This section comes in the middle of Chapter 3, at a point where Wickham has been ordered to get himself kitted out with a suitable disguise in order to infiltrate Rosings. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at any books about Napoleonic war uniforms, but if you do you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that it must have been the campest war in history. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to have some fun with Wickham encountering some excessively theatrical military outfitters, and for a child of the 60s fed on a diet of Sunday afternoon Round the Horne on the BBC Light Programme, this led me straight (wrong word, I know) to Julian and Sandy. Funny thing, I had absolutely no idea what was going on in those sketches when I was a kid, but I still used to love the verbal interplay.
However, when it came to the editing process, it was decided that very few of the target audience would get the reference and it would just look a bit … odd. And besides, as my wife pointed out to me – in her only comment on the entire book – a cuirassier wouldn’t actually wear a bicorn (although, frankly, I think he should have done). So I re-wrote the whole scene with a more recent model in the back of my mind.
By the way, apropos of nothing, I do recommend a look at the Polari Bible. It’s an absolute hoot.
The sign on the door said ‘Bona Disguises, Theatrical Novelties and Accoutrements. All Pride, No Prejudice.’ Wickham knocked and went in.
‘Oh, hello, my name’s Jolyon and this is my friend Sheridan,’ came a voice from behind the counter.
‘Ooh, ’ello!’ called another voice from the back of the shop. ‘Don’t move, I’m just tarting up a bicorn for a Cuirassier — ’
‘ — and that’s one bicorn that needs a good tarting up, I might add — ’ said the one called Jolyon.
‘Ooh, ’ark at ’er,’ said Sheridan, emerging swathed in several yards of tuille. Wickham looked from one to the other, nonplussed for a moment.
‘So what can we do you for?’ said Jolyon, breaking the silence.
‘I need a disguise,’ said Wickham.
‘You know, that’s what I thought as soon as you walked in,’ said Jolyon. ‘That’s a man in need of a disguise, that is. You a military man?’
‘Well — ’
‘ — ’cos we likes a man in ’is regimentals, don’t we, Sherry?’
Sheridan nodded furiously at this.
‘’e was in the regiment ’imself, was Sherry — ’
‘ — I was — ’
‘Queen’s own Polari, ’an all. But they wouldn’t let you in the Hussars, would they?’
Sheridan shook his head.
‘No. He would’ve looked lovely in a shako, too,’ said Jolyon with a sad smile.
‘I would — ’
‘I tell you, he would. He would’ve looked a picture.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Wickham, ‘But can we get back to disguises?’
‘Oh, pardon me for breathing,’ said Jolyon. ‘So what type of disguise you looking for?’
‘Well — ’
‘ — because we do all sorts here.’
‘We do,’ said Sheridan. ‘We do all sorts. Takes all sorts, doesn’t it, Jolly?’
Jolyon rolled his eyes. ‘Ooh, he’s not wrong,’ he said to Wickham. ‘He’s not wrong. So what do you want to look like? I can see you in a beard. Can you see a beard, Sherry?’
‘Ooh, yes. Definitely needs a beard.’
‘Mmm, yes. Definitely a beard. And what about the nose?’
‘It’s very aquiline,’ said Sheridan. ‘Roman.’
‘Hmmm. I think we’ll have to soften that a teasy, don’t you think?’
‘And ’e needs a scar,’ said Jolyon.
Sheridan clapped his hands together at this. ‘Bona! A scar! Oh yes, a scar! Makes you look so butch, a scar does.’
‘So it does, Sherry. So it does. Rugged. Like that Dragoon. What was ’is name?’
‘Can’t remember,’ said Sheridan, looking embarrassed. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘Go on,’ said Jolyon. ‘Tell ’im ’is name.’
‘Shan’t,’ said Sheridan.
‘Go on, tell ’im,’ said Jolyon.
Sheridan mumbled something that Wickham couldn’t hear, but he’d had enough by now.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Fine. I’ll have a beard, the nose and two scars. But I haven’t got all — ’
‘Well, no need to fly off the handle, lovey. Beard, nose job and a pair of scars it is. Sherry’ll have you looking gorgeous, won’t you? But what about an outfit? Do you want to look like an’ ’igh an’ mighty lord or a rough cottager? Sherry does a very good rough cottager, he does.’
‘I do, I do a wonderful rough cottager,’ said Sheridan. ‘Ever so rough.’
‘Yes, yes, whatever,’ said Wickham. ‘Rough cottager will do fine.’
Jolyon and Sheridan exchanged a meaningful look, each raising a single eyebrow in perfect synchronisation.
Two hours later, Wickham emerged onto Old Compton Street, unrecognisable and slightly flushed. Right, he thought. Now to see what the old cow’s up to.