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A Fine Time to Die


Harry Buschman

Priscilla Clarkson-Danforth was born with two silver spoons in her mouth; she was an heiress to two family fortunes. Her mother's family were Clarkson's, (her mother had been Lady Clarkson in a previous marriage). Her father's family were merely rich. The combination of money and the aroma of royalty, (however distant) destined Priscilla to be the juiciest plum in Locust Valley.

When the family chauffeur drove her to her final ballet class, when her coming-out party candles were extinguished, and the echoes of the cotillions had faded away, the time came for a proper young lady to consider marriage. Priscilla and her family were faced with a long list of eligible males and only those young men able to clear the Clarkson-Danforth social bar were considered. The list grew smaller and smaller as the bar was raised until only a few remained. From time to time Priscilla would venture a girlish opinion, but she wisely left the important decisions to her parents.

With their advice and consent, Priscilla eventually chose Anthony Worthington, a faceless blond heir to the 'Cheese Easy' family fortune, whom she vaguely  remembered meeting in tennis class. Tony was the impeccable fruit of an elaborate and multi-branched family tree, but rather than try the patience of anyone trying to read this story, it may be simpler to refer to the hero and heroine of this sad tale as the Worthingtons of Locust Valley.

Their wedding at the Chapel of Divine Privilege was an outstanding social event in the spring of 1954, and the reception at the Locust Valley Country Club which followed was a major upper crust occasion. It recalled to some the extravagant parties hosted by Jay Gatsby across Manhasset Bay only a generation before. A conservative estimate of the invited guests was well over 4000 people. Fin-tailed Cadillacs and goggle eyed Rolls-Royces quickly filled the various parking lots and driveways, and the club was forced to park many of them on the manicured greens and fairways of the country club.

The starry eyed newly-weds spent the better part of a year touring Europe, and it would be difficult to find a baggage porter from Portugal to Greece who hadn't been lavishly tipped for making sure their luggage was waiting for them in the most expensive suites in the finest hotels of Europe before they arrived. They were unimpressed with the art treasures of the continent, the architectural masterpieces were in states of decay, the priceless canvasses were poorly lit and it was difficult to find anyone who spoke proper English.

They returned to Locust Valley in the summer of 1955, and immediately plunged headlong  into a whirlwind of social engagements.

Tony's elderly father was Abel Worthington, the inventor and major stockholder of a company called 'Cheese Easy.' He tried without success to interest Tony in the manufacture and distribution of cheeses, while, at the same time, various hostile conglomerates with nationwide control of packaged food vied for a takeover of this spreadable and very profitable product. The elder Abel tried bravely to stem the proposals, but the stockholders of 'Cheese Easy' could not resist the increasingly lavish offers made by 'Consolidated Curd.' In despair, Abel Worthington threw in the sponge and sold out.

It had been the elder Worthington's fondest hope that Tony, with family cheese in his blood, would inherit some of the love, drive and commitment that he possessed, but cheese did not rub off on Tony. After the marriage his interests were concentrated elsewhere.

Like so many wealthy men living on the North Shore of Long Island, Tony's passion was focused on horses. Many well-to-do men who rode the gentle slopes of Locust Valley preferred their horses to their wives, their children and even the source of their wealth. Tony played polo, chased foxes, bred horses, and traded in them as a man might buy and sell rare works of art.

No children issued from the immaculate union of Tony Worthington and Priscilla Clarkson-Danforth-Worthington. When Tony was not astride his russet "Summerbund," he was seeing to her grooming or trading stories and drinking port with his fellow horse lovers in the Jockey Club. If "Summerbund" was in rut or otherwise unavailable, he would suddenly remember he was married and search for Priscilla only to find her on the phone, or involved with the day-to-day  activities of the "Friends of the Unchained Word" and too busy to talk to him.

It would be a mistake to assume this was the only reason for their infertility. The causes went far deeper. The forces that motivated their lives were irreconcilable. They had no siblings, neither of them were forced to share family affection, consequently they never looked for it. Their childhood playthings were as fresh and new as the day they were purchased, and in a similar manner, their emotions and compassion for humankind were untapped and as naive as those of children. Tony would look at Priscilla uncomprehendingly, and Priscilla would look away whenever either of their parents hinted at the continuance of the family line. They slept, not only in separate beds and in separate rooms, but at opposite ends of a long dark corridor in their seventeen bedroom estate in Locust Valley. In the rare moments they passed each other within or without the walls of Worthington Manor they would nod pleasantly and chat about nothing more substantial than what the weather might be.

The concept of children was inconceivable to them. The technique of their procreation was ludicrous at best and loathsome at worst. The birthing of them was primeval, and their fostering .... well! Who has time for such nonsense when there are so many more pressing things to do in Worthington Manor?

As a result, Tony gave Summerbund his full attention, and Priscilla's commitment to her "Friends of the Unchained Word" was all consuming. Priscilla's "Friends of the Unchained Word" held its weekly poetry reading every Thursday in the book lined library of Worthington Manor. Nearly seventy lady lovers of literature would come and listen to poetry read by noted living poets.

