Crossing the Horizon
CHAPTER ONE SPRING 1924
Elsie Mackay, 1920.
Hang on, she told herself as she tightened her grip as much as she could, the wind screaming wildly in her ears. Her eyes were closed; she knew that she should not open them. She was a thousand feet in the air, but right now all she had to do was hang on. That’s all, she said to herself again, this time her lips moving, her eyes squeezing tighter. Just hang on.
Twenty minutes before, the Honourable Elsie Mackay had sped up to the airfield, parked her silver Rolls near the hangar, the dirt cloud of her arrival still lingering in the air. She opened the side door to let Chim, her affectionate tan and white Borzoi, out to run
the field. Suited up and goggled for a run with Captain Herne, her flying instructor, she was anxious to get back up into the air. The splendor and alchemy was consuming, swallowing her whole every time she lifted off the ground, dashing through clouds and soaring far above the rest of those anchored below. She had been enchanted at the controls of an airplane, feeling charged and elated—something she had almost forgotten. It had been weeks since she’d been up.
Captain Herne, unflappable, rugged, and a veteran of the early days of aviation, emerged from the hangar with a smile and his leather flying helmet already on, the chin buckles swaying slightly as he walked toward her. He pointed upward. “She’s ready if you’re ready.” He laughed, as if Elsie would have another answer.
She called Chim back, gave him a quick pet and a kiss, and followed Herne to the field where his biplane stood, ready for a jaunt down the runway, which was a short, clear path through a field of grass dotted with wildflowers. With the soles of her black leather spool-heeled oxfords on the wing, Elsie pulled herself up using the lift wires that crossed between the two wings and settled into the rear cockpit. They flew into the air within seconds, and Elsie breathed it in deeply and solidly. She smiled. She had an idea.
“Say, Hernie!” she shouted to him through the cockpit telephone when they had climbed to a distinguished altitude. “Loop her around the other way!”
The veteran flier knew that was a maneuver that meant bringing the plane to a loop with the wheels toward the inside, putting a terrific strain on the struts; the craft wasn’t built to fly that way. But after a glance at his and her safety belts, Herne shook off his caution and shoved the nose of the machine down and turned her over.
Elsie laughed with delight; nearly upside down, she already knew
that she was the only woman who had looped with the wheels inside the circle.
“Attaboy, Hernie!” she shouted with a wide smile. “Attaboy!”
Herne laughed, too, then saw the wings fluttering under tremendous pressure like a flag in a windstorm. His smile quickly vanished; he tried to bring the plane back over.
“Turning over!” he shouted back to Elsie, but she did not hear him. The only sound was the howl as her safety belt ripped away from her shoulder and the screaming wind as it snatched her out of the plane. As she was pulled into the air, her hands clenched the bracing wires, clinging to them desperately. They were the only things keeping her from hurtling to the ground miles below.
Herne immediately turned around; he saw her twirling in the air like a stone tied at the end of a string. He lowered the nose, careful not to dive too fast. The wind pressure on her must be enormous, he thought. Good Christ, that girl is never going to make it to the ground. She’s not going to make it.
Elsie knew only that she needed to keep her grip strong and tight. She needed to hold that wire as fiercely as she could; she knew only not to let go. She was in a vacuum, the wind engulfing and beating against her at the same time.
There was no other thought.
Herne brought the plane down as gently as he could, the pressure of the wind easing a bit as they approached landing. Elsie swung her right leg into the cockpit and was able to pull herself back in, still holding on to the wire. The plane rolled to a stop and Herne reached back for her, scrambling out of his seat and helping her onto the wing.
“Let go,” he said, her hands still clenched around the wire. “Elsie, let go now.”
“Yes,” she agreed, her face red and chafed, but her eyes wide and bright. “Yes, I know, but I am not sure if I can.”
Herne lifted the fingers up one by one, uncurling them, releasing the lifeline of the wire, which he saw had cut through her gloves and straight to the bone.
She saw what he saw, and as he helped her to the hangar with only one of her oxfords missing, he patted her quickly on the shoulder and said, “I bet you’ll never ask me to do that again!”
Elsie looked at him, her hands held out, palms up and smeared with blood.
“I’ll loop her anytime,” she said, smiling. “Just get me a stronger safety belt.”
