Chapter 18. A Parliamentary Sketch

by Charles Dickens

We hope our readers will not be alarmed at this rather ominous title.  We assure them that we are not about to become political, neither have we the slightest intention of being more prosy than usual—if we can help it.  It has occurred to us that a slight sketch of the general aspect of ‘the House,’ and the crowds that resort to it on the night of an important debate, would be productive of some amusement: and as we have made some few calls at the aforesaid house in our time—have visited it quite often enough for our purpose, and a great deal too often for our personal peace and comfort—we have determined to attempt the description.  Dismissing from our minds, therefore, all that feeling of awe, which vague ideas of breaches of privilege, Serjeant-at-Arms, heavy denunciations, and still heavier fees, are calculated to awaken, we enter at once into the building, and upon our subject.

Half-past four o’clock—and at five the mover of the Address will be ‘on his legs,’ as the newspapers announce sometimes by way of novelty, as if speakers were occasionally in the habit of standing on their heads.  The members are pouring in, one after the other, in shoals.  The few spectators who can obtain standing-room in the passages, scrutinise them as they pass, with the utmost interest, and the man who can identify a member occasionally, becomes a person of great importance.  Every now and then you hear earnest whispers of ‘That’s Sir John Thomson.’  ‘Which? him with the gilt order round his neck?’  ‘No, no; that’s one of the messengers—that other with the yellow gloves, is Sir John Thomson.’  ‘Here’s Mr. Smith.’  ‘Lor!’  ‘Yes, how d’ye do, sir?—(He is our new member)—How do you do, sir?’  Mr. Smith stops: turns round with an air of enchanting urbanity (for the rumour of an intended dissolution has been very extensively circulated this morning); seizes both the hands of his gratified constituent, and, after greeting him with the most enthusiastic warmth, darts into the lobby with an extraordinary display of ardour in the public cause, leaving an immense impression in his favour on the mind of his ‘fellow-townsman.’

The arrivals increase in number, and the heat and noise increase in very unpleasant proportion.  The livery servants form a complete lane on either side of the passage, and you reduce yourself into the smallest possible space to avoid being turned out.  You see that stout man with the hoarse voice, in the blue coat, queer-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, white corduroy breeches, and great boots, who has been talking incessantly for half an hour past, and whose importance has occasioned no small quantity of mirth among the strangers.  That is the great conservator of the peace of Westminster.  You cannot fail to have remarked the grace with which he saluted the noble Lord who passed just now, or the excessive dignity of his air, as he expostulates with the crowd.  He is rather out of temper now, in consequence of the very irreverent behaviour of those two young fellows behind him, who have done nothing but laugh all the time they have been here.

‘Will they divide to-night, do you think, Mr. —’ timidly inquires a little thin man in the crowd, hoping to conciliate the man of office.

‘How can you ask such questions, sir?’ replies the functionary, in an incredibly loud key, and pettishly grasping the thick stick he carries in his right hand.  ‘Pray do not, sir.  I beg of you; pray do not, sir.’  The little man looks remarkably out of his element, and the uninitiated part of the throng are in positive convulsions of laughter.

Just at this moment some unfortunate individual appears, with a very smirking air, at the bottom of the long passage.  He has managed to elude the vigilance of the special constable downstairs, and is evidently congratulating himself on having made his way so far.

‘Go back, sir—you must not come here,’ shouts the hoarse one, with tremendous emphasis of voice and gesture, the moment the offender catches his eye.

The stranger pauses.

‘Do you hear, sir—will you go back?’ continues the official dignitary, gently pushing the intruder some half-dozen yards.

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