|From Virtual Victorian|
From a volume of Bentley's Miscellany (London, 1841)- this piece by Albany Poyntz (i.e. Catherine Gore) other contributors to this volume included Ainsworth, Crowquill, Ingoldsby & Longfellow. She also wrote A World of Wonders (Richard Bentley, London 1845) - a polymathic work refuting popular superstitions with chapters on Pope Joan, Wild Women, Sybils, Monstrous Births and Ventriloquism etc.,. The full text can be found at Project Gutenberg.
Catherine Gore (1799 - 1861) is best known for her many "silver-fork" novels, which depicted fashionable high society. In 1830, she published her first silver-fork novel, Women As They Are, or Manners of the Day, and then went on to write many more books in this popular genre that provided her with a considerable income. There is much on her at The Corvey Novels Project (Nebraska) She was known as a bright conversationalist, an attribute that also displayed itself in the dialogue in her novels. Her writing is often compared to Jane Austen's, particularly her descriptions of the "heartless society mother" in various novels. In this piece The Diary of A Dining-Out Man, which she writes as 'Albany Poyntz' the extreme worldliness of tone prefigures Saki. It is a world she would have known - she was herself at one time very rich but was swindled out of £20,000, and had to write several more society novels to recoup.
DIARY OF A DINING-OUT MAN.
BY ALBANY POYNTZ.
So, here we are in the season again. — Goodness be praised ! — Those country houses take too much out of a man, in return for what he extracts from them. It is well enough in those where one has the ear of the house, as well as the run of the house, — remaining a fixture, while successive parties of guests appear and disappear; for the same bon-mots and good stories serve to amuse his Grace on Friday, which were tried upon the country-neighbour party with success, the preceding Monday, — as inoculation was attempted upon criminals, before the royal family were submitted to the prick of the lancet. More particularly when the whole set has been renovated. It is a bore to have some single gentleman, or stationary souffre douleur cousin, on the watch for the point of every well-worn anecdote,–like people at a pantomime, familiar beforehand with the tricks. Still, even when one makes a hit, the wear and tear of the thing is prodigious. One goes through the work of three dinners per diem ; — to wit, breakfast, luncheon, and dinner, — and all without refreshment ! In town, one has the chance of the clubs and morning visits to brighten one. But in a country house, where one can only rub up per aid of the new works and periodicals lying on the table, or visits shared in common with the rest of the party, one must fall back on one's own resources, — and the effort is prodigious.
This is the third Christmas I have spent at K––– Park ; and decidedly, I must provide for myself elsewhere next winter. Lord K––– is such a bore, with his everlasting relations ! — That eternal brother and sister-in-law, and the neighbours Sir John and Lady Wiseacre, seem as completely established there as the family plate ; and it is too much to expect a man to do the agreeable, year after year, to the same people. I saw a smile exchanged between K––– and Lady Theresa, when I began my famous story about Perceval and Michael Angelo Taylor, as much as to say, " What, again ?" — And the Wiseacres, who are as rude as all the rest of the Shropshire squirearchy, told me in plain terms one morning at breakfast, on my attempting to hitch in poor Copley's capital pun about Vale Royal, that they had been circulating it all over the country ever since they heard it from my lips, five years ago ! —
Rebuffs of that description are like a blow with a pole-axe. Next Christmas, I will try Yorkshire. Yorkshire is unbroken ground. They are hospitable people, with a good, hearty, wholesome laugh at one's service, and a strong capacity for being amused. There is something exhilarating in a fresh audience of that description.
I am sadly afraid, meanwhile, that K––– Park was a failure ! — I did not do what was expected of me, or what I expect of myself. Several of the dinners were flat as the turbot ; and the Duke yawned fifty-four times during the two short days he was there. I saw Lord K–– –– look at me reproachfully, as much as to say that it was my fault ; and I have no doubt he said to Lady Theresa, 'I would not have invited Prattles, if I had known how dull he was growing;' whereas, had not Lady Theresa and her husband been there, I should have done wonders. Wilmot K––– is the dullest fellow breathing, and Lady Theresa's cold steadfast eye chills one like a nightmare ! —
(Mem. to book a good story of Lady Theresa's English nursery-maid, who calls the 'nightmare' the "coach-mare," — having caught the word cauchemar from the French bonne.)
To return to K––– Park. It would be the deuce and all if a rumour should transpire that our party was fiasco ! I had been foolish enough to circulate, far and near, that I was going. It has always a respectable air to be engaged, Christmas after Christmas, to the same country house. Should those yawns of the Duke's, therefore, get into circulation, the thing may cut me out of pleasant dinner-parties without end. As I mean decidedly to cut K––– Park next year, I have a great mind to take the initiative, and proclaim that the party was a lost case. It will be laid to the Kennedys, who were there for the first time. For last Christmas, nothing could be more brilliant than we were; and I was so universally admitted to have been the life and soul of the party, that I was to be invited to all Lady Hunchback's dinners last season, solely on the strength of K––– Park.
