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The Queen's Footman

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 4

Being a Palace servant has many advantages. Every day one sees some of the greatest in the land; not infrequently one is called upon to serve foreign royalty and dignitaries. The disadvantage is that because the Palace is so immense an edifice, one has continually to keep up a brisk movement. For a while I kept a rough note of my movements and calculated that I walked at least ten miles on each day, just running errands, showing people in and out, taking messages between different officials.

During this period, Her Majesty was frequently enceinte. In 1841 her son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was born. He was a bonny babe. It has always seemed to me very sad that in directing his education the Prince Consort paid far too much heed to the advice of Baron Stockmar, trying to force the poor Prince of Wales into the mould of a petty German princeling. Many was the time that I was called to the schoolroom to find he Prince in a tantrum and his tutor in despair. But His Royal Highness was in truth a sociable, affable child who could show great charm of manner; to try to cram him with useless information was little short of cruel. But I recall the time when I had been sent to the schoolroom with a message from the Prince Consort to Mr Gibbs, the tutor. At the same time Alec had been sent to him, quite independently, with some small piece of business. When we entered the room the little Prince was in an almost hysterical state between wrath and tears. Without a moment's hesitation Alec, whose kindness and sympathetic feelings knew no bounds, knelt in front of the Prince and took his hands, talking quietly to him. A few moments later the Prince's arms were around Alec and his ill-humour evaporated in a shower of tears. I have often wondered whether Alec was really a woman born into a man's body, so great was his power of gentle and sympathetic understanding. What Mr Gibbs made of it I do not know, but I do know that on several occasions Alec was sent for to calm the Prince when he became over-wrought.

But it was becoming generally accepted around the Palace that Alec and I were friends, even close friends. If anyone was aware of more than that in our relations with one another, nothing was ever said, at least in the presence of either of us. His feminine gentleness brought a few sneers from some of the more hide-bound men, but on the whole I think we were both pretty well liked. And at Court, if the Queen liked someone, or felt sorry for them, they were in her favour and that was the end of the matter. Her Majesty was, in the main, a very shrewd judge of character. It was unfortunate that in two cases her sympathies rode over her judgement and resulted in a good deal of annoyance and embarrassment. But that was in her later life, long after the death of the Prince Consort. I met John Brown twice; Abdul Karim never.

But a little while ago I mentioned Baron Stockmar. He was tremendously influential; his hold over the Prince Consort was very great. Though a German Baron, he was also a medical man. His advice on the education of the Princes was disastrous; it was carried out with German thoroughness and rigidity, but all human feeling and all understanding of their Royal Highnesses was denied them. But in many ways he was a wise counsellor; his political judgements in particular were generally very astute. But to the Baron, I was a nobody, a mere Palace footman, and Alec was, although the son of an Equerry, lumped in with me and my fellow-servants. Well, this suited our book very well. Alec was happy to be with me and could not have cared less about our relative social positions.

But other people were far more concerned. To do him justice, Major Cranborne accepted that his son had become friendly with a servant, but did not attempt to put a stop to it. Colonel Phipps, however, took a different view. In his eyes, a servant was a servant, an apparatus of hands, legs and ears. He had spoken about us to the Queen, and had been firmly told that we were to be let alone. I wonder, looking back, whether Alec's sensitive handling of the Princes may not have had something to do with this. Colonel Phipps looked down his nose at us, and was abrupt with me if he had to give me an order; if Alec were within earshot he would be more abrupt still.

So, since it was unthinkable that Alec should have to drop rank, the only answer was for me to raise mine. I should have to become an independent gentleman. For this purpose I should need both money and education. As far as money was concerned, I had already a good sum banked and invested. And everyone knows that money breeds money; A hundred pounds is easily enough turned into a thousand, and one thousand into ten, if one is shrewd and cautious. Education, however, was a knottier problem to tackle. I was already too old to attend a school, and a university place was not going to be possible without a school from which to come. But I had a good many gentlefolk to give me a pattern on which to model myself. Mr Gibbs was one; the Comptroller of the Privy Purse was decidedly another. And, best of all, I had Alec, who set a shining example of gentleness, courtesy and integrity to the whole world.

