The Prodigal Daughter

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Extract

The Past

1934–1968

1

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 was ready to take over, Abel was confident that his own name would stand alongside those of Ritz and Statler and by then the Baron would be the largest hotel group in the world. Abel had paced up and down the colourless corridor of St. Luke’s 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. He turned and retraced his steps once again, to see Doctor Dodek heading towards 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 confronted with a row of wrinkled faces. The doctor pointed to the father’s first-born. 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 – 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 been. 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 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 maître d’, had treated him as though he was 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 head waiter 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 degree could advance him while he still only waited on tables in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel. The question was answered for him by a well-fed Texan called Mr. 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 cooking 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 to his employer a dossier containing all the facts. When Davis Leroy realised 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 ageing sister put up for sale her twenty-five percent of the company’s stock Abel cashed everything he owned to purchase them. 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 his overdraft was no longer covered by the value of the hotels and that they required further security before they would agree to pay next month’s wages. 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 twelfth 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 recognise 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 he had intended to return that friendship in the future? In a hastily composed will Davis had bequeathed the remaining seventy-five percent of the Richmond Group stock to his managing director, writing to Abel that although the stock was worthless one hundred 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 nappy 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 must act in the bank’s best interests,’ 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 realise 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 travelled back to Chicago that night 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 admitted readily to the crime as 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, he 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 have been Mr. 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 re-met 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, they lost only twenty-three thousand dollars, 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 realised 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 the remaining sixty percent of the company’s stock 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 fulfil that aim.

‘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. Abel 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.