Authors: Mary Burchell
Tags: #Singers, #Opera
'Very friendly of you, I must say,' he commented, and he reached for the telephone which rang at that moment.
Caroline stared out of the window with studied indifference imtil she heard him say, 'Who?— Yes, she's here now.' Then he handed the receiver to her. 'It's for you.'
'Shall I take it in my own office?'
'No, take it here—and make it snappy. We've wasted enough time already.'
With this encouragement, she said huskily, 'This is Miss Bagshot speaking,' and to her utter amazement the voice which replied was that of Miss Curtis.
'Don't say too much, dear! Are you alone?' the voice asked, exactly like someone in a spy thriller.
*No/ replied Caroline with commendable brevity.
'Listen, dear. I know you don't like personal calls in your office, but this is important, I had to tell you right away. I have a backer for you! Don't say anything—don't say anything,' the voice implored before Caroline could even draw breath to gasp. 'It's Sophie Lander—Sophie Van KroU, you know. She's here with me now and she's prepared to pay for everything. Can you call in here on your way home?'
'Yes,' said Caroline. And then, still in the best tradition of all good thrillers, the line went dead.
Mechanically Caroline replaced the receiver.
'Good news or bad?' Kennedy Marshall enquired with unusual curiosity.
*Does it have to be either?'
'Well, you've just lost all your colour,' he told her. 'That suggests some kind of shock.'
'It wasn't bad news,' she said, resisting the impulse to add that he might, however, be looking for that new secretary somewhat sooner than he had expected.
She managed to control her agitation while he continued to dictate. But when he finally dismissed her with instructions to type only the last two letters and leave the others until the morning, she found she could hardly stand up. Her knees were shaking as she crossed the corridor to her own room and, for some unexplained reason, the shadow of that new secretary seemed to accompany her—an im-welcome figure.
The thought of any new secretary inhabiting her office, typing on her machine, taking dictation from her employer—particularly the last—^was wholly unacceptable.
'Don't be ridiculous,' she told herself impatiently. 'You ought to like the idea of someone else coping with his moods and demands, while you're free to do the thing you've always most wanted to do. Anyway, perhaps Miss Curtis has
got it all wrong and none of this is really going to happen.'
For on more mature reflection it seemed beyond the bounds of credibility that this extraordinary offer could be part of real life— even if based on the whim of a wealthy, slightly capricious woman like Mrs Van Kroll. Yet, Caroline remembered suddenly, her employer had informed her that she had 'made quite a hit' with his godmother.
*He won't like her doing this,' Caroline bit her lip at this thought. *He'll think I went cadging to her on the strength of that one meeting. Unless, of course, he's not to be told a word about it.' Indeed, the way Miss Curtis had demanded top secrecy over the office telephone suggested that it was above all Kennedy Marshall who was to be kept in ignorance of the proposed arrangement.
It was useless, she decided, to speculate further on so few facts. She must wait until she saw Miss Curtis in person. Meanwhile the two letters required by her employer must no longer be neglected, for she was still no more than a secretary—^not yet a rising star in the operatic firmaments
Caroline completed the task with only half her attention on what she was doing, and took the letters in for signature. Uncharacteristically, Kennedy Marshall was sitting at his desk doing nothing, just gazing thoughtfully out of the window and smiling slightly, as though reflecting on something which pleased him.
He glanced through the first letter and signed it without comment. Over the second one he frowned and asked, 'What's that?' pointing to a couple of lines near the top of the page.
Caroline looked over his shoulder and gasped slightly.
'I'm terribly sorry! I'm afraid it's my idiotic mistake. I can't think how '
*Do it again,' he told her briefly. *And then you'd better get off home. That pleasant shock via the telephone seems to have put you off your stroke. What was it, by the way? Some chap wanting to marry you?'
*No, of course not!'
'Why "of course not"? You're a very attractive girl so long as you keep that temper in check.'
'What temper? I haven't got a temper!'
'Indeed you have. You've scared the daylights out of me once or twice recently.' And he tipped back his chair and grinned up at her.
'I've told you before—the shoe is on the other foot. It's I who am sometimes afraid of you,' she said softly.
