THE CONFESSIONS OF A DINER.
My First City Dinner-A
Minnow against the Stream-Those Table
City Alderman, Past and Present-Whistler’s
Volumes-Exchanging Names-Ye Red
Oysters-The Sound Money Dinner-To
Lunch at Washington-No Speeches.
THE THIRTEEN CLUB-What it
was-How it was Boomed-Gruesome
Absentees-My Reasons for being Present-’Arry
of Punch-The Lost “Vocal”
Chords-The Undergraduate and the Undertaker-Model
Speeches-Albert Smith An Atlantic
Contradiction-The White Horse-The
White Feather-Exit 13.
Probably no meal varies so much in
the time of its celebration as that most important
one, dinner. Some people still exist who dine
at one o’clock; some also there are who daily
observe that fearsome feast yclept “High Tea.”
The majority of people dine at various times ranging
between seven o’clock and half-past eight, but
there is one individual alone who dines at six.
It is the City Guilder. Time was when City princes
dwelt in City palaces, and rose at five, breakfasted
at seven, lunched at twelve, dined at five and retired
to rest at ten; but nowadays these magnates are lords
of the City from ten till four, and of the West End
and the suburbs for the remainder of the twenty-four
hours, and they would in the ordinary course of things
invite you to dinner at eight o’clock or so.
What inscrutable law, then, compels them to hold their
state dinners at the dread hour of six?
For it is at this time, when the ebb-tide
of humanity sets strongest from the City, that the
honoured guest of a City Company may be seen fighting
his way, like a minnow against stream, in a hansom
to his dinner at the hall of the Guild. Still,
he goes “where glory waits him,” so what
recks he that the hour is altogether uncongenial and
Nevertheless, I know as a matter of
fact that this earliness compels many invited guests
to decline the honour and pleasure of dining with a
“Gill” (as “Robert” would say),
who would without doubt accept the invitation were
the hours of the Guild as reasonable as their cuisine
Personally, however, it has often
been a pleasure to me to leave my easel at four o’clock
and prepare to meet my practical City patrons “on
their own midden” at “5.30 for 6.”
As an illustration I will record a
reminiscence of a very pleasant evening I once spent
in the City, when the festivities-save for
my having to make a speech-went off with
that success which is inseparable from City dinners.
Imprimis, I arrive in daylight and
evening dress. These two, like someone and holy
water, don’t agree, for not all the waters of
Geneva nor the arts of the queen of all blanchisseuses
can destroy the horrid contrast between a white tie
and a white shirt; yet another good argument in favour
of a reasonable dinner hour.
I hate being in a minority. More
especially do I detest being in such a decidedly pronounced
minority as one joins when one drives into the
City about six o’clock in the evening against
a vast current of toilers of commerce homeward bound.
It may be weak, but I feel it all the same. I
seem to divine the thoughts of the omnibus driver as
he gazes down upon me from his exalted perch-he
does not think my shirt is clean. His sixteen
“outsides” bestow upon me a supercilious
look that conveys to me that they opine I am merely
cabbing it to the station en route for a “suburban
hop.” But I bear up under it all, and think
of the magnificent banquet of which they, poor things,
know nothing, and I am beginning to feel quite proud
when a brute of a fellow in charge of a van catches
his wheel in that of my cab and nearly pitches me
out. I hurriedly decide to decline the next invitation
I receive for a City dinner.
However, I live to reach Cannon Street
and the mansion of the “Gill.”
I am soon ushered into the Cedar Room,
where I am received by the Master and the Wardens
in their robes.
I mingle with the Guilders and their
guests, and find the members of the Worshipful Company
informing their friends that they are now in the Cedar
Room; then they sniff, and the guests sniff and say
“Charming!” Then they remark, “What
a lot of pencils it would make!” and laugh, and
the artists present agree that City folks are shoppy.
On a side table the stranger sees
a number of what appear to him diagrams of City improvements,
with mains and drains and all sorts of things, but
on closer inspection they turn out to be the plans
of the table. You discover one bearing your name,
and opposite it a red cross, or perhaps I ought to
say an exaggerated asterisk.
When you have taken your seat downstairs
in the Banqueting Hall you inspect your plan, from
which you find that you can tell who everybody is.
“Ah, seat Number 24, the great Professor Snuffers!”
You direct your gaze across the table
to seat N, and lo! your cherished preconception
of the Professor vanishes instanter, for his bearing
is military, and his whole appearance seems to denote
muscle rather than mind.
This plan opens up a mine of instruction
and information. You refer again, and next to
the Professor you find the “Master of the Scalpers’
“Dear, me, what a clerical-looking
old gentleman!” is your mental comment.
Next you look for “The Rev. Canon Dormouse.”
“Why, he’s quite a youth!
Can’t be more than five-and-twenty, and wears
a medal and an eye-glass! How types have changed!”
It occurs to you to open a conversation
with your next neighbour, which you do by making a
casual allusion to the Canon.
“Yes, dear old gentleman; does
a lot for the poor-life devoted to them.”
“Dear me, does he? Now
to my mind, judging from appearances, the Master of
the Scalpers’ Company seems more cut out for
that kind of work.”
“Ha! ha! He’s better at curing
hams than souls.”
“Well, I should not have thought
so, merely judging character as an artist. Professor
Snuffers seems to me also curiously unique. I
know a good many Professors, but I never met one so
anti-professional in appearance as that gentleman.”
“Ah, Snuffers! Old friend of mine-where
“There,” and you point
to the name on the plan and nod over to the other
side of the table.
“No, that’s not Snuffers!
I recollect now he told me he would not be able to
come. That’s Major Bangs, a guest asked
to fill a vacant chair.”
Similarly you find that the eye-glass
youth is not Canon Dormouse, the clerical-looking
gentleman not the Master of the Scalpers’
Company, and so on. Oh, they are a capital idea,
On the occasion in question I met
one of the Sheriffs of the City, who is also an Alderman-not
a fat, apoplectic, greasy, vulgar Cr[oe]sus,
but a handsome, thoughtful-looking gentleman, decidedly
under fifty, who might be anything but an Alderman.
