Authors: Mary Burchell
Tags: #Singers, #Opera
For a few moments Caroline remained perfectly still, as though continuing to examine the ^ hall. Then, when she judged that her expression had become normal, she turned to the friendly director and said,
*Thank you very much. That was a good idea of yours. I shan't be so taken aback now when I go onstage and face the hall for the first time.'
He wished her luck once more and she went to her dressing-room, sat down in the one comfortable armchair and deliberately tried to relax.
'I'm not going to let it shake me,' she told herself, but she clenched her hands imtil the knuckles went white with the effort to control her fury. 'She arranged it! Lucille arranged it—^and Ken backed her up, although he knew it was the last thing I would want. She talked him over and he did it to please her, even though he must have known it would shake my nerves to see her there.'
No wonder he had been evasive about the search for a substitute for Enid Moimtjoy! After that tiny pause in their telephone conversation he had said he had been unable to suggest anyone. But Lucille Duparc, whose agent he was, had replaced Enid Mountjoy. She was sitting there now in the hall, waiting to pass judgment on the contestants—one of whom she disliked intensely.
'I despise her for a snake in the grass,' thought Caroline bitterly. 'But I despise him
even more for being her tool. And / will not be defeatedV
She spread out her hands in front of her and saw to her astonishment that they displayed not the slightest tremor. An almost frozen composure possessed her, though beneath that calm there was a raging fire of ftiry.
She would show them!—all of them: Her friends and supporters, from Oscar Warrender to Dinah Gale, seated somewhere up there in the balcony. The judges, from the most impartial to the most easily swayed. Her enemies—Lucille Duparc who wished her ill and Kennedy Marshall whom she could have loved but who had betrayed her.
Anything so paltry as quivering nerves entered not at all into her mood of the moment. The reserved and self-effacing girl who had once been the least forceful of Aunt Hilda's household had disappeared. Not instantaneously, of course, but in the gradual build-up of the dedicated artist, in the dawning awareness of the loving girl. Now the raging force of the injured woman fused all those elements into an irresistible force.
She was no longer afraid of either judges or public. She was out to inflict ignominious defeat on the two people who had combined to snatch triumph from her.
Caroline's place was fourth in the evening's programme. On the intercom in her dressing-room she listened, appreciatively but unafraid, to the first three, all of whom were unquestionably of a high standard. When she was finally summoned to take her place in the wings, preparatory to making her own entry on the
stag^, she did of course experience a slight qualm. But, as she walked on to the stage, erect and graceful in Aunt Hilda's beautiful dress, Oscar Warrender muttered instantly to his wife,
* Something has happened to her. She's in command of her own destiny.'
She stood there, calm and self-possessed, while the orchestra played the introduction to 'Divinites du Styx', Gluck's great aria for Alceste in which she appeals to the gods of the Underworld to release her husband; then she took the opening phrases like a high-grade professional.
There was anguished pleading in the tones of Caroline's beautiful, well-schooled voice, but there was also an irresistible strength of purpose. This was an Alceste who knew the power of her own love and believed that the gods themselves would not be able to refuse her.
'How old is she?' murmured someone seated behind the Warrenders, then, having obviously consulted the note in the programme, 'Twenty-three? I don't believe it.'
There was a moment of stunned silence at the end of the aria, and then prolonged applause. Caroline smiled charmingly, but did not deign even to glance in the direction of Lucille.
Then she gave a little nod to the conductor and, in almost startling contrast to the pure lines of the Gluck aria, she sang 'Senza Mamma', the touching lament of the sinning little nun in Puccini's 'Suor Angelica' for the dead child she has never been allowed to see.
Melodically this is one of the composer's most beautiful inspirations. Emotionally it can tremble on the edge of lush sentiment unless impeccably
sung. Indeed, Warrender had been very doubtful about letting Caroline do it. But that evening she could not put a foot wrong. Faultlessly she trod the golden tightrope between sentiment and true pathos.
At the end Dinah was not the only one to shed tears, Warrender said, 'She's home and dry unless we have a genius among the last two,' and Kennedy Marshall watched her leave the stage without even attempting to applaud her.
