The Illusionist – Tali Himmel


“We are closing, Sir.” The flower shop girl wrung her apron between her fingers. She pulled open the drapes separating the storefront from the family’s living quarters. The scent of apple cake wafted in through the curtains, pressing upon him memories of tables clothed in linen doilies, and the sacredness of being let into the kitchen where his mother was fervently baking apple pies—vinegar and spice measured to exact. His mother had sent him a parcel, yet, and it still lay unopened on his studio floor.

“Are those fresh?” He fingered the taut rose stems, careful not to prick his fingers.

“Picked this morning, Sir.”

“Right so. How much?”

“Ten a pence.”

Graham eyed the tips of the rose petals. You could always tell how long they’d been out by the edges. Although it did not seem like the girl would be telling a falsehood—not on purpose, at least. The Craggs had always been a timid bunch.

“Isa,” Her mother called from behind the curtain.

“Please.” He handed her the money quickly.

“You’ve given me a five, Sir.”

“Keep it, I have held you from your dinner long enough.”

She did not blush, as a girl would, but shook her head solemnly as she counted the coins.

“That’s not an issue.” She pressed the change into his palm.

He had never disclosed the intents of his transactions, as they were of no casual matter. It was a small town, however, and the florist’s shop had been there as long as his studio. Perhaps he had stayed thus far due to their providing him with the freshest bouquets. He was desperately particular in regards to the freshness of the flowers. Their scent must hold. He had bought carnations in Boston once, only to discover mid-work that they had been sprayed with perfume. Oh, he knew better now.

The girl wrapped the flowers in paper, knotting them over with twine, careful not to damage the stems.

“You know, if you add a sprinkle of ethanol to the water they’ll keep better,” she said, picking at the backing of the picture frames set to dry on the workbench. They were done in a fine pattern of Ivy and buds, double braced.

He smiled. “I will try to remember.”

She leaned toward the window and turned over the sign at the door. Indeed, it was near sundown—he must take leave. He sheltered the flowers under his jacket, and straightened his hat against the angry dust outdoors.

A few steps onto Main Street, Graham turned back toward the store, where Isa’s silhouette moved about, busily tidying the shelves.

“May you never need my services,” he said.

 

*****

“You have not finished your potatoes, Mr. Rosemund,” Mrs. Malor smoothed the tablecloth, and laid the tea saucer at his side.

He wished they would let him take his meals upstairs. The noise was too unbearable in the dining hall, what with the men trying to talk over that ruckus of Sunny Mchullen hammering his sausage fingers on that poor square grand.

“There’s not much work for you in summer, now, is there?” she asked. Oh, Mrs. Malor, what a predicament she had! She would like for him to pay the rent, and yet…oh, how she wouldn’t! And now she could not rid herself of him. It would be the honorable thing to leave, but then he must find a house and a housekeeper, and who would keep house for him but the already wretched and unlucky? Graham Rosemund was wretched enough already, he did not need more wretchedness clinging to him. Even the doctors and the undertakers kept away.

“Dear Mrs. Malor, you are forgetting I am no farm hand. This is a feast worthy of the honest working man, not for an undeserving gloved-hand artiste.”

“I have never seen a young man with so unhealthy an appetite! And to that claim that you do not toil, I call falsehood. Have I not seen you haul that dire instrument up three flights of stairs? Do not upset me now. Perhaps it will please you to try some of the meat stew. It is fresh, none of that ten day grease like you’d find in that hotel fancy down the road.”

He could not hope to escape now. Not without causing her insult.

“I am seldom indifferent to stew,” he assented.

She was appeased at present, and called for the boy to give him a serving.

He should be grateful for her hospitality, he knew. Not that he hadn’t reciprocated. Why, he had faithfully committed himself to the task of her husband’s and daughter’s portraits last year. The Daguerreotypes hung in the parlor, and were said to be very admirable. He, for one, could not look at them. He always saw the faults in his own art, the telling signs of illusion and deceit.

“Sir?” The boy intruded on his thoughts. “There’s a package for you came today, long distance.”

Graham raised his face.

“I’ve got it from the post for you,” the boy said.

“You are a kind lad.” If the boy only knew what he had carried!

“Colonel Rowe said it was ’xtremely fragile. I didn’t take it on the bike.”

One of the patrons was staring at him—a woman in a red hat. He waited for her to turn back to her paper before he reached into his pocket and took out a whole silver dollar for the boy.

“Thanks, Toby,” he said.

The boy’s eyes bulged. Of course, he did not realize the worth of three lenses. Though it were a matter of time before they would become obsolete as the new camera prototype would propagate in studios across this country.

Graham laid his spoon in the bowl. He had no more appetite for beef stew.

 

*****

It was after midnight when a knock came at his door.

