October 29, 1929
Many prominent financiers, industrialists, and politicians had passed beneath the carved crest on the lintel of Leviticus' library, but few understood its true significance. Not that anyone would believe the mysterious legacy that had been passed down through generations, a secret Leviticus' family had been sworn to protect since time immemorial.
Seated behind his huge desk in a mahogany wing chair, Leviticus hunched over a pile of papers, struggling to concentrate on the task at hand. It had been a very long day, and his one glass of whiskey had nearly put him to sleep. The letters on the page at the top of the pile wavered back and forth. He squinted and rubbed his eyes deeply with the balls of his fists. Leviticus' long, thin facial features were still handsome, despite his thick mane of white hair, but his once sharp coal black eyes were not as strong as they had once been. And today, they were heavy with fatigue. He closed them for a moment and sat absolutely still, listening to the pleasant sound of the fire crackling a few feet away across the room.
Without warning, a sharp pain erupted behind his sternum. With a labored intake of breath, he clutched his chest and slumped over on the desk. He struggled to catch his breath as he felt the choking sensation that had become all too familiar of late. With his right hand he clutched his blood soaked handkerchief, which he used to cover his mouth as his body was racked with uncontrollable coughing. As he coughed and wheezed, the library door swung silently open. His guest stood in the entry way, grim faced and inwardly shocked at the old man's deteriorating condition.
Randolph watched, his hand frozen on the ornate bronze doorknob, while his father choked out gobs of bloody spittle into his handkerchief. His thoughts turned dark. The old man's tuberculosis was rapidly draining away his life. My God, he thought, struggling to keep his emotions in check. He had no idea the disease had progressed so quickly. The reason behind the sudden and cryptic demand for his return from Europe was now clear. The dutiful son politely waited, refusing to enter the library until the coughing fit subsided. The last thing Randolph wanted was to embarrass his father.
After one last deep wet gasp, Leviticus wiped off his mouth and slumped back in the chair. He wondered how long it would take to die, and prayed the end would come quickly. The last thing he wanted to do was rot away on a bed, choking to death and loosing his dignity.
The old man straightened up with some effort and turned his head toward the door. "Randolph!" Even in pain Leviticus managed a broad smile. Stuffing his handkerchief in his pocket, he reached for his cane and lifted himself out of his chair. He would greet his son standing. "I am pleased you made such good time on the crossing. How's Catherine? Is London's weather still giving her fits? And my grandson, tell me, how is Bernard doing?"
Randolph smiled broadly in return as he crossed the richly carpeted room and walked around the grand desk to give his father a careful, though heartfelt, hug. As he did so, he bit his lip in horror. His father was nothing but skin and bones. He pulled back and looked him in the eye. "She and little man are fine, you need not worry about them. What do the doctors say about your condition?"
"To hell with the doctors! What do they know anyway?" Leviticus growled in return, swinging his hand as if swatting a fly. He escorted Randolph around the front of his desk to the fireplace, where both men settled down into a pair of plush chairs facing the roaring hearth. "I enjoy the solitude and warmth of this fireplace more and more each day," whispered Leviticus.
"I noticed our investments are giving you a bit of enjoyment too, given the stock markets dilemma." Randolph replied following with an amused laugh. As always, the old man was at the top of his game, despite the brave indifference regarding his health.
"Did you secure our interest in Europe?" Leviticus asked, raising his eyebrows as he always did when he asked a serious question.
"Yes, father, and just in the nick of time, considering current events." Randolph chuckled softly. "I have to admit, you sure do cut things close though."
Leviticus joined him in the soft laugher that quickly ended in another coughing spell. Randolph jumped up to help the old man, who waved the son back with one hand while covering his mouth with the other.
"Damn this disease," thought Randolph as he stood helplessly by, twisting his hands together in frustration. He also knew he was vulnerable in the face of his father's limited future. When the coughing subsided, he took a step and leaned down, placing a firm hand on his father's shoulder. "You don't need to worry about our European partners or our investments there, although things were a little tight until the events of the last seven days. You had many of the family members scratching their heads."
"Let them scratch themselves bald," Leviticus shot back with a grim smile. He put away the stained handkerchief a second time and straightened his shoulders. "Have a seat." His voice took a sudden, serious turn. "It's time I complete your training, son. Tomorrow you will take over our empire."
Randolph felt his stomach tighten with excitement as he sat next to his father. At last, he thought, with relief. He had finally reached the end of his apprenticeship, as had his father had done and their fathers before them. This final passing of the torch was not without its sadness for it had been hastened along by Leviticus' impending demise. Randolph remained quiet while his father rallied his strength and began to speak.
