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An Irish Immigrant Gets a Second Chance in Taylor Caldwell's Captains and the Kings

While en route to Pennsylvania, a penniless teenager meets the man who will change his life forever.

Since stepping on American soil, young Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh has not enjoyed the luck of the Irish. With his parents fresh in their graves—his mother, having perished on the transatlantic crossing; his father, not long after—Joseph is now the sole protector of his brother and sister. It's a heavy burden for a boy of thirteen, but he manages to get by in 17th century Philadelphia: He works odd jobs and makes enough money to place his siblings in an orphanage, where they live under the care of a charitable nun. But when he catches news of an oil strike in Pennsylvania—and thus, a boom in employment—he knows he must leave his family behind in order to ensure their futures. Joseph boards a train, telling himself that he's "going to survive." 

After saving and befriending a passenger named Haroun, Joseph meets Ed Healey. Healey is vivacious, wealthy, and suave—and, as a fellow Irishman, he's about to bring Joseph some much-needed luck. Their relationship will alter the course of Joseph's life, with Healey stepping into the role of father and mentor.

Joseph's journey from poverty to wealth is the heart of the Captains and the Kings, Taylor Caldwell's sprawling 1972 epic about family dynasties and the American Dream. Allegedly inspired by the lives of the Kennedys and Rockefellers, the novel skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists and was adapted into the Emmy Award-winning miniseries of the same name in 1976.

Read on for an excerpt from Captains and the Kings, in which Joseph meets Ed Healey for the first time, and then download the book. 

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Captains and the Kings

By Taylor Caldwell

Captains and the Kings

By Taylor Caldwell

“And what will you be thinking, with that look on your face?” Mr. Healey inquired. Joseph flushed. Apparently Mr. Healey had awakened recently and had studied Joseph in his turn. “Joseph Francis Xavier What?”

“Joe Francis. That is all,” said Joseph. He was vexed. It was all very well for him to reflect and weigh others, but his pride rose at the thought of being so inspected himself. It was an affront, and unpardonable.

Mr. Healey yawned vastly. He appeared amused. He leaned forward to inspect the sleeping Haroun’s foot. It was swathed in kerchiefs no longer immaculately white, and it was badly swollen and appeared red and hot. “Got to do something about your friend,” Mr. Healey remarked.

“He is not my friend,” said Joseph. “I met him on the platform last night, and that is all. And why should you help him?”

“Well,” said Mr. Healey, still examining Haroun’s foot, “what do you think? Out of the goodness of my heart? Brotherly love or something? Touched by a lad so young and his plight? Wanting to help the unfortunate? Kindness of my big soul? Or maybe I can use him? You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the horse-race fellers say. You figure it out, Joe.”

Joseph was increasingly annoyed. It was apparent that Mr. Healey was laughing at him and that was unendurable. He said, “Are you a wildcatter, Mr. Healey?”

Mr. Healey leaned back in his seat, yawned again, produced an enormous cigar and carefully bit off the end and then lit it from a silver box containing lucifers. He contemplated Joseph.

“Well, boyo, you can call me a Grand Panjandrum. Know what that means?”


Related: Taylor Caldwell's Historical Sagas 


“Yes,” said Joseph. “It was a burlesque title of an official in a comedy by an English playwright, long ago. It means,” said Joseph with a cold smile, “a pretentious official.”

“Hum,” said Mr. Healey, looking at him in shrewd disfavor. “Educated feller, ain’t you? And where did you acquire this famous education? Yale, maybe, or Harvard, or Oxford in the old country?”

“I read a lot,” said Joseph, and now he stared at Mr. Healey with derisive amusement of his own.

“So I see,” said Mr. Healey. He moved one bloated hip and produced Joseph’s thin leather-bound book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He rubbed one fat finger on the binding, never moving his little black eyes from Joseph’s face. “And you had money to buy a book like this, Joe?”

“Books were given to me by—I don’t know,” said Joseph, and tried to take the book from Mr. Healey. But Mr. Healey deftly put the book behind him.

“You don’t know, eh? Some kind soul, who had pity on a boyo like you, and wanted to help him? But you feel grateful, anyways?”

Joseph said nothing. His small blue eyes glinted in the sun.

“You don’t think anybody does anything out of goodness of heart eh?”

Joseph thought of his father. “Yes, I do,” he said in a loud uninflected voice. “My father did. And that’s why he lies in a pauper’s grave, and my mother lies in the sea.”

