This is Chapter Eleven -- "'La Belle Helene'"
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Features Brian Kinney, William Reynolds, Madame Heloise, Flora, Mae, Graham, Antoine, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Reynolds takes Brian away from the Paradise Hotel. Pittsburgh, June 1843.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
It was just after 10 o'clock in the morning when a haggard looking Madame Heloise finally walked into the dining room. Looking, indeed, like she'd just lost her chief possession. Flora and the girls were unusually silent as they ate their bread and porridge. Flora poured Heloise a strong cup of coffee and set it at her place.
"Where is Brian?" asked Madame -- and all heads looked up as one. "Well?"
"Still upstairs," said Flora, shortly. "With that fella."
Madame's face went red. "What does that Reynolds think this is? A common boarding house?" And Heloise swept from the dining room, heading upstairs.
"Hel! Wait!" called Flora, catching up. "What are you gonna say to the man?"
"I will handle this in my own way," said Madame, imperiously. "This is still MY house!" And Heloise marched up the backstairs and rapped stoutly on the door of Brian's room. When there was no response she opened the door and walked in.
Reynolds was lying in bed, quite at ease, smoking a brown Turkish cigarette, his left arm around the slumbering boy. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Madame?"
"You are still here, sir. Why?" Madame asked, bluntly.
"I should think the reason obvious," the man replied, nudging the boy gently. Brian opened his eyes slowly and blinked. Then he drew his arms tighter around the man, smiling sleepily.
"Brian!" said Madame, sharply. "Go down and take your porridge. Flora is waiting."
"Now?" protested the boy, snuggling deeper into the bedclothes.
Madame snatched the boy's red dressing gown off the chair and held it out. "Now!"
Brian sheepishly emerged from the bed and took the robe. His pale, slender body looked completely vulnerable in the morning light. He glanced longingly at the man, smoking silently, and then reluctantly left the room.
Heloise shut the door behind him. "You are next, monsieur."
Reynolds blew out a puff of blue smoke. "I don't care for porridge, ma'am, if that's all you have on offer." The man threw off the quilt and stood. He was six feet tall or more and towered over Madame, but she did not back down. He was lean and hard, hardly the soft figure of a man who never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards. Madame also noted that he was hairy and masculine, the kind of man who had always been to her own taste. And his prick -- yes, she had heard THAT spoken of as well from Reynolds' previous visits. Madame had long worked in New York where she saw men from all nations and races and she recognized the mark of a Jew when she saw one, regardless of Reynolds' fair skin and piercing blue eyes. But the other thing she knew besides the appearance of their pricks was that Jews were an upright people who would never countenance a gambler among them -- or a man who lay with boys. That Reynolds was some sort of pariah among his own people she did not doubt.
Reynolds retrieved his linen and his trousers and put them on, untroubled by Madame's watchful glare. He slipped on his embroidered waistcoat and removed a gold watch, taking it out and winding it. "I was so preoccupied with the boy that I forgot to wind this last night. It's a bit of a ritual with me," the gambler explained. "And rituals tend to give my rather footloose life a kind of order." He paused, but Heloise only glared at him, saying nothing. "I'm going back to the Penn Hotel now, Madame. I have some business to conduct this afternoon with some gentlemen who owe me money. But I shall return here at 5 o'clock sharp." He paused to take his black frock coat from the hook by the door. "Have the boy dressed and packed and ready to leave then. I want to be settled on 'La Belle Helene' this evening before it sails tomorrow morning. I hate a hasty departure." And Reynolds reached for the knob of the door.
"But...." sputtered Heloise. "You cannot be serious! Take my boy from here? I don't believe you will do it!"
"Believe it, Madame," Reynolds declared. "I told you that I meant to have the boy and I believe that I won him, fair and square. There are too many witnesses to what occurred in your back parlor to put that in doubt."
"Brian will never leave with you!" Heloise insisted, but her spirit was faltering.
"Oh, but he will, Madame. He will. I've made certain of that." And Reynolds gave her a devilish smile.
