As he sauntered along the sun-drenched sidewalk bordering Pennsylvania Avenue, the tall, broad-shouldered man amused himself by making a mental calculation of both the people who looked upon his handsome face with admiration and those who gazed at his affliction with revulsion. It had become a game to him. And thus far, he had never tired of it. For the most part, Washington City seemed to lean toward the Admiration side of his list. But hed moved here only a week ago and, as he well knew, things could change. Baltimore, where hed spent the last twelve years of his life, had usually tallied about fifty-fifty.
The crack of teamster whips and the rattle of wagon wheels filled his ears. Manure and livestock scented the air, broken only by the occasional whiff of cigar smoke or perfume water from passersby. Passersby, who with their expressions, all added an invisible mark to his growing list.
Two prune-faced gents wearing stovepipe hats alighted from a carriage at the corner of Eighth Street. As Gideon approached, they shied away from him as if he were a leper. To test their rudeness, he took a long stride with his right leg, then with nerve-racking slowness, dragged his left one across the sidewalk to meet it. The two onlookers rewarded his effort with grimaces and maladroit comments about his going back to where he came from. He chuckled, tallied two check marks for Revulsion, then resumed his regular, though graceless, manner of walking.
Just up ahead before a jeweler shop, he spied a young lady in a plum hoop-skirt. She looked at his face. She smiled. One for Admiration.
Another winsome creature waltzed along, this one wearing a dress with the most revealing décolletage he had beheld all morning. She looked at his face. Then at his leg. A waver; still uncertain. He smiled--Come on, Come on!--she smiled. Hot damn! Another one for Admiration.
But did it count? he asked himself. After all, you smiled at her first.
Hell, yes, it counted, argued another inner voice. Dont forget, you prodded those gaffers at the corner to swing their votes the other way. He laughed out loud. He supposed it was only fair.
He viewed his five-story destination, just between the corners of Sixth and Seventh Streets. Signs on the building front advertised the presence of Gilmans Drug Store and the banking concern of Sweeney, Rittenhouse, and Fant. His gaze lifted to the large sign hanging from the second-floor balcony--Bradys National Photographic Art Gallery.
When he entered the building, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the artificial light. He doffed his hat and finger-combed his thick, ebony hair. He smoothed his luxurious mustache, now long enough to shield his entire upper lip, while the ends spilled down almost to the tip of his firm, stubble-free chin. After brushing street dust from his black trousers and frock coat, he adjusted his cravat and plucked an errant thread from his waistcoat, its silver embroidery twinkling in the mellow gaslight. Satisfied with his appearance, he scanned the hallway.
Fourteen Imperial photographic portraits hung in ornamental frames. He recognized the pinched countenance of President James Buchanan, the always-austere Henry Clay, and the hangdog expression of Commodore Matthew Perry. Others included the grim General Winfield Old Fuss and Feathers Scott, and the almost chilling visage of Daniel Webster, along with a host of other politicians, actors, or heroes of the past and present. Altogether, the collection impressed him, for Mathew Brady and his staff had come a long way in advancing the quality and popularity of the worlds newest art form.
Smiling, he clambered up the staircase to a spacious reception room. Twin brass and crystal chandeliers spilled gaslight from the high ceiling. Rosewood chairs upholstered in red damask and a couch of black horsehair dominated the rooms center. Easels stood about, lending the room an artistic atmosphere, while a gas-burner stove sat neglected on this June morning. A mammoth French plate mirror graced the far wall, while dozens of framed daguerreotypes covered the others. Clusters of people marveled at the images, whispered commentary regarding the subjects, and strolled from picture to picture leaving behind swirling clouds of cigar smoke.
His gaze came to rest on a gallery employee sitting behind a desk in the corner. He hitched over to the slight, smooth-shaven worker who busied himself scribbling notes in an appointment ledger.
