There had been another row. Father was impossible, Beatrice thought. She’d had to bite her lip not to lose her temper, too, wading in on Evie’s behalf – it would have only made everything worse. Now instead, she crept upstairs to find Evangeline and make sure she was all right.
Her sister was twelve years younger, and had been left in Beatrice’s care after their mother had died giving birth to her – an initial nurse and a few ineffectual and inexpensive governesses notwithstanding. Bea had at first, childishly, decided to hate the baby that had killed her mother, but that had turned out to be impossible as well as unfair, because you couldn’t hate Evie, not really – not even on a day like today when she’d set Father off in one of his worst rages.
“Oh, Evie,” said Bea, slipping into the younger girl’s room to find a tearful Evangeline lying on the bed, tangled heedlessly in the bedclothes. “Little Evie. It isn’t all that bad.”
Evie sat up and looked at the bowl Bea was carrying and wrinkled her nose, not entirely grateful for Bea’s efforts on her behalf. “Only bread and milk?”
“It was the best I could do,” said Bea, “and Father would be on the warpath again if he knew I was in here.”
Evie took the proffered bowl. “I didn’t mean to make him so angry. I just wanted something interesting to draw.”
“Yes,” said Bea and struggled not to laugh. “And you couldn’t have found anything more unsuitable than the male anatomy?”
Evie licked the spoon and pressed herself up against the pillows. “Well, it was his book. You think, being a doctor, he’d approve of his daughter taking an interest.”
“Never,” said Bea, and sat down on the bed, leaning in to smooth back Evie’s hair, revealing a sadly tear-blotched face. “Oh, Evie.”
Evie sniffed, causing Bea to frown at her. “He won’t really send me away, will he? You don’t think he meant it?”
“Father?” said Bea. “Send you to school? I only wish he would. I thought you wanted that?”
Evie swallowed her bread and milk a little too hastily in her alarm. “But not like that – not to a – a reform school!”
“Oh, is that what he said?” Bea said, and broke into a laugh. “Evie. The well-respected Dr. Eliott would never bear the shame of seeing his daughter in anything less than the best of schools – and sadly, that he would never deign to pay for!”
Evie closed her eyes and let out a long breath. “I really thought he meant it. He said I wouldn’t even be allowed home for the holidays.”
“He was furious,” said Bea. “Take your punishment and leave his medical books alone in future and we’ll hear no more about it, I promise you. Besides, if he did that, I should follow you there and take you home again, even if I had to walk all the way!”
Evie put the now empty bowl down on her lap. “I suppose I shall have stick to drawing fruit now, won’t I?”
“For the time being,” said Bea. “And you’d better stay out of that gloomy old library of his.”
Evie gave her a smile. “I will. And thanks, Bea. The bread and milk wasn’t all that bad.”
“Honestly, Evie!” said Bea, but then she leant in and hugged her. Evie returned the gesture, holding onto her tightly.
Once upon a time, when it came to looking after Evie, Bea had thought that she had to at least try and do what Mother would have wanted, but she’d thought of it almost ever since only as doing her best for Evie, without knowing when that had changed.
“I’m sure I’ve still got paint on my nose,” said Evie, rubbing at the offending part of her anatomy again.
Bea cast a glance over at her. “Not that I can see. Anyway, the flat’s done and that’s what matters.”
“And it’s ours, all ours,” said Evie, spinning around in the empty space, and then she stopped in front of Bea and grinned at her older sister. “I think we’re going to have the most marvellous time here. We’ll come up with the most innovative designs and be famous for originality and style – everyone will want to wear our creations!”
“Do you think so?” Bea said, amused.
“Oh, yes,” Evie said, hovering on the edge of laughter, and then she caught at Bea’s hand, suddenly serious. “I think we really could, don’t you? At the very least we can make a success of the dressmaking, can’t we?”
Bea nodded, meeting her gaze. “Oh, yes. We shall. Or at least, if we fail, it won’t be for want of trying.”
“Or talent,” said Evie and laughed at Bea’s reproving look. “Well, it’s true, and if we don’t say it, who will?”
Beatrice took Evie’s hand and gripped it, smiling back. It made such a change to be able to view the future with anticipation rather than frustration and even fear sometimes. They would make something of themselves at last, and have a life of their own. Now Father was gone, and they were free of that house, there was nothing and no one to stop them. It rested on their own skills and connections and no doubt a little luck. They’d had their wings clipped and been earthbound for so long but now, together, they could fly.
The decision to give Evie Mother’s engagement ring was barely a decision at all. Bea had few things left of Mother now – she’d even sold some of the jewellery to pay the tradesmen, back in those penniless days following Father’s death – but she had what Evie did not. She had her memories.