"You are a cruel man, sir. You care nothing for that child! What will happen when you tire of him? Will you gamble him away to some fellow even worse than yourself? Or sell him off somewhere downriver where the bodies of men and boys are so easily bought?" Heloise sat down on Brian's wooden chair, nearly weeping. His white lawn shirt was thrown over the back of it and she picked it up and held it in her hands forlornly.
Reynolds hesitated. His expression was no longer so hard. "I will not, ma'am, that I promise you. I... I'll teach him. Take care of him. Be with him. He'll be my apprentice. You may not believe it, Madame, but I am an educated man in my way. I can educate the boy, too. Teach him what I know. Show him the world."
"Teach him how to be a cheat, you mean, and a no-account!" said Heloise, bitterly.
"No, Madame, teach him how to be his own man," Reynolds countered. "How to be free and live his own life, as I live mine. Perhaps you don't like me or my kind. Perhaps you even hate me right now. But I won't let the boy come to any harm. I swear that on my life."
"Yes," snorted Madame, wiping her eyes. "Whatever THAT is worth!"
Reynolds opened the door. "I am grieved that you are upset, Madame, but don't think that a few womanish tears will make me change my mind. I will return here at 5 o'clock. And don't tell the boy any different, because I have already discussed it with him and he knows what's what. He WILL be leaving with me on 'La Belle Helene,' bound for Cincinnati. And that is the end of this conversation." And the gambler stalked out the door, slamming it behind him and leaving Heloise alone in the small room.
Flora retrieved an old valise from the attic and folded Brian's shirts and britches into it. Some of his clothes were getting too small for him, he was growing so quickly, and these she discarded. It would be the gambler's responsibility to clothe the boy from now on.
The girls crept around like they were in a house of mourning, unable to fathom that the boy was really going. Mae had not left off crying since breakfast. Each girl went to her room and found some small token to give to Brian. Marie brought out a tiny bottle of genuine French scent from her trunk and wrapped it in a silk handkerchief. Cora took her favorite Holy Picture of Jesus and Mary off her mirror to give to the boy as a thank you for reading to her from the Bible all those months. Mae retrieved a book of poems that a gentleman client had given her, little knowing that she couldn't read a word, and brought it down to the parlor. It was such a pretty little book, with roses embossed on the red leather cover, that she knew Brian would like it. And then Mae burst into tears again.
And Madame sat in her chair next to the fireplace, not saying a word. When Brian came down into the parlor, dressed in his brown suit and carrying his valise, she turned her face away so that she did not have to look at the boy. The girls kissed Brian's cheeks and pressed their small gifts on him and Flora put them into the case. And at 5 o'clock, as the clock on the mantel chimed, Mr. William Reynolds walked through the door of the Paradise Hotel and claimed his winnings.
"This is our conveyance, Brian," said Reynolds. But the boy balked slightly at the gangway. "Continue along." And Brian walked up the way before Reynolds and onto the sternwheeler, 'La Belle Helene,' originally out of the Port of New Orleans, and now headed from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati by way of the Ohio River.
"Mr. Reynolds," said the chief clerk at the top of the way. "Welcome back." Reynolds had traveled on this boat a number of times before, but always alone. The boy walked over to the rail and looked down at the dark water.
"Mr. Graham," Reynolds replied, taking his money clip out of his waistcoat pocket. "I have the fare for my young companion." He handed the fellow a bill. "That should cover the sharing of my cabin."
Graham made a note on his roster next to Reynolds' name. He looked over at Brian, gazing into the river's depths. "Isn't that the boy from the Paradise Hotel?" said Graham, frowning.
"It is," Reynolds replied, shortly.
"You taking him somewheres?"
"He is accompanying me to Cincinnati and beyond," said Reynolds with some force. "He is no longer connected with Madame Heloise's establishment, just in case you or anyone else on this tub get any ideas. He is now my personal property. Will that cause any difficulty?"
Graham cleared his throat. "None that I can see." The clerk glanced over at Brian again. "You sure about this, Mr. Reynolds?"
"Very sure. Let that be the end of it."
The clerk shrugged and called a porter to take the bags to their cabin, while Reynolds went over and stood next to the boy, who was still gazing into the water.
"Are you afraid of the boat, Brian?"