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  • Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash

“Ah,” said Mr. Healey. “That explains a lot. That happened to my father in Boston, too, where he landed. And my mother, when I was seven. Pauper’s graves for both. Was on my own when I was seven, working in Boston at anything I could turn my hand to. Never regretted it. Nobody owes anybody anything, in this world. Anything good comes it is a blessing out of the blue. Fit for pious thanksgivings. Except you don’t believe in thanksgivings?”

“No.” said Joseph.

“And nobody did nothing for you, all your life?”

Joseph unwillingly thought of the Sisters of Charity on the ship and the old priest, and Sister Elizabeth, and the unknown man who had supplied him with books, and the nuns who had occasionally forced a dinner on him. He also thought of Mrs. Marhall.

“Think it over,” said Mr. Healey, who was watching him closely. “It may be important to you one of these days. Now, I’m not one of them who thinks you should slink around with prayers and talk sweetness and light all the time. It’s a bad world, Joe, and I didn’t make it, and I learned soon not to quarrel with it. For every good and charitable man there’s a thousand or more who’d steal your heart’s blood if they could sell it for a profit. And ten thousand would sell your coat to the pawnbroker for two bits, even if they didn’t need the money. I know all about this world, boyo, more than you do. Eat or be eaten. Your money or your life. Thieves and murderers and traitors and liars and grafters. All men are Judas, more or less.”

Joseph had listened intently. Mr. Healey waved the cigar and continued in his resounding and suetty voice.

“Just the same,” he said, “you sometimes find a good man, and like the Bible or something says, he’s worth more than rubies, if he ain’t a fool who is feckless and thriftless and believes in a wonderful tomorrow that never comes. A good man with a head on his shoulders is worth something, and that I know. Could be all the good people you met were fools?”

“Yes,” said Joseph.

“Too bad,” said Mr. Healey. “Maybe they wasn’t though. Maybe you just thought they was. That’s something for you to ponder on, when you have the time. You never had much time to ponder on anything though, I’m thinking.”

“True,” said Joseph.

“Too busy,” said Mr. Healey, nodding his head. “I like men who are busy. Too easy to lie down in the gutter and beg. Find lots of them in the cities. Well, anyways, it was bad for the Irish in Boston, so I worked my way down to old Kentucky and that’s where I grew up, Louisville and Lexington, and such. And the river boats.” He winked amicably at Joseph.

“A gambler?” said Joseph.

“Well, say a gentleman of fortune. A Grand Panjandrum. I always thought it meant a man of affairs, but then I’m not educated like you though I know my letters. Some.”

He looked at his gold watch, then clicked it shut. “Soon be in Titusville. Say I give Grand Panjandrum a new meaning: A man with lots of affairs. Finger in every pie. Politics. Oil. River boats. Retailer. Name it. I’m it. Never turn down an honest penny and maybe never turn down a dishonest one, either. And another thing: Find out the skeleton in every man’s closet or his favorite vice or weakness, and you’ve got him in your hand,” and Mr. Healey’s fat fingers closed quickly in the hand he suddenly held aloft. “Do him favors, but make him pay for them one way or another. Best way to get rich, though, is politics.” The gesture of the ringed hand was both cruel and rapacious.

“So you are a politician, too?”

“No, sir. Too dirty for me. But I control politicians, and that’s better.”

Joseph was becoming extremely interested in spite of his aloofness. “Do you know Senator Hennessey?”

“Ole Tom?” Mr. Healey laughed richly. “I made Ole Tom! Knew half a dozen of the Pennsylvania Legislature. Been living in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia last twenty years or so. Worked like hell to stop that yokel, Abe Lincoln, but it didn’t turn out. Anyways, all for the best. We’re in a war now, and there’s always a lot of money to be made out of wars. Know them all. Did a lot of business in wars in Mexico and other places. People say they hate wars, but governments never made a war and nobody came. That’s human nature. And when we win this war, there’s going to be lots of good fat pickings in the South, too. That, boyo, is what the war’s about, though you hear a lot of drivel about slavery and the Rights of Man. Et cetera. Lot of dung. It’s money, that’s all. South too prosperous. North in an industrial panic. Simple as that.”

“I’m not interested in wars,” said Joseph.

“Now that,” said Mr. Healey, “is one Goddamned stupid remark. If you want to make your mark, boyo, you’ve got to be interested in every last Goddamn thing the world does, and see where it will turn a profit for you if you’re smart. You got to learn a lot, Joseph Francis Xavier.”

“And you intend to teach me?” said Joseph, with contempt.

