Set in London and Russia at the turn of the century, Susana Aikin’s debut introduces a vibrant young woman determined to defy convention and shape an extraordinary future.
Like other well-bred young women in Edwardian England, Lily Throop is expected to think of little beyond marriage and motherhood. Passionate about the stage, Lily has very different ambitions. To her father’s dismay, she secures an apprenticeship at London’s famous Imperial Theatre. Soon, her talent and beauty bring coveted roles and devoted admirers. Yet to most of society, the line between actress and harlot is whisper-thin. With her reputation threatened by her mentor’s vicious betrayal, Lily flees to St. Petersburg with an acting troupe—leaving her first love behind.
Life in Russia is as exhilarating as it is difficult. The streets rumble with talk of revolution, and Lily is drawn into an affair with Sergei, a Count with fervent revolutionary ideals. Following Sergei when he is banished to Vladivostok, Lily struggles to find her role in an increasingly dangerous world. And as Russian tensions with Japan erupt into war, only fortitude and single-mindedness can steer her to freedom and safety at last.
With its sweeping backdrop and evocative details, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling explores a fascinating period in history through the eyes of a strong-willed, singular heroine, in a moving story of love and resilience.
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Lily stood leaning against the mantelpiece folding the note into a little envelope. The room was cold. The fire had not been lit. Neither had the cinders from last night been removed or the hearth swept. Outside loomed a dreary, wet November morning with rain-darkened trees silhouetted against skies threaded in scales of gray. The grandfather clock's gloomy ticking filled the room. At the other side of the double-paneled door, she heard the muffled whimpering of her little sister, Annie, amid the swishing of dresses moving quickly along the hall and landing, followed by her father's heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. "Everyone leave the hall at once," Lily heard him say, in a loud, composed voice. "I want to talk to her alone." All stood still for a moment.
Lily held her breath as the door opened. Her father walked in and sat in his armchair by the window. He was fully dressed in his Sunday brown suit and immaculately groomed despite the early hour. Even the chain of his pocket watch was perfectly looped through its customary buttonhole. He sat upright and looked across the room, ignoring her. Then he fumbled in his waist pocket and brought out his monocle. His right eye first widened, as if surprised, and then squinted as he placed the round glass in between his cheek and upper eyelid. He picked up his cane again and leaned on it with both hands.
"Father, I will be leaving any minute now. ..." Lily started.
"You will go nowhere. You will stay at the house and do what I tell you. If you dare disobey me ..." her father said, straining to sound severe but ending on a deflated note. He cleared his throat and huffed. "You'll be the disgrace of us all."
Lily felt a sob cramping her throat while tears shot up into her eyes. Her father gave her a sidelong glance, while shifting his weight uncomfortably in the chair. "There's still time to call this ridiculous idea off. Should you do that, I will forgive everything." He paused for a moment. "So will Mr. Duff, I'm sure."
At the mention of Mr. Duff, Lily's cheeks flushed with anger. "I thought we already talked about Mr. Duff, Father, that I shall never marry him." The image of the clergyman's beady little eyes flashed through her mind. She shuddered, recalling the proximity of his scrawny, buttoned-up body as he had whispered, "My dear, you need to think of putting your talents in God's service at the church."
Her refusal to marry him had thrown the household into calamity only a few weeks ago. Her father had stopped talking to her, while her stepmother, Betty, had sneered to no end. "Only dishonest girls lead a man up the garden path like that. Besides, I don't know how many other offers someone like you will get." And she had hounded Lily with images of drab spinsterhood.
But all of this was now far away in the past in Lily's mind.
"Father, please, let's not quarrel anymore. You know how much I love you. And I do appreciate your thinking of my future. It's just that I am so drawn to acting, and so feel I must follow my heart."
Her father shot her a furious glance. "I will never give you permission to leave the house."
Lily rushed toward him, kneeled by his chair, took his hand, and put it to her lips. "Father, please, give me your blessing. I promise one day you'll be proud of me."
