The Daguerreian Society


From Peterson's Magazine (Philadelphia) Vol. 44, No. 3 (September 1862) pg. 187-190.


A   DAGUERREOTYPE   IN   BATTLE

                     

              BY ELLA RODMAN.
                     

   A PILE of freshly-executed vignettes, just from the photographer's, lay on one of the pretty drawing-room tables, and were seized upon and commented upon by the group there assembled. It was not a party—merely a dropping in, such as Miriam Lacy had every evening—three or four young ladies, and two gentlemen; as much of an even balance as one usually meets in "these troublous times."
    The ladies were cut out after a pattern, and had nothing in particular about them—the gentlemen were worthy of more special notice. The elder one—of middle height, inclining to corpulency and baldness—had a fine face, rather supercilious in its expression, and characterized by a general air of knowing everything and believing nothing. He was elegantly dressed, thoroughly self-possessed, answered to the name of Dr. Moynton, although he never practiced, had rooms at the Clarendon, abundant means, and did nothing in particular except lounge about among pictures, and talk "Art"—a subject very absorbing to those who appreciate it, and very bewildering to those who do not. This man admired Miriam Lacy, a person who every one concurred in pronouncing just about right.
   The other gentleman was younger, not more than twenty-seven, had a tall, manly figure, and nothing else remarkable about him, except a pair of gray eyes, that looked up and at one with such a clear reflection of a great, honest, hero-soul, that they irradiated the whole face. It was the beauty of expression, for in themselves they did not differ from bushels of other eyes. Gilbert Fletcher was a distant cousin of Miriam's; and although he was as quiet and undemonstrative as gray-eyed people usually are, she knew, to her annoyance, that down in his inmost soul he cherished a wild hope that made him glad that the cousinship was so distant.
   "Miriam herself!" exclaimed one of the young ladies, as the vignettes came to light, "Miriam to life!" and exclamations and criticisms fell fast and furious on the bits of pasteboard upon which had been left the impress of a living soul.
   Dr. Moynton never admired when other people did; and when some one addressed him enthusiastically with the remark; "Isn't it excellent?" He rejoined:
   "Yes—an 'excellent' likeness of Miss Lacy in one of her very worst moments. Photographs were only invented for men—and any woman who will consent to be thus martyrized must be influenced by one of two reasons: She is either inexpressibly conceited, or she is quite superior to the weakness of caring how she looks."
   "Thank you," said Miriam, who had quietly glided in, "I am quite at a loss how to classify myself. The 'inexpressibly conceited' division is not attractive—but the stern Angel of truth guards the entrance to the Paradise, where women are superior to the weakness of caring how they look. I do care how I look, and always like to look my very best.
   "Gilbert, who had said nothing, blushed guiltily at Miriam's entrance—while the real criminal smiled a fascinating smile, and said with perfect composure, "Do you remember the scene in 'Peg Woffington, Miss Lacy, where Peg steps out of her own portrait-frame, and confounds the critics? It is about the finest thing in the whole volume."
   These men were both in love with Miriam Lacy; and Miriam was piqued by Dr. Moynton's composure, and irritated by Gilbert Fletcher's want of confidence.
   "About these photographs," continued the doctor, carelessly. "What a vile invention they are! If one has a glaring defect, they magnify it tenfold, and leave every mark of beauty to be guessed at. As to expression, the very life and soul of a face, the wretched photograph tramples it to death, or clothes it in so hideous an aspect, that one wishes it were a blank. Look at this caricature of Miss Lacy, now—why is she made to look dissatisfied, woe-be-gone, and desirous of making a face at somebody, all at one and the same time?"
   "That is only the perversity of human nature," replied Miriam, laughing. "the poor photographer, in despair at the benumbing gravity that always possesses one when required to call up a look that I know is to be stamped upon glass and copper, said suggestively, 'Could you think of something pleasant now, mum?' and I immediately felt a severe and awful expression settle on my feature. Had he told me not to laugh as I valued my picture, the effect would have been what was desired. But I am tired of the subject," she continued, imperiously, "let us talk of something else. What are you studying there, Gilbert?"
   Miriam has not been described, and, to tell the truth, she was rather indescribably. Her girl-admirers, and she had hosts of them, always said of Miriam, "Not pretty at all, you know, because she hasn't a single good feature;" and yet, in the aggregate, they pronounced her "lovely." She was taller that the average height, and her finely-moulded figure seemed to float along the streets, so that men would turn their heads, as she passed, and say, "By Jove! what a splendid figure that woman has!" Her abundant dark hair, worn very low on her neck, had a classic sweep that carried a sort of fascination in it; and the cheek it shaded was so round and fresh that a cannibal could not have resisted the temptation to take a bite out of it. Miriam was twenty-five, and owned to every day of it; and partly on account of this venerable age, partly on account of her superiority, people generally, who are very liberal with what does not belong to them, handed her over to Dr. Moynton. Barkis was willin' but not quite satisfied of success.
   All this time, Gilbert Fletcher has been left bending over an old-fashioned, somewhat faded daguerreotype. Two girl-faces nestled closely together; the elder had long, drooping curls, and Miriam's eyes and mouth—the other was a chubby, little sister, long years since in Paradise. That child-face of Miriam was very sweet, and Gilbert studied it intently.
   He did not hear Miriam's question; and she went and looked over his shoulder.
   "That old thing!" said she, half-sadly, "it does not look a bit like me now. That was taken 'when I was nearer heaven in the days of long ago.'"
   "To me it looks very much like you," replied Gilbert, in a low tone. "I wish that you would give it to me, Miriam—I should like to take it away with me."
   "I would not give it to you for the world," said Miriam, in the same tone. "When do you go?"
   "Oh, Mr. Fletcher!" exclaimed one of the young ladies, who wanted Gilbert to come and talk to her, "is it really true that you are going to the war?"
   "Gilbert bowed assent. He never wasted words when he was not interested.
