Tales of the Landed Gentry by Randall DeVallance
Here’s a story that sounds invented but is true. Not that every last detail is factual right down to the letter, but the events I’m about to describe to you are not fabricated. That is to say that while the story has been assembled from various scraps of gossip, innuendo, hearsay and rumor, its central core cannot be disputed. And those that have disputed it have employed distortion, prevarication, disinformation and double-speak to achieve their ends. Everything I tell you now was relayed to me, personally, by indisputably credible sources. And the sources from which my sources received their information, I was assured, were really top-notch.
So, here goes: it concerns a private tennis match between Roland T. Calhoun, the scion of a wealthy American Band-Aid manufacturer, and Sir Alistair Shrewsbottom, 5th Earl of Shrub’s End. Long an admirer of the American ‘can-do’ spirit, it was the Earl’s habit to invite men of prominence from across the pond to visit him on his sprawling estate, Cromwell House, where he lavished them with the finest food and drink from around the world. Perhaps because his was inherited wealth, bestowed rather than earned, the Earl’s zealous generosity had the feeling of atonement, an apology that doubled as an assertion that he belonged in the same class as these self-made titans. Roland T. Calhoun, for instance – not content to live idly on the substantial allowance his father provided him – had made his own fortune by copyrighting the term ‘Band-Aid’, then suing his father’s company for licensing fees. It was exactly this sort of initiative and drive the Earl respected.
One area where the Earl’s generosity did not extend was the tennis court. It was here, on the manicured grass surface of his private playing grounds, which he dubbed ‘The Meadows’, that the Earl sought to test his mettle against the world’s best. To this end he spared no expense, going so far as to finance once-a-month steamship passage so that the great Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman herself could tutor him. By the time of Roland T. Calhoun’s visit in 1924, it was widely agreed throughout the British Isles that no one could whack a ball like old Shrewsbottom, and aristocrat and commoner alike took a certain patriotic satisfaction in the Earl’s clinical dissection of one Yankee bigwig after another.
Some background before we get to the matter at hand. Only two weeks before the match in question, the Earl had caused a minor diplomatic kerfuffle when, at a cocktail party at the American embassy in London, he had tipsily referred to the visiting Zelda Fitzgerald as a “ginned-up foxtrotter who married into respectability”. The ferociousness with which the ambassador had leapt to Ms. Fitzgerald’s defense confirmed the suspicions of the ambassador’s wife that the two of them were having an affair. The evening came to an abrupt and noisy end, culminating in the Earl’s ejection from the premises by two beefy, young Marines into the back of a waiting cab. Through the disorienting fog of a hangover, The Earl awakened the following morning to a telegram from the Prime Minister’s office, informing him that he should not be expecting an invitation to any State function in the foreseeable future.
So it was in a climate of strained Anglo-American relations that the motorcar carrying Roland T. Calhoun pulled up in front of Cromwell House’s iron gates. Happily for the Earl, his visitor seemed blissfully unaware of his cocktail party gaffe, and even less concerned for the dignity of Zelda Fitzgerald. “I don’t care much for them New York types,” he said, giving the Earl a chummy slap on the back. “Maybe I’m just an old southern bumpkin, but I can’t think of anything New York has that Alabama don’t.” The Earl could think of quite a few things, but experience had taught him the virtues of keeping his mouth shut.
Over a dinner of boiled eel and beetroot salad, the Earl unveiled for Calhoun his recent prize purchase – a custom-made, Draper & Maynard racquet with otter-skin grip and reinforced gossamer webbing. “Well, I’ll be!” said Calhoun, grateful for the opportunity to furtively dispose of his food in in a nearby potted fern. “That there is a fine piece of equipment!” The Earl, boasting of his new racquet’s lightness and aerodynamic qualities, offered to let Calhoun take a few practice swings there in the dining room, and the latter assented, darting this way and that, his right arm swinging wildly as if he were riding an invisible bucking bronco. So engrossed was he, “Yee-haw!”-ing and “Ya-hoo!”-ing to his heart’s content, that he failed to maintain proper gripping technique; after one particularly impassioned swing, the racquet came loose from his hand and propelled across the room, smashing at last into an ornate vase perched atop the mantelpiece there.
“Ho!” said the Earl and rushed to inspect the damage. It was, as they say, not good. The carnage called to mind the children’s rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’, but whereas Humpty Dumpty had been a man – or an egg, or an egg-shaped man; the Earl had never been quite clear on this – the shattered heap before him was of a far more valuable provenance. He calculated his chances of repairing the damage and found his spirits unbucked. Even with “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” on the job, they had still been forced to chalk Humpty up as a miss. As an Earl, Shrewsbottom had considerably less resources to call upon. His only man – being his valet, Hives – was not exactly what you’d call “hot shakes” with a tube of glue.
“Golly,” said Calhoun soberly, as he joined the Earl. “I guess I went and made a mess of it, huh?” To his credit, he offered to pay whatever it cost to replace the broken vase, but the Earl just shook his head. If it had only been a matter of money the Earl would have laughed the whole incident off, perhaps even smashed another vase himself in the spirit of camaraderie. This vase, however, possessed sentimental value. Worse yet, the sentiments belonged to the Earl’s father, retired General Horatio Herbert Shrewsbottom. Shrewsbottom père had brought the vase home with him from Africa after leading a regiment in the Sudan Campaign. It was his only spoil of war and a prized memento, but its lilac-and-periwinkle flower pattern was exactly what the Earl had needed to tie his dining room together, and so he had slipped it beneath the folds of his overcoat while paying his father a surprise visit the month before. He had fully intended to return the vase after Mr. Calhoun’s visit, or at least that’s what he told himself, but that hardly mattered now. The road to Hell was paved with such things, he reflected – good intentions, that is, not vases.
