Readers, he’s back. Edwardian Britain’s most charismatic trickster, and in an entirely new scheme- ahem, adventure. This is the tale of Thaddeus Watts and the Changing of the Guard…
Author’s note: In the interest of accuracy, the formalities of the changing of the guard and all that goes on ‘behind the scenes’ of that venerable ceremony have been researched as closely as possible.
In the interest of story-telling and, one would hope, humour, however, a little artistic licence has been taken. The author craves the reader’s indulgence.
R.M. – Hong Kong, 2015
It was a beautiful sunny morning in early June and a throng of spectators were crowded round the railings of Buckingham Palace.
At first glance one spied promenading ladies sweeping gracefully by beneath their parasols. Accompanying them or occasionally merely standing by to remark at the sight were any number of straw-boater topped young men.
Then there were the governesses and nannies gently rocking perambulators and keeping a keen eye on their young charges; the real spectators of the morning’s main event.
The children – mostly boys – stood on tip-toe, faces pressed between the railings and staring intently into the courtyard.
What they looking at were two companies of smartly turned-out guardsmen who, with clash of arms and roll of drum, were changing the guard at Buckingham Palace.
The officers saluted and the ensigns began to parade the colours while the band played ‘British Grenadiers’.
‘What’s going on, Bertie?’ asked a little girl clutching a balloon who wasn’t really as well informed regarding the proceedings as the brother standing beside her.
‘They’re changing the guard, silly,’ hissed her sibling, who was called Albert and had little time for her tedious enquiries.
‘I like their hats and their red coats,’ remarked the little girl, who was called Hattie.
For her brother, who considered himself something of an expert on military matters, this was too much. He turned to face her.
‘They’re not hats, Hattie, they’re bearskins,’ he scolded her, ‘and they’re not coats, they’re tunics, everyone knows that.’
‘Well I didn’t,’ Hattie protested but her brother had already turned away in disgust.
‘Who are they do you think?’ asked another boy in a sailor suit called Diggory. ‘Coldstream or Grenadiers? I think they’re Coldstream.’
‘I think they’re Grenadiers,’ said Albert, ‘like Uncle Henry.’
The old guard that had just been relieved was forming up to depart, the liveried band at their head now striking up the regimental slow march.
‘Come on!’ said Diggory, ‘let’s watch them march out!’
There was a miniature rush as the children peeled themselves away from the railings and dashed to form an aisle either side of the gate in order to see the soldiers leave.
The little girl was left straining to see over the shoulders of her brother and his pal and turned in desperation to her nanny.
‘Nanny,’ she pleaded, ‘I can’t see. Can you lift me up please?’
‘Oh now really, Hattie,’ said the nanny, ‘you know you’re too big for me to lift.’
‘But I can’t see, I can’t see and I do so want to!’ Hattie implored her.
‘If I may,’ said a voice at her shoulder and, with the nanny’s blessing, the man scooped the little girl up and deposited her on his shoulders.
‘Can you see?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes!’ squealed a delighted Hattie who had by far the best view of any of the children now. ‘They are pretty aren’t they?’ she remarked as the scarlet-breasted procession marched by, a magnificent wolfhound at its head leading, rather than being led, by a somewhat diminutive drummer boy who was struggling to keep up.
‘They are indeed,’ agreed the man.
The guardsmen, clear of the gates, were now given the order to quick march and with an accompanying musical flourish off they set down the Mall to their quarters at St James’s Palace.
The man lifted Hattie from his shoulders and set her back on the ground again.
‘What do you say to the gentleman, Hattie,’ her nanny prompted.
‘Thank you, sir,’ Hattie beamed.
‘My pleasure,’ smiled the man and, leaning closer, whispered, ‘and you can tell your brother that they were Irish Guards. You can tell by the buttons in fours on their tunics and blue plumes in their bearskins.’
He winked at her and, flashing a handsome smile while lifting his hat to the nanny who blushed perfectly scarlet, set off after the fading music. Meanwhile, an argument was building between the budding Napoleons as to the origin of the soldiers’ regiment.
‘Grenadiers!’ said Charles crossly.
‘Coldstream!’ retorted Diggory.
Hattie cut in on their childish argument. ‘Actually,’ she pointed out, ‘they were Irish Guards.’
Both boys turned towards the source of this unwarranted interruption.
‘Oh yes?’ jeered her brother, pulling a face. ‘How would you know?’
‘Because they had buttons in fours on their coats and blue plumes in their bearskins. Everyone knows that,’ replied Hattie, very pleased with her new knowledge.
‘Well I’ve never even heard of them,’ scoffed Charles, though he looked distinctly less cocksure than before.
