It’s not every day a handsome young man appears on your front doorstep to ask if you’re a respectable woman.
Come in out of the terrible sunshine, and find somewhere to sit while I hoist myself back into bed. I’m in reduced circumstances, so you have a choice of the wooden chair from the scullery, the floor, or you can settle on the end of the coverlet near the window. I’m not infectious, I’m sure, but I shan’t take offence if you’d rather not sit close.
I shouldn’t be surprised at you bobbing up to investigate my suitability. I suppose you can’t permit just any old creature to be granted a charity cottage at the Old Colonists’ Homes for Desiccated Actors and Others of the Theatrical Profession. I’m more by way of being ‘Others’, myself, of course: a lady dancer, a comedian, and a comic singer. And as I’m sure your committee already knows, the head of my own travelling troupe. The Ada Delroy Company, lately extinct.
Feel free to work your way down your list of interrogations. Who knows what riveting secrets you could winkle out of me with the toast fork?
You have a fine sharkskin notebook for the answers, I see. And a fancy fountain pen. The truth is you’ll need to be cunning to get me to admit anything to my disadvantage. I should think with my experience of bamboozling reporters this ought to be a doddle, though I’ve been lying down in Malvern instead of prancing about the stage, so I’m a bit out of practice. Now, tell me you’re not too flash to put the kettle on.
Let me see your card again. The Cottages for Decayed Actors. Goodness, that’s decidedly worse. I suppose I hardly need to establish that I am sufficiently decayed. You only have to look at me. Without any warning or time for repair, I’ve had to receive you in a calico nightdress, with my hair looking like I’ve taken fright and run through a hedge backwards. It would take an awful effort and a tureen of arsenic to appear any more desiccated than I am presently, for Heaven’s sake.
And it says here that you are Mr Horace Sargeant, assistant secretary. You seem of a juvenile nature to be in such a position though I can see you’re doing your very best with that moustache and a pale but resolute countenance. That’s an Office Complexion, that is. Nineteen years old, you say? You have the look of a much younger man.
It’s awful rattly, isn’t it? I meant the wrought-iron bed, not my cough, but I see what you mean. Don’t trouble yourself, it’s always like this. I wouldn’t look underneath the bed for the spittoon if I were you. I’d go so far as to advise against it.
I’ll tell you what else rattles, the windows in their sashes. The doctors insist we keep them open for fresh air morning and night, but I think they take their orders from the Hebrides where they never knew a Melbourne summer like a kiln that melts the bones out of you. We open up the doors at night, too, so plenty of fresh beetles and mosquitoes and moths and a thousand flies come in, with a few enervated theatrical types to play cards, if you’re not careful. But you’re the first young man with a notebook.
What do you need to establish in order for me to skip into a cottage? Specifics of professional and moral reputation? Well, brace yourself, sunshine.
Was I an artiste of good standing for at least two decades? Even at your advanced age of at least nineteen and three quarters, I should think you ought to have been taken as a child to see the Ada Delroy Company, Mr Sargeant. We were free of vulgarity, especially at matinees. I only retired from the stage two years ago. Due to ill-health and everything giving me the whim-whams, and we’ve been in straitened circuspantses ever since. A little theatre joke for you.
Good standing? I hardly sat down in more than twenty-five years. Too busy bellowing the chorus of ‘Stop Yer Ticklin’, Jock!’ to halls full of convulsing miners – convulsing with laughter, mostly, unless the measles was going through. They were very happy with my standing, though preferred it when I jigged about. I was the Terpsichorean Marvel, famous throughout the Southern Hemisphere and most of the north of England. ‘Terpsichorean’ is a fancy way of saying ‘dancer’ in the advertisements, dearie-oh. Nobody wants to see any old scrantler in grimy tights forcing out a vulgar song like a train whistle while she prances about as if she’s got a terrible itch. You don’t want that sort of act for a shilling, you don’t. You wants a bit of arsing class, excuse my French. Especially at the matinees.
Write down there that I’ve been encored on five continents. I had a diamond pendant near as big as an emu egg off the Maharajah of Whats-His-Name (it’ll come to me). They named a racehorse after me, and a greyhound and a middling-fast pigeon and a potato soup on the Orient steamship route to Thursday Island.
Newspaper reporters from around the globe had me down as the Premier Serpentine Dancer of the World, the inventor of the form. I devised it myself one afternoon after a tour of India during which I observed the dancing girls in their sarees. Though theatres were soon infested with galumphing imitators I was first to the North of England with the act, and we raked in thousands of pounds before anybody else woke up to it.
Have you never seen a girl dance in a hundred yards of transparent mother-of-pearl tinted silk, Horrie, whirling as the limelights change colours, moving her flowing costume to create illusions of waves and clouds and flowers and dreamscapes? Twirling up into a giant calla lily, or writhing in horror as the projected flames from the Magic Lantern slides lick up her body, sending off real smoke? Have you not wondered how she disappeared when the House is plunged into darkness, an innovation that makes the audience shriek as one?