Slowly and methodically, Leviticus spelled out the recent events that he had anticipated and engineered. The results were in the books, undeniable, real. The stock market had crashed. In just four trading days, its value had plummeted more than 39%. The worst was yet to come.
His father's plans before the crash had been simply ingenious. In the months leading up to October 24, 1929, the Group's bankers in both the United States and Europe transferred their personal cash into a Swiss bank account. J. P Morgan's bank secured the American holdings by following the same procedure. The family and other close associates were instructed to follow Leviticus' orders to the letter. Other prominent financial players followed suit. Joseph Kennedy liquidated his stock positions and the entire Group' real estate holdings, with the exception of their main business locations and immediate family homes.
J. P. Morgan's brokerage firm sold the members' securities while the markets were setting new highs. Selling into the market allowed easy fills for their sell orders and drew little attention from either the market makers or the press. By the time the stock market began to collapse on October 24, Leviticus had done the impossible. He had converted into cash and precious metals nearly seventy-two billion dollars of his own personal holdings, the holdings of his family, and the wealthiest members of his organization. Every penny was safely secured outside the reach of any government.
With obvious glee, Leviticus continued to detail the events of the crash. As the minutes ticked past, Randolph watched and listened in rapt awe as his father found strength he did not know he still had, his words gaining strength, his voice now strong and steady. To Leviticus, the crash was spectacular by any measure.
On Thursday, October the 24, the market opened at 9:30 a.m. Mayhem broke loose on the floor within hours of the opening bell. The ticker tape machine fell behind by an hour and a half, leaving investors frantically scrambling to place sell orders for their investments without even knowing the current bid/ask prices. Within a short time, utter panic entrenched itself on the floor. As word spread of the selling frenzy, thousands of frantic investors gathered outside the stock exchanges and brokerages firms. Police were dispatched to insure the safety of the traders. As the trading day wore on it became more difficult to separate fact from fiction. Rumors had reached epidemic levels.
Shortly before noon, the Chicago and Buffalo Exchanges had to close down. The New York Times was abuzz with the rumor that eleven well-known speculators had committed suicide. The New York Stock Exchange closed the visitor's gallery to keep the desperate scenes below from spreading additional panic.
In the span of a few hours a record eight million shares traded hands. The pits were filled to capacity with traders and locals. Runners ran madly from one firm's trader to another. Jackets were shed, ties left to dangle, and the floor was covered with unfilled orders. To the right of the podium, the seven-story windows admitted the sparkle of sunlight, but to the frantic traders bustling about below, bedlam had set in, carrying with it a fear none had ever known before.
An American Red Cross flag hung incongruously across from the big board. It was an eerie sight for the men gathered on the floor, caught as they were in a cyclone of events as terrible as any catastrophic crisis they could imagine. Searching for answers, their eyes were drawn to the empty podium for an announcement that would end their agony.
On that day, Leviticus' time had come. Standing in J. P. Morgan's office, he put his lucrative plans into action. It began with a well-placed leak to reporters that an unprecedented meeting was taking place at the office of J. P. Morgan and Company. This meeting involved the most important men in finance and banking. Once the leak was set, Leviticus instructed Thomas Lamont, a senior partner at Morgan, to make the following statement to newspaper reporters: "There has been a little distress selling on the Stock Exchange due to a technical condition of the market," and that things were "susceptible to betterment."
As planned, the bankers jumped to assure their investors, trying desperately not to expose their already neutral market positions. Within a short time the market began moving up in response to Lamont's statement, but it climb was short-lived. Leviticus watched in anticipation as the market began to roll over.
It was at that point Leviticus' first hurdle presented itself. Richard Whitney, a partner to Morgan and vice-president of the NYSE, called Morgan and begged him to act as quickly as possible to shore up the market. Morgan explained the request to Leviticus. Furious, Leviticus demanded that the turncoat Whitney return to the bank. Whitney was disobeying his orders.
Visibly shaking, Morgan relayed the directive, listened for a few moments to Whitney's reply, and looked at Leviticus in stunned disbelief. "Go ahead and hang yourself if you want to!" he shouted into the phone, "but the bank is not going to back you!" With that, Morgan slammed down the phone and stared at Leviticus. "The man has lost his mind. Dick Whitney just told me that he would turn this around even if he had to use his own personal holdings!"
