Chapter 5. The Parlour Orator

by Charles Dickens

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.

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