Authors: Mary Burchell
Tags: #Singers, #Opera
Having collected the car, he drove them both to a small exclusive restaurant off Piccadilly, where he was obviously well known and where they were immediately conducted to a secluded comer table. Here an attentive waiter presently came to offer discreet advice on the menu, but the choice of wines, she noticed was left entirely to Ken.
Caroline looked round with interest and suddenly said, with impulsive candour, 'I've never been anywhere like this before.'
'Do you like it?' He smiled a little indulgently.
'Very much. Is this where you bring Lucille Duparc?' Catching sight of herself in the mirror opposite, she was faintly surprised to see that her smile was oddly provocative.
*I don't make a practice of bringing Lucille Duparc anywhere,' he retorted curtly. 'Suppose I tell you that I bring only my favourite people here?'
'Oh, please tell me just that!' The smile changed to a genuinely amused laugh. 'No one has ever said anything so subtly flattering to me.'
*I bring only my favourite people here,' he said deliberately. And then, before she could recover from that, he asked carelessly, 'How's the singing going?'
She tried not to go tense, but that was the last subject she would have chosen to discuss with him. She managed to say, however, that she thought everything was going pretty well.
'As far as anyone so exacting is ever satisfied. I don't think he would use the word himself, and it's better that he shouldn't, I suppose. Otherwise I might—or he certainly thinks I might—^hold back the last ounce of effort required.'
'I must come and hear you some time.'
The half indifferent tone nettled her, and she replied sharply, 'That would depend on Sir Oscar's permission, of course.'
'Or the permission of the mysterious patron,' he returned.
'I—I suppose so.' They were getting terribly near dangerous ground and, try as she would to remain calm and composed, her lashes fluttered nervously and she dropped her glance, wishing
desperately that she wre not sitting directly opposite him, with that clear, penetrating gaze upon her.
'Does she herself come to he^r you?'
Caroline shook her head.
'You mean that even she is not admitted to the inner sanctimi of the Warrender studio?'
'No,' said Caroline baldly. And then—*I wish you wouldn't question me like this. It—it isn't your business, and I don't think you're genuinely interested.'
'I'm deeply interested, Caroline! Particularly in the identity of your mysterious patron.'
There was a long silence, until he laughed and said, 'You aren't very good at dissembling, are you?'
She tried to think of some quick, clever way of parrying this inquisition, then abandoned the idea and said flatly, 'You mean you know who it is?'
'I know who it is,' he agreed. And he smiled full at her, as though pleased at his own acumen.
She swallowed nervously. Then as he obviously meant to leave the next move to her, she said in a low voice, 'I suppose you thoroughly disapprove of what Mrs Van Kroll is doing?'
*I, my dear? I wouldn't dream of disapproving of anything my godmother chooses to do. Certainly not of the way she spends her money, if that's what you mean. Why should I?'
'Both she and Miss Curtis insisted that you should be kept in the dark. For my part—I thought you would probably decide I'd presumed on a very slight acquaintance to go cadging shamelessly for support. You did say '
She stopped, and he asked, *What did I say?'
'When I told you about Sir Oscar's advice and—and that it would all cost a lot of money, you said, "So long as you don't expect me to pay." It wasn't a very nice thing to say.'
'And your reply wasn't very nice either.'
'My reply?' Her startled gaze met his across the table. 'What did I reply?'
'That I was the very last person to whom you would apply, and that you'd told Warrender as much.'
'I said thatV She was a good deal shocked. 'Did you mind very much?'
'As a matter of fact I did,' he said, as the waiter brought their first course.
Caroline watched in silence as the dishes were set out, and then drew breath to make sincere apologies as soon as he withdrew. But before she could say anything her companion returned to the subject of the evening's concert, asking her opinion of several points in the various items, querying some of what she said while approving of most of it.
'You're learning, Caroline,' he told her frankly. 'You have a good ear and a lively musical intelligence.' Then he went on to tell her more about Lindley Harding and his great career, giving an absorbing account of his final performance of Otello, which remained a landmark in the history of operatic performances.
