Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter xix

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.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30