Welcome to the second installment of I Was Born for the Stage. My apologies for missing yesterday, but I had a tight deadline to get Room 3 to my editor before I headed out of town for Labor Day weekend. I got it handed off, though! Take a look:
Right now it looks like early to mid-October for this puppy, but we’ll see. It’s been a long road, but worth it. I hope you all enjoy it.
Now, on with the story…
Elsbeth ran across the street, pulling the cord from the ground ahead of her as she went. Much to her good fortune, the cord seemed to be leading her straight to the building across the street.
“Eustice, get back here right now,” she called, but the puppy ignored her, scrambling up onto the building’s wooden entranceway. She picked up her pace and, as she approached the building, it became clear why it had seemed so familiar: it seemed to be a theater of some sort.
She knew – and loved – theaters, though it had been years since she’d been inside of one. Her regular visits had come when she had been much younger, and her mother much healthier. On Saturday evenings the family had often dressed up in their finest and taken a carriage ride to the Odeon downtown. It hadn’t been much, nearly half the size of this place, but it had been a palace to her young mind. She had seen a woman sawed in half (much to her horror) and then reassembled on that stage.
Elsbeth pondered the wonders that might have taken place inside this theater as she approached it. Her eyes finally deciphered the fading outlines of painted letters over the entranceway, a rainbow that advertised the place as THE EMPORIUM. She wondered what her mother might have thought of this place, with its elaborate wainscoting, dangling chandelier (gas powered, no less), and faded maroon walls. She probably would have loved it.
At last, Elsbeth reached the point where the blue cord disappeared under the rich dark planks of the theater’s entrance and released it just in time to see Eustice’s tail disappear through the open front door. Figuring that she would have time with the cord later, she ran for the door.
As she approached, the door swung shut on its own; not a hard slam, but a soft swish, as if some invisible usher had held it open for the puppy and now released it. She stopped before the door, eyeing the bright yellow playbill that had been stuck to the door. A single man dominated the center of the playbill, his face rendered in thick, bold ink. She could have sworn that the man moved, his long black hair flowing in some breeze that only existed in the world of the playbill. His shoulders moved as his hands worked at something off-frame.
Elsbeth shook her head and the man on the playbill froze, his eyes wide and penetrating. ONE NIGHT ONLY, the playbill read at the top, and beneath the man it read THE AMAZING CANTU with a date three years prior, one that put it right around the beginning of the plague. She didn’t like the feeling that crept over her just then, especially not when she looked into those sinister eyes, but she had to rescue Eustice. Nothing less would suffice. It took an enormous effort to tear her eyes away from Cantu, but she did, pushing the door open with her forearm.
The warm, dark interior of the theater had been appointed in crimson and gold; the carpet beneath her feet was a fascinating red-and-yellow checkered pattern. The walls had been covered with elaborate, hand-crafted red wallpaper. Gaslights hung on those walls, framed by elaborate brass sconces. She hadn’t seen such beauty in years, and it took her aback. She wished that she could load the whole thing into the cart and take it Eastward with them.
A squeak from somewhere off to her right ended her reverie. She turned her head in time to glimpse her puppy’s behind as he scrambled under a heavy red curtain at that end of the lobby.
“Eustice,” she hissed, and rushed after him. She pulled up short, though, as she approached the curtain and heard the hushed whispers of an audience on the other side.
She knew that sound: that was the thrill that ran through an audience moments before the show began. That may have been her favorite moment of any show, no matter how glorious or spectacular the performance – for a moment, everyone in that room turned their attention as one, ready to be amazed. Electric, her mother had said, and she figured that described it as good as any other word.
She began to part the curtain, but hesitated as she remembered the one thing about the theater that she had not enjoyed. No, beyond that. She had despised feeling so many eyes on her. Even at a young age she had felt them crawling all over her as her family found their seats, and she hadn’t liked it one bit. She knew this would be similar, but amplified, as the puppy would have interrupted whatever show awaited them.
As if he could read her mind, Eustice barked from somewhere deep inside the theater. She didn’t like it, but she had to do this for the puppy and for her father. Steeling herself, she pushed the curtain aside and stepped through.
The theater did lie on the other side; it had been designed with the same rich red tones and golden accents that dominated the lobby but writ grand, soaring toward the heavens in a rich, domed ceiling.
A small problem with the scene, though: she didn’t see a single person in any of the seats, though the sound of the audience continued to ripple through her ears. Panic seized her and she had to fight the urge to back away and run; a good thing, too, because a moment later she spotted Eustice down near the foot of the stage.
“Eustice,” she shouted, but if the puppy heard her, he didn’t care. He scrambled up the small set of stairs at the stage’s corner. Elsbeth began down the aisle, trying to pretend that she didn’t feel dozens of unseen eyes upon her.
As the puppy reached the stage and began burrowing under the red velvet curtain up there, Elsbeth pulled up short, her face aching as she ran into a force that she didn’t understand. It felt as if someone had built an invisible wall in the middle of the aisle; it took the breath from her and knocked her flat on her butt. As she struggled to her feet, a man’s voice whispered in her ear:
She shuddered. She wanted to go after Eustice, but her mind insisted that she listen to the voice. She reached for the closest seat. An aisle seat; she wouldn’t normally have chosen it, but she would do just about anything to get away from that creepy voice. She tried to settle in, her body shaking, wondering just what was about to happen.
Her father had surely come out of the General Store and seen that they had disappeared by now, right? There were only so many buildings that she could have run to, and besides, the cord would show him where she had gone. Her heart soared at that thought: the cable! She had only to wait this out, and her father would come along to clean up the mess.
It almost comforted her. Almost. But not quite.
A hush fell across the invisible audience, and she scanned the seats, wondering what had happened – or was about to happen. She had her answer a moment later, as the curtains flew open on the stage, revealing the lone form of the man with the flowing black hair – the one that she had seen on the playbill. The man wore a sharp black tuxedo, with a matching black top hat that sat on his head at a jaunty angle.
Cantu, she thought, fascinated despite herself.
The man bowed, his arms tucked behind his back. The unseen audience exploded into a roar of applause, and the man smiled. After an appropriate time, he straightened, motioning for silence from the audience. They complied, and he scanned the empty seats.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, in a very smooth-accented voice. An Eastern voice. “Tonight, I present to you sights of wonderment and awe. Sights unseen beyond the temples of the East and the salons of the West. Sights denied even to the mightiest of magicians among us. We begin with a show of innocence.”
Elsbeth found herself drawn into the man’s performance despite her own concerns, but the word innocence alarmed her, made her sit up straighter in her chair. He couldn’t mean…
The man smirked and took his hands from behind his back, producing Eustice.
“Let us begin,” he said.
You can read Part 3 here.