This is Chapter Ten -- "The Gift"
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Summary: Justin gives Brian a gift. Pittsburgh, December 1858.
The snow fell all week, cold and thick, over the city. The horses pulling the drays and the coaches struggled through the drifts. And the men trudging from their offices and workshops breached the fall as well in order to find their way home a little early on Christmas Eve.
But Brian lingered at his desk in the newsroom of 'The Pittsburgh Clarion' until long after dark. For the last two hours he had moved commas around in a story about a fire on one of the river barges. Finally, he gave up and set down his pencil. The newsroom was almost empty. Every sane man had already gone home to his family and his dinner. Brian tossed the barge story into his wire basket. Barges. Boxing matches. Stolen watch fobs. Those were the subjects of his pieces during the past week. Yes, ever since last Monday morning when the publisher and chief editor of 'The Clarion,' Mr. Samuel Mitchell, had gutted his story on political corruption and canceled the remainder of the series. Yes, this story that Mitchell himself had assigned to Brian. Had practically forced him to write. And this was the result! Since then Brian had written nothing but dreck. That was a foreign word that he had learned in his youth and it fit the circumstance. There was a four-letter Anglo-Saxon equivalent, but Brian found it too common to match his uncommon mood. Dreck. That was what he was sentenced to write for the time being. And a Happy Christmas to all!
The tall Irishman stood and stretched his long limbs and motioned for the copyboy to pick up his story and take it to his copy editor's desk. Copyboy had been Brian's first job when he'd come to this newsroom almost 10 years before. At 19 years of age and taller than most men, Brian had been rather old to begin a new apprenticeship in a new profession. But after what had happened to his partner, Reynolds, Brian had resolved to abandon the sporting life and learn an honorable trade in which he could use his brain. Madame Heloise, determined that Brian make something of his shattered life, strong-armed a man who had owed Reynolds a long overdue favor and so Brian came to the newsroom of 'The Clarion' with high hopes. But then he spent long months as a virtual pariah, an unwanted hire, a debt repaid to a dead man. There wasn't a man in the building, from the publisher who hired him, Joshua Mitchell, to the old man who swept the floor of the pressroom, who did not know who he was and what he had been. Consequently, Brian, his young body and mind still fragile and unhardened, was the butt of every rude joke and vile comment his colleagues could devise. He was pushed and tripped and knocked down the front stairs. In the privy he was groped and spat upon and called 'Miss Nancy.' Even his coat was slashed as it hung on a hook in the cloakroom.
But Brian had stuck it out, showing up each day in his sober brown britches and plain white shirt. Carrying stacks of paper and stoking the stove and cleaning up messes that the reporters and editors left behind them. And occasionally copying out a story in his clean, precise, and graceful hand. It was that hand that had saved him in the end. One of the editors, a courtly older gentleman who did not care for rough shenanigans in the newsroom, had noticed his handwriting and set him to copying stories that had been turned in as almost illegible scrawls.
"Where did you acquire such a fine style, Kinney?" the editor asked him one day, admiring the unblotted and clear copy that Brian had made of some reporter's slovenly notes.
"I had a stern master who set me to copying Shakespeare. A sonnet every night. If I smudged or made an error I was made to repeat it the next night. That way I learned the poem AND how to write an elegant hand modeled upon his own."
"Capital!" the gentleman exclaimed. "I was not aware that you were privately tutored."
"Oh, yes," answered Brian, raising an eyebrow. "Very privately tutored."
"I wish for you to make clean copies of all the stories that come across my desk from now on. Let one of the other boys carry wood and such. You should be doing work for which you are suited," the old editor insisted.
Brian took his place at a corner table from that day on. And slowly he began not merely to copy the stories that came to him, but to rewrite them. And since his changes were almost always for the better, the old gentleman let them stand. By the time Brian was sent out to write stories of his own he was such a constant in the newsroom that most of the others had forgotten when they had plagued and harassed him. But Brian never forgot. Never. Not even when he was the top reporter in the room with his pick of the best assignments and his own byline. Brian had a long memory for the cruelty of his fellows.
