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THE WALSINGHAM HOUSE (PICCADILLY)
“OH, yes,” said my maiden aunt. “I read of your going out to dinners and taking actresses and grass-widows and other pretty ladies to dine. I wonder you are not tired of so much frivolity.”
I answered meekly that the worthlessness of my life was often felt seriously by me, and that I took actresses and grass-widows out to dinner because they were kind enough to say that they enjoyed such little outings; but that I would really prefer much more serious company.
My aunt drew down the corners of her mouth and looked at me through her spectacles with supreme disapproval.
“If I could only,” I went on, revelling in my wickedness, “secure a missionary lady, or a captain in the Salvation Army, or a shining light of the Pioneer Club, or even one of my maiden aunts, as a dining companion, do you think for a moment that I would daily with the butterflies of the pasture or the stage? “
My maiden aunt was so angry that she sniffed. “As if you would think of asking us!” she said [-318-] with a snap. “I have noticed you have been facetious at the expense of an imaginary invalid aunt; but you would be very sorry to ask me out really.”
“But I do ask you. It would be one of the greatest honours of my life to entertain you at dinner.”
My aunt sat silent for a moment or two, her lips so tightly shut that they were almost white. Then there came a tiny twinkle in her eyes.
“Very well,” she said, “when you name an evening I’ll come—just to punish you.”
I felt afterwards that I had done a bold thing, and while I was about it I rather regretted that I had not asked my grave and spectacled relative to sup at a Bohemian restaurant—the contrast would have been as delicious as a soufflé en surprise; but dinner it had to be, and as the good lady told all the rest of the family that I had asked her to dinner, but was meanly trying to get out of the offer, I wrote a formal invitation requesting the pleasure of her company at the Walsingham House at 8 P.M., and to this I received a formal answer of acceptance.
The Walsingham House restaurant is in the house which the Isthmian Club occupied so long, and it forms part of the block of chambers and hotels that stretches from the Green Park to Arlington Street. Its name in great gilt letters stands out boldly on the red-brick face; and the twin entrances, with glass shelters, one to the dwelling-house, the other to the restaurant, have become well-known features of Piccadilly. A flight of steps leads up from the door to the [-319-] restaurant, and at the top of these stairs there is a comfortable ante-room; but I preferred to wait by the fireplace in the hail, so as to be on the spot when my aunt arrived.
She came in a four-wheeler, the driver of which is a special retainer of hers. He is sober and he goes to church, and as the possessor of these two cardinal virtues, he is retained to drive my aunt on all special occasions. I saw the glint of her spectacles through the cab window, and went out to welcome her.
“Well, I’ve come, you see,” she said with a certain amount of grimness; and when I said that that was the proudest moment of my life, she bridled and tossed her head to show how much faith she put in speeches of that kind. I told the faithful cabman that he had better be in evidence at half—past nine, and then I waited on the landing while my aunt went up to the region of the second floor to leave her cloak.
When she reappeared, I found that she was in her raiment of ceremony, and felt duly honoured. She was wearing her best black silk dress, a dress of such richness of silk that—so the family tradition goes— it will stand up of itself; and her most highly ornamented lace cap. She had her thick gold chain on, her brooch of rose diamonds, and her long enamel earrings. I ushered her in to the table for two, which I had reserved, and she settled down with a rustle, and then looked round somewhat defiantly.
“Are you well known here?” she asked, and I said that I occasionally lunched or dined in the restaurant. “I only hope that they won’t take [-320-] me for one of your actress friends—that’s all,” she said, and, do what I could, I could not prevent the corners of my mouth from twitching. I was told severely that it was no laughing matter; and, putting her fan down by her plate, my aunt took up the menu and read it through
Croûte an pot. Mock turtle.
Filets de sole Dutru.
Suprême de volaille Jeannette.
My respected relative knows what constitutes a good dinner as well as anybody does ; and though she would have dearly loved to be able to pick a hole in the menu, she put it down with a satisfied expression, and, indeed, except for the
croûte au pot, which is to me what King Charles’s head was to poor Mr. Dick, it was a very well-considered dinner.