'You need not be, you know.' He brought his chair into an upright position again, removed his amused glance frc«n her and began to write.
As she stood there beside him she had a sudden and intense longing to tell him about Mrs Van KroU's offer and to implore him not to think she had angled for it. Then, as he took no more notice of her, she went away instead, to retype the offending letter.
This time he signed it without comment. Then he said, 'Good night,' with an air of final dismissal, evidently assimiing that she would act on his advice to go home somewhat earlier than usual.
Caroline accepted the hint and went. For she now felt unable to wait any longer before
receiving a full explanation of the dramatic telephone call. Indeed, in an access of anxious curiosity, she took a taxi and arrived at Miss Curtis's small house in the less fashionable part of Chelsea to find a very handsome car standing outside. Evidently Mrs Van Kroll had not yet departed.
Even before Caroline could knock with the shining brass knocker the front door was opened by a flushed and triumphant Miss Curtis, who exclaimed, *Oh, my dear, I'm so glad you came right away!' And, ignoring Caroline's whispered, 'What's happened}^ she ushered her into the familiar room where Caroline was used to having her singing lessons.
Mrs Van Kroll was seated in an armchair which, until that moment, had always appeared quite ordinary to Caroline. Now it seemed to have taken on a certain distinction simply because of the woman who was sitting there, and immediately Caroline recalled again the words in which Miss Curtis had described her: 'She wasn't really a good actress. She didn't need to be. When she came on to the stage or into a room you didn't notice anyone else.'
'Come here and let me look at you more carefully than I did the other evening,' was Mrs Van KroU's greeting to Caroline, and she held out her hand with a faintly regal gesture.
Smilingly Caroline took the hand, and was aware of an intense scrutiny before Mrs Van Kroll continued, 'Yes—I see what Oscar Warrender meant.'
'Oscar Warrender!' Caroline was astoimded.
'But—but I didn't know you knew him,' she exclaimed in some confusion.
*Why should you?' replied the older woman reasonably. 'Though, as a matter of fact, I know—slightly or intimately—most people of any importance in the world of music and theatre,' she added, with a matter-of-fact air which robbed the words of any offensive conceit.
'But, Mrs Van Kroll—please don't mind my asking questions—I'm so bewildered, so thrilled that you and he should have any occasion to speak of me. I'm not exactly a topic of outstanding interest.'
'You're going to be, dear,' interjected Miss Curtis.
'Is it possible that—Mr Marshall spoke about me to you, or to Sir Oscar?' Caroline found suddenly that she would very much like that to have been the case, but Mrs Van Kroll dashed the idle hope immediately.
'Dear child, I'm very fond of Ken, but I don't discuss everything with him.' She smiled, and a slight shrug dismissed him from the conversation, which Caroline faintly resented on his behalf.
'The simple fact is that Naomi here ' she
smiled across at Miss Curtis'—told me about your talents, your hopes—and your difficulties. Obviously before I considered helping you I had to have an authoritative opinion about you. I consulted Oscar.'
'And he—reported favourably?' A smile of pure happiness irradiated Caroline's features.
'On your talents—^yes. On your chances of ever being able to develop them he was pessimistic. I asked if it were merely a question of money '
Mrs Van Kroll spoke with the simplicity of one to whom money never presented a major problem'—and he said that, while no one could ever guarantee the full development of someone's potential, the only way of finding out in your case would require the expenditure of a considerable amoimt of money. If that could be done he thought we might discover something quite unusual.'
She paused, but Caroline could find neither breath nor words to comment on this dazzling situation.
*I am, as you possibly know,' Mrs Van Kroll added carelessly, *a wealthy woman. I am prepared to gamble on you.'
*Say something, dear,' prompted Miss Curtis in an anxious whisper, and, with totally natural grace and instinct, Caroline went and knelt beside the older woman's chair.
'There are no words in which to thank you,' she said gently, 'I can only tell you that I will work with all my heart and soul to deserve your generosity.'
'Well, that's splendid,' commented Mrs Van Kroll briskly, though she touched Caroline's cheek lightly, and Miss Curtis blew her nose quite loudly.
