As he stood, hat in hand, before the open earth, the dashing gentleman brushed a tear from his cheek and contemplated his newest title—The Richest Man In Culpeper County. Yesterdays Observer had deemed him as such. With an estate now estimated at two-hundred-thousand dollars, August Killian Wentworth pondered the veracity of the reporters claim, finally accepting it as fact.
A bestial wind howled, rattling the autumn-stripped branches of the oaks and hickories, tossing Augusts ebony hair and chest-length beard. Shafts of sunlight speared through gaps in the black clouds to warm his dark clothing. Shovel-laden dirt plummeted into the yawning hole, whacking the pine box with a lonely thump.
The Richest Man In Culpeper County.
The latest appellation caused the corners of his lips to curl in a smile; it relieved some of the sting from his current loss. With a sigh, he turned from the workers—from Harriette—and circumnavigated his way through the sea of marble monuments toward his gleaming landau. The team of sprightly black trotters snorted, spewing plumes of frost into the chill air.
Joie De Vivre, August instructed the liveryman, then donned his stovepipe hat and clambered into the carriage.
The landau lurched forward. August sank into a plush leather seat, stretched his long legs, and folded his hands in his lap. The rhythmic clip-clop of hooves eventually lulled him into a dreamlike state where images of his deceased wife imbued his thoughts.
Unlike his previous spouses, he had actually loved Harriette Le Roux Fortier. So young. So lighthearted. So beautiful—
Now with Harriette gone, succumbing to the stomach ailment that had marred their two short months of marriage, the name of his inherited plantation bore an ironic twist. Joie De Vivre; Joy Of Living. No longer would August hear the strains of Harriettes mellifluous voice within the mansions high-ceilinged rooms. No longer would his heartbeat quicken whenever her innocent laughter flooded his ears. No longer would the century-old estate here in Culpeper Court House, Virginia, house a direct descendant of the Fortier family. Alas, Harriette, the sole offspring of two sole offspring, had left everything to him.
August supposed he would move on; perhaps another town, another state, another wife. After all, he was just twenty-nine years of age, handsome and debonair, and now, thanks to the merging of his dearly departeds inheritance with his own assets, The Richest Man In Culpeper County. He could afford to do anything he pleased. Yes, he thought, as the landau swept along the rutted road, he would have to decide his future posthaste.
Another smile played across his face. Odd, he pondered, that the son of lowly tenant farmers, raised in a ramshackle hovel in stomach-aching poverty, should find himself swimming in opulent wealth. What a twist of fate. If only his parents were alive to see him now, they would burst with pride. But it had been a lengthy, onerous struggle. Every cent in his pocketbook had been placed there by his steadfast fortitude, his resolute audacity. The epitome of the American dream. Any man, August concluded, could attain prosperity with the proper attitude.
And August possessed what it took. Hed hoarded twenty dollars by the time he had turned eighteen and purchased his first suit of gentlemans clothing. He would never forget the proudful look on his mothers face when he pranced into the room wearing his spiffy attire. My handsome son, she had said and tenderly kissed his cheek, will one day prove his true worth. I know it in my heart, and God will see to it.
His mother was right. Once cloaked in the threads of a gentleman, August fled the farm and headed straight to Gotham—New York City—where his God-given charm and eloquent tongue paved the way down the road to riches. Though he began slowly, with several false starts, shrewd investments eventually helped him amass a tidy fortune—certainly not one to provide the life of comfort—but enough to aid him in another scheme—
One to which he had taken like a fish in water.
First came the flirtatious, plump Ingrid Von Hesselhorf, the only child of a railroad tycoon. Their courtship occupied three months of his time; their marriage another three months. By the time the union abruptly ended, his fortunes had increased tenfold.
Next, the frail, prim Eliza Manning, twice his age with triple his assets, fell under his spell. Augusts natural gift of persuasion convinced the Wall Street widow to share a conjugal bed after just two whirlwind weeks of courtship; their marriage lasted just double that amount. But again, his pocketbook had thickened.
And then, Harriette.
When the landau pulled into the white-stoned driveway, a spate of sadness tightened Augusts stomach. A tear came to his eye as memories assailed him. He would never forget his initial encounter with that sprightly Southern belle—he had just left A. T. Stewarts, Gothams largest department store, when he espied the raven-haired beauty alight from a carriage before Tiffany & Co. Even through the swirling dust of Broadway, kicked up by an endless parade of horses, drays, and foot traffic, her bejeweled hoop-skirt and bonnet twinkled provocatively. And when she turned to pay the carriage driver for his services, her dazzling smile ignited within August a firestorm of desire. Uncontrollable desire. Imparadised by her beauty, he hightailed it across Broadway like Mercury incarnate, zigzagging his way through oncoming traffic and ignoring the oaths hurled at him from tobacco-chewing teamsters. He managed to arrive at his destination just in time to hold open the door for her. And when he bestowed her with his own winning smile, he knew by the flicker in her shimmering blue eyes that his daredevil actions had been well worth the effort.
But now, like her predecessors, Harriette was gone. Oh, how August wished he could have done something to lessen her suffering; no one so sweet and giving should have had to bear the terrible anguish. But alas, he could do nothing except hold her hand, mop her damp brow, whisper loving words in her ear. Words he had spoken in earnest. August decided, then and there, he would never again give away his heart.
The carriage halted before the gray-granite steps. August coerced himself out of the landau and stalked into the plantation house, where black crepe shrouded every surface. After doffing his hat and coat, and barking various orders to the mourning-clad servants, he climbed the spiral staircase and entered the master bedroom. There, for a long moment, he stared at the bed where his wife had gasped her final breath. Yes, he thought, he would have to depart, leave the painful memories behind. Find an attorney to liquidate his assets and chart a course toward a new life.
But he would have to do it with a new name.
Wentworth—though serving its purpose—had always, to his ears, sounded rather pompous. What names had he used before—Barksdale? Too rough. Teesbury? Too European. No, this time he would use another nom de guerre, one befitting a man of his wealth, his stature. Yes, he would have to seriously ponder.
With a shake of his head, he left the site of spousal death, strode down the vast hallway, and opened the piazza doors. He postured himself on the gallery, where Virginia-creepers smothered cast-iron railings. As he mind raced and pride stiffened his backbone, he scanned the lush acreage of Joie De Vivre, Harriets—no—his plantation, and fondled the small item in his pocket. His ticket to wealth. The trinket that had thus far guided him, along with his regal good looks, silver-tongued charisma, and dauntless nerve, into the lap of luxury. One day soon, he thought, with the aid of the powder-filled vial, he would bear the title he so coveted—
The Richest Man In America.
August clutched the vial of arsenic and smiled.
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