The violins came in late at the top of the third measure. Again.
They’d been late at yesterday’s rehearsal and earlier today just before lunch. One would think a generous hour-long break, complete with mint iced tea and citrus cake, would bring them back alert, bows poised over the strings, ready to touch down at the mere twitch of Bertram Johann’s wrist. But once again there had been just that breath of hesitation—the tiniest fraction of a beat—followed soon after by the cacophonous halt of every instrument, one cellist the last to realize as a singular low note echoed into the empty hall.
“Do you not have schools in Cleveland?” Johann’s voice bore the trace of his Austrian childhood—the one rumored to have been spent in the greatest concert halls in Europe. “Have you not learned to count? One. Two. Three. Four.” His speech was accompanied by the small sound of a baton striking his open palm. “Or perhaps here in America you think you are entitled to an extra half beat in each measure? You think you are Rockefellers of the music?”
Up in the balcony, Vada Allenhouse held the Bissell carpet sweeper still and listened to the tirade, smiling. She would have been on beat. Safely tucked away in the shadows, she peered out over the edge and looked down the line of mortified musicians. Their instruments hung listlessly at their sides, resting bows and stilled mallets. One face after
another—some pale, some bearded, some young, some old—all men, all lined up with nowhere to look. Their eyes darted from the conductor to the floor to some invisible comfort out in the third row.
She scanned and scanned until she found the face she sought. Even in the dim light of the stage, Vada could see the flush that crept up from the stiff white collar of his shirt. She stared until the slightest turn of his head brought their gazes together. One pale eyebrow popped above the rim of his spectacles.
“You! Third Chair!” Johann’s voice brought the eyebrow back behind the spectacles and the face to full attention. “What is your name?”
“Walker?” The sound was weak and small before he cleared his throat and spoke again. “Garrison Walker.”
“Do you think you could tear yourself away from whatever is so fascinating in the balcony? Or would you rather I ask Miss Allenhouse to come down and conduct you with her feather duster?”
“Yes sir. I mean, no sir. That is—”
“Enough, Third Chair.” Johann struck his music stand with his baton. “We start again from the top of measure one, and—”
Vada focused her attention on the carpets and thrust the Bissell forward on the first downbeat. She moved the sweeper, keeping time with a swishing percussion as the flowers beneath her appeared and disappeared as the music swelled from below. She hummed the tune just beneath her breath and held her free hand aloft, imagining the strings of her violin beneath her fingers.
After an uninterrupted expanse of orchestration, the top row was swept clean, and she heard Johann’s muted, “Much better that time.” He must have given some permission to dismiss, because soon thereafter came the sound of dozens of soft conversations, the unmistakable click of instrument cases, and the scooting of chairs as the musicians became a wiggling mass of dark suits.
Vada tried again to catch Garrison’s eye, but he was engaged in conversation with the man beside him—a portly, older gentleman, Mr. Pennington, whose jowls quivered with each word. He was probably going on about his glory days playing with the quartet at the Hollenden Hotel. Played for presidents, he did, and Garrison would be kind enough to listen to each word, as if he were hearing it for the first time. Just as well. The prolonged conversation would give her time to freshen up. It was hot up in the balcony, and she sensed a fine sheen of perspiration on her brow, not to mention the trickle down her back.
Once the Bissell was safely stored in the upstairs maintenance closet, Vada made her way down the steps, eager to have the vast powder room to herself for a quick splash of water on her face, and perhaps a repining of her hair.
“Oh, Mr. Johann. You startled me.”
He was not a tall man, and he seemed always to be assuming some pose to increase his stature. He stood now at the foot of the stairs, his hands locked behind his back as he rocked on his heels. His hair had both the color and appearance of iron as it sprang, thick and straight, from all parts of his head.
“Did you take the program to the printer?”
“Not yet, Mr. Johann. I haven’t had a chance to proofread—”
“Are we to assume that it will walk itself around the corner?”
“I wanted to be sure there were no errors. I didn’t know if you’d want to make any changes.”
“Changes in what way, Miss Allenhouse?” He looked down at her, though he had to nearly raise himself to his toes to do so. “Is there something in our current repertoire that you find lacking?”
“No…no, of course not.” She wanted desperately to bring her kerchief up to wipe the sweat from her brow, lest Herr Johann believe it was his pathetic attempt at authority that had her in such a heated state. But no such indignity could ever take place in the presence of one so highly self-esteemed, so she forced a sweet smile. “If you’ve looked it over—”
“It is my job, now, to verify the program? I am to be both the musical director, the conductor, and the theater secretary?”
The insufferable man made himself taller and taller with each word until Vada was tempted to look down to see if his expensive shoes were still attached to the floral carpet.
She puffed herself up a bit. “I’ll get them to the printer first thing Monday morning.”
“Which means you can assure me they will be ready by Friday night?” She bit the inside of her cheek. “Perhaps the printer is still open. I can take them by this evening on my way home.”
