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  ― 181 ―

Chapter IX.

Dinner hour at “Entwistle's,” in the “golden time.”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' auld lang syne?”

   ROBERT BURNS.


IT was three-quarters past noon on Monday when Mr Stubble and his son Bob walked into the lofty dining-hall at Entwistle's hotel, according to previous appointment with Ben Goldstone.

On the long centre table were laid knives and forks for forty, and sundry small side-tables were similarly prepared for the gustatory action of a host of men mighty to eat. Nimble waiters were gyrating about in soft slippers, like skaters on a pond. The courteous landlady and her two handsome sisters were behind the bar, quite prepared for the active duties which they would shortly have to perform at the beer-engine and the spirit-taps. The portly Entwistle himself was scarcely up to the mark that morning, and looked as if something had ruffled his temper; probably one of the cooks had got tipsy, and neglected to baste the loin of pork, for there was a suspicious odour of over-done crackling distinguishable in the savoury vapour which escaped from the culinary region behind the screen. Such annoying things did sometimes happen at hotels in those golden days, when good cooks were as independent as theatrical stars, and did not care a copper for their masters or for his customers either.

After easing off his choler on a dozy-looking waiter, who was not worth his salt, the host stepped into the bar, took a little sedative fluid from a quart bottle, then returned to the head of the table, and began to sharpen the main carving-knife. Presently, he shouted in a nautical tone of command, “Dish up!” and a general stir among the waiters ensued, which showed that they were the men who could dish up in style. Meanwhile, the host walked up and down beside the


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long table to see that everything was all correct, and no cinders in the gravy, or soot on the edges of the dishes. Now and then, he would shift a cover which was not exactly straight, or scrutinise the contents of a side-dish, for Entwistle was a particular man, and there were no eyes left in his potatoes, and no flies about his curries.

When the last cover was properly squared, the host stood in solemn attitude, gazing at the dial, for it was his glory to have dinner ready by one o'clock sharp, to match the appetites of his clients. As the pendulum gave the last tick to the past hour, Entwistle took off his white hat, seized a sham club, and struck a mighty blow on a Chinese gong, which made Bob Stubble jump, and his father to exclaim, “By gum! that be's a banger; summat loike old Tom of Exeter Cathedral.” Before they had half recovered from the stunning effect of the gong, a company of earnest-looking gentlemen entered the hall and took seats sans céremonie. Soon the long table was occupied, and most of the side-tables also, and the waiters were hurrying about with their hands full of steaming soup plates, chanting “giblet or vermicelli, sir?” behind each guest; while a general buzz of conversation, as harmonious as the tuning of a monster band of musicians, filled the hall up to the sky-lights.

Mr Stubble and his son had turned out that morning as sleek as town-kept hackneys. The tailor had certainly done all that mechanical skill could do to make them look genteel, and they were not a single mail behind the London fashion. Peggy remarked, with a prideful smile, that “they never were so smart afore in all their days,” and Mag declared that Bob looked a regular buck in his glossy paletôt, railway-stripe trousers, screaming satin waistcoat, and his Paris hat. She further opined that anybody might take father for a city gentleman, if he would keep his hands in his trousers' pockets, according to the fashion, turn his toes out, and not waddle so much when he walked. It occupied the joint exertions of Mag and her mother for seven minutes to wheedle Joe's stubborn fingers into a pair of French kid gloves, and he was solemnly cautioned not to take them off till he returned home, because his hands were so horribly freckled. A hundred times that morning did he wish his gloves back to France; still, he dared not pull them off, for he knew he had not skill enough to put them on again; and as he walked along, his swollen fingers stuck out like bunches of young parsnips. The street dust


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had somewhat marred the lustre of their apparel; still, as they stood up in a corner of the dining-hall, toying with their hats, nobody could doubt they were fresh from the country, and foolishly bashful too, or they would have secured seats for themselves.

There they stood, modestly gazing about for Goldstone, uncertain whether or not it were polite to begin to dine before he came. They were too shy to sit down at the long table, and all the seats were speedily filled by persons who were not shy, and to whom Joe and his son had given place, in their simple endeavours to make their manners match their fine clothes. Presently, they were escorted by Jem, the coloured waiter, to a little table near-the entrance to the kitchen, and where they had the advantage of a strong draught from the back-gate, opening on to the romantic lane called “Irwin's,” where brawling neighbours are more numerous than singing birds.

“Burn these 'ere consarns!” said Joe, looking at his tight gloves. “How be I to eat my dinner with these things on?”

“Peel 'em off, father,” whispered Bob. Joe thereupon applied his teeth to the finger-ends of his kids, and pulled them off, remarking as he threw them into his hat, “that he would never have them put on to his hands again unless he should be struck silly and couldn't help it.”

“Vermicelli or giblet sir?” asked a waiter.