The third and favorite daughter of James Lyle Mackay—or, as of recently, Lord Inchcape, as he was pronounced by the king—Elsie Mackay reminded her father far too much of himself. At a glance, she was a lady, slight in stature, daughter of a peer, a privileged aristocrat wearing gowns of gold and beaded silk, a cohort of Princess Mary, the only daughter of George V. But under the surface of that thin veneer, Lord Inchcape had seen the will of his daughter evolve right before his eyes, her boldness take hold. She was not like her older sisters, Margaret and Janet, who knew and understood their duties. She was most unlike Effie, his youngest daughter, who was kind to the point of meekness and rarely put herself ahead of anyone or anything.
Elsie had failed at nothing. Whatever she set her sights to, she was almost always a quick, blooming success. He was always proud of her for that, but it was also what terrified him the most. Whatever his
daughter desired, wanted, pined for, all she had to do was take a step toward it. It was delivered.
While Elsie was bold, her choices were even bolder. He had learned that lesson in the hardest way. As the chairman to Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and the director of the National Provincial Bank, he recognized a tremendous and dangerous facet of his daughter; she was unafraid, a trait he nearly despised himself for giving her.
From the broad window in his study at Seamore Place, he saw her silver Rolls flash by, the tires crunching on the pea gravel of the drive, Chim’s head out the window as the breeze blew his ears back. Oddly, she was steering the car with her palms, as her hands appeared to be half-gloved. He shook his head and laughed. She was always experimenting with some new fashion. He remembered when she sliced her hair from tresses into a bob; he never had the heart to tell her that from behind she resembled a boy. This one looked more senseless than the others. Half gloves!
It wasn’t until they had seated for dinner that he saw the trend he had been laughing at was actually bandages that rendered his daughter’s hands almost useless.
“Now, before you say anything, Father,” she said the moment she saw his mouth drop as Effie and Mother braced themselves for the scolding, “it’s not as bad as it seems. Just two cuts; they will heal quickly.”
“Exactly how bad are they?” he demanded. “Your hands are entirely bandaged!”
“Not all useless.” Elsie grinned slightly as she wiggled the tops of her fingers that were visible above the wrappings.
“Let me ask if this injury was a result of your reckless hobby. I warned you about propellers and hot parts of the engine,” he said sternly. “Airplanes! Ridiculous! This is complete insanity. I don’t know why . . . anyone—”
“You mean a woman, Father,” Elsie interrupted, mimicking his stern stare and furrowed brow.
Effie giggled as Lady Inchcape suddenly looked away and smiled.
“All of my daughters are capable of anything they set their mind to. But you have so much already on your schedule with the design of the new ship that learning to fly an airplane seems preposterous to me, and that is aside from the prevalent danger,” he insisted, then softened. “My darling girl, my thoughts are only for you.”
The women burst out laughing, and Inchcape grinned as he cut into his roast.
“It’s quite safe, I can assure you,” Elsie relayed. “As long as you have a reliable safety belt, it can be quite a delightful hobby.”
“At the very least, you’ll have Dr. Cunningham look at it,” he added after he had swallowed.
“I am a nurse, dear father,” she reminded him. “You do remember that.”
“Oh, indeed I do,” he volleyed. “And it is because of the result of your nursing that I am so concerned for you now. We nearly lost you once, Mousie Mine, with that marriage incident, and I am reluctant to lose you again. Your girlish charms have unbridled powers.”
Elsie smiled slightly as a response, but quickly withdrew it. She wasn’t hungry—the food on her plate actually repelled her—and her fingers were throbbing. After Herne had pried her sliced hands off the bracing wire, he wrapped one of them with her handkerchief and the other with her flying scarf, then drove her to Dr. Cunningham, who stitched ten loops in her right and twelve in her left, and gave her a small bottle of laudanum for the pain. Elsie would get the use of her hands back in several weeks, the doctor said, but until then, there was no flying. Herne looked on and agreed.
“I’m going upstairs,” Elsie said as she pushed back her chair. “I’m
in need of some rest. Sophie had said she might stop by; if she does, send her up, will you?”
Upstairs in her room, Elsie took a sip of the laudanum and slid into her bed. The palms of her hands were beginning to bristle with sharp pain. It was nothing, she thought as she swallowed the bitter liquid, nothing compared to what she had seen during the war. This was nothing but a scrape. She laughed at herself.
Out of her bedroom window she could see the lights of Mayfair start to shimmer as London came to bright life at night. She had just missed the view as the sun finished settling below the horizon, nestling right behind the arches of Hyde Park, which Else’s bedroom window looked out over from the third floor.
She laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes. It was not lost on her how right her father was, and just how close she had come today to cutting her life short. She had fallen out of a plane a thousand feet in the air. She knew she should be terrified and unwilling to even look at another plane again, but she simply couldn’t locate the fright in herself.