‘I haven’t heard of them either,’ said Diggory.
‘Well, what do you know?’ Hattie riposted, ‘you’re dressed as a sailor.’
And she stuck out an impish tongue at the two shocked, would-that-they-knew-it-alls.
Thaddeus Watts meanwhile – for it was he – strolled up to the gatehouse of St James’s Palace and had a quick word with the corporal on duty.
Five minutes later he was sitting in the officers’ mess, sherry to hand and talking with his friend Captain Maurice FitzGerald.
‘Excellent Oloroso,’ he declared, ‘even if you do like it a little sweeter than I.’
‘Well,’ admitted Maurice with an apologetic shrug, ‘I’m no connoisseur like you, Thaddeus. Luncheon claret and hock is all I know anything about and the best port I’ve ever had is the stuff the Bank of England gives out for the Bank Picquet. Not like you, who can sniff out a claret from a Bordeaux at one hundred yards.’
‘Merely a question of reading the label,’ replied Thaddeus, politely ignoring the error.
‘How are you though?’ continued Maurice, ‘It must be, oh, four or five years since I last saw you?’
‘Four years,’ Thaddeus told him. ‘Before you left for South Africa, though you were with the Dublin Fusiliers then.’
‘That’s right,’ sighed Maurice reclining deeper into his chair. ‘The dear old Dubliners. I was sad to leave them but the chance to join a new household regiment was too appealing. Several brother officers and some good non-commissioned officers and men came over with me when the Irish Guards were formed in that spring of 1900, you know? Not much difference in the uniform actually, though I think the bearskins are smarter.’
‘Very smart,’ Thaddeus assured him, ‘and I very much enjoyed the matinée performance too,’ he paused and smiled to himself, ‘with your red coats and hats.’
Maurice rolled his eyes in mock despair. ‘Honestly, Thaddeus, I really must teach you some proper military nomenclature.’
‘The military life has never appealed to me, really,’ Thaddeus admitted. ‘I have a head for many things but not soldiering.’
‘Yes, pranks and japes were always your line of work,’ said Maurice with a smile. ‘I remember one Lent at school, all the statues of saints and all the crucifixes were covered with drapes as usual. You, Lovell, Beazley and I removed the statue of Saint Antoninus of Cyrene that stood in the hall to the refectory and then you climbed up and covered yourself with the drape in his place…’
‘Striking the appropriate pose,’ Thaddeus reminded him adopting the pose once again, an impious finger cocked heavenward.
‘Exactly,’ Maurice continued, ‘and you stood there all afternoon, Lovell and I hiding nearby, until you heard someone walking past – which just so happened to be old Father Benedict Ignatius – at which point you emitted a ghastly yell and jumped down from the pedestal. You gave the old boy a terrible shock.’
‘Not one of my subtler tricks,’ admitted Thaddeus.
‘Poor Father Benedict,’ chuckled Maurice, ‘he jumped out of his skin. Fully a foot in the air.’
‘I remember I was severely caned for that one,’ Thaddeus mused.
‘So were Lovell and I for being your accomplices,’ said Maurice. ‘Do you still get up to anything like that anymore?’
‘Oh, from time to time,’ said Thaddeus with a shrug.
The mess colour-sergeant stepped into the room and announced lunch. ‘Ah! I should be on my way,’ said Thaddeus. ‘Thanks for the sherry, Maurice. Must see you again soon.’
‘Well listen, Thaddeus,’ said Maurice as they got up, ‘it’s our last night in London as it happens. Tomorrow we’re handing over to the Grenadiers, so if you’ve got nothing planned do come along for supper tonight.’
‘I’d be delighted,’ Thaddeus replied.
Sure enough that evening found him back in the mess and revelling in the company of Maurice and his brother officers.
The wine flowed and conversation flew back and forth with stories and laughter. As cigars and port made an appearance, Maurice slipped away only to re-emerge with a bearskin.
‘Up you get, Thaddeus!’ he announced.
‘What on earth are you doing, Maurice?’ Thaddeus grinned.
‘We’re going to put you through your paces. Instil a little military discipline in you.’
‘Oh, must you?’ responded Thaddeus with an exaggerated grimace that drew laughs from around the table.
‘Enough fuss, put this on,’ said his friend handing him a bearskin, ‘and you’ll need this,’ he added handing him a ruler.
‘What’s this for?’ asked Thaddeus.
‘It’s your sword.’
Then, at Maurice’s instruction, the other officers began to fall into position, single or pairs of officers representing guardsmen, the band and ensigns.
‘Are you ready, Thaddeus?’ asked Maurice when all was ready.
Thaddeus’s initiation continues on Page 2…