The Bryce Family at Home in Strangeways
In Newport, Rhode Island, at the end of Bellevue Avenue after it turns onto Ocean Avenue, sits one of the oldest, plainest-looking, one hundred and ninety-roomed mansions still in private hands in America. Dark and low in profile it was built on its own weedy plot in the middle of some of the world’s most magnificent real estate. A brown-stoned sprawling mass smack dab within the playground of the rich and famous, it squats alongside High Society’s most treasured homes. Its unkempt facade and rusty iron fence are so out of place, it caused a local wit to remark that it looked like, “...a large brown turd, sitting on the pink marble floor of the Grand Salon in Rosecliff.”
Which sentiment put it exactly in its place.
The present resident and only family ever to inhabit Strangeways, pronounced ‘strang ways’ in the English fashion, with a silent ‘e’, enjoyed the privacy which was ensured by an exterior so appalling that it repulsed even the most ardent Jehovah’s Witness. And it had never been considered tall and spooky enough to earn the title ‘haunted’, thus it also discouraged ghost-finding excursions by itinerant Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns, who frankly would be put off anyway by the two enormous, jet black, red-eyed Rottweilers who patrolled the compound day and night. They seldom barked, just stood and glared and that was enough. It remained one of the quietest areas in a town renowned for the kind of deep, lasting repose and tranquility which only large-acre zoning, strong fences, excess money and death can buy.
Further contributing to the quietness was the fact that no air conditioner whirred, no telephone rang, no doorbell tinkled, chimed, buzzed or carolined within the house. No computer game, radio or television echoed throughout the property. In fact, the only sound to be heard during the day was the murmur of the waves breaking and the screaming of the gulls as they whirled and soared above the shoreline while diving for fish in the surf. You could see the ocean from Emory’s room, but the sea edge lay hidden far below the base of a steep cliff, as if it, and its attendant white sandy beach, were ashamed of being associated with this maison noire. The same precipice which hid the seashore further separated Strangeways from the rest of the world, and resulted in an atmosphere so quiet that most days Emory could hear, between the surf and gulls, a regular, soft snoring from an air vent which originated near his mother’s bedroom and passed close by his study. Mother Bryce slept in the belief that her life-span was lengthened two minutes for every minute spent in slumber. By her reckoning, she would last well into this millennium if she continued napping at her present rate. At this point in the description of the Matriarch, one’s mind might be tricked into picturing her as large, fat and lazy, which would be far from the truth, she was just the opposite, small, thin as a rail, and as busy as a stock trader with a case of diarrhea at 2:30 on the New York Exchange on a Friday afternoon; she was impossible to keep up with when she emerged from her spacious bedchamber to preside over a breakfast table which sat exactly at 6:45 am. There were no second sittings and no snacks, ‘noshes’, refrigerator raids, ‘coffee and Danish’ or ‘mac attack’ breaks until food again appeared from the locked refrigerators at twelve noon when lunch was served in the long, low-ceilinged Dining Room. Early supper, reading and bed at 9:30 completed the cycle of a typical day in the Bryce household. A piano recital by Evangeline, Emory’s younger sister, or chess, bridge and monopoly were the occasional treats interspersed with long periods of uninterrupted restorative sleep on the part of Mother Bryce, as well as Uncle Curley and Aunt Amy, Cousins ‘Puppy’ and ‘Pussy’ and the servants, Abner, Isaiah, Patience and Homer. The only family members awake on any given afternoon were Emory and Evangeline, who never napped, and of course the two Rottweilers, Snip and Snap, who never slept, ever.