Yes ! the Kennedys shall answer for it. They are vulgar, pushing people, trying everything that false finery will do, to climb into good company. It won't do. There is nothing in either of them congenial with the listless haut ton of the great world. I heard Lady Theresa whisper to the Duke one evening, — ' I never saw one of Lord K–––'s parties turn out so ill. Too much quince in the apple-pie — too many monkeys in the menagerie ! — One keeps fancying that all those whom these people were invited to entertain, had sent excuses. We have got the chorus ; but the soprano and prima donna are absent without leave.'
The Duke replied by one of his best executed yawns ! — And after that, K––– expected one to be agreeable ! —
Well ! — no matter ! Parliament has met, and the dinners are beginning. No more country-house work till Easter, except for fox-hunters; and to amuse them, heaven be thanked, no one ever dreams of inviting conversation men. The whipper-in suffices.
My first care at the commencement of the season is to look over my list, preparatory to sowing cards for the dinner-crop, and a melancholy task it is ! — Two or three of my best dowagers are pretty sure to have dropped in the interval, as is the case this very year. There is old Lady Fivecourse, in Berkeley square, whose cook was really a meritorious artist, — a fellow who will one day rank with the Udes and Francatelles. I called at the door the other day, to inquire what was become of him ; and find that one of the executors has bribed him off to Ireland ! This is a public loss. Besides which, the man himself is lost. Genius of that description requires an enlightened audience. The Irish are scarcely up to more than roast and boiled. It is throwing pearls before swine to give them such a man as Survilliers, who has glimpses of real inspiration.
I confess I had looked forward to many more pleasant dinner parties at Lady Fivecourse's. There was no more occasion for that woman to die | — Though seventy-three, she was strong as a seventy-four — (mem. book that!) — and might have lived to be a hundred. It was entirely her own doing. She would go dining out, when, with such a cook as Survilliers, it was her duty to dine at home. And then she called in a young apothecary, instead of adhering to Sir Thomas, who never does anything, so that his patients have some chance of getting through. I don't mean to be ill-natured ; but if I were a man of sufficient consequence for my funeral to figure in the Morning Post, with a list of the mourners, — 'third mourning coach, the medical attendant of the deceased earl, John Pillbox, Esq.' — I would not employ a young apothecary, who knew that his connexion in business might be established by such an advertisement.
Poor Lady Fivecourse ! — What a capital set one used to meet at her house ! It was one of the places where I most enjoyed myself. Nothing but quiet, humdrum, mediocre people, who understood nothing but eating, and for whom one's oldest stories had the charm of novelty. I remember at a dinner in Berkeley Square, last April, setting the table in a roar with an anecdote, which originally set me up as a dining-out man, in the time of George the Fourth ! It was a story of Jekyll's; but he never did it justice, his imitation of the brogue being wretched. It improved in my hands. There are some stories, like some wines, which grow mellow with travelling. I never told it better than that day at Lady Fivecourse's, for I was taking pains. Lord Grangehurst was there ; and I was wild to get an invitation to his new house, with the style and splendour of which, the newspapers had been boring one for the last year. The spec, prospered. I dined with him three times after Easter, and was asked to Grangehurst for the battue. But, on the whole, I was not satisfied. His cellar is not what it ought to be. No man ought to pretend to Hock who is not certain that his grandfather saw it in bottle.
Good Lord ! what a sorry life should I have led, but for the lucky chance which gave me a cast in the Marquis of Woodsbury's post-chaise, on our transit from Oxford on quitting college ! — Both were in high spirits, bursting forth like a fresh-opened bottle of Champagne ; and my companion fortunately mistook spirits for wit. The mistakes of a young nobleman in the enjoyment of thirty thousand a-year, are sure to find imitators. The women who wanted Woodsbury, whether for themselves or their daughters, protested that I was a charming creature ; and after Woodsbury married, they did not think it decent to swallow their words, as they had swallowed mine.
During the scene of his bachelorhood I was invited everywhere. It disarmed suspicion, — that is, the pretty creatures fancied it disarmed suspicion to say, 'Mr Prattles, are you disengaged on Friday? — We shall be delighted to see you at half-past seven. Lord Woodsbury, will you do me the favour to meet Mr Prattles?' — though if, after my acceptance, it turned out that Woodsbury had a prior engagement, they took care to make my venison, mutton, and my claret, ordinaire. They were practising on my inexperience, and I upon their cunning; for it was at the expense of these manoeuvres I learnt almost all I know of the ways of the world.