The boy swallowed. "A bit," he said, apprehensively. He had been so excited on the short trip from the Paradise Hotel. But Brian was only now beginning to understand the implications of what had happened to him. The girls had all been crying and Madame had refused even to look at him or embrace him before he walked out the door. And Reynolds -- Brian was certain that he loved the tall, elegant man. And he was certain that Reynolds loved him, too. Didn't he risk a pile of money just to win him? Didn't they do things together that no other man had ever done with him? Didn't he make Brian feel things he could not even put into words? And yet, the gambler was still a stranger to him. "I been on a boat before. Once."
"Ah," said Reynolds. "When you first came to this Land of Plenty." The way Reynolds said it made it sound like something both fanciful and laughable.
"Yes, sir," answered Brian, gravely. "I still have evil dreams about it."
"Well, you will not be traveling like cargo when you are with me, Boy. We don't have the largest stateroom on this vessel, but it will suffice." Reynolds slipped his arm around Brian and squeezed his shoulder, reassuring him. "I know that for much of your life people have treated you like an animal. Or else a commodity. But no longer. Because I offer you the chance to be your own man. To learn a trade that you can use anywhere in the world. To become educated. I promised Madame that I would teach you all I know -- and I mean to keep that promise. I had an education myself -- of sorts. And what I know I will do my best to impart to you, Brian."
"Did you go to a university? You must have because you talk so fancy!" exclaimed the boy, his eyes shining as he gazed up at the tall man. "And your manner is so high!"
Reynolds laughed. "I went to a kind of university. A special school. But what I learned there I have never put into practice. I became an outcast -- but it was a choice that I made to cast myself out. It wasn't an easy choice, but I could make no other."
"Mae says Reynolds isn't your true name," the boy commented, looking down into the water.
"Miss Mae is correct," the man replied. "But my actual name no longer matters. Nor does my former existence. That is the value of this country, Brian. A man can recreate himself with ease. I long ago wrote a new life for myself, just as a novelist writes a character in a book. And you can do the same. I aim to see that you do the same."
"Yes, sir." Brian felt the boat shudder slightly as it moved against its moorings and the boy shuddered, too. Brian could feel tears rising up into his eyes and he felt the sudden urge to bolt off the deck and back onto dry land. To run back to the Paradise Hotel where he felt safe. But instead, he huddled closer against the tall man.
"Are you afraid, Boy?" Reynolds rubbed Brian's neck, just above his collar.
"Yes, sir," he whispered. But the soft touch of the man's hand against his skin made him shudder again, this time with pleasure.
"I told Madame that I would take care of you always -- and that I will do. You must believe that, Brian. But you must also start to do a few things that will be the beginnings of your education," said Reynolds. "Firstly, you shall write to Madame every Sunday evening, no matter where we are, and let her know that you are well. It will be good practice for you. You must learn to write a good hand and have an elegant way of expressing yourself, both on paper and in your speech. That is vital to a gentleman."
"Will I be a real gentleman, then?"
"As real as any," Reynolds answered. "Since being a gentleman is a concept and not a birthright. But you must study and you must learn your lessons well if you are to make yourself better than the ordinary crop of rube. And you have all the elements in you to be a person far above the common crowd. You are intelligent and you are beautiful. I suppose that Madame and the girls have told you that often enough?"
But Brian just shrugged. Such talk about his appearance embarrassed him. He was aware that being beautiful was not a manly thing somehow. Often when he walked through the streets of Pittsburgh on his way to the bath house or the store on some small errand, other boys threw things at him, calling him "Pretty boy" and "Whore" and Brian knew these two things were connected. But he did like looking at his own reflection in his little hand mirror and in the large looking glass in Madame's boudoir.
"You must not let your personal charms make you vain, Boy. Your beauty is an asset and you must learn to use it like you will learn to use your intelligence -- as a tool. I will teach you what you need to know. But you must not be idle. This is not a life for anyone who is soft or fearful." Reynolds reached over and took Brian's face in his hand. "You understand why you had to leave Madame's house, don't you, Boy? That it was inevitable?"