Herr Johann lowered his heels to the floor and gave a curt nod before walking away, his hands still clasped at his back. A peek through the thick double doors showed Garrison had made no progress extracting himself from the conversation with Mr. Pennington, so Vada allowed herself a quick foray into the powder room before making her way to the little office at the back of the theater. Here the faint rays of late afternoon sun stretched through the skylight, allowing her to find the large cream-colored envelope in the middle of her desk. Four sheets of paper in all—the first proudly announcing the debut of the East Cleveland Terrington Community Orchestra, under the leadership of Bertram Johann. The second listed the five pieces to be performed, beginning with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 and culminating in his “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
It was a far cry from the glorious philharmonic that had filled the city with ambitious, masterful performances for as long as Vada could remember. No, the gathering of musicians on this stage was very much a remnant—some carried over from the philharmonic, but most, like her Garrison, just ordinary men who’d once abandoned their instruments to work in small, cramped offices all over the city. Their names were listed on the final pages, followed by small blocks of advertising. After the concert, “Waltz” on into Sherm’s Soda Shoppe, present this program, and receive two chocolate sodas for the
price of one! Visit the birthplace of the Viennese Waltz! Let D. S. Walters
book your voyage today!
Vada sighed. What she wouldn’t give to take such a journey. To visit all those places she’d dreamed about as a child.
Now, though, she squinted to make out the time on the wall clock. Four forty-five. If she hurried, leaving right now, she should have time to make it to the printer’s before they closed. She rushed out of the office, nearly colliding with Garrison in the hall.
“How did we sound?” Behind his spectacles, bright blue eyes searched for her approval.
“Better,” Vada said after just a breath’s hesitation. “Much better as the rehearsal wore on.”
He seemed awash in relief and held his violin case up in a gesture of victory. “I thought so too. But it’s hard to tell on stage. What did you think—”
“Listen.” She held up the envelope. “I need to get this around the corner before five o’clock. Can you walk with me?”
His face puckered the way it always did before giving her disappointing news. “Sorry, darling. I have to get some briefs prepared to file in court on Monday. And I don’t want to work on the Lord’s day.”
“Nor should you,” she said, unfazed by his response. “I suppose that is just the price you pay to become a successful lawyer.”
Garrison smiled, making him look like a little boy about to go visit his father at work. “Lawyer by day and third-chair violinist by night.” He cast his gaze above. “And junior partner by the fall, if, of course, that’s what the Lord has planned for me. His direction has to come first in any plans I make.”
Vada stood in front of him, leaning forward ever so slightly, as if to remind him of her presence as he made his future plans. “Don’t you ever want more? Does it ever cross your mind to just toss that partnership to the wind—strike out with nothing but the clothes on your back and your violin and listen to the music on every world stage?”
“You’re right, Vada.” He lowered his gaze. “Sometimes I think I’d go mad if I didn’t have this.” He held up his violin case. “Oh.” She made a vague attempt to hide her disappointment. “Well, yes, music is a great release—”
“And I know I couldn’t make it through a day if not for you.” He turned his head to glance up and down the empty hallway before bending to give her his familiar kiss. Top of the right cheek, his lips soft and dry against her flushed skin.
Just like that, she was third chair.
“I have to get to the printer’s,” she said as he drew away.
“And I have to get to the office.”
They walked together down the hall and out the theater’s back door, wished each other a good evening, and turned in opposite directions. She’d lost at least five minutes.
With renewed fervor, Vada rushed down the street, clutching the envelope to her like a schoolgirl with her precious homework. The sidewalks were crowded this Saturday afternoon, and she wove in and out of those people whose agendas were certainly less urgent than hers. The printer’s shop was still half a block away, and if she was to make it on time, she’d need to break into a most unladylike run. The piercing eyes of Herr Bertram Johann still burned at the back of her head, spurring her on and, finding an opening in the mass of people, she took her first lunging step.
“Excuse me! Pardon me!” she called out over her shoulder, not once considering slowing her pace to avoid the occasional brush with a stranger. While she was thus turned around, she noticed she wasn’t the only person running up the street.
“Oh, bother.” Should she slow her steps or attempt a final burst of speed? But in just that brief pause, he’d caught up to her.
“Miss Allenhouse?” There wasn’t a hint of labor to his breath while she clutched the envelope to disguise her heaving.
“Mr. Voyant. How…unusual to see you again.”
They stood in the middle of the sidewalk, impeding the pedestrian traffic, so when he touched the fabric of her sleeve in a most gallant manner, she allowed herself to be led beneath the protective striped awning of Moravek’s bakery.
“You’re not an easy woman to keep up with.”
“And you, apparently, are not an easy man to escape.”
He touched the brim of his cap, drawing her eyes to the fringe of jet black hair beneath it.
“What can I do for you today, Mr. Voyant?”
“Well, for starters, you can call me Dave. And then, since we’ll be on friendlier terms…” He reached inside his jacket pocket and produced a small notebook and a stub of pencil. “You can fill me in on the big debut.”
Vada clutched the program even tighter.
His gaze lingered on the envelope. “And what would that be?”
For just a moment Vada wondered if he was more interested in what was within it or behind it. “I’ve told you before, Mister Voyant, Herr Johann won’t allow any press to attend the rehearsals. And as I am merely a secretary, I can hardly be a good source of information.”