I was such a boy, that they talked freely before me ; making it tolerably clear that, according to the code of fashionable hospitality, nobody must expect to be entertained who cannot entertain in their turn, either by their invitations, or their power of shedding grace upon the invitations of others.
This was a cruel lesson. Chambers, I knew, were my destiny. I was as likely to have a mitre to give away, as a dinner. I had no alternative, therefore, but to abjure the lordly haunch and luscious pine, and stick to loins of mutton carved haunchwise, and meally apples by way of dessert, or study to become amusing. I am convinced that any person of even moderate abilities may become anything he chooses, perforce of earnestness of purpose, — a stay-maker, or a Chancellor, or an opera-dancer, or a conjuror, or a quarterly reviewer, — no matter what ! It is only the enervation of indolence that causes one to lag in the van. Before the Woodsbury spec, was over, I had run over my part, and was almost perfect. I watched the conversation men of the day: I studied their very studied mode of being unstudied in their wit. — I discerned the most natural mode of lugging in impromptus made at leisure. Mademoiselle Mars at sixty-five enacts the part of the ingénue, or simple young girl, better than all the little misses of sixteen on the Parisian stage. So the skilful professional wit throws out bait for his own puns, as Anthony sent divers into the river to attach fishes to his hook, when angling in presence of Cleopatra.
There were giants on the earth in those days. There were some capital dining-out men on the pavé. From punning Caleb Whiteford to racy Joseph Jekyll, — from polished William Spencer to unrivalled Sharpe, — from Colman to Canning, — from Brummell to Alvanley, — from Copley to Ward, — there was talking going on in London every day, between six and nine, which it did one's heart harm to hear ; so envious did it make one of their colloquial tactics.
To attain high eminence as a diner-out, something more is required than the mere power of conducing to the amusement of the company. A very entertaining fellow, who was nothing but an entertaining fellow, and known to be in want of a dinner, might be asked once or twice, by way of lion, but would never be tolerated as a regular dinner guest in our best houses. In the first place, the diner-out must eat like an epicure, and not like a glutton. A hungry man is not sufficiently at ease in his body, to be at ease in his mind. To be able to dispose of his own faculties, he must be in circumstances to appreciate the merits of the entrée he is tasting, while the party is tasting his bonsmots, — but not to be engrossed by their excellence. His responsibility to his host must preponderate over the exquisiteness of his palate.
People do not like to throw away a first-rate menu upon a man who does not know quenelles de
veau from sweetbreads, any more than on a fellow who sends his plate half-a-dozen times to the joint on the side-table.
On this head, I had nothing to fear. I possessed what is called 'a genteel independence ;' I was certain of my roast and boiled, fish and soup, at my own expense, all the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. But what a prospect ! Roast and boiled from the 1st of January to the 31st of December, when so many stew-pans were simmering in the aristocratic kitchens of Great Britain ! — I felt that I had done nothing to deserve such a sentence at the hand of destiny. I felt
myself predestined to the salmi and the capilotade ; and, by dint of following up my vocation, can safely say, that for the last six seasons, not a man in this gastronomical metropolis has enjoyed a more universal acquaintance with the sauce-boats
of the great world.
A vulgar-minded man, incapable of seizing the lights and shadows of social life, thinks it enough to push on straight to the mark ; and, with a predetermination to be entertaining, begins to open his budget before the soup is off the table. Whereas there is scarcely more art required in dressing the dinner, than in addressing those who are invited to eat it. There are certain appointed epochs of a dinner, differing in different sets and countries, appointed for the specific introduction of certain wines, — as sherry or madeira after soup, or hock between the courses. So also there are especial moments for the introduction of divers orders of anecdotes. The man who attempts a bit of scandal while the patés or cutlets are going their rounds, will find his risk rewarded by reproving silence. People look as if they did not understand a word he was saying ; while if he wait till after the second round of champagne, he will set the table in a roar. Even the first will so far thaw the faculties or decorum of the party, that a significant smile may possibly repay his pains.
Soup admits nothing of more stirring interest than the weather. People are not yet at their ease. They have not recovered the fuss of taking their places ; they have not got accustomed to their neighbours, or to the brightness of the dinner-room. They look blinky and perplexed. The edge of appetite, too, must be appeased. A few mouthfuls of hot, clear, spring soup, or bisque d'ecrevisses, cheers up the spirits, and disposes to sociability. A sip of sherry perfects the charm. By the time turbot and lobster sauce, or Severn salmon and cucumber, figure on your plate, you may venture upon politics and the news of the day. If a clever man be near you, and you have important intelligence in petto, inquire of him whether he have anything new ; then, with easy negligence, let fall the startling news that is to fix every eye at table upon yourself. Choose that moment to take wine, or to whisper confidentially to the servant behind your chair a request for a second investigation of the fish-sauces. You should appear to be anxiously interested in the coaxing of your own appetite, when you announce the abdication of the Emperor of China, or that her Majesty's favourite parrot is sitting. All this, as stage effect, tends powerfully to the success of the piece.