But indeed the long-accepted type of an Alderman is
exploded-such a type, bursting with good
dinners, wealth and vulgarity, must explode-and
the ph[oe]nix which has risen from his ashes would
scarcely be recognised by the most liberal of naturalists
as belonging to the same species. John Leech may
have had living examples for his gross and repulsive
monuments of gluttony; in my own experience, however,
I find a gulf of great magnitude between the Alderman
of caricature and the Alderman I have met in the flesh.
The former has gone over to the majority of “four-bottle
men” and other bygone phenomena.
Well, let us return to the dinner.
The fare is excellent, the company delightful, and
I am just revelling in that beatific state of mind
born of a sufficiency of the good things of this earth,
when nothing seems to me more pleasant than a City
dinner, when I am tapped upon the shoulder by the
Toastmaster, who bears a warrant to consign me to misery.
I have to make a speech. I have passed through
the ordeal before, but I find that familiarity, as
far as speech-making is concerned, breeds no contempt.
Between the City and the art in which I am interested
there exists no affinity, and this perhaps is a blessing
in disguise, as for once in a way one is of necessity
compelled to “sink the shop.” However,
it is soon over. A plunge, a gasp or two, a few
quick strokes, and I am through the breakers and on
the shore-I mean on my seat. That was
years ago-I am an old hand now.
I never could subscribe to that unwritten
and unhonoured law which provides that an after-dinner
speaker is entitled to five minutes in which to apologise
for his incompetency in that capacity, and fifty-five
minutes in which to speechify; and I have often wished
that speechmakers one and all would recollect that
a few words well-chosen and to the point, and a timely
termination, are far more acceptable to the listener
than all their maundering oratorical tours “from
China to Peru,” from the Mansion House to the
moon. When I am going to a City dinner my own
children show a lively interest to know the name of
the Company, and if I name the Skinners’ Guild
their interest culminates in uproarious delight; but
if I mention any other, most uncomplimentary groans
greet the announcement, for the guests of the Company
to which I refer can choose either to take or have
sent to them a huge box of the choicest sweetmeats
when the entertainment is over.
A propos of this, I recollect
an incident the mention of which will, I fear, send
a cold shudder through any worshipper of “Nubian”
nocturnes and incomprehensible “arrangements.”
On one occasion after leaving the banquet of this
Guild I beheld Whistler-“Jimmy”
of the snowy tuft, the martyred butterfly of the “peacock
room”-to whose impressionable soul
the very thought of a sugar-stick should be direst
agony, actually making his way homewards hugging a
great box of lollipops!
I met a curious City man, not at a
City dinner, but at “Ye Odd Volumes,”
where we both happened to be guests. He was certainly
an odd-looking guest, a very old volume out-of-date-odd-fashioned
overcoat with gold buttons, an odd-fashioned “stock,”
and an odd-looking shirt. While waiting for dinner
he looked at me oddly, and eventually addressed me
in this odd way:
“Sir, may I have the pleasure
of exchanging names with you?”
“Why, certainly; my name is Harry Furniss.”
“H’m, ha, eh, ha!” and he walked
After dinner came the speeches.
As each guest was called upon, my odd friend was to
his evident chagrin not named; I noticed from time
to time the old gentleman was elevated-sitting
high. At last, after I had returned thanks for
the visitors, he rose and asked to be allowed to speak.
He said something nice about me-the reason
he explained to me later. The burthen of his
speech was a protest that he had not seen one odd
volume that night. “If you’ve got
’em, produce ’em. Ah!” (snapping
his fingers at the company in general) “I don’t
think you know what an odd volume is!” And then
turning round he placed on the table a huge volume
on which he had been sitting all through dinner.
“There,” he said, “that’s
an odd volume if you like-that’s something
unique. It contains 9,987 hotel bills-a
chronicle (of my hotel expenses) for two-thirds of
the present century.”
Later he came round to me. He
assured me that he didn’t catch my name when
he asked for it, but when I was speaking he recognised
me and was glad to have the opportunity of making
my acquaintance. It appeared he had bought many
hundreds of “Romps” books for children
and given them to Children’s Hospitals and other
institutions. So he had besides an odd volume
a good heart-and what is more surprising,
a watch in every pocket! Watch-collecting was
his hobby, and, like a conjuror, he produced them
from the most unexpected and mysterious places.
One belonged to the Emperor Maximilian, and had in
its case moving figures to strike the time. I
confess I wished he had exchanged watches with me
in place of names. His name, by the way, was Holborn;
he was a well-known City tea-merchant.
When I visited Leeds for the British
Association Meeting, I was made a member of Ye Red
Lyon Clubbe, a dining club which I understand meets
once a year as a relief to the daily monotony of the
serious business of the Association-in
fact, “for one night only” the British
Ass. assumes the Lion’s skin. To see learned
Professors who have been dilating for hours and days
on the most abstruse scientific subjects, with the
most solemn faces, amidst the dullest surroundings,
suddenly appear wagging their dress-coat tails to
represent the tail of the hungry lion, and emitting
the most extraordinary mournful, growling sounds, the
nearest approach at imitating the roar of the lion,
and otherwise behaving like a lot of schoolboys on
the night before the holidays, is certainly a scene
not familiar to the thousands who belong to the British
Burlesque-scientific speeches are
made after dinner, and although there are generally
some practical jokes in chemical illustrations, the
merry wits do not tamper with the dinner itself further
than preparing a most excellent burlesque menu, which
I take the liberty of here introducing:
Issued Tuesday Evening,
September 9th, 1890, at 5.30 p.m.
SECTION A... Hors
SECTION B... Puree
a la Princesse-Hydracid Halogen.
SECTION C... Boiled
SECTION D... Kromesky
a la Russe-Androgynous Cones.
Saute a la Chasseur-Chytridian Woronina.
SECTION E... Braised
Fillet of Beef-Lobengula Lion.
Saddle of Mutton-Native Kalahari.
SECTION F... Grouse-Statistics
SECTION G... _Savarin
a l’Abricot_-Diamagnetic amperes.
Maids of Honour-Kinetic
the Elastic Limit.