She closed her eyes and thought of Mother. Evie could be so like her at times, whereas Bea, in her most honest moments, had to ironically admit that there was a good deal of her Father in her (if not all that much, Bea always added firmly). Mother, though, would have been so proud of Evie. Running a fashion house probably wasn’t what she would have had in mind for the pair of them, but she would have wanted them to have a life.
Bea shook the brief fit of nostalgia away, and continued wrapping the small present, marvelling to herself that her little sister was now so grown up. Evie was twenty-one and in addition to this personal present, they’d made her a full partner in the business – now the House of Eliott’s somewhat informal board comprised Bea, Evie, and Jack Maddox (the society photographer occupying the studio opposite who’d been so supportive of them from the start). And Evie, Bea thought with amusement, certainly had plenty of her own ideas and opinions to bring to the business.
Then, as she tied a neat bow around the gift, she paused, touched by a fleeting sensation of loss. She’d had to be mother as well as sister to Evangeline for all these years. The idea of letting go caught at something inside her and she felt a shiver of uncertainty; though not for Evie, for herself.
There was a tap at the door, causing her to jump, and she turned to see who it was. “Oh, Jack. It’s only you. I thought it might be Evie.”
“Thank you,” said Jack. “I was just coming to say that everything is ready for the party. I’ve made sure we won’t run out of champagne.”
Bea shook her head, and pocketed the present, ready for when she had the chance to give it. “Yes, I’m sure you have!”
Then, as she followed him out of the office, she also shook off her moment of doubt – after all, she couldn’t wait to see what her sister would do with her life. It would rarely be dull, Bea was certain of that.
“You miss Evie, don’t you?”
Bea started, having fallen into a reverie, and turned her head back to Jack, feeling guilty at her thoughts straying elsewhere. “Oh, I’m sorry. I am enjoying the evening, though, I promise.”
Jack put his arm around her, pulling her in closer, and she leant against him, both enjoying the easy familiarity that was still so new and feeling almost alarmed by it. She glanced upwards at him.
“I don’t suppose you two have ever been so long apart before?”
“No,” said Bea, “and I know, I know, I have to let her live her own life – and I do! I am. I just can’t help but miss her.”
Jack laughed and kissed her forehead. “That’s only natural. Knowing Evie, I’m sure she’s fine.”
Bea closed her eyes and let out a long breath. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure she is.” She hadn’t ever been separated so thoroughly from Evie before – even when they’d had such a huge row that Evie had moved out of the flat and hadn’t spoken to her in weeks, they’d still seen each other at work.
Now Bea had left Evie behind in Paris and while she agreed with Jack in principle that Evie could look after herself, she still felt uneasy about it. Sometimes she had the worrying sensation that something wasn’t right with her sister. But mostly, she simply missed her; the feeling a constant ache inside her, even when she wasn’t thinking about it. It made work harder – she had to battle alone with the designs and the business – suddenly there was no Evie, with her flair for what made a design stand out, or a line flow, or just to joke with over a difficulty. She even missed having someone to argue with. Everyone else at work at least seemed mostly obliged to merely say, “Yes, Miss Bea,” to an order. And when Bea settled for a less than perfect draft of something, there was no Evie to catch the compromise and challenge her to do better.
“I am happy,” said Bea, to Jack. “I don’t want you to think otherwise for a minute. But, yes, I do miss her.”
Jack kissed her hair and said again that Evie would be fine.
“Yes,” said Bea with a smile. “I know.”
“All credit to you, of course.”
Bea couldn’t help laughing at the idea. “No, no, it really isn’t.”
And, when Evie walked back in the very next day, in the midst of Bea’s surprise and delight at her return, there was a part of her that saw it as inevitable – how could their story play out any other way?
They explored the deck of the ocean liner together, arm in arm.
“America,” said Evie almost into Bea’s ear. “Does it seem possible to you? I’m not sure it does to me. I keep having to pinch myself.”
Bea lifted her head, though the movement was lethargic. “Then I think you’d better accept it, or you’ll be black and blue by the time we arrive in New York.”
“But it does feel rather surreal, doesn’t it?” said Evie. “All those things we used to dream about when Father was alive – everything we’d do. Did we even think of America?”
Bea gave a rueful smile. “I’m not sure we did. It was always Paris, wasn’t it?”
“And we’ve already done that,” said Evie, a smile tugging at her mouth at the thought.
Bea watched her closely. She didn’t feel anything like as light-hearted as Evie seemed to, and she wondered too if Evie’s cheerfulness was only a front she was keeping up for Bea. Evie’s affair with the politician Alexander Montford had been long, public and damaging, and ultimately painful and no doubt brought disillusionment in its wake. “Evie, you are all right, aren’t you?”
