'Scenes and Characters, No. 5, Love and Oysters'


Published in Bell's Life in London (25 October 1835).


Dickens, Charles



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Bibliographic Citation

Dickens, Charles. 'Scenes and Characters, No. 5, Love and Oysters' (25 October 1835). Dickens Search. Eds. Emily Bell and Lydia Craig. Accessed [date]. https://www.dickenssearch.com/short-stories/1835-10-25_Bells_Life_in_London_Scenes_and_Characters_No5_Love_and_Oysters.


If we had to make a classification of society, there are a particular kind of men whom we should immediately set down under the head of "Old Boys;" and a column of most extensive dimensions the old boys would require. To what precise causes the rapid advance of old boy population is to be traced, we are unable to determine; it would be an interesting and curious speculation, but, as we have not sufficient space to devote to it here, we simply state the fact that the numbers of the old boys have been gradually augmenting within the last few years, and are at this moment alarmingly on the increase. Upon a general review of the subject, and without considering it minutely in detail, we should be disposed to subdivide the old boys into two distinct classesthe gay old boys, and the steady old boys; the gay old boys, are punchy old men in the disguise of young ones, who frequent the Quadrant and Regent-street in the day-time, and the theatres (especially theatres under lady management) at night, assuming all the foppishness and levity of boys, without the excuse of youth or inexperience: the steady old boys are certain stout old gentlemen of clean appearance, who are always to be seen in the same taverns, at the same hours every evening, smoking and drinking in the same company. There was once a fine collection of old boys to be seen round the circular table at Offley’s every night, between the hours of half-past eight and half-past eleven. We have lost sight of them for some time, but there are still two splendid specimens in full blossom at the Rainbow, who always sit in the box nearest the fire-place, and smoke immense long cherry-stick pipes, which go under the table, with the bowls resting upon the floor. Grand old boys these arefat, red-faced, white-headed old fellows, always thereone on one side the table, and the other oppositepuffing and drinking away like regular good ones, and never a bit the worse for it everybody knows 'em, and it is supposed by some people that they're both immortal.

