That Sinking Feeling
It is the residents who occupy Downtrodden Abbey shortly after the turn of the twentieth century to whom we will now turn our attention.
The year is 1912—specifically, October the fifth—when word spreads that a telegramme is on its way.
“What is this ‘telegramme’ you speak of?” asks Vile, the dowager countess, who is so old that her eighth-grade science project was The Wheel. This woman’s wrinkles have wrinkles, I wanna tell you.
“We’ve been through this countless times, Countess,” responds Mrs. Used, the bitter, no-nonsense housekeeper. “The telegramme is one of the great conveniences of the modern era. A short message is written. Each character—letters and punctuation marks—is set on a printing press, and one edition of the message is produced. The page is then passed to a paid courier who—on horseback, seafaring vessel, or foot—journeys over mountain, sea, and sand. A mere three to six months later, it is delivered to the intended recipient’s doorstep. One would be hard-pressed to find a more convenient or expeditious method of communication.”
“This technology is simply out of hand,” marvels Vile. “Whatever will they think of next?”
Mrs. Used explains that there is rumour of a version in which a strapping lad dressed as a bobby sings the telegramme’s contents in celebration of a female’s birthday or impending nuptials. But it turns out that the lad is not in actuality a bobby, and shortly after announcing his arrival he begins to disrobe, accompanied by saucy harpsichord music and the screams of the other female guests.
“Oh, Mrs. Used, it sounds like you’ve been in the wine cellar again,” Vile says, wagging a gnarled finger. “Are you balmy on the crumpet, woman? I, for one, refuse to believe such hogwash prior to verifying it with the Snopes office.”
* * *
Tonight, in the parlour, a game of Charades has been organised.
Lord Crawfish and his wife, Flora, will seize any opportunity to enjoy leisure games with their three daughters. However, following a croquet accident that left one of their uncles with a head injury and an insistence on permanently thereafter wearing an unsightly pith helmet and only speaking in Latin, these activities were limited to indoor, more cerebral pursuits.
A few words about Flora Crawfish. She eats poorly, reads trashy novels, is ignorant about politics and is unsophisticated with language. When attending sporting events, she is boisterous to the point of those around her requesting Security. She could spend weeks on a beach, drinking cheap wine, reading gossip magazines, and gambling on fixed dog races (in which both the dogs and the races are fixed) at night.
If you have not surmised it, Flora Crawfish is American.
Beautiful Lady Marry—the oldest Crawfish daughter—has skin like porcelain, but rest assured that in no other way does she resemble the accoutrements of tea service. For one thing, fine china could hardly withstand the bedroom acrobatics Lady Marry simply cannot live without. It is said that she has seen more ceilings than Michelangelo. For years, she has successfully managed to withhold knowledge of her insatiable appetite for fornication from her family. She keeps such ribald secrets between herself and her diary. A suffragette in theory if not practice, Lady Marry has for years been lobbying for hemlines to be lifted by one half inch.
Lady Supple, the youngest daughter, has silken tresses that frame a face of unutterable mystery. As might be expected, a woman this lovely could not possibly have a brain in her head, and Supple is no exception.
(Note: Women’s figures in the twentieth century were—how to put this delicately?—smokin’. More zaftig than the Victorians, by the 1910s, women wore long corsets cut below the chest. Small animals, preferably deceased, were often inserted to exaggerate the size of the bosoms. When only living critters were available, ladies often resorted to the “Thingamajigger,” a scooped-out melon half, stuffed with horsehair and attached to metal springs, all of which were anchored by a frame of human bone. Adverts for bust cream peppered periodicals of the day. These magic potions allegedly create “That Va-va-va-voom Effect,” and guaranteed “Staggering Bulges from All Passing Gents.” Chinese tinctures were also quite popular, but an hour after application, they had to be applied again.)
The Crawfishes know nothing of Supple’s hidden desire: to locate and wed the most destitute Irishman in the county and endure an impoverished existence of resentment, hardship, and impassioned political belief.
