It was thanks to Henry VIII that the monarchy settled at St. James’s, where it continues to reside, at least fictitiously, for to this day, the decrees of Queen Elizabeth II bear the words, “Given at our Court of St. James’s”. Over the centuries, Henry VIII’s palace has been reduced, half destroyed by fires, and disfigured to the point of mere fragments, but it is not devoid of certain allure.
Since the monarchy made Buckingham Palace its principal residence at the end of the 18th century, St. James’s has been occupied in part by offices of the Court, and in part by members of the Royal Family housed at the expense of the Crown. Its ceremonial apartments, restored several times with the utmost luxury, have been the setting of certain ceremonies.
In 1931, Colin Thomas turned 27 years old. Too young to have taken part in the Great War, he saw many young men from his village leave, never to return.
His parents sensed he was not built for a life in the fields and turned to one of his uncles who had once been a regimental comrade of Victor Barns. They had even served together in the Crimean War. Victor Barns was the caretaker of St. James’s Palace.
Victor Barns agreed to take Colin under his wing, and Colin left for London one fine morning to join him there. He was received by an assistant to Lord Chamberlain who judged his good looks favourably.
And so it was that at 16 years of age, Colin was hired as a footman and allowed to wear the royal livery: red and gold, short pants, white stockings and black pumps. He stood proud in this attire reserved for Court ceremonies, which had become rare at St. James’s Palace, with most taking place at Buckingham Palace by then.
Colin’s interest in his workplace and his taste for solitude did not prevent him from finding the atmosphere often strange in the Palaces’ sumptuous and deserted rooms. There were times he even had goosebumps for no reason, when he turned around thinking he’d heard footsteps behind him, only to find no one was there. There were times he couldn’t wait to finish his shift and leave the Palace as quickly as possible.
One autumn morning, he was keeping himself busy in the old Royal Apartments. Dressed in his traditional attire, a black suit and tie, and a yellow vest with black stripes, he had brought along his kit of brooms, tea towels, and cleaning products. The gloomy weather darkened his mood. The black clouds left the musty smelling interior in shadows. In the beginning, Colin Thomas used to open the windows to cleanse the atmosphere, but the scent of the past was too strong, clinging to the old drapes, faded damask curtains, and aged tapestries.
Suddenly, he thought he heard a noise coming from a room halfway down the hall. Without hesitation, he moved towards it. The closer he got, the more precise the noises became, he heard grunts and muffled swearing. It sounded like two men were quarrelling. They must have even been fighting, as he then heard deafening blows.
Hesitating, Colin stopped. Who could be hiding in this deserted part of the Palace? It could be servants who entered the wing without him noticing. Certain servants had been known to come to blows before, especially if they had had too much to drink. With a firm step, he approached the room, with his hand already reaching for the door when he noticed it slowly swing ajar. His heart beat terribly, his mouth opened in a cry he could not control, and he remained frozen where he stood.
Before him stood a small, slight man with curly brown hair. From ear to ear, his neck bore a horrific wound; the man’s throat had been slit. A stream of blood flowed all over his nightshirt, for he was still wearing his nocturnal attire despite the late morning hour. The man didn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes were shut, and he was extremely pale. The worst part was the smell, the sweet-bitter smell of blood that invaded Colin’s nostrils.
No detail of this shocking sight escaped him. He only looked for a few short moments, however, for he had an uncontrollable reflex to flee. He ran like a madman through the halls he knew so well and soon reached the inhabited quarters of St. James’s.
He hastened right to the caretaker’s station, the home of Victor Barns, his uncle’s friend. Near the entrance, Victor Barns had a warm house where a good fire was always burning, and the samovar never stopped steaming, ready to fill a cup of tea from morning until night, and a cupboard lined with gin and whiskey was continuously replenished.
On that morning, when Colin burst into his protector’s home, Barns saw him and blurted out, “By the looks of you, you need a stiff drink rather than a cup of tea!”.
Colin, though sober by nature, swallowed two whisky’s in a row, neat. Then, propped in old Barns’ armchair and having regained a bit of colour as well as his wits, he managed to recount what he had just seen. Victor Barns listened without saying a word. When Colin finished, Barns let a moment pass before speaking again…
TO BE CONTINUED…