This is Chapter Nineteen -- "The Daguerreotype"
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Features Brian Kinney, Justin Taylor, Sara.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Justin finds some old photographs. Pittsburgh, April 1859.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
"What have you got there?"
"Nothing," said Justin with embarrassment. He had thought that Brian was sound asleep. It was almost midnight.
"You are the nosiest creature. You're worse than a cat for getting into things." Brian turned up the oil lamp and noted that the bottom drawer of the press was not all the way closed. "You might as well tell me now. What have you found in there?"
Justin sheepishly showed him three small leather cases. When Brian saw them he sighed heavily. He wrapped his blue silk robe around himself tightly and tied the sash. Even in April there was a chill in the night air.
"I was only looking for... for a clean pair of stockings to wear in the morning. But when I saw the picture cases I had to look at them. I was so curious, Brian. About you."
Brian sat down on the settee. "Bring them here."
Justin came over and sat down beside the man. He handed over the cases to his lover. The leather that held the three daguerreotypes felt cool in Brian's hand. It had been a long time since he'd had reason to open those cases. Perhaps that's why he'd pushed them to the back of the drawer at the bottom of the press. The past was always looming over Brian anyway, so why beckon to such memories and invite them to come and take a seat?
The top case was of red leather with a bright sheen to it. Brian opened it slowly. The lining was of white velvet, slightly soiled on the edges. A woman in an elaborate gown stared out at them. Her dark hair was piled high on her head and the décolletage of her dress swept low to reveal her ample bosom. The daguerreotype was somewhat faded, but the features of the woman were still vivid.
"Is that your mother, Brian?" asked Justin. "She doesn't look anything like you."
"No, Justin. That's not my mother. My mother never had a picture taken of her. We were too poor for such things. My mam was a thin, spare woman with a drawn, worried face." Brian shook his head, as if to dislodge an ancient memory. "No, this is Madame Heloise. She wasn't my mother, but she was the closest thing to one that I had after my own died."
"She's dressed very elegantly, this Madame Heloise," Justin commented.
"That was her favorite dress," Brian mused. "You can't see it in the picture, but it was bright blue. She had lots of curly black hair and very white skin and that dress set her assets off like a charm. You can see that it had delicate Belgian lace along the neckline and more of that lace on the cuffs of her sleeves. A very fine frock, indeed."
Justin gazed at the woman's eyes. "She looks like a kind woman, Brian."
"She was very kind, Justin," Brian answered. "My own mam was often times too tired or too ill to be kind. She had a lot of troubles to think about and her short life was nothing but worries. But Madame was always kind. Always laughing. She had a laugh that could fill a whole room. At least, that's what I remember."
"Where is she now, Brian?"
"Dead," he replied. "She had a cancer in the breast and it grew and killed her. The doctor said there was nothing he could do. She and another woman, Flora, had a little farm just outside of town that they bought when they sold their business. They lived there until Madame died. Then Flora sold the farm and went away. I don't know where she went. That was about six years ago. Flora gave some of the money from the sale to Miss Mae and she used it to buy her saloon. Mae was the closest thing that Madame had to a daughter and she always wanted Mae to be an independent woman like Madame was herself. She didn't want Mae to have to bow to any man. That's what she always said."
"Miss Mae's saloon is a fine one, Brian."
"It is," Brian agreed. "Mae's done well for herself. Especially for a girl who couldn't read or write and came from a family that was lower than low."
"This Madame -- would she mind that Miss Mae was keeping a saloon? That she bought that saloon with the money she inherited?"
Brian smiled. "No, she would think it was altogether grand, Justin. Madame was a businesswoman herself. She owned the Paradise Hotel and it was the finest establishment of its kind in Pittsburgh, bar none."
Justin cocked his head. "I've never heard of that hotel, Brian. The Paradise? Where was it?"
"Between here and river. There's another establishment there now with a different name. The Paradise was damaged in the Great Fire back in 1845 and Madame and Flora lost a lot of money rebuilding it back to what it was before. But eventually Madame lost the urge to run the place. I think she was already sick with the illness that killed her and she didn't have the spark that she needed to continue making it a go. So she sold out and she and Flora moved to their little farm. It was peaceful there," Brian remembered. "Too bad they couldn't have enjoyed it longer."
