Club of Queer Fellows, by Washington Irving
Tales of a
I think it was but the very next evening that in coming out of Covent
Garden Theatre with my eccentric friend Buckthorne, he proposed to give
me another peep at life and character. Finding me willing for any
research of the kind, he took me through a variety of the narrow courts
and lanes about Covent Garden, until we stopped before a tavern from
which we heard the bursts of merriment of a jovial party. There would
be a loud peal of laughter, then an interval, then another peal; as if
a prime wag were telling a story. After a little while there was a
song, and at the close of each stanza a hearty roar and a vehement
thumping on the table.
"This is the place," whispered Buckthorne. "It is the 'Club of Queer
Fellows.' A great resort of the small wits, third-rate actors, and
newspaper critics of the theatres. Any one can go in on paying a
shilling at the bar for the use of the club."
We entered, therefore, without ceremony, and took our seats at a lone
table in a dusky corner of the room. The club was assembled round a
table, on which stood beverages of various kinds, according to the
taste of the individual. The members were a set of queer fellows
indeed; but what was my surprise on recognizing in the prime wit of the
meeting the poor devil author whom I had remarked at the booksellers'
dinner for his promising face and his complete taciturnity. Matters,
however, were entirely changed with him. There he was a mere cypher:
here he was lord of the ascendant; the choice spirit, the dominant
genius. He sat at the head of the table with his hat on, and an eye
beaming even more luminously than his nose. He had a quiz and a fillip
for every one, and a good thing on every occasion. Nothing could be
said or done without eliciting a spark from him; and I solemnly declare
I have heard much worse wit even from noblemen. His jokes, it must be
confessed, were rather wet, but they suited the circle in which he
presided. The company were in that maudlin mood when a little wit goes
a great way. Every time he opened his lips there was sure to be a roar,
and sometimes before he had time to speak.
We were fortunate enough to enter in time for a glee composed by him
expressly for the club, and which he sang with two boon companions, who
would have been worthy subjects for Hogarth's pencil. As they were each
provided with a written copy, I was enabled to procure the reading of
Merrily, merrily push round the glass,
And merrily troll the glee,
For he who won't drink till he wink is an ass,
So neighbor I drink to thee.
Merrily, merrily puddle thy nose,
Until it right rosy shall be;
For a jolly red nose, I speak under the rose,
Is a sign of good company.
We waited until the party broke up, and no one but the wit remained. He
sat at the table with his legs stretched under it, and wide apart; his
hands in his breeches pockets; his head drooped upon his breast; and
gazing with lack-lustre countenance on an empty tankard. His gayety was
gone, his fire completely quenched.
My companion approached and startled him from his fit of brown study,
introducing himself on the strength of their having dined together at
"By the way," said he, "it seems to me I have seen you before; your
face is surely the face of an old acquaintance, though for the life of
me I cannot tell where I have known you."
"Very likely," said he with a smile; "many of my old friends have
forgotten me. Though, to tell the truth, my memory in this instance is
as bad as your own. If, however, it will assist your recollection in
any way, my name is Thomas Dribble, at your service."
"What, Tom Dribble, who was at old Birchell's school in Warwickshire?"
"The same," said the other, coolly.
"Why, then we are old schoolmates, though it's no wonder you don't
recollect me. I was your junior by several years; don't you recollect
little Jack Buckthorne?"
Here then ensued a scene of school-fellow recognition; and a world of
talk about old school times and school pranks. Mr. Dribble ended by
observing, with a heavy sigh, "that times were sadly changed since
"Faith, Mr. Dribble," said I, "you seem quite a different man here from
what you were at dinner. I had no idea that you had so much stuff in
you. There you were all silence; but here you absolutely keep the table
in a roar."
"Ah, my dear sir," replied he, with a shake of the head and a shrug of
the shoulder, "I'm a mere glow-worm. I never shine by daylight.
Besides, it's a hard thing for a poor devil of an author to shine at
the table of a rich bookseller. Who do you think would laugh at any
thing I could say, when I had some of the current wits of the day about
me? But here, though a poor devil, I am among still poorer devils than
myself; men who look up to me as a man of letters and a bel esprit, and
all my jokes pass as sterling gold from the mint."
"You surely do yourself injustice, sir," said I; "I have certainly
heard more good things from you this evening than from any of those
beaux esprits by whom you appear to have been so daunted."
"Ah, sir! but they have luck on their side; they are in the fashion—
there's nothing like being in fashion. A man that has once got his
character up for a wit, is always sure of a laugh, say what he may. He
may utter as much nonsense as he pleases, and all will pass current. No
one stops to question the coin of a rich man; but a poor devil cannot
pass off either a joke or a guinea, without its being examined on both
sides. Wit and coin are always doubted with a threadbare coat.