Anything superlative in the way of wit should be reserved, like the hock, for the finale of the first course. Even in the best regulated household, there occurs a momentary pause propitious to the explosion of a bon mot. The host is grateful to you ; the maître d'hôtel is grateful to you; everybody is grateful to you. A minute later, and the bustle of placing the second course on the table would be fatal to the success of your attempt. That most disagreeable interruption at an end, the real business of dinner conversation begins. The tide is setting in. Till the rubicon of the second course be passed, your careful talker feels that all is preamble. It is not worth while to hazard anything of real excellence. It is waste of powder and shot to lavish pearls before the rapacious animals, who think more of what reaches them through their lips than through their ears.
But after the pheasant, green-goose, or turkey poult, — after the fondu, cabinet-pudding, and Chambertin, comes the tug of war ! Not only are the ears of the party opened, but its hearts. People are ready to laugh at anything; yet not too merry to distinguish between wit and humour, an old story and a new anecdote. With the orange jelly, you may whisper to a fair neighbour; with the méringues glacés, you may acquaint a dark one with some fact of foreign policy or fine-art fiddle-faddle, of which he was wholly ignorant. He will not turn sulky at finding you better informed than himself.
During a diner-out's first season or so, he takes almost as much pleasure in all that he causes others to swallow, as in all that he is swallowing. He enjoys his own stories and his own success. But after making himself a name, after being cited here, there, and everywhere as the agreeable Mr. Prattles, the new Sheridan, the future Macaulay, he begins to grow nervous. He feels it necessary to talk up to his reputation, and a duty is always irksome. One dull dinner would undo him ! A party where the sound of knives and forks is audible from pauses in the conversation, reflects eternal disgrace on its component parts, should it come to be known that a regular diner-out was one of the offenders. He is a lost mutton, — that is, a lost buck.
He accordingly begins to cram, as if reading for a degree, — saps scandal, and works up his small talk as for the Seatonian prize. When first a man confronts the publicity of society, he is unable to distinguish its shades and gradations. Like a child contemplating the starry firmament, he beholds millions of stars, and rates them alike, incapable of distinguishing their gradations of magnitude. To make oneself agreeable at the dinner-table in certain circles, it suffices to read the periodicals as they appear, to skim the daily papers and be able familiarly to quote the jokes of the last number of the ' Quarterly Review.' In others, it is necessary to have written one of these showy flare-ups, to obtain the ear of the company; and to hazard any direct allusion to them, above all to cite their witticisms, or any other good thing that has appeared in print, would be destruction. In such a party, a stale joke would be thought as offensive as a stale John Dory. The stories narrated must have their bloom upon them, like the grapes; and every anecdote boast its virgin bouquet, like every bottle of claret. Even a moderately witty thing, wholly new and inedited, obtains a higher value than the best mot of Alvanley filtered through the clubs.
'As somebody was saying yesterday at White's,' observed a man at the capital table of the late Lord S–––, and was about to relate some thrice-told tale, when Lord––– interrupted him with, 'If I wanted to know what any one said at White's, I should go there and hear it. I prefer something which you both think and say yourself, or, at all events, something new and original.'
Such a rebuff is too disagreeable to be wantonly provoked. For the same reason, nothing so stupid as to cram from books like Walpole's Letters, or Crequy's Memoirs, or any other, not old enough to be forgotten. News should be of Charles the Second's time or Queen Victoria's ; and nothing in the way of crib can be safely hazarded later than the times of George the
Time was that ten pounds' worth of French, from the usher of some preparatory school, was worth a whole season's entertainments ; and in the early part of the present century, more than one diner-out traded exclusively upon popular books
of French memoirs, still unfamiliar to the jog-trot London world.
They fished their gastronomy out of Grimod de la Reyniére and Brillat Savarin ; their wit out of Grimm, Diderot, and Mesdames du Defiant and D'Epinay; their philosophy from L'Hermite de la Chaussée D'Antin, and their sentiment from Madame de Souza. Even our comedies were then 'taken from the French,' without fear of reprisal. But now that every lawyer's clerk visits Paris at least once a-year, and that the Burlington Arcade and its libraries supply wit and information at three-and-sixpence per month, to all classes of the community, a man attempting to dine out upon the Revue de Paris, Revue des deux Mondes, La Mode, and La Presse, would be coughed down. It is only some solemn review that dares put on its considering cap, and inflict these stale scraps upon the public. For my part, having a reputation to sustain, I would not venture on anything, even wet from the press of Dumont or Lavocat, for several of the young Members have over early sheets to brighten their speeches.
