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Chapter 19

PUBLIC DINNERS

All public dinners in London, from the Lord Mayor's annual banquet
at Guildhall, to the Chimney-sweepers' anniversary at White Conduit
House; from the Goldsmiths' to the Butchers', from the Sheriffs' to
the Licensed Victuallers'; are amusing scenes. Of all
entertainments of this description, however, we think the annual
dinner of some public charity is the most amusing. At a Company's
dinner, the people are nearly all alike--regular old stagers, who
make it a matter of business, and a thing not to be laughed at. At
a political dinner, everybody is disagreeable, and inclined to
speechify--much the same thing, by-the-bye; but at a charity dinner
you see people of all sorts, kinds, and descriptions. The wine may
not be remarkably special, to be sure, and we have heard some
hardhearted monsters grumble at the collection; but we really think
the amusement to be derived from the occasion, sufficient to
counterbalance even these disadvantages.

Let us suppose you are induced to attend a dinner of this
description--'Indigent Orphans' Friends' Benevolent Institution,'
we think it is. The name of the charity is a line or two longer,
but never mind the rest. You have a distinct recollection,
however, that you purchased a ticket at the solicitation of some
charitable friend: and you deposit yourself in a hackney-coach,
the driver of which--no doubt that you may do the thing in style--
turns a deaf ear to your earnest entreaties to be set down at the
corner of Great Queen-street, and persists in carrying you to the
very door of the Freemasons', round which a crowd of people are
assembled to witness the entrance of the indigent orphans' friends.
You hear great speculations as you pay the fare, on the possibility
of your being the noble Lord who is announced to fill the chair on
the occasion, and are highly gratified to hear it eventually
decided that you are only a 'wocalist.'

The first thing that strikes you, on your entrance, is the
astonishing importance of the committee. You observe a door on the
first landing, carefully guarded by two waiters, in and out of
which stout gentlemen with very red faces keep running, with a
degree of speed highly unbecoming the gravity of persons of their
years and corpulency. You pause, quite alarmed at the bustle, and
thinking, in your innocence, that two or three people must have
been carried out of the dining-room in fits, at least. You are
immediately undeceived by the waiter--'Up-stairs, if you please,
sir; this is the committee-room.' Up-stairs you go, accordingly;
wondering, as you mount, what the duties of the committee can be,
and whether they ever do anything beyond confusing each other, and
running over the waiters.

Having deposited your hat and cloak, and received a remarkably
small scrap of pasteboard in exchange (which, as a matter of
course, you lose, before you require it again), you enter the hall,
down which there are three long tables for the less distinguished
guests, with a cross table on a raised platform at the upper end
for the reception of the very particular friends of the indigent
orphans. Being fortunate enough to find a plate without anybody's
card in it, you wisely seat yourself at once, and have a little
leisure to look about you. Waiters, with wine-baskets in their
hands, are placing decanters of sherry down the tables, at very
respectable distances; melancholy-looking salt-cellars, and decayed
vinegar-cruets, which might have belonged to the parents of the
indigent orphans in their time, are scattered at distant intervals
on the cloth; and the knives and forks look as if they had done
duty at every public dinner in London since the accession of George
the First. The musicians are scraping and grating and screwing
tremendously--playing no notes but notes of preparation; and
several gentlemen are gliding along the sides of the tables,
looking into plate after plate with frantic eagerness, the
expression of their countenances growing more and more dismal as
they meet with everybody's card but their own.