The laudanum was beginning to seep in, softening everything. She thought about the flight at the moment right before she was ripped out of her seat. The thrill of the inside loop was so absorbing, she pictured it over and over again. Flying was an indescribable release for her, one she first discovered when she was stationed at Northolt, one of biggest aviation centers during the war. She understood the pilots she had seen taking off, suited up in their leather and gloves, confident and unyielding, and their passion for flying. She knew the damage these men would experience in a crash, if they survived at all. Horrible burns, broken limbs, shattered spines. And many of them healed, got
stronger, and went right back into the cockpit. A cut on the hand was nothing next to what she had seen, wrapped, cleaned, and treated.
Despite the horror of the things she had witnessed, she missed her time at Northolt. When England declared war on Germany in 1914, she was in the thick of the cheering and determination, and also the center of the silent, underlying panic of families about to see off their sons and husbands, who would come home as different men with pieces inside them that didn’t fit together anymore—if they returned at all. She was twenty-one, and her accomplishments consisted of mentions in the gossip column in the Daily Express for what she wore to a dinner party or the hat she wore when presented at court.
Sophie Ries, her close friend since childhood, had joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the outbreak of the war as many girls of the upper classes had, training to be nurses to aid the national effort. Elsie galloped at the chance and proposed to her father that she must also do something. It wasn’t until Margaret and Janet, egged on by their younger sister, announced their plans to go join the VAD that he conceded.
With the urgency of war always present, the Mackay sisters learned first aid and how to give blanket baths, feed a soldier, and keep a ward clean. Far from any sort of silk gold net, Elsie found herself in a painfully starched blue uniform crowned with a large white overlay, like a nun’s habit, that she ripped off hastily at the end of every shift.
Although Janet and Margaret approached their roles with a brawny sense of duty, Elsie felt more at ease talking with each patient, attempting to puncture some of their loneliness with a few minutes of conversation. It was not an approach the professional nurses sanctioned, but filling the need for a soldier, blinded and burned by mustard gas, or shot through the jaw and unable to speak a word, to have
a bedside companion did more for them than a swift cleaning of a bandage or the spooning of soup between grimaced lips.
After several months, Elsie was transferred to Northolt, a training squadron in West London, to be a courier and driver. Angry about being removed from nursing, she felt that her time with the wounded had been not only beneficial but necessary for her patients.
The base was not just a training squadron: It was a Royal Flying Corps aerodrome, newly built for the No. 4 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron. The cavernous hangars stretched in a single row to the horizon; the sound of whirring motors hummed steadily, like a beehive. Within several seconds a plane touched down and another took off. Another sputtered into the air and one landed in the dirt field with a hard bounce.
“Is it always like this, sir?” Elsie asked her commanding officer, her anger evaporating. “Or are they practicing for something?”
“Going to start flying sorties in defense of London against the Zeppelin air raids,” the officer said. “You got here just in time. Can you drive?”
“I can.” Elsie smiled. “Tight and fast.”
“What kind of car can you handle?” he asked.
“Bentley or a Rolls-Royce,” she said.
He laughed. “How about a Crossley?” he said.
“Still has a great kick to it, sir,” Elsie said, waving away the dust cloud the last landing plane had created.
As a driver to the higher-ranking officers and even some of the pilots, Elsie tore the stocky, curved convertible from hangar to base. The sight of her burning up Uxbridge Road, a major street in London, with a car full of brass hats was common. Driving was delightful, she found,
but flying was the activity that Elsie really loved—taking off, landing, circling, the swooping as the pilots performed daredevil stunts during test flights. She tried to imagine what being in the air felt like, what the ground looked like from above, how brash the wind felt on the face, and what exhilaration it was to dip and dart among the clouds like a bird. After delivering several officers to headquarters, a ruddy-cheeked, handsome young pilot asked if he might catch a lift with her to the farthermost hangar.
“I’ll drive you around all week if you take me for a spin in one of those biplanes,” she countered with her brightest smile.
“Afraid of heights?” he asked wryly.
“Possibly not.” She shrugged.
“Won’t get mad if your hair gets mussed?”
Elsie laughed loudly. “Look at it,” she said. “I just had it bobbed. I drive a convertible all day and it hit an officer in the face. I believe he ate some of it.”
The pilot laughed and Elsie leaned over to open the passenger door.
“Tony Joynson-Wreford,” the pilot said, extending his hand after he got in.
“Elsie Mackay,” she replied, extending her hand back.
The pilot hesitated for a moment.