Poets can be difficult. There is no shortage of them to be sure, but they have little concept of time and they cannot be trusted to be where they say they will be at the time they should be. Priscilla, therefore, spent many hours tracking them down by phone and making travel arrangements for them.

Feruccio, the chauffeur, would eventually have to search for them in Grand Central Station or La Guardia Airport and deliver them safely and on time to Worthington Manor for the Thursday afternoon reading. They would arrive bringing cartons of their thin privately printed volumes for sale, most of them hard cover bound in delicate shades of purple, pink and mauve.

Occasionally a crisis would arise .... The phone would ring ....

"The Worthington residence."

"I'll take it Thelma -- Oh, Paula! I knew it would be you. Yes three this afternoon -- stay for tea .... What? Oh, didn't you know? He canceled, can you imagine? .... Well the police called and asked if I knew him .... Yes, the police! Picked up for car hijacking of all things. My carte-de-visite was in his pocket .... and after all I've done for him. Not something you'd expect from a poet is it? .... well of course I have! I've always got an ace in the hole.  XYLOPHONE! Isn't that splendid? .... Yes in person .... Xylophone dear, it's Greek .... EX-ell-OFF- a-knee .... yes one name, just like Dietrich and Garbo.

We've certainly come a long way since Edna Saint Vincent Millay dear. What's that? 'sexual orientation'? .... I really don't know, my dear, she must be one or the other. Perhaps it won't come up."

On that particular Thursday Tony, as always, had his own agenda. Summerbund  needed new shoes and he had to be there for the shoe-in. Esposito, the blacksmith, the very same Esposito used by the Briggs Stables at Belmont was waiting for him.

"Oh, sure!! She's a fine filly, Mr. Worthington, but look at them shoes on her feet. Steel shoes. Street shoes like the ice man's horse? No way to treat a fine animal, Mr. Worthington! -- See these here shoes? These is a fine mix of duraluminum, aluminum and steel. Steel for the strength, aluminum for the bend and duraluminum for the lightness of it all. $750 bucks -- plus installation. It's a small price to pay for a sassy filly like this, Mr. Worthington."

"Can you do it now, Mr. Esposito?"

"Soon's I get these shoes on Lord Byron, Mr. Worthington. Mr. Roland just ordered a set."

Summerbund, a normally taciturn filly, was delighted with her new shoes. Her feet felt lighter than air, and as she capered about the paddock she would occasionally look down and admire them. A stable boy called to her and she turned to see him carrying Tony's saddle. Behind him walked Mr. Worthington in his riding habit, "Can't put his own saddle on me -- well, you can't choose your masters," she thought -- she hoped he would be able to keep up with her, she was going to wear him out today.

Tony Worthington could feel the spring in Summerbund's step immediately. On the first few jumps over the low bar, she seemed to soar like a winged Pegasus.  There was a brief moment at the apex of each jump when both of them were weightless, and they seemed to pause in midair, as though time had stopped and counted to three. At the beginning of each jump, Tony would grip the muscular Summerbund with both knees and just before the leap he would rise in the saddle with her. She would jump as though she was not mounted -- almost as though Tony had lifted her over the bar.

He patted the side of her powerful neck and whispered, "Good Girl, Summerbund." She shook her head and snorted as though to say, "It was nothing, nothing at all."

They cantered at a measured pace along the carefully raked paths, "TOBOGGAN-TOBOGGAN-TOBOGGAN" -- Tony counted off the rhythm as he stood in the stirrups with his knees bent. There was no weight on Summerbund at all. How great it was to have such a relationship with an animal who responds to the slightest whim of her master with eagerness and joy.

"Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross," or maybe even "Ida Lupino and Gregory Peck." It was the same cantering rhythm as the blue limericks he remembered from military school.

He turned Summerbund left and they headed out through the uncut fields where the grass was high and untracked. There was a stone wall he remembered next to an abandoned ice house. Tony and Summerbund saw the stone wall at the same time. She snorted once and increased her speed without waiting to be asked.

"Good girl!" Tony shouted. They would be the last words Tony would speak in this world. He rose in the saddle, his knees gripping Summerbund tightly, and in her exuberance, she broke into a gallop and soared over the fence far higher than she needed to .... again, there was that moment -- that supreme moment when horse and rider were weightless.

In the coolness of the late afternoon, Tony caught a glimpse of a rising full moon through the leafless trees ahead of them. "How beautiful!" he thought. At the same time, two thin electric cables flashed across his line of sight. They were like fine lines drawn with a pen. They cut his vision of the moon in two, and before instinct could warn him of their danger he felt a chill, cold as ice across his throat. No pain, not a bit of pain, but a sense of reaching a great height and at the same time a depth more profound than he had ever experienced. For the briefest of moments he saw a horse and a rider pass below him.

"It would be perfect," he thought, "but why does today have to be Thursday -- Priscilla will be furious."

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