If you’ve read enough Dickens, England is the land of coincidence, so I was not surprised to hear that a friend had sold his Northamptonshire family seat to a Russian.  Nor was the congenital gambler in me incredulous when I learned that the new master of the estate was a keen reader of my stuff and curious to make my acquaintance.  It was only when I found myself in the dining room of that Hawksmoor chef-d’œuvre seated opposite Lord Nicholas’s godson that my faith in happenstance began to wobble.

The Lord Nicholas Hervey, as he styled himself, would have been 50 this past November.  Had he not hanged himself in a Chelsea bedsit in 1998, he would have become Marquess of Bristol.  To me, it is a matter of indifference that, instead, the title passed to his godson and half-brother Frederick, my Northamptonshire vis-à-vis, upon the death of another half-brother, John Jermyn, of a heroin overdose.  But it was not all the same to poor old Nicholas.  That he had not waited out the expiring millennium, until chance had worked its way through the vicissitudes of the Hervey family, was a coincidence on a par with my presence at that dinner.  Except it was a vastly unhappy one.

In all probability Nicholas went to Yale because neither Oxford nor Cambridge would have him, but as his great ancestor Lord Rockingham was the prime minister widely known for the recognition of American independence, he fantasized that his education was in some part repayment of the nation’s moral indebtedness to his family.  He behaved accordingly, and the notorious Rockingham Club he had founded to teach America’s gilded youth the ways of the empire lent his ethical position certain poignancy.  Moreover, in the same spirit of magnanimity that impelled Lord Rockingham to make Edmund Burke his amanuensis, Nicholas befriended me—then as now, a poor Russian writer—and had me elected to his club.  Now, when magazines like New York or Andy Warhol’s Interview did their stories on the Rockingham, they could no longer assert with equanimity that it was merely a feeding and drinking trough for the Anglophile children of the American rich—which, scandalously for that hypocritical era, it was.

It took Nicholas six years to complete the undergraduate course I had finished in three and a half.  He was clever, yet by disposition a fantasist, and when a paper was due, he could not tell the professor, as would I or anybody else in his place, that he had written the essay, but the dog ate it.  He would say instead that he had felt the need to amplify a point once made by the younger Pitt with additional research in the Library of Congress, but that on the train back from Washington masked intruders, whom he would identify as mainland Chinese, had snatched his briefcase.  “Why mainland Chinese?” was all the exhausted professor could find to mutter.  At 20, in his inevitable dark double-breasted suit and somber tie, Nicholas looked like he was pushing 40.  Nobody dared to laugh in his face.

In the early 1980’s, when a pair of pressed trousers without stain was regarded by America’s collegiate youth as nascent fascism, Rockingham black-tie dinners and white-tie parties were perceived as something between a gay bathhouse and The Great Gatsby, with distinct overtones of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning.  Nicholas, ever the unbending Englishman in a colonial backwater, paid no attention, as though the hissing detractors surrounding him on all sides were so many whirling dervishes.  If he was destined to become, as he fervently believed, the eighth marquess, then one day the clash with public opinion would be seen for what it was: a character-building experience for a man of principle.

The Rockingham dinners, whose success in some measure appeared a reflection on the family silver Nicholas had imported from Ickworth, the Hervey seat in Sussex, were not all-male, so at least that aspect of the club’s reputation was exaggerated.  A girl—admittedly one, where the boys numbered about thirty—was usually present, lending the proceedings what Nicholas opined was requisite delicacy.  It worked, as in the tempering presence of a lady the male revelers behaved better, told funnier jokes, and vomited more discreetly.  I vividly recall that Cornelia Guest—a social-column fixture of the era, duly resplendent in white gloves and décolleté—was the tempering influence on one such occasion.

Nicholas returned to England in 1986, the same year I fled here from the bejeaned levelers of America’s academe.  For reasons too complex to probe here, his finances and health ebbed no less surely, although far less splendidly, than that of his half-brother, the seventh marquess, and consequently, again like his half-brother, he became reclusive.  The scene of our last meeting was Ickworth, where a few of the Rockingham stalwarts had traveled for the funeral.

Funny, how coincidence works.  It never fails to snatch the elegiac from the jaws of the sybaritic.