The startling query came from behind as Scott traveled across broadloom carpet gracing the Ebner lobby floor. Turning toward the sound of his name didn’t present the condescending concierge’s smug face, but that of a neatly dressed stranger.
“Mr. Scott Lancer?”
Slight déjà vu of a similar scenario poked Scott’s brain to predict the next minute of his life.
He’s a Pinkerton man. He’s going to ask if Harlan Garrett’s my grandfather. He’s going to hand me a court summons. The battle resumes.
Anxious hesitation wearing a cloak of calmness allowed a moment for his voice to take hold. “Yes, I’m Scott Lancer.”
“Sir, your carriage is outside. We can proceed at your convenience.”
Trepidation cartwheeled to surprise. “Thank you, but, I didn’t request...” The unfinished sentence tagged along with Scott’s gaze as it squinted through the open hotel door to the stylish hansom cab waiting for its passenger. Surprise flip-flopped to logic. “My walk isn’t far.”
“Sir, the request comes from Mrs. Stanford.” The driver politely smiled. “May I suggest you reschedule your stroll for another day?”
With a slow nod, Scott brushed aside the previous Pinkerton prediction to acknowledge his now established Stanford status. “I appreciate your sound advice, mister…”
“Well, Mr. Lloyd -“
“There’s no mister - it’s simply Fitz-Lloyd.” The gentleman's polite smile remained tireless as he pinched his thumb and index finger together. “The two are one. My parents rarely agreed on any given subject, including what name to choose for their first-born.”
“I applaud their solution to compromise.” Scott’s puffed-cheek exhale signaled the upcoming surrender to his current situation. “Well, Fitz-Lloyd, I certainly don't want to appear as an ungrateful dinner guest.”
“It should be avoided at all costs.”
“Refusing this gracious gesture would, no doubt, be frowned upon.”
“Yes, sir. Most definitely. “
“And causing Mrs. Stanford the slightest moment of dismay, I’m guessing, is the very last feat a man should strive to achieve… ever.”
The driver’s polite smile held its ground by an extended, unwavering silence.
Scott’s spreading grin commended Fitz-Lloyd’s dedication, not to mention his firm grasp on reality. “Right. I’m glad we’ve had this talk.” A palmed hat pointed in the direction of the Stanford carriage. “My destiny is in your hands, sir. Lead the way.”
While the clip-clop of horse hooves slowed, up ahead the Stanford mansion cast flickering light from each of its windows, making it the glowing gem of North Street. Déjà vu struck Scott again with a tickle to his temples. Whether it be a viticulturist gala or a simple dinner party, it was obvious Leland and Jane Stanford enjoyed top-notch socializing.
Stepping out of the cab, Scott’s eyes drifted up the massive staircase leading to the mansion’s entrance and the straight-backed porter on duty to open the door for arriving guests. A previous opinion was retracted - this evening’s dinner engagement would be anything but simple.
A glance to the left gifted a view of an identical hansom cab, its driver in deep conversation with his horse as he offered the hard-working companion an apple. It was an easy assumption Emily Browning had already arrived.
Miss Browning. During their cake-eating and night-strolling conversations, the two had agreed upon this evening’s strategy - remain silently innocent while the cahooting stars guided their fate. Scott’s urge to whistle a tune returned as his stride carried him up the stairs.
“Good evening, Mr. Lancer.” The porter’s watchful eyes had followed as Scott ascended the eighteen granite steps in order to open the door at the precise moment for entry.
The social protocol trappings already displayed stirred boyhood devilment. “Good evening…” Scott let the salutation hang in the air with a raised eyebrow. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“It’s Nigel, sir.”
“Good evening, Nigel.” Spotting an older man in steward’s attire standing in the foyer inspired another inquiry. “And the gentleman inside whose main objective tonight is hat-wrangling?”
The porter bent slightly forward to visually confirm the identity of the individual in question while struggling to maintain somber professionalism. “That would be Talfryn, sir.”
“Ah.” Talfryn. Nigel. Fitz-Lloyd. Scott’s mental list of rejected names for his future sons began to take shape. “Nigel, your assistance with the door handle is greatly appreciated.” A wink delivered a jest. “They can prove to be tricky in this part of the district.”
“Indeed.” A quick bow failed to hide the porter’s amusement. “Enjoy your evening, sir.”
As Scott stepped into the entrance hallway of polished wood and imported rugs, the punctiliousness continued with the steward’s dipped chin and clicked heels. “Welcome to the Stanford residence, Mr. Lancer.”
“Why thank you, Talfryn. How can I be of service to you on this fine night?” Scott’s out-of-place role reversal query was intended to create a mischievous hiccup in the customary greeting formalities house servants followed to the letter.
“Well, sir, shall we start and end with wrangling your hat?” No hiccup. Not even a twitch. Instead, donning the subtle hint of a coltish smile on his well-seasoned face, the gentleman held out his hand. “I’ve grown accustomed to young Stanford’s shenanigans. I must say, your shine is mere child’s play.” Respectful protocol returned with a nod. “No offense intended, sir.”
Scott’s laugh bounced off the foyer’s ceiling as he parted with his hat. “None taken. The shenanigans of a 4-year-old can be stiff competition. However, that bad pun is unforgivable.”
