This is Chapter Eight -- "The Bet."
Go back to "Chapter Seven -- Reynolds" the previous chapter in the series.
The other stories in the "Wayfarers" series.
Other recent stories in the "Queer Theories" series.
Features Brian Kinney, William Reynolds, Madame Heloise, Flora, Mae, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Madame Heloise gets in over her head during a poker game. 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.
Pittsburgh, June 1843.
"Being your slave, what should I do but tend William Shakespeare, Sonnet 57
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require...."
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 57
Madame Heloise was standing at the front door at 3 o'clock in the morning by the clock on the parlor mantel, waiting to lock up for the night. All the guests had departed. Almost all the guests.
Mr. William Reynolds came down the front stairs in no great hurry. In fact, he seemed to be taking his own sweet time. And Madame's darling boy, the old red silk dressing gown that she had passed on to him practically tripping him as he also came downstairs, was clinging to the gambler and smiling up at him. Madame did not like this at all.
"Bonsoir, Madame," said Reynolds, inclining his head to the woman. He would have kissed her hand as he had upon entry to her charming establishment, but he could not because his arms were too full of the squirming boy.
"We close this door at 3 o'clock, monsieur. Please remember that should you ever happen to visit us in the future," said Madame, frigidly.
"I shall file that information away for future reference," the man replied with a sly grin.
"Aren't you coming back tomorrow?" Brian asked, unable to stop himself.
Madame bristled. "That is a rude question, Brian! Apologize this instant! You have no right to ask a guest when he will return."
"I'm sorry, sir," said the boy, hanging his head.
"I shall be back when the door opens tomorrow night," the man interjected, casting his steely blue gaze at Madame. And then he kissed the boy on the mouth, disentangled his limbs from Brian's, and went out the door into the night air.
Madame was fuming. That gambler had taken up most of her boy's time for an entire evening! Good, steady clients had been turned away because of him and they hadn't been happy.
"Go up and go to bed now, Brian," she ordered the boy. Than she saw the look on his face as he gazed in the direction of the door -- a look of confusion mixed with awe and a little sadness that signaled his infatuation with this stranger. And no wonder! The fellow had obviously romanced him! There was no other word for it. Yes, he'd paid well for his time with the boy -- Madame had no complaint about that -- but that wasn't the point! He had no right to come here to her house and cozy up to her boy, making God knows what promises that he had no intention of keeping. Madame had seen it happen again and again with the girls. A slick fellow would come and pay special attention to one of the girls and give a few presents and the next thing Madame knew the girl thought she was in love! Yes, and that was very bad for business! The lovesick girl mooned about the house, sighing and moaning, waiting for the fellow to make good on all his romantic talk. Those promises to take her away and keep her or marry her or whatever it was -- and that always ended up in disappointment and rivers of tears! But Madame had never expected for her darling boy to fall victim to a sweet-talking cad!
The next morning at breakfast Brian was mournful and sullen, while the girls kept giggling and glancing at him, obviously amused by the turn of events.
"Brian, eat your porridge," Madame instructed.
"I'm not very hungry," the boy answered, playing with his spoon.
"Brian has a sweetheart!" Mae chanted, while the other girls guffawed.
"Shut up! I do not!" the boy cried.
"Do so!" Mae sassed back. And Brian reached over and pinched the girl until she yelled. "Madame! Brian hurt me!"
"Children! Enough!" said Madame. "You both may be excused from the table." The day had hardly begun and Heloise already had a splitting headache -- and she blamed that damned gambler!
And when the door of the Paradise Hotel opened up at 8 o'clock that evening the first one through the door was William Reynolds. Brian was waiting, dressed in his newest velvet jacket, freshly washed from an afternoon session at the bath house, his hair scented with a little of Marie's French cologne. He escorted Reynolds to the parlor and poured him a glass of their finest brandy and clipped and lit a good cigar for him, as if he were a respected regular instead of a no-account gambler who was leaving town in a few days' time.
Reynolds sipped his brandy while Brian perched on the edge of his chair. The gambler also stroked the boy's hair and toyed with the lace on his collar.
"Monsieur Reynolds, you may be glad to know that Marie is free at the moment. I know you came here last night hoping that she had some time available. Her first client tonight is not due until 9 o'clock, so if you wish to make her acquaintance now...?" Madame coaxed. She saw the look of dismay on her boy's pretty face, but that was of no matter. Showing Brian that men were fickle and not to be believed was a lesson he needed to learn right now, even if it was a hard lesson.
"That IS a kind offer, Madame," replied the gambler, coolly. "But I think that I am well taken care of right here. I shan't be needing the mademoiselle's services after all." And the fellow snaked his arm around the boy's waist, as Brian grinned in triumph.
