Process Photographique

Thursday, 4 July, 1839 — Manchester, Michigan

Manchester, Michigan is a village of one hundred and fifty souls that did not exist as recently as six years ago. Now it has thirty homes, a hundred surrounding farms, an elegant general store with luxury items imported from New York, and a mill. It is here because of the Erie Canal and the newly constructed Chicago Road, and it has money because some well-to-do Freemasons have recently found it advantageous to depart New York State and remove themselves as far as possible westward. And this is as far as possible. From this point a person can set out walking westward in the morning, and walk beyond the ultimate western edge of European Civilization before sunset. Yes, there is the city of Chicago far to the west, but it is a little island of civilization. With its three thousand people it is less than half the size of Detroit, it is two hundred miles distant through pine forest as dark as night, and, Chicago Road or no Chicago Road, if you wished to visit that small city you would be wiser by far to take the safe road to Detroit and sail on a schooner up around the Straits of Mackinac and down again along the endless shore of Lake Michigan. Such a journey might require two weeks’ time, while an attempt to reach Chicago on horseback along the newly created road might very well take the rest of your life.

And of course if you should stray from that slender road on your journey westward—well, then you have the vastness of a continent before you, and an uncharted wilderness to cross that is wider than all Europe, from Brittany in France to the Russian steppes.

Yet what does this little village of people do in the face of such vastness? Do they cower in their simple huts and store up food against the howling winds of winter? Well, no. On the anniversary of their young republic’s birth, they throw a party that involves the entire settlement for the better part of two days. For if it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, then how much better still to set off scores of fantastic and elaborate fireworks that frighten away every living creature within miles and threaten to all but burn the place down?

Arias walks on the lawn of the town commons. There is a small area of stalls whose proprietors—some from as far away as Tecumseh—are selling barbacue pork on skewers, sweets, and flavored lemon and cherry soda water just as fizzy and brightly-colored as at any pharmacy in Detroit. A large white gazebo has been built where a group of men are doing a good job of playing some brassy martial-sounding music. In the wooden chairs that have been set up for the audience to watch the fireworks after sunset, a small group of Revolutionary War soldiers, ancient and wrinkled and speaking to each other in loud voices, have already taken up residence in the place reserved for them.

Arias smiles at one of the old men who looks her way and gives him a gentle Good day. She reflects that she is very well content here. Life on the frontier has been exciting. She has enjoyed immensely the experience of seeing a new civilization created so rapidly from thin air, exploding across what, to these people, seems like an empty continent. A New World. In all the history that Arias knows and has seen for herself, nothing like this America has ever happened before. Not in Rome or Greece, nor ancient Zhong Guo, nor Kemet, nor Shumer—in no place since the Fall has there ever been such an exuberant explosion of creativity, industry, and hope. It has been a privilege to witness.

And then, up ahead of her, Arias sees a miracle. There is a flash of light so brilliant that at first she wonders if someone has begun the fireworks early, or if there has been some disaster because of the many cigars and in another moment hundreds of rockets will be shooting off prematurely in all directions. But there is a crowd gathered around the site of the flash, and, walking forward, Arias sees a well-dressed man standing before a hard-sided wagon, speaking to the crowd as a large puff of blue smoke dissipates above their heads.

He is standing next to a device, large and boxy, with a kind of glass eye in its center that is directed at two elaborately carved and cushioned chairs, from which Mr Fargo, the proprietor of the general store, and his wife are just now rising. The well-dressed man slides a thin sheet of wood into the back of the box, and then carefully extracts it again, but this time along with a much more substantial kind of shallow black-painted box which he carries into the back of his van.

Anna Gilbert approaches from behind her and takes her former teacher’s hand.

“Oh, Miss Arias!” she says, hurrying them both forward toward the crowd. “Come and see, it’s the most wonderful new thing! It’s from France!”

Anna pulls Arias forward, shouldering her way shamelessly into the crowd with a couple bright exclamations of Excuse me! until they are able to see the sides of the van. Elaborately painted lettering proclaims it to be the property of Hedges and Soliss who are apparently purveyors of the Daguerréotype Process Photographique as seen in Paris, London, and New York. It doesn’t say that Messers Hedges and Soliss have actually been to those places, it just says that this process has been seen there. And beneath the lettering is a row of silvery plates with shockingly detailed paintings—Arias steps closer and laughs. They are not paintings, but true images captured chemically on silver plates.

“Oh, Anna, how wonderful!” she exclaims, turning toward the girl, only to find that the girl is now looking at her with quite a clear I’ve-got-a-secret expression. Arias raises her eyebrows inquiringly.

“Will there be another subject for the Process Photographique?” Mr Hedges-or-Soliss calls. “Ten dollars for the memory of a lifetime!” That number is large enough to claim a portion of Arias’s attention even as Anna leans toward her to whisper. Ten dollars is as much as a skilled laborer might earn in a week’s hard work.

“Miss Arias,” Anna whispers conspiratorially. “There’s a lumber gentleman who’s been looking your way. “That’s why I really wanted to find you! Although the photographs are wonderful. But he’s very handsome!” She grins. It is hard to remember that Anna is married now, and a mother. She still seems like such a girl. Arias smiles, but she knows that the child is mistaken. She would know immediately if any human focused their attention on her. It is a basic defense mechanism that costs only a small fraction of her awareness, and quite automatic.

“Now, Anna, I’m sure that rich men have better targets for their attention—”

“Look now! Look now!” Anna insists. “He’s looking the other way!”

Arias turns calmly and looks—and sees immediately the man that Anna is excited about. Even from a three-quarters view of his back, Arias can see that he is quite a bit younger than is common for the men who are becoming known here in the west as “lumber barons”. Most such men make their first fortunes Back East, and only then venture out to the frontier to expand upon it. Yet this gentleman cannot be much more than thirty: his shoulder-length hair is still quite black with no hint of gray. Also, he is surprisingly well-formed—broad-shouldered, his movements graceful.

“Oh, my!” Arias says to Anna. “Well, yes, I must say—”

The man turns toward her, and the man is Michael.

“Oh—” Arias’s grip on Anna’s hand tightens convulsively, her other hand going to her face.

“Miss Arias?” Anna is stricken. “Oh, what’s wrong? Oh my dear, whatever is wrong?

Arias cannot remember the last time she was unable to control her expression, nor the last time she wept.

“Do you—know him?”

Arias nods, still unable to speak.

Then Michael is walking toward them, and then he is before them. He offers his hand, she takes it, and they embrace. When she is able to back away, everyone in what was formerly Mr Hedges-or-Soliss’s audience has become their audience instead.

Michael offers her a handkerchief, and Arias dries her face. Anna stares at them both, her eyes alight with excited speculation knowing that she has just now scored the gossip coup of the summer. The fireworks later in the evening will be an anticlimax!

“I heard that there was a good teacher here,” Michael says. “I hope that I am not too old to learn.”

“Apparently not!” Arias laughs, her voice still shaking.

“Come on,” she pulls him by the hand. “Come on! Loan me ten dollars for a Process Photographique!”

Michael looks uncertain.

“Oh, come along, now! Don’t be a cheap-skate!”

“Mr—” she glances at the photographer and knows his name, “Soliss?”

“Yes madame!” the man nods. “A portrait of you and the gentleman?”

“Yes indeed!” she smiles, pushing Michael into one of the throne-like chairs and seating herself in the one next to him. “Your finest work, sir. For old friends!”

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