where a small selection of the public, looking very melancholy, were sitting patiently on a stone bench, and where gentlemen of noble appearance—I do not wish to be brought up at the bar of the House [-184-] for saying anything disrespectful of any member of the House—were in converse with others, whom I took to be influential constituents. Some ladies in evening dress were being shown about by smart gentlemen. There were policemen guarding an entrance, and whenever anybody of the outside crowd approached it they were warned away with a kind of “stand out of the draught” motion. It is, no doubt, some deadly crime to get in the way of an M.P. in his own House.
A policeman directed me to write the Rising Legislator’s name on the back of my card, and, having scrutinised it to see whether I had spelled the name correctly, handed it over to a gentleman in dress clothes with what looked like a gilt plate with the Royal arms on it at the V of his waistcoat. I waited some little time and inspected the statues, some of which were rather comic, in the Lobby.
Presently the Rising Legislator appeared, and apologised for being somewhat late. A chat with a Cabinet Minister was the cause. I felt a sort of reflected glory in this. We passed the sacred portals, and, as we did so, I gave the policeman a glance as much as to say: “You see, I didn’t deceive you; I really do know him!” And I set my hat on the side of my head with more of a cock. “It is the custom for no one except the members of the House to wear their hats here,” said the Rising Legislator ; and I relapsed again into humility.
We peeped through a door and I was shown the Speaker in the chair, whom I looked at with [-185-] due awe; and then we went down a long, panelled passage, the panels being the lockers, of which each member has one, and presently we were in a lofty room with three great windows, and the Rising Legislator was asking for the table that had been reserved for him.
It is a fine room, this Strangers’ Dining- Room. The ceiling is nobly ornamented, and the clusters of electric lights dropping from it illumine the room cheerfully. On the walls is a paper with a pattern in which heraldic roses and fleurs-de-lys play the principal part; the curtains to the windows are of a soft green, and at about the height of a man’s head, topping the oak panelling, is a fine work of art, a broad border of carvings of such things as furnish the good fare of the table. The great windows, looking out on the Terrace and the river, have massive stone frames, and inside they have as well a second wooden framing, with all the modern appliances for letting in fresh air. There is a little desk, with an accountant sitting at it. Beyond him, through an open door, there is a glimpse of the Members’ Dining-Room. The chairs are covered with green leather, and have stamped on their backs a gilt portcullis. It is in most things just like the dining-room of some big club.
I had asked to be given the ordinary dinner; but the Rising Legislator insisted on our having either a duck or a chicken in our menu. He ordered consommé Brunoise, which, looking at the bill of fare with him, I saw would cost him 5d. a portion ; whitebait; noisettes de mouton aux haricots verts, two portions of which would cost him half [-186-] a crown. From the price list I gathered, too, that hon. members can have a dinner, at fixed price, of two courses for 1s. 9d., three for 25. 3d., four for 3s.
There was a difficulty about the duck, or chicken, and the waiter had to go from the table to the desk a couple of times before it was discovered that the Rising Legislator could have a duck; and a fine fat duck it was when it appeared. “I have got to speak to-night,” said the Rising Legislator, “and therefore we must have champagne,” and he ordered some ‘89 Clicquot to be put on ice. While the pourparlers as to the duck were in progress I had time to look round at the little tables and the people dining at them. There were but few diners yet ; but two of the faces at the table next to ours caught my eye at once as being familiar. The hair, with a streak of grey in it, the long face, the spectacles, the straight beard, belonged to Mr. Dillon, and the man opposite to him with the penthouse brows and the sleeve pinned up on to his coat was Michael Davitt. The little stout gentleman with a moustache, fingering his pince-nez, who came up presently to speak to them, was Dr. Tanner.
Just as the duck difficulty was settled and our soup put before us, somebody entered the room and mumbled something in a loud voice. “Speaker has left the chair,” said the Rising Legislator in explanation, and immediately the tables began to fill. Mr. Walter Long and two friends were the first to enter; then, in succession, baldish of head, bearded, and in a very long frock-coat, Sir [-187-] William Wedderburn; Mr. Morrell, broad of face; Mr. Yoxall, champion of the N.U.T., thin and lightly bearded; Mr. Sam Smith, with a big white beard; and burly Mr. Henniker-Heaton, the Imperial Postmaster-General of time to come — all familiar public figures easy to recognise. Mr. Austen Chamberlain, in a grey Ascot suit and a blue-and-white shirt, hovered about the desk by the entrance, as if waiting for some one who did not appear.
The whitebait was excellent, the duck in life must have been a bird of aldermanic figure, the noisettes in size would have satisfied a hungry man and in tenderness have pleased a gourmet, and we had come to the strawberry-ice stage when again there was a loud mumble, and the Rising Legislator told me that the Speaker was in the chair.
From strawberry ice we had progressed to coffee and old brandy, when behind the wainscotting there was a ringing as of many bicycle bells, and about half of the diners rose, grasped their hats, and ran as swiftly as if they were going to a fire.
“It is a count,” said the Rising Legislator. “We will go down on to the Terrace and smoke a cigar before I find you a place to listen to the debate.” Down a staircase with beautiful dark old panelling of the napkin pattern we went until we came to the dimness of the Terrace, where a~ policeman stood at ease to mark the spot sacred to members only, and where the ladies who had dined in the House formed the centres of groups. We watched the lights twinkle in [-188-] the great hospital across the dark flood, and the red and green eyes of a launch that came slipping down the river. Presently, with a sigh, the Rising Legislator threw away his cigar. “I suppose we must go in and hear what they are talking of,” he said.