Old Acquaintance Be Forgot by Nan O’Berry

1

“Gentlemen, read them and weep.”

A load groan accompanied the sound of the heavy cardboard cards placed upon the felt gaming table as three men slumped back against their chairs.

“You should have never taken him under your wing,” the eldest sighed.

A smile drew the younger man’s lips toward his cheeks emphasizing the dimples that were so disarming to the female of the species.

A chair scraped across the broad pine floors as a second man took the time to rise and stretch his legs.

“True. True,” he agreed. “And yet, can you image what trouble he would have gotten into had we not promised his father to keep him in hand.” To make is seem a stressful job, the gentleman gave a tremendous grumble as if the job were vast and too intricate to complete.

Ignoring their jabs, Devon Talbot leaned forward to rake his winnings toward his chest.

“Brandy?”

“Indeed, I suppose I must drown my sorrows somehow?” The portly gentleman replied as he draped his arm over the back of the chair to watch. “Perhaps, it will help to kill the sting from this hole in our wallets.”

Devon ignored the jab and continued his work. When complete, he sat back and lifted his gaze to study his father’s oldest friends as he toyed with the chips still before him. The portly gentleman with the grey mustache and the barbed tongue of a harpy, served his family well by providing not only medical care, but a stout shoulder for his mother to lean upon when his father contracted the fever at the mining camp and perished with so many others. He had always considered it an odd twist of fate, that he had not lived to see the amount of his fortune from the gold he had discovered.

“Had I known you’d take to poker so well, I might not have been such a diligent teacher.”

Devon raised a brow in questioning.

Dr. Alexander Craig cast a bemused smile and reached for the diminutive glass offered.

“Thank you, Judge.”

“My pleasure,” the dapper gentleman replied with a nod of his head.

Devon listened to the easy banter of the select group. Once a month, he met with the two men to play cards in the upper room of the gambling parlor. The elaborate two story building, just a stone’s throw from the opera house, served the Frisco elite and was known as the Baron’s Roost.

“Devon?’

He glanced at the glass held by Judge Ambrose Cash.

“No.”

He gestured with his head to the empty glass near his elbow.

“Nursing this along.”

The judge raised one brown over his right eye.

“Ah, the voice of reason and who knew it would come from someone so young.”

He eased himself down and placed the glass on the table.

“Your father would have been proud, young Devon.”

Devon sat up and gathered the deck together while the other two men scooted their chairs closer.

“Shall we begin again?” he inquired.

He placed his forefinger on the cards and with a flutter they ordered themselves one behind the other on the table.

“Perhaps one more hand,” Dr. Andrew Craig agreed.

“Yes,” said Cash, with a slight nod of agreement.

Devon split the deck in two and shuffled the cut back together. He smoothed the edges of the cards in place and began to deal. The cards flew across the green felt and he was about to begin the second round when the large deep, walnut Regulator began to strike the hour. All heads turned.

“Gentlemen, look to the time. We are done. This hand will have to wait until next time.”

The two older men glanced at the swaying brass pendulum at the base of the clock.

“Yes, the opera will be letting out soon and our better halves will be wondering where we are,” the doctor sighed.

He reached over and plucked the smoldering cigar from the gold ashtray seated at his right. Bringing it to his lips, he took a long draw, then tilted his head upward, to blow a perfectly formed ring toward the ceiling.

“My, that’s a good cigar.”

Devon watched as he rolled the tobacco between his fingers.

“It’s a nasty habit.”

Devon shifted his glance to the face of the man across from him. The doctor gave a quick wink.

“But, a man must have at least one vice.”

He tried to hide the smirk which formed on his lips as he answered his old friend. “Gambling isn’t enough?”

The doctor took a deep breath and gave a sideways glance at the judge, who conveniently looked away.

“Gambling is a skill, not to be squandered on the youth.”

“You don’t say,” Devon challenged.

His answer garnished a chuckle from the men in the room.

“Come gentlemen,” the judge commanded as he lifted his cape from the back of the chair. “We must be going. They shall expect us to be on time.”

“Ah, yes.”

The doctor rose and crushed the cigar in the ashtray before picking up his cape. Devon stood and pushed his chair in.

