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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint




It was an odd morning, that on which we heard Queen Alexandra was dead. The fog which collects here on most autumn mornings was so shallow. Across the ground it lay like a veil: but when we looked up we could see a sparkle, which hinted at a sun almost shining upon the eaves and mast-heads. When we parade in fog, our figures go flat. There is no thickness, no shadows, no high-light of polished buttons. Instead the fellows are as if cut out of grey cardboard, with a darker tint drawn round the edges, where the shafts of refracted light slip round them.

We stood so, in our hollow square, this morning, while they hoisted colour, and played the daily salute for the King: but after the salute they held us at attention, ever so long in that dead shivering silence: for the air was very sharp. Then the ensign began to creep downward from the peak, while the massed drums of the band rolled. And they rolled and rolled all the minutes that the flag crept down. At half-mast the trumpets came out brazenly with the last post. We all swallowed our spittle, chokingly, while our eyes smarted against our wills. A man hates to be moved to folly by a noise.

They would not let us off the worst of it. There had to be a parade service the day she was buried. Our distrusted chaplain preached one of his questionable sermons. He spoke of the dead Queen as a Saint, a Paragon: not as an unfortunate, a long-suffering doll. With luscious mouth he enlarged upon her beauty, the beauty which God, in a marvel of loving-kindness, had let her keep until her dying.

My thoughts fled back sharply to Marlborough House. The yellow, scaling portal: the white-haired footmen and door-keepers, whiter than the powder of their hair: the hushed great barn-like halls: the deep carpet in which our feet dragged unwillingly to the ceiling-high fireplace which dwarfed the whispering Miss Knollys and Sir Dighton. She incredibly old, wasted, sallow: he a once huge man, whose palsied neck had let down the great head on the breast, where its gaping mouth wagged almost unseen and unheard in the thicket of beard which overgrew the waistcoat. Sir Dighton had won the first V.C. in the Crimea: and he was so old, and Miss Knollys so old that this seemed a cruel duty which kept them always on their feet. We whispered with them: everybody whispered in that charnel-house.

We had to wait, of course: that is the prerogative of Queens. When we reached the presence, and I saw the mummied thing, the bird-like head cocked on one side, not artfully but by disease, the red-rimmed eyes, the enamelled face, which the famous smile scissored across all angular and heart-rending: - then I nearly ran away in pity. The body should not be kept alive after the lamp of sense has gone out. There were the ghosts of all her lovely airs, the little graces, the once-effective sway and movement of the figure which had been her consolation. Her bony fingers, clashing in the tunnel of their rings, fiddled with albums, penholders, photographs, toys upon the table: and the heart-rending appeal played on us like a hose, more and more terribly. She soon dismissed us.

These memories lost me much of the sermon. I listened in again to hear the chaplain telling the story of Prince Albert Edward in the House of Lords warning Lord Granville he must miss part of his speech, because he had promised to take his daughter to the circus. 'This,' declaimed the padre, 'this was the domestic picture and example which the Prince and Princess of Wales set their adoring people.' 'Balls!' hissed someone, savagely, from behind me. In its thirty-second minute the sermon ended. More rolling of drums and last posts, now firmly resisted by all of us in our rage: and then back to dinner. 'Fall in at two for work!' shouted the Orderly Sergeant. 'Not even a half-holiday for the old girl,' grumbled Tug.

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