Goodnight Sweet Prince
by Harry Buschman
After six weeks Walter Barnstone was sick of it! Six damn weeks of listening to Sir John play Hamlet at the St. James. He couldn’t put up with six more weeks of it? No! He couldn’t take it. If he had a lesser job in the company perhaps – a minor role – even a stage hand, it would be different.
But Walter Barnstone was Sir John’s understudy, hoping – hoping against hope something would happen to Sir John so the audience could finally see and hear the Hamlet of the century, not the watered down Nancy assed Hamlet of Sir John’s. In those last six weeks, only once did Jerry Robbins, the producer, give him a chance to step in at the duel scene when Sir John had a migraine. It was his first and only break! Not nearly enough to make an impression. He had to stand there night after night listening to Sir John butcher lines like “... for murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Accents on all the wrong syllables, stress in all the wrong places. Six more weeks of that? Impossible!
He got the French dueling pistol down from the top shelf of his closet. It was very much like the weapon that killed Lincoln – and fired by another frustrated actor he reminded himself. He stole the pistol from the property department of the St. James Theater when the property man worked there. It nestled in a velvet lined case – separate compartments held steel balls and percussion caps.
Schroeder was the property man and he was fond of showing it off to Walter. “It’s a Lepage Freres, forty-eight caliber. I heisted it from Met Storage last week. Look at that engraving, ain’t that beautiful work?” Schroeder enthused. “Fully operational too.” He showed Walter how the percussion caps fit in the chamber. "Then they put the ball in the muzzle end. So long as you don’t put a ball in the barrel, all y’have is a big flash and a bang. Wakes up the sleepy heads in the first row, I’ll tell you.” With a sly grin he showed Walter a handful of steel balls. “These are ball bearings I found, look .... I shouldn’t be telling you this, but they fit the barrel like a glove, see?” He rolled one or two down the barrel. “They wasn’t made for the gun originally, but that’s the beauty of it – I’m holdin’ here one of the deadliest pistols in the world, and it ain’t even registered!”
Something about the story fascinated Walter at the time. The idea of a common stage prop being used as a murder weapon ... later, when Schroeder got himself fired for drinking, Walter took the case home with him, along with the prop inventory. The St. James decided to check their inventory but couldn’t find the property list, so the theater had to make up a new one. The pistol wasn’t on it.
He thought it through for the hundredth time. He’d wait until four o’clock. Henry the dresser would be at the theater by then, seeing to the make-up kit and costumes. Sir John would be alone at the hotel. Walter planned to walk in the side entrance of the hotel, that way he wouldn't have to pass through the lobby. The elevators were self-service and he’d wait for an empty one, jump in and punch the “close door” button immediately.
He would wear dark gray clothes, nothing loud or conspicuous. He’d bring a tote bag with him. In the bag would be the pistol, fully loaded, and a spare gauntlet from the property room, one that came up to the elbow. This would protect his arm from powder burns and any blood that might splatter. He would ditch them on his way back to his apartment ... after it was over.
Sir John lived on the 23rd floor of Les Hotel des Artistes. He remembered the layout from the opening night party. Long blue carpet in the hall. Four apartments, two at one end and two at the other. Two retired actresses had the apartments on the right, Sir John and a writer had the two on the left. The writer was away on a book tour and wouldn’t be back for a month. He’d have to chance it that the old women wouldn’t hear him – most likely they’d have their TV’s on and never hear the shot. One shot, that’s all. One shot with the pistol jammed up under his chin. He was sure the noise would not be a problem.
Walter waited for the elevator door to open, standing with his back to it, and from the sound of the passenger’s voices he knew they were headed for the exit door to 74th Street. He turned quickly, darted into the open elevator and pushed the buttons for the 23rd floor and the “close door” at the same time. It seemed an eternity before the doors closed.
It was quiet on the 23rd floor. The soft sound of music came from one of the women’s apartments. The writer’s apartment next to Sir John’s was quiet. He was sure Sir John would be resting – mumbling his way automatically through his lines the way a singer does his scales. “Don’t delay. Don’t delay,” he reminded himself.
He put his ear to the door and heard nothing. He reached into the tote bag and slipped the gauntlet on, then he gripped the loaded pistol and rang the bell with his other hand. He heard a stir in the apartment and he took the pistol out of the tote bag and held it firmly in his right hand.
“Who’s there?” The cool cultured British tones of Sir John infuriated Walter even more.