Mr. John Dounce was an old boy of the latter class (we don’t mean immortal, but steady)a retired glove and brace-maker, a widower, resident with three daughtersall grown up, and all unmarriedin Cursitor-street, Chancery-lane. He was a short, round, large-faced, tubbish sort of a man with a broad-brimmed hat, and a square coat; and had that grave, but confident, kind of roll peculiar to old boys in general. Regular as clock-workbreakfast at ninedress & tittivate a littledown to the Sir Somebody’s Headglass of ale and the papercome back again and take the daughters out for a walkdinner at threeglass of grog and a pipenaptealittle walkSir Somebody’s Head againcapital house;delightful evenings! There were Mr. Harris, the law-stationer, and Mr. Jennings, the robe-maker (two jolly young fellows like himself), and Jones, the barrister’s clerka rum fellow that Jonescapital companyfull of anecdote; and there they sat every night till just ten minutes before twelve, drinking their brandy and water, and smoking their pipes, and telling stories, and enjoying themselves with a kind of solemn joviality, particularly edifying. Sometimes Jones would propose a half-price visit to Drury Lane or Covent Garden, to see two acts of a five-act play, & a new farce, perhaps, or a ballet, on which occasions the whole four of them went together: none of your hurrying and nonsense, but having their brandy and water first, comfortably, and ordering a steak and some oysters for their supper against they came back, and then walking coolly into the pit, when the "rush" had gone in, as all sensible people do, and did when Mr. Dounce was a young man, except when the celebrated Master Betty was at the height of his popularity, and then, Sir,then, Mr. Dounce perfectly well remembered getting a holiday from business, and going to the pit doors at eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and waiting there till six in the afternoon, with some sandwiches in a pocket-handkerchief, and some wine in a phial, and fainting after all with the heat and fatigue before the play began, in which situation he was lifted out of the pit into one of the dress boxes, Sir, by five of the finest women of that day, Sir, who compassionated his situation and administered restoratives, and sent a black servant, six foot high, in blue and silver livery, next morning with their compliments, and to know how he found himself, Sir—by God! Between the acts Mr. Dounce, and Mr. Harris, and Mr. Jennings used to stand up, and look round the house, and Jonesknowing fellow that Jonesknew every bodypointed ou the fashionable and celebrated Lady So-and-So in the boxes, at the mention of whose name Mr. Dounce, after brushing up his hair, and adjusting his neck-handkerchief, would inspect the aforesaid Lady So-and-So through an immense glass, and remark, either, that she was a "fine womanvery fine woman, indeed," or that "there might be a little more of her Eh, Jones? just as the case might happen to be. When the dancing began, John Dounce, and the other old boys, were particularly anxious to see what was going forward on the stage, and Joneswicked dog that Joneswhispered little critical remarks into the ears of John Dounce, which John Dounce retailed to Mr. Harris and Mr. Harris to Mr. Jennings; and then they all three laughed, 'till the tears ran out of their eyes. When the curtain fell they walked back together, two and two, to the steaks and oysters, and when they came to the second glass of brandy and water, Jones hoaxing scamp, that Jonesused to recount how he had observed a lady in white feathers in one of the pit boxes, gazing intently on Mr. Dounce all the evening, and how he had caught Mr. Dounce, whenever he thought no one was looking at him, bestowing ardent looks of intense devotion on the lady in return; on which Mr. Harris and Mr. Jennings used to laugh very heartily, and John Dounce more heartily than either of 'em, acknowledging, however, that the time had been when he might have done such things; upon which Mr. Jones used to poke him in the ribs, and tell him he had been a sad dog in his time, which John Dounce, with chuckles, confessed. And after Mr. Harris and Mr. Jennings had preferred their claims to the character of having been sad dogs too, they separated harmoniously, & trotted home.

