(Character sketch and background for a Dave Gross Call of Cthulhu campaign: Horror on the Orient Express, 2016)
The club was lively; a typical Thursday evening at our usual retreat in Birmingham. When our schedules permitted, we traveled north to escape the din and bluster of London as the week ended. Benny Peyton’s Jazz Kings were taking a break after concluding their first set. They were glorious.
Standing, I drew the attention of my friends seated at the table. “Tonight,” I said, “I am reminded that ten years ago to the day, I had a most extraordinary encounter with a most extraordinary man, someone who’s assistance and sponsorship shaped me into this prodigal Peacock!”
Chuckles responded to my statement — few hadn’t heard this story before.
“As you all know, my family came to this country from Warsaw when I was a youth. My father accepted a position teaching music with an academy in Kensington, and we established a modest house nearby.”
“Of course, he also tutored me in the musical arts. And it is because of him, and this Mysterious Gentleman, that I am, some say — and I’ll repeat for those who have not heard it clearly — it is because of them that I am this Magnificent Piano Prodigy!”
Guffaws, and boos were the response I expected – I was not disappointed. I could play my friends as well as I could play a Steinway.
“Being from the old country, my father had a few old-country beliefs. The most amazing of which was that he believed there were ghostly creatures who could control animals and other living things, even the minds and bodies of humans!”
I paused, taking a sip of my gin tonic and enjoying the company of friends.
“Of course, our family, my sisters and I, hoped he would leave those ideas back in old Poland, and not embarrass us among our new friends and neighbours.”
“But what amazing story would I have to tell if that were the case?”
“No, in the spring of my thirteenth year, my father brought home a colleague. Someone else who was interested in my father’s tales of the unbelievable. My father brought home Professor Worth!”
More boos and laughter from the table. Some of my friends had been students of Professor Worth and considered his alcohol-fueled lectures most entertaining if less credible. Why the University retained the 70 year-old archaeologist as a teacher was a wonder we shared.
I continued the tale…
I had returned home from a typical day of unsupervised study and piano practice at the university auditorium. Having a father on the faculty granted a privilege unavailable to other thirteen-year-old students; access to the university’s Steinway & Sons grand piano — one from the Hamburg factory, not an American model.
Entering the foyer, I heard my father and another man in conversation.
My home is where I met Professor Worth, who was listening to a description of the January Uprising, one of my fathers favourite subjects. I joined the two men.
“As you know, the Russian Empire was weakened at that time, having lost the Crimean war.”
“Yet,” he continued, “in Poland, they still had iron-control.”
“So why the rebellion in 1863?” asked Professor Worth. “The historical documents I’ve seen all refer to a movement to avoid conscription. You were there, is this not fact?”
“Yes, yes,” my father replied, “it is fact, but it is not all the facts.”
My father rose from his seat by the fire and began to pace as he spoke, “But what you’ll hear next isn’t part of any official history.”
“Among the rebels there was a group of men who not only hid in the forest to avoid the impressment patrols, but they actually conducted patrols of their own into the Russian camps. That much is known in the official histories,” he said.
“That much is known to the record. What I say next is not.”
“They called themselves Waiting Followers. And they recognized each other by a simple star shaped tattoo.”
“There are stories of Russian officers mysteriously dying in their beds, not a mark on the bodies except for a star-shaped symbol carved into their flesh. They had the most horrific expressions — their faces grotesquely stretched and malformed.”
“It is said that the star-shaped tattoo of the Waiting Followers and the star-shape carved into the dead are identical,” my father paused.
“Other stories were told of Russian scout patrols who never returned. Search patrols often found no sign of the missing scouts,” he continued.
“Except once, they did find a missing scout patrol. Missing for three days, they were discovered standing in a small clearing deep within the local forest, a half-day march from the city.”
“Every man was standing in perfect formation, rigid, unmoving, at attention. It was as if they were waiting for orders. Yet every man was dead.”
“Again, not a mark on their bodies save for the carved star-shaped symbol. They were dead.”
My father concluded his extraordinary tale, “In the end, the January Uprising was crushed within a year. Reprisals were harsh; hundreds were executed and thousands exiled to Siberia and other remote regions.”
“And the Waiting Followers vanished, as if they never existed.”
Professor Worth had a few questions about particular details, which my father answered, providing such detail as he was capable.
My father admitted that at the time of the January Uprising, he was sympathetic to the Russian Empire, and had friends who had commanded Scout Patrols.
I was thunderstruck as my father had never confided such things to me or my sisters. As Poles living in London it wasn’t prudent to admit past sympathies to the Russian Empire.
The professor then did a curious thing. Reaching into his valise, he extracted a small clay disc and showed it to my father, saying, “a few years back I found a shape, and others, carved into pillar formations we were excavating in Persia”. “I pressed soft clay into the carving and brought this relief disc back to continue research.”
It was my father’s turn to be thunderstruck. “That shape,” he said. “That is the the five-pointed star of the Waiting Followers”.
My friends sat silent amongst the background din of the club. They’d heard the ghost stories before, but not the detail regarding my family connection to Professor Worth.
“So, my friends, to bring this circuitous tale to a satisfying conclusion, my father and Professor Worth continued their conversations about the Waiting Followers. Over the course of many years,” I paused. “Actually they became fast friends.”
“Professor Worth attempted to research further into the missing scout patrols and the Waiting Followers, but wasn’t able to produce any tangible results, only hearsay and speculation.”
“Upon my fathers passing, Professor Worth supported my application to the University, where I was able to continue my education on that very fine Steinway and Sons piano.”
“But, unfortunately, Professor Worth was never able to verify my father’s story.”
“So now you know the full of it, regarding how I became an amazing, some would say prodigious, pianist.”
Chuckles again. And the band was getting ready to start their next set.
“And of course, it goes without saying — though I’ll say it anyway — a prodigious pianist of my calibre, is entitled to a little show of ego, a little brush of boastfulness, from time to time.”
I raised my glass, “Thank you, my friends, for your forbearance of my foibles. I salute you.”
And as if there was a cue, the band started playing.
Leopold ‘Leo’ Bashinski – Musician
May perform in an orchestra, group or solo, with any instrument you care to think of. Getting noticed is hard and then getting a recording contract is also difficult. Most musicians are poor and do not get noticed, eking a living by playing small venues as often as they can. A fortunate few might get regular work, such as playing a piano in a bar or hotel or within a city orchestra. For the minority, great success and wealth can be found by being in the right place at the right time, plus having a modicum of talent.
The 1920s is, of course, the Jazz Age, and musicians work in small combos and dance orchestras in large and medium sized cities and towns across America. A few musicians living in large cities like Chicago or New York find steady work in their hometown, but most spend significant amounts of time on the road, touring either by bus, by automobile or by train.
Musician, entertainer and self-styled ladies man. Enjoys attention to his Roman heritage, though also fiercely protective of his Polish roots. Curly hair, strong jaw-line and fierce, hawk like nose have granted him an inordinate amount of attention from the fairer sex. And he’s pretty good with his hands too. Yes. That.