You turn round to take a look at the table behind you, and--not
being in the habit of attending public dinners--are somewhat struck
by the appearance of the party on which your eyes rest. One of its
principal members appears to be a little man, with a long and
rather inflamed face, and gray hair brushed bolt upright in front;
he wears a wisp of black silk round his neck, without any
stiffener, as an apology for a neckerchief, and is addressed by his
companions by the familiar appellation of 'Fitz,' or some such
monosyllable. Near him is a stout man in a white neckerchief and
buff waistcoat, with shining dark hair, cut very short in front,
and a great, round, healthy-looking face, on which he studiously
preserves a half sentimental simper. Next him, again, is a large-
headed man, with black hair and bushy whiskers; and opposite them
are two or three others, one of whom is a little round-faced
person, in a dress-stock and blue under-waistcoat. There is
something peculiar in their air and manner, though you could hardly
describe what it is; you cannot divest yourself of the idea that
they have come for some other purpose than mere eating and
drinking. You have no time to debate the matter, however, for the
waiters (who have been arranged in lines down the room, placing the
dishes on table) retire to the lower end; the dark man in the blue
coat and bright buttons, who has the direction of the music, looks
up to the gallery, and calls out 'band' in a very loud voice; out
burst the orchestra, up rise the visitors, in march fourteen
stewards, each with a long wand in his hand, like the evil genius
in a pantomime; then the chairman, then the titled visitors; they
all make their way up the room, as fast as they can, bowing, and
smiling, and smirking, and looking remarkably amiable. The
applause ceases, grace is said, the clatter of plates and dishes
begins; and every one appears highly gratified, either with the
presence of the distinguished visitors, or the commencement of the
anxiously-expected dinner.

As to the dinner itself--the mere dinner--it goes off much the same
everywhere. Tureens of soup are emptied with awful rapidity--
waiters take plates of turbot away, to get lobster-sauce, and bring
back plates of lobster-sauce without turbot; people who can carve
poultry, are great fools if they own it, and people who can't have
no wish to learn. The knives and forks form a pleasing
accompaniment to Auber's music, and Auber's music would form a
pleasing accompaniment to the dinner, if you could hear anything
besides the cymbals. The substantials disappear--moulds of jelly
vanish like lightning--hearty eaters wipe their foreheads, and
appear rather overcome by their recent exertions--people who have
looked very cross hitherto, become remarkably bland, and ask you to
take wine in the most friendly manner possible--old gentlemen
direct your attention to the ladies' gallery, and take great pains
to impress you with the fact that the charity is always peculiarly
favoured in this respect--every one appears disposed to become
talkative--and the hum of conversation is loud and general.

'Pray, silence, gentlemen, if you please, for Non nobis!' shouts
the toast-master with stentorian lungs--a toast-master's shirt-
front, waistcoat, and neckerchief, by-the-bye, always exhibit three
distinct shades of cloudy-white.--'Pray, silence, gentlemen, for
Non nobis!' The singers, whom you discover to be no other than the
very party that excited your curiosity at first, after 'pitching'
their voices immediately begin TOO-TOOing most dismally, on which
the regular old stagers burst into occasional cries of--'Sh--Sh--
waiters!--Silence, waiters--stand still, waiters--keep back,
waiters,' and other exorcisms, delivered in a tone of indignant
remonstrance. The grace is soon concluded, and the company resume
their seats. The uninitiated portion of the guests applaud Non
nobis as vehemently as if it were a capital comic song, greatly to
the scandal and indignation of the regular diners, who immediately
attempt to quell this sacrilegious approbation, by cries of 'Hush,
hush!' whereupon the others, mistaking these sounds for hisses,
applaud more tumultuously than before, and, by way of placing their
approval beyond the possibility of doubt, shout 'Encore!' most
vociferously.

