A Most Auspicious Star

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Letter U with paperUntil the moment when they opened the ballroom doors, Alvalina had no idea that her wand was not working that day.

Editor’s Note: A Most Auspicious Star is one of a series of tales originally written by Hanson Willis when he summered with his family in Carding, Vermont in the 1920s and 30s. At the time, they were only for the amusement of Hanson’s family and friends.

These satires and sketches were recently rediscovered by Carding’s librarian, Jane Twitchell, and we think the time is right to share them with the wider world. They’ve been edited for contemporary audiences by Sonja Hakala.

Until the moment when they opened the ballroom doors, Alvalina had no idea that her wand was not working that day.

It was, of course, the day of her husband’s birthday, a day made even more joyful (especially for Alvalina) by the disappearance of Mr. Sutton-Grove several months before. The fact that the man’s disappearance coincided with a pretty kitchen maid’s decision to seek employment elsewhere escaped no one’s notice even though it escaped no one’s tongue. After all, every member of Society owed her position to Alvalina, and Gossip (especially about the Sutton-Groves and their personal marital arrangements) was strictly forbidden.

Hmm, I believe I should correct myself here because if left to herself, Alvalina Sutton-Grove (of the East Side Sutton-Groves) could not have been bothered about the ordering of Society. No, the only person who cared enough about Society to organize it was Warden L. Carruthers, a man of great and mediocre talent and very small fortune.

The youngest of three brothers, Mr. Carruthers was barely out of short pants before he realized that his destiny lay far away from his lowly birthplace. So as soon as he owned a matching pair of shoes, he set off to locate a Mentor, someone (preferably a woman) who could teach him all of the intricate rules one needed to heed in order to rise in power.

Since all signs pointed toward New York City, Mr. Carruthers swung his nose in that direction. Once there, he expected to find an orderly design to the world based on money, the only measurement worth measuring.

Now, I mentioned that Mr. Carruthers was a man of only mediocre talent, and that is true. But it is equally true that mediocre men are often quite shrewd. Such was the case with Mr. Carruthers. You see, he understood the succulent power of wealth better than those who arrived in this world with money ready to hand. He also understood that to those born wealthy, wielding power was a bore.

When Warden Carruthers met Alvalina Sutton-Grove, she lay in a fully prone position across the length of a fainting couch draped in a sprigged muslin dress that was at least a year and six months out of fashion. She was languid in the extreme, her eyelids drooping so heavily that Mr. Carruthers couldn’t make out their color for the first three months of their acquaintance. (It was pale blue, by the way, not the gray mistakenly reported by so many journalists during her trial.)

The only movement she made was with her left hand with which she clutched a golden baton encrusted with jewels topped by a single large diamond known as “the most Auspicious Star.”

When he remarked on the size of the stone, Alvalina just yawned, and Mr. Carruthers knew he’d found his Mentor.

At the time that they met, Alvalina was a newly made orphan, and had just come into the first of the three trust funds set up by her doting parents. (The maturing of her trust funds was spaced every 17 years, the amount of time that Alvalina’s father figured it would take her to spend herself into poverty.) She was bored with her money “oh, bored, bored, bored,” and had summoned Carruthers because a friend had described him as a “man of purpose,” and Alvalina needed a purpose.

“What do you think of Society?” he asked the prone young woman during the first of their many teas together.

“Oh, it is a mess,” she said. “No one knows when they should bow or how to properly hold a tea cup or when it is acceptable to kiss someone else’s husband. Why, only last week, Jacqueline Rogers kissed Caroline Carter’s husband behind a screen at the Selkirks’ ball, and everyone knew that wasn’t right thing to do. After all, Caroline and her husband had only been married for three weeks, and everyone knows that six weeks is the proper waiting time between matrimony and infidelity.”

“Ah, yes, just as I suspected,” Mr. Carruthers said, nodding his head slowly. “We are of the same mind.”

After this meeting of the minds, Alvalina hired Mr. Carruthers to take control of Society. He started by ordering the Sutton-Grove servants to redecorate a suite of rooms on the first floor of Alvalina’s mansion for his private use. Second, he roused the young woman’s curiosity (after he was able to locate it) as to the size of her income. He needed to know, he said, because it was necessary to establish a correct Social pecking order based on wealth.

Alvalina almost said she was thrilled when she found out that she was the richest woman in New York.

Then Mr. Carruthers measured the size of the Sutton-Grove ballroom to ascertain how many people it could hold at one time. He was disappointed to find that that number was only 296, and promptly ordered the room’s expansion until it could hold four hundred.

“Why four hundred?” Alvalina had asked.

“It is a good number for a ball, don’t you think?” Mr. Carruthers answered. “You’ll be like a fairy princess, waving your magic wand to direct everyone to dance.”

Alvalina yawned. “A wand. Oh, I’ve always wanted a wand. How lovely.” Then she made the effort to open her eyes in order to gaze at the golden baton covered with sapphires, diamonds, and pink tourmalines. “You will make sure that everyone who’s invited to the ball will come, won’t you?” waving her wand with conviction. “I believe that is Important.”

“Oh yes,” he said.

And this is how it was done.

Join us next week for the second part of A Most Auspicious Star. If you are enjoying these stories, please tell your friends.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories  written by Hanson Willis, an early 20th-century writer renowned for his detective stories. These shorter tales, which are locally known as Carding’s Myths and Legends, were privately in the 1920s and 30s. They were recently rediscovered by Carding’s librarian, Jane Twitchell, and have been edited for contemporary audiences by Sonja Hakala.

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