“Mr. Rosemund? Sir?” It was the boy, standing at the crack of light that emanated from the hall lamps. “They need you at the Clifford residence.”

“Who is it?” His coat and equipment were in arm’s reach.

“Their youngest.”

“Lord.” He pulled on his boots without lacing them.

 

*****

Doctor Sullivan’s carriage was already parked at the ornate gate of the Cliffords’ estate when Graham came dragging his cart up the hill. The horseman did not greet him; he must have known the doctor would not be long to stand so, waiting in the glass-cut rain.

Graham found the doctor smoking his pipe in the kitchen.

“How long?” he asked.

“Half an hour ago. Mother’s still inside.” The doctor tapped his pipe without meeting his gaze. “I wish you luck, son.”

Graham looked towards the staircase.

“I’ll take care of that.” Essie Circo bustled her way through. She had been a housekeeper at the Cliffords’ for twenty years or so, he had been told, and knew her business. Which meant she knew better than to offer the Daguerrotypist a drink or a bite.

“You can set up in the nursery.” She waited for him to hoist his tripod and stands onto his back, and led him upstairs, and through the right wing. “They would like to get her with her horse and dolls.”

Graham nodded. He’d have to do three rounds to get all the equipment upstairs safely.

“Siblings?” he asked.

“You’ll find them easier than the parents.”

“It is not uncommon.” He had observed that children often took more naturally to the shots, perhaps unaffected by learned conventions.

Essie opened the double doors at the turn of the corridor and ushered him inside. He hauled in his apparatus, noting the fine walnut crib, sofas and a large polished desk which would be useful for his setup.

“That doll in the crib is her favorite. And the horse, did I mention?” Essie ruffled the bedcovers, sighing. “I’ll get her ready.”

The nursery proved difficult to work with—there wasn’t much in terms of lighting—but he had shot in worse conditions. He stood for a moment at the center, calculating. He placed one stand behind the wooden horse. Checked the wires—depending on the child’s condition, he might be able to have her sitting—and unloosened the drapes to serve as a backdrop. They were of lively colors—pink with yellow ducklings, cross-stitched in fine detail. He eyed the still embers in the fireplace, and closed the grate. No one would need the warmth tonight, and he was careful not to have a fire so close to the solutions he mixed into the trays.

Setting out the daguerreotype equipment was an elusive art, and there were no second chances when it came to his specialty. He must be meticulous in his preparations. He laid out the buffed silver plated sheets in their holders atop the desk, and placed the iodine box next to them, allowing room enough for the gilding frame to wait in comfortable reach—the precision of that step not to be underestimated. Last, he positioned the camera box atop the leveling tripod and checked the placement of the lenses.

“I don’t think we’ll get the parents after all.” Essie opened the door and carried in the child

“Well,” He turned around. “My god!”

“They didn’t tell you what happened?” She laid the child on a sofa.

“I thought it was the measles.”

She shook her head, her fingers fluttering nervously about the child, who must not have been more than four years of age.

Lord help him, it was bad. The whole side of the face bandaged and the swollen, red body covered with salve. “She fell into the washtub. Scalding hot! The stable boys had set it out in the barn, you see. They didn’t even realize the girl was prying about the grounds. Mrs. Clifford thought she was in the nursery with her governess. The governess had left yesterday for her cousin’s wedding, and I was called to tend to –”

“It is none of my business.”

“Excuse me?”

“I am sorry, Miss Circo. It is really none of my business. Leave me to attend to the child.”

Miss Circo wrung her hands.

“Yes?” he asked, impatient.

“Master Clifford would like to know if you could produce both a mantelpiece and a miniature to set in a locket.”

Graham touched the delicate gold chain at his throat.

“I’ll see to everything,” he said, “But I recommend the siblings be dismissed.”

Essie pulled the blanket up to the child’s chest and folded her miniscule, doll-like hands over it. “If you insist.” She retreated.

Graham closed the door behind her, and considered his options. He rarely got bodies in such condition; folks would have a closed casket service in instances such as this. But that would not do for the Cliffords. Small wonder they did not trouble themselves to an appointment at his studio!

He did away with the stand, not wishing to take chances with a mangled cadaver. He could get a favorable enough aim if he merely propped her slightly upright with pillows. He pushed the wooden horse to the back, and took the blankets down from the empty crib. If he draped them just right around the girl, they would cover the bandaged part. It would have to be a portrait in profile.

He lifted the child gently and put her within her blankets. She was still warm, though she already had the weight and feel of death. He powdered the exposed skin and outlined the eye with kohl.

Essie had wisely dressed the girl in her christening gown, which covered most of her. He put the doll she had recommended in the child’s unburnt hand, covering the other with a bouquet of white roses. The hair was saved, this having been a water accident, so he combed it out in a halo of curls around her head.

