The House on F Street by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

December 2, 2014

When I woke that morning, I was alone in the bed.  This was not unusual as Rufus often got up early to take his “customary constitutional on Constitution”, but I was sorry anyway.  Last night had been lovely, sweet and passionate at the same time.  After nights like that I always wanted to wake up in his arms.

I heard the door to my bedchamber open slowly and twisted my head to see if it was he.  “Oh, it’s you, Annie.”  Out of kindness to the girl, I hoped she did not hear the disappointment in my voice.

“A good mornin’ to you, Senator,” she replied in her brogue.  Annie is our maid of all work and came straight to Washington from somewhere near Limerick.  “I am here to open your curtains and to see if you’ll be after comin’ down for breakfast or want to have a tray brought up.”

I sat up in bed and made sure my nightshirt wasn’t a scandal.  “Is the Senator at home?” I asked her hopefully.

“Himself is not, sir,” she answered, grasping the heavy curtains and thrusting them apart with a clatter of the curtain rings.  “Senator King went out quite early this morning.”

I sighed.  It was a special day, you see.  It was St. Valentine’s Day, and I so wanted to spend it with, well, my paramours is a word I have heard it called.  I am sure the wags in Congress have unkinder terms than that.  I had hoped to breakfast with Rufus on this special day of all days.  I knew he had not forgotten, as he had made reference to the occasion when we lay together in my bed last evening.

“I shall take my meal in here then.  Will you be a dear and hand me my dressing gown?”

A neat and prim little woman, no older than 25, Annie was a country girl and seemingly blessedly ignorant of the ways of the world.  I once overheard her speaking with the boy who delivers produce talking in low tones.  He appeared to have been telling her how my old friend Andrew Jackson called me “Miss Nancy” and my dear Rufus “Aunt Fancy”.  She must have expressed some confusion as I saw him lean to her and whisper something in her ear.  She drew back with a look of horror on her face and exclaimed, “Jack, no!  Senator Buchanan is a very respectable statesman, so he is.  He and Senator. King are just housemates.  I never heard such a shameful thing in all me days,” she went on.  “I am thinkin’ you have a filthy mind, Jack Hamilton.”

I was loath to believe that she was that innocent, I must tell you.  But then so young and just off the boat, who knows?  I saw to it she got a stern talking to by our cook, Mabel, who impressed upon the girl the importance of not sharing tales with the likes of delivery boys.

I had breakfasted and dressed and decided to go into my study and read up on two bills that my party would bring to a vote in the afternoon.  I took my seat by the small fireplace to read when I happened to look up at the mantelpiece.  I sat and stared for a moment, sensing something missing.  I realized with a start that the empty place on the wall was where my painting of Mr. Jackson, Old Hickory, should be. It was a gift from him.   “My stars!” I exclaimed.  I shot up from my chair and flew to the door.  When I was in the hall I shouted, “Annie!  Come here this instant!”

In a moment the girl was standing before me, her eyes wide and her hands twisting anxiously in her apron.  “Whatever be amiss, sir?” she asked.

“That!” I said, pointing to the bare spot on the wall.

She peered in the direction I indicated.  “Sir?”

“See for yourself!” I accused.

She crept past me, crossing the room to peer closely at the wall.  She carefully looked all around, her nose no more than a few inches from pressing against the wallpaper.  She reached up a pale finger and touched a spot.  She finally turned to me with a perplexed expression.  “I be that sorry, Senator, but I’m not findin’ anything amiss.”

Making an impatient harrumph, I stated, “That is just what I mean, girl.  You don’t see anything amiss… because what should be there is missing.”

She turned back and looked, then threw up her hands and said, “Saints preserve us!  Why this is where that picture of that disagreeable looking old gentleman should be.  What happened to it?”

“That ‘disagreeable old gentleman, as you describe him, my dear, is the seventh President of these United States, Mr. Andrew Jackson!  The painting was a gift to me from that august personage.  And how should I know where it’s gone?  I called you in here to have you tell me that.”

Her look of chagrin quickly shifted to hurt feelings.  With her fists on her narrow hips she muttered something in what I assume was Irish and then, in what passes for English through her lips, she said, “Senator, you cannot be suggestin’ that I should take the old thing, now, would you?”

I realized she was right, that I had not taken care to be clear that all I wanted to know was if she had removed the portrait.  “I beg your pardon, Annie.  I was intemperate.  I merely wanted to know if the picture had been removed for some reason.”

Giving me such a look of “Are you simple?” she shook her head.  “Well I am that certain that it has, Senator.  By whom and why I cannot tell.”

Now I was annoyed that she should take such an insolent approach to my obvious wish to learn where my treasured portrait of Old Hickory had been removed to.  Impatiently I demanded, “Then go ask cook what she knows.”