Justin grinned. "I like that name -- the Paradise Hotel. Was it like the Penn Hotel?"
Brian snorted. "The Penn Hotel isn't the same kind of hotel, Justin. The Penn Hotel is a place to store your luggage and take your rest, just like this place, only a little fancier. But the Paradise Hotel was a place to have yourself a time. Madame had a chandelier in the parlor and gilding around all the mirrors. And there were mirrors in all the main rooms so at night the place was all lit up as bright as day. I've been to some showy places in New Orleans and New York, but none of them was as warm as Madame's house. She made every man who walked in there feel like he was at home. Well -- almost every man. Sometimes she took a dislike to someone and then she could be as cold and haughty as a duchess. But she could never stay angry at anyone for too long. It wasn't in her nature." Brian closed her eyes. "I can still remember the clock on the mantel over the big fireplace. I used to stand and wait for it to chime the hour. I'd never seen such a thing as that before in my whole life."
"How old were you then, Brian?"
"Ten. Truthfully, I hadn't really seen much of anything before then. I'd crossed an entire ocean and gone through the wilderness to reach Pittsburgh, but I really hadn't seen a thing until I came to Madame's."
"Was she a relative?" Justin asked. "Did she take you in after your mother passed?"
"Yes, she did that, Justin, but she wasn't a relative. I was living on the street with nowhere to go and Flora brought me home and Madame took a fancy to me and kept me. But I had to work. I had chores to do in the kitchen every day and in the evenings I helped with the guests. And later... I had other duties. But I didn't mind because I was happy to be alive and warm and living in such a beautiful place."
"If you worked every day, Brian, then when did you go to school?" Justin frowned.
"I didn't, Justin. I didn't get much of an education until much later. I could already read pretty well and write a shaky hand, but that was all, really. Whatever I knew about the world I got from the books I read and from the newspapers I read to the girls. That was one of my chores -- reading to the girls."
Justin looked into Brian's face. "What... what girls do you mean, Brian?"
Brian looked back at Justin openly. "The girls at the Paradise Hotel. The whores who worked there." Brian looked away. "That's where I was raised. In a whorehouse one step up from the docks." Brian stared down at the leather case and the picture within it. "And Madame owned the place and ran it. She was the one who brought me in off the streets. Fed me and clothed me. She made all my clothes with her own hands. She and Flora were the ones who taught me to mend and sew and look after myself."
"But... a whorehouse, Brian?" Justin's voice faltered.
"Yes, Justin. A whorehouse," Brian answered firmly. "Otherwise I'd have been dead in weeks, just like my mother. My da walked out the door not long after Mam died and he left me behind. He had his own life to think of. And my sister had found work as a maid somewhere. She had no way to keep me. Madame and her girls -- they took care of me. And later on... Madame made certain that I stayed taken care of." Brian flipped the leather case shut. "I think that if you don't want to know the truth about things, Justin, then you best not poke your nose into what is personal and private."
"No, Brian! I do want to know about your life!" Justin exclaimed. "It's only that I... I'm stupid about the world. I know I've been sheltered from reality. I know I'm a spoiled rich brat -- you remind me of it often enough." Justin looked at Brian seriously. "I'm sorry if I insulted you. And if I insulted the lady in the picture. She's beautiful. And I still think she has a kind face."
Brian smoothed his long fingers over the leather case. "Some things are perhaps better left in the past where they belong."
"Please, Brian. Don't shut me out." Justin put his hand over Brian's and squeezed it. "Miss Mae -- was she one of the girls in that place? In the Paradise Hotel?"
"Yes, she was," said Brian. "From the time she was about 14 years old. I remember when she came there. She was real skinny and her eyes were like dinner plates, they looked so big. And her hair was so blonde it was almost white. Mae came from somewhere up in the hills and she talked like a savage. That's what Madame called her -- a little savage. And she was my friend from the start. Sort of like a sister. We used to play jokes on each other. And I'd read her stories from my books, mainly love stories. All the girls liked love stories." And then Brian was silent. He set the case with Madame's picture in it aside.
Justin put the second case into Brian's hands. It was made of smooth, black leather, plain and functional. Brian snapped it open. A large, bare-chested, bullet-headed man stood, his fists clenched. "He's a tough customer, Brian!" Justin laughed.
