In Dickens's London/Chapter 4



There are nooks and cracks and crannies in London Town through which you can hardly squeeze your way with a wheel-barrow, let alone a cab or hansom. The little crooked turn to the left—a footway that leads to and fronts the George and Vulture—is one of them. Even with my easel and stool hugging the opposite wall and my feet drawn well under me, half the hungry and thirsty crowd on their way to luncheon stumbled over my toes. My surroundings were very much as if I had camped out near my own office in Exchange Place—say at its angle with New Street or opposite the members' entrance of the New York Stock Exchange—on a day when everything was "kiting."

To-day my easel was breasting a surging tide of telegraph boys in their tin-can caps tilted over their left eyebrows; perspiring brokers making calculations with their lips, their eyes on the turn of the street; lads in white aprons carrying flat baskets—portable luncheons, perhaps; porters with bundles; bank messengers with books; human drift from the slums; idlers; sightseers—a motley, congested, and ill-assorted crowd swaying, stumbling, apologising, swearing, or staring as they came plump up against my foot or the leg of my stool. And yet, strange to say, not one of them called for the police, or threatened violence, or lost his temper. Only one passer-by, and he a Bobby, stopped long enough to touch his hat in respectful salute and remark:

"I shall 'ave to arsk you to move on, sir." But he never did "arsk," nor did he intend to. I got that from the way his forefinger touched his hat brim; from the tone of his voice and from the way he at once went off duty—off from my vicinity.

And I could not have moved on had he "arsked" me. I must either remain where I was, pasted up against the opposite wall, or my sketch must be abandoned; for this was the real, well-authenticated, unquestioned original entrance of the famous George and Vulture Inn.

Through this very door did Mr. Pickwick pass on his release from the Fleet, and a happy evening "it was" (so runs the chronicle) "for at least one of the party, and light and cheerful were the two hearts that emerged from this hospitable door the next morning, the owners thereof being Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Sam Weller," the former of whom was deposited inside the comfortable post-coach with a little dickey behind to which the latter mounted with great agility.

Later on, it will be remembered, they picked up Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Allen and started for Birmingham, via Tewkesbury, there to wait upon the elder Mr. Winkle on behalf of the younger Mr. Winkle, whose love-affair had gotten into a sad tangle.

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THE GEORGE AND VULTURE INN—From which Mr. Pickwick and his party set out on their journey by stage to visit Mr. Winkle's father

My sketch finished, my toes straightened out, the amiable crowd opened a way, and I, too, entered the busy, smoke-begrimed interior of the George and Vulture and sat me down at one of the tables.

A fat, puffy, rather greasy-looking waiter ambled up and laid the menu before me. It was the rush hour, and, as Lombard Street is one of the busiest centres in London, the alcoves were full and the whole interior a mass of hungry humanity. Eager men fringed the lunch-counters; the barmaids jerked away at the handles of the interlocking switches, shunting the beer here and there into this mug and that Toby; breathless clerks bustled in at one door, grabbed a sandwich, smeared its inside with mustard, shot over to the cigar stand, caromed back to the bar, tossed into their frames a pint of bass, and escaped through the main door into the street again, or pitched head foremost into the restaurant across the entrance hall, bearing on its outside window the inscription, in a half moon of gold letters: The George and Vulture.

For here it may be said that of late years this sly old eating-house not only leads a double life but lives by a double name. On the Lombard Street side it is known as the Thomas Chop House. On the other side—my side—it revives the traditions of the old days of the George and Vulture, as Tony Weller and his son Samivel always called it, and as does many another to this day.

The fat waiter was standing demurely, all the time suggesting various dishes.

"B'iled mutton and caper sauce, wery good to-day, sir." Or "maybe a cut of beef with a dash of 'orseradish and some marrowfats. No? Well, then, sir, I should particular recommend a fowl with b'iled carrots and buttered sauce."

"Try a slice of Yorkshire ham grilled and a baked potato," suggested a man with a grey suit, whose plate touched my own, so narrow was the table. "From the States, I should think?"

There was no denying it; he had guessed right the first time. My American-English, as he afterward told me, had "given me away."

"I saw you at work, sir," he went on; "took a rather bad time, didn't you? I saw 'em climbing over your back. What's up? Working for the papers?"

"No, just making a sketch of where Mr. Pickwick had his quarters when he stopped in London. Bring the grilled ham, please, and a mug of bass"—this to the waiter, who bowed and backed away.

