John Connolly John Connolly
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he

he

7

Chaplin stares at the name of the ship.

The Cairnrona, Chaplin says. We're all doomed.

It is September, 1910. He is walking behind Chaplin at Southampton docks, trying to keep pace with the older man because Chaplin knows the world and he wishes to know it also. Chaplin was with Fred Karno in Paris, and speaks of the women fucked in brothels, and the dancers charmed from the stage of the Folies Bergère and into Chaplin's bed—or those claimed to have been charmed, because Alf Reeves says that nothing about Chaplin can be believed, not if it comes from the man's own mouth. But he wants to believe Chaplin, wants to be like him, wants to be him. Chaplin dresses like a star, and tells the world of the star Chaplin is, and the brighter star Chaplin will become, the brightest ever. Chaplin has decreed it, and so it shall be written.

—What about it?

It is Fred Karno, Jr. who speaks. Fred Karno, Jr. and Alf Reeves have the task of corralling the fifteen-strong herd for the American tour. Fred Karno, Jr. will have to account to his father for every penny spent, and the Guv'nor has delivered warnings about Chaplin. If a way could be found to do so, Chaplin would have booked himself a stateroom for the crossing, and left the rest to sleep beneath the firmament, rain or shine.

Fred Karno, Jr. is a little

(very)

fearful of Chaplin.

Chaplin summons his smile, the one that makes Fred Karno, Jr. remember why Fred Karno, Jr. is very

(a little)

fearful of this man.

Beachy Head, says Chaplin. Boom!

And—in a bit of business so fast that he wishes to pause time and wind it back, just to examine how Chaplin performs the trick—Chaplin puffs full his cheeks, and opens wide his eyes, and causes his cap to rise so high above his head that his hands are already by his sides when it lands once again on his pate.

Emily Seaman turns to Fred Karno Jr.

—What does Mr. Chaplin mean by that?

If Fred Karno, Jr. knows the unfortunate history of the Cairnrona, Fred Karno, Jr. chooses not to answer. It is a mistake. By doing so, further ground is ceded to Chaplin, and Chaplin will colonize whatever space is offered because Chaplin dreads emptiness and silence. So Chaplin is the stoker on the Cairnrona misplacing a red-hot cinder, and Chaplin is the cinder itself tumbling through the air into the bottom of the starboard bunker, and Chaplin is the engineer staring up through the darkness at the descending light, this Lucifer imminent, and Chaplin is the air and the gas and the spark and the combustion, and Chaplin is the bunker hatch blown from the shelter deck, and finally Chaplin is the unfortunate Frederick Charles Longhurst, assistant steward of the Cairnrona, going the way of the hatch, sprouting wings, hands joined in prayer, ascending to join the ancestors.

April seventh of this year, Chaplin concludes. They're probably still finding bits of Longhurst off Beachy Head.

By now, a small crowd has gathered to watch. Chaplin takes a bow.

Laughter. Applause. A moan from Emily Seaman.

—Is Mr. Chaplin serious?

Mr. Chaplin is always serious, says Alf Reeves.

—Even when Mr. Chaplin is being funny?

Especially when Mr. Chaplin is being funny, says Alf Reeves. That's why Mr. Chaplin doesn't make me laugh.


At the Oceana Apartments, he keeps a picture in an album of members of the Fred Karno troupe on board the Cairnrona. He could find it, if he chose, but he does not need to see it to recall its every detail. They look, he knows, like a party of emigrants, and none would have appeared out of place queuing for soup from a charity kitchen, none except Chaplin, grinning from the center of a ship's lifebelt, haloed by it, a man apart. He sits to Chaplin's right, in a cap too big for his head.

He admires Chaplin, and Chaplin wishes to be admired, but he does not yet adore Chaplin, and Chaplin needs to be adored. Chaplin does not see him as a threat, even if earlier in the year the Guv'nor gives him the lead in Jimmy the Fearless. He believes this to be a sign of the Guv'nor's faith until George Seaman, Emily Seaman's husband, informs him that he was only promoted to bring Chaplin down a peg or two, and Chaplin doesn't much delight in being brought down. The Guv'nor knows that Chaplin is the butter on the bread and the gravy on the beef, which is why Chaplin takes center stage, even on the deck of the Cairnrona, and why Chaplin's face beams from a lifebelt, just as it will if another cinder falls, and another explosion occurs, this one taking the ship to the ocean bed, while Chaplin floats safely above all, leaving the drowned to gaze up at the soles of his shoes.


8

For two months, they travel and perform.

Montreal. Toronto. Into the United States.

New York. The Wow-Wows. ('Chaplin will do but the company amounts to little.')

Back to Toronto. Chicago. A Night in a London Club. ('Chaplin has come to be recognized as the leading comedy character of the Karno offerings.')

Cincinnati. Mumming Birds. Chicago again. Milwaukee. Duluth and Minneapolis, split weeks. ('The company is not especially strong.')

Winnipeg.

Butte.

Spokane.

Seattle.

Vancouver.

Victoria.

Tacoma.

Portland.

They share rooms for a dollar apiece, including meals, but only while working. When they travel, they do so at their own expense. To save money, they sleep at stations and on trains. They spend no more than a nickel on a meal, and then only once a day.

They are tired.

They are broke.

They are not the stars. Chaplin is the star.

They are not a company. Chaplin is the company.

And when Chaplin leaves, as Chaplin must surely do, what then?


He and Chaplin often room together. He prides himself on his neatness while Chaplin oscillates between dishevelment and elegance according to mood and sexual appetite. While he learns his lines, Chaplin practices his Greek. While he studies the theatrical pages, Chaplin ponders Schopenhauer. When money is at its scarcest, he fries spoiled chops over a naked flame while Chaplin plays the violin to hide the sound of sizzling, a blanket jammed beneath the door so the smell does not leak out, as of two suicides trapping gas.

So they eat the same meals, and sleep in the same beds, and darn the holes in their clothing from the same ball of yarn, but they are not the same. Chaplin watches all, but not to learn, because Chaplin has nothing to learn.

Chaplin gathers, Chaplin accrues.

Routines, gags, bits of business.

Women.

They fall to their knees before Chaplin on the dusty floors of boarding houses. They fill their mouths with him, the young and the old.

Mostly, the young.


It is all that he has ever wanted, but it is not how he wanted it to be. He cannot live this way. He leaves the company in Colorado Springs, Arthur Dando, a fellow malcontent, by his side, and travels back to the East Coast. The Lusitania carries them home. In 1915, when a U-boat blows up the Lusitania, he recalls the Cairnrona and thinks that, well, at least he was consistent.