   "How many straps do you wear?" asked the doctor, in rather an unpleasant tone.
   "None," replied Gilbert, quietly. "I go as a private."
   "As a private!" repeated the young ladies, under their breath. "Dear! they had always thought that privates were so common!"
   "They are rather uncommon, now-a-days," said Miriam, that clear, steady voice of hers trembling a little with emotion, "and unless Artemas Ward raises successive regiments of Brigadier-Generals, the ranks will scarcely be filled by men who do not seem to have souls above a bit of glittering tinsel."
   Miriam's cheeks glowed indignantly; but the doctor, although inwardly admiring, replied coolly, "You may just as well say that we are fighting for a bit of red, white, and blue bunting—it is not the tinsel for which they care, but what the tinsel symbolizes. By-the-way, Fletcher, are you thoroughly in earnest? I should think it would be rather unpleasant to take pot-luck with Tom, Dick, and Harry in that style. Privates' fare is not very tempting, I imagine."
   "Tom, Dick, and Harry," replied Gilbert, unmoved, "give up their time, their comfort, their lives to their country—I do no more. Why then am I entitled to more than they? In this great cause all should be brothers, and share alike."
   The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
   "You must allow me respectfully to differ from you," he began. "My chief objection to the Declaration of Independence is, that it tells what the children calls 'a great, bug, naughty story.'"
   The young ladies gave a start of interest—a man who abused the Declaration of Independence was "so original." All but Miriam, and she remained quietly gazing at the speaker.
   "The Declaration of Independence," continued Dr. Moynton, rather contemptuously, "asserts the palpable falsehood that 'all men are born free and equal,' in the very face of the fact that some are born to rosewood cradles, and purple, and fine linen, and others to pine boards and a fig-leaf. Do you call that free and equal? The man accustomed to scant food and rags, and the society of vagabonds, who goes as a private—and the man accustomed to well-dressed viands, elegant clothing, and intercourse with gentlemen, who accepts the same position, bring, in my opinion, very unequal fortunes into the concern."
   Gilbert was half-dreaming of Miriam and the future, and rather weary of the doctor's wordy argument—and saying, with a smile, "I am satisfied to go as a private," he turned to look at some prints.
   The visitors finally dropped off; the young ladies were taken home by the doctor; and Gilbert and Miriam were left alone in the drawing-room. The quiet young soldier seemed suddenly endowed with the power of speech.
   "Miriam," said he, abruptly, "I go to-morrow. Will you give me this?"
   It was one of the photographs that he held in his hand; and Miriam took it from him with downcast eyes, turning away as she said,
   "Do not ask me for these things, Gilbert—I cannot break through my rule, which is to bestow then only on my lady friends."
   "Not even for a cousin?" asked Gilbert, beseechingly.
   "Not even for a cousin," she replied.
   But Miriam's head was turned aside, and Gilbert, yielding to temptation, committed an act of petty larceny of which she was happily unconscious. The daguerreotype of Miriam in her childhood was hastily transferred to his pocket; and with an expression of not having been doing anything at all out of the way, that was quite marvelous considering what a neophyte he was in this sort of practice, Gilbert received the dismissal that his cousin speedily bestowed upon him.
   "It is late now," said she, extending her hand, "and I must go up to Lizzie. I honor you, Gilbert—and you shall always have my warmest prayers for your preservation and happiness. Good-night."
   And she was gliding rapidly out of the room; but Gilbert, suddenly gifted with a miraculous power of daring, folded her closely in his arms, and with a long, farewell kiss, said, "We may never meet again on earth, Miriam. Good-by," and was gone.
   Miriam stood breathless with astonishment—half-indignant, and half-admiring the audacity which had taken her so completely by surprise. For she knew that Gilbert loved her, and she knew that he knew that, if he had told her so that night, he would have been rejected.
   Very thoughtfully she walked up stairs to Lizzie, her brother's pretty, little wife, who was lying among a heap of laced pillows, lost in admiration of another heap of flannel and embroidery, which Miriam addressed as "Auntie's precious baby," and which seemed to be regarded generally as a very novel and striking production. Miriam's brother, and that brother's wife and child, were to her objects of the warmest affection; and the pretty Lizzie, who was two or three years her junior, clung to her with a sort of adoring love that seemed to be Miriam's due.
   After talking an immense amount of nonsense to the baby, and kissing and petting the childish mother, Miriam went to her own room, and thought a great deal more about Gilbert than that modest lover would ever have imagined. She did not wish to marry him—they were not suited to each other; she thought him too young, in the first place, and too timid—there was nothing to lean upon; in short, he was not at all her beau ideal, and she felt provoked that her thoughts turned upon so unprofitable a subject.
   Dr. Moynton, who, by a sort of instinct, had looked upon Gilbert as a powerful rival, now had the field to himself, and improved his opportunities to the best of his ability. Herbert Lacy smiled approvingly upon his suit—Lizzie thought he "just the husband for Miriam"—and the doctor finally committed himself by a regular proposal.
   Somehow it troubled her to see this lofty man humbled; and she said as gently as she could, "If I ever love, it will be one who has shown himself willing to sacrifice everything for his country."
   "Even to enlisting as a private? asked the doctor, bitterly.
   A roseate color mounted to Miriam's forehead; but she answered steadily: "Yes, if that were clearly his duty."
   "What do you wish me to do?" said the lover, despairingly. "Must I advertise myself as 'the celebrated and original able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years?"
   Miriam smiled in spite of herself, as she murmured: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might," and Dr. Moynton retired discomfited.
   A fearful battle was raging, in which Gilbert Fletcher's regiment had lost more than half of its men. Bravely following the flashing sword that waved them up the hill, they pressed forward to victory, Gilbert's gray eyes dilating into strange beauty with the excitement of battle—when suddenly came a missile of death, dealing carnage and destruction on every side. Gilbert fell, with several of his comrades, but