“Ay, let us have a giblet pie, mate, and look sharp about it too,” said Joe, who had begun to fancy that he was not properly attended to. The waiter said, “Yes, sir;” and as there happened to be a giblet pie on the long table, he helped Joe and Bob to a plateful each, and left them quite satisfied, and apparently unaware that they had been cheated of their due shares of soup.

As Joe glanced down the long table from time to time in search of Goldstone, he could not but notice the unanimity and zeal with which those forty gentlemen attended to the duties of the board. Men of differing creeds and of various shades of political opinions were there, but not a single dispute was heard about the exciting object which had attracted them together. Rival tradesmen, too, might have been seen sitting close together, absorbed in matters foreign to the concerns of their shops; and though they often “troubled each other for salt,” or even for pepper, they had no hot words over it; thus


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clearly disproving the correctness of the old axiom that “two of a trade never agree.”

There were three persons at the principal table who sat with their hats on, which quite shocked Bob's rustic ideas of propriety, and he whispered to his father that “it would be a good lark if somebody would rivet tin pot-handles to the hats of those vulgar chaps, by way of quietly admonishing them to uncover their heads the next time they sat down in civilised company.” Joe softly reproved his son's fondness for practical joking, and added that “it was nonsense to think them big, full-dressed gentlemen didn't know manners; and most likely the reason why they were ashamed to take their hats off was because they had mangy heads, poor fellows!”

Joe was ludicrously excited at observing the clumsy efforts of some of the gentlemen who had the honour of carving assigned to them, or who had dropped into the honorary post by accident. The person behind the boiled leg of mutton was evidently impatient to be getting on with his own diet, or Joe supposed that he would not hack the joint up into such awkward junks, as if he were feeding hounds, instead of cutting nice thin slices; and he would have been more careful about a fair distribution of the fat and the sauce in the dish, if he had studied to discharge his honorary duties with becoming etiquette.

“My word, that be's a greedy old codger!” said Joe, nudging Bob and nodding towards a stout gentleman who had just helped himself to a triangular cut out of the middle of a fine smoked tongue. “I should not like to have him for a mate out in the bush.” Whereupon Bob frowned, and whispered to his chuckling sire that he shouldn't wonder if they both got kicked out into York Street directly. Bob's premonition was not very effective, however, for Joe laughed outright at the idea of the thing, and one of the waiters laughed at Joe, under the impression that he was getting tipsy.

But the person who tickled Joe's fancy most was a clerical-looking gentleman, who was attempting to carve a pair of fowls which were not tender. “Ha, ha, ha! Look at that chap, Bob. Doan't he mind thee of Biddy Flynn sawin' up firewood? If I had had 'en up at Buttercup for a day or two, I'd teach'd 'en to cut up a chucky, I bet a guinea. Look at 'en now, raspin' away at the wrong side of that leg, a mile away from the joint! Why, bang it, if he'd only got gumption enough to slip his knife underneath 'en, and give 'en a smartish jerk, it


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'ud come off as easy as skinning a banana. Ho, ho, ho! he be's gettin' savage 'cos that black chap behind 'en is grinning.”

“Hush, father!” said Bob, reprovingly. “That is a parson you know, and it's dead against the catechism to speak disrespectfully of him.”

“I bean't saying ought that's bad of 'en, boy. Not at all. I never say nothing wicked against anybody, black, white, or gray. But I doan't think he be's a bony fidy parson, Bob, or he'd know better than to keep haggling away at that knuckle. There bean't much algebra in that chap's head, I guess. Ho, ho, ho! look at 'en splashing the gravy all over his button-up waistcoat.”

Just then Joe noticed a tall personage having a little soft conversation with a damsel behind the bar, and in another minute his future son-in-law entered the hall with his hat inclined to the right side, and a hammer-headed whip sticking out of his coat pocket.

“Hallo, Goldstone! How are you, Goldstone?” said half-a-dozen voices at once, and as many hands were at the same time held out to give the first friendly grasp, as Ben marched down the hall as majestically as a conquering hero, and shaking each outstretched hand as he passed with lofty affability.

“I'm afraid the soup is cold, Mr Goldstone,” said the host, looking very sorry it was not hot.

“Never mind soup; I want something solid. What have you got in your dish, Entwistle? Oh, aye, calf's head, so it is; that's the tack. Let me have a cut of that, and some brains with it. I expected to have met two gentlemen here, friends from the country,” said Ben, looking round, “but I don't see them. Have any strangers been here asking for me, Jem? Hallo! here they are, to be sure!” he added, turning round and grasping the hands of Joe and Bob. “But, I say, what were you doing in that out-of-the-way corner? Hey, Jem! Why did you put these gentlemen up against the kitchen door, eh? Confound you!”

“Because there were no other seats empty,” said Jem, the head waiter, with a characteristic grin. Jem, by the way, was an authority in that establishment, and though he was of a jet black colour, he was one of the most expert men of his class, and a general favourite with all visitors to that hotel.

