announcement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle boasted
A daguerreotypist of local
name, the Eagle read with fanfare, Robert Navey
had proceeded from landscapes and city streets, in study
and pursuit, to the most awaited subject of the new minimal
light exposure, the human portraiture.
On a street above Brooklyn
Heights' low bluff, Navey’s off-color argent right
eye balanced the periphery of his immediate parlor seating
with trick reflex. He tamed his disarray of blue-black
hair caught in a flying wind and cornered the attention
of the house familiar, John Simonton, declaring, "The
East River runs high this time in March."
Simonton, an ancient Tartan
leaving middle years, dulled his thick burr for want of
unaffected English, but could not dispel his pleasure.
"Swelling like life these grand days of 1841—now
that W. H. Harrison is President."
"Yet, cows ride the
ferry from Manhattan for lack of progress," said
Robert with the usual goading. "Not the list of casualties
you wish to be associated with, eh, Simonton?"
"Never mind that
and let's have a look at the broadsheets," said Simonton,
nipping a pipe-full of tobacco in his short fingers. "Since
Brooklyn is officially its own town I should like to guess
the sway of its editor."
"I don't believe he
shares your Whig sentiments," said Robert, tossing
the paper, which Simonton wrested in his lap. "Follow
me to the kitchen where coffee is steaming unwatched and
there is fair morning light from the backyard."
Simonton left his pipe,
taking the Eagle under his arm in a quick step
"I will pick the conversation,
moving it at once to the well-meaning letter from fresh
retention I sent you this week by hired cab."
Simonton's letters were
note-taking that served his fading recall.
Robert gave him a sly look
and coffee in a stout glass, which Simonton liked, as
they settled at a square black marble table in the tight
kitchen of red cabinets.
"Your letter as a
foretoken of opportunity was unmistakable and delivered
with a briskness that raised its import," said Robert
with embroidery of wry sarcasm. "Referenced were
you and industrialist, Henry Poston, playing whist at
the Union Club in an endless confab of Tammany politics."
Predictably, a dallying
New York aristocrat was trading a social peg for Simonton's
ear. Simonton grunted and complained, "Henry wore
down my gaming arm and sucked the last oyster, as always."
Robert spooned sugar between
them and went ahead. "At which point your conspicuous
dealing hand lifts a night toddy in a cheery toast to
Whig victory. The mention of General Harrison, Henry's
preposterous forward thinking goes running, with you,
a relentless seller and raconteur, inclining to place
me in your liaison of helpful services. You elaborated
on the phenomenon of Daguerreian science in which I trade,
prefacing with a description of our first meeting before
a tableaux vivant of Psyche in the luxurious home of an
Simonton laid down the
Brooklyn Daily Eagle with tapering patience,
and said, "I merely endorsed our filial two-year
acquaintance. My letter’s containment proceeds well
Robert downed a swollen
mouthful of coffee. "And with diminished equilibrium,
drifting to a loony hypothesis, a dangling purse and Henry’s
elaborately named daughter of twenty-six, Vandolynne Abigail.
'Seems she turns out a sketchy character since her mother
fell to mortal ailment in prime age."
"Young woman simply
lost the chestnut," said John Simonton, flatly. "She
languishes at home in Gramercy Park amidst the grieving
poems and essays of Mrs. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, the
American Nightingale. You know that rabble; the righteously
feminine 'agency of maternal culture.'"
Robert checked his fingernails
for iodine stain. "Vandolynne Abigail thinks daguerreotypes
portentous, says your letter. A trait so unlike Mrs. Sigourney's
temperance. Therefore, Miss Poston skirts the true picture
Henry misguidedly believes will clarify her mind, you
then write, 'as a wood sprite defies arrest with a butterfly
net.' But evoking the zeal of Harrison’s exploits,
Henry puffing like a steam engine, you persisted that
in the foreground realism of the modern camera obscura,
even the western Redman has lost his myth. Really, Simonton."
John Simonton scraped his
glass forward on the marble with a driving point. "These
last few years, since the Daguerre process arrived from
France, we have captured life and given it definition—as
it is! There's no question about that."
