Read a sample from THE TROUPE by Robert Jackson Bennett
Friday mornings at Otterman’s Vaudeville Theater generally had a very relaxed pace to them, and so far this one was no exception. Four acts in the bill would be moving on to other theaters over the weekend, and four more would be coming in to take their place, among them Gretta Mayfield, minor star of the Chicago opera. The general atmosphere among the musicians was one of carefree satisfaction, as all of the acts had gone well and the next serious rehearsals were an entire weekend away. Which, to the overworked musicians, might as well have been an eternity.
But then Tofty Thresinger, first chair house violinist and unofficial gossip maven of the theater, came sprinting into the orchestra pit with terror in his eyes. He stood there panting for a moment, hands on his knees, and picked his head up to make a ghastly announcement: “George has quit!”
“What?” said Victor, the second chair cellist. “George? Our George?”
“George the pianist?” asked Catherine, their flautist.
“The very same,” said Tofty.
“What kind of quit?” asked Victor. “As in quitting the theater?”
“Yes, of course quitting the theater!” said Tofty. “What other kind of quit is there?”
“There must be some mistake,” said Catherine. “Who did you hear it from?”
“From George himself!” said Tofty.
“Well, how did he phrase it?” asked Victor.
“He looked at me,” said Tofty, “and he said, ‘I quit.’ ”
Everyone stopped to consider this. There was little room for alternate interpretation in that.
“But why would he quit?” asked Catherine.
“I don’t know!” cried Tofty, and he collapsed into his chair, accidentally crushing his rosin and leaving a large white stain on the seat of his pants.
The news spread quickly throughout the theater: George Carole, their most dependable house pianist and veritable wunderkind (or enfant terrible, depending on who you asked), was throwing in the towel without even a by-your-leave. Stagehands shook their heads in dismay. Performers immediately launched into complaints. Even the coat-check girls, usually exiled to the very periphery of theater gossip, were made aware of this ominous development.
But not everyone was shaken by this news. “Good riddance,” said Chet, their bassist. “I’m tired of tolerating that little lordling, always acting as if he was better than us.” But several muttered he was better than them. It had been seven months since the sixteen-year-old had walked through their doors on audition day and positively dumbfounded the staff with his playing. Everyone had been astonished to hear that he was not auditioning for an act, but for house pianist, a lowly job if ever there was one. Van Hoever, the manager of Otterman’s, had questioned him extensively on this point, but George had stood firm: he was there to be house pianist at their little Ohio theater, and nothing more.
“What are we going to do now?” said Archie, their trombonist. “Like it or not, it was George who put us on the map.” Which was more or less true. It was the general rule that in vaudeville, a trade filled with indignities of all kinds, no one was shat upon more than the house pianist. He accompanied nearly every act, and every ego that crossed the stage got thoroughly massaged by abusing him. If a joke went sour, it was because the pianist was too late and spoiled the delivery. If a dramatic bit was flat, it was because the pianist was too lively. If an acrobat stumbled, it was because the pianist distracted him.
But in his time at Otterman’s George had accomplished the impossible: he’d given them no room for complaints. After playing through the first rehearsal he would know the act better than the actors did, which was saying something as every actor had fine-tuned their performance with almost lapidary attention. He hit every beat, wrung every laugh out of every delivery, and knew when to speed things up or slow them down. He seemed to have the uncanny ability to augment every performance he accompanied. Word spread, and many acts became more amenable to performing at Otterman’s, which occupied a rather obscure spot on the Keith-Albee circuit.
Yet now he was leaving, almost as abruptly as he’d arrived. It put them in a pretty tight spot: Gretta Mayfield was coming specifically because she had agreed to have George accompany her, but that was just the start; after a moment’s review, the orchestra came to the horrifying conclusion that at least a quarter of the acts of the next week had agreed to visit Otterman’s only because George met their high standards.
