The silence in the first class compartment was verging on awkward as the young ticket inspector combed his mousy hair with shaking hands and Stella deftly pinned her thick blond curls back into place.
Stella smoothed the skirt of her favourite frock, marvelling yet again at its decadent silkiness. It was the colour of the sky on the brightest, most cloudless summer’s day, and embroidered with tiny red roses along the low waistband. She had purchased the entire outfit at one of the very best stores in New York City (or so the sign outside had proclaimed), using the last of the small fortune she had won at cards on the steerage deck as the elderly ship chugged and creaked its way across the Atlantic. She had longed to add a pair of satin gloves to the ensemble, but her funds wouldn’t quite stretch to it, and the stern woman serving hadn’t taken her eyes off her for a second.
After a week on an elderly ship chugging and creaking its way across the Atlantic, she had spent two days in Manhattan awaiting the train’s departure, passing both nights wandering the bustling streets in thrall to its energy. Gleaming skyscrapers disappeared right into the very clouds and its strict grid of paved streets were filled with more shiny black cars than Stella had thought existed in the whole world. If only the picture business had remained centred in that great city, but thanks to Mr Edison and his enthusiasm for pursuing patents, all the important producers had emigrated West years ago.
‘Well Miss, I — we will very shortly be arriving at Los Angeles,’ the ticket inspector said.
‘And not a moment too soon,’ replied Stella brightly. ‘Mr Macmillan has had to delay production to await my arrival.’ Stella’s accent wavered between clipped boarding school King’s English when she remembered, and her natural East End drawl when she didn’t.
‘Mr — Mr Wallace Macmillan do you mean? Of RLP Studios?’ The ticket inspector stared at her in wonder. ‘Are you a motion picture actress?’
‘ As a matter of fact, I’m a proper actress, from the theatre,’ Stella replied sharply. ‘I assume you’ve heard of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane? It’s quite a step down to enter pictures you know, but I promised dear Wallace when he took me to dinner at the Dorchester every night for a week. I’m going to be starring alongside Archie Tanner and Esme Holt.’
‘Archie Tanner and Esme Holt? You actually know them?’
The ticket inspector’s eyes seemed about ready to pop right out their sockets.
‘Esme is such a dear and Archie Tanner a terrible one for saying the most shocking things,’ Stella giggled. ‘We all passed a marvellous weekend at the country home of some lord or other, and really Archie was quite the funniest one there. Noël tried to pretend he didn’t mind being bested in the wit stakes, but truly he was fuming. It was most amusing.’
‘Well I — as I said, we shall be arriving, very soon. In Los Angeles. Our final destination.’
Stella stared curiously as a crimson blush crept over the ticket inspector’s face. ‘Yes, you said that.’
‘Perhaps we — perhaps you — perhaps it might be… my turn.’
‘Heavens! What must you think of me — I can only apologise.’
‘Oh that’s — it’s quite all —’
‘You must have thought I were one of these unscrupulous seductresses that afflict our generation.’
The ticket inspector’s expression of relief faded as Stella smiled at him, her eyes wide and guileless. ‘I’m sure you are aware of the very latest research that finds most conclusively that for a gentleman to maintain top physical and mental condition and really be firing on all sixes, it is vital that he keeps his essence to himself except for in circumstances of absolute reproductive necessity.’
‘His — essence?’
‘His essence,’ Stella repeated firmly. ‘The very force of life after all. One wouldn’t want you to lose any willy-nilly, as it were.’
‘I — I — oh.’
‘It was all written up in Time Magazine.’
‘I see.’ The ticket inspector cleared his throat officiously, attempting to claw back a shred of dignity. ‘Well, then — ‘
“I couldn’t possibly trouble you to fetch me a cup of tea, could I? The ordeal of this long journey has exhausted me so.’
The young ticket inspector nodded wearily and disappeared down the narrow corridor in the direction of the dining car. Before he could remember to ask to see her ticket again, Stella slipped from the luxurious compartment and scampered back to her seat in third class.