Lastly and very much leastly there is Lady Enid, the middle child, who in private regularly curses nature for the wrath it unleashed on her. She is distinguished by inordinately large knuckles, load-bearing hips, and a facial expression less reminiscent of the Mona Lisa than of The Scream. But to quote the Duke of Flashingmore following a crushing defeat on the polo pitch in Oxford, “One cannot win them all.” Enid, too, has secrets, but no one is terribly interested in them.
It is on Enid’s tragically unfortunate countenance, however, that her family’s eyes are presently trained. She reads a clue and begins to pantomime its contents, starting by extending her arms, one on either side of her not inconsiderable, highly asymmetrical frame.
“Big!” Lord Grandsun surmises, but Enid shakes her head laterally as she continues to silently act.
“Grand!” his wife Flora guesses, which is also followed by a negative response.
“Girth!” yells Lady Marry confidently. But she, too, is incorrect.
Enid again glances at the clue, then alters her strategy. She plummets her hands, as though suddenly submerging them in water.
“‘Diving’?” Lady Supple queries.
“‘Plunging’?” offers Flora.
“I know, I know,” says Marry, excitedly. “It’s—it’s ‘going down’…”
Enid nods with enthusiasm, pointing with a crooked index finger to her deformed nose.
“Going down … would it be ‘Fellatio’…?”
Flora blushes crimson. “Marry!”
“Hear me out, mother, I think I’ve got the answer,” Marry continues. “Could it be ‘A well-endowed Arab found in my boudoir’?”
The shocked silence that follows is broken by the disgusted Lord Grandsun.
“Marry Crawfish! Wherever would you conjure such an appalling image?”
His eldest shrugs, questioning to herself the wisdom of having imbibed her third cognac.
Flora stands conclusively. “In my opinion, this game is concluded,” she concludes.
“Is no one curious as to the correct answer?” Lady Enid asks. “It was ‘The Sinking of the Gigantic.’”
Lady Supple giggles. “Oh, pul-ease. Like that could ever happen.”
Mrs. Used appears in the doorway, telegramme in hand.
“Lord Crawfish,” she says, handing him the water-damaged document. “I forgot to give you this the other day.”
DATED: APRIL 16, 1912
TO: LORD RODERICK CRAWFISH, EARL OF GRANDSUN
FROM: LANE CRAWFISH
UPDATING OUR GIGANTIC CRUISE. STOP. FOOD IS TERRIBLE. STOP. AND SUCH SMALL PORTIONS. STOP. LOST A SMALL FORTUNE IN THE CASINO. STOP. TEE SHIRTS AND SOUVENIRS WAY OVERPRICED. STOP. NIGHTLY “ENTERTAINMENT” CONSISTS OF SEMITIC YANK MOTORMOUTH CALLED JOAN RIVERS. SHORT CAREER PREDICTED. STOP. SHIP IS UNEXPECTEDLY HEADED STRAIGHT FOR OBSCURE COUNTRY CALLED “ICEBERG,” NAME OF WHICH CREW IS SHOUTING LOUDLY AND REPEATEDLY. STOP. PLEASE CHECK AT MY HOME TO SEE IF I LEFT FURNACE ON. JUST HAVE THAT SINKING FEELING. STOP.
Lord Grandsun’s face registers profound concern.
“Evidently, it’s true,” he tells his family. “The fact that this telegramme is actually soaking wet is not a good sign. Clearly, the Gigantic has sunk. And so, in turn, are we. I assume you all know about the entail.”
Enid stands, again attracting the attention of the others.
“Of course. The entail is one of a human or animal’s intestines or internal organs, especially when removed or exposed.”
“Enid…” Flora pleads, to no avail, as her homely offspring continues.
“These are also known as the bowels, guts, viscera, or innards.”
Lord Grandsun rolls his eyes. “Not ‘entrails,’ Enid. I said ‘entail.’”
