In September, 1914, the sister-trio-harmony vaudeville act The Belle Auroras are playing Edmonton as Les Très Belles Aurores de Nouvelle France at the direction of their manager, Fitzjohn Mayhew, a producer of dubious morals who has married Aurora, the eldest sister. Mayhew took Aurora, Clover, Bella and their mother Flora with him the year before when he absconded from a theatre in Montana, leaving their old friends Julius and Sybil in the lurch with the rest of the company. The girls now perform at Mayhew’s new theatre in Edmonton, the Muse, and have suites in the new Arlington Apartments.
At ten, the rasping apartment bell twisted and twisted. After a minute there was a rapping knock, then more twisting.
Only Clover was properly up—Bella was still in her night-dress, stirring scrambled eggs. At first they thought they would ignore what must be a peddler or the brush-man—unless it could be Aurora, needing milk for morning tea? Clover put her eye to the peep-hole and then stood back on her heels. After an instant she tip-toed backward down the hall to the kitchen.
“Sybil and Julius!” she told Bella, who popped her eyes wide open and glanced round the kitchen at the truly dreadful mess they’d let build up since the maid had last been. The rapping and knocking intensified.
Clover dodged into the parlour, where Mama lay tangled in blankets on the Murphy bed, mouth fallen slack in sleep.
“Mama!’ she whispered. “It is Sybil at the door. And Julius!’
Flora opened one eye, then the other, pulling Clover into focus and staring blankly at her. Then she jumped out of bed, flung the bedclothes toward the centre, shoved the Murphy bed back up into its niche and dashed for the bathroom, snatching her wrapper and a tangled assortment of sewing notions from the chair as she ran. “Wait, just wait!” she whispered, and whisked the door shut, opening it again to release the sash of her wrapper. Her wild eye showed through the crack, and she nodded.
Clover opened the apartment door.
“Why, hello!” she said. “Dear ma’am, dear sir—how pleasant to see you after this long while!’
“Yes, you’d think so! Sixteen months nearly to the day, as I count,” Sybil said, biting the words out. Her face was pinched and strange, not at all her eager, unsquashable self. She drew back her upper lip to display tight-clenched teeth.
Julius looked at the ceiling.
Bella came from the kitchen, where she had been bundling the dirty dishes quietly into the oven. She had tied on a bib apron, hoisting her night-gown so that it almost looked like a dress, and her feet were shoved into Clover’s other shoes, all she could find in the kitchen.
“Julius!” she cried, giving him a warm embrace; she turned to Sybil, but stopped in time.
“We are here to see Flora, if you please,” Sybil said, frost sharpening her voice and face. The girls fell back and showed their guests into the parlour.
There they all stood awkwardly.
The Murphy bed’s rise had left the room disordered. Clover flicked the carpet into place and adjusted the arm-chair and the small table by the window. She opened the drapes to let in pale autumn sun. Nobody spoke.
Then Mama was at the door, her hair tidied into a presentable knot, girdle snug and everything dainty about her, as if she’d never had a bad night in her life.
“Dear Syb! And Julius,” she said, her hands outstretched as she came forward. “Here you are in cold old Edmonton, what a pleasure!”
Sybil tittered. “Yes, here we are, back again like a bad penny. Two bad pennies!” Her eyes darted over Mama, taking in the new lace-point collar, the dove kid slippers peeping out under the silk morning-gown wrapper—the undeniable air of prosperity.
“And how delightful to see you,” Mama said.
“We thought you would find it so. De-light-ful,” Sybil said. The splotches of colour on her cheeks worried Clover.
Julius shambled to the single arm-chair and settled his bulk. One eyebrow waggled. Enjoying himself, Bella thought, the old scallywag. She went for more chairs.
“Got your address from Teddy Vickers at the Muse. We ourselves are staying at Mrs. Springer’s, where the food is very decent; very. Performing later this week, Professor Konigsburg’s Ventri-lectricity—at the Princess, south of the river…” He subsided, at a glance from Sybil.
“They’ll know where the Princess is, Julius,” she said, with the sweetest of trills. “Even though they theirselves are at the up-tone Muse, above our touch. Took us this long to follow you to Edmonton, to find a theatre that would book us here, but we made it.”
Bella came back, apronless and dressed, with two wooden chairs from the kitchen, and set them carefully for the ladies, but Sybil would not sit, so neither did Mama. Clover, queasy from the excess of ire in the room, saw that Sybil’s eyes showed white all round the pupils.
There was a silence.
“When we left Helena so abruptly—” Flora began, but Sybil would not let her finish.
“Swanning it pretty well up here, are you? Cats that swallowed the cream?”
Flora turned her head in distaste.
“Oh, is that too coarse for you? Too materialistic for your fine sensibility?”
“You—I don’t know what you mean,” Flora said. “I’m sorry if you—”
“Hist!” Sybil said sharply. “None of that! We need no apology from you!”
Julius turned from the window, pulling his chair beneath him without troubling to lift its feet. It set up a painful screech in the suddenly-silent room. “Sybil, my dear,” he said, mild as milk. “Can it be you harbour some rancour toward our dear Flora?”