"Oh, that's it, is it; Dickens, eh!" resumed the man in the grey suit. "Well, it's all true. The club starts from here every year on that coaching trip for Rochester; same trip old Pickwick, Jingle, and the others made. You're going there, of course?"

I nodded in confirmation, adding my thanks for his suggestion regarding the grilled ham.

"Yes, you must. Don't forget to put up at The Bull when you go. They've torn this chop-house a good deal to pieces, all but the main doorway which you were working on, but you'll find The Bull about as it was."

My eye had been wandering around the room. "It doesn't look like the place," I rejoined, "that Mr. Pickwick would have picked out had he wanted to lead a quiet life."

He regarded me curiously.

"Got it that bad, have you! Well, maybe that's better than not believing in anything at all. Dickens has put about forty inns in 'Pickwick' and about forty more in his other books; this one goes back to … Here, John"—this to a waiter, making a combined Mercury and caryatid of himself, his tray held high—"when you dump that get me one of those little books. It'll cost a shilling," he added, turning to me, "but you'd better have it; it'll save you a lot of trouble."

He drew a brier-wood pipe from his pocket, knocked the ashes of his last smoke from its bowl, relieved a china pyramid of one of its matches, struck a light down the seam of his trousers, blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling, and continued:

"I've been coming here for ten years or more, and there's hardly a day that some Americans don't drift in. I can tell right away what they're after by the way they look around, taking it all in. Then comes the setback I can see that, too. They've been fed up on this old George and Vulture business when they were boys, and what they expected to see was an old bungalow with sand on the floor and cobwebs on the ceiling and pewter mugs with dates and initials cut in 'em."

"Like the coffee-room at George Inn?" I ventured.

"No, like the coffee-room down along the river below Blackfriars. The George is too respectable. Besides, every ten years or so it gets cleaned up. Instead of a scrap-heap your countrymen find a place like what you see, with two doors always swinging, a mob of people, half of 'em standing up, beer signs, pickle signs, cracker-box signs, cigarette signs, a lunch-counter, two bars with patent fixtures, three—Oh, there you are, John; now let's have the book. And there's a shilling for you, John, and another for the book; no, don't mention it; glad to give it to you. Now, let me see. Yes—yes, built long before the days of Queen Elizabeth, when it was a chop-house along with another known as Dolly's. Strype says (whoever he was) that: 'Near Ball Alley was the George Inn (not Sam Weller's inn), being a large open yard and called George Yard, at the farther end of which is the George and Vulture Tavern having a passage in St. Michael's Alley.'

"And now listen to this:

"'Here in 1652 was set up the first Coffee House in London, in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill, first known as Pasqua Rosee Inn but before and long since as the George and Vulture.'

"Oh! It's some inn, I tell you, or was. Addison came here, and so did Swift and Defoe, who wrote 'Robinson Crusoe,' and Gray, who wrote the 'Elegy'; old Pepys, who wrote the 'Diary'; John Wilkes, Hogarth, and later on almost every man of prominence in his time who loved a good dinner. A great old inn in its day, and would be now if they'd get over the idea of making money and settle down to a quiet life with a mug and a rubber of whist and a long-stemmed pipe."

I nodded assent, thanked him for his running commentary, waited a moment in the hope that he would add the Pickwick Club to the list of its distinguished patrons and, finding that he was entirely engrossed in relighting his pipe, jogged his memory with the inquiry:

"And how about Mr. Dickens? He has helped some, hasn't he?"

"Oh, yes, no doubt of it; light kind of fiction, you know, but it all counts in advertising, and——"

"But the Pickwick party did start from here, didn't it?"

I am not accustomed to having my dolls disembowelled before my eyes—not without a protest of some kind.

His head went back with a jerk and a laugh rang out.

"Still at it, are you?" he cried. "Start from here? Of course they did. I'm not certain from which door; not from the one you came in and not from the one I'll go out, if this part of London was built up as thick then as it is now. Maybe the book will tell you and maybe it won't—you can read it later on. The fellow who wrote it probably didn't know, so he hasn't said. He's got the fiction part of it all right and the room in which Winkle slept, and the landlord, so I am told, still keeps the sheets and pillow-cases in lavender and he has locked up in his safe the pen and ink-well that Winkle used in writing his letter to his father. He'll show it to you if you ask him—that is, he would have shown it to you had you asked him in time. He's dead now—been dead over fifty years. Well, I must be going. I'm in the phosphate business. Be glad to see you any time you drop in. There's my card. Thank you, I'll smoke it to-night, after dinner. Don't forget to go to Rochester. You'll go crazy there. The Bull is just your kind," and he closed the door behind him.