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.
First, Mr. Carruthers wooed the daily newspapers’ editors with dinners at Delmonico’s and gifts of wine for their mistresses. That ensured Good Publicity.
Then he dropped large dollops of information into the editorial ears about Alvalina’s plans for a grand ball. Soon every Society matron was giddy with anticipation, and debutantes checked and rechecked the ornate trays set out for visitors cards in expectation of their invitations.
Next Mr. Carruthers spent a great deal of Alvalina’s money to hire French chefs, buy new furniture, and stock the Sutton-Grove wine cellar.
Newspaper editors wore out their adjectival dictionaries searching for words to describe the growing splendor, and Alvalina believed every word she read on their front pages.
When Mr. Carruthers finally sent the invitations by special messenger, he had ensured attendance by even the most reluctant matron because everyone wanted to see what “Alvalina had done with the place.”
After all, no one wants to be left out of the latest swirl of gossip.
On the morning before the ball, Alvalina told Mr. Carruthers, “I need to be dressed better than anyone else. More diamonds than anyone else. More lace than anyone else. More silk than anyone else. Whiter gloves, prettier shoes…” She went on and on.
“You will make sure of that, won’t you?” she asked, flicking her wand up and down with an imperious gesture.
And this is how it was done.
On the morning of the ball, four maids and a hairdresser rushed from one corner of the mansion to the next for hairpins, lace, extra diamonds, rose petals, and whiter gloves. At last, Alvalina Sutton-Grove stood before her great cheval glass corseted, cosseted, buttoned, and buffed. She practiced raising her wand and lowering her wand, imagining the obedience that would be hers in the coming hours.
That night, it was a proud Alvalina who stood at the entrance to the great Sutton-Grove mansion with her chief sycophant by her side. “Money can buy anything, can’t it, Mr. Carruthers?” she asked, marveling. “Even you.”
And she waved her wand with a czarina’s expressive gesture.
But Alvalina’s wand wasn’t working that day.
A hint of the troubles ahead arrived with her first guest, Geraldine Jerome. Dressed in a champagne-colored gown, Geraldine carried a golden wand circled by rubies, diamonds, and moonstones, very much like the one she had seen Alvalina holding in the newspaper’s breathless photographs.
Next came Christine Vanderbilt in a gown of palest peach, flaunting a golden wand circled by emeralds, even more diamonds, and topped by the largest pearl Alvalina had ever seen.
And so it continued into the night, each woman dressed in finery to match Alvalina’s, and each carrying a golden wand encrusted with more gems than the last.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Mr. Carruthers crowed. “Look at the trend you have set in motion. Who would have thought that your wand would become the fashion accessory of the season?”
Alvalina frowned, and raised her wand, its carved pink tourmalines catching the light of the chandeliers above her head.
Nothing happened. No one danced faster or slower. No one flirted. No one bowed. No one even smiled. No one even noticed her.
She switched the wand from one side to the other. The band played on as before. Couples danced. People ate her food, drank her wine, examined her new carpeting, and speculated on the price she’d paid for her new piano.
Over in the corner of the room, ladies compared their wands, and privately confided to their friends how bothersome they were to hold when one danced.
Alvalina turned her wand so she could poke it into Mr. Carruthers’ side. But he was not there. She opened her eyes wide enough to see his retreating back as he made his way toward Mrs. Robert Jones, the richest widow in the city.
They greeted each other warmly, and with affection.
Alvalina sighed. Then she retreated to her favorite sitting room to melt across the surface of her favorite fainting couch. The wand fell from her limp hand—a useless thing—and rolled under a table.
The next day, the newspapers exploded with rapturous praise of the “exquisite Mrs. Sutton-Grove” who had “hosted the most elegant party ever seen in the city,” and of the lofty guests who had paraded through her halls, and of the latest craze for wands.
But Alvalina’s wand hadn’t been working that day.