How is it an American family could grow up under such dire conditions, you ask. The answer lies in the personality of Jason Bryce, the enormously wealthy, eccentric patriarch, long dead, who threw himself off the cliff at Strangeways, in pursuit of Nymphalis bryceleptos - a species of fritillary, or bush butterfly, of the sort that Nabokov used to collect. This species, which was named after Jason, was ordinarily orange-brown with silvery spots. The aberration he sought that day was obviously elusive, with an unusual number of small black spots on the underside of its wings. No matter, his magnificent collection still decorated the dark walls of the brown-paneled, musty study, where anyone with a real interest, and a flashlight, even on the brightest of days, could see the obvious gap reserved for it. That space also illustrated the challenge he passed to his son with his last effort, as he lay dying on the rocky strand in what must have been an excruciatingly painful position - he had broken his back - he cautioned the young, impressionable Emory to “... always look for them ... in the late spring mornings ... above the cliff edge, ...they breed on a bush ... just under the rim ... and, ...remember the Code...”
Emory’s life had since been regulated by the same regimen as his father’s, since, in his youth, it was realized that the son had inherited the same genius for eccentricity, and likewise would need a wife, an essential ingredient in the ‘System’. It happened that an earlier generation, after realizing the male children in the Bryce family were completely different from everyone else, successfully promoted an early marriage for Jason to a minor (in both senses of the word) heiress from Boston, Adele Gardiner, the present ‘Mother Bryce’. She had devoted her few waking hours to protecting Jason and prodding all others in the current family to do the same. Thus, with time, came the previously mentioned, and named, ‘System’, which the son assumed was the last item referred to by his father on that fateful day.
The System failed on one occasion only, and that was simply bad luck, a clear fault of the equipment, not the people. After all, Abner nearly gave his own life in the process of illustrating the value of this almost faultless package of perpetual and permanent care in this life, let alone the next. It happened that, as instructed by Mother Bryce, he had tied a safety line around the waist of Jason, and fastened the loose end to himself after looping it again around the leg of a heavy, expensive teakwood bench, which was anchored to the Rhode Island landscape on a rise above one of the most lofty, inspiring viewpoints in all Newport. Abner was saved from following his Master into the pure, azure seaside air, along with the silk butterfly net and teakwood bench, because the line snapped neatly and cleanly, allowing him to attend the funeral, a small private service, where he could express his profound sorrow during the burial, which occurred in the family vault behind the mansion, in the ‘Low Ground’, an area historically reserved for the long-drop privies which had served both family and servants so well, until several years previous when a warrant from the Town Department of Sanitation forced them to install modern toilets and a proper septic tank. Interestingly, the odor, formerly associated with Strangeways, disappeared the day the privies were bulldozed under, this was the same odor which prompted that famous allusion referred to in the beginning of our story.
The Low Ground, an area of stagnant drainage covered with a greasy-looking algal scum, also served well for the disposal of almost anything, as witness the subsequent lowering of the family vault, the door of which had now sunk below the surface of this marshy ground to the point where no-one could open it, unless they were willing to excavate four feet into this dark, suspiciously rich, slippery loam, from which still rose the slightly pungent odor of night soil. It was assumed that whatever was left of Jason was now mingled with the remains of fourteen pet cats and their intricately carved tombstones, a family tradition, and several lawn mowers, as well as the buried and limned contents of the long-drops, and the last of the world’s great compost heaps, which was being carefully built by deposition, an almost daily task of the family gardener, Isaiah Sitwell.
Isaiah had little use for those silly plastic trash bags set out every Wednesday by the yuppie part-time gardeners, amateur lawn cutters and pristine pruners of privet and box. He scorned such measures in deference to the great force of Nature which worked for him allowing the enormous compost heap to sink at a constant rate once it reached the size of Mt. Hood, which event was marked by his seventieth birthday. That was the day on which he finally prided himself on his long grey straggly beard, which he felt identified him as a real product of early New England roots, as opposed to Abner Sharp who was likewise descended from a Pilgrim family, but was clean shaven. Coincidentally, neither had married. It was claimed by the housekeeper, Patience Flower, that there never existed a woman slow-witted enough to have fallen prey to the ‘Curmudgeon Twins’, as she called them.