“Here.”

The judge handed him his cloak.

“Smoking,” continued the doctor, as he pulled his cape about his shoulders. “A good cigar is akin to a temptation. Often, it cannot be avoided.”

Devon watched as he moved to the heavy mahogany table where their tall top hats were perched. Doctor Craig placed his on his head, then picked Devon’s. He glanced down at the shiny, black silk and spoke. “You have yet to have your temptation, my boy. Promise me, you will rectify the situation before your upcoming nuptials.”

“Alexander,” the judge cautioned. “Perhaps our young friend is saving himself for marriage to the lovely Miss Mountjoy.”

The judge tilted his head and raised a brow.

Devon took a breath and cast his gaze at the floor before speaking.

“Perhaps, I am.”

For a brief moment, the old man’s brow puckered.

“Having second thoughts, Devon? You know you wouldn’t be the first young man to wonder if he’d made the right decision.”

Devon gave a great sigh. “I am doing what is right. Regina and I are friends. I respect her.”

“Respect is it.”

The two older men gave knowing glances to one another, then as if deciding not to pressure his young friend, Dr, Craig merely tossed the hat in Devon’s direction.

He caught it and dampened his lips before he gave a nod to the door.

“Shall we?”

“Until next week,” the doctor agreed and opened the door.

They navigated the narrow stairway that led down to the bottom floor. At the last landing, the raucous noise from the evening crowd reached their ears. The three moved down the last flight of stairs and entered the grand saloon.

Men dressed in evening wear, similar to their own, mingled with the upper middle strata who by their own designed, eyed those who lived on Nob Hill as the next rung of the ladder. A woman in a silver brocade gown sauntered toward them.

“Good game?”

Ambrose Cash reached for her hand and lifted it to his lips. “My dear, Opal, we enjoyed our little pursuit immensely.”

She raised a brow as he pressed a soft kiss to the back of her hand.

“Then I shall see you in two weeks?”

The doctor tilted his head. “No, my dear, with the holidays approaching, we will not be back until after the New Year.”

“Of course.”

She smiled at the judge who let her hand go.

“I’ll reserve the room for the second week in 1906. My, how time flies.”

She glanced toward Devon.

“You won’t be joining them, will you?”

He took a breath and shook his head.

“Wedding, I believe.”

“Yes,” Devon replied. “At midnight on December thirty first.”

“How magical to ring in the New Year with the woman you love.”

Devon said nothing. The feeling of drowning overwhelmed him. Placing a finger on the inside of his collar, he gave a tug in hopes that he might breathe with a bit more ease.

Three pairs of eyes stared at him waiting for him to voice any type of commitment. Instead, he turned to his friends. “Something like that.”

His friends opened their eyes wide. Opal turned her head to stare at him. He should have thought of something else to say. However, what could be said? He was afraid of marriage. He wasn’t sure he wanted them to know.

“I’ll meet you in the coach.”

* * *

Regina Mountjoy breathed deep and paid the price by the bite of the corset stays against her ribs. She shifted in the chair. The price of beauty, she mused. Lifting her right hand, she brought the opera glasses toward her face and rested the edge of the bridge on her nose. Using a finger, she focused the glasses on the events onstage. The lush costumes burst colors of crimson, purple, gold, and midnight blue to all those who gathered in the great opera hall.

“Such a lovely production,” her companion commented.

Regina gave the elderly woman on her right a glance.

“The company has used the Talbot Endowment well.”

“Indeed,” the older woman agreed. “Last year’s event the clothing seemed almost worn.”

Regina lowered the glasses and glanced at the empty seats behind her. Turning back, she placed both hands in her lap and concentrated on the music that resounded throughout the hall.

I shouldn’t be surprised. He never liked the opera. All the same, she couldn’t overcome the feeling of abandonment.

“There, there.”

A hand patted her arm.

“You know men.”

The muscle on her jaw twitched. The gas lights, though low, gave just enough light to illuminate her future mother-in-law’s face. She offered a reassuring smile that only a mother might give.

“Give him time to sow his wild oats. You have a beautiful wedding to plan.”

“Yes.”

