Read an Excerpt
May 13, 1906
She barely noticed the blind man's cane lying by the side of the road. In fact if she were forced to describe it, Sarah Bernhardt might have said that she assumed it was white with those little red soldier stripes near the top, although she couldn't be certain. She would recall that it was unusually long, a detail she'd remember because it would seem almost impossible to lose something of that size. The crook at the top formed a handle. Other than that, the only other notable aspect was that there were two spent cigarettes beside the cane. One that had been stamped and crushed, creased by the impatient imprint of a boot's sole. The other lay smoldering. Smoked down to the end, but with a corner still bright in ember red, and a disfi gured trail of smoke streaming out. It was hard to imagine that a blind man would just lose his cane. He should be stumbling around, his arms extended, fi ngers reaching for direction in Oedipus's fear.
She looked one way up Rose Street, then back down the other.
She envied the thought of the mysterious blind man liberated from his cane, suddenly free to stumble and fall, with no hardwood guide clanking against metal streetlamps to keep him on track, as though he were actually seeing. She became jealous imagining his discovery of accidentally stumbling along the rough face of a concrete wall, his virgin hands feeling the intense heat and sharpened cracks. Or the feeling of his heart skipping a beat as he stepped off the ledge of the sidewalk, momentarily uncertain at the sensation of falling, only to discover the pleasure of solid ground.Everything would be new and free from constraint. He probably threw the cane away, declaring freedom for the fi rst time in his monitored and scripted life.
What she had really wanted to do was pick up the cane and smash it through the nearest window in intense anger, rewarded by the sound of shattered glass. Instead, Sarah left the cane by the side of the road as a sign of hope, praying that the blind man didn't fi nd that freedom was too deadly.
She tried to find a street sign. Sarah Bernhardt was sixty-one years old and again found herself walking down unfamiliar streets. She didn't want to get lost. Lord knows she was a compass with no needle. Practically blind herself outside of a theater or hotel or restaurant. She sometimes wished they would stencil in blocking patterns along every street she trudged, then she could just travel back and forth between white V'd line to white V'd line. Sarah looked over her shoulder at the King George Hotel, raising her stare until it settled on the fifth floor, just beyond halfway, to the window in the center. She wanted to make sure she had left a light on as a beacon. A North Star to guide her back. She was so furious when she had left, and she couldn't recall exactly what she had or hadn't done, other than try to kick the newspaper across the room, and when it wrapped stuck around her toe, she ripped it off and heaved it violently toward the mirror, where it sailed down in confused grace into little paper boats and tunnels. When she slammed the door, she heard the papers rustling in a discomforting little whisper. She was pretty sure she had turned on the light out of habit. She hadn't cared. All she had wanted was to get away from the room, past the doting concierge, and out into the faceless night.
She was accustomed to playing Los Angeles -- where she always played -- and she didn't need any beacons or stage marks to find her way along Broadway, passing theaters like the Merced, where she remembered seeing the booking on the itinerary. Today had actually started last night in Tucson, Arizona, at the tail end of a restorative two-day retreat. Max had reached her by phone, speaking with an almost conspiratorial lack of words, saying he was glad that he had found her, and that he hated having to be fi ve hundred miles away right now. "There has been a slight change of plans," he had said.
She asked him what.
"Venice." His voice was quieter than usual, void of the routine banter.
He had been kind enough not to laugh or condemn her for the obviousness of her question. That should have been the first sign. "We're taking La Dame aux Camélias up the road to Ocean Beach. Venice of America," he had said. "Things have gotten suddenly complicated in Los Angeles."
"It is too much to explain by telephone, but it's all for the better, believe me. I'll be there a day and a half behind you."
"A day and a half by myself?"
"You won't even be there until tomorrow night. That's really only a day alone. I'm getting out of Santa Fe as fast as I can. But it's all set. Terms are negotiated."
"But, Molly, I need you here to run through lines."
"Marguerite Gautier's? You have said those a thousand times or more."
"It is the last part that is troubling me. The final scene. I can't manage to let the disease take her. I am too much in control of the sickness. I am giving it its life."
"You are overthinking it."
"It is a matter of control. Recently, Marguerite's consumption has lost the power and insidiousness. I just can't find it right now. The sickness just doesn't subsume me. It feels so tangible."
"I will be there soon."
"Or perhaps I am bored with it."
"We will run through that fi nal scene as much as you need in your room."
"In my railcar?"
"You have a suite booked at the King George Hotel."
"An English place? Where is the car?"Divine Sarah
A Novel. Copyright © by Adam Braver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.