*Well done!' the friendly assistant director was once more beside Caroline. 'Do you know that you sang twice as well as at the rehearsal?'
'Thai3c you.' She smiled gratefully at him. 'I felt very relaxed.'
^Relaxed? When this was the supreme test? How come?'
'I don't know,' replied Caroline tranquilly. But she knew all right.
All the same, she felt slightly sick when the moment came for them all to return to the stage and hear the results.
There was a long, and totally unappreciated, speech from the chairman of the company about the duty of successful enterprises to support the arts, the gratitude everyone felt towards the distinguished judges who had given so generously of their time and expertise, etc., etc.
Then he explained that the prize-winners would be announced in the reverse order of success. This enabled the three nmners-up to be presented with their copper bowls and certificates—^and take a step back from the centre of mounting interest.
The third prize—quite a handsome cheque—
went to a very promising baritone, who was obviously delighted.
'I can't bear it!' whispered Anthea to her husband.
'Relax. It's all right/ he replied, taking her hand. And all right it was.
The second prize was awarded to a well-schooled but slightly uninteresting mezzo-soprano, amidst much applause—which registered not only good wishes towards her but instense relief that there was now only one competitor left to take the first prize.
When that was presented to Caroline the display of enthusiasm and applause almost rocked the hall, and showed very clearly who was the popular favourite.
She accepted the cheque, the copper bowl which was going to look so nice on Aunt Hilda's sideboard, and die kiss bestowed upon her by the chairman's wife. Then she stepped forward and, with a charming composure not to have been even thought of six months ago, she expressed her thanks to all concerned—and smiled straight at Lucille Duparc.
More applause followed and, now that most of the audience were standing, Caroline was able to pick out some familiar figures. She raised her hand in affectionate respect to the Warrenders and Mrs Van Kroll, waved to the upper reaches of the hall from which came ecstatic cries of, 'Caroline!' indicating fellow students and Dinah Gale. To the almost weeping Miss Curtis she blew a smiling kiss, and then she left the stage, having apparently not seen Kennedy Marshall standing applauding very near the front.
Backstage there was much photographing, television filming, questions and comments from journalists, and congratulations from some of the judges. Lucille Duparc was not among the last, nor did the absence of Ken Marshall surprise Caroline.
Amid a certain amount of respectful interest, the Warrenders came round to congratulate her, and a bold journalist asked, 'What do you think of her. Sir Oscar?'
'The same as you all do, judging by the applause,' the conductor replied diplomatically, and prepared to leave with his wife before Anthea could do much more than hug Caroline and whisper, 'I was right about the ring, wasn't I? It wsLsfateV
'Where's the boss?' Dinah wanted to know, having now made her way through the crowd to Caroline.
'Somewhere around, I imagine,' was the careless reply.
'Ready with an open contract in his hand, I should think,' replied Dinah exultantly, whereas Sir Oscar suddenly turned back to Caroline and said sternly, 'No contracts, signatures, offers, gifts or suggestions without consulting me, remember.'
'Of course not. Sir Oscar!'
'Not even offers of marriage?' added Dinah, getting a bit above herself.
'That least of all,' replied Warrender drily as he and his wife left.
The rest of the evening was a sort of confused whirl of exicted impressions. There was the celebration banquet, with more flowers, more
speeches, more compliments, the parrying of Press enquiries about future plans, the cautious ' half-promise to appear on television—^but only with Warrender's full permission.
'He directs all my studies and activities, you know,' she stated firmly, and she heard someone . observe, 'Then she must indeed be a winner in ^ every respect.'
At last, bone-weary, sick with a sense of reaction, and suddenly overwhelmed by the most ghastly depression which she could not possibly explain to herself, she made her final excuses and escaped.
Gratefully she sank into the blessed darkness of a taxi, whose driver was fortunately totally -unaware that he was driving the heroine of the evening. He did, however comment on the wealth of flowers she was carrying as she got out at her home, and on a sudden impulse she asked, 'Have you a wife at home?'