"Not exactly," Brian admitted. He saw the card game as a twist of Fate, much like that which had brought him to the Paradise Hotel in the first place. Perhaps that is what Reynolds meant.
"You shall understand one day when you are a man. Until then you will just have to trust me. You DO trust me, don't you, Brian?" Reynolds fixed his bright blue eyes on Brian's dark green ones.
"Yes, sir," the boy replied. And then he smiled up at the man to whom he now belonged.
"Are you and your father traveling far?" asked the stout woman in the main salon of 'La Belle Helene.' It was just after dinner and some of the passengers had gathered there to take their ease. Brian had thought the meal, which had four courses, very elegant indeed. And the salon seemed quite fancy, with shiny blue wallpaper and many glass fittings that made the room brilliant and glittery.
"To Cincinnati, ma'am. On business," said Brian, smiling brightly. Many people at dinner and in the salon had smiled at Brian. Folks seemed so friendly on the riverboat. And their cabin, while not terribly large, seemed very fine, with down pillows and a silky duvet on the bed. A short black man who introduced himself as their porter, Antoine, had brought fresh towels to the cabin and promised hot water whenever they wanted it. He also grinned at Brian and called him "Young Sir."
"And where is your dear mother?" continued the woman.
"Oh," said Brian, candidly. "She's dead these three years."
"You poor child!" the woman cried, seizing Brian and clutching him to her ample bosom. "And such a beautiful boy!"
"Please, ma'am," Brian begged. He was used to being hugged by females but he feared this hefty one would smother him. "Let me go!"
Reynolds stepped over from the bar and rescued his young protégé. "Pardon, madam," he said, very gallantly. Reynolds was always very gallant, especially with elderly ladies.
"Is this your son, sir?" the woman sniffed, dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief. "He's a dear, dear boy!"
Reynolds cleared his throat and gave Brian a glance. "Yes, he's my Boy. Come and sit with me, Brian." And Reynolds ushered the boy back over to the bar.
Brian breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought that lady was like to squeeze the breath out of me!"
Reynolds leaned against the long mahogany bar. "The female means well -- and sometimes they are valuable. You can never tell, so always keep your options open. Do you understand, Brian?"
"Not really." Sometimes Reynolds spoke of mysteries that Brian had not yet untangled.
"No matter. You will. This journey is only the beginning of your education."
Reynolds ordered a rye whiskey for himself and a cider for his young companion and they stood at the bar, surveying the room. "Get the feel of the passengers, Boy. Who they are. Where they are headed. How much money their purses might hold. That is where your natural curiosity should come in quite handy. You ask questions guilelessly. But you must learn what questions to ask and what questions to foreswear. You must not be too obvious. And you must never let out information about yourself -- or me."
"That woman -- she asked if I was your son. I... I didn't like to lie, so I said nothing and just let her think it. Is that wrong?"
"No," said Reynolds, holding his glass. "Let people believe what they wish to believe. But volunteer nothing. Always keep your cards close to your heart, least someone catch a glimpse of them. Understand?"
"I think so."
A man came to the bar and ordered a glass of beer. He took out a cigar and, without thinking, Brian whipped out his box of matches and lit it.
"Thanks, Sonny," said the man, eyeing the pretty boy. "You're a fine young fella. What's your name?"
"Brian," he replied, smiling coyly. He instinctively inclined his head towards the stranger.
"Brian!" The boy looked up, startled. "Come away and don't bother this gentleman," said Reynolds, his tone sharp.
"He ain't doing no harm, mister," said the man, reaching out to touch Brian's hand. "You're a fetching chap, ain't you, Sonny?"
"Nevertheless, come with me, Brian. Now." Reynolds said, staring down the other man. And then the gambler took Brian's arm and led the boy to a corner table and sat him down. Brian could see that his mentor was annoyed. "Brian, I know you didn't mean any harm, but I don't want you lighting the smokes of any more men. Except for me, of course."
Brian blinked. "Why not?"
"I know you were in the habit of doing it at Madame's to entice the customers. And, perhaps, sometime in the future I may instruct you to do it to get the attention of a mark. But until that day I want you to cease the practice. And I want you to be more wary of talking to any strange men in a familiar manner."
