‘I can’t see a dashed thing,’ complained Thaddeus, the fringe of his bearskin covering his eyes.
‘Stand up straighter,’ advised Maurice repositioning the bearskin slightly. ‘Carriage is very important anyway. You must be straight as a ramrod! With the poise, balance and grace of a dancer. There! Better?’
‘Oh, do stop griping. You are about to learn the part of the officer of the “dismounting guard”, which is to say the old guard handing over to the new. Let’s begin!’
The next five minutes were a mixture of riotous imprecision, a good deal of falling over and mirth.
After ten there were signs of improvement, after fifteen Thaddeus was looking very capable and in twenty he performed the part of the Captain of the dismounting guard to perfection, drawing a round of applause.
‘Capital,’ said a lieutenant approvingly.
‘We could almost have you out on parade tomorrow,’ declared a young ensign.
‘Don’t give him any ideas,’ said Maurice, eyes widening.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Thaddeus, ‘I told you a soldier’s life was not for me. I must say though,’ he added still pacing smartly up and down the room, ‘I find this marching around business rather soothing.’
He then performed a serious of pirouettes and quicksteps to more laughter from the watchers but as he wheeled around particularly elaborately he came face to face with someone who looked distinctly unamused with his antics.
The newcomer was tall and his arrogant features were set in a look of barely concealed contempt.
The laughter in the room stopped abruptly. ‘Ah, Captain Fortescue,’ said Maurice. ‘We weren’t expecting you. May I introduce an old friend, Thaddeus Watts. Thaddeus, Captain Henry Fortescue, Grenadier Guards.
Thaddeus removed the bearskin and inclined his head. ‘How do you do?’ he remarked.
Captain Fortescue glanced icily at him and then, ignoring him altogether, looked at Maurice.
‘I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what passes for humour in the mess of the Irish Guards?’ he drawled. ‘A capering jester and mocking the institution of the brigade.’
‘Not at all,’ said a horrified Maurice but Captain Fortescue cut him off.
‘I know you transferred from another regiment, Captain Fitzgerald, but you are an officer in His Majesty’s Guards now. Certain levels of decorum are expected of you. Of you all,’ he added, aiming the latter remark at the room at large. The other officers shuffled in embarrassment.
‘You are ready for tomorrow, I hope?’ he asked Maurice.
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Good. As the senior regiment in the brigade we expect a certain standard from both ourselves and our fellow Foot Guards when undertaking public duties.’ The statement was little more than a thinly veiled insult. There was a pause.
‘Is that all, Captain Fortescue?’
‘Won’t you stay for a glass of port?’ Maurice asked through slightly gritted teeth.
He had asked out of politeness but neither he nor anyone else in that room wanted the interloper to take up the offer. Fortunately for them, Captain Fortescue was clearly in no mood to stay any longer than he needed to.
‘No, thank you,’ he replied with neither a smile nor any inclination that he was even grateful for the offer. ‘I must get to bed. I’m rousing the new guard for a pre-dawn inspection to ensure we’re at our best on parade. Good night,’ and, giving Thaddeus another disapproving look, he stalked out of the room.
The Captain’s visit had a severely dampening effect on the mood of the party and there was an audible sigh of relief when the door closed behind him. Everyone slunk back to his place around the table looking glum.
‘I’m sorry about that Thaddeus,’ said Maurice who seemed slightly put out by the encounter. ‘Extremely rude.’ He did a near perfect impression of the just-departed Captain. ‘“In His Majesty’s Guards certain levels of decorum are expected”,’ then he rapped the table in frustration. ‘I ask you! Carping on about decorum while not even displaying a modicum of manners.’
‘Who is he?’ asked Thaddeus.
‘Just a Grenadier,’ quipped an ensign, who then shrank under a withering stare from Maurice.
‘Bit of a rivalry is there?’ deduced Thaddeus.
‘Of sorts,’ explained Maurice. ‘We’re a very young regiment. The youngest in the brigade by a long way, whereas the others can trace their histories back to the seventeenth century.’
‘As a result,’ said a lieutenant taking up the story, ‘we cop a few jokes at our expense once in a while. It’s mostly in good humour and we’re perfectly capable of giving as good as we get. But there are a few fellows in the brigade for whom we are an object unworthy of serious discussion or attention.’
‘And Captain Fortescue unfailing displays this attitude whenever our paths cross,’ said Maurice.
‘Ah! A touch of the condescendings?’ Thaddeus diagnosed.
Thaddeus nodded sagely. ‘Yes. I’ve come across it before of course. An intensely irritating condition.’
‘It drives me stark raving mad at times,’ agreed Maurice. ‘It makes all of us furious in fact,’ he added drawing murmurs of approval from around the table.
‘Well,’ continued Thaddeus standing up, ‘in my experience there’s only one way to deal with someone who acts like a frabjous ass.’
‘What do you suggest?’ asked Maurice.
Thaddeus pondered the predicament for a moment, pacing back and forth slowly as he was wont to do when pondering predicaments. He seemed to weigh up a few options in his mind before settling on a course of action that set a broad smile across his features.
‘You’re “handing over” as you say, to the Grenadier Guards tomorrow I understand and our friend Captain Fortescue will be the relieving officer?’
‘Maurice, how much do you trust me?’
Oh, dear, what has Thaddeus got in mind? Will the guards’ ceremony go without a hitch? (We think not). Will Captain Fortescue get his comeuppance? (We hope so). Will the Queen be embarrassed? (Unlikely).
The story concludes with a caper on Page 3…