Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

Chapter V

The Parlour Orator

We had been lounging one evening, down Oxford-street, Holborn, Cheapside, Coleman-street, Finsbury-square, and so on, with the intention of returning westward, by Pentonville and the New-road, when we began to feel rather thirsty, and disposed to rest for five or ten minutes. So, we turned back towards an old, quiet, decent public-house, which we remembered to have passed but a moment before (it was not far from the City-road), for the purpose of solacing ourself with a glass of ale. The house was none of your stuccoed, French-polished, illuminated palaces, but a modest public-house of the old school, with a little old bar, and a little old landlord, who, with a wife and daughter of the same pattern, was comfortably seated in the bar aforesaid — a snug little room with a cheerful fire, protected by a large screen: from behind which the young lady emerged on our representing our inclination for a glass of ale.

‘Won’t you walk into the parlour, sir?’ said the young lady, in seductive tones.

‘You had better walk into the parlour, sir,’ said the little old landlord, throwing his chair back, and looking round one side of the screen, to survey our appearance.

‘You had much better step into the parlour, sir,’ said the little old lady, popping out her head, on the other side of the screen.

We cast a slight glance around, as if to express our ignorance of the locality so much recommended. The little old landlord observed it; bustled out of the small door of the small bar; and forthwith ushered us into the parlour itself.

It was an ancient, dark-looking room, with oaken wainscoting, a sanded floor, and a high mantel-piece. The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water. Depending from the ceiling in the centre of the room, were a gas-light and bell-pull; on each side were three or four long narrow tables, behind which was a thickly-planted row of those slippery, shiny-looking wooden chairs, peculiar to hostelries of this description. The monotonous appearance of the sanded boards was relieved by an occasional spittoon; and a triangular pile of those useful articles adorned the two upper corners of the apartment.

At the furthest table, nearest the fire, with his face towards the door at the bottom of the room, sat a stoutish man of about forty, whose short, stiff, black hair curled closely round a broad high forehead, and a face to which something besides water and exercise had communicated a rather inflamed appearance. He was smoking a cigar, with his eyes fixed on the ceiling, and had that confident oracular air which marked him as the leading politician, general authority, and universal anecdote-relater, of the place. He had evidently just delivered himself of something very weighty; for the remainder of the company were puffing at their respective pipes and cigars in a kind of solemn abstraction, as if quite overwhelmed with the magnitude of the subject recently under discussion.

On his right hand sat an elderly gentleman with a white head, and broad-brimmed brown hat; on his left, a sharp-nosed, light-haired man in a brown surtout reaching nearly to his heels, who took a whiff at his pipe, and an admiring glance at the red-faced man, alternately.

‘Very extraordinary!’ said the light-haired man after a pause of five minutes. A murmur of assent ran through the company.

‘Not at all extraordinary — not at all,’ said the red-faced man, awakening suddenly from his reverie, and turning upon the light-haired man, the moment he had spoken.

‘Why should it be extraordinary? — why is it extraordinary? — prove it to be extraordinary!’

‘Oh, if you come to that — ‘ said the light-haired man, meekly.

‘Come to that!’ ejaculated the man with the red face; ‘but we MUST come to that. We stand, in these times, upon a calm elevation of intellectual attainment, and not in the dark recess of mental deprivation. Proof, is what I require — proof, and not assertions, in these stirring times. Every gen’lem’n that knows me, knows what was the nature and effect of my observations, when it was in the contemplation of the Old-street Suburban Representative Discovery Society, to recommend a candidate for that place in Cornwall there — I forget the name of it. “Mr. Snobee,” said Mr. Wilson, “is a fit and proper person to represent the borough in Parliament.” “Prove it,” says I. “He is a friend to Reform,” says Mr. Wilson. “Prove it,” says I. “The abolitionist of the national debt, the unflinching opponent of pensions, the uncompromising advocate of the negro, the reducer of sinecures and the duration of Parliaments; the extender of nothing but the suffrages of the people,” says Mr. Wilson. “Prove it,” says I. “His acts prove it,” says he. “Prove THEM,” says I.

‘And he could not prove them,’ said the red-faced man, looking round triumphantly; ‘and the borough didn’t have him; and if you carried this principle to the full extent, you’d have no debt, no pensions, no sinecures, no negroes, no nothing. And then, standing upon an elevation of intellectual attainment, and having reached the summit of popular prosperity, you might bid defiance to the nations of the earth, and erect yourselves in the proud confidence of wisdom and superiority. This is my argument — this always has been my argument — and if I was a Member of the House of Commons to-morrow, I’d make ’em shake in their shoes with it. And the red-faced man, having struck the table very hard with his clenched fist, to add weight to the declaration, smoked away like a brewery.

