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The Prodigal Daughter
By Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1982 Jeffrey Archer
All rights reserved.
It had not been an easy birth, but then for Abel and Zaphia Rosnovski nothing had ever been easy, and in their own ways they had both become philosophical about that. Abel had wanted a son, an heir who would one day be chairman of the Baron Group. By the time the boy would be ready to take over, Abel was confident, his own name would stand alongside those of Ritz and Statler, and by then the Barons would be the largest hotel group in the world. Abel had paced up and down the colorless corridor of St. Luke's General Hospital waiting for the first cry, his slight limp becoming more pronounced as each hour passed. Occasionally he twisted the silver band that encircled his wrist and stared at the name so neatly engraved on it. Abel had never doubted, even for a moment, that his first-born would be a boy. He turned and retraced his steps once again, to see Dr. Dodek heading toward him.
"Congratulations, Mr. Rosnovski," he called.
"Thank you," said Abel eagerly.
"You have a beautiful girl," the doctor said as he reached him.
"Thank you," repeated Abel quietly, trying not to show his disappointment. He then followed the obstetrician into a little room at the other end of the corridor. Through an observation window, Abel was faced with a row of wrinkled faces. The doctor pointed to the father's firstborn. Unlike the others, her little fingers were curled into a tight fist. Abel had read somewhere that a child was not expected to do that for at least three weeks. He smiled, proudly.
Mother and daughter remained at St. Luke's for another six days and Abel visited them every morning, leaving his hotel only when the last breakfast had been served, and every afternoon after the last lunch guest had left the dining room. Telegrams, flowers and the recent fashion of greeting cards surrounded Zaphia's iron-framed bed, reassuring evidence that other people too rejoiced in the birth. On the seventh day mother and unnamed child — Abel had considered six boys' names before the birth — returned home.
On the anniversary of the second week of their daughter's birth they named her Florentyna, after Abel's sister. Once the infant had been installed in the newly decorated nursery at the top of the house, Abel would spend hours simply staring down at his daughter, watching her sleep and wake, knowing that he must work even harder than he had in the past to ensure the child's future. He was determined that Florentyna would be given a better start in life than he had had. Not for her the dirt and deprivation of his childhood or the humiliation of arriving on the Eastern Seaboard of America as an immigrant with little more than a few valueless Russian rubles sewn into the jacket of an only suit.
He would ensure that Florentyna was given the formal education he had lacked, not that he had a lot to complain about. Franklin D. Roosevelt lived in the White House, and Abel's little group of hotels looked as if they were going to survive the Depression. America had been good to this immigrant.
Whenever he sat alone with his daughter in the little upstairs nursery he would reflect on his past and dream of her future.
When he had first arrived in the United States, he had found a job in a little butcher's shop on the lower East Side of New York, where he worked for two long years before filling a vacancy at the Plaza Hotel as a junior waiter. From Abel's first day, Sammy, the old maitre d', had treated him as though he were the lowest form of life. After four years, a slave trader would have been impressed by the work and unheard-of overtime that the lowest form of life did in order to reach the exalted position as Sammy's assistant headwaiter in the Oak Room. During those early years Abel spent five afternoons a week poring over books at Columbia University and, after dinner had been cleared away, read on late into the night.
His rivals wondered when he slept.
Abel was not sure how his newly acquired sheepskin could advance him while he still only waited on tables in the Oak Room. The question was answered for him by a well-fed Texan named Davis Leroy, who had watched Abel serving guests solicitously for a week. Mr. Leroy, the owner of eleven hotels, then offered Abel the position of assistant manager at his flagship, the Richmond Continental in Chicago, with the sole responsibility of running the restaurants.
Abel was brought back to the present when Florentyna turned over and started to thump the side of her crib. He extended a finger, which his daughter grabbed like a lifeline thrown from a sinking ship. She started to bite the finger with what she imagined were teeth. ...
When Abel first arrived in Chicago he found the Richmond Continental badly run down. It didn't take him long to discover why. The manager, Desmond Pacey, was milking the books and as far as Abel could tell probably had been for the past thirty years. The new assistant manager spent his first six months gathering together the proof he needed to nail Pacey and then presented his employer with a dossier containing all the facts. When Davis Leroy realized what had been going on behind his back he immediately sacked Pacey, replacing him with his new protégé. This spurred Abel on to work even harder, and he became so convinced that he could turn the fortunes of the Richmond Group around that when Leroy's aging sister put her 25 percent of the company's stock up for sale, Abel cashed everything he owned to purchase it. Davis Leroy was touched by his young manager's personal commitment to the company and proved it by appointing him managing director of the group.