Sybil pounced on that: “Oh, can it be? But how should I rancourize—you and I left high and dry without a gig and without a pay-packet—Mayhew, in fact, having come to Jay cap in hand that very afternoon, to ask for the loan of a hundred to tide him over to meet payroll! Fifty dollars he got off him! And if Jay had had more in pocket, we’d have been out all that as well, sure as shooting.”
Flora put out her hand and would have touched Sybil, save that she leaped back as if the hand was a hot poker.
“Oh no! Don’t you come the friendly with me now. Not one word we had from you, nor from Fitz Mayhew, not that I’d have expected it from him—and Jay ought to have known better—we’ve had enough words over that, thank you very much. But no word of warning that everything was done up! How much would that have cost you?”
Flora sat down on the kitchen chair, as if her knees were not obeying her.
Bella had crept forward to Clover’s elbow and now tugged very slightly on her sleeve, making bulgy eyes to pull her out of this. Bella herself could stand the music and if there was to be a fight she did not want to miss the fireworks, but Clover might faint if she was too close to the action.
“I’d like to know how you could betray me so,” Sybil continued. “That had been your friend from olden days and forward, and would have gone to the ends of the earth for you—left with egg all over my face!”
The girls had reached the hall door, but felt they could not leave Mama alone. They needn’t have troubled. Flora was rising to the attack, cheeks flushed and eyes bright as if she’d been dancing.
“I thought it was you who had your finger on all the pulses, always up to snuff, queen of the prying noses—knew anything there was to know, long before we knew it, Sybil Sly.”
Julius leaned back in his chair, applauding this rejoinder. “One to the solar plexus!”
But Flora was not finished; she turned to Julius. “You! You were the one who introduced my daughters to Fitz Mayhew in the first place, as I recall it, you old Pander.”
Sybil milled back in. “So we did, as a favour, and look what good it’s done her! And you!”
“If you call it good, for her to be tied to someone more than twice her age. Whom you now—when it suits your story—call unscrupulous.”
In the doorway Clover clutched Bella’s hand. Thank God, she thought, thank God, Mayhew is not here to add to this.
Towering to all her five-foot height, Sybil jerked her jaw forward in a furious jab. “I don’t say he’s unscrupulous—I say he’s a damned cheat, and I’ll be damned if we’ll ever work with him again!’
Julius hummed, in high good humour at this excitement. “Come, now, my dear Syb, where would we be in vaudeville if we refused to work with cheats and whores!”
Flora turned on him. “And who are you calling a whore?”
There was a moment of silence in the room.
But Julius never backed away from a fence. “I suppose, dear lady, I was referring to your eldest daughter.”
Flora stared at him, her eyes dark caves and her mouth fallen off its usual line.
Sybil cracked a sudden laugh. “You’d rather he was talking of you?”
“Enough!” Flora dashed her hand across her eyes to clear them and advanced on Sybil, step by step. Her wrapper had come untied; the slip underneath drooped, revealing her slackened chest. “After what you did to me! Such a good friend in those olden days—you made trouble between me and Arthur that nearly dished me, talking about me as if I was no better than a trollop.”
Sybil sobbed. “I never meant to,” she said, “I never meant it.”
“Well you ought to have meant not to,” Flora told her. “You were jealous as a cat, and you are still, and you near as nothing ruined my life.”
Sybil gave a screech of anguish and fell to her knees.
“Do you know how hard that was to fight against?” Flora demanded. “He never truly believed me again—his whole life—” Her voice cracked and she flew her fists through her hair, disarranging it.
“Girls, out!” She pointed to the apartment door. “Go to Aurora.”
Outside in the stair hall, Bella and Clover stood shivering, almost laughing, unable to climb the flights to Aurora and Mayhew’s suite. They rang the button, but the elevator was banging and clanging down in the basement region.
“Whore!” Bella said, behind her hand, her eyes bright and scared. “How could he say that?”
Clover put her arm around Bella. “Oh, fish! Any girl in vaudeville might be called that. Even in the legitimate theatre, to some people’s mind.”
“I thought he liked us!”
“Think of Lily Bain in Paddockwood,” Clover said. “Everybody had Mr. Tweedie over to supper and felt so sorry for him because he was a widower and a sidesman. But nobody talked to Lily Bain or even let her come to church.”
“Well, but Lily Bain went with all the men.”
“Why should that make a difference? All the men went with her!”
“She looked like a scrag-end of mutton.”
“And Mr. Tweedie like an old goat, they were well-suited that way.”
Bella laughed. “And she with all those little lamb-kid children.”
“I don’t see why when a woman does that, she’s a whore; but when a man does it, there is no bad name to call him.”
The elevator came trundling up at last.
The apartment door behind them opened and Julius slid out, then shut the door again on a confused babble of women’s voices.
“I’ve a mind to see Mayhew,” he said, apologizing with a bob of his massy head. “And Miss Aurora—the virtue of whom has never been impugned, to my certain knowledge. Regrets! My devilish tongue cannot resist a quarrel.”