“If he finds out I nicked it, I’m into rubble,” said the Earl. “My ears will come in for a sound boxing. Have you ever had your ears boxed by a retired British general, Mr. Calhoun?”
“No, sir, I have not.”
“Consider yourself among the fortunate. Generals are known to have uniformly large hands.”
The prospect of an ear-boxing having ignited his adrenaline glands, the Earl was not long in concocting a plan to get out this sticky situation. As it had been his hand that had dealt the fatal blow, Roland T. Calhoun agreed to help out in any way that he could. So it was that two days hence, an interview with the visiting “American captain of industry” appeared in the morning edition of the Shrub’s End Daily Observer, where, amongst a list of innocuous observations of the “British-people-drive-on-the-left,-American-people-drive-on-the-right” variety, mention was made of the declining state of the British military, which hit its nadir, according to Calhoun, “around the time of the Sudan Campaign”, where it required “twenty-thousand troops with machine guns to take out a bunch of camel-riding yokels dressed in bed sheets”.
That same afternoon, the Earl got in his motorcar and went to pay his father a surprise visit. He found the aged relative pacing about the drawing room in an apoplectic rage, clutching a newspaper. “Have you seen this bilge!?” he said by way of greeting, shoving the paper in the Earl’s face.
“In fact, I have,” said the Earl.
“What does this uncouth, Confederate bandage-merchant know about war!? Someone ought to take him down a peg!”
“Coincidentally, that’s why I came to see you. It just so happens that I have challenged this Mr. Calhoun to a tennis match, but The Meadows is being re-seeded and I have nowhere to host it. Would you mind very much if we used your court?”
“Mind? I insist! Call this rabble-rouser and schedule the match, forthwith. I’ll have the grounds crew get everything prepared.”
The Earl and Roland T. Calhoun faced off the following morning in the general’s cavernous, private stadium. They were alone except for the owner himself, as well as his household staff, whom the general had excused from duties and ordered to sit in the stands to cheer his son to victory. Unknown to the elder Shrewsbottom, this dovetailed perfectly with the Earl’s plan, for as the match commenced, the Earl’s valet, Hives, was simultaneously tiptoeing his way into the general’s house to deposit the remnants of the prized vase on the floor of a guest bedroom which overlooked the court. Having done so, he slid open the window and waved from it a white handkerchief, the agreed-upon signal that all was in place.
Down below, Roland T. Calhoun was receiving a right thrashing. He had of course agreed to throw the match beforehand, and he was doing a splendid job, sending forehands and backhands, lobs and drop shots alike careening around the grounds like drunken pinballs. The Earl had taken the first set 6-0 and led the second 5-0, with the serve for match point. The general was beside himself with glee. “Go on, Alistair!” he bellowed. “Send this blighter back to the States with a pair of goose eggs!”
A flash of white caught Roland T. Calhoun’s eye. He looked across court at the Earl and winked – everything was ready. The Earl tossed the ball high and sent a soft, high-bouncing serve towards Calhoun, who cocked his racquet back and gave the ball a mighty wallop, sending it soaring over the bleachers and fence surrounding the court, straight through the open window of the guest bedroom, from which there emanated a mighty crash.
“Christ, what was that?” cried the general, and went running off with his staff to investigate. When they had gone, Calhoun and the Earl met at center-court. “Well, I suppose now I owe you one,” said the Earl.
“Don’t mention it,” said Calhoun, as a flashbulb ignited off to their side. The Earl turned, surprised, to find a photographer from the Daily Observer. “I decided to use all the controversy surrounding the match to gain a little notoriety and score an introduction with one of your big medical supply manufacturers,” said Calhoun. “I’m going to sell ‘em on leasing the name ‘Band-Aid’ from me, make myself a fortune.”
“Glad I could be of assistance,” said the Earl. “Might I ask which firm you’re planning on meeting with?”
Roland T. Calhoun was about to answer when a pair of hands the size of frying pans appeared on either side of his head and clapped him soundly on the ears. “Hmph!” gasped Calhoun, emitting a gurgling sound not unlike the purr of a tubercular cat. He tottered off, weaving like a punch-drunk infant, as flashbulbs exploded in the background.
“Can you believe it?” said the general. “That twit’s gone and broken my vase!”
Several months later, the Earl was lounging in his drawing room when Hives entered and handed him a letter. “My word, Hives,” he said, after skimming it over, “this letter is from Roland T. Calhoun. You’ll never guess what it says. Turns out that the pictures of my father clapping poor Role on the ears made it all the way to America. One day Role was sitting in his office when he got a telephone call. He picked up the receiver, and there on the other end was Zelda Fitzgerald! She told him she’d seen the pictures in the Times and recognized ‘that horrid Limey from the embassy’ – she’s referring to me, there, Hives – and wanted to get in contact. Turns out our Zelda is also from Alabama. The two hit it off from the word go. They’ve been spending so much time together that old F. Scott is beside himself with jealousy. He’s apparently taken to rewriting the novel he’s been working on – Gatsby of West Egg, or something like that – and added a character based on Role! Ever read any F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hives?”
“Yes, sir,” said Hives.
“What do you think? Anything to him?”
“His work is not without its merits, sir.”
“Hmm. Seeing as how I’m somewhat responsible for all this, I guess you could say that I’ve influenced literary history, what?”
“One could say anything, sir.”
“Precisely. I believe that’s enough work for one day. Draw the curtains, Hives. I wish to rest.”