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Authors: Mary Burchell

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BOOK: On wings of song
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This did not go unnoticed, and later that day she overheard Aunt Hilda say to Jeremy, 'Caroline is tending to give herself airs, I'm afraid. She really thinks she is going to be a great singer. It's rather pathetic really, isn't it?'

'No,' was Jeremy's reply. 'It will only be pathetic if she fails. We all have to have the inner conviction that we're something special. But I wish she were not going in for the Carruthers Contest. She can have no idea of the standard required, and I'm afraid she may be in for a shock.'

'I suppose a lot of hopefuls go in for it?' Aunt Hilda sounded no more than mildly interested, but Caroline listened eagerly—and shamelessly— for Jeremy's reply.

'Well, it varies from year to year, but seldom attracts less than about eighty, I imagine. The first prize is three thousand pounds, which is not to be sneezed at, and even the lesser ones are quite useful sums. Of course a lot of the competitors get sorted out in the preliminaries, but some pretty good material survives for the semi-finals and finals.'

'If by some extraordinary chance Caroline gets as far as that I expect I shall watch on television,' said Aunt Hilda thoughtfully. 'Unless it's more than my nerves will stand.'

'If she reached the finals,' replied Jeremy, obviously speaking more or less in joke, 'you could go to the actual performance. It will be open to the public, and I'm sure there would be reserved seats for relatives and friends.'

'Oh, I couldn't do that,' declared Aunt Hilda seriously. 'That would be more than my nerves could take.'

Fortunately years with Aunt Hilda had armoured Caroline against feelings of hurt and pride. But she was glad when, the next day at the office, Dinah referred to a TV announcement about the impending Contest and said admiringly, 'I felt proud to know someone who was actually going in. You are going in, aren't you?'

'Oh, yes. I'm quite determined about that. For several reasons,' Caroline added, half to herself, which made Dinah cock an interested glance at her and ask,

'What does Mr Marshall think about it?'

'I don't know that he's specially interested,' replied Caroline most untruthfully.

'Oh, he must be! Imagine someone in his own

office making a splash like that. I mean if you scooped up one of the prizes. He'd offer himself as your agent on the spot—and you'd just have to accept, wouldn't you?'

'I might not,' said Caroline, thinking of Lucille. *He already has a number of sopranos on his list.'

'But ' Dinah's jaw dropped slightly*—^you

couldn't have a better agent, and he'd be bound to give you special treatment. As a matter of fact, I've sometimes thought he's a bit keen on you. Haven't you?'

'No, I have not.' Caroline's tone was emphatic.

'Which is just as well ' she managed a slight

laugh'—because I've heard rumours that he's either engaged or about to be.'

'Oh, too bad,' declared Dinah cheerfully. 'Bang goes another romantic dream!' And she turned back to her typewriter, while Caroline swallowed an unexpected lump in her throat.

Ken came back the following day, but she managed to be out of the office for tiie day—in the morning at the Opera Studio and later with Sir Oscar.

'Here are the particulars about your precious Carruthers Contest and your entry form,' said Warrender, handing over a sheaf of papers. 'If not with my total approval, at least with my cordial good wishes.'

She examined them thoughtfully, then, without raising her head, she asked in a low voice, 'What are my chances. Sir Oscar?'

'I couldn't even hazard a guess,' was the reply. 'There are too many varying factors involved. For one thing, we don't yet know who the judges

will be. Oh, reputable, of course, and distinguished in their own field, no doubt. But even in 5ie higher reaches of our profession different people are looking for different qualities.'

*How do you mean?'

*Well, academics are, quite legitimately, looking for academic excellence. Old professionals like myself look for something more original, more personally and musically arresting. While the occasional patron or official or what-have-you is entitled to back his or her own fancy, within the terms of reference.'

'I wish you were on the jury,' said Caroline with a sigh.

*If I were, either you or I would have to withdraw,' he assured her. 'It wouldn't be ethical, you know, for one of the judges to have had a hand in training one of the competitors.'

'I hadn't thought of that!' She looked taken aback. 'But if you were on the jury. Sir Oscar, what sort of rating would you give me?'