Annie put her proud shoulders back and an imperious nose in the air and whisked out of the study.  “Aye, sir, that I shall.”

I followed her to prevent her from sharing her less flattering thoughts about me with the cook.  When I arrived at the kitchen just behind her I heard her ask, in a manner of utmost asperity, where the portrait of Mr. Jackson that was hung on the Senator’s study wall above the mantelpiece might be.

The cook looked up at me then and bobbed a respectful curtsy.  “Senator Buchanan, I cannot say.”  She turned towards the scullery door and called out, “Jack, come in here.”

From the scullery emerged the tousled headed befreckled face of the young scamp, Jack Hamilton.  “Ma’am?” he squeaked.  He had a partly consumed piece of cake in his grubby hand.

I took over the questioning.  “Young man, a very valuable picture is missing from my study.  Do you know anything about that?”

The boy looked from me to Mabel and then to Annie, the look on his face bespeaking a readiness to make up a story turned into genuine puzzlement.  “Why, no, sir.  I never even seen it.”

Annie said smugly, “It’s a paintin’ of the seventh president of these United States, it is!”

The boy looked back at me, wide eyed.  I headed off whatever he was going to say.  “Never mind, boy.  I shall no doubt have to summon a policeman to look into the matter.  Would be so kind as to find one and send him to this house?”

He had gone pale, making me wonder if I had been hasty in exonerating him from guilt, but with one look at Mabel, he stuffed the rest of the cake in his mouth, said something no one could have understood, took his soft cap from a back pocket, and exiting quickly, pulled it onto his head.

It was clear when no officer of the law arrived at my front door within a half hour that Jack had not made the effort.  I called for Annie to fetch my coat, gloves and hat.  I shall go to the Senate for the rest of the day.  If I see a policeman on the way, I will enlist his assistance.”

In the foyer, she helped me on with my coat.  I asked, “Is Senator King expected to take his supper at home, do you know?”

“I do not, sir.  The Senator left so early this morn that I did not see to speak to him”

I went out the door onto F Street where carts and horses clattered by and natty young gentleman strode with purpose on some business.  I had no eye for them at the moment, intent as I was on getting to the Hill.

I did let myself become distracted from time to time as I made my way to Constitution Avenue and the Capitol for I was anxious to spy Rufus along the way so I could inform him of the missing portrait.  I was not far from my own destination when I caught sight of him, head to head with a most attractive and elegant young man, laughing and sharing a pleasant moment together.  I was about to call to him when I saw him put his arm about the younger man’s shoulders.  I quite simply froze.  I did not call out.

Rufus is an extremely handsome and well turned out fellow.  I on the other hand am plain and what some would call dumpy.  I should lie if I did not say it had puzzled me these several years that a man as fine-looking as my Rufus should want to be with me, to live with me, to be my one and only.  The result of this uncertainty has been a sort of vigilance where my love’s attention might turn, if that attention is to another quite good looking fellow.  I am quite sure some day I shall lose Rufus to such a one.  I shall be the pathetic abandoned lover, pitiful in all men’s eyes.

I sighed and turned to walk quickly away.

Seeing a policeman as I approached the Capitol, I waylaid the man and described my loss, the portrait of Old Hickory and not, of course, the future loss of my dearest one, nor of my heart and present peace of mind.  He promised to go to my house straight away to look into the matter.

I spent a dispirited day, I can tell you, feeling as if everything I cared for was slipping through my fingers.  Rufus was not at luncheon in the Senate dining hall, and as a result I was quite unapproachable and some of my colleagues made some quite common remarks that should not be spoken of in the presence of the fairer sex.  Fortunately there were none about in the Senate.

As I wended my way home to our house on F Street , I lacked an appetite for my supper.  I fully expected to find my portrait still gone, no news from the policeman, and no Rufus awaiting me with a glass of whiskey and a cigar.

Annie, it seemed, was no more cheerful with me.  With no syllable of her lilting speech, she took my hat, gloves and coat.  When I asked if the Senator was at home, she gave me a tight-lipped shake of the head and left me standing there quite alone.  I proceeded into the parlor with the newspaper which I had taken from the hall table and found my own whiskey and cigar, feeling most misused.

I had despaired of companionship at supper when I heard the front door open and close.  I heard Rufus’s voice, shushing Annie as he divested himself of his coat and the rest.    My heart beat faster waiting for my love to come into the parlor, then it fell when I heard his footsteps pass the door and head up the staircase.  I sat for a while trying to decide what to do.  Why had he shushed Annie?  Was there someone with him?  Someone he took up to his rooms?