"Indeed he was, Justin," Brian replied. "Thayer gave this to me a few years ago. It was taken in Philadelphia at a studio there."
"It's your father, isn't it, Brian?" Justin had heard a little about Brian's father, the renowned pugilist, from the men at Johansen's Sparring Academy.
"Yes. That's Black Jack Kinney in all of his glory." Brian's eyes were thoughtful as he gazed at the picture of his sire.
"He doesn't look like you at all, Brian," said Justin.
"No," answered Brian. "I favor his younger brother, Seamus. At least, that's what people have told me. Seamus was a poet back in Ireland. A poet and a rebel. I don't really remember him. I was too small. He was hanged by the British when I was 5 years old, just before we came to this country. I don't think my da ever got over it."
"Hanged!" Justin cried. "That's a horrible Fate, Brian!"
"I know. Seamus must have been only a boy himself at the time -- just 18." Brian looked at Justin, allowing the reality of it to sink in. "At one time Black Jack was the best prizefighter in this territory. He traveled to New York and won purses there. Won a lot of money for a lot of people. But it did not last. Nothing really lasts."
"What happened to him?" Justin stared at the image of the powerful man who looked so invincible.
"He got older," Brian said. "Slower. Heavier. And Black Jack's mind was finally broken by being pounded constantly by the bare fists of his opponents. You have been to the boxing matches, Justin. You know what it's like to watch it. And you have been in the ring and taken a gentle knock or two yourself. Now imagine what it would be like if you were facing a man who would kill you to win a purse of money."
Justin shuddered. "I don't like to imagine it."
Brian looked down at Black Jack's battered face, frozen in time and space. "My father was a brute, but I suppose that he did what he had to do in order to survive in this harsh, hard country. Just as I did what I had to do to survive." And Brian reached over and took the final case from Justin's lap.
This last leather case was the most ornate of the three. The tan leather was thick, but soft, embossed with a blooming rose pattern, with the rose tinted blood red. Brian opened it slowly. The lining was also a rich-looking red velvet. The daguerreotype portrayed a man seated in a straight-backed chair, his left arm curled around a boy standing at his side, leaning against him. Although the face of the boy looked impossibly young and innocent to Justin, it was unmistakably the face of his lover. The line of his soft, young face, the long neck framed in a white, lace-trimmed shirt, the unruly dark hair with a slight golden glow, the full lips, the beautiful, long-lashed eyes -- all the same. Completely unmistakable.
And the man beside the boy -- he had a strong, arrogant face. His hair was dark and curly, his nose long and straight. And his eyes were so light and piercing that they looked almost transparent when caught by the camera. The man looked prosperous, his clothes elegant, his posture refined. He was wearing a black coat open to show a white satin waistcoat elaborately embroidered with bright roses. It looked very much like one that Brian owned which was hanging in the press that very minute.
"How old are you there, Brian?" Justin asked forthrightly.
"I think I was 13. Yes, this was taken in New Orleans." Brian turned the case over to show the label -- Morris Studio, Dumaine Street, New Orleans. "It was the first time we stopped there, so I was still 13." Brian sighed. "I don't know what possessed him to want a picture just then, but here it is. Perhaps it was only a whim."
Justin scrutinized the portrait avidly. He had heard bits and pieces about Brian's mentor, the infamous gambler, William Reynolds, and now Justin was looking him in the face. For a man so long dead, Reynolds seemed strangely vital and alive, especially his eyes. And the way that the man curved his arm around the slender, solemn boy beside him, possessively, challengingly. That made Justin shiver. Because the boy -- Brian, indeed -- looked so trusting, so vulnerable. Justin tried to imagine all the things that had happened to him in the intervening years as he grew into the man that Justin knew and loved. Justin realized that he really knew very little about Brian's life and what had shaped him. This picture was only a tiny key to that mystery.
"You were so beautiful," Justin said, almost to himself.
"Beautiful, maybe," Brian scoffed. "But I was a savage, too, just like Miss Mae. An unenlightened little savage. I seemed quite knowing in some ways, but I was more ignorant than a wild animal. When I think back on some of the things that I believed...." Brian shook his head dismissively. "I had no education and no real future. Madame was a wonderful woman, but she kept me in a little pink box, like a pretty doll. A man can't grow in a box, Justin, even a velvet box. Reynolds understood that. He was what they used to call 'flash' -- a confidence man -- but he was also a brilliant man. He'd had a fine education and knew Hebrew and Latin and German and French as well as he knew English. He had come from a wealthy family, but he'd made his own way after they rejected him. Because he had been spurned by all he knew, Reynolds had an affinity for outcasts and hopeless causes, of which I was certainly one. So he took me away from the Paradise Hotel and gave me a future. He made me his apprentice. Among other things."