One minute, blurted the employee without looking up from his work. He wore a green frock coat with a gold waistcoat and matching tie. Thinning brown hair, reeking of pomade, revealed a shiny scalp below. After the requested minute stretched into two, the man finally raised his head. A wintry smile of forced politeness cut through his long face. Authoritative eyes probed and dissected. With prissy grace, he set down the pen and clasped dainty hands together on the books open pages.
What might I do for you today? he asked in a high, effeminate voice.
Im here to see Mr. Alexander Gardner-- You pompous ass, he wanted to add, but didnt. I was told he might be in this morning.
Is he expecting you?
Im not certain.
Not certain? Mr. Gardner is a busy gentleman, said Pompous-ass with a distinct tone of exasperation. He clucked his tongue in feigned sympathy. I believe you have wasted your time. You should have made an appointment--
He was aware of my intended arrival, though he might not have been aware Id be here this morning. Ive no intention of leaving without meeting with him.
Pompous-ass pushed back his chair to stand behind the desk. He pocketed his hands in gold-and-green-checkered trousers. The faux smile vanished, crimson dotted his cheeks, and his manner dripped with arrogance. And who might I say is calling?
Storm. Gideon Storm.
And youre here for a portrait sitting with Mr. Gardner? Pompous-ass scanned Gideon from head to toe. He frowned, as if sorting through memory files to determine whether the name Gideon Storm bore any significance. I dont believe he is receiving clients today--
Im here on another matter.
Gideon had no use for people who made it their business to pry into his personal affairs. Never had. Never would. And this pushy gatekeeper was no exception. Gideon purposely curved his lips into a cocky smile. Dealings between Mr. Gardner and myself are none of your concern.
Eyebrows raised at the blunt statement; hazel eyes flamed. Pompous-ass obviously didnt like being left in the dark when it came to his employers personal business. Mr. Gardner will want to know the reason for--
He already knows, so dont let it twist your underdrawers into a knot. Just announce me.
Defeated and knowing it, Pompous-ass clenched his teeth. Be so kind as to wait here. Ill see whether he is available. Without waiting for a reply, he flitted off toward another staircase and ascended.
Gideon spent the next five minutes studying the framed daguerreotypes before Pompous-ass returned. Gideon barely kept himself from laughing when the look on the mans face clearly indicated his employer had agreed to the impromptu meeting.
Gideon followed him to the fifth floor. There, the man led him across a long room--the studio. Sunshine bathed the room, allowed entry through large ceiling skylights. Cameras and lenses cluttered the area, while body-rests, headrests, and head clamps abounded. Props, many of which Gideon had observed moments before in the reception rooms daguerreotypes, commanded another corner--everything from Italian vases to an ornate gold clock perpetually set at 11:52 with Bradys name printed across its face. A side door stood ajar, allowing Gideon to view the darkroom with its baths, dippers, and pipes. Finally able to comprehend that he was now in the studios of the famous Mathew Brady, Gideons stomach fluttered in awe.
The man ushered him to a closed door. He knocked and entered. Mr. Gardner? Gideon Storm is here, he said, then gestured Gideon inside.
Gideon smirked at Pompous-ass. He stepped forward--Yes, a definite check mark for Revulsion in his eyes!--and entered the cramped office. A mahogany desk, its surface blanketed with business ledgers, sat beside an open window. Opposite the desk, filing cabinets surrounded a floor safe. Gilt-framed daguerreotypes concealed nearly every inch of wall space. A potted fern with brown-tinged foliage drooped in a corner beside a porcelain cuspidor.
Alexander Gardner stood before the window, an unlit cigar in hand. Gideon judged him to be in his late thirties. His chest-length beard and shoulder-length hair, both raveled and dark, waved in the summer breeze. A beige smock, stained with photographic fluids, covered his husky frame, giving him the aspect of a deranged French painter. With abrupt gestures, he stepped from behind the desk and thrust out his free hand. A smile softened his stern features.
Mr. Storm, he said, his voice laced with an accent Gideon couldnt yet place, it is indeed a pleasure. Indeed a pleasure.
Gideon took the mans large hand, seeing a tally for the Admiration column in his gaze. Its Gideon, Mr. Gardner. And its a pleasure for me as well.