Did you not gasp when the stage was lit again, revealing only a remnant scrap of gold tinsel and a sprinkle of ash? Have you not seen, displayed across a lady’s costume, the gigantic countenances of the Queen and that daft spiritualist, the Prime Minister Mr Deakin, and the captain of the Australian cricket team? I’ve had Joe Darling’s moustaches across my middle scores of times. Oh, don’t look at me like that.
We had full houses in splendid city theatres, the big town music halls and plenty of smalls – the bijou town halls and mechanics’ institutes – as I say, twenty-five years of it from Manchester to New Jersey, Calcutta to Rockhampton, Fremantle to Zeehan, a detour to the Himalayas, Vancouver to New Zealand. In good times we bagged hundreds of pounds a fortnight and in bad we skiffled off to the railway station without paying the lodgings landlady. It’s upsy-downsy, theatre work, you see. Decidedly on the downsy side these days. I could only just play Banquo’s ghost, at a pinch, if they propped me up with a broom and used strings to move my arms.
That is an awfully good question, young Horace. Where did the money go? We took 126 pounds for two nights at the York Theatre in West Australia and thought that was the bee’s knees until we went back to the North of England with my Serpentine dance and raked in thousands. We owned land and had savings in at least two of the fanciest Melbourne banks – till they folded up tight with our money still in them in the Depression of the nineties.
Ho, yes, I used to carry around my jewels in black velvet bags tied between my bodice unmentionables – bosoms, dearie-oh, do try and keep up – till we had to sell those too. The brooches, not the bosoms – I’m a respectable woman, despite what people say about ladies in the theatre. It was at the diamond dealer’s we discovered that the fistful of sparklies from the Maharajah of Patalia (that’s the one) were nicely mounted crystals at best and Professor Baldwin’s butterfly brooches was all paste. Were all paste, beg your pardon.
It was Professor B taught me to speak proper – or properly, as he’d say, with added verve and decoration. I learned to say ‘were’ every time I wanted to say ‘was’. You don’t say ‘I were trompin’ down the road’. You have to say, ‘I was travelling in a carriage lent to me by my dear friend, the Duke’. You’re not the first to remark on my unusual way of speaking, Horrie. It comes from knowing many languages and having at least two accents. I speak Lancashire, Australian, the Theatre, some Publicity Puffery, a little French and a few oaths. And a smattering of Cincinnati, courtesy of Professor Baldwin.
I can’t say it was a monstrous surprise to discover all my jewels were glass. If you spend your life giving every story a bit of extra shine you can’t grumble when you get flannelled in return.
If it’s evidence you require for my claim on a cottage, open up that denty-old tin trunk your feet are on. Our clips album is on top, that lovely, fat one, see? Haul it up here on the bed so you can turn the pages. Peruse the reviews.
I was ‘enchanting’, and ‘indefatigable’ and ‘dainty’ – and all the other words they find to avoid saying ‘beautiful’. ‘Bright and winsome’, that sort of thing. The word they used the most was ‘piquant’. Makes you feel like chutney. I can show you which pictures in the album are of me. You may have to use a little imagination.
For nearly thirty years what we did was like juggling. Say you’ve got a few things in the air, like you’re the great Cinquevalli, perhaps a billiard cue and a chair and a cup of tea and a cigar box, and if somebody clubs you behind the ear when you’re not looking, it can all come thundering down around your ears. One minute you’re a precision équilibriste, and the next you’re just a crockery smasher and everyone looks the other way to spare your blushes. A cascade of ghastly events that isn’t anyone’s fault. Bad things can happen to respectable people.
Hoisting an eyebrow at the mention of my respectability, Horace? You’ve been talking to Madam Marzella, haven’t you? That vinegar-beaked old fussock wouldn’t put in a good word for anybody, Horace – take no notice. She might have the premier cockatoo act in the country but that’s no guarantee of integrity. If my niece Lizzie and my husband Jim was at home and heard you talking like that, you’d be bundled out the door with your hat sent sailing over your head down the path.
I’m due a little more medicine, so if you could pass that little bottle I’d be obliged.
Moral turpitude would be a sticking point, you say. Oh, the Committee says. They sound like a chooky old group of tattletales if you don’t mind me saying. Is it their custom to spend the best part of the day in their glasshouses with a bottle of brandy, a shanghai slingshot and an afternoon’s supply of pebbles? Rumours. Stage whispers, perhaps, you would call them. I stole my act from a world-famous denizen of the Folies Bergère? If I did, that’s not a crime – that’s a career. I don’t have any turpitudes to speak of.