I had once a severe lesson on that score. Everybody knows the story of Conversation B. strolling to the toilet-table of Conversation S. one afternoon, where his card of mems. for the night was laid out with his pumps and white waistcoat ; conning by rote the topics to be dragged in, and preceding him in the various opera-boxes to which they were assigned ; so that every time the professed wit opened his lips, it was to recount some anecdote or bon mot which had been recited ten minutes before, by his rival. Exactly such was my disaster ! — I had received one morning a batch of pamphlets from Paris ; and, as usual, extracted the pith for my private use. The gems thus strung together, I intended to powder over my conversation that day at one of Lady Cork's choice dinner parties ; and had consequently provided myself with nothing else. I entered her famous old china-gallery, on the divans and slender porcupine-chairs of which I found scattered the best, and brightest of the season. 'All was prepared, the judges were met, a terrible show.' Unluckily, I came late, having been detained running my eye over my notes ; so that when I made my entrée, that pushing fellow, L., had already the ear of the company. Judge of my horror when I found him giving tongue to one of my most striking novelties ! — I longed to fly at him, and snatch it from his mouth, — as one sees a sharp terrier when another dog has pilfered a bone from him! — But it was all in vain! — He had taken the first move. Bon mot after bon mot did he let fly from his pigeon-trap, and every shot told. I had nothing left. The fellow subscribed to the same library as myself; had obtained a view of the books four-and- twenty hours before me, — and reduced me to bankruptcy. Cut up as I was, not even an incipient influenza which pleaded, sufficed my excuse with the old lady ; and though I had the precaution to keep my chambers for a week, to give colouring to the pretext, she never invited me again the whole season, except to one of those horrible olla podridas which she sometimes gave at the end of her dinner weeks, to dispose of the fragments, and drink the bottlings-up of wine. It may be supposed that I did not allow myself to be converted into quick-lime.
Ill-natured people fancy that the life of a dining-out man is a life of corn, wine, and oil ; that all he has to do is to eat, drink, and be merry. I only know that, had I been aware in the onset of life of all I should have to go through in my vocation, I would have chosen some easier calling. I would have studied law, physic, or divinity; I would have gone the circuit ; I would have even gone the whole hog, and become a parson, rather than enjoyed the Barmecide's feast of a professor of wit. Eat and drink he may, but to be really merry I defy him ! — Viands and generous wines pass through his lips, without making the least impression on his palate. His attention is pre-engrossed. By venturing to dwell upon a dainty dish, he is sure to lose the opportunity of introducing some striking remark, or hazarding some neat little pun. His appetite is continually on thorns. His slice of venison is, perhaps, brought him just as he has launched into some capital story; and he has only the alternative of spoiling it, or finding the fat become of opaline opacity when enabled to pay himself proper attention. Now venison, like time and tide, waits for no man ; and the stupidest ass of a country cousin may swallow it when the said fat is clear as amber, while the diner-out finds it gradually freezing upon his hapless plate ! —
In the same way, one's iced pudding begins to melt while one finishes a series of repartees with some sharp opposite neighbour. I remember last season having an avalanche before me, that would have cooled the fire-king only to look at; and before I could command the use of my lips, the recent inundation at Brentford was not more fluent than my plate ! —
It is the custom, by the way, of quadrille dancers to be very scrupulous in engaging a vis-à-vis. Young ladies pretend that it is of as much consequence to them to be mated with an eligible opposite neighbour, as with an eligible partner. It is of fifty times as much importance to a dining-out man ! — What he says to his two next neighbours, however interesting, does him little or no credit with the party. But a confederate opposite is as invaluable an adjunct as the clown attending the horsemanship at Astley's. The whole audience is convulsed with the witticisms addressed to him. The whole table is in a roar when I happen to sit facing Horace or Sydney. In such a partnership, one loses nothing by a division of profits.
On the other hand, it is a horrible trial of patience to bowl to an awkward bat, or throw the ball which there is no one to catch. I know nothing more bewildering than for a man who knows himself to have been invited for the entertainment of the company, to get placed, through one of those blunders which so often occur in mixed dinner-parties, next to some dunny dowager — dunny in mind as well as body; or opposite to a bevy of misses in muslin frocks, to whom it is not permissible to plead guilty of an idea. Conversation is out of the question. It is like singing with your face to a stone-wall. Every fresh attempt at liveliness is rewarded with a stare of stupid wonder ; and it is only when you make yourself comprehensible to the meanest capacity by abusing the weather, or canting about the state of the times, that you are rewarded with more than monosyllables in reply. In vain do you chafe and fret. You have, perhaps, half-a-dozen capital stories fermenting in your brains. Take my advice. Postpone your triumph. Endure your total eclipse in solemn silence. It is useless attempting to make bricks without straw.