The man vigorously pumped Gideons arm, as if limitless energy pulsed deep within him. Call me Alex, he said, then peered over Gideons shoulder. His shimmering eyes clouded. That will be all, Jules.
Gideon turned. Jules--Pompous-ass is still a better moniker!--began to shut the door, but was plainly hesitating, burning with curiosity. His pointy nose lifted haughtily. Alex, if there is anything you need--
No, thank you, Mr. Hardwicke. That will be all. And please remember--a wry flicker lit Alexs eyes--its Mister Gardner. I believe you have left a crowded reception room unattended for far too long.
Jules Hardwicke blanched. With a look of terror on his face, he yanked the door closed, to Gideons delight.
Forgive me, said Alex with a shake of his bushy head, but I love putting that tight-laced popinjay in his place. He gestured to a chair. Oh, please, take a seat.
Gideon complied, deciding he liked the man.
A drink? asked Alex, raising an eyebrow. He sat at his desk and tugged open the drawers. I believe I have a bottle of Scotch somewhere.
Scotch. Thats it. Gideon decided the man possessed a Scottish accent. Splendid.
Alex produced a bottle and two glasses, then poured a healthy dose of liquid in each glass. He handed one to Gideon, then imbibed his drink in a quick gulp. Releasing a pleasurable sigh, he sleeved his damp mouth. Now then, Gideon. Im told you have experience.
Gideon sipped from his own glass, savoring the rich flavor. Two years as an apprentice at Jerichos Gallery in Baltimore.
Fine agency. Fine agency. And your specialty...?
A little of everything, I suppose. Ive had darkroom experience. Printing, also. And Ive had a few months learning about retouching and mounting and--
Yes, Mister Jack-of-all-Trades, interrupted Alex with a good-humored grin, but what is your passion in this business? What causes your blood to bubble, your skin to prickle, and--forgive the expression--your manhood to stand at full attention?
Gideon smoothed his mustache and laughed. Camera operation.
Camera operation! The mans eyes danced. Wildly, he waved his arms above his head, the unlit cigar clutched in his left hand. Mine too! Mine too! How much time were you allowed at Jerichos to pursue this passion of yours?
Not enough to my liking, Im afraid. They kept me in the darkroom most of the time.
Is that the reason you left their employ?
I moved here for personal reasons.
Alex nodded, but didnt pry, presenting Gideon with another reason to like him. Well, Gideon, our mutual acquaintance has raved a great deal about your work.
Seth is a loyal friend. Munificent with his praise. I appreciate you seeing me on his word and--
Oh, it was more than his word. To be honest, Ive studied some of your work.
But how did you--I mean--where did you--
Seth gave me a package of your portrait shots.
Normally, Gideon wouldve been annoyed someone had performed any deed without his knowledge or consent. But he supposed Seth Warburton, a former neighbor in Baltimore who now dwelled a few blocks from Gideons current residence, had only good intentions in mind. Indeed, Seth was one of the few individuals whom Gideon trusted with personal information concerning his life, although it had taken Seth more than ten years to earn that trust. Seths presence in Washington was one of the reasons for Gideons recent move; with his lack of friends--true friends--Gideon didnt want to lose contact with the man.
Gideon asked the question burning his soul. And what did you think of my work?
Quite good. Quite good. I do believe you have talent. How old are you, lad?
Ah, you show great promise. Great promise, indeed.
Numbed with excitement, Gideon swallowed his remaining Scotch. Instead of chastising Seth for his secretive maneuver, Gideon resolved to buy his friend a round of drinks later that evening. Coming from you, sir, thats a true compliment.
None of this sir business. Its Alex. I shant tell you again.
Ill remember, said Gideon with a grin.
Fine. Now, Gideon, before I agree to take you on, I will need to ask a question. Please dont think me rude, but I must have an answer regarding a matter of great import--
Gideons stomach tightened. Here it comes. The prying into my personal business. Questions regarding my limp. Or the reason I moved to Washington City. He knew this man was too good to be true.
