Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - Eight P.M. Dinner at the Queen's Guard, St. James's 

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EIGHT P.M. DINNER AT THE QUEEN'S GUARD, ST. JAMES'S

PERSONS who are almost incessantly working very hard have a curious propensity for indulging in day dreams in which they mentally draw up elaborate schemes for composing amusing little books which they mean to write some day, when they have a modicum of leisure; and so they go on dreaming and scheming, and toiling and moiling, till at length the Night cometh when no man can work, and there is an end of them, their labours, and their vain imaginings.
    Among the many plans which I have long since elaborated in my mind and carefully tied up, docketed, and consigned to their proper imaginary pigeon-holes, I will mention just ten. "A Dictionary of Biography of Cooks in all Countries and in all Ages"; "Old Clothes - being an Account of the Garments worn at all Periods of the Career of Napoleon Bonaparte, sometime Emperor of the French and King of Italy, called the Great, and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and Prince of Waterloo"; "Subjects for Pictures which have hitherto been unaccountably neglected by Painters"; "The History of the Beggar's Opera and the Manners [-301-] and Customs of the Time when that Work was written"; "A History of English Domestic Servants from the time when Tusser wrote his Five Hundred Points of Husbandry to the Present Day"; "Memoirs of Remarkable Dancing Masters, and the Dances which they taught"; "Italy in England, an Account of Italians domiciled in, or visiting this Country from the Days of the Mercenaries imported into this Country in the time of the Tudors to the Invasion of London by the Vendors of Penny Ices"; "A History of Ghosts, Ancient and Modern" ; "The Story of the London Police Courts, from the time of Henry Fielding to that of Montagu Williams"; finally, "The Typical Dinners of the British Metropolis."
    Of such repasts I feel confident that, if I had time and opportunity to rummage those pigeon-holes aforesaid, I could describe at least fifty. But chiefly would I like to behold you as a guest at one of the military dinners of which I proudly believe London has an unquestioned monopoly. Even the ordinary regimental mess is an institution which does not seem to flourish to any perceptible extent abroad. It is a British institution and will not grow on foreign soil. The Emperor Napoleon III., towards the close of his reign, strove to introduce the mess system in the garrison of Paris; and the officers of one of the regiments of the Imperial Guard were officially encouraged to take their repasts in common. They could not, however, obtain dining accommodation in their barracks; so they patronised the Restaurant Lucas, in a street somewhere near the Madeleine. I recollect it as an establishment [-302-] with a sanded floor, and renowned for a particular sauce verte or bright green sauce which was served with boiled salmon. Still the martial Gauls never took kindly to gregarious messing, and the reason for the failure of the institution in France was and is the somewhat sulky social as well as military superiority claimed by foreign officers of field rank over their inferiors in grade.
    A French colonel may ask even the youngest of his subalterns to dinner, but he rarely condescends to sit down at the festive board on socially equal terms with them. The majors, to a certain extent, look down on the captains, who, on their side, turn up their noses, socially, at the lieutenants, and these last, for their part, snub the sous-lieutenants when they have a chance for so doing. Thus, as a rule, the officers of each grade lunch and dine with companions of their own precise military rank, and foregather in the particular restaurant which each grade may elect to patronise.
    You know very well how vastly different is the British military practice. The fact of the commanding officer of an English regiment tranquilly plying his knife and fork at the same table with all the officers under his command does not, to the slightest extent, diminish the deferential respect which is shown by the juniors to the seniors. But it is not a mess, properly so called, to which for the nonce I am about to introduce you. It is to one of the dinners nightly partaken of by officers of Her Majesty's Household Brigade, stationed in the Metropolis, who happen to be on guard to-night, that I venture to introduce you. A bounteous [-303-] provision for a nightly symposium of these scarlet-clad warriors is annually made in the Parliamentary Estimates, and the dinners take place in a room specially set apart for the purpose at St. James's Palace. Again, at the Tower of London, where I often used to dine years ago-I think in the Beauchamp Tower-there is a dinner for the officer on guard. Thirdly, at the Bank of England, the officer on guard is hospitably entertained at the cost of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street herself; the rank and file of the Bank Guards being also provided with supper and, unless I am mistaken, with a small gratuity in "white money."
    I have dined, too, in the bygones with the Blues and the Life Guards First and Second, in their mess-room at the Horse Guards', but whether that banquet has been discontinued, or whether the cavalry officers on guard come down to St. James's to refect, I am not quite certain. The cavalry dinners that I remember were quite typical, and a military curiosity in their way. Your gallant hosts dined in their dressing-gowns and their buckskins, and when there was a call for duty, it was your pleasant privilege to accompany the officer by whom you had been invited to his dressing-room where, with the assistance of his soldier-servant and your own willingly helping hand, he was in an astonishingly short space of time arrayed in all the sumptuous panoply of full uniform-jack boots, spurs, back and breast-plates, gauntlets, plumed casque, sabre and all.