Leviticus shrugged and offered a smug smile. "It won't do any good, you know, the market is cooked!" Both men looked at the clock. It was 1:30 p.m.
Richard Whitney, meanwhile, walked onto the exchange floor. The silence was deafening, you could hear a pin drop. No one could have imagined what was about to take place. The press and just about everyone else had expected someone to take to the podium and announce that the NYSE would close. Instead, Whitney held up his hands palms in, and yelled out a 205 buy order for 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel. The current asking price was 195 which sent a clear message no trader could ignore. Fear no longer gripped the traders. As history would later record, an insatiable greed permeated all those present. No one wanted to miss the new bull market! The floor erupted in a fury of both buy and sell orders.
Whitney wasn't finished yet. He continued shouting similar orders for another ten minutes, stirring the traders' fury for a dozen more blue chip stocks. Frantic buying and selling continued for the rest of the day, but by the time the bell finally rang, the market was still down more than 20%. Leviticus nodded knowingly as he smiled at Morgan. It was as he expected.
The next day, Friday the 25th, the market traded flat to sideways as it entered the weekend. But when it opened on Monday the 28th, the market broke and ended down another 13%.
Randolph sat transfixed, his mouth slightly open as he stared into Leviticus' glowing eyes. "And by the end of Tuesday," concluded the old man, "the market tumbled another 11%."
The damage was done.
* * *
Both men sat quietly for a few minutes. Only the fire spoke. Now that his story was finished, the vigor that had suddenly flowed into Leviticus' withered body left it just as quickly. "It is time. Help me up, son."
Together, father and son exited the library and walked down a short hallway to an adjoining room. Randolph pushed open the large double oak doors. In the middle of the room was a matching oak library table. Sitting squarely in the center was an object Randolph would come to understand better than anything else in his life.
It was an ancient Egyptian box. Many years ago, his grandfather Benjamin had told him the story of its origins and travels. After the genius of its engineering and humble beginnings, the ornately carved wooden box with a granite top had made its way to Egypt in 2585 BC, where it was used by Pharaoh Khufu to build Egypt's Great Pyramid. According to legend, it was stolen from Gaza by the magician Djedi and eventually came under the control of the cult of Isis around 1300 BC. After the fall of Alexandria, the box was secreted away to Rome by Ptolomy I, a Greek general in Macedonian service. There, the box's capabilities were utilized in ways unimaginable to those who had come before.
Today, October 29, 1929, its awesome power would be transferred to Randolph.
Leviticus took Randolph's hand and placed it on the granite lid. Randolph could almost feel the incredible supremacy contained within. "The empire is now yours, my son," whispered the old man. "I'll give you my last instructions now."
With that, Leviticus turned slowly around and sat down in a chair. A relaxed, almost relieved look spilled over him. The torch had been passed. The short coughing fit swept through his body ended almost as soon as it began. He swallowed with some difficulty and then, finally, began. Randolph bent low to hear his father's voice, which was growing weaker and softer by the second. By now it was barely audible.
The old man pointed to the dials on the right side of the box and spelled out his instructions carefully. First, Randolph was to convert 60% of the group's cash to buy DOW blue chips stocks by the middle of the next month, November 1929." Leviticus had a pen in his hand and wrote out his instructions on a pad of paper he always carried with him in his jacket pocket. "You will have no problem executing the positions. The market makers and locals will be more than glad to fill your orders. The remaining balance of the money should be left safely in cash." He paused and looked carefully at Randolph. "Is that clear?" "Yes, completely."
Leviticus nodded and cleared his throat. "Next, during the middle of the month of April 1930, you must not only liquidate your positions to cash during the market rally, but in addition, sell-short the same blue chip stocks with 100% of the group's capital. However," Leviticus carefully cautioned Randolph, "be forewarned that the Group will protest mightily. Ignore them. My closest associates will stand by your decision."
He stopped again to make sure Randolph understood. Only after his son nodded in agreement did he continue. "Your next move is to close all you short-sell positions in the middle of October 1932 and take the profits to safe holdings." He was done writing. His spidery hand was still, his final command to his closest associates issued.
Randolph was now in charge.
* * *
Leviticus was laid to rest long before the final results of the 1929 stock market crash were written. The market moved down to the middle of November 1929 just as he expected. Though down nearly 40%, the market gained back half its losses by the middle of April 1930, delivering to Randolph and the Group an extraordinary profit. And then the market began its long journey down until October 1932, by which time it had lost 89% of its value. The profits envisioned by Leviticus were fully realized and topped one hundred and thirty-seven billion dollars by the time Randolph closed their positions.