“It bean't a morsel of odds,” said Joe, seeing that Ben was inclined to be angry at the lack of attention to his friends. “Us have had a good dinner, and I'd as soon eat it up agin


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the kitchen door as in the middle of this long bench every bit; so doan't 'ee blow up the waiter.”

All eyes were turned towards the two rustic strangers who were on such intimate terms with the wealthy Ben Goldstone. Joe stood the general stare pretty well, though he did not care for so much popularity; but Bob blushed intensely, and wished himself in the bush, or anywhere else away from the gaze of so many sharp-eyed gentlemen.

After Ben had finished his dinner, he said to Joe with pleasant familiarity, “Have you got your pipe in your pocket, old man?”

Joe replied that he had not, but he did not explain that his wife had emphatically cautioned him against ever carrying a dirty pipe in the pockets of his superfine clothes, on account of the perfume it created.

“Never mind, I'll get you a cheroot. Come into the smoking crib.”

The said crib was a small room off the dining-hall, where about a dozen gentlemen were luxuriating in an atmosphere of aromatic smoke. “Who has got any weeds?” asked Ben, as he took up a position for himself and his two friends on a sofa behind the door.

“Here you are, Goldstone!” said a smart young corn merchant, producing his cigar-case, which Ben took without demur or thanks either. Joe thought he would rather buy “baccy” for himself, but he did not like to say so, lest Ben might not like it. He soon perceived that young Duncan's cigar-case was considered common property by nearly all the smokers in the room, and as the owner looked quite happy over it, Joe's scruples dulled down, and he puffed away at a Manilla cigar, holding it tightly all the while, lest he should suck it down his throat, for he was not used to smoking anything more refined than a clay pipe.

“Whose turn is it to stand nobblers to-day?” asked a gray-haired portly gentleman, who, in addition to a fair commercial credit, had the credit of inaugurating the first joint-stock gold-mining company in New South Wales, and which did not turn out a lucky spec for the shareholders in general, whatever it might have done for the spirited projectors.

“I stod Som yesterday!” replied a rubicund gentleman, manager of another joint-stock company in a drooping condition, who stood six feet one in his top-boots on race days, and who was rather proud of his figure. A cannie chiel was Jock; and in addition to other private virtues, which many


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ladies acknowledged, he could play a rubber at whist, tell a crack, or brew a bowl of whisky toddy, “wi ony mon in toon.” “I stod Som yesterday; so it's some ither body's turn the day,” said Jock, in his usual sonorous tones.

“It's Duncan's day,” said a sharp little man, an importer of hardware; and for confirmation of his opinion, he appealed to a sedate-looking gentleman in the leather line, who was quietly smoking his own cigar with his eyes closed, and his nose pointed to the ceiling, in rapt enjoyment; but before that person had emptied his mouth to reply, Mr Duncan had given the company the benefit of the doubt by calling for nobblers round, and ginger-beer for Joe and his son. The whole party then began to puff away like craters, except Bob, who had never learnt to smoke, but he made up for it by sneezing incessantly.

Dr Johnson said “that the man who would be cheerful at all times was a fool, but he who would be cheerful at no time was a humbug.” If the word “liberal” were substituted for “cheerful,” the proposition would be equally in accordance with public opinion. Those persons who called young Duncan a fool (and there were many who did so after his money was all wasted) were ungrateful fools themselves, or something worse. He was an open-handed, soft-natured man, who could never say nay if he were asked a favour which it was in his power to grant. He was as free with his money as he was with his cigars and nobblers. His horse, which was usually hooked up at the post in front of Entwistle's door every day at dinner-time, was often borrowed without first asking the owner's permission, for it was well known that Duncan never grumbled. Of course, the animal did not back-jump, or he would have been safe from the raids of these bold borrowers; the poor hack was as easy-going as his owner; so, to use a sporting phrase, his cockney riders “rode his tail off.”

Duncan's friends were considerate enough not to borrow his name as unceremoniously as they borrowed his horse; they were mindful of a poetical implication somewhere in the statute-book, that to write another man's name for commercial purposes is forgery. However, they begged his name, which is much the same thing in a moral sense, and they used it, too, until the bright polish was worn off it, and then they facetiously owned that Duncan was “done up,” and his bill was as useless as a dead turkey's beak. One of the fast friends of his palmy days, who had often made free with his horse and


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with his purse also, on being told of Duncan's pecuniary reverses, and of his serious illness, exclaimed, in a tone which was meant to be very tender, “Poor d——l!” Think of that, all ye young heirs who have just come in for your paternal estates! That is the sort of sympathy you will get if you fool away your money.

A dozen crops of summer grass have withered on poor Duncan's grave, and nearly all his jovial companions are laid low too. Entwistle's jolly face is missing at the head of that long table, and his comely wife will never more be seen in the bar-parlour. The hotel still exists, under another name; but though the dinners may be as sumptuous and as cheap as ever, few, very few, of the old faces “of days lang syne” assemble now in that lofty hall at the sound of the one o'clock gong, for death has summoned them away “to that bourne whence no traveller returns.”

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