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CHALLIS’S (RUPERT STREET)
I FELT like an extract from a Christmas story after the manner of Charles Dickens. I was the unfortunate, desponding individual driven at Christmas time to eat a solitary dinner in a deserted club, and as I sat down to the little table, with three waiters regarding me with placid curiosity, I felt a savage discontent that no spirit of a dead sweetheart of days gone by, no child-angel, would appear to me as they always do to the morose heroes of Christmas stories.
I had been reduced to solitude, moroseness, and a club dinner by the possession of two tickets for Barnum and Bailey’s great show at Olympia. It was the day after Boxing Day, and I felt sure in the afternoon that I should find a companion eager to see the performance and previously to dine quietly at some little restaurant where dress- clothes would not be en règle. Somehow or other I found it very difficult to secure my man. It was the dream of the life of every man I met to go to Olympia; but not to go there on Tuesday night. If I could change the tickets for others [-325-] for Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday night I could have had a choice of fifty companions, but on Tuesday all the married men said they had to dine at home with their wives; all the unmarried ones had some other engagement. I began to feel that I was shunned by mankind, and instead of thinking that I was conferring a great favour by an offer of the spare ticket, I adopted an almost imploring tone, begging for companionship.
I wandered from club to club, taking a gloomy pleasure in the sloppy streets and the vestiges of the gale of the night before. They fitted well with my growing melancholy. It was too late to send the tickets back and to go home and dine. I had to dree my weird, and, like the Wandering Jew, I moved on from place to place, seeking a companion and finding none.
At the last club I went to—a little Bohemian club — I found my man. He was playing dominoes. When I interrupted the game to ask him if he would dine with me and come to Olympia, instead of making an excuse, as the others had done, he said that nothing in the world would please him better. He had to go home for a minute or to, but would be back, he said, at the club at a quarter to seven. We would stroll over to some bright, cheap restaurant and have a mouthful of food, and then take cab and see the horses and gymnasts, freaks and miniature warships. I felt I had at all events one friend in the world.
Aquarter to seven came and the club was deserted by everybody except a member asleep [-326-] in an armchair and myself. I sat and watched the clock, and three waiters stood by the little tables at the end of the room and looked at me and talked in whispers to each other. The minute-hand drew gradually up to the hour, and as it did so I sank down into the depths of despondency. My friend had deserted me, basely deserted me, or else he was killed, run over perhaps, or struck by a falling chimney. The minute-hand went on to five minutes past, the member in the armchair snored gently and regularly, the waiters seemed to look at me pityingly. Pity from a waiter I could not endure. I got up and went over to one of the little tables and sat down. The waiters looked placidly pleased. I was relieving the monotony of their lives. I said I would take the club dinner and a whisky- and-soda, and when two of the waiters faded away, the other remained on guard. I put my elbows on the table, and my head in my hands, and felt that I was indeed the morose hero of pathetic Christmas magazine literature.
My soup was brought, and a whisky-and- soda deposited tenderly by the side of the plate, when the door was flung open, and in came my missing friend clothed in evening dress and radiant. There was an engagement he had forgotten he was taking a lady to dine at Challis’s—new little place of Baker’s—a thousand apologies—I must cancel club dinner and come over—couldn’t keep the lady waiting—see me again in two minutes. And he was out of the room again like a well-dressed whirlwind.
I did cancel the rest of my club dinner, to the [-327-] suppressed grief of the three waiters, who saw thus the only relief to their boredom vanish. I put on hat and coat and walked through the darkness and slush to Rupert Street, where two great ornamental lamps made a brave splash of light in the gloom, and where a tablet of opal glass with ruby lettering on it, dependent from a highly-ornamental glass and metal door-shelter, set forth that here was the restaurant of Challis’s Hotel.
To go from the darkness of the street by the direct door into the restaurant is like the transition in the pantomine from the Realms of the Demon Gloom to the Glittering Palace of the Good Fairy; and, in my splashed boots and morning attire, I felt like the solitary scene- shifter who is generally “discovered” in the midst of the glittering scene when the front cloth rises.
Challis’s Restaurant consists of two rooms, opening one into the other, one decorated after the manner of the Louis XIV. period, and the other after the manner of the Louis XV. period. Both are as pretty as a bride-cake or a silk Watteau fan. White and gold and soft colour are everywhere. The ceilings are painted with clouds and little roseate deities, and echoes of Fragonard, and the other courtly painters of dainty sylvan dreams are in the panels of the wall. The place blazes with electric light, a starry constellation in the ceiling, lights shaded with blue and pink and old-gold shades in brackets on the wall, and on the table candle-lamps crowned with deep red shades. A palm topping [-328-] a little chiffonnier of white wood, a fireplace with pillars of white-and-gold, and little bronzes on the mantelpiece; chairs of dark wood, in keeping with the period ; a carpet of deep red, and in one corner a little counter of white wood, with a pretty little lady behind it. Such was as much as I can remember of the setting of a scene in which I should not have been the least surprised to have seen little abbés and marquises feasting on syllabub and various dainties, and dancing pavanes and minuets and gavottes between the courses.
A waiter in white waistcoat and with gold buttons to his coat, was waiting to take my coat and hat, and my friend was beckoning me to a table where he was sitting with a pretty lady in evening dress.
I was introduced, but did not catch the pretty lady’s name. She seemed to look upon it as being the most natural thing in the world that I should have been brought away half-way through one dinner to eat another, and so did my friend; and as it all seemed to be part of a Christmas story, it all became natural to me. If Santa Claus and St. George and the Dragon had come in and taken seats at one of the neighbouring tables I do not think that on that particular night I should have thought the matter called for any particular remark. Every man but myself was in dress clothes, and I felt very like the Ugly Duckling; but the unknown pretty lady did not allow me to be ill at ease. She talked, and talked admirably, on subject after subject, gliding from pictures to theatres, from [-329-] books to music, with perfect ease and knowledge. My friend sat in silent contentment, and I in a dazed state of wonder as to who this clever pretty lady might be, and how it was my friend could have forgotten his appointment with her, and I felt very thankful to her for being at the trouble to talk to a mud-splashed outcast like myself. This was the menu—
Consomme aux Profiterolles. Crème Jackson.
Civet de lièvre à la Française.
Aloyau à la moderne.
Poulet rôti au cresson. Salade.
Choux a la crème.
Glace aux apricots.
The whitebait, which was the first dish I tasted, was good. The beef and the chicken were both as good as the market affords. We drank a light hock which was eminently drinkable, and when M. Coccioletti, in explanation, as he presented the bill, said to my friend, “Three dinners at 3s. 6d.,” it struck me that I had eaten a very good dinner for that price.
“Good-bye, old fellow—explain next time we meet—hope you’ll have a good time at Olympia,” was what my friend said as he helped the fair unknown into a brougham, and got in after her. She smiled at me. I was left on the doorstep with the awful responsibility of those two tickets for Barnum and Bailey’s show.