Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 26 - Earl's Court

[-back to menu for this book-]




IN the morning, with my shaving water, was brought a note in a dashing feminine handwriting. It was from the little American prima donna to say she was sorry that she had forgotten, but she was engaged to dine with some friends who were leaving England, and would I take her out some other night instead; and she con­siderately suggested two evenings on which she should have known that I would be out of town for Goodwood.
I felt inclined to reply, like Uncle Gregory, that I knew those friends— "they cum fr’ Sheffield"; but I did nothing worse than to write that of course I would take her out with pleasure on the first evening she had vacant when I came back to town.
I had arranged to drive her down to Earl’s Court to give her dinner at the Quadrant, to take her on to the lawn of the Welcome Club for coffee and liqueurs, and then to go the round of the side shows. It is not easy in August to find a lady to take out to dinner at twelve hours’ [-190-] notice. Mrs. Charlie Sphinx was at Carlsbad, and Miss Dainty was taking a holiday from the wear and tear of “resting” at some French watering-place. I sent a note round by a cab to Sir George to ask if I might take Miss Bright-eyes out to dinner; but the man came back saying that the house was all shut up, and that he could make no one hear.
At the worst, I thought, I could pick up a man at the club; but the few men in the smok­ing-room had either to go back to their wives or had some dinner engagement. So it came that I started alone for Earl’s Court.
I had written for a table to be kept for me at eight o’clock, and a few minutes before the hour I disembarked at the entrance by the lake. It was between the lights, and the great white globes aglow with electricity looked garish against the delicate opal of the sky, and cast strange reflections on the water. I paused for a moment to listen to the blue-coated musicians on their island bandstand commencing the march from "Aida," and then went past the bronze Gordon on his camel, past a buffet where a little crowd were dining frugally off sandwiches and pale ale, over the long bridge, through the gardens, and at last to the restaurant. In front of the broad awning which stretches before the restaurant, standing by a red rope, which keeps the public from coming too near, are two janitors, who, in their dark blue and peaked caps, look rather like warders: a clerk at a desk, with a big open book before him, sits opposite to the entrance. 
Had I booked a table? the clerk asked me as I came up. Certainly I had. I had written that I wanted a particularly good table at eight o’clock. The clerk looked up at a tall gentleman with a reddish beard and moustache who stood behind him, M. Gerard, Messrs. Spiers and Pond’s manager, and the gentleman with the beard looked at his watch. It was a quarter-past eight. M. Gerard explained that no tables were kept after eight, and drew a vivid picture of a well-dressed but famished crowd standing outside at the red ropes and threatening to tear down the place if they were not admitted to the vacant places. My table had been given to an eminently respectable couple who did not look as if they would tear down anything, and I was about to go over the way to the Welcome, in wrath, when it was found that there was a table for four, right up against the barrier, vacant; and I settled down in solitary dignity at one of the best tables in the place. A smart young waiter, in white apron and brown coat with pink facings, put the menu in front of me. I ordered a pint of Deutz and Gelderman to be put in ice, and then looked round me.
Immediately behind me a party were being entertained by two young barristers. I could hear but not see them. They were telling legal stories, and there was one as to Inderwick and the House of Lords that set their table in a roar. Opposite to me was a little family of father, mother, and son, and a pretty girl came bustling in to complete the party, with, from her manner, a tale of misadventure and delay to be told. [-192-] A bald-headed, smart-looking soldier, a cavalry­man from his bearing, was giving dinner to a youngster who might be at a crammer’s—they were among the few men wearing evening dress; there was an engaged couple who gazed into each other’s eyes across the table, and there was a fat gentleman, who I should think was a Jewish financier, who was giving dinner to a girl with many rows of pearls round her throat and a glint of diamonds on her dress. The financier was drinking the girl’s health, and as he held back his head to drain his glass she made, lightning quick, a face at him, which said more than pages of history.
I had eaten my hors-d’oeuvre, and the waiter brought me the clear soup I had chosen. It was not as hot as it should have been; but the kitchen is some way off from the tables at the far edge of the awning, and, with one of the most wonderful outlooks in the world, one is not prepared to be over particular as to cookery.
The opal tints in the sky had died out and had left it a sheet of steel. On the right the tall white building in which is the panorama was already shining with electric light ; the canvas buttresses and towers, looking solid enough now, stood black against the grey. In the bandstand in the centre of the promenade Dan Godfrey and his crimson-coated musicians were playing a waltz air, and a crowd, dimly seen, was moving round and round this centre of attraction. The Welcome Club, with its lighted windows, was away to the left, and, above all, the Great Wheel, starred with lights, moved its circle very gently [-193-] and silently. Men in the half light were running hither and thither with long sticks with a flame at the end, and lights green, white, and rose began to twinkle on all sides.
The choice had been given me between saumon, sauce Rubens and filet de merlan fit, sauce Ravigote. I chose the whiting, and had the cook only been more careful in boning his fish I should have called it excellent.
The engaged couple had left their table, and a merry party, two nice-looking girls, a young, clean-shaven man, and a grey-haired bon vivant, had taken their places. The girls, who had evidently come out to enjoy themselves thoroughly, were laughing already.
The financier had ordered another bottle of champagne; the girl with the pearls opposite to him, her chin on her fist, was gazing out at the sky from which the light had faded. A big party, the men in evening dress, passed through under the awning to the big room of the restaurant, a room decorated with paintings of Indian gods and heroes and rajahs, and the red shades of the candles on their table made a pleasant note of warm colour.
My waiter brought the pigeon braisé Démidoff. I looked at it and it appeared nice; but I sent it away, for I was not hungry, and there were other dishes still to come.
The sky now was all light indigo, with the clouds deeper patches of the same colour. All the little lamps in the garden were alight, twinkling in great curves against the black of the battlements. The bandstand was outlined [-194-] with rose: the Welcome Club was ablaze with green : the trees under all this light had a strange metallic shine. The rays from the searchlight came sweeping overhead: the Wheel with its circle of stars still turned solemnly. Amidst all the lights one inscription in green and white lamps, “Infant Incubator,” fixed itself on my attention, and I found myself wondering what an infant incubator could be like.
The crowd outside had increased in number. There seemed to be many ladies in white with white hats amongst it; there was occasionally a gleam of white shirt fronts ; little boys in straw hats and Eton collars dived into the thick, and then reappeared; the programme boys, in grey Early Victorian dress, came and went. The band was hammering away at the “Mikado.” Two pretty girls in black dresses with wide white collars, one with a white sailor hat, one with a black one, paused outside to watch us dining. I should have liked to ask them in to dine, for I was feeling very lonely, but I remem­bered British conventionality, and forbore. The côtelette d’agneau à la Bellevue which the waiter brought me was hot and well cooked, but I do not think that the chicken, a wing of which succeeded the cutlet, could have lived a very happy life. I think it must have been consumptive.
The restaurant was beginning to empty now, the guests filing out in twos and threes, and vanishing into the parti-coloured crowd; and still the Wheel, with its silent power, turned, and still the “Infant Incubator” danced before my eyes.
[-195-] The beans, the ice, and the peach with which I finished my dinner were all good—f refused the pouting Victoria which was on the menu; and after sipping my coffee and paying my bill —one dinner, 7s. 6d.; one pint 239, 6s. 6d.; liqueur, 2s.: total, 16s.-—I obeyed an irresistible impulse and went over to see what an infant incubator was like.
3rd August.