SECTION H... Ice Pudding-Prognathous
-, } Jackals.
Somebody has said that an Englishman
will find any excuse to give a dinner, but my experience
has been that this is truer of Americans. I have
been the guest of many extraordinary dining clubs,
but as the most unique I select the Pointed Beards
of New York. To club and dine together because
one has hair cut in a particular way is the raison
d’etre of the club; there is nothing heroic,
nothing artistic or particularly intellectual.
It is not even a club to discuss hirsute adornments;
such a club might be made as interesting as any other,
provided the members were clever.
That most delightful of litterateurs,
Mr. James Payn, once interested himself, and with
his pen his readers, in that charming way of his, on
the all-important question, “Where do shavers
learn their business? Upon whom do they practise?”
After most careful investigation he answers the question,
“The neophytes try their prentice hands upon
their fellow barbers.” That may be the
rule, but every rule has an exception, and I happened
once to be the unfortunate layman when a budding and
inexperienced barber practised his art upon me.
I sat in the chair of a hairdresser’s not a
hundred miles from Regent Street. I had selected
a highly respectable, thoroughly English establishment,
as I was tired of being held by the nose by foreigners’
fingers saturated with the nicotine of bad cigarettes.
I entered gaily, and to my delight a fresh-looking
British youth tied me up in the chair of torture, lathered
my chin, and began operations. I was not aware
of the fact that I was being made a chopping-block
of until the youth, agitated and extremely nervous,
produced a huge piece of lint and commenced dabbing
patches of it upon my countenance. Then I looked
at myself in the glass. Good heavens! Was
I gazing upon myself, or was it some German student,
lacerated and bleeding after a sanguinary duel?
I stormed and raged, and called for the proprietor,
who was gentle and sorry and apologetic, and explained
to me that the boy must begin upon somebody, and I
unfortunately was the first victim! I allow my
beard to grow now.
Otherwise I should not have been eligible
for the New York Pointed Beards, for no qualification
is necessary except that one wear a beard cut to a
The tables were ornamented with lamps
having shades cut to represent pointed beards.
A toy goat, the emblem of the club, was the centre
decoration. We had the “Head Barber,”
and, of course, any amount of soft soap. A leading
Republican was in the barber’s chair, and during
dinner some sensation was caused by one of the guests
being discovered wearing a false beard. He was
immediately seized and ejected until after the dinner,
when he returned with his music. It so happened
we had present a member of the Italian Opera, with
his beautiful pointed beard, and he had also a beautiful
voice. But New York could not supply an accompanist
with a pointed beard! So a false beard was preferred
to false notes. The speeches were pointed, but
not cut as short as the beard-rather too
pointed and too long. It was just after the Bryan
political crisis. The leading politician in the
chair and one of the guests, a political leader writer,
who had not met-not even at their barber’s-since
the election, had some electioneering dispute to settle.
Americans, unlike us, drag politics into everything.
Take away this peculiarity and you take away two-thirds
of their excellent after-dinner speaking. The
Pointed Beards may have something to do with the matter.
The two lost their temper, and the evening was all
but ruined thereby, when a happy thought struck me.
Although as the guest of the evening I had spoken,
I rose again to apologise for being an Englishman!
I confessed that I had listened to the two speeches,
but their brilliancy and wit were entirely lost upon
me; the subtle humour of the American passed an Englishman’s
understanding. Their personalities and political
passages were no doubt ingenious “bluff,”
but so cleverly serious and so well acted that I had
for four-fifths of the acrimonious speeches been entirely
taken in. At this all laughed loud at my stupidity,
and the evening ended pleasantly.
The secretary of this dinner, which
was a most excellent one, was the celebrated Delmonico,
but it was not held at his famous restaurant.
To have been complete it ought really to have been
held in a barber’s shop, for some of those establishments
in America are palatial, and even minor barbers’
shops are utilised in a curious way. One Sunday
afternoon as I was taking a walk I overheard some
singing in a shop devoted to hair dressing, and looking
in I saw an extraordinary sight. There were about
a dozen old ladies seated in the barbers’ chairs,
with their backs to the looking-glasses and brushes,
singing hymns. It was a meeting of the Plymouth
Brethren, who hired the shop for their devotions!
Of course at the Pointed Beards’
dinner in New York we had oysters with beards-but
no American dinner is complete without their famous
oysters. Unfortunately I have to make the extraordinary
confession that I never tasted an oyster in my life,
and as I am touching upon gastronomy, I may also mention
that I never touch cheese, or hare, or rabbit, or eel,
and I would have to be in the last stage of starvation
before I could eat cold lamb or cold veal; so it will
be seen by these confessions that my cook’s
berth is not a sinecure, and that these complimentary
dinners, as dinners, are to a great extent wasted
upon me. I once, in fact, was asked to a dinner
at a club, and I could not touch one single dish!
But my friends kindly provided some impromptu dishes
without cheese or oysters and other, to me, objectionable
things. I was not so lucky in Baltimore.
We all know Baltimore is celebrated for its oysters,
and the night I arrived a dinner was given to me at
the Baltimore Club, which opened as usual with dishes
of magnificent oysters. The head waiter, a well-known
figure, an old “darkie” with grey hair,
placed a dish of oysters down before me with pride,
and stood to watch my delight. I beckoned to
him to take them away. He seized the dish and
examined the oysters; got another dish, placed them
before me. I again requested him to remove them.
This happened a third time. I then told him plainly
and emphatically that I did not eat oysters.
By this time my host and his guests were at their
third course, and I and the head waiter were still
discussing oysters. My host did not notice this,
as he was at the other end of the table, and there
were many floral decorations between us; but I made
bold to inform him of the fact that the waiter had
not only taken away my plates but had removed my glasses,
knives and forks, and left me with a bare cloth and
no dinner. My host had to call the waiter out
of the room and remonstrate with him, but it required
some time and a great deal of persuasion before I,
the guest of the evening, was allowed to begin my
dinner when they were finishing theirs. It transpired
that the humorous paper of Baltimore had published
the impressions I would receive on visiting their
great city, and prominently was a caricature of myself
swallowing my first Baltimore oyster. This so
interested the waiters of the club that they selected
the largest for me, and were so disappointed at my
refusing them that they punished me in the same way
as Sancho Panza was punished before me.