“Oh—I think I know,” Enid offers excitedly. “Would that be the end of an animal’s tail?”
Marry can take no more of her sister’s idiocy. “Crikey, Enid—now you’re merely guessing. The charades game is over, remember? Please let Father continue.”
Lord Grandsun explains the consequences of the ship sinking in as succinct terms as possible: Roderick’s nephew Pettrick was to marry Marry, his oldest daughter, thus inheriting the title and fortune tied to the property from Flora, Marry’s American mother. According to the entail, the land and title must pass to a male heir.
If there are two things the earl despises, they are moving and going belly up, both of which seem in the offing. For a minute he wonders if Enid could pass for a man, which, from a cosmetic standpoint, is a feat that could be easily executed. But then she would have to marry her own sister, which would undoubtedly present additional problems, heir-wise.
Marry, meanwhile, must feign sorrow over the loss of her intended, who in truth had an unfortunate twitch and the breath of an ailing bison. She puts her head in her hands and sobs.
“Marry, you’re not exactly posing a threat to the Barrymores with that performance,” Enid scoffs. “I’ve seen better acting in grade-school pageants.”
“Snap!” Supple’s corset pops open, inexplicably.
Lord Crawfish’s solicitor visits, tells him that the entail is unbreakable, and—adding insult to injury—it being the week-end, he charges the earl double for his time. The lawyer also spends most of their meeting bragging about his new carriage, and his young mistress, whom he met while she was helping to deliver his first child. Upon learning of this, Flora surmises that the attorney is going through “a midwife crisis.”
* * *
Downstairs, “Potatoes” O’Grotten, Lady Crawfish’s maid, mutters. She is an expert mutterer, having been trained at an early age. Her mother muttered, and her mother’s mother muttered. O’Grotten’s audience is her usual confidant, the first footmasseur Tomaine. Tomaine has been working diligently on perfecting his bitterness and resentment; it is frequently noted around the abbey that he can smoke without even lighting a cigarette. When he is not smoking, Tomaine mutters, and O’Grotten takes over the smoking.
Tomaine’s mood is not lifted in the slightest by the arrival of a motorcar containing John Brace, who is to be employed as the earl’s personal valet (parking and otherwise).
Lord Crawfish watches from upstairs as Brace gets out of the car and starts the fifty-metre walk towards the front entrance. Brace’s first step goes reasonably well, but it is rather rough sailing from that point. Offered assistance by one of the footmasseurs, he smiles, assuring them that he will reach the house before sundown.
Sadly, it is just after eight in the morning when Brace says this.
When Brace finally does get himself into the hallowed halls of Downtrodden Abbey, dinner has been served, the kitchen has been cleaned, and the staff—particularly O’Grotten and Tomaine—are most eager to make his acquaintance.
“Welcome to the Abbey,” O’Grotten mutters, blowing a healthy cloud of smoke into his doughy face.
“Aren’t you a breath of fresh air?” Brace asks, not at all rhetorically.
“How was your, er, trip?” asks Tomaine. “It seems to have started last … um, fall. Guess you just have to take everything in stride.” He elbows O’Grotten in the ribs, a habit she detests.
(It is worth noting that Tomaine—how best to say this?—has a deep love of theatre, particularly of the musical variety. Some of his gesticulations and mannerisms might occasionally strike one as extravagant, showy, or overly flamboyant. Tomaine is also known to wear ladies’ clothing and makeup. But his father was never really there for him, his mother ran a backroom billiard hall fronted by a convent, and his older brothers were fond of quizzing the young Tomaine on the rules of cricket, and—following his incorrect answers—would beat him mercilessly. After a one-man show in which Tomaine played Sarah Bernhardt got drubbed by West End critics, he allegedly turned to opium, then engaged in a tryst with both Currier and Ives that ended in nothing but hurt feelings.)
“Well, I would advise you to brace yourself, Brace,” mutters O’Grotten. “This is no job for a … crip—uh…”
“Pardon me, Madam?”