And now Brian was set down, like a punished child. Because he had dared to write the truth. But Samuel Mitchell had not really wanted the truth. He had wanted something sensational to sell newspapers and had never expected Brian to expose the dealings of men Brian knew to be Mitchell's own friends and compatriots in various mining schemes and political ventures. That had NOT been the story that Mitchell expected Brian to write. And so now there were fires and minor thefts and carriage accidents to be covered. And boxing matches and dogfights. And probably tea parties next, until Mitchell felt that his star reporter had been brought to heel.
And since no other newspaper in Pittsburgh would hire him, knowing the reason for his demotion, Brian's only hope was to go elsewhere. Every day he looked for a letter from one Farley Stewart, the editor in chief of 'The Independent' of San Francisco, California. California might be Brian's salvation. Life was wide open in the West. Men were plain talking and not afraid of the truth out there. And Brian was growing anxious to leave this town. He had no relations here and no friends worthy of the name. He was alone, as he had been for many years now, and he longed to change his situation. But Mr. Farley Stewart did not write back.
Brian put on his long wool coat and his wide-brimmed hat and he went out into the snow. The haphazard town looked almost romantic under the latest blanket of white, but Brian knew it was merely an illusion. All Romance was merely an illusion. The only reality was fact -- cold, hard fact. Which was what he wrote. And if that had made HIM cold and hard over the years, well, that was no matter. To be soft and sentimental was to be vulnerable. It was to open oneself up to being made a fool. And Brian was no one's fool.
He stopped at a small tavern and ordered supper. He could have gone to other places where he was more well known, but he didn't want to speak to people tonight. He didn't want acquaintances to tell him their plans for Christmas and then ask him his. He had none. A holiday was just another day to Brian. It was a Friday evening and so he planned to do what he did many a Friday evening during the long winter -- get drunk. He ate the fried fish and the potatoes that he was served and then bought a bottle of whiskey to take with him. The snow was falling again, covering the crown of his hat, as he walked back to Clarke's Hotel, clutching his evening's entertainment under his greatcoat.
The room was cold and Brian didn't bother to stoke up the old Franklin stove. Instead he piled another threadbare blanket on top of the quilt and got into bed with his bottle and a book. He'd been trying to make his way through the new Dickens, 'Little Dorrit,' but the cloying sentiment of the work -- and the length -- was making it an uphill journey. Finally, he cast the thing aside and picked up his old battered copy of Poe's tales. They were not exactly uplifting fare for the Christmas Holiday, but the grim humor of the pieces, the fiendish twists and hideous ironies matched Brian's dismal mood. What MUST it be like to be buried alive? Or walled up behind bricks? Or tormented by visions? Brian felt that he didn't even have to consider that last one. All he had to do was close his eyes and the visions crowded in around him. Every night since Sunday he'd awakened staring and sweating, once even crying out. He couldn't remember the dreams, but he did not have to. It always came down to the same thing. The same damned thing -- a man lying lifeless on a sawdust-covered floor and Brian helpless and alone.
And, after all this time, he was still alone. Maybe that was the way it was meant to be. Brian vaguely wondered what Lindsay was doing this night. But the Petersons had their church and their charities and their round of parties with other well-to-do families that took up the season. Occasionally Lindsay wrote Brian a short note inviting him to some social gathering or musical evening. Some innocuous event where they might exchange a few pleasant words to each other, but never be mistaken for a courting couple by Lindsay's disapproving parents. Brian always tossed such notes into the stove. He had no intention of becoming a hanger-on in such company. And he had no desire any longer to even see or speak to the woman he had once hoped to marry. She couldn't seem to understand that. Lindsay wanted Brian to continue to dance attendance on her even though she had no intention of accepting him. Had never had any intention of accepting him, from what he could see. Once that knowledge had made him despair, but now he realized that marrying the woman would have been just like one of Poe's tortures. Like being walled up or buried alive. That slow suffocation that would have truly meant the end of him.
Seeing Minnie at the boxing match last Saturday had brought that home to him clearly. A few years back Brian had been a regular customer of hers. He had even romanced her a bit, using the kind of sweet talk that came naturally from his Irish lips -- augmented, of course, by a truckload of compliments, flatteries, and other lies gleaned from years of listening to Reynolds butter up the marks for easier pickings. But he had tired of Minnie quickly. In fact, he had finally tired of all women -- even Miss Lindsay. And when he stopped visiting Minnie she had taken it ill. Very ill indeed. She still seemed to be holding a grudge against him. And she'd honed in on poor Justin readily enough. Unlike the genteel and naive Lindsay, Minnie understood where Brian's true desires were situated and she did not like it one bit. Minnie felt that for a man to prefer some callow blond boy to her, an experienced woman of the world, was the deepest insult imaginable.