After Tofty frantically spread the word, wild speculation followed. Did anyone know the reason behind the departure? Could anyone guess? Perhaps, Victor suggested, he was finally going to tour with an act of his own, or maybe he was heading straight to the legitimate (meaning well-respected orchestras and symphonies, rather than lowly vaudeville). But Tofty said he’d heard nothing about George making those sorts of movements, and he would know, wouldn’t he?
Maybe he’d been lured away by another theater, someone said. But Van Hoever would definitely ante up to keep George, Catherine pointed out, and the only theaters that could outbid him were very far away, and would never send scouts out here. What could the boy possibly be thinking? They wasted the whole morning debating the subject, yet they never reached an answer.
George did his best to ignore the flurry of gossip as he gathered his belongings, but it was difficult; as he’d not yet made a formal resignation to Van Hoever, everyone tried to find the reason behind hisdesertion in hopes that they could fix it.
“Is it the money, George?” Tofty asked. “Did Van Hoever turn you down for a raise?”
No, answered George. No, it was not the money.
“Is it the acts, George?” asked Archie. “Did one of the acts insult you? You’ve got to ignore those bastards, Georgie, they can be so ornery sometimes!”
But George scoffed haughtily, and said that no, it was certainly not any of the acts. The other musicians cursed Archie for such a silly question; of course it wasn’t any of the performers, as George never gave them reason for objection.
“Is it a girl, George?” asked Victor. “You can tell me. I can keep a secret. It’s a girl, isn’t it?”
At this George turned a brilliant red, and sputtered angrily for a moment. No, he eventually said. No, thank you very much, it was not a girl.
“Then was it something Tofty said?” asked Catherine. “After all, he was who you were talking to just before you said you quit.”
“What!” cried Tofty. “What a horrendous accusation! We were only talking theater hearsay, I tell you! I simply mentioned how Van Hoever was angry that an act had skipped us on the circuit!”
At that, George’s face became strangely still. He stopped gathering up his sheet music and looked away for a minute. But finally he said no, Tofty had nothing to do with it. “And would you all please leave me alone?” he asked. “This decision has nothing to do with you, and furthermore there’s nothing that will change it.”
The other musicians, seeing how serious he was, grumbled and shuffled away. Once they were gone George scratched his head and tried not to smile. Despite his solemn demeanor, he had enjoyed watching them clamor to please him.
The smile vanished as he returned to his packing and the decision he’d made. The orchestra did not matter, he told himself. Otterman’s did not matter anymore. The only thing that mattered now was getting out the door and on the road as soon as possible.
After he’d collected the last of his belongings he headed for his final stop: Van Hoever’s office. The theater manager had surely heard the news and was in the midst of composing a fine tirade, but if George left now he’d be denied payment for this week’s worth of performances. And though he could not predict the consequences of what he was about to do, he thought it wise to have every penny possible.
But when George arrived at the office hall there was someone seated in the row of chairs before Van Hoever’s door: a short, elderly woman who watched him with a sharp eye as if she’d been expecting him. Her wrists and hands were wrapped tight in cloth, and a poorly rolled cigarette was bleeding smoke from between two of her fingers. “Leaving without a goodbye?” she asked him.
George smiled a little. “Ah,” he said. “Hello, Irina.”
The old woman did not answer, but patted the empty chair next to her. George walked over, but did not sit. The old woman raised her eyebrows at him. “Too good to give me company?”
“This is an ambush, isn’t it?” he asked. “You’ve been waiting for me.”
“You assume the whole world waits on you. Come. Sit.”
“I’ll give you company,” he said. “But I won’t sit. I know you’re looking to delay me, Irina.”
“So impatient, child,” she said. “I’m just an old woman who wishes to talk.”
“To talk about why I’m leaving.”
“No. To give you advice.”
“I don’t need advice. And I’m not changing my mind.”
“I’m not telling you to. I just wish to make a suggestion before you go.”