       "——a private or two now and then
       Will not count in the news of the battle."

   Miriam read the name of "private Gilbert Fletcher" among the list of killed, and a strange feeling took possession of her. She neither cried nor fainted; but all the sunshine had died out of her life, and she felt that she loved the dead private. With her usual prompt energy, she took an instant resolution to devote herself to hospital work among the sick and wounded; and quietly made her preparations in spite of all opposition.
   The stars came out and shed their soft light over the field of battle, and on a pale face that looked dead among the dead—but it was just waking up to life. An obscure private lay there, with a shattered daguerreotype resting on his heart, and in imagination a vision of Miriam bending over him as his guardian-angel. He smiled as he lay there; for something whispered confidently that Miriam would one day rest her bright dead on that very place, and then he fell wearily asleep.
   When Gilbert Fletcher returned to Northern soil, it was with the rank of captain honorably earned by tried bravery, not bought with money; but he seemed to value a shattered daguerreotype more highly even than this commission; and Miriam probably changed her opinion of him, or, perhaps, as the lady said of her pertinacious lover, she married him to get rid of him.
   Dr. Moynton takes his luxurious dinners at the Clarendon, and pronounces Mr. Captain Fletcher " a very fine woman"—adding frankly that, if she had shown better taste, she might have been Mrs. Dr. Moynton; and that he should certainly be tempted to go as a private, if he could be sure of being as well paid as Gilbert Fletcher was.
   Summing up all the facts, I cannot help thinking that, had it not been for that daguerreotype, things would never have turned out as they did.


(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.)

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