“Good girl,” he said. She rested silently as he prepared the solution for the plates. Graham prided himself on his ability to finish the preliminary buff and sensitizing of the plates on demand, and in any odd location. He was the only photographer in the vicinity who was daring enough to drag across town the delicate solutions, tripods, and the camera obscura he had painstakingly improved upon for the past years. Many people still preferred the studio setting, their mourning best done in public, but there were always those to whom death were a private matter. And that, he thought, as he shrouded himself under the camera box covers, was his duty to perform. There was art in the soul, lingering yet, which would not be undone by death, which was his to capture. In the low light of the oil lamps, and soft rays of early daybreak, it was not an easy feat, but as such, he was able to get several portraits, which he thought the family would find suitable. He was just done when he heard the door open.

“Miss Circo?” He turned. The hallway was vacant, save for a faint scent of lily and rose.

Just as well. He did not wish to converse with anyone. He tucked the covers about the silent child, gathered his equipment and, upon finding Miss Circo at the foot of the stairs with her head in her hands, left her with instructions for the mortuary.

He rushed to his studio. There lay safety. There lay work. The familiar, trustworthy darkness, and the scent of the chemicals he placed the plates in. It was still magic to him, this waiting for the transformation of images on the plates. He brewed himself a cup of tea.

*****

“More roses?” Isa asked.

“And lilies.” He observed the tools lying out on the table. “I used them all yesterday at the Cliffords.”

“You didn’t purchase lilies yesterday. How did it come out?”

“Well,” he said. It was not a scene fit to describe to a lady. “I tried my best. It was an unusual—well, devastating circumstance.”

Isa frowned.

She wrapped the flowers in paper. “You’re going to need more than one cart to carry them all back.”

Mr. Cragg had accompanied him often enough. But he had not seen Mr. Cragg at the counter in quite some time.

“I should be fine,” he said.

She glanced at the screen door. “Oh, it’s a dead hour anyhow. I don’t mind the walk.”

He protested, not wanting to trouble her. But she hastily fixed her hat and gloves, insisting that she might as well do her market round after.

She had a brisk step, purposeful. Angeline, and his mother of course, had always walked in a leisurely manner. Then again, he was rarely home to see them, so they had to make the most of their visits. He thought of the parcel lying on his studio floor, and sighed. Mother would be expecting his response.

It was humid outdoors, not the crisp after-rain air back home, but more of the stand-still condensation which left him quite breathless. Isa, touching her handkerchief to her face, didn’t seem troubled. They dodged the puddles on South Street, and passed by the new church, still smelling of pine and tar. Was that Dr Sullivan at the corner of Main, eyeing them questionably?

Oh goodness, no. Folks must not get the wrong impression.

He should have asked her about the well being of her father. He could not, of course; it would seem like he were making a business inquiry.

His studio was at a small cul-de-sac at the edge of South. Definitely out of the way, but with easy access to carriage parking in the adjacent lumber yard. Graham didn’t do much in way of publicity; those who had need of him knew where to find him. Most often, the calls came at night.

He paused at the curb right outside his doors, ready to assist her in lifting the florist cart up the boardwalk, but she deftly raised the hems of her skirts above her heels and lifted the wheels easily. Was she smiling? She had outdone him yet.

A soft breeze came, blowing wisps of hair across her forehead. “Why do you buy flowers?” She turned to him. “I mean—you should buy them of course, if you wish. From us, always. Except, it’s not as though you know when you would need them.”

“Oh.” He felt his face flush. “I keep them in the studio for the purpose of their scent.”

She thought it over.

“That explains it. I thought you had such a fancy for roses but Mrs. Malor said you never take them into your room.”

“No, I don’t.” He shuddered, glad to be in the safety of his workplace. He propped the door open.

Isa sniffed the air. “Oh, I do see,” she said. “It’s due to the chemicals, you mean.”

It was not the chemical fumes that bothered him, in fact, but he didn’t wish to explain to a lady about three day old cadavers.

“I’m gilding the plates today,” he said to divert her attention.

“May I watch?”

She had been in such a hurry to go to the market.

“Indeed,” he said, but he was concerned; not for nothing he worked in solitude, despite his mother’s pleading that he should take an apprentice.

“I won’t mar them,” she said. “I know how delicate they are.”

“I trust you,” he said. It felt as if he ought to. “You handle flowers every day. And I’ve seen your arrangements.”

“I’ve damaged a few,” she admitted.

He laughed, and took out the plates. The portraits had come out beautifully. He couldn’t have asked for better.

“So you used the lamp light to focus the composition on her right side? I mean left, it’s a mirror image.”

“Yes, it is.” His gaze fell, unaware, on the parcel lying on the floor. He pushed it under the worktable.

“Did you go to the funeral?” she asked.

“They hired Sturnopp for that.” Though Graham was the obvious choice for portraiture, Sturnopp had the portable, which could easily photograph a remote location with minimal exposure times. Good for subjects who were apt to movement.

