After Queen Victoria, Jenny Lind is the most famous woman in Europe. A Swedish soprano with a voice like an angel’s and a temperament to match, she is in Vienna when she meets the shortest man she has ever seen. General Tom Thumb is a three-foot-tall sensation whom P. T. Barnum has made one of the wealthiest men in the world. Thumb arrives with a message from Barnum offering Lind more money than she has ever dreamed of, to do something she has never done before: perform in America.
While Lind makes her way across the Atlantic, Barnum, the Great American Showman, whips US audiences into a frenzy. By the time the singer lands in New York, “Lindomania” is in full effect. As Lind and Barnum travel the country, they play for packed houses every night. The public loves Lind, but as the tour wears on, P. T. Barnum will come to love her more.
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Jenny and Barnum
A Novel of Love
By Roderick Thorp
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Roderick Thorp
All rights reserved.
As if to bless humanity's hopes for the new decade, the January thaw of 1860 arrived a week early, rushing up the Adriatic through Venice and Trieste and over the Austrian uplands to the broad, cultivated plain where the Danube flowed slowly eastward, through the gleaming, newly rebuilt capital of the Austrian Empire, Vienna. For three days that first week of the new year, temperatures rose into the fifties, the earth released moist whispers of spring, and even the most timid and winter-hardened Viennese found themselves in the streets with scarves undone and throats exposed to the caressing of the wonderfully warm fresh air.
From the library of her third-floor suite in the Hotel Sacher offering a view of the new Ringstrasse, the internationally celebrated Swedish diva Jenny Lind, the second most famous woman in the world after Queen Victoria of Great Britain, watched the quickened pace of people and horse-drawn carriages on the broad, nearly barren boulevard with a detached and slightly sour amusement. Her windows were closed and locked, packed with towels to protect her against drafts. A sweater was secured snugly around her throat. Jenny was scheduled to sing this evening not at the Opera across the street, but at the historic Theater an der Wien, where decades before, with great fanfare, Mozart and Beethoven had introduced several of their works.
This was an important engagement for Jenny, her first appearance before the sophisticated Viennese audience in more than two years. At twenty-nine Jenny knew her voice was vulnerable to nature's mischiefs. This weather was worse than mischief; Jenny was drawing on more than the suspiciousness of nature developed during a Swedish childhood—people caught colds in weather like this that developed into often-fatal pneumonia.
She had a writing-board in her lap. In a half-finished letter to the directress of an orphanage in Stockholm, a woman she did not know, Jenny had just written, Now that I am twenty-nine years old ...
She flushed with shame, thinking she would never be anything but a self-obsessed, foolish woman. She had been so eager to demonstrate to a stranger that she was becoming wise that she had given evidence only that, like any other frightened spinster, she could not stop thinking about growing old.
The door from the parlor opened. "Miss Lind? Miss Lind, the representative from the American, Mr. Barnum, is here."
The clock on the mantel showed two o'clock. Jenny Lind liked punctuality. "Very good, Hannelore. Show him in."
"I have, Miss Lind!"
Now Jenny saw that her maid's eyes gleamed with a bizarre and incomprehensible grimace as she stared downward to a point on the floor on the other side of the desk.
"Stay where you are, Miss Lind," a squeaking, raspy voice piped up. Three feet above the carpet, a web of blue smoke writhed into view. An infant's hand appeared on the edge of the desk, and behind it, an infant's face, its dark eyes peering at her. For a baby, his hair was startling-black, coarse, and oiled down. His expression was terrifying, a smile so knowing that, on an infant, it looked like a leer.
His free hand suddenly crammed a smoldering cigar into his teeth, and with an effort that reddened his cheeks, the little apparition pulled himself onto her desk. Placing his fists on his hips, the tiny fellow puffed his cigar and winked.
"I'm General Tom Thumb, ma'am," he squeaked like a full-grown man. "Barnum sent me to talk to you about coming to America."
Jenny clapped her hands and laughed with glee. "Yes, now I see! You're even dressed like a general!" A general Jenny knew, in fact; a dear friend, a crusty old warrior who had worn such a costume on the finest day of his life, one of the greatest days in history. "Look, Hannelore, an infant country sends me an infant emissary. Tell me, little one," she asked patronizingly, "in your red coat, white breeches, and boots, who are you supposed to be?"
"This is my Duke of Wellington outfit," the little man said. "It's part of my act." He walked across the desk, sat down on Jenny's sewing box, and crossed his legs. For a moment she thought he was going to tumble backward onto the floor, but he carried himself with perfect balance and assurance, as if as comfortable on a desk or table as on solid ground. "I guess you never heard of me," he said. "I'm one of the most famous men in America. But over there, we've all heard of you, Miss Lind. Barnum wants you to come sing for us. He wants you to sing for America."
Jenny Lind stared, the truth about him still sinking in. He was a midget, an adult, barely two feet tall, the smallest, most perfectly formed such creature she had ever seen. His face was an infant's, but his expression, his hair, and a soft, dark down on his cheeks like a beard gave evidence of his true age.