From that moment they became partners, a professional bond that developed into a close friendship. Abel would have been the first to appreciate how hard it was for a Texan to acknowledge a Pole as an equal. For the first time since he had settled in America, he felt secure — until he found out that the Texans were every bit as proud a clan as the Poles.
Abel still couldn't accept what had happened. If only Davis had confided in him, told him the truth about the extent of the group's financial trouble — who wasn't having problems during the Depression? — between them they could have sorted something out. At the age of sixty-two Davis Leroy had been informed by his bank that the value of his hotels no longer covered his loan of two million dollars and that he would have to put up further security before the bank would agree to pay the next month's expenses. In response to the bank's ultimatum, Davis Leroy had had a quiet dinner with his daughter and retired to the Presidential Suite on the seventeenth floor with two bottles of bourbon. Then he had opened the window and jumped. Abel would never forget standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue at four in the morning having to identify a body he could recognize only by the jacket his mentor had worn the previous night. The lieutenant investigating the death had remarked that it had been the seventh suicide in Chicago that day. It didn't help. How could the policeman possibly know how much Davis Leroy had done for him, or how much more Abel Rosnovski had intended to do in return for that friendship in the future? In a hastily composed will Davis had bequeathed the remaining 75 percent of the Richmond Group stock to his managing director, writing to Abel that although the stock was worthless, 100 percent ownership of the group might give him a better chance to negotiate new terms with the bank.
Florentyna's eyes opened and she started to howl. Abel picked her up lovingly, immediately regretting the decision as he felt the damp, clammy bottom. He changed her diaper quickly, drying the child carefully, before making a triangle of the cloth, not allowing the big pins anywhere near her body: any midwife would have nodded her approval at his deftness. Florentyna closed her eyes and nodded back to sleep on her father's shoulder. "Ungrateful brat," he murmured fondly as he kissed her on the cheek.
After Davis Leroy's funeral Abel had visited Kane and Cabot, the Richmond Group's bankers in Boston, and pleaded with one of the directors not to put the eleven hotels up for sale on the open market. He tried to convince the bank that if only they would back him, he could — given time — turn the balance sheet from red into black. The smooth, cold man behind the expensive partner's desk had proved intractable. "I have responsibilities to my own clients to consider," he had used as an excuse. Abel would never forget the humiliation of having to call a man of his own age "sir" and still leave empty-handed. The man must have had the soul of a cash register not to realize how many people were affected by his decision. Abel promised himself, for the hundredth time, that one day he would get even with Mr. William "Ivy League" Kane.
Abel had traveled back to Chicago thinking that nothing else could go wrong in his life, only to find the Richmond Continental burned to the ground and the police accusing him of arson. Arson it proved to be, but at the hands of Desmond Pacey bent on revenge. When arrested, he readily admitted the crime; his only interest was the downfall of Abel. Pacey would have succeeded if the insurance company had not come to Abel's rescue. Until that moment, Abel had wondered if he would not have been better off in the Russian prisoner-of-war camp he had escaped from before fleeing to America. But then his luck turned when an anonymous backer, who, Abel concluded, must be David Maxton of the Stevens Hotel, purchased the Richmond Group and offered Abel his old position as managing director and a chance to prove he could run the company at a profit.
Abel recalled how he had been reunited with Zaphia, the self-assured girl he had first met on board the ship that had brought them to America. How immature she had made him feel then, but not when they remet and he discovered she was a waitress at the Stevens.
Two years had passed since then, and although the newly named Baron Group had failed to make a profit in 1933, it lost only $23,000, greatly helped by Chicago's celebration of its centenary, when over a million tourists had visited the city to enjoy the World's Fair.
Once Pacey had been convicted of arson, Abel had only to wait for the insurance money to be paid before he could set about rebuilding the hotel in Chicago. He had used the interim period to visit the other ten hotels in the group, sacking staff who showed the same pecuniary tendencies as Desmond Pacey and replacing them from the long lines of unemployed that stretched across America.
Zaphia began to resent Abel's journeys from Charleston to Mobile, from Houston to Memphis, continually checking over his hotels in the South. But Abel realized that if he was to keep his side of the bargain with the anonymous backer, there would be little time to sit around at home, however much he adored his daughter. He had been given ten years to repay the bank loan; if he succeeded, a clause in the contract stipulated, he would be allowed to purchase all the stock in the company for a further three million dollars. Zaphia thanked God each night for what they already had and pleaded with him to slow down, but nothing was going to stop Abel from trying to fulfill the contract to the letter.