He paused, contemplating the framing. This was the crucial part: he must pop the plate under its glass finish, all the while it drifted in between the overlays as elusive and unsteady as a butterfly come out of its cocoon.

Isa edged near him.

“May I suggest you use that frame?” She pointed. “Little Eve Clifford had such charming cornflower eyes. The birch and lilac framework would be reminiscent of her.”

The wood pieces had been painstakingly interwoven into each other, like a circlet of flowers. It was right. He could see that this was what was needed. And, he figured he could assume whose patient art they were.

“I thought your father did the framing in your shop.” He looked up at the girl.

“He’s had arthritis three years now. I’ve taken over.”

He stopped to consider that. “He should be proud of your handiwork.”

She shook her head. “He should. But he begrudges it.”

“Folks are always so timid about my craft.”

“You suppose?”

He set the frame and double braced it, remembering, while Isa unloaded the roses and lilies. She did not scatter them around arbitrarily as he would, but rather in a fashion which suggested a leveled garden rising from his windowsills and floorboards.

He gazed at the completed Daguerreotype; the child’s image floated between the gilded silver plate and the glass casing, so lifelike—as if caught between the layers.

He lifted his eyes, meeting Isa’s gaze. He wished to tell her how true her work was, how it called to mind the memory of the absent colors. As he turned to speak, his foot collided with the parcel he had pushed under his desk, and he remembered. He touched the chain on his neck. The locket sat heavy on his chest, as if it would burn him.

Could he be so affected as to take joy in what was the Clifford’s tragedy? It was not right. He dropped his gaze.

Decidedly, he reached for the parcel lying on the floor and unboxed it.

He set aside Mother’s letter and unwrapped her present: a newfangled camera, one that would gift images on paper in a fraction of the time and effort of the daguerreotype production. One that was special-ordered for him from New York, paid for with his last ten years of earnings which had been meant for Angeline’s dowry.

“Well, that’s a nice one.” Isa paused to look at it.

It was as if a rush of energy had left him stranded, as sudden as it had come.

“Don’t concern yourself with the flowers.” He laid down the box. “Please, I will manage. You have a business to run.”

Isa set the empty pails in her carts. “Did you try my little trick with the ethanol?”

“I did, thank you. It does prolong their life.” He held the door open.

But when he came back to the studio, he did not put ethanol in the vases. It was a lie, anyway. The flowers were dead gone once you cut them. And it was not their beauty that he sought, but their scent.

 

*****

Graham strode towards town, his mother’s letter burning his hand. He turned away from Mrs. Malor’s and from the public houses. The train station was deserted at this hour, save for the conductor catching a nap in the closed ticket booth. He crept into one of the empty benches behind the station wall, and put his head in his hands.

He didn’t feel sad, or provoked. Just numb. It was stupid, all of this. Stupid, the way people held to those images. They were just chemicals on metal, that’s all. Nothingness. God, and the Cliffords! They’d paid him twice his price. For what? For covering their dead child with powder and flowers?

The rumbling of a train came from down the tracks. He rose toward it—but it was just the express coming through. It didn’t even stop at this station. It would be here in a blink, rushing through in a force that was strong and swift enough to finish a man’s ungodly life.

A rustle from behind him made him jump in his place. But it was just a woman in a plaid green overcoat and wine-red hat.

The express roared through the platform, choking him in a cloud of ash and dust.

“I’m sorry,” he coughed. “Were you waiting for that train?” She reminded him of something, though he couldn’t say what. “It does not stop here.”

“I know,” she said. “What is the purpose of you being here, then?’

“I made a mistake.” He retreated from the platform.

A whiff of Eau de Rose’ stole through the air. Without excusing himself, he grabbed one of the train schedules from the ticket booth and headed back to the house.

 

*****

He entered through the parlor, since no one would be there anyhow. Mrs. Malor would wring his neck if she saw him sitting in his rain-drenched coats on her silk thread furniture—it was just for show.

He had been selfish. He should go visit Mother, really. It had been more than two years since he last went to Boston. But it wouldn’t do to go there in the spring-time.

He did not realize that someone had walked into the parlor until he saw the shadow reflecting in the mirror. He jumped up for fear of Mrs. Malor. But it was not her.

For a moment he thought it was Angeline, but that could not be, of course. His sister was content in Boston. She would have never approved of his western excursions, let alone visit him in his desolate being. More so Angeline, like himself, had the Rosemunds’ glossy chestnut hair. This woman’s hair was as blood red as her hat. But the frame of the body, the tilt of the head as she examined the pictures hung up on the wall, were almost too familiar.

“Pardon?” he said, coming out of his stupor to realize that the woman was the same who had spoken to him at the train platform. “I regret I have missed your question.”