Her father pulled his hand away from hers and stiffened in the chair. She knew how hard this must be for him. He was a bland man and found it difficult to discipline his favorite daughter. But he was also bland in the presence of Betty, a strong, unwavering personality who had always sought to dominate him, and made every effort to crush Lily's spark.
As if summoned by Lily's thoughts, Betty entered the room. "I see you're already getting the best of your father with your theatrical ways," she said, closing the door. "What you're about to do is not just indecent but also ungrateful, after everything he's done for you." She was stout, with a large head and compact body. Her hands had been quick to smack Lily's head and ears in the past, but now it was her tongue she used to wound. "But you're not concerned, are you? You'll always do as you please. Well, let me just say this: I can't help but see you a fallen woman in a few years, fit only for the workhouse. Every girl I know who went in for the theater ended up in the gutter."
Lily scrambled to her feet, trembling. "You never knew anyone who went in for the theater!" She stood facing Betty with rage pounding in her ears, struggling to control herself, for she knew restraint was the only viable strategy in the presence of her old enemy.
"Oh, yes!" Betty continued. "Stupid girls who could sing and dance! They thought they would do anything they fancied, but never knew how fast they could get shot down."
Her father stood up. "That's enough! We won't say another word about this. You are only seventeen and under my tutelage. You will not leave this house! Send the carriage away and go to your room."
Lily kneeled again before her father and searched his eyes. "I only ask for your blessing, Father." The clip-clopping of horse hooves and the clatter of wheels filled the street before they came to a halt outside the house. "If you won't stand behind me," Lily added, her voice shaking, "I can only hope one day you will forgive me. "
"Forgive you! I will not lay eyes on you again as long as I live. I will disinherit you properly and forget you were ever my daughter!"
Lily stood up. "All right, Father, I will just say good-bye then." She turned toward the door where Betty was barring the threshold. "Let me through," she said, but Betty was unmoved. "You shall have to step over me," she said.
A string of coughing sounds was heard approaching the hall. Then came a weak, insistent knock on the door. "Father, open up."
Betty stepped aside as her husband fumbled with the knob. "Harry! Son! Why have you left your bed?"
Harry leaned against the threshold, a gaunt figure, wrapped in a heavy gown. Behind him stood Alice, with her pretty, freckled face pulled into a frown as she struggled to place a blanket around his sloped shoulders. "Darling, please," she said. "Let's go back. It's cold out here."
Harry went into another long fit of coughing. Lily watched in agony at the red stain spreading on the handkerchief he pressed to his lips as he hawked. He looked up with thunderous eyes as soon as he could steady himself. "Father, let her go," he said, out of breath.
"Harry!" Father exclaimed in a fury. "This is not for you to interfere! Go back to bed. I will call Dr. Morton presently."
"Father, I say you give her your blessing."
"I will do no such thing!"
"She will go anyway," Harry said, locking eyes with his sister.
If Lily had one regret about leaving her father's house in this state of strife, it was Harry. In different circumstances, it would have been her brother now going to London to work in the theater. Of the two of them, Lily had always seen Harry as the real dreamer, the true actor, the director and playwright. But he had also been the eternally sick child, prostrate for months, imprisoned in bed, surrounded by medicinal droppers, bedpans, hot-water bottles, and jars of pungent ointments; though none of that had ever made him lose his spirit, for he never stopped creating theater houses inside his sickroom, building tents and stages with bedsheets, making puppets out of old socks, and writing plays and stories over his pillows. Lily had always felt the silly, inept little sister by his side, following him into imaginary worlds as a way to distance herself from the somber household, from Betty's violence, from the long, dark winter nights pelting rain over windowpanes.
Harry coughed again.
"See?" Betty said. "Upsetting your brother."
"Betty, this is not your business," Harry said, catching his breath. "It's my father's and my own." Lily rushed to embrace him, but was careful not to crush him in her arms for fear of making him cough again. "Go now, Lily," Harry said, "and write to us as soon as you get there."