So the girls let Julius ride up with them to the fifth floor, where Aurora was already in perfect order that morning, the apartment as well as her own person seeming fresh as iced water after the over-heated atmosphere downstairs. Bella and Clover vanished into the kitchen, still in fits of horrified giggles, after attempting to convey the situation by sign language and mental telepathy.
Aurora made a polite effort to entertain Julius—with whom she’d never had a cordial friendship, his heart having been given to Clover. She had noticed it often: people picked one or another sister to like, not understanding how closely they were twined. There was no point in his partisanship for Clover, because Clover herself was hopelessly partisan for Aurora and Bella, and they for her.
She sought for some subject that might interest him.
“We had a delightful dinner with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle last summer, perhaps you have met him on your travels? I know he is fond of vaudeville.”
Julius gave a snort of mingled derision and amusement. “Fool! A charlatan, I believe. Authors usually are. I confess, I enjoy the humbuggery of his stories. A fascinating instance of Art surpassing the frail human who creates it—who is the conduit for it, more like.”
Since that had been Aurora’s own estimate of Conan Doyle, she could not help laughing. “It was only a month before war was declared, yet all he could talk of was those uppity suffragettes. He is a champion story-teller, though. Papa loved Sherlock Holmes.”
The girls came in with a tea-tray, and Aurora sighed as she saw that Clover was thoughtfully carrying Fitz’s good whiskey by its neck.
Some time later, when Julius had succumbed to the whiskey and lay snoring in a corner of the upholstered sofa, Mama knocked on the door and brought Sybil in to see Aurora’s flat and all her nice things, and to say hello properly. They had made up somehow, by the mysterious alchemy of their long knowledge of each other. Clover marvelled at the cozy way the ladies walked arm-in-arm through the suite, conferring over the latest rising salaries in the big-time.
Sybil was speaking with earnest emphasis. “Tanguay gets $3,500 a week, I have it on the best authority. My old pal Julian Eltinge, you know. He commands $3,000, as of last asking. Even Miss Barrymore can only ask $3,000 yet—but the sky’s the limit—vaude is only on the up. Look what’s happening, brick theatres everywhere, even here in the sticks! The only chore,” she said, flicking a jaundiced eye over his slumbering form, “is making sure Julius doesn’t give up. Which he will do, if I don’t guard him every minute, because there never was such a man for losing heart. He’s only sixty-three, though you’d never know it; he’s got a good decade to go before he really can’t be hired, if I play his cards right and keep him off the roller-skates.”
Papa would have been forty-five this year, Aurora calculated. Ten years younger than Fitz. Sybil bent over Julius, stroking his shoulder to waken him, and for a moment Aurora saw herself standing there. Blonde curls, black eyeliner smudged around staring eyes, elderly husband.
She would not let her eyes goggle that way. And as soon as she was off the boards she would stop lightening her hair, would even bob it.
But the husband was undeniable.
The door opened. As if conjured by her thoughts, Fitz Mayhew strode in with a bundle of clean shirts, a parcel of cheese and spiced meats from the Hungarian butcher, and an armful of chrysanthemums.
“Aurora! The car is waiting! You’ll miss your call!” he shouted—and then halted, seeing the array of women’s eyes in front of him, and the bulk of Julius sleeping in the distance.
“My dear, you ought to have warned me. I’d have brought more whiskey,” Mayhew said.
“Yes, and you’ll need it,” Sybil said darkly. She prodded Julius. “Jay! Jay! Here’s Fitzjohn back. Tell him what you want.”
“I’ve no room at all on the bill,” Mayhew said, but he had a laugh in his eyes. He was entirely on the ball, as always, and Aurora found herself enjoying the scene, which had taken her some time to piece together. She wondered how much Mayhew owed Julius.
Excusing themselves on the grounds of an early call, after Sybil was set up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea, Mama took Clover and Bella down to dress for the theatre.
“Can you feature it?” Mama said, as the elevator clanked down grinding its chain. “What was Julius about to let her get into that state?” She polished and polished her wedding ring on a lifted bit of skirt. “He ought never to have lent Mayhew that money, but it’s hardly our funeral—she was unreasonable, distrait even, during our little tète-a-tète.”
Bella could not help a gasp of laughter whenever Mama trotted out her French.
“And Julius—how dare he? Unforgiveable, that word.” She scrubbed at the ring, staring out into the bright brass cage that fell so slow. “Can you feature?”
Must be close to the truth, or she would not be so distrait herself, Clover thought. She must have come pretty near it in Paddockwood, toward the end. Where is the line between being a weak, sweet,affectionate widow when the grocer comes for his bill, and being Lily Bain?
“And now—drunk at mid-day. We cannot be poor, girls. It does not suit us. I was not brought up to it, and neither were you.”
Clover considered this, wondering how drunk at mid-day led straight to poverty in Mama’s mind. Did she mean that people who were brought up poor deserved to remain poor? She would not agree to that if it was put to her.
A heavy clunk and the cage opened, and they were set free.