“It was not a question. I was saying, that is a fine portrait if I ever saw one.” She removed her hat and fixed her hair, looking at her reflection on the Daguerreotype’s glass frame. “Who is the young lady?”

“Miss Gertrude Malor. Eleven years old. She passed last summer of the scarlet fever.”

The woman, having finished fixing her hair, scrutinized the portrait, trailing her fingers across it.

“It is post mortem, is it not?” she asked.

“Yes, it is so.” Graham was never apologetic about his work, but something about her blasé demeanor unsettled him.

“Wonderful. You can’t even see them. Most often I can tell. The artist will not be careful enough; you can see the stand holding the object or the hands wired up in an unnatural position. This artist had more sense of anatomy.”

“How can you tell it is post mortem, then?” If there was a defect, he would work to fix it.

“Oh.” She raised her eyes, “I would know.”

“Are you a nurse?” he asked, startled.

“A Nurse? Goodness, no. Who would take me as a nurse! No, I am in the business of messaging.”

She must be from the telegraph company, he realized, relieved. “Ah! Mrs. Malor has been waiting for you!”

“I admit I am a bit early.” She set her bag down.

“Can I help you take that to your rooms?”

“You are not the bell boy, are you?”

“No. You know, if you had told me your destination at the train platform I could have offered you a ride.”

“With what carriage?” She laughed. He was soaked with rain.

“I would have called one for you.”

“As you can see, I am completely capable of doing that myself.”

“Should I call for Mrs. Malor?”

“Please do not concern yourself.” She passed through, the fringe of her coat-sleeves just barely touching his hands. “I will have time enough to acquaint myself with the Landlady. Tell me, is business doing well?”

“Hopefully better than mine.”

“You jest. Well.” She tilted her hat. “I have some meetings to attend to. I shall see you later.”

Even after he had washed and changed, he could still feel that touch on his hand. It troubled him.

The woman had not given him her name.

 

*****

When Isa came to call for him that morning at his studio, he thought she would ask him about the frames again. But her face spoke otherwise.

“My father is unwell,” she said. He knew that tone—that was the tone reserved to those she did business with. It was a business call after all.

“I am sorry,” he said truthfully.

“Mother insisted on your coming before it gets worse.”

“Has the Doctor been to see him?” Graham strapped his equipment on his back.

“People usually call the doctor before they send for you, do they not?” She grimaced.

She was looking at that box still lying on his desk. Admittedly, he had spent the day experimenting with the new camera. It was so efficient. He hated it.

“Would you care to take that?” he asked, not wanting her to think he was denying them the newest technology.

He waited in the store while she went into the living quarters to announce his visit. He did wish they would have called for Sturnopp instead.

The frames Isa had set to dry the previous day were packed up neatly on the table. They were done in gilded latticework, jewel-like. Double braced. It was pretty obvious to him that her art excelled his twenty times and more. And see, if he could have employed her talent—but no one in their right mind would work with him.

“Extraordinary.”

He turned around. It was the red-hat woman. How had she entered the store without a sound?

“They’re closed,” Graham said. Had she not seen the sign? Or did ones such as she not trouble themselves with manners.

She picked a day-old rose and scrutinized it.

“What business have you here?” he asked. “It’s not the best time—”

“Just walking around, enjoying the view while I wait. One must always take care to revel in their surroundings.”

“You must get a lot of traveling done at your job.”

She stared at him. “Quite so.” And with a smile, put the rose in his hand.

“Mr. Rosemund?” Isa had come out to call him.

“I apologize—” He swerved, the rose between his fingers.

“We are ready.”

He should say something about the visitor, he realized. He turned around to seek her, but the lady was gone.

“Are you in search of something?” Isa asked.

“Oh! When did she leave?”

“Who?”

“The woman from the telegraph company.” He tucked the wilting rose into his pocket.

“I hadn’t seen anyone. But we must get to work. Father hasn’t much patience.”

She conferred with her mother in hushed voices while he set up. There was nothing to be done for the man; he could see that.

“Isa,” Mr Cragg called for his daughter. “Would you bring me those delphiniums from the garden?”

Isa nodded, and rushed outside.

Her parents exchanged glances.

“She has the art,” Graham said, because he did not know what else to say. His subjects were usually silent, too ill or beyond ill to speak.

“I do not like it, Martha,” Mr. Cragg whispered. He glanced at Graham. “I approve of the man, but not of this photography.”

“I’ll be fast,” Graham said.

“That’s what the doctor promised.” Mr. Cragg sighed and glanced up as his daughter entered the room, the flowers in her hand, and her hair blown about her in the wind. He motioned her to come forth.

Graham hesitantly picked up the new camera, wondering.

“I should get you some more tea,” the mother said.

Graham shook his head.

A light fell in from the window, like a flame, illuminating the girl as she leaned toward her father.