“A Crimean!” Tomaine exclaims. “I’m picking up a little, something in your patois … not to mention those deep-set eyes, and that swarthy complexion.…”
“I’m Liverpool born and bred. Watch who you call a Crimean, son.”
Around the corner, the teenaged housemaid Nana surreptitiously peeks at Brace. She has spent countless shillings on some of the local mating services (“Edwardian Hook Up,” “Gents Plus Damsels,” “Ripping Bodices”), only to be regularly disappointed. These fellows are all the same, she has discovered. It seems that surprisingly few gentlemen covet a young lady who spends an inordinate amount of time in the company of soiled bedclothes, despite the necessity of such contact in her chosen profession.
Also quite troubling regarding the mating services is that every man in reality is three stones heavier and fifteen years older than his charcoal sketch. Having only four hours of discretionary time per week also makes Nana’s social life rather challenging. She has considered changing her profile, but the mail delivery is dreadfully slow.
In short, the greatest fear for this young maid is—you guessed it—becoming an old maid.
In John Brace, however, Nana immediately sees the possibilities. He seems to be right up her street—overweight, elderly, acne-scarred, and emotionally damaged. Even the two hours it takes Brace to walks upstairs does not deter her. After all, “putting one foot in front of the other” is just a metaphor, she thinks, nothing to interpret literally. Nana is smitten.
“I’ll bet he’s not ‘limp’ where it matters,” she coos softly. “That bloke can butter my scones any time.”
“I heard that,” smirks Tomaine from behind her.
“That was meant to be a silent coo.”
“Well, it came out as a soft one. So I’d work on my cooing, if I were you. In any event, whatever would you want with a pudgy, long-in-the-tooth gimp unless you have some, like, serious daddy issues?”
Nana sighs. Some people just have no concept of true love.
* * *
Lord Crawfish, in his quarters, is pleased to receive his old mate Brace. The timing could not be better, as the inconvenient business of putting on his own pajamas, coats, and trousers has of late been distressing the earl.
As he watches Brace’s gait, however, the question of the new valet’s future instantly comes into bold relief. Physical movement from the waist down seems, for Brace, to require an intricate meshing of mental cues and Newtonian physics.
“Brace,” Lord Crawfish asks, “Can I ask you something?”
“Certainly, my Lord,” Brace answers, as he readies his employer’s pants for the insertion of the aristocratic limbs.
“What in the name of Kaiser Fodder has happened to you?”
“Lost my right leg, I have.”
“Have you looked everywhere?”
Brace chuckles. “Clearly one thing that has not been lost is your wicked sense of humour, my lord. In fact, it seems even sharper. Have you, by chance, been spending time with individuals of the Jewish persuasion?”
“Oh, heavens, no. We at the Abbey do not consort with Semites.”
Brace sighs with approval.
* * *
The following day brings a visit from the Viscount of Crowsfeces, with the express purposes of catching Lady Marry’s eye, or even more preferably, her royal bosom. Or, in the perfect world, both bosoms, actually. For it was as her husband that he would become the next Earl of Grandsun. The bosoms would really just be a bonus.
(It should be explained that in this society, marriages are often arranged by parents and attorneys, in an effort to combine the financial assets of both families. The lawyers often end up more wealthy than their clients, a tradition that continues to this day.)
The Viscount requests Tomaine as his footmasseur; he is all too willing—as he is with most positions—to assume this one. Prior to starting his duties, though, he strategically places a skateboard on the floor of the vestibule. After breakfast, this sends Brace—and a tray of tea service—toppling to the ground.
“I meant to do that!” Brace smiles, felled by lack of balance but propelled by pride, as the shocked staff and the horrified Viscount look on.
“Brace, this is no line of work for a gimp. Regretfully, I have no choice but to dismiss you,” says Lord Crawfish. “I’ll give you two weeks. Which should give you just enough time to navigate the front steps and permanently exit the grounds of Downtrodden Abbey.”