George gave her the sort of impatient look that can only be given by the very young to the very old, and raised a fist to knock at Van Hoever’s door. But before his knuckles ever made contact, the old woman’s cloth-bound hand snatched his fist out of the air. “You will want to listen to me, George,” she said. “Because I know exactly why you’re leaving.”
George looked her over. If it had been anyone else, he would not have given them another minute, but Irina was one of the few people at Otterman’s who could command George’s attention. She was the orchestra’s only violist, and like most violists (who after all devoted their lives to an ignored or much-ridiculed instrument) she had acquired a very sour sort of wisdom. It was also rumored she’d witnessed terrible hardships in her home in Russia before fleeing to America, and this, combined with her great age, gave her a mysterious esteem at Otterman’s.
“Do you think so?” asked George.
“I do,” she said. “And aren’t you interested to hear my guess?”
She released him and patted the seat next to her once more. George sighed, but reluctantly sat.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Why such a hurry, child?” Irina said. “It seems like it was only yesterday that you arrived.”
“It wasn’t,” said George. “I’ve spent over half a year here, which is far too long.”
“Too long for what?” asked Irina.
George did not answer. Irina smiled, amused by this terribly serious boy in his too-large suit. “Time moves so much slower for the young. To me, it is as a day. I can still remember when you walked through that door, child, and three things struck me about you.” She held up three spindly fingers. “First was that you were talented. Very talented. But you knew that, didn’t you? You probably knew it too well, for such a little boy.”
“A little boy?” asked George.
“Oh, yes. A naïve little lamb, really.”
“Maybe then,” said George, his nose high in the air. He reached into his pocket, took out a pouch of tobacco, and began rolling his own cigarette. He made sure to appear as nonchalant as possible, having practiced the motions at home in the mirror. “If you say so,” said Irina. One finger curled down, leaving two standing. “Second was that you were proud, and reckless. This did not surprise me. I’ve seen it in many young performers. And I’ve seen many throw careers away as a result. Much like you’re probably doing now.”
George cocked an eyebrow, and lit his cigarette and puffed at it. His stomach spasmed as he tried to suppress a cough.
Irina wrinkled her nose. “What is that you’re smoking?”
“Some of Virginia’s finest, of course,” he said, though he wheezed a bit.
“That doesn’t smell like anything fine at all.” She took his pouch and peered into it. “I don’t know what that is, but it isn’t Virginia’s finest.”
George looked crestfallen. “It . . . it isn’t?” he asked.
“No. What did you do, buy this from someone in the orchestra?”
“Well, yes, but they seemed very trustworthy!”
She shook her head. “You’ve been snookered, my child. This is trash. Next time go to a tobacconist, like a normal person.”
George grumbled something about how it had to be a mistake, but he hurriedly put out his cigarette and began to stow the pouch away.
“Anyway,” she said, “I remember one final third thing about you when you first came here.” Another trembling blue finger curled down. She used the remaining one to poke him in the arm. “You did not seem all that interested in what you were playing, which was peculiar. No—what you were mostly interested in was a certain act that was traveling the circuit.”
George froze where he was, slightly bent as he stuffed the tobacco pouch into his pocket. He slowly turned to look at the old woman. “Still in a hurry, child?” asked Irina. “Or have I hit upon it?”
He did not answer.
“I see,” she said. “Well, I recall you asked about this one act all the time, nearly every day. Did anyone know when this act would play here? It had played here once, hadn’t it? Did they think this act would play nearby, at least? I think I can still remember the name of it . . . Ah, yes. It was the Silenus Troupe, wasn’t it?”
George’s face had gone very closed now. He nodded, very slightly.
“Yes,” said the old woman. She began rubbing at her wrists, trying to ease her arthritis. “That was it. You wanted to know nothing but news about Silenus, asking all the time. But we would always say no, no, we don’t know nothing about this act. And we didn’t. He’d played here once, this Silenus, many, many months ago. The man had terribly angered Van Hoever then with his many demands, but we had not seen him since, and no one knew where he was playing next. Does any of that sound familiar to you, boy?”
