Short Story © 2020 Matthew de Lacey Davidson
Percival Voigtländer adjusted his stiff high-collar slightly, so that the satin puff tie could be more visible to all those present. Although almost always in the presence of those who were not able to best appreciate it, he took great care to be as presentable and elegant as possible in his dress. He had worked a great many years, too many to count the precise number, in his field, and he took great pride in his work, as well as in his personal appearance.
Voigtländer pulled down his Norfolk jacket after quietly adjusting his Walden Tweed vest. Walking over to the curtain on the far end of the room, he pulled it open gently and sensitively to allow a modicum of the morning sun to permeate the area. He smiled as he beheld the modest, lower class surroundings, confident that he had done all within his power to make the best of the circumstances in which he invariably found himself.
“Do you have a little bit of flour which I might borrow, Mrs. Müller,” Voigtländer enquired of his hostess. Jennifer Müller ran to the kitchen and daintily handed Voigtländer a small cup of white flour. “Thank you, Madam, this will work — and admirably at that!”
Mrs. Jennifer Müller had been born and raised in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Apart from little trips to other small surrounding maritime villages, she had spent her entire life there. Lunenburg, decades before it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a small fishing village although it began the previous century as an agricultural settlement, and only became incorporated in late 1880s, shortly before Mr. Voigtländer’s visit to the abode of Mrs. Müller on that uncharacteristically warm October morning in 1891. The area had gone through the War of 1812, and previously survived four attacks during the American Revolution, during which several privately-owned vessels (used for the purposes of warfare during the war) attacked and looted the town — after which, the privateers were captured and sent on to Halifax.
But none of this was on the minds of these two individuals, as a small camera was being set up in Mrs. Müller’s home on Pelham street. In fact, for all intents and purposes, this was an extremely peaceful affair which was currently transpiring. Mr. Voigtländer’s superior eye, and phenomenal attention to detail, were ensuring that not only would his work be of exceptional quality, but that Mrs. Müller would be left with a memento worthy of the finest photographers (and usually only available to the wealthiest patrons) in the world; and at a very good price, at that.
Mr. Voigtländer was close to being ready to create his finest work, yet. “A little more to the left, please,” he requests. Mrs. Müller obliges. “Alright — look up a bit more, if you could manage it, please.” Always courteous and polite beyond anyone’s expectations, he asks, “…is it possible to the have both hands up on the lap, one over the other? That seems to me to be a most respectful sitting position.”
Mrs. Müller nods, then offers, “I am in agreement with you, good Mr. Voigtländer. Most respectful.” Words fall silent for a time, as Voigtländer sets up his Underwood Tourograph. He had, by this time, put together the plate holders and the roller blind which fell over the lens. “You know, Mrs. Müller,” he says as a little aside, “I remember when we still used wet plates, and we had to carry around a little dark room with us, at all times, to process the photograph on the spot. It was quite inconvenient, to be sure.” There is no response. “I am sorry, Mrs. Müller, I am not trying to make light. It’s just that, at times like this, I find it’s always best to attempt to distract the client a little.”
Mrs. Müller eventually responds, “I agree with you, Mr. Voigtländer. Today has just been very trying. Please take no offense at my lack of loquaciousness.”
They continued a little longer in silence. “Perhaps if we moved the chin a little higher, and place just a little flour upon the cheeks to give a good skin tone in the final product,” Mr. Voigtländer gently requests, and once again, Mrs. Müller gratefully obliges. “We just need a little bit more light in the room in order to take the best photograph. I am going to open the curtain a bit more.”
The curtain opens — almost completely. Sunshine almost pours in. The sun had almost finished rising and Mr. Voigtländer was determined to make the most of it. He stands behind the camera, at first pulling out his flash bulb, then moving underneath a black shroud. He requests Mrs. Müller politely to move out of the frame of the camera lens. She does so, respectfully and quickly. The flash bulb goes off. He emerges from the shroud and smiles plaintively. “Thank you, Mrs. Müller, you have been a tremendous help today.”
She sadly smiles back and responds, “I am so heavily indebted to you, Mr. Voigtländer.”
“Nonsense, my dear Lady, all that I ask is that you pass my business card to others, as you see fit.” He hands her a small cardboard card stating as follows:
Master Percival Voigtländer, Esq.
Fees on a sliding scale
Edgewater Street, corner of Clearland, Mahone Bay.
“I only give this card to those in need, Madam. To my wealthier patrons, there is no sliding scale. For you, I charge a dime.”
“I so appreciate it, Sir. It’s not that we didn’t have the foresight — we just didn’t have the money to do this before.”
“Madam,” Voigtländer returns, after looking momentarily at her deceased husband who is posed — both beautifully and realistically — upon the parlour chair, “The only regret I have about my métier is that the loved-ones of my clients are not able to appreciate how life-like I can make them appear.”
Voigtländer then tips his hat gentlemanly while walking out the doorway to his next appointment.
The address of Edgewater Street, corner of Clearland, Mahone Bay, is, in fact, the address of a local cemetery. Further, this story is only 999 words long (in spite of, and not including the title). While post-mortem portraiture was not uncommon in the 19th century, I have no idea whether anyone made their living from such.