“I’ve seen you in the Times. You’re the daughter of Lord Inchcape? The man who set the gold standard in currency for England?” he asked with a weary smile.
“Yes, the very same one who was knighted by the King,” Elsie said with a tired sigh and then a smile. “But he’s never flown, so I can at least beat him to that victory.”
“Looks like we’re going for a ride, then,” he said, smiling as her foot hit the gas and the tires spun out wildly, creating a magnificent plume of dust behind them.
Up in the sky, Elsie couldn’t believe it was real. With the bright sun forcing her to squint, she didn’t know where to move her eyes—to look up, down, sideways, or ahead, or to watch the blur of the propeller create a constantly moving grey circle. The higher they rose, the more insistent the wind came and the stronger her heart beat.
Elsie laughed loudly and slapped the outside of the plane.
“Oh, Tony!” she cried. “I am so awake!”
She could hear Tony laughing back, and then he shouted, “Hang on!”
He dipped the plane, flipping Elsie’s stomach inside out, but she just laughed louder. He circled the aerodrome, now a line of squares and rectangles placed over a neat brown patch. The freedom in the sky was austere, no boundaries, no stopping, no starting, going as fast as you wanted to go. It was limitless. She was never so untethered and genuine. It was terrifying and serene at the same moment. She loved that.
Tony took the plane higher, closer to lower-lying clouds, and headed right for them. In a moment they were enveloped in a thin, ethereal mist, the sun diminished to a golden, delicate glow. She reached her right hand up gently to touch it.
“I’m in a cloud,” Elsie whispered to herself. “I am in a cloud.”
Suddenly the sun burst forward, and she squinted again. They were back in the blue of the sky, brilliant and endless. Elsie could see the span of London below her, looking more like a puzzle than a large city. This is what the world looks like from up here, she thought, so narrow and small. Life up here is bigger. And faster. And forever.
Elsie wanted to stay, floating in the miraculous blue of the sky, the sigh of the clouds, and far above the cramped, tiny world below.
The brown patch came closer and closer, the aerodrome in view. This couldn’t be the last time she felt like this, she told herself; it just couldn’t. She had to figure out how to get back up here again, for as long as she could stay.
With a bump and a bounce, Tony brought the plane in on the dirt field, right next to a row of biplanes currently doomed to the earth.
He removed his goggles, climbed out to the wing from the cockpit, and helped her down. She landed back on the dirt with a small jump.
“So,” Tony said, smiling and removing his leather flying helmet, “how does it feel to be back on the ground?”
“Boring,” Elsie said, not hesitating to answer. “Devastatingly boring.”
Tony laughed and nodded. “We’d better find a comb,” he said, tapping her on the shoulder. “Your hair is a wreck.”
Elsie convinced Tony to take her for two more flights before she was summoned back home. Inspired by the work her daughters had done to aid the war effort, Lady Inchcape decided that she, too, needed to contribute in the only way a woman of high-ranking nobility was able to.
Four Seamore Place, a vast Georgian town house built a century before, was located on one of the most respectable streets in Mayfair. Two addresses down from Alfred de Rothschild’s mansion that housed his famous art collection and looking westward over Hyde Park, the house at Seamore Place was gracious, with a wide, sweeping staircase that opened to a palatial drawing room on the second floor.
“Here,” Lady Inchcape said, waving her arms widely, “is where we
shall set up initially. I think the view here over the park is lovely, especially at dusk, a time when things can get so dreadful. It will do good to lift some spirits, don’t you agree?”
The four Mackay daughters all nodded precisely on cue.
“Forty beds if we’re economical,” Lady Inchcape pointed out. (This was the same woman who had told her husband to turn down the offer of viceroyship of India when she learned they would have to pay for a complete china service, since the exiting viceroy was taking his with him. Her husband took her advice.) “I’ve contacted the Red Cross and we can probably expect six or seven VADs to be sent over in addition to you four by next week.”
Elsie understood then that her chances of flying were over. Of course she would abide by her mother’s wishes, but since she had taken that first flight through the clouds, she could barely stand to think of anything else. Her driving became her grounded substitute as she felt the speed and the wind shoot past her. It was the closest she could get to being in the air, although after she received several speeding reprimands, the Crossley was replaced by a much slower Ford, which was then replaced by a rattling, falling-apart motorbike that barely started, let alone flew.