The decrees of Fate, and the means by which they are brought about, are mysterious and inscrutable. John Dounce had led this life for twenty years and upwards, without wish for change, or care for variety, when his whole social system was suddenly upset and turned completely topsy-turvynot by an earthquake, or some other dreadful convulsion of nature, as the reader would be inclined to suppose, but by the simple agency of an oyster, and thus it happened. Mr. John Dounce was returning one night from the Sir Somebody’s Head, to his residence in Cursitor-streetnot tipsy, but rather excited, for it was Mr. Jennings’s birth-day, and they had had a brace of partridges for supper, and a brace of extra glasses afterwards, and Jones had been more than ordinarily amusingwhen his eyes rested on a newly-opened oyster shop on a magnificent scale, with natives laid one deep in circular marble basins in the windows, together with little round barrels of oysters directed to Lords and Baronets, and Colonels and Captains, in every part of the habitable globe. Behind the natives were the barrels, and behind the barrels was a young lady of about five-and-twenty, all in blue, and all alonesplendid creature, charming face, and lovely figure. It is difficult to say whether Mr. John Dounce’s red countenance, illuminated as it was by the flickering gas-light in the window before which he paused, excited the lady’s risibility, or whether a natural exuberance of animal spirits proved too much for that staidness of demeanour which the forms of society rather dictatorially prescribe; certain it is, that the lady smiled, then put her finger upon her lip, with a striking recollection of what was due to herself; and finally retired, in oyster-like bashfulness to the very back of the counter. The sad-dog sort of feeling came strongly upon John Dounce: he lingered the lady in blue made no sign. He coughedstill she came not. He entered the shop"Can you open me an oyster, my dear?" said Mr. John Dounce. "Dare say I can, Sir," replied the lady in blue, with enchanting playfulness. And Mr. John Dounce eat one oyster, and then looked at the young lady, and then eat another, and then squeezed the young lady’s hand as she was opening the third, and so forth, until he had devoured a dozen of those at eight-pence in less than no time. "Can you open me half a dozen more, my dear?" inquired Mr. John Dounce. "I’ll see what I can do for you, Sir," replied the young lady in blue, even more bewitchingly than before; and Mr. John Dounce eat half-a-dozen more of those at eight-pence and felt his gallantry increasing every minute. "You couldn’t manage to get me a glass of brandy and water, my dear, I suppose?" said Mr. John Dounce, when he had finished the oysters, in a tone which clearly implied his supposition that she could. "I’ll see, Sir," said the young lady; and away she ran out of the shop, and down the street, her long auburn ringlets shaking in the wind in the most enchanting manner; and back she came again, tripping over the coal-places like a whipping top, with a tumbler of brandy and water, which Mr. John Dounce insisted on her taking a share of, as it was regular ladies’ groghot, strong, sweet, and plenty of it. So the young lady sat down with Mr. John Dounce, in a little red box with a green curtain, and took a small sip of the brandy and water, and a small look at Mr. John Dounce, and then turned her head away, and went through various other serio-pantomimic fascinations, which forcibly reminded Mr. John Dounce of the first time he courted his first wife, and which, taken conjointly with the hot brandy and water and the oysters, made him feel more affectionate than ever; in pursuance of which affection, and actuated by which feeling, Mr. John Dounce sounded the young lady on her matrimonial engagements, when the young lady denied having formed any such engagements at allshe couldn’t abear the men, they were such deceivers; thereupon Mr. John Dounce inquired whether this sweeping condemnation was meant to include other than very young men; on which the young lady blushed deeplyat least she turned away her head, and said Mr. John Dounce had made her blush, so of course she did blushand Mr. John Dounce was a long time drinking the brandy and water; and the young lady said "Ha' done, Sir," very often; and at last John Dounce went home to bed, and dreamt of his first wife, and his second wife, and the young lady, and partridges, and oysters, and brandy and water, and disinterested attachments. The next morning John Dounce was rather feverish with the extra brandy and water of the previous night; and, partly in the hope of cooling himself with an oyster, and partly with the view of ascertaining whether he owed the young lady anything, or not, went back to the oyster-shop. If the young lady had appeared beautiful by night, she was perfectly irresistible by day; and, from this time forward a change came over the spirit of John Dounce’s dream. He bought shirt-pins; wore a ring on his third finger; read poetry; bribed a cheap miniature-painter to perpetrate a faint resemblance to a youthful face, with a curtain over his head, six large books in the background, and an open country in the distance (this he called his portrait); "went on" altogether in such an uproarious manner, that the three Miss Dounces went off on small pensions, he having made the tenement in Cursitor-street too warm to contain them; and in short, comported and demeaned himself in every respect like an unmitigated old Saracen, as he was. As to his ancient friends, the other old boys, at the Sir Somebody’s Head, he dropped off from them by gradual degrees; for, even when he did go there, Jonesvulgar fellow that Jonespersisted in asking "when it was to be?" and "whether he was to have any gloves?" together with other inquiries of an equally offensive nature, at which not only Harris laughed, but Jennings too; so he cut the two altogether, and attached himself solely to the blue young lady at the smart oyster-shop.

Now comes the moral of the storyfor it has a moral after all. The last mentioned young lady, having derived sufficient profit and emolument from John Dounce’s attachment, not only refused, when matters came to a crisis, to take him for better for worse, but expressly declared, to use her own forcible words, that she wouldn’t have him at no price; and John Dounce, having lost his old friends, alienated his relations, and rendered himself ridiculous to every body, made offers successively to a schoolmistress, a landlady, a feminine tobacconist, and a housekeeper; and, being directly rejected by each and every of them, was accepted by his cook, with whom he lives now, a hen-pecked husband, a melancholy monument of antiquated misery, and a living warning to all uxorious old boys.




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