The coffin was finally nailed shut on the market, ensuring Randolph a victory of astounding proportion. His handling of the crash (an honor his father had enjoyed during the 1907 market collapse), sealed his position as head of the Group.
Randolph leaned over his father's sprawling mahogany desk, delighted with the legacy the old man had left him. Shortly after Leviticus' death, he and Catherine had moved into the house overlooking Central Park. The home echoed with children's laughter and scampering feet. Randolph was thinking about how much he missed Leviticus when his son raced through the pocket doors to the library with a nanny in close pursuit. Smiling, Randolph scooped up the fleeing Bernard in his arms.
"Now, where were you going in such a rush?" he teased, tussling the youngster's hair as he waved the girl off. He sat Bernard down on the desk and gazed thoughtfully at his son.
History, he knew, would repeat itself. Will he be ready when his time comes?
The bright afternoon sun pierced long shards of light through the slats of the blinds and abruptly shook Nicholas Shepard from his work. He was supposed to meet his wife Cassandra for lunch. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized he had a leisurely twenty minutes to make it across the quadrangle from White Hall to the Café Antiqo in the Michael Carlos Museum. That left him plenty of time to save recent changes to his PowerPoint presentation and leave a note on the office door for his graduate assistant, Lev Foust.
It took only a short time into his first quarter as a visiting professor for Emory University students to begin extolling his Economics courses. He attributed their enthusiasm to the novelty of having a new face on the faculty, but it was Nicholas' imaginative approach to simplifying econo-physics that captivated their young and eager minds. Even undergraduates not majoring in Economics were eager to sign up for his classes. To the chagrin of tenured faculty, he was already mentoring several doctoral candidates.
Stepping out into the sunlight, Nicholas was amazed, as always, at the warmth of the afternoon. Atlanta's December temperatures were balmy compared to winters in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. He had only reluctantly accepted Emory's teaching offer, for it meant that Cassandra had to give up her position at the Biltmore Estate. However, once university officials discovered that eminent art historian Dr. Cassandra Shepard was part of the package, they jumped at the opportunity to offer her a position as well. Flattered, she agreed to work part-time and then signed up for additional history courses. As she informed a stunned curator, "You can never have too many degrees!"
Nicholas steered clear of the elevator and took the steps two at a time, arriving breathless at the third floor café. He immediately spotted his wife at a table tucked deeply into a quiet corner.
"Must you run up all the stairwells?" Cassandra sighed dramatically as Nicholas approached with a broad smile on his face.
"It's the only exercise I get. You don't want me ending up with a middle-aged spread, do you?"
His wife shook her head in mock despair. Since high school, Nicholas had sustained the same 190-pound, six-foot-two-inch frame. Cassandra was no different. Women around the world would have killed for the ability to eat rich gourmet food without gaining a pound.
"Certainly not, my darling," she answered cheerfully, "which is why I've ordered for both of us."
Nicholas was about to give her a pained look when a student server approached with a pair of steaming cappuccinos and set them down on the table. "Well, this looks like a good start. I can always use more caffeine." He dropped into the chair opposite his wife.
"How is the presentation coming?" she asked, taking a small sip of the hot bitter liquid.
"Better than I was expecting. These kids today are so much smarter than we were at their age. I really have to keep on my toes." He raised his small cup in a salute and smiled. "Thanks."
Cassandra returned the warmth. "They adore your lectures, silly. You shouldn't angst so much over them. You are such a natural in front of a class." She looked over the rim of the cup at him and smiled to herself. Moving to Atlanta had been good for the both of them. "Oh, I nearly forgot," she said suddenly, breaking into a wide grin. "Gabriel called this morning. He's invited us to Biltmore for a party next weekend."
Nicholas' face lit up. "That's great! We haven't seen him since we moved here. Will Alex and Francesca be coming?"
"Are you kidding? It's a costume ball. They wouldn't miss it for the world! Francesca will stitch up some exquisite dress that'll make her look like a Rosetti painting!" They both laughed at the mental picture.
"And you, my dear? What will you dress as, Madame X?"
The server returned, this time with two bowls of homemade vegetable noodle soup. Cassandra slowly leaned back in her chair as he carefully set the bowls on the table in front of them. "We all have to go in costume, chum," she winked at her husband. "How about a ruthless industrialist and his society wife, say roughly 1896?"
"Well, if Alex agrees to dress up, I suppose I can as well," Nicholas sighed. Once his wife and his sister-in-law made up their minds to do something, the men were at their mercy.