“You mean Alexander?” Evie held onto the rail at the edge and looked out at the ocean, taking the question seriously. “You know, I think I actually am.” Then she gave a rueful smile. “Well, maybe. How about you?”
Bea leant in against her. “Don’t let’s talk about that.” She supposed it was silly. She’d lost Jack a long time ago, but in these last few days, she’d believed that was going to change, and it hurt all over again, only it felt so much more dreadfully final this time.
“There’s always the House of Eliott,” said Evie, stroking Bea’s sleeve.
Bea closed her eyes and nodded. “Oh, yes. There is always The House of Eliott.” It came out more bitterly than she had intended.
“Have you thought about what you want to do while we’re in New York?” Evie asked in a different tone. “Apart from business, of course.”
Bea raised an eyebrow. “Looking at the schedule Sears Roebuck have planned, I doubt there’ll be too much free time to worry about. Why, have you?”
“Well,” said Evie, drawing out the word, and then she laughed, and confessed: “I’ve made a list!”
Bea squeezed her arm and laughed, too, letting go of a little of the pain she’d been holding onto so tightly. “Then you’d better show me,” she said. “I’ll inject a note of realism.”
“I’m not unrealistic!” said Evie, in mock-outrage. “Well, only a little. You’ve got to dream, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“This trip is going to be exactly what we need,” said Evie, with confidence. Bea vaguely remembered saying much the same herself about the trip with regard to Evie, and she had to smile again.
“You’ll see,” Evie said, at Bea’s silence.
Bea turned her head and nodded. “Yes, I know,” she said, and took Evie’s hand. “I’m not all right,” she said, leaning her head against her sister’s for a moment, finally answering her earlier question. “But I will be, Evie, I promise.”
It had been a long day, involving a startling proposal, Evie’s intransigence – no, her declaration of war, Bea thought – and a good number of rows all round ever since.
Bea had to admit she didn’t feel sure of anything. It was hard to argue one’s cause when one didn’t feel much for it. She was angry with Evie, for being awkward at the worst possible moment – and for being so melodramatic! – but underneath, she wasn’t comfortable with the proposal Mr Bannister had made the House of Eliott, either.
She sat down in the chair, grateful that Lucy seemed to be quiet and that Jack had had to go out. She could sit there and nurse a headache and try not to think about it – except, of course, she couldn’t think about anything else.
Honestly, Evie could simply have gone to Paris! She and Daniel would have had a wonderful time there, and if she hadn’t liked where the House of Eliott was by the time she returned, she could work anywhere she chose, with her talent. To be so unreasonable just because Bea had put pragmatism first in accepting Mr Bannister’s proposals as the solution to all their current difficulties was unacceptable. She was interested in the art of fashion and design, too, of course she was, but they had employees to think of. She didn’t want to pursue a high-minded course of action and find herself laying off the Bayswater workers, or even the workroom girls.
Bea sighed and pressed a hand against her temple, and closed her eyes. Surely even Evie could see that? Why could she not be reasonable?
She replayed their conversations in her head, over and over, unable to stop.
“You know what it means,” said Evie had said, after they’d caught a moment alone to argue about it in private rather than in public. “No more freedom, Bea! Oh, we can design what we choose for the ready to wear lines, of course – but we’ll be dependent on the buyers. What doesn’t sell won’t get made. You can see where that will lead as well as I can, surely?”
“And is that so different to the haute couture?” Bea hadn’t wanted to admit how much of a point Evie had.
Evie had leant forward. “You know it is. We sell the collection as a whole – the ideas, not the individual dresses.”
“Well, yes, but it’s not the same. People see the collection; they come to us and if they don’t like the collection, they order original designs. That’s where the new ideas come from – and the critical reception makes buyers more interested in lines that they might not have been otherwise. We need both sides, Bea, or we have nothing to feed into the ready to wear collections.”
And the awful thing was, thought Bea, finally admitting to herself the thing she’d known in her heart all day, Evie was right. She was right, and Bea just hadn’t wanted to fight, not any more, and especially not if Evie was going to be away in Paris. Bea had wanted finally to put the House of Eliott second for a change. For the last few years, it had been all in all to her, and she didn’t think that was necessarily a good thing. She knew she’d given in too easily today, but what else could she have done? She had to think of the business and the workers they employed, as well as Jack and Lucy.
She was interrupted by a knock at the door, and when she went out to open it, she found Evie on her doorstep, looking at her with an expression somewhere between militant and semi-sheepish.
“I know, I know,” Evie said, “I’m probably the last person you want to see right now, but I had to come.”
Bea stood back to let her in.
“The thing is,” said Evie, a little breathlessly, “if I’m going to fight them, I need an ally – and it should be you, Bea.”