"If you were his apprentice, Brian, what did he teach you?" asked Justin, curiously.
Brian smiled enigmatically. "Everything I know. What to read. What to wear. How to handle a deck of cards. How to speak to a lady and make her fall in love with you. How to insult a gentleman without him killing you for it. How to demand the finest food and champagne and always get it. How to shoot a pistol and hit your mark the first time. How to recognize a true diamond from a paste one. How to write in an elegant hand. How to fold a pair of velvet trousers correctly so they don't wrinkle. William Reynolds taught me everything I needed to know. Except how to live after he was dead. That I had to figure out on my own," said Brian, sadly.
"Was he... your lover?" asked Justin, tentatively.
"Of course," Brian answered without hesitation. "But he would never have used such a term. Love and romance were things for silly females and not for intelligent men of the world. Reynolds didn't believe in love -- except when he did believe in it. He was like that -- full of ridiculous contradictions." Brian snapped the case shut firmly, as if looking at it any longer hurt his eyes. "I believe this history lesson is at an end."
Brian replaced the daguerreotype cases in the bottom drawer and closed it. Then he got into bed and rolled over, facing the wall. Justin turned down the lamp and then climbed in beside Brian.
Justin knew that Brian was not sleeping. He could tell by the cadence of his breath in the dark. "Brian, I'm sorry if I troubled you by bringing out those portraits. But I truly wanted to know about your life. Where you've been and what you've done. I've seen those picture cases in the drawer before. Yes, I'm nosy, but I can't help it where you are concerned. I admit it -- I've looked at the pictures before, but I was afraid to ask about them. I knew those people were important to you, but I also knew that it was none of my business to know about them."
"They're dead," came Brian's voice. To Justin it sounded far away instead of right next to him. "They're long gone, Justin. They have meaning only in my head now. Otherwise, they are dust. Nothing but dust."
Justin swallowed. "Is that how you will think of me, someday, Brian? Dust? Some unimportant memory?"
Brian turned over and put his face close to Justin's. "No, I will never think of you like that, Justin. It will be for you to forget me. You have your entire life ahead of you and it will be full of many experiences and many people. It would be a shame if you wasted too much thought on the likes of me."
"Thinking of you is never a waste, Brian. It's a privilege. It's everything," Justin asserted forcefully.
"Be silent now. It's late."
The next morning as Justin was leaving breakfast, Sara stopped him. "Got a letter for your tall friend," she said. "It looks a tad beaten up."
Justin peered at the envelope. "It's marked from San Francisco out in California. It's probably business for Brian's newspaper. Maybe an important story he's working on. Thanks, Sara!" Justin slipped the letter into his pocket and began climbing the stairs, but then he paused. "I might be staying here permanently, if that's all right with you. Will there be much of an extra charge a week?"
Sara gave Justin a little push up the steps. "What extra? For you? You're just eatin' what he never eats! And you don't take up no more space than a bedbug! So, get on with you! And don't forget to give him that letter!"
Brian was sitting up in bed, yawning, when Justin came through the door. "You missed a fine breakfast, Brian. Sara made flapjacks!"
Brian snorted. "I can do without a lead weight in my belly all day long! I don't know how you can digest that woman's infernal food."
"I think it's tasty -- and there's always plenty of it!" said Justin. "I told Sara I'd be living here from now on. She said there wouldn't be an extra charge."
Brian moved his tongue around in his mouth, like he often did when he was thinking. "Justin, don't you think you better go home today at your usual time? Your mother will be worried about you, especially after that to-do with your father. You don't have that many weeks before your schooling at St. James is concluded and it's best that you stay at home until then."
Justin's mouth hardened. "What difference does it make whether I graduate or not? I'm not going to college. And I refuse to work in my father's office. So tomorrow, first thing Monday morning, I'm going out in search of a job. I'm a hard worker and I want to pay my way in the world. I'll send word to Mother to forward my clothing here."