Only ten rooms of the mansion were used daily, and, of those, the Dining Room was the most spectacular, with its long sturdy oak table which rested secure in the fact that twenty men were required initially to put it in place, because it was in this room that was found a chandelier measuring eight feet in diameter, a marvel lit by seven hundred and fifty small, fifteen watt lamps and weighing almost as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
It was the most inconvenient fixture ever built. It sat so low over the center of the dining table that it presented a significant barrier to family members wanting to converse across the middle of the table, which led to the old Strangewaysian customs of ‘double dealing’, or ‘double speaking’, where messages, food and interesting bits of conversation were passed second-hand around the edge of ‘Big Bertha’, as this amazing light was called. In addition to illumination of a spectacular intensity, it provided heat which was especially appreciated during winter months because the only other source of warmth came from a small smoky fireplace. During the summer, it acted as a beacon of brightness in an otherwise chilly, airless room. So, despite the hassle, it did live up to the Bryce family motto, Sie Musst Dienen, ‘You must serve’. And those were basically the key words at Strangeways. Everyone and everything had to prove useful, and stay in motion, otherwise, as Patience used to say, “...the Low Ground awaits.”
In the evening, family and servants shared a large central room on the theory of Mother Bryce that her children could benefit from association, “...with people who were in contact with real life.” Which brings us then to Homer, considered by all to be the most ‘with it’ of any resident in the mansion. Homer Burnside was the resident cook, wine taster and world traveler who had seen everything and remained one of the few people in Newport to have served in the Mulrovian Merchant Navy, which he left abruptly, at night, by sliding down a rope into a conveniently waiting Captain’s gig. The best thing about Homer was the fact that he had never rested on his laurels, his cooking was still classed as more than a talent, it was clearly a gift from God. He was affected only slightly by an unsteady hand when he had tasted to the extreme, but that was a predictable failing, occurring Saturday evenings when he was literally poured into his hammock which was strung between two magnificent pillars in an old day room behind the kitchen. It was also the one evening when Patience ruled the kitchen, producing a meal assembled from his preparations, sometimes with disastrous results.
On a typical evening the ‘Common Room’, as this sitting room with its adjoining library was called, took on the character of a respectable old-time New York club, a dimly-lit, seedy, overstuffed haven wherein things and people were easily lost. Mother Bryce was the exception to the quiet contemplative environment so created. She sat in her own straight-backed Queen Anne chair with a significant reading lamp on her table by the side of the fireplace. Here she dealt out and played a rapid, continuous game of double solitaire, read from a novel held on a special stand, knitted and alternatively crocheted while talking to Aunt Amy, who assisted her by jotting down Mother Bryce’s thoughts in the form of notations for the Bryce Family Diary, which had reached Volume Twenty-Three in what she proposed as a perpetual series of interest to future generations. It was almost as if she were trying to live life at twice the ordinary pace to make up for the many hours spent in bed. Ever curious, Mother Bryce would look up from her numerous undertakings and ask, “Where’s Cousin Puppy?”, or “Is Abner still with us?”, or “Have we lost Uncle Curley?”, or “Is that you on the sofa, Evangeline? If so, please find Emory and tell him we have a question.”
In truth, all these personages were invariably there in the same room with her, but the thirty-seven easy chairs, twelve sofas, five couches, seven chaise lounges, four reclining chairs and ten Chinese screens made it impossible to detect even so plain a scene as Isaiah and Abner playing their nightly game of cut-throat pinochle, for a tenth of a cent a point, a practice long forbidden by Her. And it was not only people who vanished upon entering the Common Room, the rugs had become so plentiful and deep that various objects, books, pens, odd bits of board games, and an occasional dead mouse had been lost when covered by another layer of carpet, as these floor coverings were never cleaned - Abner and Isaiah with great endurance and much puffing, huffing and cursing simply dragged forward another priceless Persian from one of the many ‘back rooms’, and laid it out under the direction of Patience. The number of large carpets and rooms seemed endless to Emory and his sister, who early in their lives set out on an expedition to tour the premises. They were discovered after two days by a search party led by Jason who thought it was great fun, and would have camped out with them in the East Wing if Adele, as she was then known, had not had all three marched back to ‘civilization’, the few rooms now in daily use.
What brought all this to a head was the arrival of the Chief of Police at the Main Gate.