Bea closed her eyes, and put her hand to her mouth, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
“I know you agree with me,” Evie added. “You have to.”
She nodded. “I think I do – but, Evie, you know all the practical reasons still stand.”
“We’ll think of something,” said Evie, following Bea back into the sitting room, and when Bea sat down on the sofa, she knelt down beside it in her earnestness, a sudden, almost painful reminder of many, many evenings together growing up. “We’ll have to. We can’t give somebody else that much control over everything we do.”
Bea drew in her breath. “Evie, I’ve put everything into the House of Eliott. Perhaps – perhaps it was too much – and this is a way to solve an awful lot of our current problems, you must admit.”
Evie pulled herself up onto the sofa beside Bea, who turned her head away for a moment, ready to hold back, in what Evie would no doubt call one of her hedgehoggy moods, but then she relented with a sigh, and looked at her sister.
“Well, then,” Bea said, with a wry little twist to her mouth, “what do we do?”
Evie shrugged. “I don’t know. But after Father and Arthur and Saroyan I think we’ve had enough of people dictating to us, don’t you?”
“I hardly think it’s fair to compare Mr Bannister to them!”
Evie stared ahead. “Well, actually, Bea, we don’t really know him, either, do we? I think I’d rather sell the House of Eliott now than watch it dwindle into being nothing more than a mediocre supplier of inoffensive designs to the High Street!” Then she pulled back from Bea and gave a more mischievous smile. “Anyway, at least I got you to admit that I’m right.”
“Evie,” said Bea, but she was more amused than angry already, shaking herself slightly. She hadn’t felt as if she could fight any more. It didn’t seem fair. Jack had always supported her, and now it was her turn to support him – and there was Lucy to think of, too. But if Evie really was staying here, that made a big difference. “So, it’s up to me, is it, after all those speeches of yours?”
Evie sat upright. “Bea, I did not say that, and you –”
“Oh, I think it is,” said Bea as she stood, leaving Evie looking after her in bemusement as she went into the hall to find the telephone. She felt suddenly surer of herself than she had done all week. Because if one thing was clear in this situation, it was that nobody knew enough to make a final decision. She took a deep breath and dived in, telephoning the number Mr Bannister had left her.
Evie crept out to the doorway, standing there, watching her, still looking slightly puzzled as she listened to one side of the conversation:
“Yes, I do see the issue, Mr Bannister,” Bea said, at her most imperious again, “but you will understand that in the circumstances – Yes, yes, I know, but since my sister feels so very strongly – We’ll be extremely appreciative of any extra time you can give us to consider. It is a large step and I’m a little concerned that we don’t rush into this – Well, I’m sorry if you don’t think you can – Thank you, Mr Bannister.”
She put down the phone and gave a smile of triumph that, really, she shouldn’t be feeling, considering. Evie, still leaning against the sitting room doorway, grinned back at her.
“Oh, dear,” said Jack, from the other end of the hallway, shutting the front door behind him. “That sounded like somebody burning bridges to me.”
Bea turned guiltily. “Oh, Jack! No, I promise – merely asking for a little more time. Which you must admit, we do need. It’s not my fault if Mr Bannister isn’t prepared to be reasonable about it.”
“The whole thing sounded like a gift horse as far as I'm concerned,” said Jack, with a shrug, “but it’s your decision, both of you. I know nothing about running a fashion house, even now.”
Bea breathed out again. “I’m not promising anything,” she said, which worked for both of them. “But Evie is right – we’ve rushed into accepting our first offer before and lived to regret it. I don’t want to do that again.”
“Well, I’m not sorry,” said Evie. “I’m happy to burn that particular bridge down to the ground. Just give me the matches.”
Jack shook his head at her. “Yes, I think we’d all gathered that earlier.”
“I’m worried,” said Bea, still frowning over it. “We might never get another such offer.”
Evie grinned again. “Good. I’ll drink to that!”
“Ah,” said Jack, “now that’s a motion I can support wholeheartedly. What would you like?”
Bea shook her head. “Oh, you two! Please, this is serious.”
“I know,” said Evie. “And I promised Daniel I wouldn’t be long.” She hugged Bea on the way out, and said in her ear. “I knew you were on my side. And if Mr Bannister really won’t come round – well, we’ll find somebody else. We will, Bea. We’ve come too far to let them pull us down now. Trust me, you’ve done the right thing.”
Bea didn’t voice her doubts again, though she still had plenty of them, but she closed her eyes and returned the embrace. She’d been angry enough earlier, but when she came down to it, there was no real decision involved: she had more faith in Evie than in any businessman, or offers of money, or anything else, if it came to it.
She would have liked for something to be easy for a change, but they would work through this, as they had with everything else. They’d said it once before, as a joke, but it was true: together they were unstoppable.