Alex thumped his fist on the desk. What do you think of composites?
The question took Gideon aback. Composites?
Photographic portraits of separate individuals grouped together in a single image. What do you think of them, lad?
Gideon had never really thought about it. All he did know was that they seemed to give him headaches for little reward. Well-- He paused, unsure as to why this man wanted his opinion, or for what response he was hunting. Gideon decided to tell the Gods-honest truth. Theyre a pain in the hindquarters.
They require numerous sittings, untold amounts of retouching, and frankly, I dont feel their cost is worth the time it takes to complete them.
Alex wedged the unlit cigar between his lips and blinked. Are you aware that Mr. Brady favors them? No, Ill modify that--loves them, would be more appropriate.
An empty feeling filled Gideons stomach. Just when he was all set to celebrate his career advancement the rug had been pulled from under him. No, sir--I mean, Alex. I didnt know.
But for the sounds of civilization creeping through the open window, a long moment of tense quietude filled the office. Alex pulled out a lucifer match, struck it, and lit the panatella. Smoke spiraled from his mouth until the breeze brushed it aside. He aimed a hairy-knuckled finger at Gideon. Can you start Monday?
The question sent a shock wave through Gideon. But--but you said--
I know what I said. Like yourself, I detest those blasted composites. Financial disasters. Disasters! But Brady rarely steps foot outside of his offices in New York City. And if the truth be told, Id prefer he forever stay in Gotham and let me manage this gallery in peace, the way I see fit. You see, Gideon, here in the nations capital, I run the show. What I say is law. I have one rule--no handouts or discounts for any work. Brady and I have had numerous arguments over this. Hell, if it were up to him, hed continually give gratuitous sittings just to lure customers away from the competition. But I wont have it. A business is a business. So, Gideon, do you think you can abide by my rule?
Gideon beamed. Certainly.
Good. Alex jumped to his feet. Youll be paid fifteen dollars a week. Ill expect you Monday morning at nine sharp, then we shall see what you can do. Questions?
Butterflies tickled Gideons insides. He forced back the urge to shout for joy. Instead, he rose and extended his hand toward his new employer. None at all.
Alex gave him another energetic handshake. Splendid. Splendid. Now--his eyes glinted with whimsy--off with you.
Gideon nodded his thanks and left the office. As he waited for his galloping heart to slow, he viewed a camera operator arranging a portrait-shot of a dowager, wearing a gargantuan blue hoop-skirt and a hat adorned with multicolored flowers. Her shiny stone face and rigid stance seemed to mirror the turquoise porcelain vase positioned on a four-foot tall Corinthian column beside her.
He could hardly fathom the famous Alexander Gardner, working for the world-renowned Mathew Brady, had thought him worthy of a chance. Indeed, as he started down the stairs, he pinched himself on the arm just to make certain he existed in reality.
Little did he realize when hed accepted the position at Jerichos Gallery in Baltimore that he would actually enjoy the work. Not only had it kept him hidden in the darkroom for hours on end--In the dark, no one can study a gimpy leg!--but it also gave him an opportunity to view photographs. And he loved photographs of any kind. Daguerreotypes. Ambrotypes. Tintypes. Calotypes. Melainotypes. They all had one thing in common--they never deceived. Veracity unquestioned. You could always--Always!--trust the image frozen in time before your eyes.
But a rare occurrence it must be to discover a talent in the field of employment one chose on a lark. For the first time in years, Gideon actually felt blessed. Gardners generous praises continued to echo in his head as he reached the reception room. And Jules Pompous-ass Hardwicke.
Just for laughs, Gideon walked past Juless desk and immediately fell into his exaggerated-limp routine. He wasnt at all disappointed when the mans face soured.
Could he tally Jules again? he wondered. After all, hed already checked a mark under the Revulsion category for the man some time ago.
But for the first time that day, Gideon didnt care. All he wanted was to celebrate. And what better way than to head to the bar at Willards Hotel and treat Seth Warburton to a whiskey?
Perhaps 1860 would turn out to be a good year for him after all.
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