Perhaps the most extraordinary dinner
I ever took part in was held in New York on November
3rd, 1896, when twelve leading Democrats and twelve
Republicans sat down on the night of the most sensational
election that has ever taken place in the United States.
English readers will hardly realise what such a combination
meant. The only parallel in this country was
probably caused by Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule
Bill, when leading Liberals and Conservatives stood
on the same platform. But that was the result
of a purely political question; political questions
of that national character do not interest the better-class
American. For instance, on my first visit to
America I sat next to a very influential New Yorker
at dinner. At that time also elections were pending,
and I casually asked my acquaintance what he thought
of the situation. He raised his eyebrows with
great surprise and said:
“Pardon me, sir, we take no
interest in politics here; we leave that to our valets.”
I met that man the day of this dinner
four years later. He was positively ill with
excitement; he could talk of nothing but politics.
Party emblems decorated his coat; every pocket was
full of pamphlets-he had been working night
and day to defeat Bryan. His valet, no doubt,
was sleeping soundly the sleep of indifference-nothing
to lose or nothing to gain should Bryan succeed.
The silver scare of Bryan’s touched the pockets,
not the politics, of the prosperous; and that touch
is the one touch that makes the whole American world
It happened that I was dining at the
house of the chairman of this unique dinner ten days
before the election, and he was telling us of the
coming election-night dinner as the most extraordinary
in the history of their politics. To my surprise,
days afterwards, I received an invitation. They
all had to be consulted, and agreed that I was the
only outsider they would allow to be present.
The dinner was held in an hotel in
the centre of New York, and special permission had
been given to have the room next to the one in which
we dined turned into a telegraph office, where all
the messages going to the central office were tapped,
and we knew the result in the room as soon as it was
known at the central office. Perhaps I was the
only one present thoroughly indifferent, and certainly
the only one who enjoyed his dinner. Speeches
were indulged in even earlier than usual, and one
of them had the portentous title of “England”
coupled with my name! I rose and said that I
felt exactly like a man who had been invited to a
country house, and on his arrival was met by his friend
on the doorstep with a long face and a cold, nervous
hand. He was glad to see you, but had sad news:
his wife was lying between life and death, and the
doctors were round her bedside. Now, under such
circumstances, one does not exactly feel one can make
one’s self at home. I assured my listeners
that at the moment the Republic was lying in a critical
condition, doctors were at her bedside, and it would
be settled before midnight whether she was to live
or die. If they would allow me I would rise later,
and I trusted then my friends would be in a more genial
and less excited mood. I had the pleasure of
continuing my speech late that night, and congratulating
them on the Republic having survived the Bryan crisis.
To describe the scenes after dinner
when the results were announced, if I had a pen capable
of so doing, would simply dub me in the minds of many
readers as a second de Rougemont.
Late that night I reached the waterside.
The North River was ablaze with red and blue lights,
and rockets shot into the darkness from either shore.
Every ferry-boat, tug-boat, scow, or barge in the harbour
passed in an endless procession. The air quivered
with the bellowings of fog-horns, steam whistles,
and sirens. It was indescribable; language fails
me. I can only quote the words of the New York
paper with “the largest circulation in the world”:
“The wind-whipped waters of river and harbour
glowed last night with the reflection of a myriad lights
set aflame for the glory of the new sound and golden
dollar. East and west, north and south, dazzling
streams of fire played in fantastic curves across
the heavens, and beneath this canopy of streaming flame
moved a mammoth fleet of steam craft, great and small.”
As I laid my aching head on my pillow
I murmured: “Had I been an American citizen,
much as I believe in sound currency and an honest
dollar, one more rocket, a few more fog-horns, and
I should have cast my vote for Bryan and Free Silver!”
At this dinner I contrasted the look
of anxiety with the callous indifference of a face
I had watched under similar but still more unique
circumstances a few years before: the face of
the chief of French poseurs-General
Boulanger-whom I was asked to meet at dinner
in London. It happened to be the night the result
of his defeat at the polls was made known. He
sat, the one man out of the score-and-five concerned;
but as telegrams were handed to him, of defeat, not
success, he never showed any signs of interest.
A few years afterwards, when on tour
with my lecture-entertainments, I “put in”
a week in the Channel Islands, under the management
of a gentleman who had been intimately acquainted
with Boulanger when he was a political recluse in
Jersey; and one afternoon he drove me to the charming
villa the General had occupied, situated in an ideal
spot on the coast. The villa was most solidly
built, and of picturesque architecture-the
freak of a rich Parisian merchant, who had spared no
pains or money over it. The work both inside and
out was that of the best artists Paris could supply.
It was magnificently furnished-a museum
of beautiful objects, and curious ones, too. One
bedroom was a model of an officer’s apartments
on board a man-of-war, even to the water (painted)
splashing through a porthole. Another bedroom
was a replica of an officer’s tent. These
were designed and furnished for the sons of the Parisian
merchant, who for some domestic reason never went
near his petite palace. He lent it to Boulanger,
and there he lived the life of an exiled monarch.
The place has never been touched since he walked out
of it. In the stateroom, in which he received
political deputations of his supporters from France,
the chairs were arranged in a semi-circle round the
table at which he sat when he received the last one.
On the blotter was his speech, and a sheet of paper
on which was written the address of the retreat.
This was given to me, and here I reproduce it:-
We had coffee on the balcony, served
out of china which had on it his monogram, and silver
spoons with his crest. I did not pocket the spoons,
nor the powder-puff of Madame, and other relics lying
about; the rooms remained as they were left, even
to gowns in the wardrobe. The delightful garden,
cut out of the rocks, had run wild. The grapes
hung in clusters, the flowers were one mass of colour,
the paths were covered with grass. Below stood
the summer-house where Madame drank her tea. In
one corner on a wall was a small target with revolver
bullet marks all over it, the result of the General’s
practice, when possibly he used the same revolver
which he turned upon himself at the tomb of Madame
de Bonnemain, in the cemetery at Ixelles, Brussels.