At first glance, he was a cuddlesome thing, but the glint in his eyes almost made Jenny shudder, it was so unnatural. The knots of muscle in his legs visible through his white leggings showed that his body was not a child's, but an unimaginable distortion of what was normal. The charming little man was a freak.
"Miss Lind," said Hannelore, "the cigar."
"What language is that?" the little fellow asked.
"German," Jenny answered, struck again by the absurdity of speaking to a person so tiny that he could sit on her sewing box. One of the most famous men in America? The soprano Jenny Lind was the reigning performing artist of all Europe, loved and adored by millions. He represented the American, Barnum. Her hopes sank. From his preliminary contacts, she had been led to believe that Barnum was prepared to make her a genuine offer. Apparently what was said about Barnum being a charlatan was true.
"You speak English beautifully, with just a hint of an accent, but I thought you were Swedish," Tom Thumb said.
An English friend had called Jenny's accent lilting. If it was fading, the reason was simple: for the past five years, she had made her home in England.
"I am, but Hannelore is German, so to her I speak German, just as I speak English to you."
He leaned forward, crossing his arms on his knee, his eyes narrowing with curiosity. "How many languages do you speak?"
"Swedish, German, English, French, Italian, and Danish," she recited. To the maid, she said, "Hannelore, get the gentleman something for his cigar, and open the corner window."
"What was that about?"
"I'm trying to make you comfortable, Mr. Thumb."
"General," he said. "Everybody calls me General."
She laughed again. "General. Very well. Close the door as you leave, Hannelore."
The maid glowered balefully as she went out.
"She is concerned because I am singing tonight," Jenny said.
The information seemed to surprise him. "You have to be that careful, I know. If I get a cold in my throat, people can't hear me at all."
She smiled. "Do you sing, General?"
"Sing, dance, recite poetry—it's all part of the act." He stood up, rising on his toes to look over her shoulder to the window. "I'm surprised you never heard of me. What's that street down there? Why are the trees so skinny and small?"
She told him that it was the Ringstrasse. "The wall around the old city was there until three years ago, but the Emperor had the wall torn down." She paused, and her guest spoke just as she started to ask him a question. The two of them were talking at once.
"What is this that you call an act?"
"What's the Emperor's name?"
They laughed. "Excuse me," the little general said.
"The Emperor's name is Franz Josef," she said.
Tom Thumb sat down again. "My act is what I do—it's part of the show. I'm Barnum's biggest attraction, if you don't mind me using that word. I play Napoleon and Julius Caesar, recite Shakespeare, play the piano and drums. You never heard of me? I sat on Queen Victoria's knee. The princesses love me."
Jenny laughed. She knew the Queen—Victoria was not one to bounce little men on her knee. Her guest was a teller of tales. "When did you meet the Queen?"
"First time was fifteen years ago. We were in England last month, before we came here. We had to turn the crowds away."
"I'm sorry," she said. "My own work occupies so much of my time—you travel with a troupe, I take it?"
"Well, we're more like an exhibition," Tom Thumb explained. "We have little people, like me, a giant woman, two brothers from Siam who are joined together—but, as I say, I'm the number one attraction. Do you know I'm the smallest human being in the history of the world? Perfectly proportioned, too." He stood up and performed a skillful pirouette. "Dwarfs have full-sized heads and bent arms and legs. They don't live long, either. I can live fifty or sixty years because I'm a midget. The smallest ever, too—no kidding."
"I do not understand that expression," she said. His frankness about his life expectancy chilled her.
"It means I'm telling you the truth," he squeaked. "Some people say I'm a regular miniature Barnum, meaning that I like a joke and to have a good time, but the people who make much of that don't know me very well—or Barnum, either, for that matter."
"Is that why he sent you to me, to have a joke?"
He looked hurt, and she felt that she had taken advantage. "Barnum trusts me," he said. "I know that his word is his bond. When you talk to me, it's as good as talking to him. You'll have nothing to worry about, I guarantee you. Barnum is a fair man."
"You're a loyal employee," she said.
"Partner!" the little man exclaimed heatedly. "I'm his partner! I've got more money than he does now—"
"That doesn't sound very promising for me," Jenny said.
"I'm a millionaire! I've got my own yacht, built down to my size. The workmanship on that boat is a wonder itself. Barnum's made more money than I have, but I don't have his expenses—like you, for instance. He wants you to sing for American audiences, and he's prepared to pay you more money than any singer has ever been paid in the history of the world to make sure you accept his offer."
She thought about his choice of words—so grandiose and inflated, they seemed designed to puff him up to something greater than his actual size. At this point, she was only humoring the little fellow, still amused by his sincerity and zeal. She regarded his employer, or partner, this Barnum, however, as an unprofessional buffoon too ignorant and uncivilized to know that he was insulting her with his lack of seriousness by having a midget make his presentation. Mendelssohn and Chopin had considered her their equal—her, a singer, an interpretive artist. "What is Mr. Barnum prepared to offer, if I may ask?"
