Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 27 - The Star and Garter, Richmond

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THE little American prima donna was not so faithless as I thought, for when, Goodwood being over, I wrote to her and asked her if she would not take pity on a poor bachelor stranded in a deserted town, and drive down to Richmond and dine, she telegraphed back a “Yes,” and told me that I might come and pick her up at the Hotel Cecil.
The covered-in space before the big caravan­serai in the Strand in June and July, is almost as representative of English life as is church parade in the Park. In August it is more like the hail of an hotel at some big American watering-place, for our cousins from across the herring-pond take possession of all the seats, and sit all day long drinking iced drinks through straws, and listening to the band.
    I found the little prima donna, looking very fresh and cool in pink, rocking herself in a chair, and was immediately denounced for being in dress clothes when I had wired to her not to change into evening dress. I explained that [-197-] dress clothes with a man are a very different thing from evening dress with a lady, and also that it was the custom. “Some of your English customs do tire me,” was the remark with which the prima donna closed the discussion, and then told me that I might have a cocktail if I thought that it would make me feel good. This libation in honour of the great republic performed, we started. The little prima donna, once the dress clothes forgiven, was prepared to be pleased. She had a remark to make as to everything that we passed, and reconstructed for me the Fulham Road as it would be in an American city. In time she thought we might learn how to build a town. The groups of ponies coming back from Ranelagh, where the last match of the season had been played between the Butterflies and a home team, interested her immensely, as also did some of the players driving back in their neat little carts at a great pace, and later on a glimpse of the club grounds with the great elms, the glint of water through a thicket, and the smooth green of the polo ground, set her talking of American polo grounds, Myopia, and other names which were strange to me; and though she was quite sure that the boys over in America could whip our British players every time, still she allowed that they had nothing there quite like the grey old house with its elms and its water. The conversion of the little prima donna was commencing.
The sun set, a red ball dipping into the brown heat mist, as we passed over Barnes Common, and when the little prima donna said that we
had no thing in England like the sunsets over the Hudson, I felt that on this day, at least, the sun was not behaving well in his manner of setting.
We came to Richmond Park in the afterglow, and going in through the Sheen gate, drove through the Park, which was glorified by the rosy dimness which lingers so long at the close of a hot August day. The mysterious light was on the great trees and the stretches of bracken and the rolling distances of sward. The deer were moving through the fern, and there was a drowsy silence, broken only by the calling of the birds and the faint hum of the outside world shut away beyond this fairy paradise. The little prima donna sat with parted lips and wide-open eyes, drinking in all the scene and whispering at intervals, "Beautiful! beautiful!" I had no need to ask her whether there was anything like this in her country across the ocean.
Presently the bicyclists came drifting down the road in shoals. These swift, silent travellers put a modern note into the picture of old-time woodland, and suddenly we came to the iron gates, and the tall, grey house, and the little prima donna said that her drive through fairyland had given her an appetite.
The Star and Garter has as many appearances and moods as a pretty woman. On a Sunday afternoon, when the bicycles are piled in tens of scores outside the building, when the gravel is crunched continuously by carriages coming and going, when every table in both dining-rooms [-199-] has its full complement of guests, and little groups stand outside the glass panelling watching for their turn to come, when the coffee-drinkers sit at the round tables in the passage, and the terrace is bright with girls’ dresses, and rings with laughter, when far below, the face of the river is crowded with boats, and a crowd streams along the towing-path, then the Star and Garter is frankly, merrily Cockney. But on a summer night when the moon is at the full, when the windows of the ball-room are alight, and the whisper of a waltz tune comes down to the terrace, when the river runs a ribbon of silver through the misty landscape, then the Star and Garter becomes an enchanted palace.
It was a quiet evening on the day that I drove down with the little prima donna, but had I not telegraphed early in the day we should not have got the table for two by the open window that looked out on to the terrace and to the Thames in the valley below.
The little prima donna stood, by the window and gazed out. She felt the charm of the scene, but fought against it, for she was a little piqued that she had never seen anything quite like it before, that the United States did not hold its exact parallel. “I guess it is that your landscapes are so small and so easily filled up that makes them so different from ours,” was her explanation; but that was not what she meant.
    The manager of the restaurant had told me that he had ordered a little dinner for me, some hors­d’oeuvre, petite marmite, red mullet, tournedos, pommes sautées, a duckling, salad, and some ices [-200-] and I told him that that would do very nicely. The hors-d’oeuvre were on the table, but it was difficult, hungry as she was, to induce the little prima donna to leave her first view of the river, a river now grown steel-colour in the growing darkness, and to turn to the prosaic side of life, and dinner.
It is a comfortable dining-room, with its green curtains to the big bow-window, its paper with a flower pattern, its mirrors and its great panes of glass through which the arched looking- glasses of the hail can be seen. Of our fellow- diners there was no one whose face is well known to the world. There was a young man with gold buttons to his coat and a suggestion of the Georgian period in his full head of hair, who was dining tête-à-tête with a pretty dark-haired lady; there was a bald-headed gentleman enter­taining a family party ; there were three young gentlemen dining by themselves very merrily; the rest were the people one sees at any good hotel.
The soup was excellent — though why managers of restaurants always seem to think that petite marmite is the only soup in existence I do not know; but the prima donna was glad to put down her spoon and look out of the window again. She had read that morning, she told me, all the descriptions she could find of Richmond, in prose and verse ; but the real thing was more beautiful than any description of it had prepared her for. I felt that the conversion of the little American was progressing.
The fish was not a success. The weather [-201-] was very hot, and, as the prima donna put it, “this mullet, I guess, has not been scientifically embalmed.” The waiter, deeply grieved, spirited the fish away, and put the tournedos, which were excellently cooked, in their place.
The pine outside the window was black now against the sky, and a chilly breeze came up from the river. The little prima donna felt the chill, and drew her cloak over her shoulders.
    The duck was plump and tender, and when she had trifled with a wing, the prima donna, hoping that nobody would be horrified, asked for a cigarette. The ice and coffee and liqueurs finished, I called for the bill—hors-d'oeuvre, 2s. marmite, 1s. 6d.; tournedos, 4s.; pommes, 1s.; caneton, 8s. 6d.; salade, 1s.; ices, 2s.; coffee, 1s.; one bottle Deutz and Gelderman, 12s. 6d.; cigarettes, 1s.; liqueurs, 2s. 6d.; couverts, 1s.; total, £1 18s.—and then suggested that we should go down on to the terrace. The prima donna leant over the balustrade, her cigarette making a point of light, and gazed in silence at the darkened landscape. The river, visible still amidst the darkness, had caught and held in its bosom the reflections of the summer stars and of a newborn moon. Presently she threw away the little roll of paper and tobacco, and began quoting in a low voice—a speaking voice as musical as singing—the lines of poor Mortimer Collins’s swan song:-
Stern hours have the merciless fates
         Plotted for all who die
   But looking down upon Richmond aits,
     [-202-] Where the merles sing low to their amorous mates,
   Who cares to ask them why?
The conversion of the little American was complete.
9th August.