I ate the mock turtle, very good soup, but still a foreigner’s idea of what is a thoroughly Britannic dish, and while I did so my aunt, who had refused soup, sat and watched me. “You have been getting terribly stout of late years,” she said, as I put down my spoon, “and for a man with a neck like yours that is dangerous. There is apoplexy in the family; one of your [-321-] poor dear great-uncles died in an apoplectic fit. He always ate and drank too much, poor fellow.”
The filets de sole, with their slight flavouring of cheese and accompanying shrimps and moules, were excellent. My aunt supped her champagne, and the corners of her mouth relaxed. But she still had some ammunition to fire away. “You were not at church last Sunday,” she said with severity; but that was a matter I declined to discuss while eating dinner, and, to change the subject, I drew her attention to the beauties of the room, the deep frieze admirably painted with subjects of the chase, showing how our skin-clad ancestors collected their venison and game birds, the cunningly concealed lights, the panelling of inlaid woods, the white pillars and cornices just touched with gold, the comfortable brown-red carpet and chairs to match it, the curtains of deep crimson velvet, the ceiling with its little cupids floating on roseate clouds; and the old lady nodded her head in approval. M. Renato, the spick-and-span little manager; the waiters with white waistcoats, gold buttons to their coats, and a thin piping of gold on their collars; the band playing subdued music, the brass candelabra on the table with red shades, the fine napery and glass, were all noted by her. I told my aunt that the coat-of-arms on the china, supported by two griffins scratching their backs with their noses, were the arms of the De Greys, and with a “Hoity-toity “ I was requested not to give her lectures in heraldry.
The tournedos Walsingham, with truffles, fonds d’artichauts and a pink sauce so cunningly [-322-] mixed that one could not tell what the ingredients were, showed the artistic hand of M. Dutru; and the cold entrée, the suprême de volaille served on a rock of glass, was excellent. My aunt by now was in an inquiring mood, and wanted to know if there were any of my actress friends among the many diners—for by half-past eight nearly every table was occupied. I was sorry that I could not show her any lights of the stage, but I could tell her of the Irish lord who was giving a family dinner-party, of the old general dining tête-à-tête with his son, and of the three foreign attaches who were inventing fables as to the Dreyfus case for each other’s benefit.
The duck, the artichokes, and the ice were all that they should be, and my aunt was thoroughly pleased, for she told me, smilingly, that she had always considered me the scapegrace of the family.
I paid my bill. Two dinners, 15s. ; two cafés doubles, 1s. 6d. ; champagne, 15s. ; liqueurs, 2s. total, £1:13:6.
The faithful cabman was waiting outside, and as my aunt got into the cab she tapped me on the arm with her fan, and said that she had enjoyed herself.
Perhaps, after all, the old lady will remember me in her will.
*** I asked Mons. Gelardi, the manager of the Walsingham House, if he would be so kind as to give me the recette for the tournedos Walsingham, and M. Dutru very kindly wrote it out for me.
[-323-] Faire sauter les touruedos à feu vif: dresser sur fonds d’artichauts et saucer d’une sauce madère avec lames de truffes; envoyer à part une saucière de Béarnaise à la tomate et pommes.
Cook your tournedos over a quick fire, place them on fonds d’artichauts and add Madeira sauce and sliced truffles. Serve separately Béarnaise sauce à la tomate and potatoes.
M. Gelardi also told me of a dinner for fifty people that was to be served at the Walsingham the next night, and showed me the menu.
Caviar. Saumon fumé.
Tortue claire. Velouté printanier Royal.
Truite saumonée glacée au champagne.
Sole à la Meunière.
Filets de poulet aux truffes. Petits pois a l’anglaise.
Selle d’agneau de Galles. Artichauts aux frais herbes.
Supreme de cailles Valsingham.
Timbale d’écrevisses Américaine.
Sorbet au Clicquot Rosé.
Caneton de Rouen Rouennaise.
Asperges d’Argenteuil hollandaise.
Cerise Jubilé. Bombe Alaska.
Soufflé au Paprica. Dessert.