Rubbing a cloth in tight
circles, Robert shined the table near him in a habit of
movement from burnishing copper camera plates to brazen
finish. "I am sure you came off nicely for Henry
without rehearsal, Simonton, but I only persuade my subjects
to maintain a posture this way or that. I have taken a
small advertisement to persuade business. People are most
eager to see themselves."
Miffed, Simonton ragged
the truth. "Especially when they can preen like the
socially positioned with someone else’s fancy furniture
announced Robert, observing him from the one mismatched,
prudent eye of the daguerreotypist. "Here we are
now, loose in this muddle, and according to the post-script
of your letter, Henry's son, rakish Willy, is calling
a congress with us if I have no prior understandings after
the noon chime. I do—to buy soap on Constable Street;
a matter I overlooked to provide you with hospitality."
Simonton, sheilding insult. "I hope you return with
an improved reception."
boots pounded the wood in the vestibule. An unknown voice
boomed, "Hell-o!" and John Simonton was heard
calling around, "Robert, are you anywhere in the
Daguerreotypes, in and
out of smart cases, littered the pier tables in the parlor.
Willy Poston circulated,
aiming his mind with an intent likened to uncovering wildfowl
in the low marshes of New Jersey.
Tall in a trim plaid jacket,
he was in any telling of him, a sport, a sportsman and
an occasional hunter of ruffed grouse.
"Navey's eye bears
remarkable talent for landscapes," he told Simonton
in favoring a particular north view of Gowanus Bay and
another, perhaps lower Staten Island.
He hastened an eager inquiry
at the appearance of Robert in a cheerful red morning
coat offering him a handshake.
"There are only landscapes
in here," Robert Navey confessed. "The faces
of Brooklyn are dashed home like prizes, leaving me not
Simonton rested in a chair
with a matronly well in the seat cushion, failing to establish
a burn in his pipe.
he said. "Glad to see Willy after his hair's-breadth
from a ferry disaster."
Willy Poston encompassed
the room. "A short swim, nonetheless," he said,
using the vernacular humor of his men's clubs. "In
truth, I did arrive listing, though listing is not unlike
Robert agreed, cat-grinning.
"I'm given to a list every now and then myself."
Simonton asked for the
cigars kept stored for better customers.
Amused by the condescension,
Robert smirked and replied,"The box is just near
you, Simonton. For you and Mister Poston, of course."
Willy Poston smooth his
hand over an empty leather case, feeling the pearl inlay.
"Not for me, thanks. I only smoke cigars when I'm
showing off." He laughed the rummy club laugh and
talked to Robert, "Informal, please."
"Okay, Willy. What
do you think of this paraphernalia?"
"Fascinating. I would
like to see more," said Willy Poston, turning an
open case for Robert to see. "Staten Island, is it?"
"Ah-ha, down in Gravesend.
I should like to have it and the one of Gowanus Bay."
"I will discount them
for you," induced Robert.
Willy continued opening
daguerreotype cases, moving between what he saw and what
he heard of small talk until Simonton mentioned Vandolynne
"What do you think
of her?" Willy asked either man.
Robert was forthright,
grounded stoically by the defunct fireplace. "My
thinking was to ask you the same."
"What father says
is true," said Willy. "She’s lost herself
and is ill."
John Simonton shifted onto
an elbow, tipping his cabochon ring into an ash-pile.
"As I said, Robert."
"What was she like
by contrast?" asked Robert, evenly.
Willy Poston wore dismay,
and explained, "She was Vandolynne, my sister. Now
she is distinctively no one, acting as if my father's
moralist new wife. She behaves falsely, is a parade of
contrivances and her wardrobe a cache of costumes and
disguise." He brought to mind a sentiment. "My
sister had adored pastels. She tried them out for years.
Today, she rejects art and is a masterwork of camouflage.
Where she was a free, warm wind reeling, she is closed
"Always a new season
in time," Robert offered.
"An enlightened point,"
agreed Willy, courteously. "One I will have to grapple
with considering my fondness for her as she was. But what
is there to do? She fails to cooperate with anything we
ask. She will not see doctors, travel abroad for therapies
or visit a minister. What is left? Hire a Spanish flamenco
troupe to shock her with hard obstinate noise?"