    There will be nothing exciting in the scene which you will behold to-night. The small group of officers [-304-] on guard at the Royal Palaces are privileged to invite a few visitors, for whom, of course, evening dress is de rigueur. You sit down at 8 and you are amicably turned out at 11 P.M. The officers themselves are in full uniform, and you may see their bearskins lying on the mantelpiece of the dining saloon as a silent reminder that they are ready, aye ready, for the call of duty. The only difficulty which I experience in piloting you to the particular apartment in which you are to meet the Queen's Guard, lies in the fact that to discover the mess-room is, to a nervous and purblind individual, a task beside which threading the Maze at Hampton Court is comparatively light and facile. Built on no particular plan, but continually patched and cobbled up and pieced out at various periods ever since the time of Henry VIII., and, for aught I know, since the period when St. James's itself was an hospital for lepers, the palace in its exterior has become a very labyrinth.
    It is fully a quarter of a century since I dined with the Queen's Guard, and I have altogether forgotten whether they regale in some chamber leading out of the Colour Court, the Ambassadors' Court, or the Stable Yard. So I must apologise to you for rambling and straggling about and harking back from court to court, and colonnade to colonnade in vain attempts to find the proper portal of ingress in a bewildering congeries of buildings, every one of which seems to have more doors than windows. I "ask a policeman," and he courteously directs me whither I should bend my steps, but alas! after five minutes' more wandering we are [-305-] brought up sharp, by a dead wall. Then we ask another policeman, who with equal courtesy replies, "First turning to the right, second to the left, then turn sharp to the right again and go straight on." The result of this fresh peregrination brings us well out into Cleveland Row, and the agonised impression comes over us that we shall be at least ten minutes too late for dinner. Fortunately, just on re-entering the palace precincts, we see an open door, revealing a well-lighted staircase. We make a dart for it, and are informed by a servant that this is the haven which we have so long sought for in vain. We are only five minutes after the appointed tryst. 
    We are, nevertheless, the last of the invited guests, most of whom are military men in evening mufti, and dutifully observant of the inexorable exigencies of "military time. However, there is no harm done, and you sit down to a capital dinner, quietly and deftly served, which it would be impertinent to describe in detail. I leave you to enjoy it, and the excellent dry champagne, and the coffee, and the liqueurs, the cigars, and the cigarettes afterwards; to say nothing of the pleasant flow of merry and cultured talk which, strange to relate, turns neither on military "shop" nor on horse- racing; but while I see that you are being taken sedulous care of by your individual host, and I am thoroughly enjoying the polite attentions paid me by the gallant officer who has been kind enough to invite me, I cannot help falling, over a medium Havana, into what I may call a Scarlet Study. 
    [-306-] It is a spacious, comfortable, handsomely but not luxuriously decorated apartment in which we are enjoying ourselves. I recognise on the dinner-table some massive silver-gilt plate, profusely ornamented with effigies of the Sphynx, which seems to bear with it reminiscences of the Egyptian Campaign of 1801. I recognise also as an old acquaintance a richly-mounted snuff-box, fashioned from a horse's hoof. The hoof of Sir Ralph Abercromby's war-horse, or that of the charger of Napoleon the Great? Which charger? the Corsican rode so many. Tell us, Hon. Francis Lawley. Yet in spite of their well-remembered paraphernalia, I rub my eyes from time to time and gaze around and upwards in some slight bewilderment. Can it be the same room? No. Your kindly host hastens to explain to you that it is not the same apartment. It has been enlarged, or rather rebuilt, by Her Majesty's Office of Works, and is quite an "up-to-date" saloon.
    Then, when I look around upon our stalwart, comely entertainers, full of youth, and life, and gaiety, my Study in Scarlet takes me very many years back, and to another generation of Celtic Guardsmen, one as stalwart and comely, as youthful and vivacious, as these. Five-and-twenty, six-and-twenty, seven-and-twenty years ago, I used to be the frequent guest of the officers of the self-same historic regiment whose hospitality I am now enjoying. But it was not only here, at St. James's, at the Tower, or at the Bank, but also far away beyond the broad Atlantic. I have called the regiment, by your leave, the Celtic Guards. I first made their [-307-] acquaintance at Montreal, in Lower Canada, in the winter of 1863. The regiment had a regular mess-room, not in their barracks, but at Hogan's Hotel, a huge caravansary, ugly, but extremely comfortable. It has long since, I suppose, been swept away to make room for some vaster and more palatial hotel. Canada, at the time of which I speak, was full of British troops. The Civil War in the States was at its height; and the capture of the Confederate Commissioners Slidell and Mason on board a British mail steamer on the high seas by an American man-of-war had nearly brought the two greatest nations in the world into hostile collision. The Bomb Shell Guards, as well as the Celtic, were in garrison at Montreal, and held their mess at a house in Jacques Cartier Square.