For by now we were sharing a room and a bed. In those days it was not thought unusual for two young men to sleep together, especially in the lower ranks of society. I hear it is very different nowadays. Bless us! In my grandparents' day whole families used to share a bed. Be that as it may, Alec and I slept together on most nights, though as a rule by bedtime I was so weary as to be able to do nothing but sleep. In the mornings, however, it was a different story.

I believe that the free and equal love between two boys or young men is the purest and most beautiful that there can be, far surpassing the love of a husband and wife. For who can best understand the thoughts and the emotions of a boy or young man than another such? I don't know whether Alec or I ever said the words "I love you" to the other; we just knew it to be so.

I had never seen, and indeed have never seen since, a creature of such physical perfection as Alec Cranborne. Every part of his body was in proportion; he might have posed for Pheidias. And his nature was gentle and kind. His father, and other men – and indeed women – around the Court might have worried that he was not sufficiently masculine, that he was not as "manly" as he ought to have been. But I knew to a nicety how masculine he was since I was regularly the recipient of his manhood, to the very great pleasure of both of us.

Although I was properly on the staff of Buckingham Palace, the Queen generally took me with her when she resided at Windsor Castle. I liked being there; the Queen was generally more relaxed, for one thing, and the rooms were larger and more comfortable. Just occasionally at Windsor Major Cranborne was commanded to dine with Her Majesty; when this happened either Alec was at table, in which case we both had great difficulty in keeping our faces straight, or he dined with the Household.

I had always enjoyed good music, though I was not knowledgeable. On several occasions when the Court was at Windsor we had a visit from the German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was a great friend of the Prince Consort. There was a fine organ in the Castle, built I believe by Mr William Hill, of London; and a most magnificent instrument in St George's Chapel built by Gray and Davidson, also of London. Herr Mendelssohn and His Royal Highness greatly enjoyed playing both of these instruments and I remember once standing in the nave of St George's while the Prince played the whole of a sonata composed by Herr Mendelssohn. I was amazed, partly because one never expects a Royal personage to be good at anything practical, but still more by the virtuosity of the music itself.

When you are young and kept busy, time passes quickly. Prince Albert had started work upon his masterly plan for the 'Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations'. A new building was to be put in Hyde Park to house it; the Architect, Mr Paxton, was a pretty frequent visitor to the Palace as he and the Prince worked on the plans. I saw the drawings as I was often called upon to serve refreshments to them as they worked, but they did not prepare me in the slightest for my first sight of the building itself. It was magnificent, splendid beyond anything we could have dreamed. The 'Crystal Palace' as it was soon nicknamed, was very aptly so. It had nearly a hundred thousand panes of glass mounted in a most ingenious framework of iron. It covered a floor area of something like eighteen acres of land and its total floor area, we were told, was nearly a million square feet. The total length of display tables was eight miles!

Alec and I were given tickets for the second day through the kindness of His Royal Highness, and we had the whole day off to visit. Well, it was glorious. It had cost a mint of money to put on, but what it brought in the way of esteem and trade to Great Britain have been worth many times the sum.

We had set off early in the morning after a good breakfast. It was truly an Exhibition of the Works of All Nations. We saw great works of art, sculptures and the like. There were inventions of every kind, to do every kind of task. I remember seeing several that I hoped His Royal Highness might introduce into the Palace, to make our work easier! There were musical instruments, including a magnificent organ built, as we were told, by Mr Willis of London. We heard it played and were surprised that the building did not collapse, so great was its thunder! But I think after the organ, the thing that impressed us most was the great Koh-i-Noor diamond. I'd seen small diamonds at home, and of course very much larger ones while in service at the Palace, but this one was bigger and more beautiful than anything I could have imagined.