Mr. Healey studied him and his eyes narrowed so much that they almost disappeared. “If I do, son, it’ll be the luckiest day of your life, sure and it will. You think you’re tough and ornery. You ain’t. Not yet you ain’t. Tough and ornery folks don’t appear to be. It’s the soft ones who put on the front of toughness and hardness, to sort of protect themselves from the real murderers, who are all sweet talk and kind smiles and helpfulness. It don’t do them no good, though. The tough fellers can see right through all that shell to the tasty oyster inside.”

“And you think I’m a tasty oyster?”

Find out the skeleton in every man’s closet or his favorite vice or weakness, and you’ve got him in your hand.

Mr. Healey burst out laughing. He pointed his cigar at Joseph, and he laughed so heartily that tears filled his little eyes and spilled out onto his fat full cheeks. He shook his head over and over in uncontrolled mirth. Joseph watched him with mortified and furious anger.

“Son,” gasped Mr. Healey, “you ain’t even a morsel of shrimp!” He pulled out another scented and folded kerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his eyes and moaned with delight. “Oh, my God, oh, my God!” he groaned with rich feeling and pleasure. “You’re killing me, son.”

He looked at Joseph and tried to control himself. His whole body quaked with joyous laughter, and he belched and gulped. Then he pointed the cigar at Joseph again.

“Son,” he, said in a strangled voice, “I’m interested in you because you got the makings of a scoundrel. Besides, you’re an Irisher, and I always had a soft spot for an Irisher, feckless or not. You can do something with the Irish. And you can depend on their loyalty, too, if they like you. If they don’t, you’re a dead man. Now, look here, you helped this boy, though he’s no kin or friend of yours. Maybe saved his life. I’m not asking for an explanation, because you can’t explain it. But I liked that in you, though I don’t say I admired it. What is he, anyways, a Turk?”

Joseph, in his silent rage, could not speak for a moment. “No,” he said at last, in a voice full of hate for Mr. Healey, “he’s a Lebanese. I told you he was a Christian, if that means anything. Do you know,” said Joseph with unusual malice, “what a Lebanese is?”

But Mr. Healey was not humiliated or annoyed.

“No, boyo, I don’t. Don’t even want to know. Never heard of anyone like that, though, come to think of it. He looks like life dealed him a dirty hand, too. Know anything about that?”

“A little,” said Joseph.

“Bad as your own, eh?”

“Perhaps.”

“But he don’t look sour like you, boyo, and maybe there’s something in that for me, too. Would you say he was soft?”

“Perhaps. He supported an old grandmother on two dollars a week, working in a stable.”

“And you never supported anybody, and you a grown man seventeen, eighteen?”

Joseph said nothing.

“Heard that men seventeen and eighteen, married, and with kids, opening up the West,” said Mr. Healey. “Covered wagons and all. Wilderness. They got guts. Think you got guts, Joseph Francis Xavier?”

Joseph said, “I’ll do anything.”

Mr. Healey nodded. “That’s the password, boyo. That’s the password of the men who survive. If you’d said anything else I’d not have bothered with you any longer. Think you’d like to join up with me?”

“Depends on the pay, Mr. Healey.”

Mr. Healey nodded again with great approval. “That’s what I like to hear. If you’d said that it depends on anything else I wouldn’t waste my time on you. Money: that’s the ticket. Looks like your Turk is waking up. What you say his name is, his moniker? Haroun Zieff? Heathen name. From now on he’s—let me see. Harry Zeff. That’s what we’ll call him. Sounds more American. German. Lots of Germans in Pennsylvania. Good stuff in them. Know how to work, they do, and how to turn a profit, and never heard them whining, either. If there’s anything I hate it’s a whiner. What’s your Turk trying to say to you?”

The men in the coach were awakening, too, groaning, cursing grunting, complaining. A long line of them formed for the latrine at the end of the coach, as they fingered their buttons impatiently. They exuded the old stink of sweat, tobacco smoke and stale perfume and wool. Some of them, pressed more than others, frankly exposed themselves in readiness and roared for loiterers to hurry. The prudishness which lived darkly in the nature of Joseph was affronted at this brutish display, and he turned reluctantly to Haroun who had begun to whimper with pain though his eyes still remained shut. The men jostled in the aisle, swaying with the sway of the slowing train, and some of them obsequiously nodded and grinned at Mr. Healey and some looked with indifference at the two youths opposite him as if they were no more than a pair of trussed chickens. Their immediate interest was their needs, and their importunities became increasingly obscene. The raw sunlight showed their swollen and gross and rapacious faces, and when they spoke or laughed the light glinted from large white teeth which resembled, to Joseph, the teeth of predatory beasts.

