Who am I? It is a question Nathaniel the actor asked himself with every new character he was to play. It was also the question the man was to ask himself as he waited along the dock for the sun to rise and take that seven dollar ride North to Albany on the steamer Isaac Newton.
Unlike England, this country America was on the move. Advancing, stretching out. Everything was about now, everything was about what came next. It was not a country tied to an old history or long established ways of life. It did not have a preoccupation with tired traditions that had little relevance to the lives the people lived. This country seemed to be good at saying farewell, and then getting on with it.
Everyone seemed to be going somewhere or coming from somewhere. In this country America, everything happened fast. Centuries seemed compressed into decades. The play was the perfect example. Its rise and fall as quick as it takes to have one good meal. There, then gone in a blink. But that also meant the next rise could happen just as quick. That too was part of this country America, it seemed possessed of youthful, indefatigable attitudes.
This country America also had an unsettled, restless nature. And so, it was more like Nathaniel was than England ever was, and that fascinated him. It made him feel akin to it in some mysterious way as yet unrevealed to him.
He also came to see better that to truly evolve as an actor meant more than just finding the right part, it was knowing the part and how to enrich it. And that meant answering essential questions like…Who am I?…Why am I here?…What do I want?…What is my purpose?
To understand all that means to also understand the country you are part of, the time and the place and the people, so when you speak, you speak the language of their souls.
The light on the Hudson seemed endless, and the cool rush of the wind stirred the air. Nathaniel engaged in conversation with anyone that he could. People were traveling to places that he’d never heard of, with Indian names he could hardly pronounce. Their whole life stories pared down to minutes. There was music on board—piano and fiddle—in the salon. Mostly American songs that he didn’t know. Lively tunes and heartfelt ballads.
At the dock in Poughkeepsie was a black in chains and a man toting a shotgun. Nathaniel thought that in New York all blacks were free, but a passenger explained that runaways could be brought back home for reward. It was a sobering moment, indeed. That little shadow he carried got a taste of the daylight, so he went to the salon where they were selling hard cider and whiskey and got himself exquisitely drunk.
The salon was pretty well crowded with passengers reveling to the music or talking among themselves. It was mostly the upper deck crowd, all state room and gentility. There were a handful of men along the bar and the back tables whose passage was nothing more than the space they took up on the deck.
It turned out the piano player was a young woman and the fiddler a gentleman a few years older. They had the look of escapees from church service, if you asked Nathaniel. Sometimes the young lady would play a tune familiar to the patrons and call for them to sing along. Here’s where that pack at the bar had to be set down by the hosteller and steward to stay abreast of good manners or they’d be booted to shore.
She seemed a shy girl, the piano player, and educated, for she spoke well. But it still surprised Nathaniel when she began a rendition of the farcical opera The Devil to Pay. He’d seen it performed in London, he’d even played in it himself with none other than the good Colonel——at the tail end of a lesser program, in a warehouse, by the fish market along the banks of the Thames.
And being just drunk enough and having no practical regard for making a fool of himself, and as a way of getting that shadow sitting on his heart stuffed into a pocket somewhere, he began singing to the music, musing the words was more like it, as he had when he’d performed it.
Little by little he drew the attention of the drunks around him and they began to applaud and whistle and those in the salon took notice. He stood now, giving a flick to the tip of his cap. “I’m not much of a singer,” he said. “I’m an actor by trade.” This brought out the usual heartfelt and spiteful hissing which he tried to quell with a smile. “I just want you to know,” he said, “that an actor considers himself a rousing success if he’s hissed and booed…and not drowned or shot.”
The girl at the piano had done enough of these salons to invite Nathaniel forward, and her playing drifted into a soft background as Nathaniel found a spot among the tables. The actor in him had taken over, turning into the perfect cocktail of talent and drunkenness.
Nathaniel ended up performing the whole one act play, speaking out the songs. And it must have gone over well, because he pocketed quite a stash of tribute. The passengers actually thought he was part of the show, and he saw no profit in honesty.
He was stone cold sober and starving by the time he was done, and he and the piano player, and the accompanist on the fiddle, who turned out to be her husband, suggested they meet for dinner. And so the next chapter of Nathaniel’s life had begun on nothing more than a lark.