There’s talk of mysterious suggestions of stains upon my character that must be addressed, you say. They say, I beg your pardon. Some people do so enjoy inspecting theatrical ladies for stains. In my experience sometimes they do it at uncomfortably close quarters. What a load of pamphlets on the subject I’ve used for kindling over the years. The Conduct and Character of Young Ladies in the Theatre, parts one through eleventy-nine. And do you think it seemly to come to a lady’s house, Horrie, to prod her on a matter involving – which? Missing jewels? Unexplained absences from the boards? Stealing a woman’s husband? Marrying my own brother? The whereabouts of an infant? That time I had a weekend with the Prince of Wales? I don’t want you to think that I can’t keep a secret, because I can. Lady Ranfurly wears a wig. Damn. There you are, you see, I’m not so sharp of mind once I’ve got some of this medicine inside of me.
I can see we’ll have to take things step by step. Speaking of cake, as it happens there’s a capital piece of Battenberg in the Swallow & Ariell tin in the scullery, and I’d advise you to fetch it while you rustle up another brew.
Can I see a bit of a twinkle in your eye, Horace? You’ll help me button myself into a little cottage in my twilight years, I know you will. Jim and Lizzie would have to come too. If there’s one thing Bells can do it’s stick together, unless we don’t, so if they can’t come officially there’s nothing to stop them sneaking in at night. I like you, Horace. I like boys. I’ve left a few behind, though not in the way that clarty-mouthed Marzella might put it.
If we cut the Batty sideways we can pretend there’s more than there is. I’m sure I can convince you of the truth of my accounts of the past. Don’t be alarmed by the fact I used to help with the greatest mesmerism act in the world. If I had wanted to hypnotise you, Horrie, I’d have had the last slice of cake off you in a trice.
I only ask you don’t speak of this morality business to my niece Lizzie, a talented musician of impeccable reputation who would be troubled by such talk and very upset should she hear of me being burdened by unrighteous accusations. Lizzie goes each morning to the School of Arts to teach the piano and a smattering of mandolin to private students for a pittance. Most of them have all the musical talent of a sea lion.
Did you just wink at me, Horace? I always liked it when gentlemen winked at me. A harmless, little secret salute. They’ve stopped of course. Only Jimmy winks at me now. Forty-two, I am. I usually say thirty-two. Never mind that these days I’ve got a face like an ancient champagne muscatel. I’m like one of those shrunken heads on a stick waved about by the South African witchdoctor chaps ready to be photographed with you at the Johannesburg railway station for a souvenir postcard.
Wait till I show you my carte de visite photograph-postcards. Men used to carry the image of me in their breast pocket, nestled close to their bankruptcy papers. That’s a joke, duck, you’re in the presence of a professional here . . .
I do beg your pardon, I tend to doze about the place. My train of thought choofs off down the branch lines, occasionally. You’ll be wanting to know if Madam Marzella’s scandalous accusations have a crumb of truth or they’re a whole loaf. Heave at it, with your interrogatories. I’ve nothing to hide. Or at least, you’d never be able to tell. I know quite a lot about magic. Misdirection, and disappearances. Did I say that out loud?
Do call me Ada – that’s the way we are in the theatrical world. All free and equals. I’ll show you a picture of me back in the day that’ll give you a start. Have a riffle through the album and see what you think of me in my prime. You wouldn’t reckon that losing your looks would matter so much, if you were never radiant to begin with. But somehow it does.
No, no, dearie-oh. I’m not looking my best today but I was never a tattoo crank with cob loaves on her ears. She’s a love, Wallona is – not a word of English, but it doesn’t matter. It’s mostly visual, your tattoos. She’s on tour with a wirewalker, a sharp-shooting ape and a man who farts in melody, begging your pardon. Touring the South Australian small halls, as we speak.
My giddy aunt. You’re having a wind-up. That, plainly, is Vulcana and her husband, Atlas. They’re Welsh. The photograph has seen better days – that’s what happens if your scrapbook falls down ravines and gets snatched away from hotel fires, and goes mouldy in the tropics.
I should say that isn’t me. That’s Pansy Montague wearing a swimsuit and a bow, which is overdressed for Pansy. You can stop gawping now, Horace. Her act was to powder up and pretend to be a statue on stage, and where’s the skill in that? Next you’ll be asking me if I was in a flea-circus.
I can see you know precisely nothing at all, Horrie. I shall have to start from the beginning.
All photographs that appear within the text and on the inside covers of Ada are out of copyright.
Wallona Aritta, tattooed performer, c1910. Photographer unknown;
Atlas and Vulcana, c1903. Photographer unknown, Talma Studios;
Pansy Montague, ‘The Water Nymph’, c1906. Photograph by Alfred Cecil Rowlandson; all courtesy State Library of Victoria Pictures Collection.