The Seamore Place hospital was full immediately. The injuries and wounds were more horrific than Elsie had remembered in the earlier days of the war: the boils and burns of mustard gas were more prevalent, as was the damage of charred lungs and skin that had simply melted; faces that were twisted and torn by artillery; eyelids and noses that were burned off; and cavernous head wounds that could never be healed. Elsie held hands; she patted brows, cooled fevers; she talked. She took dictation when hands were too shaky to write, or when there weren’t hands left at all. She read letters to those anxious to hear them, and passed on a good joke when she heard it. She knew, truly and
honestly, that at that moment her presence there was more important than anything, even flying.
The injuries of the new patient in bed eighteen were not serious in the grand scope of things. He had all appendages, and a face that was intact. He had suffered a blighty one: a nonhorrific wound that was enough to get him sent back to England and probably not back into battle thereafter. Dennis Wyndham, a lieutenant from South Africa, had shell shock along with teary eyes and raw lungs from a mustard gas attack. He was fair, tall, and handsome, with a square jaw and serious eyes. He had smiled slightly at Elsie when he first arrived, uninterested in making any small talk. He spent most of his day by the window, sitting in a tufted armchair that Princess Mary had once taken tea in. Before the war, he had been a popular actor frequently seen in starring roles in London’s West End.
But now he required very little contact with anyone. He would rather not speak. He preferred to spend those daytime hours sitting in what sun he could catch, studying the people below who were able to go about their lives—those who still had lives—and he spent his nights trying not to fall asleep. It was better not to fall asleep.
Initially, Elsie had sensed his separation from the world; she had seen shell shock many times before. Sometimes, it was only a matter of days before they came back to the surface, and other times they were lost somewhere inside, forever. She respected Wyndham’s solemnity, his separation from the rest of the men, his time in the chair staring at the park. But as she passed him one brilliant and sunny afternoon, she noticed his hand on the arm of the chair. Lean, long fingers, but strong and capable. Shaking. They moved with a firm tremor, from side to side, without pause.
And Elsie, doing what she always did, simply reached down and
took ahold of his quivering fingers, put his hand in hers, pulled up a nearby chair, and sat quietly.
The romance between the Honourable Elsie Mackay and Lieutenant Dennis Wyndham blossomed quickly, but was steadfast and unwavering. His lungs healed, the tremors eased, and he came back to the surface full of unquestioning confidence of his love for the curly-haired, slight, dark-eyed heiress. Her smile popped, he said over and over again, until he simply called her “Poppy” and she found it adorable.
It was only a matter of time before her father caught wind of the pairing and wasted no time announcing his aversion to the entire idea.
“He’s . . .” Lord Inchcape angrily declared, nearly shuddering, “. . . an actor!”
Elsie stopped listening. And as soon as Dennis was well enough, Lord Inchcape instructed his wife to make sure the actor was moved to another hospital. Undaunted, Dennis bravely approached Inchcape for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Inchcape forbade it, and made it clear that if his wishes were not respected, the consequences would be severe.
“Elsie, be reasonable,” Margaret tried to tell her. “Father is right. You can’t marry Dennis. He’s a very fine man, but it isn’t sensible. You are one of the richest women in Britain; play this one very safe.”
Elsie laughed. “You mean Father will disinherit me? Cut off my income? I don’t care,” she said, still smiling and determined when her father whisked her to Scotland to examine the fifteen-thousand-acre estate of Glenapp Castle near his childhood home. He had purchased
it, Elsie believed, out of spite, and instructed her to set up the household.
It was Effie, Elsie’s youngest sister, who ran into Dennis, waiting at the edge of Hyde Park across the street from Seamore Place for an opportunity to pass her a letter for Elsie just before Lord Inchcape returned to London.
In Scotland, Elsie’s hands tore open the letter and immediately saw Dennis’s shaky handwriting; addressed to his dearest Poppy, it said he still wanted to marry her. Elsie proposed to Lord Inchcape that she return to London as soon as possible, preferably before the Royal Ascot or the regatta. She was anxious to get back to the social season, she said, and surprising her, he agreed.
Elsie and Dennis met at the registrar’s office on a quiet Saturday morning in early May to secure a marriage license. She wore a light blue silk dress with a slightly dropped waist, carefully picked out for the occasion. Dennis looked handsome in his starched captain’s uniform of khaki barathea wool and brass buttons; it was hard to believe he had been so ill just months before. After delivering their names and addresses, the registrar took a moment, then informed them that an objection had been made. No license could be issued to them with that standing.
“There is nowhere in London that will marry us,” Dennis told her once outside the office. “There isn’t a corner that your father can’t touch.”
“I won’t let him stop us!” Elsie objected.