'Not at home,' was the wry reply. 'But she'll be coming back from hospital next week, with the baby.'
'Oh, please take her some of these flowers,'
cried Caroline. 'Take her these ' she thrust
into his arms the three dozen roses from which she had just detached a card with Ken's name written upon it. 'I'd like her to have them.'
'But they're the pick of the bimch! Don't you want '
'No!' she said almost feverishly. 'No, I'd rather she had them,' and she pressed the flowers upon him. Then she dropped the card in the gutter, ] turned away, deaf to his thanks, and went into the house with the tears running down her cheeks.
Aunt Hilda for once did not call out, 'Is that you, Caroline?' She rushed into the hall, flung her arms round her niece with more energy than she had displayed in years, and cried, 'The dress looked wonderful and you were splendid too. Why are you crying?'
'I'm tired. Auntie—I'm tired. It's the reaction, I suppose. I'll be all right in a minute.' Caroline wiped away the tears with the backs of her hands. 'Here's your copper bowl. It's rather nice, isn't it?'
'It's lovely,' declared Aimt Hilda appreciatively, as she set it on the sideboard. 'They did the whole thing excellently on TV, and when they ran the cameras along the row of judges I thought the one who replaced your friend looked charming. Such a sweet, earnest expression. Who was she?'
'She was Lucille Duparc, and I hate her guts,' replied Caroline.
Aunt Hilda, who did not approve of expressions like that, said automatically, 'Don't be vulgar, dear. Why don't you like her? Because she was imkind to Jeremy?'
'No,' said Caroline slowly. 'Oh, no. That's all so long ago in the past.' At which Aunt Hilda looked at her a little anxiously and said,
'You're losing sense of time. You'd better go to bed and rest. It's all been too much for you. I know it was for me too. Would you like some hot milk in bed?'
'No, thank you, Aimtie. Would you?'
'Well, you know, I think I would,' replied Aunt Hilda. 'It's been a terribly exhausting evening.'
So she went to bed, and Caroline brought her some hot milk and even sat on the end of 3ie bed and talked a little more, this time with great self-possession and even a touch of humour. Then, as she was leaving, she said,
*I'm going to stay late in bed tomorrow. I need to re-charge the batteries.'
'You do just that,' agreed Aunt Hilda, adding with a sigh of relief, 'Mrs Glass will be here in the morning and will see to everything. Sleep well.'
And the extraordinary thing was that Caroline did. She had expected to lie awake for hours, going over the events of the evening in retrospect. Above all, she had intended to put Ken's behaviour under the microscope of her contemptuous judgment. But instead she put her head on the pillow and slept dreamlessly until the soimd of the telephone roused her.
'It's for you. Miss Caroline :' Mrs Glass
knocked on the door to summon her. And, with some confused idea that it might be Ken, she roused herself and went to the telephone.
It was not of course Ken. It was the director of an Italian film company, asking for the name of her agent.
'I haven't got an agent,' said Caroline, and smothered a yawn.
'You have no agent?' The voice at the other end sounded incredulous and excited. 'Then may I recommend you to a very distinguished one? He is internationally famous and has worked with me on many films. If I might '
'Thank you, but—^no.' By now Caroline had come fully to the surface. 'I do nothing without
consulting Sir Oscar Warrender or '
She stopped at that point, very suddenly, and quietly hung up the receiver, for she realised that she had very nearly added Ken's name as someone who might be consulted about her professional affairs. The shock of rediscovering the wretched truth brought a fresh wave of pain, and she stood there in the hall remembering how they had laughed together and agreed that he would be her agent.
But that was long, long ago. Not in time but in the story of their relationship.
There were a good many other telephone calls during that Saturday, all of them congratulatory, many of them truly affectionate. But there was nothing from Ken.
She was not really expecting to hear from him, of course. He must know quite well, from her deliberate avoidance of him the previous evening, that she now knew how it was that Lucille had come to be one of the judges. Consequently he surely realised that this was the end of any friendship between him and her.
'Will you be going to the office on Monday?' Aunt Hilda wanted to know. *I suppose in the circumstances you could have the day off if you wanted it?'