"Perfect." She said, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "We shall do the Vanderbilts proud. It will be so beautiful with all the Christmas decorations. Maybe it will snow!"
Nicholas shook his head in amusement. Here was a Smith graduate in a traditional high-neck white blouse, lunching in the midst of remnants of ancient civilizations, as ecstatic as his six-year old niece at the prospect of a snowy weekend.
Nicholas studied his wife while she picked up her spoon, filled it with soup, and moved it slowly to her mouth. She pursed her lips to blow on the hot liquid. His eyes lifted and took in her long dark hair, conservatively arranged on the top of her head. Black glasses hung from a thin chain around her neck. He stole a quick glance over the edge of the table. Peeking discretely out from the hem of her dark navy slacks were a pair of red stiletto heels. He would never admit it, but he found her academic persona incredibly sexy.
"Do you miss the Mansion?" He asked the question suddenly, pointedly. Although he loved Emory University and Atlanta, his fear was that she might quickly grow tired of her new life.
"Miss it? No," she answered, shaking her dark curls at his worried expression. "I don't miss it that way, Nicholas. It's always fun to have the gang together again, though. I miss Gabe a bit." Nicholas nodded in agreement. He missed him, too. He picked up his spoon and tried the soup. It was better than he expected.
Nicholas had first met Gabriel von Stuyvesant when they were graduate students at Yale. He introduced Gabriel to his twin brother, Alex, who was working on a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at MIT. The three quickly became friends. Although Nicholas had stayed on to acquire doctoral degrees in both mathematics and statistics from Yale, the three men had kept close ties over the years, even after the two brothers married and developed more complex, separate lives. Coincidentally, Gabriel ended up taking a position in the twins' hometown of Asheville as the estate manager for the Vanderbilt mansion. It seemed like an odd choice for the descendant of one of America's foremost banking families, but the position was perfect for Gabriel, who had written a doctoral dissertation on the global redistribution of wealth. Aside from threats to disown him over the dissertation's disloyal claims, his father could do nothing about the generous trust fund set up by Gabriel's grandmother. The von Stuyvesant family had ties to the Vanderbilts by marriage several generations ago. His job allowed him to dabble in his love for antiquities, exercise his concern for responsible land management, and distribute his wealth through a wide variety of community projects.
Nicholas looked across the crowded dining room and nodded a greeting to an attractive young student standing by the caryatid replicas from the Parthenon which flanked the hallway entrance. Cassandra swivelled her head and followed her husband's gaze until her own eyes fell upon the young woman with an armful of books and a warm bright smile. She was stunningly beautiful.
"Heavens, who is that?" she whispered. "She looks just like a Vigée-Le Brun painting."
Nicholas arched one eyebrow and worked hard to hold it in place until she burst out laughing. "Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. You've seen her paintings of Marie Antoinette and Madame Du Barry. She painted quite a few of the French aristocracy before leaving France during the French Revolution."
"Oh, right." French painters held little interest for him.
"Seriously, Nicholas, who is she?"
"That," he replied in a haughty, deep, but quiet voice, shaking his head as if afflicted with a mild palsy, "is Mademoiselle Felicia Theobald, a brilliant economics historian specializing in European trade routes in antiquity, a graduate of the Sorbonne and . . . drum roll please . . . my new graduate assistant, courtesy of Lev."
Cassandra's eyes widened. "She is Lev's girlfriend?"
Nicholas nodded. "They make a charming couple, don't they?"
The corners of Cassandra's mouth turned downward in an ugly grimace. Lev made her uncomfortable. The graduate assistant was outgoing, brilliant, and boasted an uncanny grasp of economic theory and application. But he was also arrogant and too clever by half. There was something ever so slightly wrong with him. For lack of a better word, Cassandra thought he was shifty, and she had told her husband as much. Nicholas shrugged off her concerns. His guarded manner has a lot to do with his upbringing, he had explained. Lev's father was a prominent New York financier and his clients demanded absolute discretion. How would you act if you had grown up in a high-powered family chin-deep in the world of corporate intrigue and wealth, he had asked his wife. His attempt at rationalization had failed to convince her.
"I assume she can hold her own," Cassandra wryly replied, "but I think Lev would just as soon eat you for dinner as look at you." She watched as the walking piece of artwork strolled away and melted into a swirl of students and faculty.