“Oh, I have the feeling you’re more than a secretary—”
“Nevertheless, if you want a preview of the ‘Harmonic,’ you’ll need to conduct an interview with Herr Johann himself.”
“Come on, Miss Allenhouse.” He leaned closer, the deep bass of his voice underscoring the sounds of the street. “It is Miss Allenhouse, isn’t it?”
Vada flashed her best smile, the one she knew would bring out the dimple just above her chin.
“Don’t try your flattery on me, Mr. Voyant. I really can be of no help.
Now, if you would like to speak to Herr Johann—”
“I’ve tried.” He effectively blocked her exit with one side step.
“Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think that guy thinks I’m an idiot.”
She wanted to say it wasn’t his imagination at all, that Bertram Johann considered just about everybody to be an idiot, but she didn’t want to hurl an insult into his sincere green eyes. Instead she said, “I’m sorry. Mr. Johann is intent on revealing as little information as possible.”
“I’m begging you, Miss Allenhouse. Anything you tell me would be helpful.” He held up his little notebook again, clearly revealing the time on his wristwatch.
“Oh no!” Vada stamped her foot, and the envelope dropped to her side. “Now you’ve made me late for the printer’s, and we’ll never get the program on time.”
“So that is your precious cargo.” Dave’s eyes traveled the length of her, stopping short of being downright insulting. “What’s on the list for the evening’s entertainment? A little Bach? A little Beethoven?” As he spoke, he moved aside to hold the bakery door open, allowing a woman and her two children to pass through. He tipped his cap and
wished her a good afternoon, at which time the woman turned and sent an approving smile over her shoulder.
Vada squared herself in response, preparing to get out of this conversation. Now. After all, Mrs. Moravek, the baker’s wife, had been serving Garrison and her their Sunday morning pastries for nearly a year. What would she think seeing Vada locked in conversation with another man? It was only a matter of time before she would come to the window and see—
“Maybe a touch of Mozart?”
“Honestly, Mr. Voyant. Why do I get the impression that your ability to rattle off a list of composers exhausts your vat of musical knowledge?” He chuckled and threw his hands up in surrender.
“You’ve caught me. I just got into town a couple of months ago, and the first assignment I get is the arts beat. So can you help a fellow out?”
“I don’t think—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Dave snatched the envelope from her hand.
“Give that back to me!”
“Were you headed for Franklin’s Dream Printing just around the corner?”
“Yes, until you—”
“I’ll take it in for you.”
“They’ll open for me, Miss Allenhouse. Answer one question, and I promise you’ll have them in a week.”
“We need them by Thursday.”
“Answer two, and you’ll have them Wednesday.”
She studied his face. The smile was still there, but it was void of any flirtation and artifice. How much harm could one question be? Or two? Keeping her nose in the air as high as safety would allow, she walked away from the bakery window, knowing he was following close behind. Once she was safely in front of an anonymous tailor’s, she turned, planted her feet, and folded her arms in front of her. “Two questions,
“Great.” He tucked the envelope under one arm and licked the tip of his pencil. “First, how does this orchestra compare with the philharmonic that disbanded in ’95?”
Vada’s mind flashed back to the missed beat at the top of the third measure. “It doesn’t.”
“Is that your second question?”
“My darling Miss Allenhouse. Perhaps you should consider a career in politics.”
“Hardly likely, seeing as I don’t even have the right to vote.”
Dave tilted his head back, squinted one eye, and gave a studied perusal.
“Funny, I didn’t take you for a suffragette.”
“Oh, I’m not, really. I leave that to my sister Hazel.”
“Sister? So there are more of you at home?” The leer was back. “Tell me, are any of your sisters as beautiful as you are?”
“Is that your second question?”
He had the good grace to look defeated. “Yes. I’m dying to know.”
“Well, I’m afraid there’s no way for me to answer without seeming immodest, so what a shame that you wasted it. And that, Mr. Voyant, is your cautionary tale for the day.” Invigorated by the exchange, she punctuated her statement with a victorious chuckle.
Without another word he flipped the cover, closed his little notebook, and returned it to his pocket as he looked at her with new, unabashed admiration. “Will you at least allow me to see you home?”
Vada wagged a chastising finger in his face. “That would be a third question. Not part of our agreement. But I’ll look forward to seeing you Wednesday with the programs.”
She walked away, replaying the entire conversation in her mind. Each time, her retorts were saucier, his banter more intense. Left to herself, she giggled in a way she hadn’t dared before. What would Garrison think if he had heard this verbal battle with Dave Voyant? For that matter, what was she thinking?
Little by little, her nose descended from its perch high in the air, and her head bowed to where she could only see the tips of her shoes peeking out from beneath her skirt with each step.
Forgive me, Lord, for my inconstancy.
Feeling chastised, Vada tried to make amends by replaying her last conversation with Garrison. But it was another full block before she could recall a single word.
Excerpted from The Bridegrooms by Allison Pittman Copyright © 2010 by Allison Pittman. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.