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Napoleon’s Gold, Part III


The following excerpt is from the novel Napoleon's Gold by Thomas Pullyblank, forthcoming from Square Circle Press in May 2011. Previous excerpts from Napoleon's Gold appeared in the August 2010 and February 2011 issues of TI Life. TI Life readers are invited to go to the book's website for a special pre-publication offer.

 

(Tom Flanagan, whose parents and brother died in a boating accident on the river five years before, has returned to his family cottage in Thousand Island Park to reconnect with his past and to continue his father's search for Napoleon's Gold. A month into his search he attends the grand Ostend Ball, hosted for over a century by one of the river's wealthiest families at their island castle, Valhalla. Tom attends the Ostend Ball with his dear friend Mindy McDonnell, who was also a main character in the first Tom Flanagan mystery, Cornflower's Ghost.

Charles Obadiah Smithson was a Canadian luminary in the late 1800s. Lady Ostend is the grandmother of Tom's host, Raphael Ostend. Jim Pembroke is a former river pilot. Both Ostend and Pembroke were, along with Tom's father, members of the River Rat Reporters, an informal group of men that gathered socially to discuss Thousand Island news, including news related to the whereabouts of Napoleon's Gold.

In this scene, Tom is recovering from a broken foot.)

"I assume you've come prepared," Raphael Ostend said, "having already done some research on Captain Smithson." He directed the statement to me just before dinner, in the company of the other fifty seven guests gathered around Valhalla's massive dining room table who were, thankfully, engaged in conversations of their own.

I say thankfully because it wasn't easy for me to respond, overwhelmed as I was by the evening's experiences so far.

First it was Mindy, who, at six o'clock, descended the stairs of Heron's Nest in her long black gown, feathered with subtle hints of green, blue and purple. Diamondback colors, yes, but still beautiful, especially on her. She had her hair up and wore a simple necklace of black pearls with equally simple earrings to match.

She said I looked good in my father's newly tailored tuxedo, the left leg bell-bottomed to fit over my cast. She was right, I must admit, but I looked nowhere near as good as she did.

"My goodness," I said when she stopped at the bottom of the stairs. "You'd fit right in with those red carpet starlets on Oscar night."

She smiled, raised her arms and did a spin. "Golden Globes, maybe. Oscars, no way."

Then we sat down at the kitchen table and had more Finger Lakes Riesling, chatting about what we each expected to happen that night. We couldn't wait for it to begin.

The next overwhelming experience was our evening's transportation. Raphael Ostend's butler had called Saturday afternoon to tell me not to worry about how we'd get over to Valhalla. I pressed him for more information, but he would give no further details. So my curiosity at seeing nautical running lights approach the dock at six thirty turned to amazement as I realized the boat was the Archangel itself, piloted by Captain James Pembroke. He was accompanied by a very tall blonde woman in a sleek forest green dress. He introduced her as his "first ex-wife Margie." We boarded the boat with backpacks containing tomorrow's clothes, and set off expectantly.

The downriver journey along Wellesley Island and around Grenadier and into Canadian waters was leisurely paced and beautiful as we rode through the cool, starlit evening. Jim skippered, and Margie, Mindy and I enjoyed a bottle of Dom Pérignon and some AM radio oldies. Mindy marveled at how peaceful the river was on a windless night.

I was even more overwhelmed by Valhalla itself. The castle was made of stone, quarried in the Thousand Islands, and was actually built on two adjacent islands, one wing on each. The wings, and therefore the islands, were connected by a bi-level stone walkway that accessed both the ground and upper floors. There were numerous gables and towers, and the whole structure was covered with slate roofing.

I'd seen it enough in the daytime on my various river travels by kayak and Lyman and tour boat; I thought I knew what to expect. But now, on Ostend Ball night, Valhalla was lit by hundreds upon hundreds of old fashioned naphtha lamps and torches that made the pink granite glow like fire itself.