One of my best houses is the Marquis of Bexfield's. What a chef! — what a maître d'hôtel! — what an establishment ! — what a master thereof ! — Such a pleasant set, too ! — fine people, who are not too fine, and coarse people, who are not too coarse. From the moment of crossing the threshold, one is conscious of a certain bien-être pervading one's animal nature ; as in a warm-bath, or the sortie from a long sermon at Christmas, or in the dog-days. There are certain capital dining-houses, such as that of the late Lord S., where gastronomy is made of too-engrossing importance. One eats too critically, and grows nervous lest one should be betrayed into enjoying something which the knowing ones decide to be not of the highest quality. In such a set, the conversation-man is of secondary importance. People are invited exclusively to eat and drink. The talker is there only to fill up the pauses between the numerous courses. At Lord Bexfield's, this is not the case. One stands one's ground with the bastions de volatile and château margoux.
The only fault I have to find with his lordship's arrangements, is the multitude of plums in his pudding. He has too many of us. The other day I dined there, expecting to meet the Guernseys, the Middlesexes, and others of that class, with whom I had noticed, in the ' Morning Post,' Lord Bexfield to have been lately dining. Not a bit ! Nothing but authors and diners-out, with their females ! — I never met a stupider set of people. They all looked affronted at being asked to meet each other; and every time the door opened, I saw them looking out anxiously for some lorldly or ladyly arrival. We were there to enjoy each other's society, to entertain each other; when every soul of us knew that not one of the party was a dinner-giver, and consequently deserving the attention of the rest. The utmost which any of them pretended to, was, what is anomalously called a good plain cook ! — 'Oh ! oh !'
I wonder whether the Mecaenases of Astley's Amphitheatre or Sadler's Wells would do so stupid a thing: as collect their tumblers to entertain each other with feats of agility ? that is, to betray the mysteries of their calling, and allow a rival to discover how the fire was eaten, and how the eggs were balanced? For my part, I was once idiot enough to let fall one of my choice stories, one of my 'gems for the season,' before Punham, who most nefariously made it his own ; and, as lie goes among a set of people ignorant enough of the etiquettes of society to feel entitled to seize on all they hear, and appropriate waifs and strays, like Cornish wreckers, I had the agony of hearing one of my best compilations torn to pieces wherever I went, — served piecemeal,— and martyrized by clumsy dealing in the operation. Punham used to sit by, listening with an untortured countenance ; and, like the distracted mother, brought to light by King Solomon's division of the living babe in her presence, any one of common discretion might have recognised me, by my anguish, to be the legitimate parent of the bantling.
By the way, Punham has one terrible advantage over me. His seat in the house places him in the current of a thousand rumours, which I only receive by a side-wind. Punham knows on Monday, the scandal I am glad to repeat on the Tuesday. I have been sometimes ready to expire when, after firing great guns to draw the attention of the table to some little bit of news I had picked up in the afternoon at the Athenaeum, or some visit, my narration has been met with, 'Yes ; I fancy it is true. Punham mentioned it at Riddlesworths yesterday at dinner.' Parliament, too, keeps him out of the routine of nauseous humdrum dowager-visits, to which I am harnessed. I have heard Lady Clairville say to him, 'Oh ! I always make excuses for you. I know how much you are taken up at the house ;' and while I wear my wits to the stump in fetching and carrying tittle-tattle for her, she invites Punham to all her pleasantest dinners, — he who never does more than leave a card at her door ! — I have half a mind to renounce her set altogether ; for I look upon Punham as a sort of extinguisher chained to my flambeau. Would I could hope that her set would regret me, as I deserve to be regretted. But they pretend to call me a tale-bearer. One day, when I was sitting there, that saucy fellow, Sir Henry, began talking about the legislative wisdom of putting to death all stray animals in the time of the Plague ; protesting that more mischief was conveyed from house to house by idle in-and-out puppies, than by responsible persons. I knew what he meant. I was almost inclined to call him out. But I was to dine the next day with the Marquis, and did not want to injure my digestion.
Those dinners at the Marquis's are my sheet anchor ! — I dine at twenty other places, on the strength of them. It is not alone the excellence of my friend Casserole, or the splendid liberality with which the whole thing is conducted ; but next day, — nay, for three days afterwards, — one is able to drop in at a hundred different houses, letting fall incidentally something one heard or saw there as an excuse for a careless allusion to the dinner. Then comes the inevitable inquiry, 'Did you dine there yesterday ?' — 'Yesterday, or Wednesday was it? Yes, yesterday.' — 'And who had you?' — 'Not a very large party — the Duke of Wellington (or whoever may be the lion of the day), and a few others of one's own set.'