"That's ridiculous." Her husband laughed softly. "I know you don't like Lev much, but we should have them over to the apartment for dinner some evening. It's the right thing to do." With that, Nicholas heaved a sigh and rose from his chair. "I have to get back." He leaned over and gave his cynical wife a lingering kiss on the forehead. "I love those red heels," he whispered in her ear.
Nicholas' warm breath sent a tingle through her body and she shivered and pushed him away with a laugh. "I've got my eye on you."
"I've got my eye on you," was a little joke the two had shared since they heard it in a smoky little blues club on a visit to New Orleans many years earlier. If Nicholas looked out his office window and leaned to the right, he could see the Post-Modern building that architect Michael Graves had so adeptly renovated to blend in with the Beaux-Arts buildings on campus. Although he couldn't see her office, he liked knowing his wife was so close.
When he got back to his office, Nicholas pulled up his PowerPoint presentation and reached for his notes. He groaned aloud when he remembered his notes were buried away in his filing cabinet across the room. Not having things readily available was a real pet peeve. Considering how other professors fared, he knew he was privileged to have an office large enough to accommodate both of his graduate students and all his papers and books. Generally he got on well with his office mates, although once he had an argument with Lev that nearly came to blows over something as mundane as scattered papers on a desk. Nicholas subscribed to the floor-stacking filing method of organization. Lev detested clutter of any sort and was compulsive about keeping the office meticulously tidy. Since they collaborated well professionally, Nicholas tolerated his obsession. The downside was that he was completely dependent upon his student whenever he needed to find something. And deciphering Lev's filing system was not unlike decoding the Rosetta Stone.
Driving through North Carolina brought back powerful memories for Nicholas. As boys, he and Alex had traveled many of the state's back roads with their father, who owned several tobacco farms in the region. They often accompanied him as he journeyed from one to the other, overseeing production of the aromatic weed. As far back as 1765, the Shepard family managed acres of tobacco farms in North Carolina after their ancestor, Daniel Shepard, received a large land grant from King George III. Ten years later, when Shepard joined the patriot cause, the money from his tobacco was used to purchase much needed supplies in Europe.
When the twins were older their father sold the family farms. The Surgeon General, he explained, had finally reached the same conclusion England's King James had reached nearly four centuries earlier when he published his "Counterblast to Tobacco." In 1604, the monarch announced that smoking was "loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmfull to the brain, [and] dangerous to the lungs." Divested of the valuable acreage, their father invested in the stock market and changed the family business forever.
Nicholas had fond memories of the huge old barns with the creased brown tobacco leaves hanging on rods from the rafters. Painted black, with sides engineered to open and shut like huge window blinds allowing the tobacco to cure properly, the barns released a warm woodsy smell. He inhaled slowly and could still smell the musky scent. When the car hit a bump in the road he glanced over at Cassandra, who was leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed.
"Almost there?" she asked dreamily.
"Another fifteen minutes or so," answered Nicholas. Soon they were threading their way through the busy environs of Asheville. "Are you resting up for a late evening of Nineteenth Century frolic?" he teased.
"Yes. No . . . well, maybe." She opened her eyes and offered her husband a warm smile. "I know we just saw Alex and Francesca in Charleston for Thanksgiving, but I miss them. I wish the kids were coming, too."
"Oh, yeah? I bet you and Francesca would just love to dress poor Harrison and Rosemary up as little Vanderbilt children, complete with velvet knickers and petit fours."
"That's petticoats, you silly man," laughed Cassandra. "You would never have made Mrs. Astor's infamous Four Hundred list!" she continued. Cassandra was referring to Caroline Astor who, in an effort to snub the nouveau riche, adhered to a guest list of those who met three standards: they were a third generation millionaire; had a million dollars in disposable cash, and had never worked a day in their lives. It was said that The Four Hundred equated with the number of people who could fit in the ballroom of the Astor's New York mansion.
Pulling up to the main entrance into the Estate, Nicholas turned to his wife with a grin. "I know enough about The Four Hundred to recall that Mrs. Astor thought Commodore Vanderbilt was uncouth and swore too much."
"And the Commodore didn't care—but his children did! Things all changed by the time his grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt, came along. Besides, the Vanderbilts were richer than the Astors."
"Well, not paying income tax helped. I doubt G. W. Vanderbilt could have built the Biltmore mansion in today's financial climate. By the way," continued Nicholas, "speaking of the little heirs, who's taking care of my precocious niece and nephew this weekend?"
"With your parents spending the winter in Arizona, Francesca asked Galen to baby-sit." Cassandra turned to catch the look of surprise on her husband's face.
