Not since Prince Andrew and Koo Stark starred in that riveting tabloid romance The Prince and the Porn Star has Buckingham Palace confronted such a lubricious embarrassment. Maj. Ronald Ferguson—the Duchess of York's flamboyant father, Prince Charles's polo manager and a former guards officer in Her Majesty's Household Cavalry—was caught with his own guard down as he came marching out of a London massage parlor and straight onto the May 8 front page of a scandal sheet.

Not only did the tabloid the People deliver a photograph of Ferguson's egress, it also alleged that he had visited the place a dozen times this year alone, paying for sexual services from a number of women and often leaving them gifts of perfume and lemon bath oil said to be used by the royal family. Though the newspaper's reputation is hardly unsullied, Ferguson seemed to confirm the paper's charges when he told a friend sorrowfully, "I've been a fool."

Ferguson, 56, admitted to friends that he had been a member of the exclusive Wigmore ("health") Club, an establishment in London's West End famous for its white-uniformed "attendants" and its less-than-total dedication to scientific massage. "As soon as you pay your entrance fee," one regular at the club told another tabloid, the News of the World, "you know what you're going to get. There are steam boxes available. But I was only there for the sex."

In retrospect it seems surprising that Ferguson wasn't caught sooner. Unlike most of the Wigmore's well-heeled clients, who do all they can to mask their identities, the major seemed to enjoy flaunting his. He reportedly enrolled in the club under his own name and often arrived carrying a briefcase embossed with his moniker. One woman who worked at the club told the People that he once asked pompously, "What does it feel like to be dealing with royalty?" "He's not exactly cautious," said another of the girls. "In fact, I think he is rather stupid. He has talked to me about his problems. He often pops in for a massage and chat, and I usually finish the session off with a sexual act."

Within hours after the story broke, the telephone had been disconnected at Dummer Down Farm, the 871-acre estate in Hampshire where Ferguson lives with his second wife, Sue, 41, and their three young children. Later that night, reporters flocked to the major's doorstep. "What do you want?" demanded Sue from an upstairs window. "My husband is in bed and fast asleep and doesn't want to talk about this."

Who did? Certainly not Fergie, who was off with Andy attending a christening. Besides, she had already urged her father to buck up. "Keep your chin up high, and don't let them get you down," she told him in a tearful phone call. Buckingham Palace wasn't chatty, either, choosing to comment tersely, "He'll have to deal with this himself. It's nothing to do with us, despite the fact that he's the Duchess of York's father." Undaunted, Ferguson arrived in Windsor the following morning for his regular weekend polo match. He played on the same team as Prince Charles, while Diana, William and Harry cheered from the sidelines. Though their Guards Club team was a loser, loyal Charles deliberately lingered after the match, going out of his way to chat with his old friend as the trophies were handed out.

Inevitably, reporters at the match asked the major to comment on the Wigmore affair. "You must be out of your tiny minds," he snapped. "I'm not saying anything." Some of his polo-playing peers weren't so reticent. "If you eat with sharks, you must expect to be bitten," said one member of the prestigious Guards Polo Club, of which Ferguson is deputy chairman. "He has brought great embarrassment to the royal family. If he is an honorable man, he should go."

It is the Queen who may ultimately decide whether Ferguson will be permitted to remain as Charles's polo manager, a post he has held since 1973. She was in Australia when the trouble erupted and has not yet rendered her verdict. Meanwhile, the major has made it clear that he won't step down voluntarily. "No way," he told one friend. "If the Prince of Wales asks me to resign, that's another matter." According to friends, Charles has made it equally clear that he will fire Ferguson only if he is pressured to do so by his mother.

Insiders say that Ferguson has long prided himself on being a ladies' man, and there is speculation that his roving eye may have driven his first wife, Susan, Fergie's mother, into the arms of her current husband, Hector Barrantes. Now, unquestionably, the chastened major is deeply concerned over the embarrassment he has caused his wife and the royal family, including his daughter, whose own freewheeling style he has always vigorously defended. "Everything that Sarah has done so far would make a parent proud," he declared recently. Unfortunately, the duchess may no longer be able to say the same of her father.

—By Susan Toepfer, with Terry Smith and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London