"Your dinner's ready," shouted Zaphia at the top of her voice.
Abel pretended he hadn't heard and continued to stare down at his sleeping daughter.
"Didn't you hear me? Dinner is ready."
"What? No, dear. Sorry. Just coming." Abel reluctantly rose to join his wife for dinner. Florentyna's rejected red eiderdown lay on the floor beside her cot. He picked up the fluffy quilt and placed it carefully on top of the blanket that covered his daughter. He never wanted her to feel the cold. She smiled in her sleep. Was she having her first dream? Abel wondered as he switched out the light.CHAPTER 2
Florentyna's christening was something everyone present was to remember — except Florentyna, who slept through the entire proceedings. After the ceremony at the Holy Name Cathedral on North Wabash, the guests made their way to the Stevens Hotel, where Abel had taken a private room. He had invited over a hundred guests to celebrate the occasion. His closest friend, George Novak, a fellow Pole who had occupied the bunk above him on the ship coming over from Europe, was to be one Kum, while one of Zaphia's cousins, Janina, was to be the other.
The guests devoured a traditional ten-course dinner including pirogi and bigos while Abel sat at the head of the table accepting gifts on behalf of his daughter. There was a silver rattle, U.S. savings bonds, a copy of Huckleberry Finn and, finest of all, a beautiful antique emerald ring from Abel's unnamed benefactor. He only hoped that the man gained as much pleasure in the giving as his daughter showed in the receiving. To mark the occasion, Abel presented his daughter with a large brown teddy bear with red eyes.
"It looks like Franklin D. Roosevelt," said George, holding the bear up for all to see. "This calls for a second christening — FDR."
Abel raised his glass. "Mr. President," he toasted — a name the bear never relinquished.
The party finally came to an end about 3 A.M., when Abel had to requisition a laundry cart from the hotel to transport all the gifts home.
George waved to Abel as he headed off down Lake Shore Drive, pushing the cart before him.
The happy father began whistling to himself as he recalled every moment of the wonderful evening. Only when Mr. President fell off the cart for a third time did Abel realize how crooked his path must have been down Lake Shore Drive. He picked up the bear and wedged it into the center of the gifts and was about to attempt a straighter path when a hand touched his shoulder. Abel jumped around, ready to defend with his life anyone who wanted to steal Florentyna's first possessions. He stared up into the face of a young policeman.
"Maybe you have a simple explanation as to why you're pushing a Stevens Hotel laundry cart down Lake Shore Drive at three in the morning?"
"Yes, officer," replied Abel.
"Well, let's start with what's in the packages."
"Other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, I can't be certain."
The policeman immediately arrested Abel on suspicion of larceny. While the recipient of the gifts slept soundly under her red eiderdown quilt in the little nursery at the top of the house on Rigg Street, her father spent a sleepless night on an old horsehair mattress in a cell at the local jail. George appeared at the courthouse early in the morning to verify Abel's story.
The next day Abel purchased a maroon four-door Buick from Peter Sosnkowski, who ran a secondhand car lot in Logan Square.
Abel began to resent having to leave Chicago and his beloved Florentyna even for a few days, fearing he might miss her first step, her first word or her first anything. From her birth, he had supervised her daily routine, never allowing Polish to be spoken in the house; he was determined there be no trace of a Polish accent that would make her feel ill at ease in society. Abel had intently waited for her first word, hoping it would be "Papa," while Zaphia feared it might be some Polish word that would reveal that she had not been speaking English to her firstborn when they were alone.
"My daughter is an American," he explained to Zaphia, "and she must therefore speak English. Too many Poles continue to converse in their own language, thus ensuring that their children spend their entire lives in the northwest corner of Chicago being described as 'Stupid Polacks' and ridiculed by everyone else they come across."
"Except their own countrymen who still feel some loyalty to the Polish empire," said Zaphia defensively.
"The Polish empire? What century are you living in, Zaphia?"
"The twentieth century," she said, her voice rising.
"Along with Dick Tracy and Famous Funnies, no doubt?"
"Hardly the attitude of someone whose ultimate ambition is to return to Warsaw as the first Polish ambassador."
"I've told you never to mention that, Zaphia. Never."
Zaphia, whose English emained irredeemably shaky, didn't reply but later grumbled to her cousins on the subject and continued to speak only Polish when Abel was out of the house. She was not impressed by the fact, so often trotted out by Abel, that General Motors' turnover was greater than Poland's budget.
Excerpted from The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer. Copyright © 1982 Jeffrey Archer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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