I hardly ever knew the bait fail of a nibble. Slow people are fond of being able to say to the next equally humdrum morning visitor, — 'Prattles has just been here. He heard yesterday at Lord So-and-so's' and next day one gets an invitation. The Marquis's dinner kittens half a hundred other dinners.
I must own, however, that I had fewer on my list last season than any preceding one. Did this arise from a diminution in the aggregate of dinners given, or of my own popularity? — The latter, I fear ! People get fanciful in the matter of their conversation men. Though certain dishes must recur and recur again in their menu every spring, — salmon, turbot, lamb, or turkey-poult, — they seem to think it necessary to have a change in their talkers. It is only Rogers who blooms afresh every season, with the lilacs. There is always some new man, — something that has taken an honour, — or returned from the North Pole or Timbuctoo, — or written a book that has been exalted in the Edinburgh, or cut to mincemeat in the Quarterly, — or blown up a fort in Syria, — or inherited half a million a year, — or run away with somebody's daughter, or from somebody's wife, — or something wonderful or other, that entitles him to the veneration and dinners of an indulgent public. With such a card in hand, our friends grow ungrateful; forget how many a stupid party of theirs one's efforts had redeemed from the yawns ; — and invite one to a family dinner ! I must do as poor Lady Cork used, when her popularity was nagging ; viz, send an account to the newspaper of my own death, and next day, the contradiction. Something to this effect :
'We learn, with the liveliest regret, the death of that amiable man, and charming companion,
Alfred Prattles, Esq. Few persons could be so ill spared from the symposia of social life ! Mr Prattles has been for many years past recognized as one of the most distinguished members of the literary and fashionable world ; and no party was considered perfect without the addition of his brilliant and highly piquant conversation. He was, perhaps, on the whole, the liveliest talker of
Followed by, " It is with the most unfeigned satisfaction we learn that there is not the slightest foundation for the rumour of the premature decease of that highly-popular individual, Mr Prattles. We had ourselves the satisfaction of seeing him yesterday in St James's street, walking arm-in-arm with the Duke of Wellington ; nor can we sufficiently despise the callous and wanton levity with which certain persons, for the furtherance of private pique, presume to harrow up the feelings of anxious friends by the circulation of reports of this cruel nature. We cannot sufficiently apologize to our subscribers for our insertion of so ill-advised a fabrication.'
I foresee from hence the compunctious visitings brightening up the damped affections of my friends and acquaintance, on perusing such an announcement! 'Poor Prattles!' they will exclaim, 'I don't know how it was, — I had not seen so much of him lately. — Yet he is one whose company is always an acquisition, — a most amusing little fellow, — a man who knows everything, — a man whom everybody knows. — Heartily glad to find he is still extant ! — By Jove ! I'll call on him to-morrow and ask him to dinner.'
Even those less affectionately disposed towards
me, even those who perhaps think me a bore, will
be moved to ejaculate, 'Poor little Prattles ! —after all, there was more twaddling than mischief in his gossip. His tittle-tattle was only the labour of his vocation. He never did any harm, — that is, he never meant to do any harm. — If he sometimes administered arsenic instead of magnesia, it was only through a mistake of the labels. He never poisoned people with malice prepense. And he was really very good fun in rainy weather in the country, or when trying to sit his horse in the Park. I fancy we could better spare a better man than Prattles.'
And then one's works ! — The moment a literary man dies, and the newspapers take to getting up his memoirs, every little anonymous thing of merit that has been floating about for the last ten years, is laid to his charge. The real author has always the power of establishing his right to his unclaimed dividends ; a letter to the editor from the " constant reader of his invaluable journal," informing him in roundabout phrase that his facts are fictions, and his fictions rubbish, only serves to increase the interest of the paper. On the strength of my decease, I shall probably be accused of 'Violet the Danseuse/or the 'Adventures of a Coxcomb.' I have a great mind to charge myself with 'Fashionable Friends,' and 'The Nun of Arrouca.' It might be a considerable relief to the shoulders of the administration, — and at all events produce a newspaper controversy, certain to bring all parties into notice. 'Pon honour ! the idea may be worth working out ! — What neat little articles in the 'Examiner,' 'Spectator,' ' Athenaeum,' 'Atlas,' and ' Literary Gazette,' will endeavour to fix the cap upon the rightful head ! — What fudgerations in the Magazines, — what solemn sneers in the Quarterlies. — I foresee a vista of dinners prolonged from the Easter feast to the July banquets of Lovegroves (when the white-bait, like hobbledehoys, have outgrown their melted butter,) issuing from this lucky suggestion.