"Five hundred dollars a performance, a guaranteed one hundred and fifty nights, for a total of seventy-five thousand dollars. Plus expenses, of course, including salary for your usual entourage, your conductor, your maid and secretary, and so on."
Jenny tightened her grip on the arms of her chair. It was a fortune! The man must be mad! For a bit more than six months' work, a profit exceeding anything she had ever seen in a year! There were many good things she could do with so much money—if it proved to be real. Jenny knew she was a naïve woman about most things, but not about her business. Over the years, impresarios, sensing her vulnerabilities, had promised her vast sums that somehow always had disappeared in fees, expenses, and commissions. She was smarter now, and if a foolish American could be made to put up so much money in advance—well, for one thing, she would have to recompose the letter on her writing-board, pledging the orphanage directress far more than she'd originally planned; and she would have the opportunity to excise the phrase referring to her age that had made her cringe earlier—no small thing, for it was the sort of faux pas that could upset her at odd moments for days afterward. She was too sensitive and knew it but there was little she seemed to be able to do about the condition—it was a condition, too: as a child she had been so frightened of people her mother had had to pull her by the arm to get her out of the house.
Jenny gave Tom Thumb what was meant to be a mildly encouraging little smile. "I will have to give Mr. Barnum's offer very serious consideration. I will have questions, of course."
"Why don't you call him Mister Barnum, if I may ask?"
"Nobody in America calls him that," Tom Thumb replied. "Children call him Barnum. Once when we were in Cincinnati, a little boy asked his father, 'Daddy, which cage is Barnum in?' Even babies call him Barnum. He loves it."
"You said 'cage'—is that how Barnum exhibits you?"
The little man hesitated. "No, that's something else, his curiosities, the Feegee Mermaid and all that stuff. We're the show, and I'm the star. I really am surprised you never heard of me."
He seemed terribly pained. Jenny put her hands in her lap. "Will you please show me what you do?"
"But of course!"
He puffed on the cigar, then snuffed it out in the glass dish Hannelore had provided. "Well, I'll do a little." He eyed her. "You have to understand, I usually have music."
Jenny concealed her smile. He sounded like any other performer. It was so odd—the size of him! "I understand," she said, keeping herself composed. She carried the malodorous dish and cigar to a far table. When she returned, the General was laboriously shifting items on the desk to clear a larger space for himself. He really was scarcely more than two feet tall. He could not have weighed more than a medium-sized dog.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-seven," he answered. "Barnum found me when I was five. He gave me my name, everything. He invented me, and I know it."
"What about your parents?"
"Until I grew up, they got a percentage of the gross. I tell you, Barnum plays straight. A lot of people will try to say otherwise about him, that he's a bamboozler, but that's all part of the show. He's honest when it comes to real business—and I mean our business."
The word "bamboozler" was strange to Jenny, but she thought she understood it.
"Why did you ask how many languages I spoke?"
"I've been coming to Europe for years, and I didn't think you were talking Swedish. I wanted to know why a Swedish woman would have a German maid—"
"Yes, well, I suppose if you know all the languages, you can choose like that. You're all so different over here. My butler's an Englishman, and it took me two years to get him to stop calling me 'Master' and start calling me 'General.' But he's completely loyal and trustworthy. He's home taking care of my house right now. Barnum made me get him, figuring he'd be good for the show even if he never got on the stage. Barnum's always right about these things."
She found it all charming, if farfetched. "Why isn't your butler on the stage with you?"
"I don't want the big jerk taking people's eyes off of me. When I'm working, I don't want anybody on the stage but me." He turned his back to her, and could not see her laughing at his performer's vanity. "This is Barnum talking now, when he's around to introduce me. 'Ladies and gentlemen, the tiniest, bravest human being in the history of the world, the wonder of the age, the incomparable General Tom Thumb!'" He peered over his shoulder. "It goes on like that, but I'm keeping it short. Are you sure you never heard of me?"
"I work very hard, General."
"So do I. There's a lot I don't know, too. I usually get a hand here—you know, applause."
Giggling, she clapped her hands lightly to keep the sound from carrying into the parlor lest Hannelore think they were going insane in here. He turned and bowed low, gracefully, his eyes on her. "At the start of the show I'm in a cavalier getup, with a sword"—gesturing, he showed her where he wore the sword. "I sing a little song about sleeping in a matchbox, wearing a nightgown made out of my father's handkerchief. I slide the top of the box over me when I go to sleep." As he spoke, he mimed the verses of his unsung song. "I get trapped in the cookie jar, fight a duel with a spider"—he was swinging the imaginary sword, his eyes glaring with the fury of battle—"and it finishes with me singing I'm glad to be me, glad to be alive, glad to be with all you wonderful folks—"
Excerpted from Jenny and Barnum by Roderick Thorp. Copyright © 1981 Roderick Thorp. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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