At that moment another party of gentlemen entered the Paradise and Madame went over to greet them. By the time she returned to the front parlor, Reynolds and her boy had already repaired upstairs.
"Hel," said Flora, as Madame stood there, trying to decide whether to storm the boy's room and toss the blackguard out of her establishment or let it go for the time being. "I know what you're thinking."
"And what am I thinking?" Heloise snapped at her friend and partner.
"You are thinking that you don't like that Mr. Reynolds. You don't like him 'cause he's taken a fancy to the boy. MORE than a fancy, it seems."
"And so?" said Madame, flouncing into the kitchen, the petticoats under her full dress rustling furiously.
"I know he's your special pet, Hel, but...." Flora stood awkwardly, staring at Madame. Her dark face was grim. "He's gonna be a big boy soon. And then a man. Sooner than you think. And that means he can't stay here forever. You know that as well as I do."
Madame frowned at the housekeeper. "Of course he can stay here. This is his home. He's MY boy and he'll stay with ME!"
Flora shook her head. "He ain't your boy, Hel. Your boy is long gone and this one ain't gonna take his place." Flora watched as Heloise winced. The baby that the young Heloise had given birth to many years before in that house in New York was still an open wound to the woman. Flora knew that better than anyone. She herself had delivered Hel's baby -- and handed him over to the madam of that house, never to be seen again. "Soon he's gonna be grown. You want him living here then? Working here then? You know better than that, Hel."
"What is wrong with this place?" Heloise retorted. "It is our business and we have made it a success. Brian can live here. He could go to school, even." Madame paused. "Eventually, maybe. I have no family that I care about. No heirs. Brian could... some day he might...."
Flora raised her eyebrows. Her black eyes were piercing and honest. "And run this whorehouse, you mean? Work in this whorehouse? That is this boy's future? I don't think so. It's one thing to have a pretty boy here for the men to play with once in a while. But it's quite another thing to feature a fully grown man and you know it, Hel," Flora said. "Even if the authorities would allow such a thing, which I doubt, think of the trouble he'll cause. Think of when he's bigger and the gals begin to fight over him. And you know they will because Brian is a beautiful creature now, but he'll be a devilishly handsome man. And he'll be curious enough to want to try them out -- all of them. But what kind of man would he become after growing up here, Hel? At 13 he's a sweet and winning boy. But what will he be like at 20? A parasite, living off the earnings of the gals? A painted freak, trolling through the barrooms, looking for trade? Think about it, Hel. Is that what you want?"
"You are talking nonsense, Flora," Madame sniffed. "Brian would never become like that! I would not allow him to become like that! He is too smart and too sweet! And what does this gambler have to do with anything? He is only passing through this town briefly and when he is gone the boy will settle down once more and forget about him." Madame made a dismissive gesture with her hand.
"Maybe this fella will go away, but there'll be another one and then another after that. You remember how it was with that gal, Lizzie, we had a few years back? Men got possessive about her. They got into fights over her. The other gals got their noses all out of joint. The whole place was in an uproar half the time. When Lizzie finally took off with one of them fellas it was a relief to everybody." Flora paused, watching Heloise's stony face. "This boy -- he's that same type. But it will be worse with him. Much worse."
"I do not want to hear another word on this matter," Madame commanded. And she returned to the back parlor to monitor the nightly poker game that was just now beginning.
At 5 minutes to 3 o'clock in the morning, as Madame once more stood by the front door, she watched Mr. Reynolds come down the stairs again, the boy hanging onto his arm. Two of Brian's regulars had come earlier and left in a snit because the boy had not been available for the second evening in a row.
"Brian!" she snapped. "Go upstairs. NOW!"
"I have told you! Do I need to get the switch?" Madame threatened. And the boy scurried back upstairs, throwing longing glances back at the tall man.
"Are you planning to take a switch to me, too, Madame 'Elwaz'?" Reynolds smirked.
"If I dared to I would, monsieur," said Heloise, pointedly.
"I think I've offered adequate compensation for the time I've taken up with the boy," the gambler said, smoothly. "But in case you feel that it was not enough...." The man reached into his black silk waistcoat, which was decorated with appliqués of bright red roses, and removed a 5 dollar gold piece. "This should assuage your mood, Madame. And I would say that the service I received was well worth the extra cost."
Madame hesitated for a moment -- and then she took the gold coin and slipped into her ample bosom. "I thank you, sir. And now I think you have spent quite enough time in this house. I bid you adieu and farewell. Please do not return."
"Are you forbidding me your hospitality?" the gambler replied in surprise. "I don't see what horrible crime I've been found guilty of. Unless it's 'alienation of affections'? Is that it, Madame?"