"I'm sorry," said the boy, his face flushed. He'd already made some mistake and he didn't even realize it.
"This is NOT the Paradise Hotel and your behavior must be more discreet and reserved -- especially with men. Do you take my meaning?" Reynolds said, sternly.
"Are you angry at me?" asked the dismayed boy.
"No, Brian," Reynolds replied in a softer tone. "Because you were only following what you've been taught. But from now forward you will follow MY teachings and not Madame Heloise's. Because you will no longer be plying your former trade with other men, Brian. You will be with me only. Understand?"
"Yes, sir. I understand." And the boy felt a small thrill go through him at the words "with me only."
"Yes, sir," replied Brian. "What's a 'mark'?"
Reynolds smiled. The boy WAS sharp. "That you will learn soon enough."
Reynolds took out a pack of cards, opened it, and removed the deck, handing them to the boy. "Carry these always. Memorize them. Play with them. Learn their feel. Learn their weight. Their smell. Know them by instinct. They are the tools of your trade." Reynolds took the deck back and fanned them in his hand. Then he spread them on the table. The way the man handled the cards seemed magical to Brian. He flipped them and shuffled them with practiced ease, his hands graceful and deft. Brian could see how clean and white Reynolds' hands were. They looked beautiful and powerful at the same time as they manipulated the deck.
"I know that you think you know this game, Brian, because you have seen it played before at the Paradise. But you must now forget everything you think that you know. Clear your mind, because I will teach you the game correctly. Just the basics for the time being." And Reynolds began dealing out the hands.
Almost immediately they had drawn a crowd. The stout woman and her husband and the man with the cigar came over to observe the tall gentleman teaching his son to play poker. Reynolds kept it simple and made the game look easy. But while he was playing with Brian, he was also playing to the other passengers. Enticing them in. Making them think of the game. Putting the thought of playing into their minds. Reynolds wouldn't begin a game that night or even the next night, but before 'La Belle Helene' reached Cincinnati he would have taken the measure of the other passengers and cleaned them out as best he could.
At 10 o'clock sharp Reynolds put down the cards, declaring that it was long past the boy's bedtime. But the gambler had already picked out his marks, honing in on the men most likely to have money and most likely to be willing to lose it.
Reynolds guided Brian back to the cabin. Antoine, their porter, had opened the portholes to let in the fresh evening air and had also filled the pitcher with clean water to drink during the night. As Reynolds undressed he showed Brian the correct way to hang and brush off his good frock coat and to fold his trousers so that they did not wrinkle. Yes, the boy would be handy for many tasks, including keeping Reynolds' things clean and tidy, as he was a naturally orderly lad.
"When you awaken in the morning we will already be miles downstream, Brian," the man remarked, pulling down the duvet and getting into the bed, which was recessed into the cabin wall. Yes, he thought, watching the boy undress, this would be a most pleasant cruise.
"Is it a long journey to Cincinnati?"
"Not long. Leisurely, I would say. This tub isn't the fastest, but then we are not in a race to get anywhere. Perhaps after a time in Cincinnati, St. Louis will be our next port of call. And in the fall we will head down the Mississippi until we reach New Orleans. By that time you should be ready to take your place by my side at the table -- that is, if you are a fast study."
Brian folded his own shirt and britches and stored them in a niche next to the bed. "I am! I learn quick!" he said, eagerly.
"'Quickly,' not 'quick.' You must speak like a gentleman always. And tomorrow I will start you on copying out some words on paper. You said that Miss Mae gave you a book of poems? Not female sludge, I hope."
Brian reached into his valise and pulled out the small volume. "Shakespeare. 'The Sonnets.'" Brian handed Reynolds the book as he climbed into bed beside him. The man's body felt warm and welcoming.
Reynolds smiled. "A perfect place to begin." Then he set the book aside and ran his hands over Brian's smooth shoulders, his unruly hair, his delicate face. "Yes, perfect."
"If I could write the beauty of your eyes, William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 17'
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched human faces.'
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song...."
William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 17'
©Gaedhal, July 2003.
Posted July 5, 2003.