"For my part," continued he, giving his hat a twitch a little more on
one side, "for my part, I hate your fine dinners; there's nothing, sir,
like the freedom of a chop-house. I'd rather, any time, have my steak
and tankard among my own set, than drink claret and eat venison with
your cursed civil, elegant company, who never laugh at a good joke from
a poor devil, for fear of its being vulgar. A good joke grows in a wet
soil; it flourishes in low places, but withers on your d—d high, dry
grounds. I once kept high company, sir, until I nearly ruined myself; I
grew so dull, and vapid, and genteel. Nothing saved me but being
arrested by my landlady and thrown into prison; where a course of
catch-clubs, eight-penny ale, and poor-devil company, manured my mind
and brought it back to itself again."
As it was now growing late we parted for the evening; though I felt
anxious to know more of this practical philosopher. I was glad,
therefore, when Buckthorne proposed to have another meeting to talk
over old school times, and inquired his school-mate's address. The
latter seemed at first a little shy of naming his lodgings; but
suddenly assuming an air of hardihood—"Green Arbour court, sir,"
exclaimed he—"number—in Green Arbour court. You must know the place.
Classic ground, sir! classic ground! It was there Goldsmith wrote his
Vicar of Wakefield. I always like to live in literary haunts."
I was amused with this whimsical apology for shabby quarters. On our
Way homewards Buckthorne assured me that this Dribble had been the
prime wit and great wag of the school in their boyish days, and one of
those unlucky urchins denominated bright geniuses. As he perceived me
curious respecting his old school-mate, he promised to take me with
him, in his proposed visit to Green Arbour court.
A few mornings afterwards he called upon me, and we set forth on our
expedition. He led me through a variety of singular alleys, and courts,
and blind passages; for he appeared to be profoundly versed in all the
intricate geography of the metropolis. At length we came out upon Fleet
Market, and traversing it, turned up a narrow street to the bottom of a
long steep flight of stone steps, named Break-neck Stairs. These, he
told me, led up to Green Arbour court, and that down them poor
Goldsmith might many a time have risked his neck. When we entered the
court, I could not but smile to think in what out-of-the-way corners
genius produces her bantlings! And the muses, those capricious dames,
who, forsooth, so often refuse to visit palaces, and deny a single
smile to votaries in splendid studies and gilded drawing-rooms,—what
holes and burrows will they frequent to lavish their favors on some
This Green Arbour court I found to be a small square of tall and
Miserable houses, the very intestines of which seemed turned inside
out, to judge from the old garments and frippery that fluttered from
every window. It appeared to be a region of washerwomen, and lines were
stretched about the little square, on which clothes were dangling to
dry. Just as we entered the square, a scuffle took place between two
viragos about a disputed right to a washtub, and immediately the whole
community was in a hubbub. Heads in mob caps popped out of every
window, and such a clamor of tongues ensued that I was fain to stop my
ears. Every Amazon took part with one or other of the disputants, and
brandished her arms dripping with soapsuds, and fired away from her
window as from the embrazure of a fortress; while the swarms of
children nestled and cradled in every procreant chamber of this hive,
waking with the noise, set up their shrill pipes to swell the general
Poor Goldsmith! what a time must he have had of it, with his quiet
Disposition and nervous habits, penned up in this den of noise and
vulgarity. How strange that while every sight and sound was sufficient
to embitter the heart and fill it with misanthropy, his pen should be
dropping the honey of Hybla. Yet it is more than probable that he drew
many of his inimitable pictures of low life from the scenes which
surrounded him in this abode. The circumstance of Mrs. Tibbs being
obliged to wash her husband's two shirts in a neighbor's house, who
refused to lend her washtub, may have been no sport of fancy, but a
fact passing under his own eye. His landlady may have sat for the
picture, and Beau Tibbs' scanty wardrobe have been a facsimile of his
It was with some difficulty that we found our way to Dribble's
lodgings. They were up two pair of stairs, in a room that looked upon
the court, and when we entered he was seated on the edge of his bed,
writing at a broken table. He received us, however, with a free, open,
poor devil air, that was irresistible. It is true he did at first
appear slightly confused; buttoned up his waistcoat a little higher and
tucked in a stray frill of linen. But he recollected himself in an
instant; gave a half swagger, half leer, as he stepped forth to receive
us; drew a three-legged stool for Mr. Buckthorne; pointed me to a
lumbering old damask chair that looked like a dethroned monarch in
exile, and bade us welcome to his garret.
We soon got engaged in conversation. Buckthorne and he had much to say
about early school scenes; and as nothing opens a man's heart more than
recollections of the kind, we soon drew from him a brief outline of his