    The Rifle Brigade were stationed at a town called Hamilton; regiments of infantry, among the officers of one of which was my old friend Captain Hawley Smart, now a writer dearly beloved by all readers of "breezy" novels, were in garrison at Quebec; and a large number of British staff officers, who have since become famous, were in Canada - not just yet the Dominion - at that momentous time. Specially do I remember to have met a Colonel Jervois, an officer of the Royal Engineers, who had been sent by Lord Palmerston to our American dependencies, to report on the fortifications of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. A very lively, observant, alert Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers was he. The last time that I had the honour to meet him was at Wellington, New Zealand; and he had become [-308-]His Excellency Lieutenant-General Sir William Francis Drummond Jervois, G.C.M.G., C.B., F.R.S., Governor of New Zealand.
    I found him in 1885 as alert, as observant, as lively, and as kindly and hospitable as ever. This Study in Scarlet is surely waking up strange memories. Straight my mind goes, not to an imaginary but to a real pigeonhole, or rather a drawer in a large bureau which I have at home; a bureau of American manufacture which we call the "Adjutant-General," for it holds a thousand and one objects pertaining to our craft, which can all be arranged with mathematical precision. From that drawer, when I get home to-night, I will take a little visiting-card bearing the engraved superscription, "Major Wolseley," and a line in pencil, "Come and dine to-night. Eight. Notre Dame Street." Another little gentleman, alert, lively, observant, and with brains all over his body, just as frogs are said to have. He is now Field-Marshal General Viscount Wolseley, with half the letters of the alphabet as honorific initials appended to his name. Hold, enough! I must place a curb on my memories of the past.
    They crowd too thickly around me. There is only one more name which I will cite in association with Canada in 1863-64. At Quebec once, dining at the table of Lord Monk, then Governor-General of Canada, I remember that there was among the guests another officer of Engineers who struck me as being a slightly morose and distrait gentleman, although from time to time he would burst out in fluent eloquent talk. The [-309-] name of this officer was Gordon - Charles George Gordon - the Gordon who served in the trenches before Sebastopol, and who afterwards was to be known as Chinese Gordon, and to die a cruel but an immortally glorious death at Khartoum.
    It is a very unmannerly thing, we all know, to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I, an inveterate old digger and delver among time dry bones of the past, would have liked to ask my host something about the genesis and the present constitution of the Queen's Guard dinner. Was it in any way looked after by that august, but somewhat occult body, the Board of Green Cloth, which I have read in old books has an exempt jurisdiction, and is presided over by the Lord Steward of the Household, who formerly was judge of a special tribunal which possessed the power to try all treason, murders, felonies, assaults, and other offences committed in the palace, or on the verge thereof? Among the pleasant functions of this Board was the controlling of the immense Royal kitchen in St. James's Palace in which, in the good old times-before the Right Hon. Edmund Burke took it into his head to scrutinise the expenditure of the Civil List, and to denounce the exorbitance of the great army of cooks, foolish, fat scullions, yeomen of the mouth, yeomen tasters, ratcatchers, herb-women, and cock-crowers, attached, with comfortable salaries, to the Royal Household-were prepared not only time repasts of the members of the Royal family resident in the palace, but likewise every day a large number of dinners which were distributed [-310-] among bodies or individuals directly or indirectly connected with the Court.
    In that immense kitchen, roasting, boiling, baking, stewing, broiling, and frying, seemed never to come to an end. The Royal chaplains, in particular, had a bounteous table laid for them every day in one of the out quarters in the palace; but even in the spendthrift days there were a few reformers of the Edmund Burke way of thinking, who remonstrated with the king on the lavish expenditure involved in the entertainment daily of the reverend hungry and thirsty gentlemen in cassocks and bands, who waxed fat upon the hospitality of the Crown. King Charles promised to see about the matter with a view to retrenchment; and in order to see how things really stood, he took his seat one day at the chaplains' table. Grace was said, and, according to the tradition, it was the witty Dr. South who was in the chair. Instead of using the regular formula "God save the King and bless our dinner," he transposed the verbs, saying, "God bless the King and save our dinner." The Merry Monarch laughed and the dinner was saved, but only for a season.

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