I believe I enjoyed them more than anyone else - except, possibly, Father, who was the best connoisseur of wines and cigars that I ever knew. From him I derived a rare taste in these most eminently good things of the earth. Had I had the ordering of our political economy, all these luxuries would have been within reach of thousands of our fellow countrymen instead of the monopoly of the few and fortunate. You are now to imagine that a dinner has been arranged.
Mother would have gone to infinite trouble to invite just those who would enjoy and appreciate meeting one another. She would engage the popular and so amiable and good-looking and friendly Mrs Louden as head Waitress - I think she was the best known woman in Birkenhead: wherever you went, you were almost sure to meet this most capable and kindly soul. Further, there was a celebrated Cook also much in demand. It used to be Mrs Beacall (not Mrs Beaton) at Nassau House: and doubtless, someone equally expert when we were at Lingdale. They always used to make special cobs, like French brioches, which were vastly appreciated by the family, for some would be left over for nursery tea next day. Then there would be the laying of the table. Mrs Louden would arrive early and superintend this important business.
Laying the Table
After silver, and three or four sorts of wine glasses, had been laid for often as many as twelve or fourteen at the extended dining room table, on a beautiful white damask linen tablecloth, would come the folding of the table napkins - truly a work of art, for the designs varied considerably. Then came the laying of the elaborately worked table centre and the floral decorations, which were often exquisitely beautiful. Milne, our first gardener at Lingdale, whose grandfather had been gardener to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, would bring in maidenhair and ficus, and a rich selection of hot-house blooms, and would preside over their arrangement.
If it was in the autumn, he would bring in dozens of flower pots of chrysanthemums, in which he took special interest, for he won prizes for them at the Wirral Show. These he would arrange on pedestals to form a massive bank of them in the hall and in the drawing room, where palms were kept perennially. When Milne retired, he was succeeded by Ewbank, who was equally enthusiastic and used to make up the most fragrant and artistic buttonholes for the men - of orchids or gardenias or other exotics - while he fashioned magnificent floral sprays for the ladies. They were creations of real beauty, and it gave one quite an uplift to wear them.
Dressing for Dinner
The table being set, and inspected by Mother and pronounced satisfactory, there would be a great business of dressing for dinner - tail coats and white ties for us, and the low cut evening dresses for the ladies. We boys were inspected to see if our hands were clean, nails well brushed - and even our ears underwent a scrutiny. Incidentally, we dressed for dinner every night; a bit of a business, as you may imagine, but not a bad education.
Waiting to go in
Then came a rather 'mauvais quart d'heure' while the guests were
announced - trying to make conversation, and oh the awful tension if
somebody was late. But at length all would be assembled. Mrs Louden
would announce that:-
"Dinner is served"
and, two by two, as in the days of Noah, they would process from the drawing room across the flower bedecked hall - Father leading the principal lady guest, or the latest bride, and Mother, with generally the latest new gentleman bringing up the rear - to the dining room table with its glittering array of glass and silver sparkling under the light of numerous shaded candles and its fragrance of flowers. The guests would peer round the seats to find their places. Their names were written on little cards.
Then the talk would begin, and grow in volume till you could hardly hear yourself speak. You had to entertain the lady you took in to dinner, and if she got bored you tried your prentice hand on your other neighbour. There was clatter and din of knives and forks and plates.
And what a feast! Clear soup, sometimes turtle or flavoured with wine, with which, of course, one drank sherry. Then fish - salmon in season, or perhaps turbot or sole, beautifully cooked, and served with sauce hollandaise, or plenty of butter and lemon. - Perhaps it is rather callous to go into these details in the years of austerity such as we now undergo; but the good days may come again! - With the fish one often took hock in tall green glasses, a really fine white, generally Liebfraumilch or perhaps Johannisberg or Berncastler Doktor.
Then followed the entrée - a dish that is almost forgotten. There used to be all kind of excellences - beef olives with mushrooms and tomatoes, or perhaps a casserole, or jugged hare with balls of stuffing and red currant jelly, or sweetbreads.
Anyhow, there was an entrée, and, by this time, conversation would be fast and furious. About this time, claret would be taken in the largest of the three beautiful cut-glass stemmed wine glasses. Connoisseurs would hold their glasses up to the light and admire the ruby colour: the same enthusiasts would talk claret after the ladies had left.