But Brian did not care what she thought. Because he DID prefer the fair-haired boy to her. And to any woman of his acquaintance. He always had preferred men and he always would. That was simply the truth and something that he would have to deal with always. Yes, instead of fighting it, as he had for so many years. Reynolds had tried to reason with him about it. Tried to make Brian see that covering his desires over with romantic notions and dreams still would not change those desires. That they would only frustrate him instead. Even drive him crazy. Sex was a pleasure not to be mistaken for Love or Romance or any other literary invention, Reynolds insisted, a pleasure to be taken wherever it was found, without regret. But Brian refused to listen. By that time, those last two years they were together, he was angry with his partner more often than not. Brian was in the throes of a youthful rebellion against his mentor and nothing the man could say would deter him from seeking the kind of Ideal Love he read about in his favorite books and poems. But it was all for nothing in the end. He was still alone.
Brian closed his book. He should have been reading Poe all through his youth instead of Keats and Shakespeare and all those romantic novels that Reynolds was always threatening to toss out the window. Yes, he should have been reading stories of horror. And books full of cold, hard logic. The Stoic Philosophers. Voltaire and the Men of Reason. Instead, he had sighed over Sir Walter Scott and 'The Count of Monte Cristo' and 'Wuthering Heights'! What a fool he'd been. And what a fool he still was sometimes. Sometimes. Still.
Because he could not stop thinking about the blond boy.
He'd risen very early last Sunday morning and quickly written the article detailing the boxing match. It was a simple piece, unlike his corruption article, which needed much more polishing before he could turn it in the next day. After he made a fair copy of the boxing piece, he'd worked some more on the main article and then returned to bed. And stayed there most of the day with Justin. In truth, neither of them wanted to leave the bed, which had taken on the dimensions of an entire world. He had always thought himself an expert in all of the ways of sex, which had been first his profession and then his avocation for most of his life. But in that bed with the boy he felt himself relearning what he had forgotten years before -- the delight of honest emotions expressed with the body. In that Justin was his teacher. And Brian found himself a willing student for the second time in his life. But eventually the Winter day began to shorten and the two of them reluctantly dressed and walked out silently into the newly fallen snow.
It was a long trudge up to where the finer houses stood behind their brick walls and wide lawns. The Taylor house was one of the newer places. Brian was impressed by its size and its restraint. Some of these new houses were monstrosities, aspiring to look like gothic castles with turrets and towers and ridiculous decorations. But the Taylor house was classical in design, with white columns and a wide portico. Someone in the family had taste, Brian thought.
But as they approached the house, his companion slowed their pace to a crawl. The pair paused before the gate and Justin wiped his eyes on the sleeve of Brian's old blue jacket, which the boy had begged to keep. "The cold is stinging my eyes."
"It is a miserable day," Brian agreed, softly. He turned and took Justin's hand, shaking it. "I know you don't believe it, Justin, but you stomached the boxing contest as well as any man does the first time. You didn't lose your dinner until you were well out of the venue. That's a tribute to your fortitude."
The boy hung his head. "I didn't want you to be ashamed of taking me there."
"I was not ashamed at all," Brian answered, his eyes ashine. "I'm certain that nothing you could do would ever make me ashamed to be with you."
But Brian's comforting words only had the effect of driving the boy to release the tears he'd been holding in all day. Justin clung to Brian, weeping, right there on the street before his homestead. Brian's heart was torn and he wanted nothing more than to gather him into his arms. Instead, he gently disengaged the boy's hands. "You had better go inside."
"But when will I see you again?" Justin sniffed, glancing back at the big house. He had lived there all his life, but it suddenly looked alien and forbidding.
"Justin...." Brian began, unsure of what to say. "When you close your eyes I shall be there. In your dreams. And you'll be in mine. Farewell." And Brian turned and hurried away, forcing himself, like Orpheus, not to look back, even when he heard the boy calling after him. And Brian did not slow his steps until he was almost back in the center of town.