Robert and Simonton shared
a laugh as Willy intended.
"I trust Henry’s
presentiments," said Simonton. "Though I was
completely against a phrenologist twiddling with the girl's
skull when he suggested it."
Robert differed, bluntly,
"I am skeptical a simple portrait will return her
to health, Willy, but agree with your noble efforts."
Willy Poston looked across
the East River. "My father, Henry, thinks too much
of progress. As if any device by earthly maker can recover
one from the lowest grief. I, too, think not, Robert."
chamfered wood box cameras on long tripod legs stood about
a mis-en-scene of Empire furniture and heavy
drapes framed through the kitchen by an adjoining alcove.
"A foregone memory
in an odd circumstance," thought Robert Navey, a
disorderly chemist counting sundry cures at the kitchen
table. "But a picture so faithful for sentiments
confused"—he and Vandolynne Poston warming
in the parlor.
March dwindling, she had
turned up like the forsythia, with work, by the spark
of Willy's enthusiasm and Simonton’s indulgences.
A tea thought suitable,
piquant with orange and mace as in a cider, was poured
from a jade pot webbed with minute cracks. When Robert
questioned the recipe's brunt nose, Miss Poston’s
dainty nod sufficed comment, accessory to the manner and
example of Godey's Lady's Book. She bat a laggard
sea-blue eye under an overbearing, bending brim hat stuck
with a cloisonné.
Leaving the family intrigue,
Robert plied her for no other believable reason than to
keep Simonton in grace at the Union Club. At his mention
daguerreotype was the fashion in New York, she supplanted
the word 'photogravure.' Photogravure, she said, was the
latest conceit in every class. Robert agreed there was
a remedy nowadays for every condition, conspiring alone
as she solicited gossip about her brother, defined as
Following game consumed
His current whim, chirping
with a Gallic lilt when he rescued her from dripping ice
cream at Vauxhall Gardens, precluded Willy from family
commitments and the existing industry in pig iron. Sparing
him was not a term of the woman's upkeep. Did Robert know
her, the name Pierre? Not so unlikely for a woman who,
as Miss Poston stated with mild disgust, was known in
theater circles and the entourage of circus back-lots.
There was an appointment
of some kind back in Manhattan. Miss Poston gathered herself
with commotion, Robert being no more convincing than to
put a thought in her head by selling a two-sided, gold
filigree case appropriate for siblings, knotted but separated
by the case divide. It belonged, as did the enigmatic
Miss Poston, on a mantle in Gramercy Park, dusted occasionally
but otherwise ignored.
A door thud and Robert's
wistful inventory ended with the appearance of John Simonton
in a gray cape matching his coloring. Raving about the
first of its kind and the becoming dimple of Queen Victoria,
its tribute, Simonton dug into his tobacco pouch and removed
a Penny Black; a glue-set English postal stamp affixed
to recent events in the lives of idlers.
"Henry gave it to
me at the Amster last night before the vichyssoise arrived,"
bragged Simonton. "Through four courses, we nattered
about the bad money days, how the Penny Black has spurred
the English post, and our late evening plans for whist.
Brandies were offered when who pulls up to the table but
Willy in the company of Cherise Pierre—a name ringing
in your ears by now."
Robert sat down to enjoy
the report and prodded Simonton's embellishment. "Was
"Not only," said
Simonton, titillated. "She wore a marvelous hat with
arcs of green-gold pheasant tails placed in the hands
of a superb Broadway milliner. Hard to guess she's the
daughter of a Flatfoot circus maestro who takes a firm
hand with traveling menageries. Oh, I bet she's a tumbler.
Willy fiddled with her knee and she cooed very perceptibly."
"Willy has to do better
keeping her quiet," said Robert.
"Discretion is not
like Willy. Nor was it earlier at lunchtime in Gramercy
Park when he and Vandolynne Abigail had an unpleasant
encounter over yellow pea soup."
Robert balanced the Penny
Black on his fingertip. "How tough on Willy."