'Without an opportunity to assess the other competitors, how can I tell?'

She thought that was all he was prepared to say. But he went on slowly, 'In my view, however, the winners of the first three prizes are going to have to be very good indeed to displace you.'

'Thank you!' She smiled brilliantly. Though she added obstinately, 'But it has to be the first prize.'

'If it's any help to you, I've heard that one of the judges may well be Enid Mountjoy, and she will certainly be looking for what I would describe as the right things. She's no longer

young, but her judgment is excellent,' he stated authoritatively. 'She was responsible for quite a lot of Anthea's training, incidentally.'

'By your arrangement?' Caroline asked interestedly.

'By my arrangement,' he confirmed, and somehow that was very cheering.

The next day she went to the office dreading the first meeting with Ken. If he were to impart to her the news of his engagement in some offhand manner she hardly knew how she could take it with decent composure. But she was not put to the test. Apparently his private affairs were not for discussion between them.

He breezed into the office, full of information about some successful contracts, but also, it seemed, very willing for further discussion about the evening in Warrender's studio when he had heard her sing.

'My critical godmother is going to be very gratified when she hears you and realises she's backed a winner,' he informed her with a mischievous smile, and she suddenly wanted to hit him for continuing the masquerade with such gusto.

'Do you think so?' Her tone was cool.

'Yes. Don't you?'

'I hope so—^naturally,' she replied indifferently, and went over to the filing cabinet so that she could turn her back on him.

'What's the matter?' His voice changed suddenly. 'And don't say "Nothing",' he added irritably before she could.

'What would you like me to say, then?' She had never spoken to him in that tone before, and

she could feel the cloud of astonishment behind her.

*Tum round and look at me,' he said quietly, and when she took no notice she heard him get up and cross the room. The next moment he had swung her round to face him and, shifting his grip, he held her by her upper arms so that she was almost against him.

'What's this charade in aid of?' he asked, and for the first time she was surprisedly aware of a note of brutality in his voice.

'I don't know what you're talking about!' and her voice shook with anger and pain as she tried, unavailingly, to escape from his grip. 'Let go of me, please. I don't like employers who take liberties.'

'Liberties? Good God, girl, you don't know what the word means! But if you want to

know ' and before she could stop him, he

bent his head and kissed her hard on her angry mouth with a sort of brutal deliberation which made her gasp.

*You—skunk! I suppose you think that spending a fortune on me without my knowledge entitles you to maul me?'

He fell away from her as though she had literally struck him.

'So that's the trouble? You've found out I'm paying for your training.'

It was as good a way out as any, she supposed, with her heart like lead. She had so nearly betrayed her fury and misery over Lucille's conquest. Better a thousand times that he should think she resented his spending money on her and keeping her in ignorance of the fact.

*You knew I would never have accepted if you'd been frank with me, didn't you? But in your arrogance you made this ridiculous plot with your godmother and took the decision out of my hands.'

'Oh, stop being a melodramatic little fool!' he exclaimed impatiently. 'Can't a man make a generous gesture to his own secretary without being suspected of what used to be called base designs? You're in the wrong century, Caroline.'

She said nothing, and after a moment he asked almost sullenly, 'How did you find out?'

'It doesn't matter.' She spoke rather wearily, because suddenly the fire had gone out of her and the taste of ashes was in her mouth. 'You needn't

blame anyone. Ken ' the familiar form of

address slipped out without her noticing*—I did a bit of inspired guessing, and no one tried to deny that I'd arrived at the right conclusion. Even if you meant it all for the best, it's something which gives me no satisfaction. Please let's leave the subject now.'

'At least let me apologise.' He thrust his hands into his pockets and frowned at the floor.

'For forcing your money on me?'

'No, of course not. I have no regrets about that. For kissing you the way I did.'

'As though I were some cheap little office girl who might like it, you mean?'

'I've said I'm sorry,' he exclaimed angrily.

'I accept that. And now—forget it.' Caroline gave a slight shrug as though the whole incident were too distasteful to discuss further.