The sight was spine-tingling and more than a little frightening. I was taking a swig of champagne from the bottle when I looked north past the Crossover Island Light and first saw it in the distance. Astonished at the sight, I pulled the bottle away before tipping it upright, spilling some of the expensive bubbly on my coat.

Margie wiped the champagne with the scarf she was wearing. "Impressive, huh?" she said, turning back to look at the castle. "I'll always remember my first time seeing it all lit up like that. What was it, Jimmy? 1984?"

"Eighty one," Jim Pembroke said. "We split up in eighty four."

I nodded and handed Margie the bottle.

Captain Pembroke pulled the Archangel into the boathouse, where we disembarked with the half empty bottle of champagne and our backpacks onto a torch-lit solid rock landing. We followed curving pink granite stairs up two flights to the main lobby, and then ascended a marble stairway to the second floor and its ballroom, dining room and smoking room. Sweating from the exertion, I asked why Ostend hadn't built an elevator. Mindy replied, to the delight of Jim Pembroke and his ex-wife, that torches wouldn't work too well in elevators.

The oak paneling in the ballroom, the crystal chandelier as large as Heron's Nest's living room, the nineteen piece orchestra, the excellent champagne, the tuxedos, the women's gowns made of taffeta and silk and lace, the picture perfect fireplace in every room, the conversation and laughter and hors d'ouvres: all of it transported me to, what was to me, a fantasy world of such magnificence and beauty that I became dizzy from it all. Fifteen minutes after arriving, I hobbled over to the wall opposite the ballroom fireplace, sat down in one of the leather upholstered chairs set in a row for those who weren't dancing, and listened to the strains of a Brahms tune. I marveled that I was there, at Valhalla, where my parents had been as well, my father even in the same clothes that I now wore.

Mindy joined me after a time, and asked if this is really how things were, on a regular basis, back in 1886.

I nodded. "In season. The Ostends are odd, though, and always have been. One purpose of their ball is to weed out those who only think about the river in the summer from those who care about the place all year round. As you can see, a lot of people took the effort to get here in early November."

"It's spectacular, isn't it? It must have been even more spectacular back then."

"A fool's paradise, people used to call it."

"Why?"

"Things were like this here at Valhalla, at George Pullman's Castle Rest, Charles Emery's Calumet, Ed Noble's Thousand Island Club, The Thousand Island House in Alex Bay, The Frontenac Hotel on Round Island, The Columbian in TI Park. Summer was filled with high end social events where the rich and famous dressed to be seen, and mingled and danced all night long. The river was full of private yachts and steamboats shuttling people from one party to another. Until The First World War the only competition as the premier vacation paradise for the elite was Norfolk, Rhode Island."

"Wow."

"The New York Times even sent a seasonal correspondent up here to cover all the river's happenings. But it could never last, hence the fool part."

"What happened to end it all?"

"The government requisitioned the yachts and steamboats for the war effort. The automobile eclipsed the train as the elite's favorite mode of travel, which opened up Long Island for their pleasure. Several of the great hotels--the Frontenac, the Columbian--burnt down. The first generation of river gentry died off and their sons cast their eyes elsewhere. Then, after all this, the Great Depression hit, and few families besides the Ostends were able to maintain their high standard of living. Even the Ostends cut back, closing off one wing of Valhalla, dry docking the Archangel for a time, and limiting their parties to the annual Ostend Ball."

"Sounds sad," Mindy said.

"The fool part or the end of paradise part?" I asked.

"Both."

"It is, in a way. But then again, you and I wouldn't be here if this place were still on the level of the Hamptons."

"Very true," she said. Then the dinner bell rang, and Mindy took my hand and led me to the table, where the guests were being seated for the meal.