Father Galen Abbott was one of the twins' oldest friends, having grown up next door to them in Asheville. When Galen decided to go to seminary in Texas, the boys drove him out west in one long last fling of a road trip. Galen returned with a clerical collar, a doctorate in psychology, and a Stetson hat and alligator boots. His parishioners loved his patient ear and easygoing manner as much as the diocese cringed at his cowboy boots, Harley-Davidson, and barbed wit. As Nicholas thought about it, he imagined that Harrison and Rosemary were probably having a lot more fun with Father Galen, as they called him, than they would have with their over-protective grandparents.
Gabriel had sent them tickets to get in the gate because they would be arriving in the middle of the afternoon when the Estate was still open to tourists. They drove through the wooded approach to the house and Cassandra opened her window to take a deep breath of fresh air scented with pine. Nicholas stopped the car for a long moment in front of the house and they looked across the great lawn toward the mansion.
"I never get tired of looking at it," she sighed.
"Sort of an American Versailles isn't it?" said Nicholas.
"An American Chateau de Blois, to be exact," Cassandra corrected. "The architects drew on that chateau and others in the Loire Valley as well as Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire in England. Eleven million bricks later, they wound up with a pretty spectacular creation."
They drove on past the main house to the farmhouse where Gabriel lived. There were people everywhere taking advantage of the warm December day to walk the grounds. Nicholas slowed the car to a cautious crawl as they rounded the tulip garden. He hated to admit it, but he was looking forward to the evening ball. And yes, it was even going to be fun dressing in period costume.
Gabriel was sitting on the porch of Brick House as his friends pulled up the drive. Cassandra marveled at his appearance. As he aged, Gabe was looking more and more like the Biltmore's original occupant, George Washington Vanderbilt. The resemblance was enhanced by his recent addition of a full mustache.
"Welcome!" he called out as they joined him on the wide veranda. "Alex is in the house changing, and Francesca has taken over my kitchen. I haven't a clue what she is doing, since we are dining at the house. But, you know her—once a chef, always a chef!"
Cassandra gave their host a warm squeeze and sped off toward the kitchen. As she entered, she spied Francesca stirring a huge copper pot on Gabriel's new six-burner stove. "Hey, you," she said, spreading her arms open to receive a strong hug from her sister-in-law. "What smells so heavenly?"
"Gabriel had some boar meat, so I'm making scottiglia di cinghiale," she said, turning back to the simmering concoction.
Cassandra leaned back on the granite counter and decided that she would rather not know why Gabriel just happened to have boar meat on hand. The last time she had seen the kitchen, he had just ripped out most of the old cabinets, replacing them with the rich glow of natural maple. He had also taken out the old wood stove and put in a gorgeous stone fireplace, which was now giving off the delightful scent of smoldering apple wood. The huge andirons for the fireplace had finally arrived from France and were now proudly on display.
A hesitant cook herself, Cassandra had always enjoyed watching her sister-in-law in the kitchen. She had once asked her if all Italians were good cooks, to which Francesca had tossed those glorious Titian red curls of hers and laughed. "All Italians love to eat, and every family has members who can cook and those who can eat! I was lucky to have a family of many cooks." At the moment, however, Cassandra had other things on her mind. Crossing her arms, she cleared her throat theatrically. "Well, what I really must know is what you brought us to wear?"
Francesca grinned and turned down the stove. "That took all of ten seconds!" Both women laughed. "Come on, let's run upstairs and I will show you. The guys are already getting dressed. We better also." The domestic Francesca was not only an expert with a whisk, but wielded a wicked sewing needle as well. It was a foregone conclusion when Gabriel invited them that she would design both of their frocks.
When she reached the first bedroom at the top of the landing, Francesca drew out of her closet a russet-colored Empire silk gown that included a voluminous cape. The color was perfect for her hair and highlighted her piercing emerald eyes. She also reached in and pulled out her sister-in-law's dress. When Francesca held it out Cassandra gasped. "Where did you get the pattern for that?"
"Do you recognize it?" asked Francesca
"Of course I do!" Cassandra was stunned. "Nicholas even teased me about coming dressed as the infamous Madame X."
"No, no, you are perfect for this! It's going to look fantastic on you, Cassandra."
Cassandra took the gown and laid it out on the bed to admire. John Singer Sargent's portrait of the mysterious Virginie Gautreau had shocked Parisians when it was shown in 1884 as "Portrait de Mme ***". Mademoiselle Gautreau and her mother had fled New Orleans during the Civil War when her father was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. Once in France, the charming Creole became well known in all the best salons in Paris. When Sargent hung the painting in a gallery, French society was so scandalized at its public sexuality that the artist fled Paris and never returned. The painting, which now hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of Cassandra's favorites—not so much for the daring black gown with its tiny straps and tight waist, but for the audacious woman inside it.