Of course, the Exhibition was very crowded. People had come from all over the country, indeed from all over the world to see it. I glimpsed Septimus, with whom I had spent a lovely night some years earlier, with his illustrious father. He saw me and bowed slightly; I took Alec's arm and smiled back. He got the message and smiled at us both. I hear occasionally of Septimus' doings; he seems to spend most of his time in the country, managing his father's farm, but occasionally visits London. When he does so, he generally dines with us on at least one evening.

By the time we'd been at the Exhibition for a few hours, and visited the Refreshment Rooms - where we tasted lemonade for the first time - we were in great need of relief. But even this contingency had been prepared for; a master plumber, one Mr George Jennings, had installed ranges of water closets for both men and ladies. The fee for admission was one penny – and ever since then to "spend a penny" has been a delicate euphemism for using the water closet – and for that one was enabled not only to relieve oneself but also to have one's shoes shined and even one's hair combed! It astonishes me that never before had anyone thought of installing conveniences in public places; nowadays, of course, it is a commonplace and one may often see green-painted ironwork surrounding such necessary places.

Of course, at the Palace, sharing a room and, indeed, a bed meant that we also shared a chamber utensil, so the sight of each other relieving nature was a commonplace. But it amused us greatly to stand side by side at Mr Jennings' urinals (as they were called then for the first time), which were also provided in the men's conveniences, displaying ourselves to one another. I have to admit that observing this activity has always been gratifying to me, and of course where Alec was concerned, I could have looked at any part of him from morning to night with the greatest pleasure.

But I knew that the time was fast approaching when I should need to leave Service and find a situation outside the Court. There was no means by which I could possibly have lifted myself from the position of a servant to that of a gentleman and I was becoming increasingly aware that if Alec and I were to spend our lives together, a gentleman I should have to become.

The opportunity came one day when the Prince sent me to a watchmaker's shop in Clerkenwell, where a watch of his had been sent for repair. Returning with the watch, a fine gold hunter, securely fastened in an inner pocket, I passed by an office with a large window in which all manner of 'situations vacant' were advertised. Ten minutes later I was provided with a card and an introduction to the establishment of Messrs. Plumridge and Flint, Proctors and Attorneys-at-Law, of Mitre Court.

I was sad to be leaving the Palace. It had been damnably hard work, but I had served some of the greatest in the land and seen the workings of Government from its heart. But my own heart was given now to Alec and that was all that mattered.

Being an Attorney's office boy proved to be a much easier occupation than being a page, even at the Palace. One had fixed working hours – eight till six, Mondays to Fridays - and even within the office there was not the constant coming and going that I was accustomed to. The only drawback was that I had to find my own accommodation, though even that had the advantage that once I was at home, I could close the door and rest there undisturbed by sudden demands on my time and service. We began with furnished rooms – a bedroom and sitting room – in the house of one Mrs Coaten in the Borough. She did not seem to think it in the least out of the ordinary that we should share a bed. "It will be warmer and more comfortable for you that way," she said, "and save a little money as well." We took our breakfast at a coffee shop just off Long Acre, and our evening meal was generally eaten at the Cross Keys in Lamb's Court where a chop or a steak pie, with vegetables and a pudding, cost us a shilling each.

Alec, too, had found a situation, as shopwalker at a linen draper's establishment in Oxford Street. He was paid slightly less than I – twenty-eight shillings as against my thirty-two – but between us we had ample funds for our daily needs, and we put aside a little each week to add to my investments.

Although I was employed as an office boy, I always sought out opportunities to make myself useful, and since I had neat handwriting and a reasonable facility with figures, I began to help with keeping the books of the establishment. The accounts were in a sorry state. I suspect more than one person had been helping themselves from the cash drawer. In the end, I decided to trust to my luck, and honesty, and went to Mr Flint with my concerns. I showed him the accounts for the past year and was able to identify roughly when the depredations had occurred. The next day, Mr Morton, the chief clerk, was dismissed, and I was put in his place, at a salary of no less than two guineas a week! Needless to say, from that point onwards I kept the books with rigid honesty, never leaving the job until every penny was satisfactorily accounted for. I issued receipts for every sum coming in, and insisted upon being given a receipt for every penny that went out.