George did not nod this time, but he did not need to.
“Yes,” said Irina. “I think it does. And then this morning, you know, I hear news that Van Hoever is very angry. He’s angry because an act has skipped us on the circuit, and is playing Parma, west of here. And the minute I hear this news about Van Hoever today, I get a second piece of news, but this one is about our young, marvelous pianist. He’s leaving. Just suddenly decided to go. Isn’t that strange? How one piece of news follows the other?”
George was silent. Irina nodded and took a long drag from her cigarette. “I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the act that’s skipped us is Silenus,” she said. “And unless I’m mistaken, you’re going to go chasing him. Am I right?”
George cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said hoarsely.
“Yes. In fact, now that I think about it, that act might be the only reason you signed on to be house pianist here. After all, you could’ve found somewhere better. But Silenus played here once, so perhaps he might do so again, and when he did you wished to be here to see it, no?”
Irina smiled, satisfied with her deductions. “The famous Silenus,” she said. “I’ve heard many rumors about him in my day. I’ve heard his troupe is full of gypsies, traveled here from abroad. I’ve heard he tours the circuit at his choosing. That he was touring vaudeville before it was vaudeville.”
“Have you heard that every hotel saves a private room for him?” asked George. “That’s a popular one.”
“No, I’d not heard that one. Why are you so interested in this man, I wonder?”
George thought about it. Then he slowly reached into his front pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. Though its corners were soft and blunt with age, it was very well cared for: it had been cleanly folded into quarters and tied up with string, like a precious message.
George plucked at the bow and untied the string, and then, with the gravity of a priest unscrolling a holy document, he unfolded the paper.
It was—or had once been—a theater bill. Judging by the few acts printed on it and the simple, sloppy printing job, it was from a very small-time theater, one even smaller than Otterman’s. But half of one page was taken up by a large, impressive illustration: though the ink had cracked and faded in parts, one could see that it depicted a short, stout man in a top hat standing in the middle of a stage, bathed in the clean illumination of the spotlight. His hands were outstretched to the audience in a pose of extreme theatricality, as if he was in the middle of telling them the most enthralling story in the world. Written across the bottom of the illustration, in a curling font that must have passed for fancy for that little theater, were three words: THE SILENUS TROUPE.
George reverently touched the illustration, as if he wished to fall inside it and hear the tale the man was telling. “I got this in my hometown,” he said. “He visited there, once. But I didn’t get to see.” Then he looked at Irina with a strange shine in his eyes, and asked, “What do you remember from when he was here?”
“What do I remember?”
“Yes. You had to have rehearsed with him when he played here, didn’t you? You must have seen his show. So what do you remember?”
“Don’t you know the act yourself? Why ask me?”
But George did not answer, but only watched her closely.
She grunted. “Well. Let me think. It seems so long ago . . .” She took a contemplative puff from her cigarette. “There were four acts, I remember that. It was odd, no one travels with more than one act these days. That was what angered Van Hoever so much.”
George leaned forward. “What else?”
“I remember . . . I remember there was a man with puppets, at the start. But they weren’t very funny, these puppets. And then there was a dancer, and a . . . a strongwoman. Wait, no. She was another puppet, wasn’t she? I think she might have been. And then there was a fourth act, and it . . . it . . .” She trailed off, confused, and she was not at all used to being confused.
“You don’t remember,” said George.
“I do!” said Irina. “At least, I think I do . . . I can remember every act I’ve played for, I promise, but this one . . . Maybe I’m wrong. I could’ve sworn I played for this one. But did I?”
“You did,” said George.
“Oh? How are you so certain?”
“I’ve found other people who’ve seen his show, Irina,” he said.