I had had enough.  I threw down the paper I was reading and stormed out of the parlor and up the stairs.  I went to Rufus’s bedchamber door and without announcing myself, I reached for the doorknob.  I was surprised when it turned and the door opened.  I had half expected it locked, to prevent discovery of whatever indiscretion my Rufus was involved in.

“Jamie, dear!” he called, obviously startled.  He spun to face me, and I could not help but stare, admiring him, his slender but manly form, his fine features, his dapper apparel.  I found myself thinking, whatever you have done to break my heart, dear boy, I shall forgive you.  What I said aloud however was “What are you hiding, Rufus?”

The look he gave me then shook me to the core.  He looked embarrassed, sheepish, and guilty.  I thought, Here it is.  The death of the idyll. 

I had to sit down.  I stumbled to a chair and planted my backside heavily.

“Oh Jamie, I wanted it to be a surprise.  I was going to give it to you at supper.”

I looked up sharply at Rufus.  “You what?”  I gazed into his eyes to see them twinkling, so full of love and happiness.

He slowly turned and lifted a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.  “Since you caught me with it, I suppose I shall just give it to you now.”  He came towards me, and I stood to face him.  He held the package out to me.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, dearest Jamie,” said in that soft warm voice of his with its Alabama drawl.  “I love you.”

I must have looked like a trout, standing, holding the package and staring into his eyes open-mouthed.  “I-I love you too, my darling Rufus,” I managed to get out.  “What is it?”

“Open it.  Here, I’ll cut the string with my pocket knife.”  He proceeded to match his actions to his words.  The twine felt to the floor and, meticulous as he always is, he crouched to pick it up and tuck it in his pocket.

I turned over the package and unfolded the brown paper with which it was wrapped.  I could see at once that I was looking at the back of a frame.  The wire for hanging it was attached.  I turned the gift over as Rufus carefully refolded the paper and set it aside to reuse.  He is as frugal as he is meticulous.  Well, except for fashions.  Those he spends what he must on.

He looked at me expectantly as I gazed back, then I lowered my eyes and was confused.  What I held in my hands was my portrait of Andrew Jackson.  The portrait that Jackson himself gave me.  I stammered, “W-why, Rufus, it’s wonderful.”

“What a silly man you can be, Jamie.  Look at it.  There is something different.  That is your gift.”

I looked again, perplexed.  Then I realized what the difference was.  “It’s the frame. It’s new.”

Rufus gave me one of those patient indulgent looks he often gives me when I am being obtuse.  “Yes, but you don’t see it, do you.  The wood.  It’s hickory!  Old hickory!”

My Rufus was the one who had removed my treasured portrait of Old Hickory and had a new frame made of old hickory wood.  I was speechless with wonder and gratitude.

Rufus went on chattily.  “I was on Constitution today as I was going to pick this up at the woodworker.  I ran into Simon Beauregard.  Do you remember him?  That very tiresome fellow from Tuscaloosa.  I was so excited about seeing the new frame I could not get away from him fast enough.  He is a pretty man, to be sure, but all I could do was pretend to laugh at his jokes and get away as soon as I could manage.”

He reached to take the portrait away from me and set it down on a table.  He walked the short distance to the door and bolted it.  He came back, took me in his arms, and pressed his sweet lips to my own thin ones.  I relaxed into his embrace.

“I do so love you, Jamie,” he said softly when we ended the kiss.  “These past years have been such golden ones.  Promise you will never leave me for some younger, more handsome man.”

I could only lean back in for another of his delicious kisses.

“Take me to bed, Jamie,” he sighed against my lips.

“But what about supper?” I reminded him.

“It can wait.”  His hands were already at my cravat loosening it as he applied the firm but gentle pressure to my chest to guide me through the door and into his bedchamber.

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Author’s note:  Was President James Buchanan gay?  He and William Rufus King lived together for many years and their colleagues in the Senate called them “Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan”.  Their nieces burned all their letters.  Let’s just say we don’t really know if he was, but then again we don’t really know that he wasn’t.

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Christopher Hawthorne Moss wrote his first short story when he was seven and has spent some of the happiest hours of his life fully involved with his colorful, passionate, and often humorous, characters. Moss spent some time away from fiction, writing content for websites before his first book came out under the name Nan Hawthorne in 1991. He has since become a novelist and is a prolific and popular blogger; he is the historical fiction editor for the GLBT Bookshelf, where you can find his short stories and thoughtful and expert book reviews. Moss is transgender, having been born with a female body but a male heart and mind. He lives full time as a gay man in the Pacific Northwest with his partner of over thirty years and their doted upon cats. He owns Shield-wall Productions. Moss welcomes comment from readers via email and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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