Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 38 - The Queen's Guard (St. James's Palace)

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CHAPTER XXXVIII

THE QUEEN’S GUARD (ST. JAMES’S PALACE)

“THE best dinner in London, sir!” was what our fathers always added when, with a touch of gratification, they used to tell of having been asked to dine on the Queen’s Guard at St. James’s; and nowadays, when the art of dinner-giving has come to be very generally understood, the man who likes good cooking and good company still feels very pleased to be asked to dinner by one of the officers of the guard, for the old renown is still justified, and there is a fascination in the surroundings that is not to be obtained by unlimited money spent in any restaurant.
  
Past the illuminated clock of the Palace, the hands of which mark five minutes to eight, in through an arched gate, across one of the courts, and in a narrow passage where a window gives a glimpse of long rows of burnished pots and pans, is a black-painted door with, on the door­jamb, a legend of black on white telling that this is the officers’ guard.
   Up some wooden stairs with leaden edges to [-273-] them, stairs built for use and not for ornament; and, the guests’ coats being taken by a clean- shaved butler in evening clothes, we are at once in the officers’ room.
  
It is a long room, lighted on one side by a great bow-window, flanked by two other windows. At the farthest end of the room from the door is a mantel of grey and white marble. The walls are painted a comfortable green colour, and there are warm crimson curtains to the windows. There are many pictures upon the walls; and a large sofa, leather- covered armchairs, and a writing-table in the bow of the window give an air of comfort to the room. A great screen, which, in its way, is a work of art, being covered with cuttings of all periods, from Rowlandson’s caricatures to the modern style of military prints, is drawn out from the wall so as to divide the room into two portions. On the door side of the screen stands in one corner the regimental colour of the battalion finding the guard, and here, too, are the bearskin head-dresses of the officers.
  
On the fireplace side of the screen is a table ready set for dinner, the clear glass decanters at the corners being filled with champagne, a silver- gilt vase forming the centre-piece, and candles in silver candelabra giving the necessary light. By the fireplace the officers of the guard, in scarlet and gold and black, are waiting to receive their guests.
  
In addition to the officers of the St. James’s guard, the adjutant and colonel of the battalion that finds the guard, the two officers of the [-274-] Household cavalry on guard at the Horse Guards, and some of the military officials of the Court have a right to dine. But it is rarely that all entitled to this privilege avail themselves of it, and the captain and officers of the guard generally are able to ask some guests.
  
As, on the stroke of eight, on the evening I am writing of; we sat down to dinner my host told me that he had ordered a typical meal for me. This was the menu:-

Potage croûte au pot.
Eperlans à l’Anglaise.
Bouchées a la moëlle.
Côtelettes de mouton. Purée de marrons.
Poularde à la Turque.
Hure truffée. Sauce Cumberland.
Pluviers dorés.
Pommes de terre Anna.
Champignons grillés.
Omelette soufflée.
Huîtres à la Diable.

The hand of M. Gautier, the messman, was to be recognised throughout; and the spatchcocked smelts, the boar’s head, with its sharp-tasting sauce, and the soufflée, I recognised as being favourite dishes on the Queen’s Guard.
  
On this evening the wearers of the black coats, as well as the red, had served Her Majesty, at one time or another, in various parts of the world, and our talk drifted to the subject of the various officers’ guards all over the British world. In hospitality the Castle Guard at Dublin probably comes next to the guard at St. James’s, [-275-] for the officers of the guard fare excellently there at the Viceregal expense. The Bank guards, both in the City and at College Green, have compensating advantages, and the officer’s guard at Fort William, Calcutta, has helped many an impoverished subaltern to buy a polo pony. The story goes that some rich native falling ill close to the gate of Fort William, the subaltern on guard took him up to the guard-room and treated him kindly, and in consequence, in his will, the native left provision for a daily sum of rupees to be given to the subaltern on guard. These rupees are paid every day minus one, retained by the babus as a charge for “stationery,” and though all the little tin gods both at Calcutta and Simla have exerted themselves to recover for the subaltern that rupee, the power of the babu has been too strong, and the stationery item still represents the missing rupee. We chatted of the Malta guard, with its collection of pictures on the wall; of dreary hours at Gibraltar, with nothing to do except to construct sugar-covered fougasses to blow up flies; and of exciting moments at Peshawar, when the chance of being shot by one’s own sentries made going the rounds a real affair of outposts.
   Then I asked questions about the gilt centre­piece, which is in the shape of an Egyptian vase with sphinxes on the base, and was told that the holding capacities of it were beyond the guessing of any one who had not seen the experiment tried. Some of the other plate which is put upon the table at the close of dinner is of great interest. There is a cigar-lighter in the shape of a grenade [-276-] given by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a silver cigar-cutter, a memento of an inter- regimental friendship made at manceuvres, and a snuff- box made from one of the hoofs of Napoleon’s charger Marengo. Which hoof it was is not stated on the box, but the collective wisdom of the table decided that it must have been the near hind one. Excepting on days when the Scots Guards are on guard, Her Majesty’s health is not, I believe, drunk after dinner—though I fancy that H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, dining on guard, broke through this custom. The regiment from across the Border was at one time suspected of a leaning towards Jacobitism, and while the officers were ordered to drink His Majesty’s health they were not allowed to use finger-glasses after dinner, lest they should drink to the King over the water.
  
Dinner over, the big sofa is pulled round in front of the fire, and a whist-table and a game of drawing-room cricket each claims its devotees. I asked my host to be allowed to inspect the pictures which pretty well cover the walls. The most important is an excellent portrait of Her Majesty in the early part of her reign. It is the work of “Lieut.-Col. Cadogan,” and was begun on the wall of a guard-room—at Windsor, I fancy. The surface of the wall was cut off; the picture finished, and it now hangs, a fine work of art but a tremendous weight, in the place of honour. There is an admirable oil- colour of the old Duke of Wellington, showing a kindly old face looking down, a pleasant differ­ence from the alert aquiline profile which most [-277-] of his prortaits show. There are prints of other celebrated generals, mostly Guardsmen, and an amusing caricature of three kings dining on guard. It is a very unfurnished guard-room, with a bare floor, in which their Majesties are being entertained, but the enthusiasm with which the officers are drinking their health makes up for the surroundings. A key to the print hangs hard by, but the names attached to the various figures are said to have been written in joke. Many of the pictures are sporting prints and hunting caricatures; but the original of Vanity Fair’s sketch of Dan Godfrey is in one corner; and a strange old picture of a battle, painted on a tea-tray, hangs over the door.
  
On either side of the looking-glass, above the mantelpiece, are the list of officers on duties and the orders for the guard, the latter with a glass over them, which is supposed to have been cracked in Marlborough’s time. Some very admirably arranged caricatures, with explanatory notes, are bound into a series of red volumes and kept in a glazed set of shelves, and these, with a number of blue-bound volumes of the Pall Mall Magazine, form all the library available for the officers on guard.
  
As the hands of the clock near eleven, the butler, who has been handing round “pegs” in long tumblers, takes up his position by the door. Military discipline is inexorable, and we (the guests) know that we must be out of the pre­cincts of the guard by eleven o’clock. We say good-night to our hosts, and as we go down-[-278-]stairs we hear the clank of swords being buckled on.
  
Outside in the courtyard a sergeant and a drummer and a man with a lantern are waiting for the officer to go the rounds.
  
3rd January.