It would be impossible for me in a
short chapter to deal with all the interesting dinners
and other entertainments I have attended; but I must
confess that I was immensely flattered by a lunch given
to me in Washington by the Rev. Dr. Wesley R. Davis,
the well-known Albany preacher, who had retired from
the pulpit and become an official of the Postal Department
The novelty of this lunch was the
idea of the chairman to sandwich each course with
a story. We began with some very fine and large
Lynhaven oysters. We English, with one exception,
have no appreciation of the size of these huge American
oysters. That one exception was Thackeray.
And I may safely say that I never sat down to a meal
in America and expressed my surprise at the size of
the oysters (which I purposely did) but that someone
told me what Thackeray said of them. On this occasion
I was told the story by none other than General Horace
Porter, one of the best if not the greatest of all
raconteurs in the United States. Here
“You know what Thackeray said
when he first saw one of our oysters,-that
he felt in eating it he was swallowing a new-born baby.”
After the green turtle Mr. Willard,
the well-known actor, was called upon, and related
a brace of capital theatrical stories.
After Carolina shad and pommes
Parisienne I was called to my legs. Now there
is nothing so depressing as telling stories or making
speeches at two o’clock in the afternoon.
General Porter remarked that he could never tell a
story till after eleven o’clock at night.
He managed, however, to tell several of his best on
this occasion. As the gallant General will tell
them again, and I trust many times, I shall not publish
them here. Mine are not worth repeating.
As I said, I felt at the moment something like a well-known
literary celebrity distinguished for his capital Scotch
tales and his conversational brevity. He was
invited to meet the late James Payn, who had expressed
such a strong desire to make his acquaintance that
he agreed to dine at the Reform Club (which he had
not done for a considerable time), and this was only
arranged by their giving him the same waiter and allowing
him to sit at the same table he was in the habit of
having at lunch every day. The others were Sir
Wemyss Reid and Sir John Robinson, of the Daily
News. The four enjoyed a capital dinner.
Payn, Sir Wemyss and Sir John were at their best,
but the guest never made a remark. However, towards
the end of the dinner, he put his knife and fork down,
looked round, and said, “This is the very first
time in my life I have sat down with three editors.”
This was all his conversation.
I was referring to the fact that brevity
is the soul of wit, and that the Scotch author’s
remark about the three editors expressed my fear in
addressing so many members of the Government as were
Then came the pheasant, and before
we had quite relished the excellence of the celery
salad that favourite American comedian, W. H. Crane,
mixed a salad of stories which were highly relished.
I shall pass over his theatrical stories and select
two which followed, and which are so typical of American
humour, that I give them in full.
A poor man on tramp in the country
one fine July day staggered in an exhausted state
into the garden of a rich old lady, and falling on
his hands and knees on the grass plot at the feet
of the lady, pulled himself along biting at the grass
like a half-starved animal.
“My good man,” the lady
said, “why do you eat the grass in that way?
Are you really so hungry?”
“Madam,” cried the man, looking up, “I
“Poor man, poor man!”
remarked the lady, with a look of pity. “My
eyes fill with tears-my heart bleeds for
you. Go round to the kitchen door, go round to
the kitchen door, the grass is longer there!”
The other referred to the darkie railway
hand who had by degrees worked into a position at
the depot (pronounced day-po, de-pot or de-poo),
where he strutted about in a costume embellished with
gold lace. An English tourist (oh, those poor
fools-English tourists!) was standing by
the rails as an express train flew past at ninety miles
an hour-s-c-h-w-r-r-r-r! and in a second
was lost to sight.
“Ah!” remarked the English
tourist to the gentleman of colour. “The-ah,
train-ah, didn’t-ah, stop-ah,
“No sir, nebber eben hesitated!”
On May the 17th, 1888, I gave a dinner
at the Garrick Club to my fellow-workers on Punch,
and others,-a merry meeting of twenty-four.
Mr. F. C. Burnand was at the other end of the table,
and as the souffle glace aux fleurs d’oranges
heralded the near approach of the end of the dinner
I noticed a mischievous look in Burnand’s eyes,
and it struck me he intended to make a speech!
As there was no “object” in my giving the
dinner except a purely social one,-in fact
to reciprocate the hospitality of some present whom
I could not ask to my house in consequence of my wife’s
long illness,-I naturally felt extremely
anxious when I saw that Mr. Burnand intended introducing
speeches. I had sent a message to him that I
wished for none. My evening would be spoilt by
speeches, and even the witticisms of Burnand could
not save it-yet he was incorrigible.
I must pay him back! A happy thought struck me
as he was speaking. I sent for note-paper.
I, unobserved, tore it into strips and slipped the
pieces into my breast-pocket. When I rose I acted
being extremely nervous, assured my friends that I
had implored the “Vice” not to introduce
speeches, and with (true) feeling implored them not
to credit the “chicken and champagne” the
“Vice” had more than hinted at, and of
course said I was unaccustomed to speaking, etc.
I then fumbled about my pockets, and nervously produced
my “notes,” carefully laying them out
in a long column in front of me. My guests looked
with pity upon me, and their dismay was evident when
I began as follows: “I was born-I
was born-in 1854. I-I -”
(break down). Note N. “I came
to London-I came to London -”
“Hear, hear,” murmured the sufferers.
Another collapse,-I sought other “notes.”
“Art-art-Greek art -”
“Hear, hear, ha, ha!” (They were beginning
to guy me!)
(another painful pause). “Gentlemen, Punch -”
“Yes, yes, we know all about that!”
“Yes,” I said, “but,
gentlemen, before that toast is honoured I beg to
propose to you a toast. The toast, always the
premier toast in every gathering composed of
English gentlemen.” The joke was then mine.
In the most perfunctory and glib manner I gave the
Royal Toast. After it was duly honoured I gave
the second Loyal Toast, “The House of Lords,”
“The Houses of Parliament,” “The
Army, Navy and Reserve Forces,”-each
time calling upon some one or two to respond.