Silence filled the box.

“How are things coming?”

Regina stared at the stage.

“They are set. The bridesmaid gowns are made, flowers ordered, and yesterday I commissioned the breakfast.”

“Wonderful.” Mildred Talbot leaned closer and whispered.

“I wanted to give you a wedding present. Something from myself to the daughter I never had.”

Regina shifted nervously.

“Really, you shouldn’t have.”

“Tut, tut,” Mildred murmured. “I have scheduled a photographer fo the following Monday before the wedding. I believe a formal portrait will be something to hand down to the generations that follow. Your dress will be ready?”

“Yes.”

“Then you shall wear it and have the photo done. From the photo, I shall commission a painted to hang in the foyer of our home.”

She reached over and took Regina’s hand.

“I’m so honored that my son has chosen well. It seemed preordained that our families be joined. I know your mother would be just as excited as I am. Already, I feel as though we are family.”

“Yes, family,” Regina repeated.

Mildred Talbot let go of her hand.

Regina brushed her damp palm against the material along her lap. Lord, she was not ready for this. She’d always dreamed of her own home. Never did she think her first home would be across the next hilltop with her mother-in-law. She clamped down the scream that threatened to bubble up from her chest.

She knew what her duty would be when wed. She was to produce a child, preferably a male heir so that the family name would live on.

Regina picked up the glasses and stared at the crowd below her. She wondered how many of the women below felt the same. Did they wonder if just being comfortable with someone was enough?

The curtains opened once more. The young hero of the story took center stage and began to sing. She shifted her glasses to the booths across from theirs. She recognized the Huntington’s, and the Greene’s. She shifted the glasses upwards and her heart took a second beat.

He was there.

Heat rushed to fill her cheeks. Regina felt relieved no one could see the pink that surely stained her cheeks. Raising her other hand, she twisted the knob, bringing his image in view.

How elegant Edward Fitzgerald appeared. The dark evening wear in direct contrast to the soft yellow of his hair. He stared down at the orchestra. His right hand perched on the rail with the other he brushed his mustache.

I wonder what it would be like to kiss a man with a mustache. Would it tickle?

He sat back and lifted his glasses.

Regina’s eyes widened as she realized he was scanning the booths for someone. Could it be her?

“Regina? Regina, dear.”

She blinked and turned toward her future mother-in-law.

“Yes, Mother Talbot?”

“You let out a sigh? Is anything wrong?”

“No. Nothing,” she whispered and turned back to the production even though she could feel his eyes upon her.

* * *

The floral scents nearly overwhelmed her. With the greatest of care, Catrina Petrov tied the last lavender ribbon around the bouquet of lilacs and placed them in the cart.

“Those will sell well.”

Glancing behind her, she caught sight of the older woman in a heavy grey coat.

“Da,” she murmured, then remembered her English. “Yes.”

The English was becoming easier to use yet, the sound of the new language seemed strange to her tongue. Not like the heavy Russian words spoken by her uncles in the café down by the waterfront.

The woman shuffling steps grew near as she turned and separated the tiny pink primroses to pour a bit of water into the cans on her cart.

“Beautiful. You should do well tonight. There are many folks at the opera during the Christmas season. You certainly have an eye for display. If only I were young enough to join you.”

Catrina could not hide the pride reflected in her eyes. “Thank you, Mrs. Katz. You have taught me so much. I am full of gratitude. ”

“Yes, the word is grateful.”

Catrina nodded. “I am grateful.”

“Your English is coming along. Such sweet smells,” she gave a deep sigh. “Reminds me of my home. How I hope one day to return.”

The sounds of the clock on the customs house echoed down the street.

“Almost time. I must hurry,” Catrina replied.

She moved around to the back of her cart and took a firm grasp of the handles. A quick glance over her shoulder, she caught the older woman’s eye.

“I will see you later. Ya, we split the money?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “I will stop by the café for a cup of coffee and to see how well you have done.”

Lifting the cart onto its wheels, Catrina pushed out onto the street of hard packed dirt and oyster shells. Making her way down the side streets and up toward the Opera House, she was greeted by the cool mist and the smell of San Francisco Bay. She leaned hard into the cart as the grade of the road increased.