"More so for Miss
Pierre, who was in our presence at the Amster from one
insult to the next. She was, you see, at the crux of dispute
at lunch with Willy moaning for want of her likeness in
a keepsake. But Willy over-relied on a measure of play-acting
and envy, making Vandolynne Abigail seethe. She forbid
him from bringing that 'libertine' near the house in any
form and smashed a bread plate on the table so wrathfully,
the cook crossed herself in the Catholic way and hid in
the basement. 'Woman may still be down there scouring
for onions, for fear."
"What did Willy do?"
"He lavishly apologized
to Vandolynne for his selfishness and planted your quick
Robert glanced out of the
high parlor windows, blaring white ship sails and the
sunny rooftops of Manhattan in the scenery. "How
quick was it?" he asked, nonchalantly.
said Simonton. "The news of Vandolynne’s submission
was brought to Henry at our table dressed like a little
"So," said Robert,
with sharp punctuation. "Willy keeps his pretty faun
while I am indebted to turn sorcery with Henry's dismal
daughter. I risk blemish with the entire upper register."
Simonton fidgeted in his
pocket. "Where are my lucifers? Anyhow, Robert, you
haven‘t a thing to reckon with but your knack for
"That is your expertise,
said Simonton. "Why, even the Queen fancies her Penny
the fourth of April, William Henry Harrison died abruptly
from an episode of pneumonia. The grim news was heard
on every street, in doorways, and between ladies, aghast
at facing windows.
Nightlong and morose with
heavy drink, John Simonton and Henry Poston read passages
from Horace Greeley’s Log Cabin and reveled
in their hero’s western adventures, as if their
In Robert Navey’s
Brooklyn Heights townhouse the next afternoon a highly-strung
Willy marched across the parlor floor and pulled the curtains
aside. Simonton swallowed a bromide and asked uncertainly
from the couch. "Is she here?"
said Willy, rushing to the front door. "It's Gibbons,
my father’s driver—a hateful man I played
fisticuffs with as a child."
Robert tried vainly to
uphold cordiality but once inside, bringing flies, Gibbons
addressed Willy with a scratchy throat and the audacity
of Henry's emissary. "You have caused a new predicament,
Willy. Not to mention the horses were panicked by the
damned ferry and nearly bolted into the river!"
Willy fumed, red-faced,
"Where the hell is my sister, you insubordinate ass?"
"Little do we know,"
said Gibbons, rubbing a handkerchief behind his neck.
"After I made three canters around Gramercy Park
a deliveryman came with an addition to your pictograph
collection bearing the sender, Matthew Brady. But fathom,
the frontward of the parcel was instead hand-scribed to
your sister very intentionally."
"The renowned Daguerreian,
Brady," said Simonton, his memory for names surpassing
incidentals. "What do you know?"
Willy swatted a fly from
his nose and shouted, "What the hell is a pictograph?"
Robert shrugged and said,
"A daguerreotype in colloquial speech, I believe,
Willy. Is Brady merchandising landscapes nowadays?"
"This was no landscape,"
Gibbons told Robert in undertones. "The subject was
of a deviant and immoral nature, sir."
imagine Brady," said Robert, eccentrically. "I
would never attach my name to it. The Eagle would
refuse my advertisements."
"This is a lark, a
practical joke from my huntsman's guild," insisted
Willy, nervously pacing.
From behind a sheet of
pipe smoke, Simonton asked, "Where was Henry to intervene,
Gibbons recounted, winding
the end of his well-oiled whip. "Mister Henry was
in by afternoon with Rasmussen, the European gent sailing
tonight for Rotterdam on the Ganymede. Miss Vandolynne
was to have her final piano lesson."
Simonton looked about the
room, bewilderd. "Ras—who?"
Rasmussen," said Willy, pestered by the name. "The
only result of Rasmussen’s tutelage is Schwarenka’s
convenient duet, Polish Dance. It resounds for
hours without improvement and has him forever about. Aside
from that, my father is now benefactor to a far-flung
"Henry hates music,"
said John Simonton, still confounded. "Machinery
salvage from the Erie Canal, perhaps."