“Yes, sir. I would agree.” Talfryn’s arm swept to his right. “Mr. and Mrs. Stanford are receiving guests in the parlor. If you please, this way.”
Not surprisingly, there were several areas on the first floor Scott hadn’t planted a foot in during the viticulturist meetings and gala - the double parlor being one of them. The high-ceilinged room boasted gilded mirrors, crystal and bronze light fixtures, detailed carved moldings, gold weave draperies and historic paintings. The opulence displayed here and throughout the mansion spoke of the powerful man who built California’s Central Pacific Railroad. No wonder so many businessmen like El Pinal’s George West jockeyed for the former governor’s favor.
“Scott Lancer!” Leland Stanford extended his arm. “Good to see you again, son.”
“Sir.” Scott shook the hand of the man Murdoch Lancer had sent his oldest to meet with and do the same as others - seek favor. “Thank you for another opportunity to enjoy your gracious hospitality.”
“I confess. If it had been left up to my choosing, a stuffy boardroom would’ve been the venue with me rambling and you snoring. Thank God, my wife saved us both from such a fate!”
Stepping up beside her husband, Jane Stanford offered her hand. “The Tall Cedar returns. Can I interest you in a carom rematch?”
Stanford leaned in with an inauspicious tone. “Don’t do it, Lancer. She cheats.”
“If memory serves me correctly,” Scott received his hostess’ hand with a cordial grasp and upturned corners of the mouth. “I won the game.”
Mrs. Stanford confirmed Scott’s recollection with her own puckish upturned corners. “Indeed, you did, sir. Which poses the question of who is the better hoodwinker. And Miss Furlong? I trust all is well with the dear child.”
Speaking of a little hoodwinker. Scott found Jane Stanford’s conversational segue appropriate. “My cousin continues to be a blessing and sends her regards.”
The hostess’ slight hand gesture to the right spurred introductions between the dinner guests. “I’ve asked Emily to bless us this evening with her lovely smile. Mr. Lancer, if I’m not mistaken, you became acquainted with Miss Browning at our viticulturist gala.”
“Mr. Lancer, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Watching Emily and her lovely smile come forward to join the Stanfords, Scott felt another bout of light-heartedness strike.
“Lancer! Remember the strategy. Silently innocent. For the love of God wipe that silly grin off your face.”
Shut up, George. Scott bowed slightly. “Miss Browning, the pleasure rests with me. I look forward to your company this evening.”
“I thought it was high time Emily was on the receiving end of delights coming from the Stanford kitchen instead of creating them. Although our staff will be hard pressed to match her culinary talents.” Jane Stanford’s pride in the woman who excelled in a predominantly male profession rang out in her compliment.
“Thank you, Mrs Stanford. However, I detected the dialect of romance from your chef the night of the gala.” A slight tilt of Emily’s head invited playfulness to be a third dinner guest. “The stars are predicting a delicious French dessert as the finale to tonight’s outstanding dining.”
The stars. Scott's eyes traveled over Emily’s head to focus on a gilded framed landscape - stifling the return of a silly grin. So much for sticking to our strategy.
“Well, then, I believe it’s time to investigate this heavenly foretelling.” Leland Stanford presented his bent arm. “Miss Browning, shall we?”
Following suit, Scott offered his own services. “Mrs. Stanford, allow me the honor.”
As they traveled from one room to the next, Jane slowed the pace and lowered her voice for a moment of private conversation. “I hope you don’t consider me to be presumptuous by extending Miss Browning a dinner invitation. You see, four is pleasing.”
“Ma’am?” Scott’s brow dipped.
“I detest odd numbers. Three, five, nine - not to mention, thirteen.”
“I noticed you failed to mention lucky number seven.”
“Well, sir, being a cattle-ranching vineyard-investor from Boston, I’m certain you would agree there’s an exception to every rule.”
Scott smiled. Following Jane Stanford from her Point A to Point B proved as much of a challenge as keeping up with The Tune Caller from Mt. Olympus.
In Scott’s opinion, the ridiculous complexity of a formal dinner was the major reason why upper class dining rooms consisted of massive tables, sideboards and buffets. As many as eight forks could occupy one place setting, with an equal number of knives and an assortment of spoons and glasses to cover a myriad of food and drink. In addition to the flatware, tables were filled with silver serving dishes, condiment dishes and fruit stands. Scott remembered laughing out loud the first time he emptied the contents of his Union mess kit. One knife. One fork. One spoon. Grandfather would have found the situation deplorable. Where were the asparagus tongs?
Once seated across from Emily at the Stanford's dinner table, Scott observed the place setting in front of him. Catching her eye, Scott discreetly held up eight fingers - indicating the number of courses in tonight’s meal. Emily’s eyes re-evaluated the dinnerware, then countered with a raised eyebrow and ten displayed fingers. A bet had been placed.
Butlers dressed in crisp uniforms entered and served each member of the dinner party their first course of the festive feast. Scott stared at the sight placed in front of him. A bone china ornate soup bowl filled with steaming green liquid, thick enough for the chunks of gray fishy meat to float lazily in…
“Stewed eel!” Jane Stanford’s eyes danced with satisfaction. “I must confess. A little birdie told me it was your favorite, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott’s smile remained frozen in time as his eyes drifted from his hostess back to his soup while his brain mustered one single thought.