“I’m sorry, child,” Mr. Cragg reached for his daughter’s hand, and with twisted shaking fingers put a delphinium in her hair.

Graham made the shot without thinking.

It was the living girl he photographed, not the dying man.

 

*****

He walked home from the studio refreshed, joyful almost. He had not felt that sensation in such a long time. It was like coming to water after a long drought. Even the guilt of taking the girl’s photo without permission could not undo him.

The boys were playing in the boarding house’s yard. He watched Toby Malor pitch a swinger, his arms reaching into the violet sky.

Graham had his camera half ready when he heard a rustle about him. He spun around, and in his hurry, pressed the button.

“You are wrong,” said the woman in the red hat.

“About that photo?” Where had she come from? He could swear the entry had been vacant.

“About my intents.” She leaned against the banister.

The boys swooped in laughter as one of them slipped on the fresh mud, sending the ball flying to the porch. Graham caught it with his left hand.

“Nice catch.” Said the woman.

“Careful now,” he threw the ball back at Toby Malor. Last thing they needed was the cost of a broken window.

The woman eyed the camera still in his hand. “Back from a shoot?” she asked.

“Yes. First time with this new one.” He cradled it against his chest. It had been silly of him to catch that ball. If he had dropped that camera…

“Not the first time you had a personal interest in the subject.”

Graham felt that old anxiety rising in him.

“I make it my business to have a professional interest in all my subjects. This type of job does not allow emotional intervention.”

She shook her head. “Is that so? It would make for a very dull image if one were to detach oneself from one’s art. You would not be able to capture your subjects in such a lifelike manner if your art was not in your heart.”

He stared at the clear open road beyond the boarding house, at the wagon swooping down the ashen hill. He thought, unwillingly, of Isa’s woodwork. But to say he put his heart in his work—would that not imply a certain entertainment he got from his craft? That was a rash thing to admit, if it were true.

“One does need to have compassion.” He treaded carefully, for what was a telegraph company investor to know about his livelihood, “but one must push aside one’s feelings in order to complete one’s mission. I will wake up next week feeling less of the tragedy I photographed a fortnight ago, but for those who have lost—all they have left is this image I can gift them, a remembrance. A little piece of life. I do not do my work because it entertains me; I do it because I am on a mission.”

“So you think you’ve outsmarted death.” She smiled.

“That is not what I said.”

Just then the sound of a wagon rambling into the yard matched a shrill scream. He saw the boy go down on the ground, and the horses’ hoofs as they leapt into the air.

Graham dropped the camera and lunged into the yard, where Toby lay under the wheels of the telegraph company wagon, his left foot at an awkward angle and his right leg—the protruding bone…

“Go get help!” he yelled, looking back, but the woman had disappeared.

The wagon driver jumped out of his seat, keeping his hands on the reigns. The horses were going wild, their eyes rolling, hoofs flailing.

“Stand back!” Graham shouted at the other boys. “You—” he sought the driver. “Get the doctor!”

He put his fingers at Toby’s throat, feeling for his pulse, and pulled out his locket to put against the boy’s lips. The glass misted over; he was breathing yet.

“I hadn’t seen him!” the driver pulled back his screaming horses

“Must’ve stretched on the ground,” Graham tore off his jacket and held it to a gaping gash in the boy’s thigh. A sinking feeling rose in his heart. He had seen enough to understand that the boy’s injuries were dire. “There’s no time now! Fetch the doctor!”

The driver took off in haste. Graham tied his jacket sleeves around the boy’s thigh.

“Toby,” he spoke, though he knew the boy would not answer. He was aware of people congregating around him, of voices calling. Someone handed him a pail of water. And then a hush as Mrs. Malor came running down the stairs.

“What happened?!” She pounced on the boy. “Oh, dear God!”

“Toby—he fell under the wagon. ” Graham made his voice level. “I’ve sent for the doctor. We need a board to carry him in; mustn’t hurt his back.”

Mrs. Malor was a practical person. She did not scream. She called for the scullery maid to bring a board from the yard.

“You’re all right,” she spoke to the unconscious boy, “You’ll be fine. There’s the doctor now.”

Dr. Sullivan’s carriage swerved around the bend. He jumped off before it came to a full stop and hurried towards them, the frown between his brows deepening as he took in the situation.

“I stopped the blood. Didn’t want to move him.” Graham said.

“I’ll need a clear, clean space.” Dr. Sullivan moved the boy to the board with caution.

“Take him to the parlor.” Mrs. Malor rose. “Hellen, get the sheets from the linen cupboard and set the water to boil. Manny, Simon, take the board. Carefully! Slowly now!”

The crowd moved aside, letting them pass through.

“You all right?” someone clamped his hand on Graham’s shoulder. Sunny McHullen. “That look ol’ Doc Sullivan did get on his face when he saw you. Now he gone forgetting you live by.”

