Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 32 - Scott's (Piccadilly Circus)

[-back to menu for this book-]




HE was the junior subaltern when I commanded H company in the old regiment, and a very good subaltern he was. It was only the other day that I read how in one of the first skirmishes in an Indian trouble he had distinguished himself by standing over a wounded man and keeping off the hillmen till assistance came ; and it seemed strange to meet him now in crumpled, sun—scorched clothes, with a soft handkerchief round his neck, and with a very thin white face, walking up the Haymarket.
“They hit me, you know,” he said, in answer to a question. “The wound in my shoulder healed directly, but the wound in the neck gave a lot of trouble, and the doctors packed me home as soon as they could.”
I particularly wanted to hear of the deed that the boy had done, and asked him to come and dine at a club; but his dress clothes were stored away somewhere in the Punjab—where, he did not know—with the heavy baggage of the regiment, and his London tailor had not made him new [-232-] ones yet. Besides, he would not be able to put on a collar for weeks, perhaps months, and though he would be glad to dine quietly with me, he asked that it might be somewhere where he would not feel uncomfortable at not being in dress clothes. We were standing at the top of the Haymarket, my eye caught the two great smoked salmon hung up in Scott’s window, and I asked the junior subaltern if oysters and a lobster a l’Américaine were to his taste.
He had not eaten any oysters, except the Karachi ones, which are brought in ice to the towns of the Punjab, since he left England six years ago; and though he did not know what his surgeon and doctor would say to his eating lobster, he was prepared to risk their wrath. Half- past seven was the hour I appointed to meet him, and then I went into Scott’s to secure a table and to order dinner.
Scott’s, springing from its ashes, has become a gorgeous place, with pillars of some material which looks like black marble inlaid with mother- of-pearl, with stained glass and much ornamenta­tion in worked brass, and with a great plate-glass window which displays a show of ice and fish and lobsters and crabs and salad-stuff that looks most appetising.
Inside, it may be said to be divided into four parts. There is the wide entrance hail, at either side of which are marble counters with many plates and little bottles upon them, and piles of sandwiches made with fish delicacies, and piles of slices of brown bread and butter. Behind the counters stand men in white samite, who are [-233-] constantly opening oysters, and behind them are mirrors with, on shelves above the glass, piles of little kegs which suggest how suitable a small barrel of oysters is as a Christmas present. In the midst of this entrance hall sacred to the oysters a staircase leads down to the lower regions, “The Dive,” as it is labelled, where there are comfortable curved divans with a little table as the pearl in the midst of these brown leather shells, and on the walls a Japanese fantasy in tiles where strange fish swim in and out of weeds. Upstairs on the first floor are the regular dining-rooms with red blinds, red shades to the electric lamps, and a warm red paper ; and behind the hall, with its oyster bars, is the grill-room, shut off from draughts by a great screen of glass and brown wood which reaches from floor to ceiling.
I ordered our dinner in the grill-room. A dozen of oysters, some mock-turtle soup, homard a l‘Américaine, and a steak.
At 7.30 to the second the junior subaltern was there, and I smiled inwardly as I recognised the cut of the Calcutta tailor in his black coat, well creased by having been jumped on to make it fit into a bullock trunk.
I took him into the grill-room, where the manager had kept a corner table for us, and after a look round at the neat little room, with its mirrors framed in white marble veined with black ; its red marble pilasters with gilt capitals its grill, at which the white-clothed cook, with a table of chops and steaks at his elbow, stands; its little glass case in the corner, in which a lady [-234-] in black keeps accounts in big books; its stained glass skylight; its yellowish-brown cornice with many figures upon it; its many little tables at which stolid and respectable citizens were giving their wives dinners, or, if a lone, were reading the evening papers: he turned his attention to his oysters.
The first time that a man tastes a native oyster after six years of exile is a solemn moment, and I would not disturb him while he ate them; but when there were only empty shells on his plate, and he had drunk his glass of Chablis, I began to ask questions.
“Tell me all about that day on the spur I have read of and how you came to be recommended for the V.C.,” I said
   The junior subaltern took a great gulp of the mock turtle and began. “You remember J. Smith—he was a lance-corporal when you com­manded the company.” “Corporal,” I amended. “Well, corporal. He did ripping well that day. He’s colour-sergeant of the company now, and there was one time when, as we were retiring, some of the devils got right on our flank and enfiladed us. Well, Colour-Sergeant Smith just gave one yell and went for them, and old Kelly, who used to be your bat-man, and Pat Grady went with him, and they killed six of the Mamunds.”
“My boy,” I said,  “I want to know what you did, and not what Colour-Sergeant Smith did.”
“This is ripping good soup,” said the subaltern.
It was very good soup. The cook, divining that I had an invalid as a guest, had put a liberal [-235-] mixture of real turtle with the mock turtle, and it was practically turtle soup. I had sipped the Beaune, and found it a little tart, and the manager brought us a fresh bottle before I opened my second parallel with the advent of a really splendid dish of lobster.
“I want to know now,” I said, with a touch of the manner with which I used to ask him if all the entries in the small books of his half- company were brought up to date, “what hap­pened when you stood over that wounded man, and three big hairy hillmen all made a rush at you at once, and got to close quarters before the men could get back to bayonet them.”
The junior subaltern was very much occu­pied with his steak. “Old Major So-and-So was just senior to you in the regiment? “ he asked at last, and I said that that was so. “Well, he was ripping cool that day, and he made a joke that the men talked about after­wards. We had destroyed the mud huts that they called a village, and we were waiting till the wounded had got well to the rear before retiring. The Major was in command of our companies that day, for the Colonel was with the companies in reserve. Well, the Major was sitting on a great rock, looking at the country—”  “What sort of country is it ?” I interposed. “Oh, just mountains and ravines and nullahs, and that sort of thing—a beastly sort of a place,” the subaltern said, believing that he was conveying the fullest information, and then went on. “Well, the Major was sitting on the rock smoking that old meerschaum of a nigger’s [-236-] head which he’d had for years. A bullet came and smashed the pipe to atoms. He spat out the pipe-stem and then shook his fist at the place where the shot had come from. ‘You blackguards,’ he said, ‘you’re not fit company for a gentleman to smoke a meerschaum with; I’ll only treat you to clays in future.’ Well, the men were amused by this, and——”
“Young man,” I said severely, “I knew that pipe, and it is a good thing it is gone. That steak you have disposed of was good, and these herring-roes I have ordered for you while you were blathering are excellent. Eat them, and then get to business at once.
The junior subaltern ate the roes, which were perfect; and when the coffee and the brandy were brought, he looked at me to see if I was really in earnest, and began again, “Do you remember James Pilch, who was the company’s cook?”
“No, my boy,” I said, “I do not remember James Pilch, nor do I want to. Waiter, my bill.”
The bill was brought. Oysters, 3s.; lobster, 8s.; Soup, 2s.; grill, 3s.; vegetables, 6d.; wine, 7s.; bread and butter, 4d. ; coffee, 1s.; liqueurs, 5s.; roes, 2s. ; total, £1:11:10.
This paid I turned to the subaltern. “Young man,” I said, “I am now going to personally conduct you to the club smoking-room, and if I have to sit up with you all night with a stick I intend to be told how you came to be recommended for the V.C.”
The junior subaltern groaned.
22nd November.