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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

Excerpt: Murder at Wakehurst

September 14, 1899

The seemingly impossible had happened, and with so little fanfare it might almost have gone unnoticed. Except that the overnight, world had changed and would never be the same.

And now here I stood, on a hillside that commanded broad views of Staten Island and the entrance of New York Harbor, feeling as bereft as the fallen leaves that rustled across the ground in doleful whispers. A chill penetrated my wool carriage dress and jacket, but I neither hugged my arms around me nor tugged my collar higher. Instead, I allowed the cold and damp to seep into my bones, a physical reminder of the current state of my soul. Dominating the view before me, the granite stones of the Vanderbilt Family mausoleum mirrored a cheerless sky—the clouds as gray as steel rails, their edges as black as coal-fed locomotives.

Cornelius Vanderbilt lay dead—“Uncle Cornelius,” as I’d always called him, though we had in fact been cousins twice or thrice removed. How would this family ever go on without him?

Footsteps clattered as Aunt Alice, her grown children, and Uncle Cornelius’s siblings and their families filed from the mausoleum. I turned away, unable to school my features to the stoic calm necessary for maintaining one’s dignity. In fact, my facial muscles ached from the effort of holding them steady. Aunt Alice’s eyes were red-rimmed, but not a tear had fallen since we had left the Fifth Avenue mansion that morning. Only Gladys, Cornelius and Alice’s youngest child, had allowed her emotions their escape, but even she had wept quietly during the funeral and again here, during the interment.

“You all right, Em?” Brady Gale, my half brother, came up behind me and put an arm around my shoulders.

I shook my head and leaned against his shoulder, a few inches higher than my own. “No. Are you?”

“No.” A gravelly sigh escaped him. The wind swept up leaves in a tiny whirlwind that hit a gravestone and scattered. “I know at first the old man only gave me a job because of you. That he probably would have rathered not.”

“That’s not true. Uncle Cornelius—”

“It’s all right. I know what I was. And I know how I’ve changed, because of you and because of him.”

Yes—and no. He had once drunk too much, caroused too much, fought too much. In the end, though, it hadn’t been me or Uncle Cornelius or any one person who had inspired him to alter his ways. It had been life and the frightening turn it had taken; it had been Brady himself who, when faced with a choice, had chosen correctly.

He went on after a grim laugh. “He’s always had the utmost faith in you, Em, and gradually, ever-so-slowly, he extended that faith to me. I’ll never forget that.” He broke off, swallowing hard and then clenching his teeth. His head bowed, his straight, sandy blond hair fell forward over his brow despite his attempts to tame it with Macassar oil. I looked away, allowing him his moment of grief.

From across the landscaped clearing in front of the mausoleum, I caught my cousin Neily’s eye. He stood alone beside some trees, looking as forlorn as those gray branches against the grayer sky. He’d observed the funeral at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City from the back row, and I knew he was waiting now until everyone else vacated the area to pay his last respects to his father.

The father who had disinherited him only a few years earlier. I had wondered if he would even come today, and would not have thought him unjustified in staying home. Neily’s mouth twitched as he returned my glance, and he gave me half a shrug before dropping his gaze to the ground. He’d come alone, his wife and young son having remained in Newport. Grace, Neily’s wife, had been the reason for the family rift, and Aunt Alice made no secret of her belief that Neily had caused his father’s early death. The first paralytic stroke had occurred the day Neily had announced his engagement to his parents. The final one, only days ago.

Like ashes scattering on a gust of wind, the black-clad assemblage broke apart to board the coaches for the short ride to the ferry that would take us back to Manhattan. Brady and I rode with my cousin Gertrude and her husband, Harry Whitney. He held her hand. She rested her cheek against his shoulder. Grief hovered in Gertrude’s eyes and tightened the lines of her mouth, but like her mother, she buried the full extent of her grief beneath a veil of dignity. We spoke little. I planned to linger only briefly in the City to say my goodbyes. The train ride home to Rhode Island loomed ahead of me. It was sure to be a bleak journey.

Yet when we finally arrived at the Fifth Avenue mansion, Alfred, Cornelius’s second son and primary heir, took me aside in the central hall while the others filed into the drawing room.

“You’ll stay another night, won’t you, Emmaline?”

I shook my head as I pulled my gloves from my hands. “I should be getting back. Besides, there are enough people here to console your mother. You don’t need me.”

“It isn’t that—not just that—anyway.” He offered me something approaching a smile. Younger than Neily, and younger than me for that matter, Alfred Vanderbilt was now the head of the family. He and Uncle William Vanderbilt would jointly hold the reins of the New York Central Railroad and dictate the company’s major decisions. And yet, to me, he was still my little cousin Alfred.

I sensed in him a discomfort that bordered on embarrassment and couldn’t fathom a reason for it. “Alfred, if something is wrong, please just come out with it. Nothing can be worse than today.”