"It all started when
Vandolynne's melodeon simply collapsed," said Willy,
sniffing the perfume on his handkerchief.
Robert guided the story
back. "Please continue, Gibbons."
"The household in
pandemonium," explained Gibbons, "and on good
instinct, Mister Henry and Rasmussen sped to St. Mark’s
Willy slackened against
the wall with his troubles and sighed, "Hmm, Mother
lies there beneath an ordinary stone cross—only
until our mausoleum is built, of course."
Gibbons sneered at Willy,
then turned to Robert with the strained, histrionic pity
of a hard drinker. "Indeed, the young lady was broken
down in sobs beside her mother's grave. Mister Henry's
other coachman, younger but hardly adroit as I with the
landau, later told me Miss Vandolynne's public dress was
the most outlandish he had ever seen—a winding sheet
for a corpse, a thin blue wool wrap and Phrygian cap!"
"Lord knows what today's
allegory is?" said Willy, fed-up.
for poor Mister Henry, your father," said Gibbons,
raising his voice to Willy, "she had taken a shears
to her lovely brown hair and left it in short patches."
"Oh, my," said
Simonton, fearing the worst for her sanity. "What
Gibbons continued in an
illustrative pantomime. "As Mister Henry and Rasmussen
approached, Rasmussen pulling mysteriously on his earlobe,
figure that, she gave a loud wail and fled. At once, Rasmussen
was on her like a hound."
Forcing on his gloves,
Willy envisioned mustering in a search. "Ready the
horses, Gibbons! That moronic Rasmussen will have her
running perpetually. Is it mathematics genius or piano
dexterity that makes him so retchedly impulsive?"
"Do I know Henry!"
said Simonton with prideful fraternity. "This Rasmussen’s
way with numbers is what interests him."
Robert arched an eyebrow,
exasperated, and said,"My concerns are with Miss
Poston, Simonton. Shall I accompany you, Willy?"
John Simonton signaled
Gibbons to refrain from argument as Willy took hold of
"That won't be necessary,
Robert, and sorry about this, friend. I’ll have
you to the country this summer," Willy Poston promised
him. "You can bring your camera and record my marksmanship."
"I look forward to
it," said Robert, concealing a detest for wilderness.
"I will depend on Simonton to hear about your sister's
welfare. He knows a fast pigeon with the cabbys."
Simonton sounded like an
uncle. "You best let Willy go, Robert."
Willy slapped on his top
hat. "I'm off!"
Leaving with a flourish,
Gibbons' verbal assails trailed Willy to the sidewalk.
Robert watched from the parlor window for a fighting match,
taking note, "Willy is in every page of the bachelor's
"With the exception
of plucking romance from the dime shows, he's well characterized,"
naked picture of Cherise Pierre did not take a worse or
more humorous tact. A she-tiger clawed from the background
with trained ferocity. The banner of the June and Company
Oriental Circus hung from the animal's back.
His sense of enlarged evenings
re-settled from a tight alcove with spring ale at a tavern
on Constable Street, John Simonton said with foggy amazement,
"Bizarre! In Miss Pierre's raw state, through this
lurid antic, Willy is to see his jungle catch. With fair
understanding, a nomadic little girl from foundationless
circuses drawn to a big house in Gramercy Park."
Robert Navey, sore from
lunging through the difficult front door, closed the daguerreotype
case and appraised the bareheaded youth first framed in
an incident of wonder by the glass pane in the vestibule.
"One of Brady's minions has found a subversive way
to push enterprise, at the least," he reasoned.
Vandolynne Abigail Poston
pivoted in her white Greek-Revival chiton and
Robert at once interpreted the winsome Persephone.
She breathed some mysterious
fresh air, expressing a charm and animation he could not
have previously mistaken in the tightly folded girl from
"Criticism has had
Willy biting his lower lip, bearing it, since a boy,"
she admitted, pausing beside Simonton's chair. "What's
more, Mister Rasmussen said my shock confrontation with
pornography may literally free me from the infernal reading
of Tract Society pamphlets."
Simonton coughed smoke.