"Harry, how dare you!" Betty hissed. "How dare you oppose your own father like this!" Harry held her gaze in silence, while Lily pressed her lips one last time to her brother's cheek and dashed out into the hall. She reached the coatrack by the entrance door and glanced back while unhooking her cape and hat. She froze at the scene behind her: Harry had started coughing again, while Alice embraced him at the waist with her thin arms and burst into sobs. Everyone stood around him in a knot of sadness and concern. For a second Lily's hands felt like they would wilt and drop her cape. But Harry looked up at her again and said, "Do not think of stepping back, Lily. Just leave. Everything will be all right."
Then she heard the Cook Nelly's heavy footsteps walking up the kitchen stairs and into the hall. She held a napkin bundle in her hands. "Miss Lily, this is for your elevenses on the train," she said in her sweet manner, oblivious to the commotion in the hallway. She was an ample matron, swathed in layers of white pinafores and aprons with a pinkish, round face and kind eyes. "And, dear, do take care not to catch cold; it's miserable today."
"Cook, don't you dare give Miss Lily anything!" Betty said, coming up quickly behind them. "She'll leave the house without food or personal belongings."
Before she reached them, Lily pecked Nelly's cheek, snatched the small bundle from her hands, and fled through the door. The cold morning mist hit her face while she tingled with euphoria.
"Lily Alexandra Throop!" She turned around at the sound of her father's voice and saw his small brown figure standing in the doorway. "I shall keep my promise and disown you this very day. I shall never call you my daughter again." She watched as he removed the monocle from his eye, returned it to its pocket, and then waved his hand at Nelly, demanding she close the door. He then turned into the dark, narrow tunnel of the hall and was gone.
London, February 14th, 1898
My dearest Harry and Alice,
I just received the travel trunk you so kindly sent me from Manchester. Oh loves, you don't know how important this is, to have my clothes again with me and my books, for I have no money to buy anything, and London is very expensive. All these weeks I've been wearing Ruby's extra coat and shoes, since mine were in such a sorry state. Do you remember Ruby? She is the red-haired Irish girl with the pretty eyes who played Mary Magdalene by my side in the Passion play last year. She's here in London with me and we share a room at Mrs. Bakerloo's boardinghouse. She's such a lovely friend!
I am so happy, dear brother and sister! London is so big and beautiful with tall white buildings and elegant people coming to the play. The Imperial is just across from Westminster Abbey and the river. It's the biggest theater I've seen: It holds up to three thousand people. It's gorgeous inside, in the shape of a large horseshoe surrounded by columns and two rows of galleries. Everything is painted in red and gold, and the whole place glitters when the lights are turned on.
The play opened three weeks ago and it's been a success. I am sending the cutout of The Era's review — can you see my name in the list of actors? I play the part of Gretchen, and Ruby is Annette. But the article doesn't mention either of us, it just says, "The minor parts are all creditably sustained." I think it means we do well.
I feel blessed to be here, but I miss you so much, my darlings!
Your LilyCHAPTER 2
Lily stood with her cape and bonnet, looking out the window toward the grim line of houses along Charing Cross Road. The rain fell hard over the cobbled streets. It beat against the windowpanes, sliding in rivulets along the soot-stained glass in slim, meandering paths. With the cuff of her sleeve Lily wiped clean a circle on the condensed surface and stared across the street at a woman who huddled behind her umbrella struggling against rain-threaded gusts of wind. Men walked around hunched up inside their coats with hands dug deep in their pockets, or ran holding newspapers above their heads. It was as wet and miserable as a large city can get under winter rain.