That painful parting had been only the beginning of a dreadful week. For then Samuel Mitchell had read and slashed away at his corruption piece and sent him back to cover nothing but sporting events and petty crimes. Mitchell was a short, homely man with none of the dignity or savvy of his father, who had founded 'The Clarion.' Joshua Mitchell might have railed at Brian and called him a bastard or a nance or even a whore -- but he would have run the story. He would have felt it his duty to follow the truth. But Joshua Mitchell's lily-livered son had no such scruples. Brian wondered how long his exile would last. Probably most of the Winter, he feared. The one thing he still held dear in his life -- his job, his profession -- was now degraded. It might even be in jeopardy for all Brian knew.
But perhaps that would not be a bad thing after all. It might force Brian to leave this blighted town once and for all. To leave behind all the memories and ghosts and make a new start. Yes, Reynolds was dead, and Madame, and the remnants of his family. The girls from Madame's house were scattered to the four winds -- except for Mae who was making a go of her saloon. And Miss Lindsay -- she would hardly even be aware of his leaving. There was no one else who would care, Brian told himself, as he finished the bottle of whiskey. No one else....
When Brian opened his eyes it was already bright light out. He could hear bells ringing in the distance and then remembered it was Christmas Day. His head was pounding, as it usually did after a night of excess. He stumbled out of bed and found the chamber pot behind the Chinese screen. Then he washed his hands and face, trying to splash himself back into sensibility. The room was frigid, so he stoked up the Franklin. He also realized, to his dismay, that he was out of liquor and unlikely to get any more on Christmas. Unless, of course, he headed to the riverfront and some of the dens where anything could be had for a price any day of the year.
Brian thought about going downstairs to the dining room and eating something. He tried to recall the last time he'd had a full meal. Was it supper the night before? Yes, he'd eaten that fish and boiled potatoes. No wonder his belly felt like lead. He got back into bed and pulled the quilt over his head. And it was long after midday when Brian emerged from his restless morning slumber, his mouth dry and his head still aching. And he was stone sober. That was the worst of it.
He contemplated his next move. Since he was out of whiskey he would have to rise and dress himself and go in search of more. Tomorrow was Sunday and he could not endure two full days sober, especially not in the frame of mind he was in. That meant a hike down to the docks to procure a bottle of cheap spirits. He knew that if he presented himself at the Rosebud Saloon that Mae would offer him refreshment, but he did not want her charity -- or her pity. Besides, she might expect something in return for the liquor and Brian was not about to start THAT up again. Females had the longest memories when it came to matters of Love. Almost as long as Brian's own.
Brian was still deciding what to do when there was a sharp rap on his door. It couldn't be Sara -- she never bothered to knock at all. And it was very late for the pot boy. With Brian's luck it was undoubtedly a messenger from the newspaper, summoning him to go out and cover someone's roof falling in under the heavy snowfall. Another knock. And then another. Brian sighed. He wrapped an old red silk dressing gown about himself and stumbled to the door. Perhaps he could convince the messenger that he was ill. Then he could simply return to bed and hide for the next two days.
"I wondered when you were going to open the door," said Justin, strolling in. "I didn't think you were out at church. And I knew you weren't at work on Christmas Day." He paused and cast his eyes on his companion. "Looks like you had a hard night. How do you feel?"
"Like an army is on the march through my skull," said Brian, shutting and locking the door. "What in Hell have you come back here for?"
"That's no way to greet someone on Christmas!" the boy exclaimed. "Why do you think I've come? I've brought you a Christmas gift."
Brian winced. "Me? You have brought a present for me? Why?"
"I would have thought that obvious. It's Christmas! That is when you give gifts to people you care about." And Justin reached into his thick coat and brought out a small package wrapped in silver paper and bound with red ribbon. "This is for you." He held out the bundle.
But Brian shrunk back, refusing to take the package. "What are you REALLY doing here?"
Justin sat down on the edge of the bed and looked down at the bare wooden floor. "I knew you would be angry with me. Because I didn't come back or send a message. But I could not, Brian!" The boy looked up, his face stricken. "Believe me! When I returned home my mother pitched an awful fit. She found out that I was NOT with that boy from school, Bobby Elton. She saw his mother at some function after church on Sunday and learned that they were not at the farm for the weekend. So when I walked into the house she hauled me up to my room by my ears, she was that furious! And I've been 'jailed' this whole week. She would not even allow me out for classes at St. James' -- they sent my lessons to the house."