How I hate all those weekly papers, — with their 'Library Tables,' and 'Weekly Gossip,' and 'Foreign Correspondence,' taking the very roll out of one's mouth ! — The digestive doctors swear that the human constitution has never got on half so well since the elaborate processes of modern gastronomy in the form of soups, gravies, and jellies, took its labours out of its hands. They protest that the epigastric functions, not having enough to do, prey upon themselves, and consequently do mischief. The processes of the human mind are vastly analogous to those of the human stomach. When people used to work hard in the pursuit of knowledge, a healthy appetite was engendered; and it is only since the hashes of literature came to be constantly served at our tables, scraps of poetry, romance, or history, enhanced by the peppery sauce of the reviewers, that we lost all taste for the wholesome learning, the solid sirloin of the historian, the homely batter-pudding of Mrs Trimmer and Mrs Chapone. Above all, the impertinent celerity with which these placarders of literature send flying all abroad news of the birth of every chef d'œuvre and the suicides of rash authorship, is enough to distract one. — Five-and-twenty years ago people took a couple of months to decide whether it were worth while to send to Hookham's for the new novel ; and six weeks after the publication of Southey's last epic, used to be asking each other whether that strange man, who wrote Espriella's Letters, had not been attempting something new ? – Now, while Bulwer's youngest is still damp from the press, not a linendraper's apprentice in Regent street but is competent to inform the errand-boy that 'it ben't by no manner of means hequal to Huge and Harem.' — The march of intellect makes its way into every hole and corner, in more than double-quick time.
I have long perceived that my little trips of discovery to Paris, for the importation of "novelties of the season," are of no more use than if I marched up Highgate Hill and down again. Nothing nearer than Constantinople is in the slightest degree available. Between steam-navigation and yachting, the Mediterranean is grown as vulgar as the Nore. Could the ghost of Captain Cook arise to inquire why it has never been laid in Westminster Abbey, how immensely astonished it would be to find people steaming it over the Red Sea, as easily as they used to row, in his time, over Chelsea Reach ; and the name of Polynesia as familiar in their mouths as that of Polly Peachum ! — For my part, I am thinking of a tour for next autumn (if the untimely decease scheme do not fructify as I anticipate), and cannot for the soul of me hit upon anything sufficiently exclusive to give a fillip to public curiosity, or pretend to be written up by the Quarterly.
The only spot of earth concerning which St. James's street and Belgrave square know nothing, is the City of London. I have a vast mind to try, 'Travels to the East ; with Sketches of Smithfield and the Barbican ;' by one of the opera-tive class,' or some such taking title. One might furbish up famous antiquarianisms out of the Gentleman's Magazine, about Crosby Hall and Winchester House, and bring in a host of savoury little compliments to the various companies, and different aldermen, certain to bring down coveys of dinners ! — I smell turtle and venison in the very promise! — The Albion — Bleaden — Birch ! — August names ! — Cornhill, promiseth corn in Egypt ; Smithfield, marrow and fatness; — Warwick lane, manna. — The city must necessarily abound in byres and cellars, — fat beeves, and strong beer. Fish ought never to be eaten westward of Temple Bar ; and albeit, the Bank and Stock-Exchange make their turtle-soup, like their twenty per cent., out of calves' heads, there are capital little fricots tossed up in the Poultry. — Yes, — decidedly, if a supposititious demise do not mend my fare, I will try the Eastern circuit.
I wonder whether anybody will start anything new this season ? — The town is wretchedly in want of a startle to make it open its eyes. Society is miserably drowsy. The great deficiency of the English mind is invention. The country is full of originals; yet collectively, we are the most jogtrot nation in Europe. I must not quarrel with the fault ; but for which, the vocation of diner-out would be extinguished. The Pique assiette of the French was a fellow who arrived with couplets in his pocket, to enliven the dessert, and administer to their love of gaiety. The diner-out of the English, is a man who brings news to stir up the stagnancy of the unimaginative natives of Great Britain.
To-morrow, being Sunday, I will drop in at the Marquis's, and ascertain what 'novelties he has in preparation,' as the theatres say. Everything that is cleverest throws off at Bexfield House, and should there be anything worth talking of in rehearsal, it were fatal not to be behind the curtain.
Where will the next volcano start up ? — Canada is burnt out, and Syria subsiding. Nobody cares about Circassia, except the perfumers. I wish they would push the thing a little in China. When that hare was started, I pumped a monstrous deal out of Henry Ellis ; and have got notes embellished with names, polysyllabic enough to stretch from the first course to the second, which I could make deliciously available. — Souchong and pekoe exhale from every syllable ! — Besides, I once received a note from Lord Jocelyn (declining a dinner invitation), which entitles me to hint, in a careless manner, that I am in correspondence with his lordship. If I could but cram a little from Pekin, I should consider myself crammed for the season! Nous Verrons.