But not for Lily. No amount of rain, sleet, or snow could deter her hunger for exploring her new world. No day of the week, save Mondays, which was her day off, could ever be miserable enough for Lily not to want to be the first to arrive at the theater. That was all she thought about, getting there and rushing through its back door as soon as the janitor opened up, traversing the labyrinth of mysterious back corridors, probing dressing rooms, wardrobes, and storage rooms replete with furniture and the strangest variety of objects, or props, as Mr. Featherspoon, the property master, had taught her to call them. Ruby complained about the extra tasks that were part of their chores as players in training, but Lily relished them. What did it matter to her to have to sweep and scrub the stage before performances if that could afford her the chance of standing on that magical platform? Even empty, the stage vibrated with all the drama, laughter, and emotion that had been spilled over decades of performances. Sometimes, when no one else was around, she stood on the apron and looked out into the dark pit, imagining the day when it would be fully illuminated and swarming with patrons, roaring with applause for her.
Behind her, Ruby stood at the door spying through the keyhole. "She's still there, the old goat," she whispered. Stepping out of their room without having to face Mrs. Bakerloo was one of their most unpleasant daily tasks. No matter how softly, how carefully they closed the door, how much breath-holding and gingerly tiptoeing down the stairs, the grim matron was always waiting at the bottom, ready to scowl and threaten them with eviction. Mr. Bennett, their theatrical manager, never paid the rent on time, and now he owed more than two months. Slipping in and out of the room became harder every day the debt increased. The dining room had already been barred to them. For weeks they had been going without breakfast. But today, they were already late for the theater and just had to brave it past the old woman.
They opened the door and rushed down the stairs. "Morning, Mrs. Bakerloo," Lily and Ruby recited in unison as they hurried toward the door.
"It's already afternoon," Mrs. Bakerloo barked. "But you theater people wouldn't even know the difference."
Out on the street, Lily looped her arm through Ruby's as she opened her brolly and they walked down the street side by side. By the time they reached Stoney's Gate, the rain had petered into a drizzle. They closed the soaked umbrella and rushed toward the theater with quick little steps.
The Imperial was housed inside a large corner building with darkened façades framed by rows of long, narrow Gothic-style windows. On the sides of the main doors hung large posters announcing the play, colorful vignettes of khaki-uniformed soldiers charging at one another over green hills, carrying British flags and large sabers.
They entered through the stage door, where Mr. Featherspoon sat perched on a stool waiting for them. He was a tall, lanky fellow with a protuberant pouch in his midriff that so contrasted with his thin torso and spindly legs, it looked like he might have eaten an animal that still lay undigested in his stomach. His face was long, etched with wrinkles and punctuated by sharp, tiny eyes that stared out of deep sockets. His nose, knobby and slightly crooked, sat above a thick imperial-style moustache that matched his gray sideburns and hair he wore parted in the middle and slicked back behind his ears. He was always dressed in the same shabby green velvet jacket and waistcoat, and a dark top hat that might have been black once. But he was a kindly fellow, Lily thought, despite his unpredictable, eccentric rants.
He jumped off the stool with surprising agility. "You are very late indeed, missies. I was expecting you ten minutes ago." Lily blushed while Ruby clicked her tongue. Surely, they couldn't tell him about the difficulties of getting past Mrs. Bakerloo. "I'm a very busy man," Mr. Featherspoon continued in a high-pitched nasal voice, "and cannot afford to be waiting on two fickle young ladies who cannot keep to their timetables." He paused to scan their unease with bemused eyes. "Anyway, let's get on with it." He took a large ring of keys out of his pocket and advanced down the corridor ahead of them. Lily and Ruby quickly removed their coats and hats and followed him.
From the day they arrived in London, Lily and Ruby had been under Mr. Featherspoon's orders, helping to move light stage props and putting them back behind locked doors before closing the theater every night. They had also been bound to Mrs. Potterlane, the wardrobe mistress, a moody woman who made them brush and iron the actors' costumes under fastidious supervision. When they joined the company, Mr. Bennett had announced he was happy to have them on board, but because they were only apprentices, he could not pay them beyond covering their food and rent. Soon, though, they might become understudies of May Withersfield, Dorothy Brown, and Mrs. Bennett, the company's professional actresses.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Shall See the Sky Sparkling"
Copyright © 2019 Susana Aikin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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