Graham shook his head against the ice that was creeping down his spine. “I was speaking with that lady from the telegraph company. She just disappeared suddenly.” He was angry now.

“What lady are you speaking of?”

“The one from the Telegraph company. I think she was.” Upon noticing the confusion on McHullen’s face he added, “The red haired one. Red hat, too. Green coat.”

“We’ve no such guest. Was she your beau?”

“No!” He was appalled.

McHullen pulled at his mustache. “Ain’t seen anyone such in town. You go and take leave now, Mr. Rosemund.”

“I’ll help.”

He shook his head.

Graham picked up his camera from where it landed on the porch swing.

“You did fine.” McHullen said. “You did well. Now he’s in the good doctor’s hands. Go wash your clothes. They ain’t gonna need your business here tonight.”

 

*****

The only safe place was his studio. He held his breath as he examined the new camera. It did not seem to be damaged at all, having landed on the cushioned swing. What was he to do now? Dumbly, he set the film to develop in the dark room.

Isa’s photo was hauntingly beautiful. It made his heart skip. For a moment he forgot about Mrs. Malor and the boy. He had been photographing the dead for so long now, he had disregarded the living.

He picked absentmindedly at the next photo, frowning. It hadn’t come out. What had he been shooting? Oh, the boys.

No, he had turned the lens towards the woman just as that wagon came into the yard. But the photo showed just the vacant porch.

Graham took the photo into the illuminated studio and squinted at it. True, he had moved, but there should have been a blurred image of a person, at the least. Sunny McHullen had said there was no such guest, no such woman in town. And Isa had claimed to not see her in the store. Had she been a figment of his imagination? He must be going insane. No, you can imagine a figure, but not a scent. That woman had the definite scent of rose and lily.

He stopped cold.

 

*****

He didn’t know why, but he ran toward the flower shop. It was closed, but he saw the girl inside, sweeping the floor.

“Isa!” he called, knocking on the door. She opened hastily.

“Pray, what is it?!” She stared at him.

“It’s the boy, Mrs. Malor’s boy. He was hit by a wagon.”

“Oh God! Is he living?”

“Just so. I took leave from there…didn’t want, you know.”

“I understand,” she said.

“I must ask you,” how would he phrase this without sounding senseless? “I am looking for a woman:red hair, green coat.”

“Oh.”

“Have you seen her? She has a perfume, rose and lily.” He set his camera on the counter.

Isa took back to her broom. “You think I am in the flower business, so I’d know.”

“Precisely!”

She sighed. “What for? What purpose does she have with the boy?”

“I’d like to find out.”

Isa eyed him with unreadable expression. “I think the best you can do is stay out of their way and hope they don’t call for you,” she said.

 

*****

He went down the street toward the studio, but upon turning down Main, he took the right turn rather than the left, and circled back to Mrs. Malor’s.

All the lights were on in the parlor. He did not dare go in there. Rather, he crept up to his room.

She was sitting there, at his desk, looking through his portraits.

“That’s a lovely one,” she said, stroking the picture of the Clifford girl. “You can’t even tell.”

“You are not taking the boy.”

She laughed.

“I understand that it is a matter of no concern to you, but he’s all she’s got. I’m not going to permit that.”

“Neither you nor I have power over this transaction. I have explained to you, I am but a messenger.”

“What do you mean by transaction?”

“The comings and goings. Tis but a parlor, and you pass on to the next room. I just open the door.”

“What if you keep it shut?”

“It will open nonetheless. It’s just the way you perceive things. Like, how you see me: a bit of Angeline, a bit of the girl from the flower shop, a bit of your desire. The lost, the untouchable, and the most wanted.”

“That is a crude thing to say!”

“I have not said a thing that you have not thought.”

He reached out and touched her hand. It was real enough. She folded her fingers around his.

“Don’t flirt with me.” He recoiled.

“Why, you started!” She smirked.

“When have I initiated any sort of indecency?”

“At the train platform.”

He tried to retrace their conversation. There had been nothing; his mind had all been on—

She shook her head. “Was it a flitting thought, then? Were you not calculating the speed of the express against your bones? Such a shame, Mr. Rosemund, you being the wondrous artist that you are.” She tapped her hand on his desk.

Frantic footsteps creaked across the boards in the first floor. She paused, as if listening to them. He listened as well, but there was no sound, no words to be heard, to tell him of Toby’s fate.

“My dear.” She stood up, and turned to him. “What are you willing to give up?”

Was she proposing him a deal?

“My life,” he said.

“How generous. But that is not what I want. I do not want that which means naught to you. You have already given your life to capture the souls of your objects. It is your sacrifice. You despair, and yet you yearn for it. Are you not already planning what outfit, what stand to place the boy in?’

“That is outrageous! You know I wish naught death on anyone.”