Now, you may think that all this sounds almost greedy, if not positively gluttonous; but no!, for in those days there was good food and good wine in abundance at no very great cost. Moreover, you must remember that one neither over ate nor over drank - unless it was some young hobble-de-hoy who had yet to acquire better manners (and, forsooth it was nothing to the feasts and orgies that were held in the days of Queen Elizabeth or Bluff King Hal - if we are to believe what we are told by Harrison Ainsworth (in "The Tower of London") and other writers).
After the entrée came the joint - it might be saddle of mutton, or it might be omitted - but there would certainly be game - roast pheasant, grouse or partridge, or even quail - with finger chips or straw potatoes, bread sauce and breadcrumbs, or duck or even wild duck with orange sauce, or just orange quarters - very good! Yes, I think that course was the signal for the champagne, in tall wide glasses so that the bubbles had free play. You must not suppose that the ladies, or the men for that matter, took all these numerous libations. No! they were ladies and behaved as such, and the men had their preferences. Claret drinkers seldom touched anything else: they said it spoilt the bouquet and degraded the palate (it is certainly an acquired taste, by no means everybody's fancy!)
But I must get on with the dinner. So far we have had four or five courses - for we might have started with melon or grapefruit. Now came the ice pudding, an affair of very delicate flavouring, made with rich cream and garnished with almonds or snippets of angelica. With this one nibbled those beautiful sugar wafer biscuits - not the dry tastless modern variety, but real crunchy ones. It was told of Lord Brougham that he once dined with a plutocrat who was unfortunate with his cook. - The soup was cold, the fish were flabby, the joint was tough, none of the dishes achieved even a lukewarm standard - and when the ice pudding came in it sagged and became a shapeless mass. Lord Brougham had borne it all with patience, forebearance and equanimity; but the ice pudding, the final enormity, was too much for him! He said:-
"Thank goodness! Something hot at last!"
And so to the trifles jellies and creams; then the savoury - perhaps just cheese straws, or sardines or herring roes on toast, and finally dessert, about which there was never any difficulty or lack at Lingdale. The middle of the three cut glasses would now be filled with port, and finger bowls would be handed round. There would be little glass or china bowls filled with preserved ginger or sweets, and of course, walnuts, almonds and raisins. The ladies would linger a little longer, then Mother would give the signal to the principal lady, I would dash to the door and open it: and then the ladies would file off to the drawing room, while the men, poor things, moved up to the top of the table and helped Father to circulate the port and smoke his cigars. Ladies then never smoked in public. Queen Victoria did not like it: it afforded her no amusement.
When they joined the ladies there would be more talk; and then Mother would ask some one to play something, and Mrs So & So would execute bravuras on the grand piano. Mrs Arthur Squarey (Aunt Clara) was a most accomplished pianist. When it finished you heard murmurs all round the room:-
"Thank you so much.." "Very charming." "A most delightful piece. Chopin is it not?"and from Mother:-
"Would you play something else?"But she would gracefully decline: and perhaps Mrs Alsop would sing "Jack of Hazeldean". Everyone who could play or sing always brought their music, unless perchance they had "a perfectly dreadful cold".
Mother herself had a very sweet soprano voice. I loved to hear her songs too:- "The Kerry Dance", "The Miller & the Maid", Tosti's "Goodbye", "No, Sir..", "The 'North Countree" and many others. I fear May did not enjoy these parties as much as I did: for she dreaded being asked to play, and it often spoilt her evening for her. And so the evening passed off until about half past ten or eleven; when carriages would be announced, and they would depart two by two as they came. There were two historic incidents I remember well. One was the first appearance of a banana, absolutely unknown in England until towards the end of the Eighties. The other was the sensational somersault of Mr Flett. In the drawing room we had a sort of cane wicker easy rocking chair. Its base was a kind of wooden chassis: and the chair, held down by wooden springs had curved rockers which locked on the straight edges of the chassis. After one of the great dinners, Mr Flett, who was a somewhat portly old gentleman, with white hair and a very rubicund face - he made celebrated jams and marmalade - had made himself very comfortable and was rocking himself gently in the chair as he listened to the music. Then the piece became more lively, and he rocked a bit harder till, all of a sudden, he rocked right back; the chair overbalanced and with a loud bump he fell head over heels - or rather, heels well over head - on the floor.