The reply for “The Navy,” I recollect,
fell to Sir Spencer Wells, who was originally in the
Navy. (The Army had a legitimate representative.)
We had Law, Art, Letters, Music, the Medical Profession,
Commerce, the Colonies, America (responded to by E.
A. Abbey)-in fact we had no fewer than twenty-four
toasts; twenty-four or more replies. But this
was only the first round! I was determined to
keep the speeches going and not to let Burnand say
another word. So I passed him over, and ignoring
his appeals from the chair, I got through-or
very nearly through-another score of speeches,
reinforced by Toole and others coming in after the
theatres, until the closure was moved and the meeting
Burnand and I rode to Mill Hill and
back the next morning, and he had to admit I had utterly
routed him. The victory was mine!
To keep up the flow of oratory in
the second series of speeches I had to call upon my
guests to speak to a different toast from the one they
replied to earlier. This added to the fun.
But the best-regulated humour, such as Burnand’s
introductory speech, often gives a false impression.
For instance, I actually managed to get Charles Keene
on to his legs,-I think I am right in saying
the only occasion on which he ever spoke. I coupled
his name with “Open Spaces” (Sir Robert
Hunter, the champion of “open spaces,”
had responded the first time). It struck me that
I was paying Keene a compliment when I referred to
his marvellous talent in depicting commons and fields
and vast spaces in his unequalled drawings of landscapes.
“Umph! Furniss, I see,
chaffs me about leaving so much white in my work-not
filled up with little figures like his.”
And I do not think he ever understood
I intended to compliment him.
Towards the end I received a memorandum
in pencil on a soiled piece of paper:
And he walked in-dear old Toole in an old
I have given many another sociable
dinner, but none with greater success than this at
which I turned Burnand’s accidentally unhappy
speech into a Happy Thought.
When I was offered the chairmanship
of the dinner of the London Thirteen Club, it was
with a light heart that I accepted. I was under
the impression that the dinner was to be a private
kind of affair-a small knot of men endowed
with common sense meeting to express their contempt
for ignorant and harmful superstition. I had already
had the honour of being elected an honorary member
of the Club, but somehow or other I had never attended
any of its gatherings, nor had I met with one of its
When the time came, it was with a
heavy heart that I fulfilled my promise. This
Thirteen Club idea, which hails from America, had in
the meantime been “boomed,” as our cousins
across the Herring Pond would put it, into an affair
of great magnitude. It was taken up by the Press,
and paragraphs, leaderettes and leaders appeared in
nearly every journal all over the country. This
is the style of paragraph I received through a Press
cutting agency from numberless papers:-
“Mr. W. H. Blanch, who has been
elected President of the London Thirteen Club for
the year 1894, is the promoter of an organised protest
against the popular superstition which led to the
formation of the Thirteen Club four years ago.
In his new position as President, Mr. Blanch has evidently
resolved upon a more vigorous and aggressive campaign
than that which has hitherto characterised the operations
of the Club, for the New Year’s dinner which
is announced to take place on Saturday, the 13th of
January, promises to be something altogether unique
as a social gathering. Mr. Harry Furniss, one
of the hon. members of the Club, will preside at this
dinner, which is announced to take place at the Holborn
Restaurant, and in room N. The members and
their friends will occupy 13 tables, with of course
13 at each table, and perhaps needless to say peacock
feathers will abound, whilst the knives and forks will
be crossed, and any quantity of salt will be split.
During the evening the toastmaster on this somewhat
memorable occasion, instead of informing the assembled
company that the Chairman will be happy to take wine
with them, will vary this stereotyped declaration
by announcing that the Chairman will be happy to spill
salt with them. The Club salt-cellars, it is
stated, are coffin-shaped, whilst the best ‘dim
religious light’ obtainable from skull-shaped
lamps will light up the banqueting-hall, before entering
which the company will pass under the Club ladder.
Other details too gruesome to mention will perhaps
only be revealed to the company who will sit down
to this weird feast, which promises to make a record,
nothing of the kind having yet been attempted in London.”
These paragraphs rather frightened me. What had
I let myself in for?
Where would it all end?
Then other notices, inspired no doubt
by the President, made their appearance from time
to time, and heaped upon my devoted head all manner
of responsibilities. Waiters suffering from obliquity
of vision were to be sought out and fastened on to
“The Secretary of the London
Thirteen Club has requested the manager of the Holborn
Restaurant to provide, if possible, cross-eyed waiters
on the occasion of the New Year’s dinner of
the Club over which Mr. Harry Furniss is announced
to preside on the 13th inst. Mr. Hamp, the manager,
while undertaking that the Chairman’s table shall
be waitered as requested, has grave doubts whether
the supply of waiters blessed in the way described
will be equal to the large demand so suddenly sprung
Other dreadful proposals there were,
too, “too gruesome to mention.” I
may at once frankly admit that I do not like the introduction
of the “gruesome” graveyard element.
The ladder we all had to walk under, the peacock’s
feathers, the black cat, the spilling of salt, breaking
of mirrors, presenting of knives, wearing of green
ties (not that I wore one-the colour doesn’t
suit my complexion) or opal rings, are fair fun, and
I think that in future it would be as well to limit
the satire to these ceremonies, to the exclusion of
the funereal part of the business. For badges
each wore in his button-hole a small coffin to which
dangled a skeleton, and peacock’s feathers.
In my opinion the peacock’s feathers would have
been sufficient for the purpose of the Club: the
only object I had in going to the dinner was to help
to prove that these stupid superstitions should be
killed by ridicule. I detest Humbug, and Superstition
is but another name for Humbug. I am a believer
in cremation, but that is no reason why I should hold
up to ridicule the clumsier and more unhealthy churchyard
burials about which so much sentiment exists.
It was amusing to note my absent superstitious
friends’ excuses for their non-appearance.
One declined because he had an important engagement
that he could not possibly put off on any account.
Late on the evening of the dinner I heard this same
gentleman grumbling because no one had turned up at
his club to play a game of billiards with him!