Equally, the controversial question of Mrs Van Kroll's generous patronage seemed to have been banished from the evening's conversation, and Caroline was not sure whether to be relieved that this was so or disappointed not to be able to explore his reactions further.
Afterwards he insisted on driving her all the way home, although she knew he lived in the opposite direction and tried to assure him that she was quite used to going on her own.
'Not when you're out with me/ he told her.
He even stood by while she put her key in the lock of her front door. Then, just as he turned to go, she said suddenly, in a small voice—'Ken.'
He turned back immediately.
'I'm sorry I—hurt you that time.'
He did not ask her what time she meant. He knew as well as she did that they had broken off their earlier conversation at a point which left a very ragged end.
'Are you?' He looked down at her in the light from a nearby lamp. And because it was difficult to meet his eyes she just nodded, her head still bent.
'Look at me,' he said abruptly, and she looked up, startled.
To her amazement, he took her face between his hands and kissed her on the lips with unexpected gentleness. Then he laughed and said, 'You're forgiven,' before he turned away and went to his car.
She didn't stay to see him drive off. She went quickly into the house, closed the door quietly behind her and leant against it, the back of her hand to her lips, until Aunt Hilda called out, 'Is that you, Caroline?'
Until that conversation with her employer after the Warrender concert it had not seemed specially strange that Mrs Van KroU appeared to take little interest in the expensive training for which she was paying. But when Kennedy Marshall asked carelessly if her "mysterious patron" ever came to hear her lessons she thought, *Why doesn't she at least ask Sir Oscar if she may hear me?'
She referred the question to Miss Curtis at her next singing lesson, but her teacher looked vague and said, *Well, Caroline, I suppose she has a lot of varied interests and you are just one of them.'
'It seems an awful lot of money to spend on something which only mildly interests one,' Caroline insisted.
'But she's very wealthy, you know, and though generous, I think one must also admit that she's—capricious. Having impulsively committed herself to this enterprise, I imagine she just pays over the cheques periodically and—^well, that's that.'
'Has she never discussed it further with you?'
'No, I can't say she has. I went to tea with her at her home about a month ago and we talked of old days—and of you, of course. She said how much she liked you and that she hoped you would be successful in your career, which I know you will be, my dear. Your progress has been phenomenal since Sir Oscar took you in hand.'
*I hope so J I hope so. But sometimes—I mean quite recently—I've begun to worry about the amoimt of money Mrs Van Kroll must be putting out on my behalf. Have you any idea how much it must be?'
Miss Curtis shook her head and suggested that perhaps Sir Oscar contributed his own services for nothing.
'I simply don't believe that,' replied Caroline firmly. 'Why should he? And anyway, when I first consulted him, he was quite specific about the fact that it would cost a great deal of money and that I must look round very determinedly for some way of fimancing what might be—^not would be, remember, but might be—a fine career.'
*And we found someone, didn't we?' Miss Curtis smiled complacently. 'So what are you worrying about?'
'I know, I know. And I can never be sufficiently grateful for the way you moved on my behalf. But—don't you see?—I'm sinking deeply in debt to someone who's almost a stranger to me, and apparently has no special personal interest in me. Not even enough to want to hear me for herself.'
'She isn't a stranger to me, remember. We're very old friends,' stated Miss Curtis a little huffily.
'Yes, of course, dear, but '
'I don't know why you're suddenly making all this fuss, Caroline, when everything is going so smoothly. My very rich, very generous old friend wanted to help you—perhaps primarily because you were a pupil of mine. She can afford to indulge her—^whim, if you like, so why should
she not do so? What's suddenly made you query the whole arrangement?'
'I had supper with Ken—with my employer— the other evening. He teased me a little about what he called "the mysterious patron" and finally admitted that he knew who it was.'
'He knew? But I thought—I mean, we were so careful '
'Yes, I know. Mrs Van Kroll particularly didn't want him to know about it, did she? But I'm not very good at lying, and he got the truth out of me. And then I asked him outright if he minded his godmother spending all that money on me, and he was quite casual about it and said he wouldn't dream of objecting to anything she did with her own money.'
