Thursday, July 28, 2011

20. "Wolverington"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo *

illustrated by rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus

*Ass’t Professor of Classics and Elocution, Olney Community College; editor of No Place Like Nowhere: Selected Early Poems of Horace P. Sternwall (1936-1941); Olney Community College Press.

click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning

Contrary to what nearly everyone thought, Lord Wolverington was in fact legally entitled to the term of address “Lord”, being the 25th (and last) Baron Wolverington, but he could never go back to England, no, not after being cashiered from the 5th Royal Horse Guards for conduct unbefitting an officer in 1914 (something involving a French farm lad and a bottle of absinthe on the eve of the first Battle of the Marne),

not after selling off the family lands acre by acre to pay his gambling and legal debts, not after finally losing the familial manse itself in a game of whist in 1922 (his old school friend “Poof” Smith-Jones had written him recently to inform him that the present owners had turned the old pile into a “country inn”;

the ground floor front was now a pub, complete with jukebox and pinball machines, whereas the big hall had been turned into a dance hall, complete with a traditional jazz band), not after that terrible scene at Pratt’s in 1927 when Wolverington’s special chum Lord Messingham fell or jumped or perhaps even was pushed out of the window of the steward’s quarters to his untimely death impaled on the spiked railing below on the pavement of Park Place.

No, Wolverington had become too well known on his native island as a chancer, a writer of IOUs not worth the stolen stationery they were written on, a profligate of the first stripe and a world-class bum boy.

With his sister’s “borrowed” jewelry in a Gladstone bag and one tweed suit (cut of course by Hawkes of Savile Row, but never paid for) he arrived in New York Harbor on the RMS Olympic in October of 1929, barely a week before the stock market crash. His wit and his charm, his plummy accent and his flawless manners stood him in good stead in his new city in the new world, and he was a welcome guest at many a dinner party overshadowed by the grim realities of the Great Depression. And what a relief it was for Wolverington to dine with people for whom social standing was merely a matter of wealth, even if the wealth was only a generation or two old and came from trade. It was at one of these dinners that he met Caroline Charlton, of the New York Charltons on her father’s side and the New York Collinsons and the Philadelphia Harrisons on her mother’s side.

No one knew exactly what transpired that August night in 1933 in that speakeasy on Jane Street; or rather anyone who did know had been paid or blackmailed to be silent about it by young Mr. Perkins, the Collinson family lawyer; but what was known was that a couple of weeks after the incident, after Wolverington had been released from the Tombs on his own recognizance, he had moved into one of the very nicest residential suites at the Hotel St Crispian, and adjoining Caroline Charlton’s. Some people believed that it was he who had shot Caroline’s alleged paramour the notorious roué Burnham “Budgie” Walterston (of the Westchester Walterstons) through the heart that night with Budgie’s own pistol; others believed Caroline to be the culprit; at any rate the death was ruled a suicide, and all charges against Lord Wolverington were dropped. What was also known was that Wolverington spent his two weeks in the Tombs refusing to say a single word about that tragic night in Greenwich Village.

In all the years Lord Wolverington had been “stopping” at the St Crispian he had never once been presented with a bill, and every week a thick envelope addressed to him was delivered by messenger to the St Crispian front desk from the offices of Perkins, Perkins & Perkins. Finally, at the age of forty-nine, this chancer, this wastrel, this drunken failure, this ignoble end of a noble line, this badly-aging bum boy, had achieved security merely for keeping his mouth shut and quite enjoying a relaxing and sexually-fulfilling fortnight in jail.

Lord Wolverington and Caroline Charlton had remained good friends through the years. They shared a taste for gossip, for debauchery, for musical theatre and for idleness. They could sit for hours of a fine sunny day in the lobby of the St Crispian, in the comfortable armchairs near the big zebra plant, usually in the company of that other professional loafer Phineas “Farmer” Brown, the three of them doing nothing but reading movie magazines and playing Mahjong all afternoon, interspersed with gibing remarks on anyone else who might walk through the lobby.

Evenings too Wolverington often spent in Caroline’s company. They would sit and listen to their favorite radio programs, leafing through their movie magazines and drinking their cocktails. They would go to the theatre and to the movies together, and, as they both grew older and less interested in sex they would come home to the hotel together in the same cab.

They were sometimes mistaken by strangers for an old married couple...

Conrad clapped the brass knocker.

“Yes, who is it?” cried the dry cracked shrill old voice, the voice of a parrot who has seen too much and lived too long.

“It’s Conrad, Aunt Caroline,” Conrad shouted at the door. “I told you I was coming.”

“One moment, dear boy,” called the voice.

Conrad waited. You always waited for Aunt Caroline.

Finally after a minute the door was opened.

It was that Lord Wolverington, standing there holding a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in an onyx holder in the other.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the jailbird great-nephew,” said the old fool.

Aunt Caroline was sitting on the sofa back there with her own cocktail and cigarette, and she laughed that high broken laugh of hers. It always reminded Conrad of the sound one imagined a chicken might make while having its neck wrung.

“I was never actually in jail,” said Conrad, coming into the room with his little package.

“Not what I heard old boy,” said Wolverington.

“I was held at the jail for questioning, but I was never in jail.”

Which was more than Wolverington or Aunt Caroline could say, thought Conrad, and he went over to kiss his great aunt on her cheek, which felt like kissing a dead oak leaf, not that Conrad had ever kissed a dead oak leaf.

chapter 21: improvisation

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Lord Wolverington would make a nice pen name; why didn't I think of it first? I'm seriously considering a metamorphosis. That cockroach character also belongs to someone far quicker than I.