Another had fallen asleep and did not wake in time,
and a third had been unlucky with his speculations
of late, which he attributed to having seen the new
moon through glass, and therefore he declined to tempt
the fates further. Mr. George R. Sims, the well-known
“Dagonet,” betrayed sheer fright, as the
following letter will testify:
“MY DEAR SIR,-At
the last moment my courage fails me, and I return
the dinner ticket you
have so kindly sent me.
“If I had only myself to think
of, I would gladly come and defy the fates, and
do all that the members are pleased to do except wear
the green necktie suggested by my friend Mr. Sala
(that would not suit my complexion). But
I have others to think of-dogs and cats
and horses-who if anything happened
to me would be alone in the world.
“For their sakes I must
not run the risks that a faithful carrying
out of your programme implies.
“Trusting that nothing very
terrible will happen to any of you in
GEO. R. SIMS.”
I confess my real and only reason
was to protest. In England superstition is harmlessly
idiotic, but elsewhere it is cruel and brutal, and
a committee should be formed to try the lunatics-everyday
men of the world-who suffer from it, for
there is no doubt that they and their families are
made miserable through superstitious belief.
Nothing kills like ridicule, and it is the Club’s
object by this means to kill superstition. Some,
like Mr. Andrew Lang, may think it a pity to interfere
with this humbug, but I venture to think it is a charity
when one considers the absurdity of educated men of
the present day making themselves unhappy through
the stupid nonsense of the dark ages. For instance,
take two of my most intimate friends. One in particular
suffered in mind and body through having a supposed
fatal number. This number was 56, and as he approached
that age he felt that that year would be his last.
Fancy that for a man of the world, who is also a public
man, and a member of the Government at the time of
the dinner! He was also a charming companion
and a delightful friend, and no man I knew had a wider
circle of acquaintance. I happened to accompany
him in a six weeks’ tour on the Continent during
the year he believed fatal to him, or perhaps it may
have been the year previous; anyway, he was suffering
from that horrible complaint, superstition. He
first made me aware of it the night we arrived in
Paris by thumping at my door in a terrible state to
implore me to change rooms with him-his
number was 56, and it terrified him! Next day
we travelled in a carriage numbered 56, and my friend
was miserable. At the theatre his seat was 56,
the ticket for his coat was 56, 56 was the number
of the first shop he entered to buy some trifle I
suggested to him. Indeed, I may at once confess
that I took care that 56 should crop up as often as
possible, as I thought that that would be the best
way to cure the patient. Not a bit of it; he got
worse, and was really ill until his 56th birthday was
To take the chair at this “most
unique” banquet, as the papers styled it, was
no easy task, and to be waited upon by cross-eyed menials
was quite enough to make a sensitive, imitative being
like myself very nervous. Some of this band of
gentlemen who had neglected to go to the Ophthalmic
Hospital seemed to consider that their being bought
up for the occasion was a great honour, and one youth
in particular, with black hair, a large sharp nose-and
oh! such a squint!-whose duty it was to
open the door of the reception-room, at which I stood
to receive the guests as they arrived, was positively
proud of his unfortunate disfigurement, and every
time he opened the door he flashed his weirdly set
eyes upon me to such an extent that I felt myself unintentionally
squinting at every guest I shook hands with.
When dinner was served a huge looking-glass
was flung at my feet, where it shattered into a thousand
fragments with a tremendous crash, giving one a shock
so far removed from any superstitious feeling as to
act on one as an appetiser before dinner.
Then whilst everybody else is enjoying
his dinner without let or hindrance, the poor Chairman
has to hold himself prepared for various surprises.
Telegrams of all sorts and descriptions were handed
But perhaps the most interesting of
all the postal and telegraph deliveries brought me
during the dinner was a letter from my old and valued
friend “’Arry” of Punch, who
had accepted an invitation, and was to have proposed
the health of the Chairman, but unfortunately was
laid up with a sore throat:
“Try and make my kind and would-be
hosts understand that as ’Arry would say,
there is ‘no kid about this.’ I enclose
a few doggerel verses penned painfully on a pad
perched on a pillow, which-if you can
read ’em-you are welcome to do so.
“My elbow’s sore
And so no more
At present, from yore
Old friend (and bore)
Here is the “painfully-penned” doggerel:-
“THE LOST (VOCAL) CHORDS.
“Lying to-day on my pillow, I am
weary and ill at ease,
And the Gargles fail to soothe me,
And the Inhalations tease. I know not
what is the matter;
To swallow is perfect pain,
And my Vocal Chords seem palsied!-
Shall I ever use them again?
“So I can’t propose
your health, friend,
Or drink to the ‘Thirteen’s’
I must dine on-Eucalyptus,
And Sulphur, or some such muck.
I have no Salt to be spilling;
My only knife is a spoon;
And I have not the smallest notion
If there is, or isn’t, a Moon!
“But I picture you on your legs,
And the ‘Thirteens’ ranged
And I feel I could sound your praises,
If these Vocal Chords would sound.
But I know that in guttural gurgling
The point of my jokes you would miss;
If I tried to lead the cheers, friend,
My ‘hooray’ you’d take
for a hiss.
“So ’tis just as well as it
And doubtless ‘the other chap’
Will do you the fullest justice;
So I’ll turn and try for a nap.
But before I resume my gargle,
And my throttle with unguents rub,
I’ll drink-in a glass
of Thirteen port-
To the health of the ‘Thirteen Club.’
“It may be that some bright Thirteenth
They may ask me to Dinner again;
It may be I then shall be able
To speak without perfect pain.
It may be my unstrung larynx
May speak once again with words:
For the present, excuse me-along
My poor Lost (Vocal) Chords!!!”
I was relieved and amused to find
one present even a little more embarrassed than myself.
He was a rotund, happy-looking man of the world, and
he had to sit isolated during part of the dinner, as
his guests were afraid to attend the uncanny banquet.
However, the Secretary, being a man of resource, ordered
two of the cross-eyed attendants to fill the vacant
places. I shall never forget the face of the
poor man sandwiched between them. During the course
of the dinner the black-edged business card of an
“Undertaker and Funeral Furnisher,” of
Theobald’s Road, Bloomsbury, was brought to me.