"I knew you would get into trouble for running away, Justin! You were lucky your old man didn't whip you." Brian sat down next to him on the bed, running his hand through his disheveled hair.
"Oh, she didn't tell my father about it. She never tells him anything," said Justin. "Not that he would care if I was missing for a week! I doubt he'd even notice. But my mother thinks I was involved in some kind of debauchery with some low female! She even threatened to take me to our minister and have him give me a good talking to about how to lead a godly life!"
"Not a strange assumption for her to make, since you are a lusty lad of 17, you were missing all those days, and you returned with a very knowing gleam in your eye!" Brian couldn't help but smirk at the image of Justin's mother taking him before their pastor to be saved.
"But I swore to my mother up and down that I hadn't been with a female. That I never in my life have been with a female. I don't know if she believed me, but I could say it honestly because it IS true." The boy paused. "Of course, I did not mention who I was really with and the marvelous things we did in this room." Now Justin grinned. "But if I had, perhaps she wouldn't have understood what I meant."
"I would not count on THAT!" said Brian. And as he sat on the bed beside the boy he realized just how glad he was that Justin had returned. Brian had thought to be angry when he saw him at the door, but he could not bring himself to be upset at all. Instead, he felt a surging warmth within his body as he remembered the previous weekend. Brian shook his head, trying to empty it of those memories. He stood abruptly. "You had better go."
"Go? But I've just arrived!" cried Justin. "And you have yet to unwrap your gift."
"But what if your mother realizes that you are gone again?"
Justin shrugged. "I told her I was delivering a Christmas gift to a friend. Again, nothing but the truth. And if I remain here for an hour or two what will she do? Lock me in my room again? Put me in the jailhouse for real? It is time that my mother realized that I'm a man and NOT a child. So she had better get used to treating me like a man. Which means that I can come and go as I please!"
"You ARE a wonder!" murmured Brian. "I pity your poor mother. I don't know how the wretched woman can overturn such self-centered 'logic.'"
"I received excellent marks in Latin and the master said that it takes a logical mind to grasp that language."
"Yes, you and the Antique Romans have much in common, Justin. But you have even more in common with the Ancient Greeks," Brian mused. Now he felt that he certainly needed a drink. Hard liquor, definitely. Rye whiskey preferred. "If I'm going to get drunk in celebration of this Sacred Day, then you must excuse me while I dress and go in search of a bottle of oblivion." Brian began to rummage through his press, pulling out a plain pair of trousers and a woolen shirt.
"Why do you need to get drunk, Brian? And you still haven't opened your gift!" said Justin. He looked at the man and could tell that Brian did not want him there. Perhaps Brian did not want to see him any longer. His visit was an annoying imposition on the man's life. Justin noticed that Brian was avoiding even looking his way. "If you don't want to open it now, I can leave it here and go." The boy stood up slowly, setting the wrapped bundle on the bed. "I'm sorry that I intruded."
Brian stopped and turned around. "It isn't that! You are not intruding. It is just that... that...." How could he explain to the boy? As a child Christmas and other holidays were not about gifts and parties and fine food and special treats, but about the old man getting drink and coming home in a foul mood, knocking aside anything -- and anyone -- who got in his way. And at Madame Heloise's Christmas was just another very busy workday. Flora might boil a pudding and one year Madame made Brian a pretty lace collar for his jacket, but otherwise it was business as usual. And Reynolds -- he belittled all holidays as sentimental claptrap that raised superstition and ignorance above reason and common sense. Celebrations were for accomplishments. For a winning hand or a mark well played. And Christmas especially came in for Reynolds' specific scorn, even as he used the general good-will of that season to hone in on human weakness. Reynolds always made a large killing off some poor idiot during the Holidays.
"I have nothing for you at all. I have nothing to give anyone," he said, throwing down the trousers and the shirt on the chair in resignation.
Justin moved over and stood beside him, trying to get Brian to look him in the eye. "You don't need to give ME a gift, Brian. I wasn't expecting you to give me one. You have already given me so much I can hardly express it."