The door opened a crack and the sleepy face of Sir John appeared. It was not the familiar face that had melted the hearts of matinee ladies for a generation, it was the wrinkled, over-the-hill face of a has been actor.
“Oh,” Sir John mumbled. “It’s you. Come in.”
With his left hand Walter pushed Sir John back across the foyer and closed the door. Startled, Sir John swore softly, “Damn! What’s going on – what?” Walter jammed the pistol up under his chin and pulled the trigger. The explosion was loud but no louder than he expected. What he did not expect was the simultaneous slap of brain tissue and bone on the ceiling of the foyer. Sir John stumbled awkwardly into the living room and fell backwards over a sectional sofa.
Walter shook the pistol and the gauntlet back into the tote bag. A quick look at the splattered ceiling and walls of the foyer convinced him that the body now sprawled on the sofa was dead. There was blood on the pistol and the gauntlet but none on him or his clothes. It came as a shock to him that he hadn’t made a clear plan for getting away, and as he stood in the entryway with his hand reaching for the knob, he realized he would leave fingerprints.
“Think ahead. Think ahead!” he reminded himself. He wrapped a handkerchief around his hand and opened the door. It was still quiet outside. The soft music still played in the apartment at the other end of the hall. He even recognized the tune as he stood waiting for the elevator ....
"Just picture a penthouse
way up in the sky,
with hinges on chimneys
so clouds can go by ....”
When the elevator door opened he saw a girl standing reading a newspaper. Should he get on or not? It would look suspicious if he didn’t get on – Walter decided it would be better to act naturally and keep his back to the girl, she probably wouldn’t raise her eyes. He stared intently at the arrow all the way down as it counted off the floors one by one. When they reached the bottom he moved aside for the girl, she passed him without looking and walked into the lobby. He was sure it would be impossible for her to identify him if she was ever questioned.
It was getting dark when he reached the street, and he reminded himself that so far Sir John’s was the only face he had recognized that afternoon. “Thank God this is New York!” he thought. “I am invisible in a city of 7 million people.”
At the corner of 74th and Amsterdam he saw a dumpster below street level at a construction site. It was being loaded on a flat bed and while no one was watching Walter quickly threw the tote bag in the dumpster and walked away. That was easier than he thought, he had visions of walking the streets looking for an empty rubbish can. In an hour the evidence would be in a landfill on Staten Island.
He glanced at his watch and noticed a smear of blood on the crystal. The sooner he got back to his apartment and into a shower the better off he’d be. He noticed his legs were trembling – nerves he thought – he forced himself to breathe slowly and rhythmically. The picture of Sir John stumbling backward in his living room flashed before him ... the blood on the ceiling ... the bits of bone and flesh ... “Breathe slowly,” he reminded himself. He hailed a cab making its way up Amsterdam Avenue and rode back to his apartment, he told himself not to over tip – drivers tend to remember things like that.
It was only 4:30. So much had been accomplished in the last half hour! He let himself into his apartment, stripped down, and called the cleaner to pick up his clothes. He walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower – hot as he could stand. He stood under it for ten minutes, then wrapped himself in a towel. The thermostat on the living room wall said seventy degrees – it seemed much colder than that.
The shower relaxed him and he felt a great fatigue steal over him as he stretched out on the bed. He would spend the hour or so before curtain time going over his lines again and again, creating nuances and subtle changes of rhythm; things Sir John never dreamed of. He was sure a call would come from Jerry Robbins about seven thirty informing him of the terrible news of Sir John, and in the time honored tradition of the theater, Walter Barnstone must take his place. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” he smiled.
What would he do when he came to lines like, “... for murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Or “... and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.” Well, he was a pro, he would cross those bridges when he came to them, he had a show to do.
For more than an hour he dozed, practiced his lines and dreamed of critical acclaim. “What would come after Hamlet,” he wondered? Richard the Third perhaps, or maybe Hollywood. He justified his actions of the afternoon by reminding himself – “the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
The phone rang shrilly at seven thirty. Walter checked his watch – “Right on cue,” he smiled.
“Walter, this is Jerry Robbins.”
“Yes, Jerry ... what can I do for you?”
“I tried to reach you earlier, Walter, but you weren’t in. Sir John called me at noon. He has laryngitis – can barely talk. He can’t possibly go on this evening. We were going to cancel the performance but Sir john was sure you could handle it. It’s the chance of a lifetime Walter!”