“Just a little bit more,” she whispered to herself as she gazed at the crest of the hill.

Reaching the summit, she paused for a beat. Looking both right and left, she gaged the bustle of street vendors, like herself, moving toward the hiss of the gas lights that lined the main thoroughfare. The song of the holidays was everywhere. Cabbies adorned the harnesses with bells creating a merry jingle as they made their way transporting patrons to their destinations. Voices calling out greeting added to the din making Catrina forget her nervousness and smile.

“It will be a good night,” she whispered and lifted the handles of the cart once more.

Rounding the curve, the street widened. The gravel from the bay district gave way to the paving of cobblestones from the ballast of the ships that lined the harbor.

Even the people took note of the charity of the season. Walking along, she felt like royalty. Heads nodded in her direction. People who might have avoided her gaze, now met her eyes as if the spirit of the season transformed everyone into best friends. Despite the nip in the air, Cat’s heart warmed. Up ahead, she could see a line of coaches waiting for the opera house doors to open.

She was late.

Picking up her pace, she pushed a little harder and soon reached the six hundred block of Mission Street. The tall spheres of St. Patrick’s Cathedral cast it’s shadow upon the road. Cat paused briefly and made the sign of the cross before she hurried toward the opera house.

The line of coaches was long. Stretching from the five hundred block past the opera house and even further down the street.

“Drat,” she mumbled, wondering where she would be able to push her cart to be out of the way.

A familiar head poked from behind a coach.

“Cat! Cat!”

She saw a hand wave furiously.

“Come down here, lass. There’s an opening.”

Catrina smiled and once more latched on the handles.

“Hurry along. Hurry along.”

The deep voice of the police officer quickened her steps.

“Over to the side now. Can’t block the roadway.”

She followed the directions of his baton as he pointed to the open spot just inside the corner. She slid the cart into the slot as the sound of horses metal shoe’s rang out behind her. Cat pushed her bonnet back and gave a nervous glance as the elaborate white and gold coach which lumbered past.

“Ow, I wonder who that might have been?”

Cat glanced at the woman beside her. At thirty-five, Bridgette Mahoney zest for life was not only palpable, but infectious. They stood side by side and peered wide-eyed as the coachman pulled the black steeds to a halt. A groomsmen who had been riding up top, dismounted and flipped the steps down. His hand moved to the front of his cut away coat and gave a tug to pull the front into place.

“Mind you, in another life, I’d have men waiting for me like that.”

Cat smiled.

“Will you look at that,” Bridgette whispered.

However, Catrina was too enthralled to answer. The door of the coach opened and light from the lamps streamed across his face.

Her heart gave a skip.

“Oh, he’s a handsome one, he is.”

“Da,” Catrina answered, as she watched him step down from the coach. His cape flipped by the wind, revealed a white silk lining. Tall, he dominated the crowd, even without his top hat. The dark hair that curled about his head seemed thick. Cat wondered if it would feel soft and thick.

The crowd pushed forward, moving her toward him. Cries of, “buy a flower for your lady” echoed in her ears. She should be doing the same, yet, she couldn’t take her eyes off the dashing figure. The surge of the crowd pushed her toward the edge of the sidewalk. Cat’s shoe caught the up turned stone that marked the boundary of the wide walkway and the cobblestone road.

Her ankle turned.

Her eyes widened.

Catrina could feel her balance tipping toward the right. A strangled squeal burst from her lungs as she flung her arms out to brace her fall. The cold rocks tore at the palms of her hands. She could feel the thin cloth of her gloves shred as she hit the ground. Pain lanced through her knees. Her cheek collided with the damp bricks, and she tasted blood against her lips.

The ground seemed to vibrate. However, in her stunned state, Cat lay still. Her hat shifted blurring her line of sight. She winced as she brought her hand forward to straighten it.

“Help! Lord, have mercy!”

Bridgette’s panicked voice made her look up. Hurdling down the street, a pair of horses rushed toward her. Cat’s mouth went slack. She tried to scream but drawing a deep breath sent a slice of pain through her upper body. She raised her left hand to cover her face.