"Given you? I got you in trouble with your Ma, that's MY offering. That and leading you on those first steps on the road to dissipation and corruption. That is my 'gift,' Justin. And someday I'm sure you'll curse me to Hell for it."
"That isn't true at all, Brian," Justin replied, reaching up and putting his hand on the man's arm. "You showed me who I AM. Who I REALLY am, finally. You made me feel things I never felt before in my life! And you made me understand that I have to be who I am, and not who my father expects me to be, or who my mother would like me to be. And I don't only mean what we did in this room -- although that was the most wonderful thing of all! I mean seeing the world in a different way. The way an artist MUST see it. When you read me the poems of Whitman I understood that YOU were one of those men Whitman writes of who are truly free to live their lives the way they see fit. To go among all kinds of people, anywhere in the world, bravely and confidently! Not seeing the world from behind some high wall, or from some little office. Or from inside some mind that's all closed off and hidden and fearful. Because you aren't afraid at all! And that's the way I want to be! And I CAN be that! You showed me that I can!"
"Do not model yourself on me, Justin. That would be a lethal error. Because I'm a failure at everything, but especially at living my own life. Everything you see before you is sham."
Justin pulled Brian down to sit on the bed. Then he reached over and picked up the package. "Open it. It didn't cost me anything. I STOLE it, in fact!"
"No! It isn't what you think! Please unwrap it."
Brian slowly opened the bundle, taking care not to tear the silver paper that was folded so carefully around the item. Which was a book. "Where DID you find this? Here? In Pittsburgh?"
"In my father's library," Justin answered smugly. "He buys books by the crate, but he never reads any of them. He has a library and he likes to see it full."
Brian was turning the pages slowly. "'The Leaves of Grass' by Walt Whitman. This is the second edition! There are new poems in here that I haven't yet seen!"
"I knew it looked different from your volume, Brian. I could tell the moment I saw it. So I took it right off the shelf. My father will never notice it's gone. Even if he ever picked up a book, which I doubt, he wouldn't read a book of poems on any account, especially if he knew what these poems were about! See?" Justin ran his hand along the edge of a page. "I've already cut the pages for you with my penknife. And I was reading it, too. I recognized some of the poems that you were reading to me. But this one is new --
'Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across the waist of the other,
The smell of apples, aromas from crush'd sage-plant, mint, birch-bark,
The boy's longings, the glow and pleasure as he confides to me what he was dreaming....'"
"No," said Brian. "I've never heard that one before. But it is much like some of Whitman's other verses. It is hard for me to imagine that he can publish such things and still show his face in Society. It must be that people truly are blind to his meaning. But I'm not blind. I understand it all too well."
"He's like you, Brian. Whitman is not afraid to say what he thinks," said Justin. "I read your piece in 'The Clarion' this week. That was not the article that you wrote, was it? All the things you told me about corruption and men preying on other men? That was all cut out, wasn't it?"
Brian swallowed. "Yes. The editor, Mr. Mitchell, wouldn't allow it. First, he put me up to that task, although I resisted writing on that subject. And then the facts took hold of me and I wrote with all my heart. But when I told the truth, he set me down. All of the other reporters, even on the other newspapers, know that he gutted my story. And there's nothing I can do. The power is in his hands, Justin. The power is always in the hands of those who have money and influence. And they will dictate to the rest of us. Tell us how to live, what to write -- and who to love. And THAT is what is real. Not all the platitudes they speak in church or on the platform at political rallies or in the courtroom. And because of who I am and who I have been, because of my desires, which I refuse to suppress, I will always be a stranger to those places. And to decent Society." He looked at the boy sadly and Justin could see that the man's eyes were filled with tears. "Leave now and do not follow that same path, Justin. Because it will only break your heart, as it has broken mine."
"That poem doesn't tell what the boy confided to the man about his dream. But I'll tell you what it is," said Justin, taking the book out of Brian's hands and setting it down. And he reached inside of the old red silk dressing gown and put his arms around Brian's body, touching his warm bare flesh. "He wants to be here, with you. Learning from you. Being with you. Loving you. Always," Justin said, kissing him.
And even though it was a hopeless dream, Brian could almost believe that Justin would be there. Always.
©Gaedhal, June 2003.
Posted June 24, 2003.