'How much is all this a secret?' asked Caroline then, recalling her teacher's caution as she broke the news over the office telephone. *I mean—^may I discuss it with Mr Marshall, for instance?'
'No.' Mr Marshall's godmother was quite emphatic about that. 'There's no need to seek his approval or disapproval. This is between you and me, at any rate for the six months during which we try the experiment of intensive training. If
I've made a mistake and you prove imable to benefit from the opportimity/ she explained dispassionately, 'I should prefer not to give either Ken or anyone else the opportunity of calling me a quixotic fool. Of course you will have to give some explanation for your leaving the office '
'Leaving the office!' Caroline was dismayed to feel the way her heart plummeted at the prospect. 'Entirely, you mean? But perhaps I could make some arrangement about part-time working.'
'Perhaps.' Her proposed patron shrugged. 'You would have to be advised by Sir Oscar. He's willing to oversee your plan of work and your progress.'
'/5 he?' Again Caroline felt she was inhabiting the world of makebelieve. 'Then what would you like me to tell Mr Marshall?'
'As much of the story as you like—but not that I'm financially concerned in it. I should prefer you simply- to say that a friend of Naomi's has come forward with an offer of help during the experimental six months. That's true—and it's always a good idea to tell the truth if possible,' she added with an air of candour.
Caroline smiled, but said, 'I'm afraid he'll ask a lot of questions.'
'Then you must give him evasive answers, my dear,' was the imequivocal reply. 'Surely you can manage him well enough for that?'
Caroline thought of saying she could not really manage him at all, but feared that Mrs Van KroU would find that a very spineless reply—which perhaps it would be. So she just nodded as though she felt perfectly capable of handling the situation.
'And at the end of the six months/ began Miss Curtis, who was standing by, patently eager to join in the discussion.
'Oh, yes ' Mrs Van Kroll took over again,
by virtue of her lindoubted right as prime mover in the campaign'—At the end of the six months, if you've made the progress Sir Oscar anticipates, we shall put you in for the annual TV contest organised by the Carruthers Trust—of which I'm a member, incidentally, although naturally I have no influence on the choice of winners.'
'But I think,' Caroline said anxiously, 'that Sir Oscar doesn't really approve of that sort of contest.'
'He will approve if you win,' retorted Mrs Van Kroll unanswerably. 'The prize money is substantial, which would help . with your further studies, and you might have valuable exposure on television. Anyway, we're looking too far ahead to make decisions yet.'
She rose to her feet and proceeded to draw on her long gloves, while Miss Curtis, hovering anxiously in the middle distance, said, 'The first thing for you to do is to see Sir Oscar and hear what timetable he proposes to draw up for you.'
'Yes, of course,' Mrs Van Kroll nodded. 'And you will need to make arrangements with your office as soon as possible.'
'I hope Mr Marshall will be willing for me to stay on part time,' said Caroline.
'Would you really like to do that?' Mrs Van Kroll glanced at her with frank curiosity. 'Are you so devoted to him?'
'Oh, "devoted" isn't quite the word!' Caroline laughed deprecatingly. 'I like and respect him and ' she paused.
*Yes?—and what else?' enquired his godmother.
*Well—that's all, I think.'
*It doesn't sound much to set against the chance of a lifetime,' said Mrs Van Kroll disparagingly. And Caroline fearing she might have soimded as though she were imderestimating this magnificent offer, hastened to say that of course die great training scheme ranked above everything else.
Then Mrs Van Kroll took her leave, and Caroline and Miss Curtis were left to exult over the extraordinary change which had taken place in Caroline's fortunes.
Naturally the first thing was to thank Miss Curtis repeatedly for her bold initiative in approaching her distinguished old friend in the first place. But she brushed all thanks aside, declaring (with rather excessive modesty, Caroline thought) that she had just 'had a moment of inspiration', recognised the idea as a good one and acted on it.
Since she seemed almost embarrassed by further expressions of gratitude, Caroline desisted, and, taking affectionate leave of her teacher, she at last headed for home—and any explanations she could or should make to Aunt Hilda and Jeremy.
It was not easy.
*But why should anyone do such a thing?' Aunt Hilda repeated half a dozen times. 'Someone unknown to you at that.'