Yes, I was on my way up. And Alec, my dear, sweet Alec, was overjoyed for me. But I had been thinking about him. A floorwalker was a poor occupation for someone of his gifts. Many times I had seen him with the young Princes who clearly loved him greatly. He should, I thought, be a schoolmaster, or have some occupation where his gentleness and sweet nature could be put to use. But although he had a luminous intelligence, and his Tutor, before he sent him to Westminster School to be beaten, abused and terrified, had given him an excellent educational grounding, he had no University degree. No matter, I thought, the right thing will come along at the right time. But in the meantime we had other things to keep us occupied when we were not at work.

Alec and I were both maturing into men, and had men's needs and men's desires. It had long been clear to both of us that marriage was out of the question. Every time I looked at a young woman, and imagined what it might be like to be married, I shuddered. Not the most beautiful woman in the world could hold a candle to Alec, in my eyes. Although he had begun to shave, his skin was as soft and glabrous as ever and his hair as silken. Sometimes I looked at him across the room and wondered how I had ever had the good fortune not only to fall in love with so handsome a man, but to have my love reciprocated… that was both great honour and deep happiness.

It was seldom that a night, or a morning, went by when we did not show each other the love we felt. Sometimes it was no more than a soft, lingering kiss; sometimes it was much more. In the early days of our love, when we had shared a narrow bed in my tiny room at the Palace, it had felt exciting, perhaps the more so as it was also illicit. Now, though still just as illicit, if not more so, it just felt right. Though the bed we now shared was much larger (and, to be honest, a good deal softer and more comfortable) than that which I had had either in the Palace or at Windsor Castle we often ended up tangled together in the centre. The physical act, or acts, of love, were no longer the main thing, or nearly so; they were the gilding, as it were, upon the gingerbread of our relationship, the plums in the pudding.

Mr Flint expressed himself very satisfied with my work. But I was beginning to think about what the next stage in my progress might be. Without a Public School education, there could be no University for me. With no University degree, the Professions were closed to me. Even if Mr Flint were to accept me as an Articled Clerk, my going on from that point to being an Attorney was not probable. So what else was there?

From that point, the answer was obvious. I must go into Trade. But of course it must be upon a large scale; I was not cut out to be a mere shopkeeper. My poor father would have shuddered at the thought, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. At the office, we frequently had business coming from overseas, from one or another outpost of the Empire. Perhaps I should make it my business to find out what the men and women working in India or other places needed. It was not to the Viceroys, Commissioners or other highly placed people I should cater, but to the clerks, the underlings, the ordinary folk who are the backbone of every country upon the earth. What did they need? And how could I supply it at a price they could afford?

We had a visitor at the office. Mr Crane, that was his name. He spoke good English, but with a slight accent that betrayed his middle class origins. He was charged with various pieces of business on behalf of his superior, a Collector – a personage of some importance – in northern India. When he came out of Mr Plumridge's room, I invited him to take luncheon with me. We went to my usual chop-house where I knew that we could eat well without it costing a fortune. Over the meal, I put my problem to him. What, I asked, did clerks in India most need? Where could they be obtained?

By the end of the meal I had a long list. Even granted the expense of shipping them to India, a lot of the items on that list seemed to be unduly costly when I enquired about their prices from various retailers. Folding chairs made from canvas over a light wooden frame; a collapsible wash basin made from rubberized canvas, fly swatters of metal mesh with a flexible cane handle, stiffened collars that would keep their shape even when hot and damp… the list went on and on. I found places where many of the things were made and placed substantial orders.