* * *

Raphael Ostend had placed Mindy and I to his right, at the head of the huge oval dinner table. He had already offered a toast, pronouncing us the guests of honor, and Mindy and I both raised our red wine glasses and blushed as the River Rat Reporters, their wives and ex-wives and girlfriends, and other guests--including two state senators and "former United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Jordan, the Honorable Walter Maitland"--applauded. Then Raphael Ostend offered grace using a traditional Anglican prayer sprinkled with thous and thines. When he seated us, the wait staff immediately began serving the first course, a chopped lettuce, apple and walnut salad, topped, of course, with Thousand Island dressing.

It was then, as people around the table began to start up their own conversations, that Ostend asked me if I'd done my homework on Captain Doctor Charles Obadiah Smithson.

"Uh, yes, I have. I found out a lot. I mean, I learned how impressive a man he was. The Red River campaign. The American attacks. Egypt. A historian, too. A good one."

Or something like that. All I remember of my first response was pausing to take a long draught of wine in the middle of it and having my glass topped off immediately by a waiter.

Mindy was paying no attention to us, concentrating instead on a conversation with Phyllis Slattery, Mike's wife, that had something to do with knitting.

"I've told you Smithson was the guest of honor at the first Ostend Ball some one hundred and fifteen years ago. Now, tonight, you enjoy that same honor."

"Is there a plaque or something?" I asked, starting to get comfortable.

Ostend shook his head. "But records of guests, honored or otherwise, are maintained in a journal I keep in my desk drawer. As soon as tonight's festivities are over I will sip my last glass of brandy and personally and proudly inscribe the names Thomas Flanagan and Melinda McDonnell at the top of the page dedicated to the 2001 event."

"So, yes, Charles Obadiah Smithson," I said. "Does everyone else here know his story? The one involving your grandmother? The one you're going to tell me?"

"They've all been told it," Ostend said. "But not all of them take it seriously. Your father did, of course, as do the other River Rat Reporters. And I hope, despite your insistence that history be hidebound by rationalism, that you'll take it seriously as well."

He leaned forward then and said, "Tom, without making it too obvious, look at the painting right behind me, above the fireplace. Study it for a time. Observe it carefully, and tell me what you see."

What I saw was a portrait of a magnificent, almost regal woman in three quarters profile. She was dressed in a black gown with ruffles and a very large, very expensive looking gold and pearl necklace. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a complicated bun, held together with pearl headed pins, and her ears were adorned with long gold and pearl ornaments that would have been insulted to be called mere earrings. Her face was exquisite: a high forehead, eyebrows with a slightly pointed arch, blue eyes that sparkled like sapphire, long cheekbones, a thin nose, a wide mouth that smiled but showed no teeth, a chin that dropped into a slight point that echoed the arch of her eyebrows. I took another sip of wine, and could've looked at her all night.

"My daughter and granddaughter look just like her," Raphael Ostend said. "But unfortunately they're not here." He leaned closer and whispered. "Or fortunately, perhaps, since if they were here you'd be unable to take your eyes off of them either. Melinda may not mind you ogling over a painting of Grandmother, but she certainly would mind, and I would too, if it were my daughter and granddaughter you were casting your eyes upon with your mouth hanging open like a dog's."

That caught my attention, and I snapped my mouth shut with an audible click and turned back to meet Ostend's gaze. He was clearly amused.

"Sorry," I said. "I noticed the portrait earlier, but now that I've looked closely, you're right, I don't want to take my eyes off it."

"That's why I told you not to make it too obvious."

I was concerned. "Did I?"

"Hmmm." His smile grew.

I cleared my throat in embarrassment. "So that's Lady Ostend," I said.

"Yes."

"Is her beauty your story?"

"No. In fact, her outward beauty distracts one from the story. Look again, only this time try not to look at her. Look hard at the rest of the painting, observe it closely, and tell me what else you see."

It took me a minute of concentration to see it. Or see them, rather, the colors, hidden in shadow, that now appeared in each corner of the painting, framing the woman, and seemed to emerge from the darkness and brighten as I continued to move my gaze from one to the other to the next.

"Who painted this?" I asked.

"The North Country's most famous native son," Raphael Ostend said. Then with obvious pride, "It's a Remington."