“I’m going to the telephone box to call my station; we’ll need more money than what I’ve got. I’ll be back in minutes,” he told Elsie as he steered her into a tearoom. “Stay hidden.”
When Dennis retuned, Elsie saw that his face was pale, his brow
furrowed. For a moment he looked frail, revealing shadows of the man Elsie first saw in his hospital bed.
“My leave has been canceled,” he spit out as soon as he got close enough. “There are provost marshals coming to arrest me. We’ve been followed.”
“Now I have an idea,” Elsie said, carefully watching the door, then approached a uniformed waitress and whispered in her ear.
When Elsie returned, the waitress was with her, as was a young man from the bakery counter of the shop. Elsie jotted notes on two pieces of paper, handing one to the waitress and the other to the baker, along with several folded pound notes.
“Thank you both,” Elsie said, and the waitress smiled.
“They’re looking for a captain and his girl in a light-blue dress,” Elsie said. When the baker and waitress returned, each had a package; in the misshapen brown paper was a grey tweed suit, and in the streamlined box was a tailored beige linen dress that had been waiting at the dressmaker’s for Elsie since the week before.
And into a crowd of men wearing homburgs and tweed suits, Elsie and Dennis were absorbed, and then simply vanished.
Within an hour of arriving in Glasgow, they had applied for a marriage license and were married at St. Aloysius’ Church, with a verger and an old woman who had been praying acting as witnesses. The bride wore her blue silk dress.
Elsie telegraphed her family and Sophie before they left for London that night, announcing their marriage and that they would be back the following day. She wasn’t surprised when they pulled into Euston Square Station in London and saw the provost marshals on the platform, waiting to arrest her husband.
Much to Lord Inchcape’s dismay, the “arrest” consisted of the provost
marshal taking Elsie and Dennis to his home, where they were served breakfast and then Captain Wyndham was simply ordered back into uniform.
The consequences for disobeying her father, however, were not so hollow for Elsie. He refused to see her, despite pleas from his family, especially his son, Kenneth, who had come back from the war to find his family fragmented. But when it came to the subject of his favorite daughter, Inchcape was devout in his conviction.
His heart was shattered. The man who had been knighted by the king saw a bleak future for his daughter, but he had reconciled himself to the fact that he would not contribute to the disreputable and venal world she had just introduced herself to.
Elsie, in the days of being a newlywed and believing that things would always remain as delirious and sanguine, laughed at her disinheritance. Dennis was invalided from the army and returned to the stage, having secured a medium-size part in a West End play. Elsie busied herself by creating a home in their tiny, little third-floor flat in a somewhat unsavory neighborhood.
When her older brother, Kenneth, was in London, he would always stop by Elsie’s flat and plead for her to just make an effort to mend things with their father. He suggested that perhaps an apology might smooth things over a bit and perhaps give Elsie some access to her bank accounts, but she shook her head adamantly. Yes, she admitted to her brother, finances were difficult. Dennis’ salary didn’t provide for everything. Elsie had sold some jewelry to stretch things further, but she had exciting news to share.
“I’m going to be a film actress,” she said, her cheeks full, eyes beaming.
“Oh, Elsie,” Kenneth mourned, stopping just short of holding his head in his hands. “Do you have any idea what this will do to Father?
As it is, he saw Rothschild on the street the other day, who immediately issued his condolences after hearing that his daughter had run off with a lion tamer from the circus.”
“No—listen, Kenneth; it’s perfectly fine. It is!” His sister spoke excitedly. “There’s another actress by the same name, so clearly I can’t be myself! She was in a West End play with Cyril Maude. It would create mayhem if there were two of us!”
Elsie grabbed his arm and gave it a playful tug. “What do you think,” she said, rolling her hands forward to present herself, “of the actress named Poppy Wyndham?”
“Ooooooh,” Kenneth said with a wince. “Well, that sounds . . . tarty.”
“I play a horsewoman, and the name of the movie is A Great Coup,” Elsie said, ignoring him. “Have you read the novel? In most of the film I’m riding, which I am awfully excited about. I haven’t been riding in quite some time.”
“Even under a stage name, Father is bound to find out,” Kenneth said with a grin. “This news will keep the Mayfair gossips busy for years!”
“Well,” Elsie replied, hesitating a bit, “they’ve offered me a year contract.”
“Darling sister,” Kenneth said as he tilted his head downward and looked up over his brow, “nothing is beyond you, little dear.”
Kenneth ground out his cigarette and stood up to depart. Elsie smiled and threw her arms around him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
“By the way,” he said when she let go, “it’s a delightful little hovel you have here. I bet even the rats are flawlessly adorable.”