Cecil Poole and his wife Abiah were Christians from Cincinnati. As members of the Swedenborgian Church, they traveled throughout the east, playing in salons, circuses, fairs, religious camp shows, raising money for Christ and spreading the Swedenborgian gospel.
They handed Nathaniel a religious pamphlet at dinner, which he took graciously, as they were paying for supper. He knew of this sect from England because they had a very different view of the black race, considering them at the very least equal, if not superior to whites, and invited them into their homes as fellow Christians.
“We’ve even performed in theatres,” said Abiah, leaning her head toward him and looking about, as if this fact got out they’d be open to blackmail or hanging.
“You said you were an actor,” said Cecil. “You’ve performed on stage? In theatres?”
“A few times,” said Nathaniel dryly. “But I always repent afterwards.” “Abiah watched you carefully tonight,” said her husband. “And she believes she could give you a few helpful pointers that would raise your performance.”
He was smiling privately when someone walked up to the table and sat in the seat to his side. His eyes came up to rest upon a young woman in a simple white dress. It surprised him to say the least, and she smiled politely.
“Nathaniel,” said Abiah, “this my cousin, Genevieve. Genevieve… Nathaniel.”
She put out her hand to shake. Her hair was black and pulled back, with a striking widow’s peak, and she wore strange looking glasses with hexagonal lenses. As he took her hand, she said, “In case you’re wondering what member of the orchestra I am…I play the booking ledger and the account files. Otherwise I have no discernible talent whatsoever. Artistic or otherwise. And…I’ve learned to glory in my lack of talent and my lack of interest in my lack of talent.”
“She went to preparatory seminary,” said Abiah. “The Washington Female Seminary.”
“And I have been a great cause of distress to my family ever since.” As if in secret, Genevieve said, “It was a Presbyterian seminary. Turns out I am not an outstanding Christian, but just a plain old sinner.”
“She’s much too modest,” said Cecil.
“About being a sinner?” said Nathaniel.
Later that evening, the Poole’s went back to the salon to entertain the passengers. A night of Brahms and Mozart piano concertos. Soothing music to complement the darkness of the river and the densely groved shoreline. They walked the crowded deck, Nathaniel and this young woman. There were passengers asleep on chairs and benches or lying on bedrolls spread out across the bow. There was drinking and vulgarity and laughter, voices echoing out into the reaches of a stilled nightscape to fall away like thin cries.
Something had met in their eyes back there at the table. He saw it, she saw it. She no longer wore her glasses, and her eyes had a feral quality and looked as if someone had chipped off pieces of azure glass.
“When I saw you in the salon today, performing,” said Genevieve, “I was envious.”
“Happiness. You looked extremely happy. I’m curious…What does an actor do if he despises the words and thoughts coming out of his mouth?”
“That’s a strange question.”
“Should I be embarrassed? I’m not easily embarrassed.”
“Well,” he said, “An actor does what everyone else does who despises the words and thoughts coming out of his mouth. Only the actor has to do it better, more convincingly.”
“Is it that simple?”
“Simplicity is the bread and butter of good acting. Unfortunately, good bread and butter is hard to come by.”
“I take care of my cousin and Cecil,” she said, “because they cannot take care of themselves. So, the family enlisted me to be the mule who pulled the wagon. A well-dressed mule, but a mule nonetheless.”
“That’s a disparaging way to speak of oneself.”
“Like the good actor who despises the words coming out of his mouth…I gather I was convincing enough.”
She stopped and leaned against the railing and looked out upon the Hudson. The lanterns along the deck of the steamer lit the river and there upon the blackness was the luminous reflection of the Isaac Newton and its peopled decks, otherworldly and alive just below the surface of the churning waters.
“We look so like a dream down there…just beneath the waves. Don’t we?” she said.
He glanced over the railing, but he had been stealing a look at her. “What a different Genevieve Wells than the one on deck,” she said. “And how is that?”
“That down there is a woman who will not stand for being a mule pulling someone else’s wagon. That woman down there sees a very different world in places no one thinks to look.”
The music had ceased in the salon and down the crowded deck came Abiah, searching about, finally waving to Genevieve. “I was looking for you.”
Abiah had come up from behind Nathaniel, and as she passed close beside him she slid her fingers along the pockets of his coat and with such slight mastery, stole the key to his room.
“Are you going to be here for a while? Cecil and I will come back and keep you company.”