That surprised me. "Frederic Remington painted this? It doesn't look like his stuff."

"It's very different from his usual style. No cowboys. No Indians. No horses. No broad landscapes. But he painted it, right here at Valhalla, in 1892."

"The colors..." I started to say, but my words trailed off as I looked again and saw them fade, shadowed once more by the Goya-esque chiaroscuro.

"They come and go, don't they?" Ostend said. "Remington said that the way the retina adjusts from the lightness of Grandmother's skin to the shadow of the background makes the colors seem alive, pulsing, as it were."

"He was right."

"It was a brilliant technique, brilliantly executed. He achieved his objective admirably."

"But why make them like that? What was his objective?"

"Remington was here when Captain Doctor Charles Obadiah Smithson told his story about Napoleon's gold. Remington witnessed Grandmother's reaction to it. Subsequent conversations and shared experiences with Grandmother convinced him that she was indeed someone special, someone who knew things that others didn't, someone worthy of a special technique."

"Smithson's story had something to do with these colors?" I asked.

The wait staff had cleared the salad plates and had brought the next course, a thick pumpkin soup spiced with nutmeg and pepper and garnished with croutons and herbs. I took a few spoonfuls as I waited for Ostend's reply.

"Yes. You've learned something about Smithson's life? I had a difficult time comprehending your answer earlier."

"I have," I said, without repeating the details. "He was an impressive man."

"Would you guess he was a reliable man? A man to be trusted?"

"Undoubtedly. He'd have to be to accomplish the things he accomplished. You can't do what he did by lying and cheating. That stuff's for politicians." I glanced down the table to confirm that the state senators or the former ambassador weren't listening.

"Yes, Grandmother knew that too. But she tested him nonetheless."

"The same test she gave you? To see if he was predisposed to receiving her philosophical ideas?"

"No. Simply to see if he was telling the truth." Ostend reached into his tuxedo pocket and produced an old snapshot, which he placed on the table next to me as I finished the last spoonful of soup.

"What does this have to do with the colors Remington included in his painting of your grandmother?"

"Just look at the photograph. We'll return to the painting in a moment."

I examined it. The photo was of two men, both mustached, one in a military uniform, obviously British but with a Canadian flag insignia on his shoulder, complete with sword and scabbard. The other wore a simple Arabian robe and a matching turban. The military man, Captain Doctor Charles Obadiah Smithson no doubt, was substantially taller than the Arab, but both men exuded the same impressive power and confidence.

"Who's the man with Captain Smithson?" I asked as the server took my empty soup bowl and replaced it with a plate of bread and cheese.

"I'm glad you recognized Smithson," Raphael Ostend said. "The other man was an Egyptian guide who led the Canadian voyagers from Luxor to the second cataract on their way to Khartoum."

"Did he have a name?"

"He did."

I waited. "Well, what was it?"

Raphael Ostend didn't answer this question. Instead he looked down the table and caught Jim Pembroke's attention, then motioned for Pembroke to come over.

I took a sip of wine, a Gewürztraminer I guessed, and waited again.

By Thomas Pullyblank

Thomas Pullyblank was born and raised in rural upstate New York. Having earned degrees in history at the University at Albany and a Master of Divinity degree from the Boston University School of Theology, Pullyblank now teaches history at the SUNY College at Oneonta and serves as a United Methodist pastor near Cooperstown, New York. He lives on a small working farm with his wife and son. His first novel, Cornflower’s Ghost was published in 2009.  Napoleon’s Gold is his second upstate New York historical mystery featuring Tom Flanagain. For more information about the author and Napoleon’s Gold, TI Life readers are invited to visit Square Circle Press.

Special appreciation goes to our photographers Kim Lunman, who photographed Carleton Villa, and Hailie Suk who photographed Boldt Castle’s verandah (first published in Sept. 2010 TI Life article). All photographs were adapted to pen and ink illustrations by "fotosketch" (http://www.fotosketcher.com/). 

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