A Great Coup was a marvelous success, with the reviews hailing Elsie as not only an expert horsewoman but as possibly the brightest new thing to happen in silent film. She made eight movies that year, but it didn’t mean to Elsie what it meant to Dennis. It was his art, it was his profession, whereas to Elsie, being an actress was terrible fun.
She secured Dennis a part in her new film, and it was on that set that Elsie, wearing a flowing gown, was to walk down a dark hallway with only candles lighting her way. One of the small, flickering flames caught the edge of the gauzy dress, and within seconds the whole train and back of the gown billowed into flames. Dennis leapt up and threw himself on her, extinguishing the fire and saving her from an excruciating death.
That was the man that Elsie remembered; that was the man that Elsie had married. Now he spent more time at the theater, working out new roles and taking on bigger parts. He was hardly at home. There were some mornings when Elsie woke alone in her flat after he had fallen asleep in his dressing room. Those mornings became more frequent.
He missed the premiere for A Dead Certainty; she waited at the flat until the last minute, then stood outside the theater for as long as possible until she was the last person seated. When she asked him why he hadn’t come, he didn’t even offer up an excuse.
“For heaven’s sake, Elsie,” he replied in a huff, waving her away with his hand. “It’s not a live performance. I could go watch that movie right now and it wouldn’t be any different than the night of the premiere. Why does it matter when I see it?”
The film made her famous. In Spain, collector’s cards with her name and photo were given out with chocolate bars. She was offered another movie, and with each passing success she saw Dennis fade more and more into his own separate life.
She saw a facet of him return: the solemn man by the window, only interested in his life outside their home. She offered to abandon acting if that was what Dennis needed; she had already abandoned riding and flying because they simply could not afford it.
But Dennis would say nothing. Stunned again by the quiet, Elsie felt the frustration rise up in her until it breached. As Dennis was heading out yet again without a word, she abandoned her composure and grabbed him by the arm. “Tell me,” she said fiercely, looking him in the eye. “Tell me what it is I’ve done.”
He looked at her briefly and calmly removed her clenched hands, then shook his head. He looked weary.
“I’m sorry, Elsie, I am. It’s impossible. I could never be happy with you,” he said quietly. “There are things you will never understand.”
Then he opened the door and simply left.
Elsie did not know if he ever returned. She packed a few things, called a car, and sought refuge with Sophie, who offered her a home for as long as she needed it.
Then she sat down and wrote a long, honest letter to her father.
After Lord Inchcape read the letter that was delivered to Seamore Place, he called for his driver and was at Sophie Ries’ apartment that afternoon. Elsie hadn’t seen her father in almost four years. He hadn’t aged as much as he had shifted, seeming a little smaller and slightly lower, shrunken. While never a tall man, his overwhelming presence and the force that he carried with him had always been apparent. Some of that was now gone.
She knew she had done that.
But as her father entered Sophie’s drawing room, slightly smaller than he had been, he approached his favorite daughter without hesitation and embraced her gently.
“My darling girl,” he said lightly, then released her to look at how much his daughter had transformed. “Oh, my dear girl.”
Elsie and her father returned to Glenapp Castle, where, along with her sisters, brother, and mother, a wiggling little present was waiting for her, too. It was a lanky, doe-eyed tan and white Borzoi puppy named Chim by his laughing, delighted mistress.
Lord and Lady Inchcape and their prodigal daughter set sail for New York on the maiden voyage of the White Star Line’s Majestic, the largest vessel in the world. With a scrupulous eye, Elsie examined the ship and suggested improvements to their stateroom. It gave Inchcape a marvelous idea: bring Elsie into his cruise ship company. When he presented this idea to his daughter, she smiled and immediately began taking notes.
It was on the return trip that an electric blonde with milk-colored skin plopped down next to Elsie one night during dinner at the captain’s table.
“The Honourable Elsie Mackay, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Mabel Boll from New York,” the captain said before taking his seat at the dining table.
“Pleasant to meet you,” Elsie said, nodding, noticing at once the amount of jewelry that had landed all over Mabel’s body in the appropriate places.
Mabel, whose wide blue eyes sparkled almost as much as her diamonds, lit a cigarette, ignoring the men at the table who feebly offered matches. Her champagne blond hair was perfectly waved, sculptured. She was generous with her makeup, the bloodred color of her lips accentuating the poutiness that they possessed naturally. She was striking more than she was beautiful, and seemed more interesting than alluring.