“Hang it out the window!” bawled Mr. Healey in his genial fashion.

This evoked fawning laughter and admiring comments on his wit. Mr. Healey spoke in a just perceptible brogue, and his mixture of Southern and Irish usage apparently charmed those who hoped to make a profit from or with him in Titusville. “You got a dirty mouth on you, Ed,” said one man leaning over to slap Mr. Healey on his thick shoulder. “See you tomorrow?”

“With cash,” said Mr. Healey. “Don’t do business ’cept it’s cash.”

He looked at Joseph with a contented and important expression but Joseph was distastefully examining Haroun. Haroun’s dark face was deeply flushed and very hot. His forehead gleamed with sweat and tendrils of his black hair clung to it as if stuck by syrup. His tremulous mouth moved and he spoke but Joseph could not understand his imploring words and now his whole body moved restlessly with pain and distress, and sometimes he groaned. His toes had purpled and extruded through the kerchiefs which swathed them. Mr. Healey looked at him with interest, leaning forward.

“Now Joseph Francis Xavier What,” he said, “what do you propose we do with this boyeen—who’s no concern of ours, eh? No friend of yours. Never saw him before, myself. Leave him on the train for the conductor to dispose of like rubbage?”

Joseph felt a rush of the deep cold fury he always felt when anyone intruded upon him. He looked at Haroun and hated the boy for his present predicament. Then he said with anger, “I have a ten-dollar goldpiece. I’ll give it to the trainman to help him. That’s all I can do.” He had a sick sensation of helplessness and wild impatience.

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  • Taylor Caldwell

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

“You got ten-dollar goldpieces? My, that’s surprising,” said Mr. Healey. “Thought you was a beggar, myself. So, you’ll give a piece to the trainman, and you’ll get off this here ole train and forget your little Turk ever lived. Know what I heard once from a Chinaman working on the railroad? If you save a man’s life you got to take care of him the rest of your life. That’s for tinkering with the fates, or something. Well, the trainman takes that nice yeller piece of yours, and what’s he supposed to do then? Take the little Turk home with him in Titusville and dump him into his wife’s bed? Know what I think? The trainman will take your money and just let the spalpeen die here, right in this coach, peaceful or not. It don’t run back to Wheatfield for six whole days. Nobody’s going to look in this coach until Saturday.”

Despairing, Joseph shook Haroun, but it was evident that the boy was unconscious. He kept up a steady moaning and muttering in delirium. He lay flaccid against Joseph’s greatcoat except when he struggled in his suffering. Joseph cried, “I don’t know what to do!”

“But you are real mad that you have to do anything, is that it? Don’t blame you. I feel the same about people don’t belong to me. We’re coming into Titusville. Get that box of yours from under the seat. We’ll just leave the Turk here. No use even to use that goldpiece. Lad looks like he’s done for, anyways.”

But Joseph did not move. He looked up at Mr. Healey and his young face was gaunt and drawn and very white, and the dark freckles stood out on his nose and cheeks. His eyes were blue and enraged fire.

“I don’t know anyone in Titusville,” he said. “Maybe you know somebody who’d take him in and care for him until he’s better. I can give them the money.”

“Son,” said Mr. Healey, standing up, “you don’t know Titusville. It’s like a jungle, it is that. I seen many a man, young as this and you, dying on the streets from cholera or ague or something, and nobody cared. Black gold fever: That’s what got this town. And when men are after gold, the devil take the hindmost, specially the sick and the weak. Everybody’s too busy filling his pockets and robbing his neighbor. There ain’t an inn or hotel in Titusville that ain’t crowded to the doors, and no new-fangled hospital, if that’s what you’re thinking about. You take people who are living peaceful in town or country, and they’ll help a stranger—sometimes—out of Christian charity, but you take a madhouse like Titusville, a stranger is just a dog unless he’s got two good hands and a good back to work with, or a stake. Now, if your Turk was a girl I’d know just the place who’d take him in. Own four or five, myself,” and Mr. Healey chuckled. He pulled up his pantaloons and chuckled again. The train was moving very slowly now and the men in the coach were gathering up their bags and talking and laughing with the exuberance only the thought of money can induce. The coach was hurtfully glaring with sunlight but the wind that invaded the coach was very cool.

Joseph closed his eyes and bit his lip so hard that it turned white. Haroun’s restless hands were moving over him, as hot as coals.

“Well, Joe, here we are, depot riding right in. Coming?”

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Captains and the Kings

By Taylor Caldwell

Featured image of Taylor Caldwell: Alchetron.

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Published on 14 Mar 2018

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