"What are you playing at here, monsieur? You have no right to come here and fill my boy's head with all manner of dreams. Because YOUR place is to come to this establishment and partake of a service and then leave. Your place is NOT to be a lover. Not to pet and play and say sweet words -- and then break my boy's heart! Whatever affection he needs he will find here, with me, Monsieur Reynolds. You are a customer only, so don't pretend to be a sweetheart! Don't pretend that you have feelings for my boy."
"Is that what I've done? Did the boy say I did that?" asked Reynolds in surprise.
"No, he did not need to say it," Madame replied with some heat. "I can see it in his face. He is young and he knows nothing of a rogue like you, monsieur. But I am well acquainted with such men. I have an obligation to protect my charges. And so it is time for YOU to be gone."
"An obligation to protect? What are YOU, ma'am, the boy's mother? I think not," replied Reynolds, his blue eyes darkening. "I admit that I was surprised to see him here when I came in the other evening. But I'm quite taken with him. Quite taken, indeed." The man gazed off into the distance, thinking. "You know that I am leaving on 'La Belle Helene' on Saturday morning, heading for Cincinnati and beyond."
"Yes. Have a safe journey, monsieur," Madame said, shortly, reaching to close the door on the man's departure.
"Well, I want you to know one more thing," added the tall gambler. "When I go I plan to take Brian with me."
Now Madame stared at the man in astonishment. "Take the boy? Take MY Brian? It is only over my lifeless corpse that will you remove that boy from this house!"
"You have a way with words, Madame," Reynolds grinned. "But I WILL have the boy. He's not your kin. You don't own him or hold any legal claim over him as far as I can see. Brian told me all I need to know on that score. You found him in the gutter and have gotten quite good use out of him for the past three years. And now I aim to do the same."
"And you think that my boy will leave this, his home, with some stranger?" Heloise spat like an angry cat. "Some blackguard who he had never even set eyes upon before this week? Leave ME, who has been more than a mother to him? You are mistaken, Monsieur Reynolds. You don't know my boy!"
"Perhaps it is YOU who don't know your boy, ma'am. But we shall see. Yes, we shall. And until then, I bid you good night." And the gambler tipped his hat and walked out the door.
"And I bid YOU good BYE!" countered Heloise, slamming the front door so hard that Flora came running. And then Heloise went to bed with another sick headache.
All the next day Brian moped about the house. Even Mae felt sorry for him and left off her teasing. All the girls knew that Madame had banned the tall gambler from the Paradise and the poor boy was beside himself. And when the front door opened that evening at 8 o'clock, William Reynolds was nowhere to be seen. Brian waited at the door -- and then ran into the backyard behind the outhouse so that no one could see him crying.
At 9 o'clock Miss Marie, the visiting New Orleans girl, went out to a private party, accompanied by the eagle-eyed Flora. And once Flora was gone from the house Heloise gave in to an urge that had been growing within her for the past few days -- she sat down at the table in the back parlor and joined the poker game.
Madame did not gamble often, but sometimes when she felt under stress or simply wanted to forget her cares then Heloise indulged herself. She did not drink or smoke tobacco or dip snuff, she needed to eat sparingly in order to maintain her figure, and sex was a business and not a pleasure, so cards were one of the few vices left for Heloise to enjoy. But she did not dare join the game while Flora was in the house, casting her Evil Eye on Heloise's cards.
The game began informally, with men coming and going readily, and the stakes remained low. But then things heated up when a man who had come into town to attend a boxing match joined the game. He had won big on his fighter and had money to spare and he immediately began raising the stakes. Some fellows dropped out as more money changed hands, until 7 serious players, including Madame, who was dealing the cards, remained. Mae came into the room and then Cora and both girls tried to convince Madame to abandon the game before she got in too deep, but Heloise was French and she was stubborn as a mule. She felt in her heart that the cards were going her way, so she refused to fold.
And that is when Mr. William Reynolds appeared at the table. With Flora out for the evening and Madame at the card table there had been no one to deny him the door and so he walked right into the Paradise. In his wide-brimmed black hat, long black frock coat, and his waistcoat embroidered all over with golden roses, Reynolds looked like a fancy undertaker. Madame clenched her teeth when she saw him, but it was too late -- he smoothly invited himself into the poker game.
The other men at the table knew that Reynolds was flush with cash and they thought to get a piece of it. But what they forgot in their greed was how he had come by that cash in the first place. It did not take long for them to see their error as, one by one, the gambler honed in on a player and pushed him to his limit until he was either cleaned out or folded his hand in disgust.
Reynolds played the game coolly and relentlessly, as emotionless as a rattlesnake and much more deadly. Shortly after he joined the game Brian appeared, having come out of his hiding place upon hearing that the tall gambler had defied Madame's ban and returned. But even the boy's eager presence did not affect Reynolds' handling of his cards. If anything, he seemed even more focused on the table, raising the stakes higher and higher as he plowed his winnings back into the game to raise them again. And the players fell like lead soldiers, one by one, until only Madame and the boxing fanatic were left to face the steely scoundrel.