“This was my first trip to New York,” Elsie offered, in an attempt to
start a conversation. “It was so much more vibrant than I ever imagined. London almost seems a bit sleepy by comparison, doesn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t know,” Mabel replied, her words clipped as she leaned over on the folded arms she had rested on the table, the glowing tip of her cigarette coming entirely too close to Elsie’s silk sleeve. “Never been there. But I’m not staying in London; I’m going to Paris. New York’s nothing compared to Paris!”
“So you’ve been to Paris?” Elsie inquired, hoping to find some common ground.
“No, but I’ve heard about it,” Mabel replied without a beat. “Just got married, and I’m gonna buy a villa there. My husband is back in South America. He’s the coffee king of Colombia. Señor Hernando Rocha. You heard of him?”
Elsie barely shook her head, still stinging from the word “married.”
“Well,” Mabel said with a sigh, “he’s got his ranch, so I got this.”
The blonde wiggled a finger on her left hand that bore an immense diamond on it, nearly the size of an eyeball.
“Forty-six carats,” she said simply, and shrugged. “Makes complaining worthless, don’t it? Say, don’t I know you?”
Elsie smiled politely, and nodded once. “Well . . .” she replied. “I did do a bit of acting a while ago, but I think I might try my hand at something else soon.”
Mabel leaned in and furrowed her eyebrows.
“And just what might that something be?”
Startled slightly by Mabel’s sudden proximity, Elsie sat up straight and moved slightly farther back in her chair.
“Flying,” Elsie said. “During the war, I was stationed at a Royal Flying Corps base. I’ve never experienced anything that exciting since; even acting was rather dull compared to it. I’m thinking about taking some lessons, learning to fly myself.”
“You don’t saaaay,” the newly married, heavy-fingered bride said, stretching out the vowel for emphasis. She then reached for the cocktail, tipped it, and swallowed it in two dainty gulps.
“Thank heavens for international waters,” she said with a laugh, and then got up, her empty glass in hand. “Prohibition is criminal.”
Mabel Boll never returned to the dinner table that night, and Elsie didn’t see her again for the duration of the trip, although rumors swirled about her on a daily basis. That she danced all night in one of the ship’s clubs; that she had her own stash of liquor in her cabin; that after flirting unabashedly with the marvelously rich Marshall Field III, she caused quite a row between him and his wife, Evelyn; that she emerged from a stateroom not assigned to her early in the morning and scrambled down the hall. Elsie paid no attention to the swirling clouds of gossip about Mabel Boll. She was busy thinking about something else. The moment she got back to London, she tracked down Anthony Joynson-Wreford and asked him for a recommendation for the best flight instructor in England.
“That’s an easy favor, Else,” he said over the phone. “Captain Herne: he’s the most experienced man in the business. He’s right outside of London. I’ll ring him up.”
It was the knock on the door that woke Elsie, who struggled slightly to emerge from a deep, laudanum-aided dream of her past. Her hand throbbed considerably less.
Sophie peeked her head through the barely open door.
“Are you awake?” she whispered. Elsie nodded and waved her close friend in.
“Oh, Elsie Mackay, you have gone and done it now,” she said, sitting on the bed and grazing Elsie’s palms with her forefinger. She
winced. “That looks truly awful. Are you going to tell me what really happened? It’s not a motor burn, unless you were daft enough to slam both your hands on the engine. Don’t forget, I was a nurse, you know.”
Elsie sighed. “Swearing you to utter secrecy,” she said, looking at Sophie sternly. “Tried my hand as an air acrobat, but didn’t like it. I’d rather just fly the bloody plane.”
Sophie raised her eyebrows in disgust. “Truth, please,” she asked.
Elsie nodded. “But you won’t believe it,” she said. “Hernie and I were doing an outer-loop trick and it was the most shocking, marvelous thing. You can’t imagine it, Sophie; the wind is whipping so quickly, and your body is reeling with this force and—”
“What happened to your hands?” Sophie interrupted.
“The safety belt ripped and I flew out of the cockpit,” Elsie admitted. “I grabbed the bracing wires until Hernie landed, and, well, now I’m afraid I’m grounded for a while.”
“That’s ridiculous and I wish you’d tell me what honestly happened,” Sophie said sternly. “Have it your way, Elsie; I’m just glad that you’ve been cured of this flying nonsense no matter what absurd injury you’ve inflicted on yourself. Stay on the ground with us.”
Elsie laughed. “Well, it’s true, I won’t be flying any time soon,” she confessed. “But I haven’t been cured of anything. Now that I have some spare time, I’ve decided I’m going to get my pilot’s license and buy a plane of my own.”