I continued to work at the office while I was amassing this information. Eventually, I felt that I was ready. I rented a small warehouse in Rotherhithe, gave notice to Mr Flint and bought a good quantity of stock. Catalogues went out all over the Empire. To India, to South Africa, to Canada, to Australia, to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands… I sometimes thought my right hand would drop off with addressing labels. And the catalogues had been compiled with great care, lavishly illustrated and printed on good quality paper. But three weeks later the orders began to come in.

Within a week, the warehouse was empty and I had to put in urgent orders for more stock. Alec, bless him, abandoned his job as a floorwalker and joined me in getting loads of goods sent out. We worked twelve hours and more every day, but still the orders poured in. We employed an extra clerk and two warehouse men. My instinct had been right; we were catering for the little men, the clerks and the servants and the ordinary folk who are actually the backbone of every country in the world. We sent them things they needed at prices they could afford. Perhaps we only made a few pennies profit on each item, but if you sell enough items the pennies soon amount to pounds.

I had chosen the right time to start, too. From 1858 India became subject to the British Crown – which meant, of course, my old employer! An army of clerks and minor officials went out there, together with their wives, and our business flourished in consequence.

Eventually the flood of orders slowed to a gentle trickle, and we were able to reduce our working hours. We kept on the two warehouse men – they were boys, really, but strong and willing, and intelligent withal. We wondered what to do about our Clerk, whom we did not really need, but were reluctant to send away. However, this problem was solved in an unexpected way when he decided that he would like to go to work in Canada where his sister and her family lived. We gave him a bonus and paid for his ticket, and then employed him as our local agent there. We stocked a wide range of goods suitable for a very cold climate as well as those for a very hot one. Some of them were made, and warehoused, in Ontario. There seemed little point in having goods sent halfway round the world and then sending them back again.

And so our catalogue was growing, but it is always cheaper to buy in large quantities. Our warehouse had become too small and so we moved to a larger one, still in Rotherhithe but a little nearer to the river, for greater convenience in shipping.

But winter was on its way, and a mighty cold one it proved to be. At home – for our lodgings had become Home for us in a way that neither the Palace or Windsor Castle could ever have been - we had a fire in our sitting room, and in our bedroom we had each other to keep ourselves warm. In the warehouse we had two big cast iron stoves which burned coke which we bought cheaply from the gas-works. They didn't do a lot to heat the building but we let the men have a few minutes each hour to gather by the stoves and get themselves warm. The weather grew colder day by day; eventually even the river froze over and people came each day to skate on its icy surface. We had to hire men with carts to take our goods to Greenwich or even Tilbury to load onto the ships as the river was impassable higher up.

But I worried still about Alec. He should not be working as a clerk or warehouseman, I knew. He had such wonderful gifts of sympathy and kindliness. But, like me, with no Public School and no University degree, the opportunities were few indeed.

And then one brisk, biting morning we went into the warehouse and saw a great bundle of rags lying by one of the cast-iron stoves. With some irritation I went over to move them. The last thing we wanted was a fire in the warehouse and I wondered who had dropped them there. But as I stooped to pick them up, I saw that the rags were actually indescribably tattered clothes worn by a couple of street Arabs. I have never before or since seen human beings as filthy and ragged as they were. I drew breath to tell them – none too gently, I fear – to take themselves away, when Alec interrupted me.

"No, Thomas, my dear… they are fellow-creatures. And I am sure they are even colder than we."

He knelt by them and spoke gently. One of them stirred. It was a boy, no more than nine or ten years old. He shook his companion, who did not move. Alec put out a hand to stir the unmoving one, when I heard a hiss and a smothered exclamation. "God save us," he said under his breath, "he is dead." The other boy had turned to Alec, and in a moment Alec's arms were around him, unmindful of the dirt and no doubt the parasites which infested the boy and his clothes. The boy wept bitterly. It seemed that his companion was his brother. He had died in the night from starvation and cold. It was not only the boy who wept; Alec's shoulders were shaking and tears ran down his cheeks, and even I had an unwonted mistiness in my eyes.

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