Finally, even the other man tossed down his hand. He'd lost a pot of money, but then it was money he had won at the boxing ring, so he figured that he had come out even. He retained just enough cash to grab Mae and usher her upstairs, determined to salvage the evening's entertainment. Then only Madame and Reynolds were left at the table. Quite a small crowd had gathered now -- most of the girls and the gentlemen who had arrived for their sport and found themselves spectators at the duel between the Frenchwoman and the flint-eyed stranger. But Madame was at her limit. Her cash had bottomed out. Even her emergency bankroll was on the table. And her sapphire and diamond ring and her good emerald earrings, too. And that was when Flora and Miss Marie returned from their party.
"Hel!" Flora cried out. But the entire room hushed her. And Miss Marie held the housekeeper back.
Brian, sitting on the arm of Reynolds' chair, looked up in dismay, his loyalties torn. He did not want Madame to lose her money and her jewelry, but he also wanted the gambler to prevail and prove his worth to everyone. He looked at Reynolds' hand and knew that it was a good one. In fact, Reynolds kept showing him his hands and telling him to blow on the cards, whispering, "Inspire this hand, Brian. Do your stuff." And Brian blew on the cards. And Reynolds won again and again, while Madame Heloise was running out of luck and running out of cash.
"Go over and inspire the lady's cards, Brian," Reynolds whispered in Brian's ear as he fondled the boy's neck. "Go ahead." And Brian felt that the gambler truly WAS a real gentleman to offer his rival such a chance. Brian walked around the table and perched on Madame's chair, kissing her and gently blowing on her cards. But then he saw her hand and he knew that no amount of luck was going to save the game for her. Brian glanced quickly at Reynolds and he saw Reynolds blink -- and then smile at him ever so slightly, as if the two of them already shared secrets no one else could understand. Then the gambler reached into the pocket of his fancy waistcoat, took out another large roll of bills, and tossed them on the table. "I raise," he said.
Madame swallowed. There was no way that she could cover the gambler's bet, even with the money that Marie had just brought in from the party. Not even with that entire night's take. "If you would be so good as to accept my marker, Monsieur Reynolds?"
"No, Madame. No credit." The gambler's voice was cold.
"Flora," Madame said. "Bring down my jewel box." And Flora groaned.
"Wait a moment, ma'am. I have no need for female doodads. I don't want your jewelry," Reynolds asserted.
"The bank is closed, Monsieur Reynolds! If you will not accept my marker, then...." Madame was certain that her hand was a winning one. And even if it was not, there was no way that her pride would allow her to yield to this black-hearted interloper.
"There is one bet I WILL accept," said Reynolds. He was smiling broadly now. Smiling like the Devil smiles when he has you in a corner. "The entire pot against the boy."
Madame Heloise just stared at the man as the entire room murmured. Heloise could feel the boy next to her tense. His dark green eyes were riveted on the tall man across the table.
"Well, Madame? If you accept, then I will lay down my cards and that will be the end of it."
Heloise's heart was beating. This was no longer simply a card game, it was a matter of honor. The gambler thought he could make a fool of her. Steal her boy's affections and run roughshod over her and then laugh at all of them. Oh, he was smooth! And she suddenly detested him and all his false gentlemanly ways. He had trapped her on purpose. He wanted the boy and this was the way he thought he could get him. But she had a good hand. All she could do now was to pray that the cards would fall in her favor.
"I accept, Monsieur Reynolds," said Heloise through gritted teeth.
"Hel!" Flora cried. But then she too fell silent as Madame put down her cards and spread them on the table. Two queens and two aces. Flora let out a sigh of relief, but the rest of the spectators still held their breaths, awaiting her opponent's move.
But Reynolds' face did not change even a flicker. "Well, Madame. That's quite a hand. Yes, quite a hand, indeed." And then he laid down his own cards. Four jacks. Four of a kind.
And the entire room exploded in oaths and comments, while Madame sat as still as death, staring at the cards. Reynolds stood up and stretched his long legs. Then he pushed the entire pot across the table at Heloise. "You may keep the remainder of this as a fair payment for the boy. I have hardly even dipped into my own personal stake, so I don't need it." Reynolds reached out his arms. "Come here to me, Brian."
And the boy walked shyly around the table. And then Brian laughed in delight as the man picked him up in his strong arms and carried him out of the back parlor and up the steep front stairway to the small room that the boy would no longer be inhabiting after that night.
©Gaedhal, June 2003.
Send Gaedhal any comments, critiques, suggestions. I welcome all of your comments on "Wayfarers." Without your feedback I don't know if you are enjoying this new series!
Posted June 10, 2003.