“Dozens of them. And they always say the same thing. They remember a bit about the first three acts—the puppets, the dancing girl in white, and the strongwoman—but nothing about the fourth. And when they try and remember it, they always wonder if they ever saw the show at all. It’s so strange. Everyone’s heard of the show, and many have seen it, but no one can remember what they saw.”
Irina rubbed the side of her head as if trying to massage the memory out of some crevice in her skull, but it would not come. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that when people go to see Silenus’s show . . . something happens. I’m not sure what. But they can never remember it. They can hardly describe what they’ve seen. It’s like it happened in a dream.”
“That can’t be,” said Irina. “It seems unlikely that a performance could do that to a person.”
“And yet you can’t remember it at all,” said George. “No one else here can remember, either. They just know Silenus was here, but what he did up on that stage is a mystery to them, even though they played alongside it.”
“And you want to witness this for yourself? Is that it?”
George hesitated. “Well. There’s a bit more to it than that, of course. But yes. I want to see him.”
“But why, child? What you’re telling me is very curious, that I admit, but you have a very good thing going on here. You’re making money. You are living by yourself, dressing yourself ”—she cast a leery eye over his cream-colored suit—“with some success. It is a lot to risk.”
“Why do you care? Why are you interested in me at all?”
Irina sighed. “Well. Let me just say that once, I was your age. And I was just about as talented as you were, boy. And some decisions I made were . . . unwise. I paid many prices for those decisions. I am still paying them.” She trailed off, rubbing the side of her neck. George did not speak; Irina very rarely spoke about her past. Finally she coughed, and said, “I would hate to see the same happen to you. You have been lucky so far, George. To abandon what you have to go chasing Silenus will test what luck you have.”
“I don’t need luck,” said George. “As you said, I can find better places to play. Everyone says so.”
“You’ve been coddled here,” she said sternly. “You have lived with constant praise, and it’s made you foolish.”
George sat up straight, affronted, and carefully refolded the theater bill and put it in his pocket. “Maybe. But I’d risk everything in the world to see him, Irina. You’ve no idea how far I’ve come just to get this chance.”
“And what do you expect will happen when you see this Silenus?” she asked.
George was quiet as he thought about his answer. But before he could speak, the office door was flung open and Van Hoever came stalking out.
Van Hoever came to a halt when he saw George sitting there. A cold glint came into his eye, and he said, “You.”
“Me,” said George mildly.
Van Hoever pointed into his office. “Inside. Now.”
George stood up, gathered all of his belongings, and walked into Van Hoever’s office with one last look back at Irina. She watched him go, and shook her head and said, “Still a boy. Remember that.” Then the door closed behind him and she was gone.
Less than a half an hour later George walked out the theater doors and into the hostile February weather. Van Hoever’s tirade had been surprisingly short; the man had been desperate to keep George on until they could find a decent replacement, and he’d been willing to pay accordingly, but George would not budge. He’d only just gotten news about Silenus’s performance today, on Friday, and the man and his troupe would be leaving Parma tomorrow. This would be his only chance, and it’d be very close, as the train ride to Parma would take nearly all day.
Once he’d been paid for his final week, he returned to his lodgings, packed (which took some time, as George was quite the clotheshorse), paid the remainder of his rent, and took a streetcar to the train station. There he waited for the train, trying not to shiver in the winter air and checking the time every minute. It had been a great while since he’d felt this vulnerable. For too long he’d kept to the cloistered world of the orchestra pit, crouched in the dark before the row of footlights. But now all that was gone, and if anything happened before he made it to Parma, the months at Otterman’s would have been in vain.
It wasn’t until George was aboard the train and it began pulling away that he started to breathe easy. Then he began to grin in disbelief. It was really happening: after scrounging for news for over half a year, he was finally going to see the legendary Heironomo Silenus, leader of wondrous players, legendary impresario, and the most elusive and mysterious performer to ever tour the circuits. And also, perhaps most unbelievably, the man George Carole suspected to be his father.