'He said that?' Miss Curtis rubbed the bridge of her nose thoughtfully. 'Then that's all right, isn't it? and again—what are you worrying about?'
'I suppose our conversation highlighted the fact that I was taking a lot of money from a virtual stranger, without any guarantee of ever being able to return it.'
'When you're rich and successful '
'But suppose I never am rich and successful?'
'My dear, Sophie Van Kroll would never expect you to pay back the money! Whatever made you think of such a thing?'
'My own self-respect,' replied Caroline, setting her mouth in a firm line. 'I know that was not her idea, and I'm deeply grateful for her generous intention. If she were having marvellous fun out of her gamble perhaps I might feel differently. But to take all that money from someone I hardly know and then not be able to deliver the goods,
SO to speak—that sticks in my throat.'
Miss Curtis regarded her thoughtfully and then said, 'Did your employer say something the other evening which suddenly made you feel weighed down by this obligation?'
'No.' Caroline slowly shook her head. 'I might have expected him to do so, but he didn't. He was quite good-humoured about it, to tell the truth.'
'Then, if you don't mind my saying so, dear, I think you're being very silly and tormenting yourself unnecessarily. Stop worrying about it all and just work hard—and perhaps you'll win the first prize in the Carruthers Contest. Then you can make the grand gesture and offer to pay Sophie back.'
'Oh—the Carruthers Contest!' Caroline shrugged impatiently. 'I've never told you—it all seemed so complicated—but Jeremy is going in for that contest too.'
'Your cousin!' Then, as Caroline nodded, she added almost contemptuously, 'He wouldn't have a chance against you.'
'You're prejudiced.' Caroline smiled faintly. 'Or if you're not—and I really am capable of beating him—^where do you suppose that leaves me? I've encouraged him and believed in him for years. I've always been on his side, you might say. He hasn't the faintest idea that I propose to go in for this wretched contest. What sort of a slap in the face do you suppose it would be if I just sailed in at the last minute and took the first prize—^from Jeremy?'
'There would be other contestants,' objected Miss Curtis very reasonably, but Caroline shook her head and said.
'So far as we were concerned there would only be each other.'
There was a short silence, then Miss Curtis cleared her throat with an air of determining to do battle on all fronts.
'Caroline, people don't reach the top of a competitive profession by generously considering the feelings of a rival. Even—' she put up her hand to stop the angry interruption'—even if they are devoted to that rival. You have, as you say, accepted most generous help from Sophie. You owe it to her—to all of us—to do your best to justify that help.'
'I know! I think of it constantly,' cried Caroline distressedly. 'In fact it weighs on me so much that I sometimes think Fm beginning to lose my nerve '
'You mustn't say that!'
'But it's true. If I fail, the person who stands to lose a horrible lot of money is a generous near-stranger. It would be bad enough if a friend—an intimate—someone like you, for instance, had made this tremendous gesture. Somehow I could make up for it to someone I know. But from a stranger—a generous stranger who hasn't even seen me to speak to since the arrangements were first made—oh, it's unbearable!' And suddenly Caroline buried her face in her hands and gave a muffled sob or two.
'You mustn't be hysterical, dear.' Miss Curtis touched the bent head in a troubled way.
'I'm not being hysterical,' retorted Caroline. 'I'm just miserable—and frightened.'
'If only—' Miss Curtis began, then she stopped and bit her lip. 'Caroline,' she said, with sudden
resolution, *would it really help if it were someone you knew? Like me, for instance, or—or—^well, someone not a stranger? Would you feel less nervous, less anxious about your future?'
'Yes, I've said as much.' Caroline looked up, but from her expression it was obvious that she was still contemplating no more than an academic possibility.
'Then, although I gave my word—I'm going to break it.' Miss Curtis swallowed guiltily. *If it makes you feel better, my dear, it was not Sophie Van Kroll who supplied the money, although she had a friendly interest in you as my pupil.'
'She—didn't?' Caroline went white and then, a dismayed look coming over her face, she cried, 'Oh, it wasn't you, was it? Oh, you couldn't—^you shouldn't—It must represent half your savings. I'd never have agreed if '