“Of course.” Her eyes were solemn, warm. She caressed his cheek. “You wish to do a last act of kindness, to preserve a memory for the bereaved. And you are so very good at it. “As if,” she was close to him now, “you had captured a whisper of your object’s soul in your art.”

He could smell that sweet Eau De Rose’. He drew back, but she tugged on the chain hanging on his neck.

“Don’t touch it!” He recoiled.

She pulled the locket and popped it open.

“Angeline,” she whispered. “Is that the first one you took?”

Mother wouldn’t have any stranger take her photo. The camera had been just a hobby for him, up till then.

“You captured her delightfully.”

“I couldn’t save her… I was studying medicine—” Useless. Everything useless.

She shook her head.

“She was only seventeen. Perhaps if I had spent more time with my books and less with my lenses—”

“Pneumonia. It was a quick one, though you always suspected she was sickly.” She said.

“How would you know?”

“I know all of them.” She snapped the locket shut.

“Isa has not seen you. Neither has Mrs. Malor.”

“Beaulah Malor has seen me well enough, though she perceives me quite differently than you do. You are more…how shall I say? A romantic.”

“Why…Don’t you… go back to the hell where you came from?!” he seethed.

She laughed a hearty laugh. “Oh! And I have been so kind to you! Giving to you from what is mine!”

“You have not given me a thing. Only robbed me.”

“Oh, such words! Are you clamoring for a fair trade?” She scoffed, brushing her hand across the portraitures suspended in their glass encasements on his desk. “And yet you are unwilling to release your holdings. Are you?” She paused, as if waiting. He thought for a second that he could see her shadow reflected in the mirror. But the room was dim, getting darker as the night lay softly on his window.

“We’ve not much time.” She said. “Redeem yourself of them.”

He sighed, and sat on his bed, his face in his palms against the wounded wailing now coming from below. He had offered her his life. What more could one ask for?

He felt her cool touch upon his temples. “My dear Graham, there is no hell.” She said. “There is only what you make it to be.”

 

*****

“Graham.” She shook him. “Wake now!”

He stirred, noting dully that Isa Cragg had called him by name.

“Wake up!” The bench of the train station was cold, and her hand spread warmth on his shoulder.

“Your father?” He sat up, confused. What was that ringing coming from afar? He tried to guess the hour from the Church bells’ chime, but they seemed to be going on and on.

“He’s hanging on yet.” Isa looked over his shoulder.

“Must be the cold.” A gruff voice answered from behind him, and Sunny McHullen covered him with his heavy woolen coat, smelling of soot and rain. “Boy, what came over you to come out here in this weather?”

“We should be thankful he did.” Isa said. “Graham, I’m frightfully sorry.”

Toby.

“No,” Isa said fast. “Not the boy—”

“Your studio, sir.” McHullen handed him his handkerchief. “I feared….having told you to take leave of the house. Miss Cragg here, though, she knew where to find you.”

“I could only hope.” Isa coughed. The air was heavy, despite the crack of thunder overhead.

The bells, the smell of soot. He lifted his eyes across the platform. He could see the smoke, rising up to heaven like a famished offering.

Not the boy.

“It must have started in the lumberyard—” McHullen said. “So fast… but then, all those chemicals you had there in your shop.”

Graham ran, feet squelching in the mud, though he knew what he would see. The flames, which had consumed the lumberyard and sheds, were now engulfing his studio, eating up all he ever had.

There were people scuttling about, talking. Yelling. Lugging water hoses to the houses surrounding them. It would be all right, someone explained, the empty lots between them served as a buffer against the fire. Now, if he would please step away, it was no good to be standing so.

And yet it was as if he were entranced. The flames, were not just orange and red, but also blue and green and violet. Like fire flowers, consuming the very sky, reaching out to the rain that would drown them, to the call of the men fighting against them. Glass popped, shattering. Windows, and the portraitures, giving out. The souls that had been entrapped like butterflies unfurled and swept their wings in flight.

“The doctor said he’ll make it,” Isa said.

Then the messenger had accepted.

Graham felt, perhaps, like he had wings of fire too.

“Come, come away.” Isa called him. “I can’t just stand here and watch. And what would we have done if you…” She shuddered.

“Folks can always go to Sturnopp,” he said, but he did not feel bitterness at all.

Isa glanced at him, lips drawn in question. The men doused the last of the fire with water, as the rain came pounding down. There was nothing the flames could do against their brawn and God’s must.

“The age of daguerreotype is done,” he said.

“I have your camera, the new one,” she said. “You left it in the store.”

Graham touched the locket lying on his chest. Admittedly, he feared. And yet, he wondered, if Isa had her steady hold on that camera, what sort of images she would conjure.

There was only what he would make it to be.

“Isa.” He reached out for her.

She slipped her hand into his palm.

 


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