Later, Nana finds Brace outside, his bags packed, weeping near the rose bushes.
“Mr. Brace, you left something inside,” she says.
“Mind cranking up the volume a notch?” Brace asks, pointing to his left ear. “As if I don’t have enough problems, I had a recent bout with the pox of the chicken, which resulted in some hearing loss.”
The mere mention of another of Brace’s limitless maladies arouses Nana’s naughty bits. “Well, I certainly want to hear—all about your allergies, infections, diseases, illnesses, and the general decrepitude that comes with advanced age. It all gets my blood flowing.”
“Really? I’m nothing if not envious. Blood circulation is another problem for me.”
Nana’s bodice is fit to bursting. “Iron deficiency? You really know what to say to a lass, mister.”
Brace is gobsmacked by this level of female attention. However, one question remains unanswered.
“To what were you referring when you said I left something back in the Abbey?” he asks.
“You silly old man,” she coos—this time, loud enough for the velveteen valet to hear. “It’s your heart.”
“Speaking of my heart,” Brace says. “That’s not great, either. I got infarctions up the ying-yang.”
* * *
After breaking bread (and wind), Viscount Crowsfeces breaks protocol, by persuading Lady Marry to show him the servant’s sleeping area, where he takes a special interest in Tomaine’s quarters.
“Any particular reason you are sniffing around his undergarments?” she asks.
“I can tell you one thing,” Crowsfeces responds. “It is not because we shared a summer dalliance on the shores of Cornwall, or because I miss his lively dancing and sweet scent so dearly, or because there is anything about me that would cause you to doubt my ability to both bed you like a bull and make you a fine husband.”
Lady Marry explains her father’s decision not to challenge the entail.
“I see,” says the Viscount, realizing now that courting Marry would be a fool’s errand. “In that case, do you happen to know where I might find my man?”
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
It would be foolish to believe that the average reader can grasp the concept of British nobility—that is to say, how titles are conferred and their order (particularly American readers, and especially those homeschooled in the South). Of course, British children “to the manor born” are taught early on that snobbishness, condescension, and arrogance are birthrights, designed for one to feel superior, and to make others feel inadequate and impoverished. But for those of us who are not lords or ladies (and you know who you are), I have gone to great lengths to prepare the following guide.
Though this is the highest rank and title, a duke wears a coronet rather than a crown. The decoration on the coronet is two diamond eyes looking down a bulbous pearl nose, on a bed of tea cakes made of emeralds. A duke is usually addressed as “Most Noble,” except in cases when “Quite Noble,” “Rather Noble,” or “Somewhat Noble” are more accurate. His children’s titles are preceded by “Right Honourable”—sons are “lords,” daughters are “ladies,” and rare cases of indeterminate gender are “undecided.” As they all wear ruffled shirts, who can tell? Later bastardised as the nickname for an American cowboy actor, and by the insufferable expression “Put up your dukes,” which makes no sense whatsoever, in that most dukes are extremely well-fed, and far too portly to lift, let alone “put up.”
Just below the duke in British peerage ranks the marquis, whose young sons use the title “lord,” but rarely put it back where they found it. Elder sons bear the father’s second title. Daughters are “ladies,” whether or not they comport themselves accordingly. Eventually appropriated by the Yanks for the name of an unsightly model of Mercury automobile.
The third level of dignity and rank, the earl is titled “Right Honourable” by everyone except his wife, who will be damned before she ascribes either quality to her spouse. Midwestern Americans use “Earl” as a common first name, while a hit song in 1962 entitled “Duke of Earl” served to confuse those who were already perplexed about title hierarchy even further.
If one is a viscount, one is probably dealing with some self-esteem issues, as many of your friends are earls, marquises, and dukes. Oh, well. Look at the bright side. At least one is not a …
The lowest rank in the British peerage. Serious losers.
Copyright © 2013 by Billy Frolick