He turned and went back to his desk without a word, and she thought, with a strange pain at her

heart, that she had never before seen him robbed of his self-assurance.

When she went back to her own office Dinah was typing with her usual speed and gusto. But she stopped at once and remarked, 'You've been a long time. Were you discussing the Carruthers business?'

Caroline shook her head and said, unblush-ingly, that they had been discussing office matters.

*And he didn't tell you about his engagement?' Dinah was obviously a little disappointed.

'Of course not, Dinah! His private affairs are no concern of mine.'

'Strictly speaking, no. But then you're good friends outside the office, aren't you? You can't go to all those performances together and not be on friendly out-of-office terms. So it wouldn't be unusual if he told you about anything as important as an engagement.' Caroline said nothing and Dinah went on, 'Perhaps he'll tell you this evening. You're going to the opera tonight, aren't you?'

'Tonight?' Caroline sounded dismayed. 'I'd forgotten.'

'You'd forgotten that you're going to "Eugene Onegin", with Nicholas Brenner singing Lensky? You don't deserve to have a free seat,' declared Dinah. 'Unless—oh, I suppose you're getting jumpy about the Carruthers Contest,' she added indulgently. 'Don't worry so much, Caroline. From all accounts you'll make a good showing, and no one is expecting you to carry off the top prize.'

'/ am expecting myself to carry off the top

prize,' replied Caroline huskily. 'And what do you mean when you say "from all accounts" I'll make a good showing? From whose account, for goodness' sake?'

'Well, from Mr Marshall's account, to tell the truth,' Dinah admitted. 'He heard you the other evening, didn't he? He was telling me about it yesterday, and he said you were quite wonderful—that you actually brought a lump into his experienced throat. He was laughing, of course, but I think he half meant it.'

'He likes to throw off remarks like that,' Caroline said curtly. 'They don't mean anything.'

'Why, Caroline, I don't know what's got into you this morning!' Dinah was genuinely astonished. 'You've certainly got your knife into poor old K.M.' And she turned back to her work with a dismissive shrug.

By the time Caroline met him that evening in the vestibule at Covent Garden she had determined that they must return to some sort of normal relationship. So she greeted him with a smile and said, 'Let me start by apologising for being so silly and unreasonable this morning— and then forget it, if you will.'

He looked immensely relieved and replied, 'My opening exactly, if you hadn't got in first. It wasn't the best morning for either of us, was it?'

She shook her head, and he went on, 'As for my—gaffe in trying to play generous patron without consulting you, I hope you will acquit me of any unworthy motives.'

He said that half laughingly, but his eyes were serious. And when she replied, 'Forget it—^forget

it/ he was not to know that it was pain and not impatience which sharpened her voice.

In other circumstances he might have referred again to the impression her voice had made on him in Warrender's studio, but possibly he felt that would take them a little too near to the root cause of their difference that morning. At any rate, he made no further comment about her voice or his reaction to it.

Instead, it was she who floated a provocative opening in the first interval, by saying casually, *I expect you know that Jeremy is going back to Germany almost immediately on a renewed contract.'

*Yes, of course. I'm glad for him. He's a nice chap and a gifted one. If he works hard and has a bit of luck he should make the grade all right. I suppose he's feeling pretty good at the moment?'

*Oh, he is. Even though,' she added deliberately, 'Lucille Duparc has given him the brush-off.'

'It was inevitable,' he said, almost without interest. 'Lucille is not the woman to complicate her life and career with a struggling young tenor.'

'You mean,' Caroline spoke coolly, 'that she was after bigger fish?'

'Oh, definitely,' he said, laughed. But before she could react to that he said, 'Excuse me— there's Farraday. I want a word with him.' And he left her, sitting there feeling comfortless and troubled.

Presently, however, one of her fellow students from the Opera Studio joined her, bringing with her an evening paper containing a short article on the Camithers Contest. It contained also a list of

the judges, and on this Caroline fastened with painful eagerness.

'Keep Ae paper/ said her friend generously. *It's of more interest to you than to me, though we'll all be wishing you luck, of course.'

BOOK: On wings of song
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