Under the impression that he had supplied the coffin-shaped
salt-cellars, and wished to be paid for them, I sent
to enquire his business, whereupon the undertaker
sent me in the following telegram he had just received
“Call upon Harry
Furniss this evening Holborn Restaurant Thirteen
Club Dinner for orders
re funeral arrangements.”
The receiver of the telegram, I learnt
from his card, had been in business fifty-four years,
but evidently this was the first time he had been
the victim of this Theodore Hookish joke. I called
the funeral furnisher in. Unobserved by the green-tied
guests and the cross-eyed waiters, he walked through
the banqueting hall, and as soon as he arrived at
the chair, black-gloved, hat in hand, with the ominous
foot rule projecting from the pocket of his funereal
overcoat, I stood up and introduced him to the company,
read the telegram, and invited him to go round the
tables and take the orders. Whether it was that
the man of coffins met the gaze of any particularly
cross-eyed waiter, or was overcome by the laughter
called forth by my solemn request-an outbreak
foreign to the ears of a gentleman of his calling-I
know not, but he promptly vanished. Later in
the evening a request came from him for a present
of one of the coffin-shaped salt-cellars, and no doubt
the one I sent him will adorn his window for another
fifty-four years, to the delight of the Cambridge
undergraduates whose little joke was so successful.
In place of the old-fashioned formula,
“The Chairman will be pleased to drink wine
with the gentlemen on his right,” and then on
his left, the Toastmaster had to announce that the
Chairman would be pleased to “spill salt”
with those on his right, etc.; but force of habit
was too strong, and “drink wine” came
out, and although this was corrected, it was strange
that in some cases the guests held up their glasses
and did not spill salt. Of course, throwing salt
over the shoulder was prohibited; that superstitious
operation would have been sufficient to disqualify
Beside each member was placed a looking-glass,
and in the course of the evening it went forth that
“The Chairman will be pleased to shiver looking-glasses
with the members,” and smash! smash! went the
mercury-coated glass all over the tables.
It then fell to me to present each
of the thirteen chairmen with a pen-knife, refusing
of course the customary coin in return. I was
presented with a ferocious-looking knife, with a multiplicity
of blades and other adjuncts, which I treasure as
a memento of the dinner.
These are a few trifles I had to deal
with in addition to the usual toasts, and I fervently
trust it may never again be my lot to be called upon
to take the chair at a “unique banquet”
entailing such surprises and shocks and so many speeches:
I proposed the loyal toast as follows:-
The Queen Prince and
Princess of Wales and rest
of the Royal Family 13
I had a point to make, but forgot
it (oh, those squinting waiters!), showing that 1894
was a very unlucky year. However, any mathematician
could prove that ’94 = 9 + 4 = 13. Q.E.D.
I might also have really utilised only thirteen words
in giving the toast of the evening, as follows:
Enemies of Superstition
Ignorance and Humbug drink
success to The London Thirteen
Club ------- 13 ------- -------
On my way to the Thirteen Club Dinner
I met a well-known Punch artist, also a keen
man of the world. I invited him. He started
with horror. “Not for worlds! I am
superstitious-never more so than at this
moment. Why, do you know that this has been a
most unlucky month with me? Everything has gone
wrong, and I’ll tell you why. The other
night I woke up and went to my bedroom window to see
what kind of a night it was-rash, stupid
fool that I was! What do you think I saw?”
“A burglar?” “Not a bit of it-I
wouldn’t have cared a pin for a brace of ’em.
I saw the new moon through glass! That’s
why everything’s gone wrong with me. What
a fool I was!” “What a fool you are!”
I ejaculated, as I jumped into a hansom for room 13,
recalling to mind that my fellow-worker was not the
only humorist who has been superstitious.
Albert Smith, the well-known author
and entertainer, was very superstitious, and a curious
incident has been related me by a friend who was present
one night when Smith startled his friends by a most
extraordinary instance of his fear of the supernatural.
It was in the smoking-room of the old Fielding Club,
on New Year’s Eve, 1854. The bells were
just ringing in the New Year when Smith suddenly started
up and cried, “We are thirteen! Ring, ring
for a waiter, or some of us will die before the year
is out!” Before the attendant arrived the fatal
New Year came in, and Smith’s cup of bitterness
was full to overflowing. Out of curiosity my
friend wrote the names of all those present in his
pocket-book. Half of them were ordered to the
Crimean War, and fought throughout the campaign.
No doubt Smith eagerly scanned the lists of killed
and wounded in the papers, for as the waiter did not
arrive in time to break the unlucky number, one of
them was sure to meet his death. However, all
the officers returned safe and sound, and most of
them are alive now. The first man to depart this
life was Albert Smith himself, and this did not happen
until six and a half years afterwards.
Correspondence from the superstitious
and anti-superstitious poured in upon me. But
I select a note received by the President some time
before the dinner as the most interesting:
see you are going to have an anniversary dinner on
13th of this month,
and I take the liberty to send you the
“In 1873, March 20th, I left
Liverpool in the steamship Atlantic, then
bound for New York. On the 13th day, the 1st of
April, we went on the rocks near Halifax, Nova
Scotia. Out of nearly 1,000 human beings,
580 were frozen to death or drowned.
“The first day out from Liverpool
some ladies at my table discovered that we were
thirteen, and in their consternation requested
their gentleman-companion to move to another table.
Out of the entire thirteen, I was the only one
that was saved. I was asked at the time
if I did not believe in the unlucky number thirteen.
I told them I did not. In this case the believers
were all lost and the unbeliever saved.
“Out of the first-cabin
passengers saved, I was one of the thirteen
“At the North-Western Hotel,
in Liverpool, there can be found thirteen names
in the book of passengers that left in the Atlantic
on the 20th of March, 1873, for New York; amongst them
my own. Every one of those passengers except
myself were lost.
“Now, if these memorandums
about the number thirteen-by one that
does not believe in it-is of any interest
to you, it will please
me very much.
am, yours very truly,
It is absurd to say that I have been
unlucky since presiding at that dinner. On the
contrary, I have been most lucky-I have
never presided at another!