‘When I began my career, I was ambitious to shine upon the lyric stage – no, sir! not in Shaftesbury Avenue.’ The interpolation was in answer to the Tragedian’s again removing his pipe from his lips, preparatory to some effort of biting sarcasm. I intended Grand Opera, the whole big thing. I didn’t take much stock of Comedy in those days. Indeed, I thought Comedy was vulgar!’ Here there was an approving grunt from the Tragedian. Without turning to him she went on:
‘As vulgar as tragedy was ridiculous! You needn’t laugh, boys and girls – that was when I was young – very young; I know better about both things now.
‘Well, they said at the Conservatoire in Paris that I might succeed if a something-or-other happened to my throat, and that in such case I would be a star, for my voice would be abnormally high. However, the something-or-other didn’t come off, and I had to look for success in a different way. I didn’t know at that time that I had latent those gifts of Comedy and humour which have since then lifted me to my present height in my career. This is all nothing, however; it is only to explain how I came to be an intimate friend of the great cantatrice, Helda, who was a class-fellow of my own. She went up like a rocket, if you like; and the stick never fell till it fell into her grave! In all her success she never forgot me, and whenever she knew I was in the same town, or near it, she always had me to come and stay with her. It was sometimes a nice change for me, too, for things were up-and-down with me. She was a good creature, and was able to take, in a lordly sort of way, all the honours that were showered upon her. But they must have oppressed her now and again; for when I would come to her she would love to pretend that I was the great star, and would make me sit opposite her at dinner, or at supper after the play, when we were alone, all hung over with the magnificent jewels that Kings and Queens had given her. I liked it all at first, but after a few years, when the hollowness of the world had been burned into me, I began to feel it in my inmost heart as a bitter sort of mockery. Of course, I wouldn’t have let her know my feeling for the world, for it would have cut her to the quick; so there was never any change, and the old girlish game went on to the end.
‘It was when I was with her in Chicago that I had an adventure of an odd kind. Some of you may have heard of it?’
She looked round interrogatively; the silence was broken by the voice of the Tragedian:
‘They’ve forgotten it, my dear, those who haven’t become doddery since then!’
‘Bones, when you counter, even a woman, you shouldn’t hit below the belt!’ said one of the young men, who had been at Oxford. The Tragedian glared at him, the appalling impudence of the youngster, who looked angry, and seemed to mean what he said, being unprecedented. A Young Man to put a Tragedian to rights! Of all the -! He felt, however, that he was in the wrong, and remained silent, waiting. The Singing Chambermaid looked saucily round her; but there was a tremble in the curl of her lips, and a furtive dimness as of unshed tears in her eyes. The blow had told. She went on:
‘It is long ago; there is no denying that! But it seems to me all as clear as if it were yesterday! There was I, all alone, in Helda’s flat. It was in the Annexe, where there are suites of rooms with an outer door on the corridor with a regular latch-key. Helda was singing in Fidelio, and her maids were with her. I had stayed at home, because I was “under the weather,” to use an Americanism, and I wasn’t in The Fatal Legacy, which our company was giving that night at McVicker’s. I was lying back in a comfortable chair, half dozing, when I heard the door open with a latch-key. I didn’t turn round, for there was a special waiter who attended each suite, and I thought he had come to ask if I wished for coffee, as he usually did about that time when we were at home. It seemed as if at the same time the housemaid had gone in to make up the bedrooms. He did not speak to me as usual, so I said sleepily:
‘”Fritz.” There was no answer.
‘”I think, Fritz,” I said, “I would like a cup of tea to-night, instead of coffee.” He still said nothing, so I looked round, and saw that it was a strange waiter. “Oh,” I said, “I thought it was Fritz. Where is he?” The man answered me with perfect politeness:
‘”He has gone out, madam! This is his night off, but I am to take his place.”
‘”Then,” I said, “will you kindly bring my tea as soon as you can. I have a headache, and it may do it good.” I sank back in my chair again. I did not hear him go out, so I looked round and said: “Do pray make haste,” for his waiting irritated me. He had not stirred, but stood there looking at me fixedly. I began to feel a bit frightened, for there was, I thought, a wild look in his eyes as of a man hunted or desperate. In Helda’s room I heard the rustle of the chambermaids at their work. I rose quickly and went towards the door, intending to join them and then get somebody else sent up instead of the new waiter, who was, I had by this time settled in my mind, mad. Just, however, as my hand was on the door-knob, a voice behind me, thin and keen, said in a fierce whisper:
‘”Stop!” I turned round and looked straight into the muzzle of a revolver pointed at my head. For an instant I was too paralysed to scream out, and then I felt that the only way to deal with a madman was to be calm and cool. Let me tell you, however, that being calm and cool under certain conditions is no easy task. I would just then have given my year’s salary to have been able to have appeared hot and flustered. The voice came again:
‘”Sit there! His hand pointed to the piano stool. I sat down. Again came the voice:
‘”I know you; you are a Singing Chambermaid! Sing!”
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