"Try it on, silly," Francesca said with an affectionate smile.
Cassandra hurriedly shed her clothes, slipped on the gown, and zipped it up, pulling the rhinestone straps over her shoulders. She turned to look at herself in a tall mirror by the door. Bands of black silk chiffon crisscrossed from bodice to bustle and showed off her narrow waist.
"Francesca," she breathed, "it is so beautiful. I think I'm going to be cold, though," she said with a little shiver.
"No problem," replied Francesca as she pulled out a glittering beaded shawl and draped it around Cassandra's neck. It was perfect.
When the women entered the living room, the three men were standing around the fireplace holding glasses of single-malt scotch. Nicholas lifted his glass with one hand and fidgeted with the collar of his tuxedo with the other, looking into a wall mirror until he got it just right. He held the fine scotch under his nose, swirled the pear-shaped snifter, and drank, breathing deeply as the whiskey warmed his mouth and throat.
"Lovely, Gabe," he said, complimenting him on his selection. "What is it?"
"Glad you approve. It's Aberlour," answered the host. "It's sweeter than most ten-year old single malts and velvety smooth without the smoky taste." His answer prompted Nicholas to pull the bottle closer and study its ivory label. "Hmm. I don't believe I have ever had it."
"You are never at a loss for good scotch!" Alex agreed. "Heh, are these new glasses, too?" he asked. The name of the scotch was etched into the side.
Gabriel nodded, his own glass already half empty. "Aberlour is a highland sherry-cask scotch. It's rapidly becoming my favorite." He smacked his lips. "I got a set of glasses the last time I was in the UK at Banffshire. The Speyside distillery tour is quite amazing, really. I highly recommend it."
As they debated the merits of good scotch, the men failed to notice the two stunning women standing in the doorway. Cassandra stretched out her hand to stop Francesca and together they stood for a few moments admiring the gentlemen in their timeless white ties and tuxedos. Alex spotted them first and his mouth dropped open. His brother followed his stunned gaze and when his eyes settled into place, the twins simultaneously mouthed the word, "Wow!"
Keeping control of both his faculties and his manners, Gabe set his glass down and walked quickly across the room, hands extended. "You will be the belles of the ball," he said graciously drawing them over to the fire.
"I wish we could dress like this all the time," blurted out Cassandra as she approached her husband.
"You are ever the romantic," he whispered nuzzling the nape of her exposed neck with his lips.
Francesca took the arms of both Alex and Gabriel. "Come on, let's go. I am starving!"
Gabriel escorted his guests to the front of the house where an estate carriage drawn by two Percherons stood patiently in the drive. "Your pumpkin awaits!" he said jokingly as he bundled his Cinderellas and their princes into the coach.
Snuggling beneath warm throws they set off, the clip-clop of hooves making it easy to envision an earlier, simpler time when the young family who had built the estate would have been enjoying the season in much the same way. The carriage rumbled down curving roads, along woodlands laced by tall loblolly pines, huge spruce trees, and the sere lacework of hardwoods against the twilight sky.
The carriage drew up to the main entrance and they disembarked, much to the admiring glances of the other arriving guests who were being let off by more modern conveyances. "The coach will come back for us in the morning," said Gabriel.
The couples were astonished. "We get to spend the night here?" asked Francesca.
Gabriel admitted that even he had never done that, and so had to buy sheets for their beds. They would be staying in a recently restored set of rooms on the third floor connected by a common room. "Please don't mention it to any of the other guests," he cautioned in a whisper as they made their way into the conservatory.
Before long an exquisite string quartet, flickering candles, and lavish costumes swept them all into the Gilded Age. Nicholas was pleased to see that Cassandra's gown caused a quiet stir among the other guests, many of whom represented the elite in Asheville society. It was a pleasant distraction from the academic backbiting of the Economics Department at Emory. As they danced and chatted with other couples, the stress of the preceding months fell away. Utterly relaxed, he was surprised at how at home he felt.
He leaned over and kissed Cassandra lightly on the check, whispering in her ear, "I could quickly get used to being a gentleman of means and leisure."
Excerpted from PARADIGM © Copyright 2011 by Robert D. Taylor. Reprinted with permission by Savas Beatie LLC. All rights reserved.