‘Well!’ said the sharp-nosed man, in a very slow and soft voice, addressing the company in general, ‘I always do say, that of all the gentlemen I have the pleasure of meeting in this room, there is not one whose conversation I like to hear so much as Mr. Rogers’s, or who is such improving company.’

‘Improving company!’ said Mr. Rogers, for that, it seemed, was the name of the red-faced man. ‘You may say I am improving company, for I’ve improved you all to some purpose; though as to my conversation being as my friend Mr. Ellis here describes it, that is not for me to say anything about. You, gentlemen, are the best judges on that point; but this I will say, when I came into this parish, and first used this room, ten years ago, I don’t believe there was one man in it, who knew he was a slave — and now you all know it, and writhe under it. Inscribe that upon my tomb, and I am satisfied.’

‘Why, as to inscribing it on your tomb,’ said a little greengrocer with a chubby face, ‘of course you can have anything chalked up, as you likes to pay for, so far as it relates to yourself and your affairs; but, when you come to talk about slaves, and that there abuse, you’d better keep it in the family, ‘cos I for one don’t like to be called them names, night after night.’

‘You ARE a slave,’ said the red-faced man, ‘and the most pitiable of all slaves.’

‘Werry hard if I am,’ interrupted the greengrocer, ‘for I got no good out of the twenty million that was paid for ‘mancipation, anyhow.’

‘A willing slave,’ ejaculated the red-faced man, getting more red with eloquence, and contradiction — ‘resigning the dearest birthright of your children — neglecting the sacred call of Liberty — who, standing imploringly before you, appeals to the warmest feelings of your heart, and points to your helpless infants, but in vain.’

‘Prove it,’ said the greengrocer.

‘Prove it!’ sneered the man with the red face. ‘What! bending beneath the yoke of an insolent and factious oligarchy; bowed down by the domination of cruel laws; groaning beneath tyranny and oppression on every hand, at every side, and in every corner. Prove it! — ‘ The red-faced man abruptly broke off, sneered melo-dramatically, and buried his countenance and his indignation together, in a quart pot.

‘Ah, to be sure, Mr. Rogers,’ said a stout broker in a large waistcoat, who had kept his eyes fixed on this luminary all the time he was speaking. ‘Ah, to be sure,’ said the broker with a sigh, ‘that’s the point.’

‘Of course, of course,’ said divers members of the company, who understood almost as much about the matter as the broker himself.

‘You had better let him alone, Tommy,’ said the broker, by way of advice to the little greengrocer; ‘he can tell what’s o’clock by an eight-day, without looking at the minute hand, he can. Try it on, on some other suit; it won’t do with him, Tommy.’

‘What is a man?’ continued the red-faced specimen of the species, jerking his hat indignantly from its peg on the wall. ‘What is an Englishman? Is he to be trampled upon by every oppressor? Is he to be knocked down at everybody’s bidding? What’s freedom? Not a standing army. What’s a standing army? Not freedom. What’s general happiness? Not universal misery. Liberty ain’t the window-tax, is it? The Lords ain’t the Commons, are they?’ And the red-faced man, gradually bursting into a radiating sentence, in which such adjectives as ‘dastardly,’ ‘oppressive,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘sanguinary,’ formed the most conspicuous words, knocked his hat indignantly over his eyes, left the room, and slammed the door after him.

‘Wonderful man!’ said he of the sharp nose.

‘Splendid speaker!’ added the broker.

‘Great power!’ said everybody but the greengrocer. And as they said it, the whole party shook their heads mysteriously, and one by one retired, leaving us alone in the old parlour.

If we had followed the established precedent in all such instances, we should have fallen into a fit of musing, without delay. The ancient appearance of the room — the old panelling of the wall — the chimney blackened with smoke and age — would have carried us back a hundred years at least, and we should have gone dreaming on, until the pewter-pot on the table, or the little beer-chiller on the fire, had started into life, and addressed to us a long story of days gone by. But, by some means or other, we were not in a romantic humour; and although we tried very hard to invest the furniture with vitality, it remained perfectly unmoved, obstinate, and sullen. Being thus reduced to the unpleasant necessity of musing about ordinary matters, our thoughts reverted to the red-faced man, and his oratorical display.

A numerous race are these red-faced men; there is not a parlour, or club-room, or benefit society, or humble party of any kind, without its red-faced man. Weak-pated dolts they are, and a great deal of mischief they do to their cause, however good. So, just to hold a pattern one up, to know the others by, we took his likeness at once, and put him in here. And that is the reason why we have written this paper.

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