The moment the noise ceases, up starts the toast-master:-
'Gentlemen, charge your glasses, if you please!' Decanters having
been handed about, and glasses filled, the toast-master proceeds,
in a regular ascending scale:- 'Gentlemen--AIR--you--all charged?
Pray--silence--gentlemen--for--the cha-i-r!' The chairman rises,
and, after stating that he feels it quite unnecessary to preface
the toast he is about to propose, with any observations whatever,
wanders into a maze of sentences, and flounders about in the most
extraordinary manner, presenting a lamentable spectacle of
mystified humanity, until he arrives at the words, 'constitutional
sovereign of these realms,' at which elderly gentlemen exclaim
'Bravo!' and hammer the table tremendously with their knife-
handles. 'Under any circumstances, it would give him the greatest
pride, it would give him the greatest pleasure--he might almost
say, it would afford him satisfaction [cheers] to propose that
toast. What must be his feelings, then, when he has the
gratification of announcing, that he has received her Majesty's
commands to apply to the Treasurer of her Majesty's Household, for
her Majesty's annual donation of 25l. in aid of the funds of this
charity!' This announcement (which has been regularly made by
every chairman, since the first foundation of the charity, forty-
two years ago) calls forth the most vociferous applause; the toast
is drunk with a great deal of cheering and knocking; and 'God save
the Queen' is sung by the 'professional gentlemen;' the
unprofessional gentlemen joining in the chorus, and giving the
national anthem an effect which the newspapers, with great justice,
describe as 'perfectly electrical.'

The other 'loyal and patriotic' toasts having been drunk with all
due enthusiasm, a comic song having been well sung by the gentleman
with the small neckerchief, and a sentimental one by the second of
the party, we come to the most important toast of the evening--
'Prosperity to the charity.' Here again we are compelled to adopt
newspaper phraseology, and to express our regret at being
'precluded from giving even the substance of the noble lord's
observations.' Suffice it to say, that the speech, which is
somewhat of the longest, is rapturously received; and the toast
having been drunk, the stewards (looking more important than ever)
leave the room, and presently return, heading a procession of
indigent orphans, boys and girls, who walk round the room,
curtseying, and bowing, and treading on each other's heels, and
looking very much as if they would like a glass of wine apiece, to
the high gratification of the company generally, and especially of
the lady patronesses in the gallery. Exeunt children, and re-enter
stewards, each with a blue plate in his hand. The band plays a
lively air; the majority of the company put their hands in their
pockets and look rather serious; and the noise of sovereigns,
rattling on crockery, is heard from all parts of the room.

After a short interval, occupied in singing and toasting, the
secretary puts on his spectacles, and proceeds to read the report
and list of subscriptions, the latter being listened to with great
attention. 'Mr. Smith, one guinea--Mr. Tompkins, one guinea--Mr.
Wilson, one guinea--Mr. Hickson, one guinea--Mr. Nixon, one
guinea--Mr. Charles Nixon, one guinea--[hear, hear!]--Mr. James
Nixon, one guinea--Mr. Thomas Nixon, one pound one [tremendous
applause]. Lord Fitz Binkle, the chairman of the day, in addition
to an annual donation of fifteen pounds--thirty guineas [prolonged
knocking: several gentlemen knock the stems off their wine-
glasses, in the vehemence of their approbation]. Lady, Fitz
Binkle, in addition to an annual donation of ten pound--twenty
pound' [protracted knocking and shouts of 'Bravo!'] The list being
at length concluded, the chairman rises, and proposes the health of
the secretary, than whom he knows no more zealous or estimable
individual. The secretary, in returning thanks, observes that HE
knows no more excellent individual than the chairman--except the
senior officer of the charity, whose health HE begs to propose.
The senior officer, in returning thanks, observes that HE knows no
more worthy man than the secretary--except Mr. Walker, the auditor,
whose health HE begs to propose. Mr. Walker, in returning thanks,
discovers some other estimable individual, to whom alone the senior
officer is inferior--and so they go on toasting and lauding and
thanking: the only other toast of importance being 'The Lady
Patronesses now present!' on which all the gentlemen turn their
faces towards the ladies' gallery, shouting tremendously; and
little priggish men, who have imbibed more wine than usual, kiss
their hands and exhibit distressing contortions of visage.

We have protracted our dinner to so great a length, that we have
hardly time to add one word by way of grace. We can only entreat
our readers not to imagine, because we have attempted to extract
some amusement from a charity dinner, that we are at all disposed
to underrate, either the excellence of the benevolent institutions
with which London abounds, or the estimable motives of those who
support them.

Charles Dickens