"How cheeky. What else did Rasmussen tell you?"
he asked, suspiciously.
"He is brilliant,"
she said, given wisdom. "In St. Mark's churchyard,
he tuned his ear keenly to my woe, isolating a high clef
in my mournful dirge of demise that broke tenaciously
with the past. Composers of music think in such a way.
His consolation, despite abysmal English, was at my heels
for hours even as we strayed through Five Points with
drunkards howling and slop pails sent out windows."
"Did they ship out
for Rotterdam, leaving him?" asked Simonton.
Vandolynne Poston envisioned
the black hull of the Ganymede, lanterns afire,
sliding through the Narrows under a chromium of night
"No, Mister Simonton.
We arrived at the Pearl Street docks, Mister Rasmussen
picking someone's refuse from his clothing, with little
but some time to spare.to claim his cabin and effects.
As a gesture of farewell, he was to look starboard for
my bonnet, my Phrygian cap, as I released it into the
wind from the Brooklyn steam ferry like a white-lined
flare, he thereby knowing my advance."
Robert pledged with a note
of due and some relief, "I will raise all the lamps
in my studio for you, Miss Poston."
"Kindly do, Mister
Navey. You may have all the photo-gravure you like."
"How lucky for Rasmussen,"
said Simonton, secretly happy with his full departure.
"He will miss the morbid funereal proceedings of
Robert became riled, suddenly.
"General Harrison is no longer the standing talk
piece in Brooklyn Heights, Simonton, as the tavern-keep
John Simonton looked away
dismissively. "Whiggery is never given a platform
near glum Democrat foils like him,“ he said. “Anyhow,
Vandolynne, my dear, you will have to write this Rasmussen."
She stated with self-assessment,
"If I do I shall tell him I will never again practice
the Polish Dance."
Robert Navey went to the
focus of his preferred Morse camera and the clacking install
of a tinny whole plate he properly treated with nitric
acid and brazened. He stood back to judge with his governing
eye, that colored of ore, which he took to the lens. "There
we have it," he said, making some adjustment. "Now
if Simonton remains lost in the word from the broadsheets
he will likely nap."
Vandolynne Abigail Poston
stood unmoving at the foot of a tasseled moss drape; the
living statuary of a tableau vivant. A long garland
of crimson ribbon rounded her shoulder and flowed across
"Do you see me?"
she asked with childish glee and the frolicking spirit
of a newborn colt.
Robert tugged up the high
collar of his jacket and readied with ceremony. "What
a regal lady," he said, straddling the tripod.
"I am in place,"
she assured him, firming her bustle.
Bending and pendulous behind
the camera, Robert directed her with stirred blood, "Think
you are the daughter of kings and valiants; think you
are Winged Victory! On cue of my raised finger, hail,
'Excelsior!' This, to fasten a befitting composition."
The subject complied, sharing
Robert’s inspired sense of theatre and motif and
in a very short time the plate was ripped from the camera
with the proud accomplishment of so many weeks and unforeseen
Robert busied himself with
seriousness, rifling through tinkling bottles of iodine
and admixtures held in a tall cabinet with glass doors.
Finding the hypo-sodium thiosulfate, he went
to the kitchen table and from a small apparatus applied
hissing mercury vapors to fuse with the plate silver.
"I will remove the daguerreotype to a bath in this
hypo sulfite of soda," he explained both
to himself and Miss Poston, who barely understood.
Figure and form were manifest
and it pleased Robert how the sulferite of silver created
a nicely hewn transposition of the image. He straightened
his back, which panged with an abrupt ache. "To freeze
the exposure and in the last process I must wash the daguerreotype
in clear water."
"What do you see?"
asked his young subject, clapping her hands delightedly.
"Do you see me, now?"
Robert Navey approached
her deliberately, awed by the Daguerreian marvel and the
strength of his master eye.
"What I see declares
all promises of hope, symbols of virtue, greatness of
mind, invention, and the fortunes of heaven," he
proclaimed with reverie, as she looked ahead with awakened
"Here," he said,
lifting up the mirror to her self with fervent congratulations.
"You are America!"