“I’ll be here,” Genevieve said. She looked at Nathaniel. “What about you? Can you bear my strange questions a little longer?”
“I believe I’m up to the challenge.”
Genevieve and her cousin talked privately, and in those ensuing moments she spotted Nathaniel’s reflection in the window of the hatch- way door, handsome and impertinent, watching her. When Abiah walked away, Genevieve turned to him, “You’ve been staring at me, you know.”
Abiah Poole and her husband returned with a bottle of wine and glasses. The four drank together at the bow railing along the upper deck and they watched as towns appeared out of the darkness, sparkling pockets of light along the shore or receding back from the docks up into the hills. The river commanded one’s imagination, and Nathaniel thought of Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper. He spoke of reading Last of the Mohicans as a boy in England, and he looked into the reaches of the very woods Cooper had written about. As he talked of how this stirred his blood and made him feel like a boy again, Abiah deftly slipped the key to Nathaniel’s room back in his pocket.
He held Genevieve’s hand as he said goodnight and she leaned up and whispered to him, “I envy you.”
He lay in his bunk restlessly, envisioning Genevieve as an actress onstage when there came the sounds of turmoil from somewhere out along the upper deck.
He opened his door and stole a look. People had come out of their rooms along the deck. The captain, a boatswain, and two deckhands were outside the room next door. The captain was demanding entry, and when refused, the deckhands muscled their way in.
Nathaniel shut his door. As he slipped on his trousers, he could hear the muffled sounds of arguing and movement. This lasted a few minutes, and then there was a brusque knock at his own door. As he opened it a lantern was held up close to his face. He put out a hand to cut off the light. The captain said, “We need to search your room.”
“There’s been a robbery,” said the boatswain.
Nathaniel barely got the word out that they could come in when the deckhands muscled past him, their lanterns swaying as they went.
“And no chicken pickings either,” said one of the deckhands, as he tossed Nathaniel’s clothes and suitcase onto the bunk. These the boatswain investigated while the captain commanded the doorway, his prickly fingers on the pistol in his belt.
The deckhands were looking for any place money might be hidden, any nook or cranny. Their lantern close to the wall like huge searching eyes. But it was the suitcase with the cookie tin inside it the boatswain was trying to open. The articles from the London paper about the murder caused him to panic. His hands trembling until he remembered he had done away with the damn things before he left Manhattan. He had burned them behind the house on Lafayette Place that last night, thank God. His breathing eased, but people are rarely right with their timing.
“Think I got something here, boss,” said one of the deckhands.
He lay across the bed, his arm squeezed down into the space between the mattress and the wall. He sat up and the light was put upon him. He held up a wallet.
“Toss it here,” said the captain.
The deckhand obliged. The captain walked outside. A man’s voice, “That’s my wallet…the money…there was near over two thousand dollars in that wallet.”
“You’re not much for hiding,” said the boatswain. “I know nothing of that.”
“I suppose it just climbed into the bed with you.”
The captain returned. He was slapping the wallet against the palm of a hand.
“If I stole the money, would I be stupid enough to keep that wallet and hide it here? Why not fling it into the river?”
“Maybe you’re just not that clever,” said the captain. “Maybe you’re arrogant. Maybe this is exactly what a confidence man would do and so make an excuse for himself. It doesn’t matter. The Albany court will handle you.”
They chained Nathaniel to one of the stanchions outside the pilot house. He sat crosslegged in the baking sun, treated as harshly as that runaway black, with ash from the smokestacks snowing down on them.
They searched the boat for the money and questioned the passengers to see if he might have an accomplice on board. They had stopped and loaded wood at Germantown, so his accomplice might have gotten off there. Of particular interest were the Pooles and Genevieve Wells.
“We didn’t know him,” they said. “He was an actor who just stepped in and started performing,” they said. “The passengers seemed to like him, so we let him continue,” they said.
“He seemed decent enough,” they said.
Abiah Poole did remark, though, that she might have seen him talking to a man at the landing where the runaway slave was on the deck.
Nathaniel was brought a tin bowl of water by one of the deckhands. While he drank, the man squatted beside him. “I know the Albany jail. Done time there. Nasty place. God help you if you do time on the treadmill.”
From How Beautiful They Were, by Boston Teran. Used with the permission of the publisher, High-Top. Copyright © 2019 by Boston Teran.