The letter arrived in the morning mail. Heavy linen paper supplied an ample canvas for sweeping handwriting, which wrote, Mrs. Penelope Harris Ambrose; c/o the Excelsior Hotel; New York, New York. Then, in the return address, a name well known enough to give her pause. Wasn’t he on tour with his protégé, the soprano? She turned the envelope in her hand and tried to remember. Wasn’t he? What was her name? Penelope stared at the handwriting for a moment. Her heart beating a little faster.
There had been invitations from lesser-known vocal teachers. Society photographers appearing at the exact moment the instructor threw her out on her ear. Penelope couldn’t ignore the coincidence. “All publicity is good publicity,” the social editors told her when she called to complain. “Girlie, you sell newspapers!” Free advertising for an instructor looking for new talent wasn’t too shabby either. After the last invitation resulted in a snap of Penelope with an unattractive gape and a double chin front and center in the Evening Standard, every invitation to sing went to the Excelsior incinerators with the rest of the trash—with no regrets.
But this one . . . Signore Avenetti. Penelope held the letter in her hand, weighing the consequences of another appearance in the society columns. She checked the postmark— October 11, 1928—only two days before. Had the Signore’s precious soprano ditched him for a French conductor after her Parisian debut? Could the Signore be looking for another student? Someone to fill her place? Penelope stood stock-still, allowing the dream of a career on the stage to press in around her.
“What’s that?” Her older brother, James, emerged from his bedroom, a heavy bathrobe lashed to his wiry frame, blond hair ruffled, glasses on the tip of his nose. Plucking the letter from her fingers with one hand, he adjusted his glasses with the other and said, “Love letters? So soon? We’ve only been in New York two months!” He waggled a finger in her direction. “Keep your nose clean, Penelope, or high society will cut you dead!”
“As if they haven’t already!” she sniffed. The letter appeared smaller in his hand, less consequential. She remembered the photographers when the steamer had stopped in Liverpool, the newspaper headlines, relentless publicity. Then again in Boston. And again in New York. Kinkaid Ambrose had been a terrible husband in life. In death, he had been worse, killed in an alley behind the notorious Jade Tiger, a gambling casino of the very worst sort. A man like the Signore wouldn’t—no, he couldn’t be interested in a student who might put him on the front page in all the wrong ways. It simply was not possible.
Penelope was crisp. “High society wouldn’t have me before I got married. Why on earth would they have me after I became a widow? Anyway, it isn’t a love letter. Give it here.” She stretched out her hand.
“What on earth is keeping the paper?” A tallish woman stood in the doorway to the living room. “James! Just look at yourself! If you are going to join us at breakfast in your bathrobe, you could at least comb your hair.” She turned to Penelope. “Is that the paper?”
“Here it is, Mother.” Penelope handed her the bundle. “There are two letters for you.”
Eleanor took the paper and then eyed the mail. “Most likely your uncle Harry instructing me to remarry. It positively offends me to even think about it. Your father has hardly been dead a year!” She looked over the letters and added with some relief, “These are bills. You can tell by the handwriting; it is distinctly prim.”
“What does this letter’s handwriting look like, Mother?” James held up the envelope.
“Setting aside the fact that the letter is addressed to your sister and not to you, I would wager that it is definitely not a bill.”
“I think it’s a love letter,” James said quickly, holding the letter up and away from Penelope where she could not reach it.
“My darling boy,” Eleanor cocked her head to see the envelope better, “that is not a love letter. The handwriting is far too musical. I’d wager it’s another audition.” She returned to the letters in her hand.
“Then it goes in the trash.” Practical facts filled Penelope with resolve. “Just another musical tutor looking for his picture in the paper.”
“My dear, how can you tell?” Eleanor looked up. “It could be a legitimate invitation. The flourish on the H is very promising. You should go. Your father would have wanted you to continue your studies.”
Would he? Penelope wasn’t as sure. Before he died, her father had hoped selling his company would provide enough to live comfortably in America. But he couldn’t have realized how reduced the trip across Europe would make them. Nor how expensive the doctors in Munich would be. Her scar, which started above her ear and continued in an arc across her neck, was almost invisible, thanks to them. But at what cost? There was no money to attend the academy and continue her vocal studies. Not anymore. There was enough to see James through medical school and settle her mother in an apartment near her brother Harry—but none for singing. It didn’t bear thinking about. Even if she could afford it, no teacher would want her. She thought her father would have understood. Especially now that the press was onto her past. Her mother needed an apartment. Her brother needed a career. Penelope did not deserve the money.
She imagined the Signore pointing to the exit in a grand, dramatic pose, his favorite student at his elbow, a newspaper photographer in a funny squashed hat shouting, “Mrs. Ambrose! Smile for the camera!” as he jumped out from behind a potted plant. It was easy to imagine. The circumstances had repeated identically four times in the previous six weeks. Penelope straightened. “Even if it was the genuine article, I don’t need an audition—I need a job.” She took the letter from James’s fingers and dropped it onto the table next to the telephone in a single fluid movement. “I won’t have any students at all if I get my name into the papers one more time.” Penelope stuck out her chin. No more auditions. No more fools’ errands. It was time to get down to real work—if she could find it. Time to give up on childish ambition. *
Two hours later, with James on his way to campus for a lecture on the Spanish influenza and Eleanor off to the library for a new book, Penelope opened the letter and read it. The thought of her father haunted her. He could be in the living room reading the paper, he felt so close, the scent of his pipe drifting through the morning sun. A year of grieving hadn’t made the loss any easier. She missed him dreadfully. Would he have approved of her giving up? The man who told her she always had to try? Fifteen minutes later, she was in a cab headed uptown in the best disguise she could put together on short notice: an old dress, her mother’s second-best wool coat and gloves, a faded brown cloche pulled down over her hair and halfway over her eyes. With any luck at all, the press wouldn’t catch on. So far she was sailing free of them.
Penelope allowed a dangerous glimmer of hope. The city passed by the windows in a blur as she dreamed.