“It’s nothing bad, actually. It’s just so hard to speak of. So unreal and disquieting.”

“Yes, I understand.” I touched his wrist briefly. Alfred and I had never been as close as Neily and I, had never truly been confidantes.

“It seems Father mentioned you in his will. Brady, too. Our lawyer said so. The reading is tomorrow morning and I think you should stay and hear it.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t have been more dumbfounded. While it didn’t surprise me that Uncle Cornelius might have left me a token gift, I wouldn’t have thought it significant enough to warrant me staying to hear the reading. My thoughts immediately went to Neily, who had been existing outside the family circle for the past four years. “What about your brother?”

Alfred knew which of his two brothers I meant. He shook his head. “I’ll be surprised if Father left him anything at all. But don’t worry, Emmaline, I won’t let Neily suffer. I intend to—”

He broke off at the sound of his sister Gertrude’s voice.

“Alfred? Where are you? You’re needed in the drawing room.” She found us in the shadow of the Grand Staircase, a columned, circular structure carved from pure white Caen stone that dominated the Great Hall. She slipped her arm through her brother’s. “Come. Mama is asking for you. You, too, Emmaline. You know how you’re often able to calm her when the rest of us can’t.” She chuckled lightly, without mirth. “You and Gladys. Her favorites.”

“I’m hardly that,” I said, and fell into step beside them.

That next morning, the family and I gathered in the library, a large room so heavily gilded, carved, and filled with sumptuous textures I’d always found it difficult to concentrate amid such distraction. Today I barely saw the fortune’s worth of treasures as we settled in. Brady and I sat together on one of the sofas, the furniture having been rearranged so that the seating all faced the rosewood and inlaid ivory desk. The man who occupied the desk chair, Uncle Cornelius’s lawyer, stared silently back at us from within the pockets of sallow flesh that surrounded his eyes.

We were waiting . . .

“Sorry I’m late.” Neily spoke in a murmur to no one in particular, and shrugged himself into a high-backed chair with a lion’s head carved into the apex of the frame. Gertrude frowned and looked away. Alfred, Gladys, and youngest brother, Reggie, appeared relieved. Alice Vanderbilt gave no reaction, as if Neily didn’t exist; as if no one, or perhaps merely a ghost, occupied that lion’s head chair.

The lawyer cleared his throat and began. Names, figures, and properties touched my ears but made little impression. I could think only of Uncle Cornelius, of his life cut short so cruelly, and of how this family would continue without him.

Then I heard my name spoken. “To Emmaline Cross, whom I consider my niece and has often been like a daughter to me, I leave the sum of $10,000, and an additional $10,000 in New York Central stock.”

My mouth fell open. The blood rushed in my ears. The lawyer continued, but I remained fixed on what I’d heard, or thought I’d heard. Surely it must be a mistake. Oh, next to the Vanderbilt millions such a sum might seem trifling, but to me . . .

My heart pounded against my stays. What would I do with so much money? I couldn’t begin to fathom it. I almost didn’t wish to. One would think I would be overjoyed at such a boon. But thus far my life had had a routine, a method, an established order of the way things were done. Suddenly all of my meticulous arranging and scheduling and thrifty budgeting fell in jumbled heaps around me.

Before I could contemplate any further, for good or ill, the sound of Brady’s name brought me tumbling headlong out of my thoughts. Uncle Cornelius left him a sum nearly as generous as mine. Brady smiled even as his eyes shone with moisture, and it made me gladder than I could express that Uncle Cornelius had embraced my half brother, who was related to me through our mother and not a Vanderbilt at all, as part of the family.

“To Cornelius Vanderbilt the third . . .”

Neily sat up straighter, while his siblings suddenly found the floor at their feet terribly interesting. His mother, on the other hand, continued staring straight ahead, as if once again her eldest living son did not exist.

“. . . I leave the sum of one half of one million dollars . . .”

A vast sum, staggering from my point of view, and my first thought was thank goodness his father hadn’t cut him off entirely. But one glance at Neily’s tight-lipped expression, the ruddy color that flooded his face, dissuaded me of that conclusion.

To him, the amount could only be perceived as a slight. His siblings would each receive millions. Alfred received the bulk of the fortune—an astonishing seventy million, plus most of the shares in the New York Central Railroad along with countless other assets. Neily would receive none of that. He could live on what his father left him, certainly. Or so an ordinary individual might think. No, it wasn’t so much the money, or the lack of it, but the sentiment behind Cornelius’s bequest to his eldest son; the insult that now, in order to maintain the lifestyle he and Grace were accustomed to, they would have to continue living off her dowry, essentially making Neily a “kept” man. Despite his having attained a masters of engineering at Yale and proven himself to be a brilliant innovator, he could never earn the kind of money needed to run several homes and travel back and forth to Europe each season.

Uncle Cornelius had had the last word, a reprimand from the grave to which there could be no response.

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