Brian shook his head. "And what will your father say to that?"
"Blast what my father says, Brian!" Justin cried in defiance. "This is my life and I'll live it the way I must!" Justin sat down on the bed and pressed himself against his lover.
"Justin, I hate to see you burn your bridges behind you," Brian whispered. He held the fair head against his strong chest. "You have a family and they love you. That's nothing to dismiss out of hand. I... I have no one, so I know what it is like to be alone. It's a dire thing, Justin. Do not cut yourself off from people who care about you."
"They don't care about me, Brian! They only care that I do what THEY wish for me to do! That's not love! That's being a possession."
Brian sighed. "You would not say that if you knew what it truly was to be someone's possession. To know that your life belongs to someone else, body and soul, and your Fate is in his hands alone."
Justin looked up. "But I do know what that is like, Brian. I belong to you and you are holding my Fate in your hands at this very moment."
Justin pulled off his clothing hastily and stretched himself on top of Brian, rubbing his body against the man slowly and steadily. He kissed Brian's eyelids, his cheeks, his red lips. Justin communicated his love and his devotion with his gentle touch. Brian, still with his waking hardness, spent quickly and then turned his attentions to Justin, taking his firm peg in hand until Justin was also spent. They did not move for a long while afterwards, but clung to each other in the early morning light. Neither wanted to chase that moment and make it fly away forever.
Finally, Justin broke the silence. "I almost forgot. Sara handed me a letter to give you."
Brian sat up. "A letter?"
"Yes. From San Francisco. Is it for a story?"
Brian licked his lips. "It has to do with my writing."
"I thought so. I wonder how long it took to get here from California? If it went on the stagecoach?" Justin rolled off the bed and pulled the envelope from the pocket of his britches, which were in a tangle upon the floor.
"I don't know. Perhaps weeks. Letters that go by ship around the Horn of South America might take months."
Justin put the letter into Brian's hand. "Open it! I want to see how long it took."
Brian opened the envelope slowly, almost reluctantly. He unfolded the missive. "It's dated at the end of February."
"Then it must have come by coach overland! Imagine going through the wilderness like that!" Justin exclaimed. He poured water into the basin and began washing up while Brian quietly read his letter.
"You aren't really going to make me go home tonight, are you, Brian?" Justin asked.
The man glanced up. He seemed so sad. Perhaps it was looking at those old pictures last night that made him melancholy. "It seems that we have had this conversation before, Justin."
"But things are different now, Brian. Very different," Justin answered. If only Brian would allow him to remain by his side, Justin was certain that Brian would be happy all the time. He would never be alone again. Not if they were together always.
"No, you can stay," Brian said, folding up the letter and sliding it back into the rumpled envelope. He set it aside on the table next to the bed.
Justin bounced over and threw his arms around Brian's neck, kissing him. "I don't need anyone else as long as I have you, Brian! As long as we have each other!" Justin cried happily.
Brian stroked Justin's head slowly. "Tomorrow I want you to come to 'The Clarion' office when it's time to take lunch."
"Where are we going to eat? At Miss Mae's place?"
"Perhaps, but first we are going to the Culp Studio."
Justin frowned. "What is the Culp Studio?"
Brian gazed at Justin's open face. He wore his emotions so honestly, so fearlessly. "The man who takes daguerreotype pictures over on Commercial Street," said Brian. "We shall have our portrait made. And I'll add it to my collection."
Justin gasped. "Truly? Our picture? Together?"
"Yes," Brian replied. "So you'll have to comb that mop of hair for once."
"I will!" Justin smiled so broadly that it filled up the dim hotel room with new light. "I want to look good next to you so that in years to come you won't look at that picture and laugh at me!" Justin hugged his lover tightly and delightedly.
Brian cast his eyes downward. No, I won't laugh at you, he thought. In years to come I'll simply look at that portrait and remember something beautiful. At least I shall have that much.
"Among the men and women the multitude,
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,
Acknowledging none else, not parent, wife, husband, brother, child, any nearer than I am,
Some are baffled, but that one is not -- that one knows me.
Ah lover and perfect equal...."
Walt Whitman, 'Calamus.'
Continue on to "Madame Benet's Salon".
©Gaedhal, December 2003.
Posted December 27, 2003.