Robert Haussmann was a German immigrant who came to New York as a young man in the early 1800s, and supported himself giving private music lessons to children of wealthy families. He understood his profession put him somewhere between the serving and privileged class. Haussmann developed a fondness for one of his gifted students, Emily Alden, though he lived for years in denial as to the true nature of his interest in her. He reconnects with Emily by chance after she’s grown up and finished school, and in this scene, he’s been summoned to meet alone with her British diplomat father, Lord William Alden, at a private New York Gentlemen’s Club.
Robert paused for a minute at the bottom of the marble staircase leading up to the exclusive men’s club; only a slight hesitation, but he could sense an inner vibration of dread. Starting up the steps towards the huge glass and wrought iron inner doors, he feared he might lose himself before he left through them again.
A smartly uniformed attendant stood inside the glass gates at the top watching Robert climb. One white gloved hand rested on the door’s massive iron handle, his dark fitted uniform with gold trim and epaulets announcing his role as guardian of the royal portal; although the royalty he protected drew its power from the flow of commerce rather than the mixed-up blood of some European monarch’s lineage.
“Professor Haussmann to see Lord Alden.” Robert announced, slipping his card onto the attendant’s extended silver tray. The look of direct appraisal he got back was neither welcoming nor unfriendly, implying judgment would be reserved until the member host had been consulted. Mistakes of inclusion or rejection could be avoided that way.
Was the response innate or learned on the job? The look of benign reserve stayed on the doorman’s face while he placed the calling card on the tray of another attendant; who vanished with it behind a huge oak door, giving Robert time to take in the imposing architecture this adolescent American royalty had chosen to represent itself with. Initially, the entire sensibility of the building suggested a European influence; but there was something fresher and more specific about it. He had a feeling every inch had been planned by the men it currently celebrated, rather than inherited from generations no one alive today had ever known.
“Follow me, please Sir.” The attendant who’d disappeared a few minutes ago reappeared at Robert’s elbow. He led the way into a huge oak paneled room with fireplaces at each end. Robert easily spotted his host seated in a large wing chair by one of the far windows. The attendant’s feet whispered across the carpeted floor with Robert following close behind.
Lord Alden sensed their approach and looked up from his reading. He raised his glass in the gesture of a toast and said, “Aux Absents.” His expression was serious but not morose, so Robert was unable to tell how personal or recent the absent parties hailed by the toast might be. Surely it couldn’t refer to him. His Prussian ancestry demanded punctuality, but he glanced at the massive tall-case clock in the corner just for reassurance.
“Oh my, this certainly is fine,” Lord Alden said, holding the tumbler of whiskey in his fingers and swirling its contents around in a smoky topaz whirl. “Did you know it’s made in this country? Very appropriate in a gentlemen’s club filled with the aristocracy of American ingenuity, don’t you think?”
Lord Alden smiled and started to talk about something else, but Robert had suddenly lost his place. Had he known what was coming, he would have been listening more carefully. But he was distracted and seduced by the gorgeous cut crystal glass winking at him from his host’s hand. Apparently he was still captivated by beauty. Emily…he shook himself and refocused on Lord Alden’s face instead of his own thoughts.
“…and Emily’s future…is the topic I want to discuss with you today, Professor,” Lord Alden was saying, gesturing for Robert to be seated in the chair next to his. “You must admit she has strength of spirit unusual, and perhaps even unseemly, in a woman,” her father went on.
Robert sat down much too fast, deranged by the unexpected percussion in his head. His host smiled, as though he hadn’t noticed.