Her Chance

Her Chance  (1916) 
by E. R. Punshon

Extracted from Windsor magazine, vol. 63, 1915-16, pp. 673-680. Accompanying illustrations by G. C. Wilmshurst omitted. Rose Manvers, aspiring singer, faces two choices: one, the chance of a lifetime; the other, perhaps, not so important, career-wise.



MRS. MANVERS laid down the large, fat letter with an air almost of reverence. "You are indeed a lucky girl, Rose," she said. "It is the chance of a lifetime."

Her niece nodded. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed.

"Only, perhaps," she said, with sudden fear, "they won't like my singing, or perhaps something will happen."

"We shall not allow anything to happen," declared Mrs. Manvers, with an air that said that even earthquakes would not be considered. "Of course, they may not like your voice, but the mere fact of your having been asked to sing at Hallam Court——"

It was, in fact, no less a thing that some good fairy had dropped on this modest breakfast table than an invitation to sing at Hallam Court, before Lord Hallam and Lady Hallam, before Lady Hallam's father, the Duke, before Lord Hallam's brother, who would certainly be the next Prime Minister, before His Serene Highness Prince Ernst of Colitz-Essey, and, in fact, before all the light and leading of the country, now assembled at Hallam Court for the famous Hallamshire races.

No wonder Rose was flushed; no wonder Mrs. Manvers regarded her niece with an expression almost of awe. Rose, she said to herself—Rose was a made girl, emphatically made. The fee itself was liberal—as much for this one night as Rose had earned in the whole of the preceding six months—and the value of the advertisement—Mrs. Manvers did not use so vulgar a word, even to herself; she said prestige, and meant the same thing—would be tremendous.

"It will be," she repeated, "the making of you."

Rose modestly agreed. It could not help. Agents would be impressed. Pupils would be impressed. The vicar's wife would be impressed. It was certain there would be long notices in the paper—flattering notices, for no critic would dare to be other than flattering to a singer who had received the Hallam Court stamp—imprimatur, Mrs. Manvers said.

"It is the chance of a lifetime," Mrs. Manvers repeated once more. "Perhaps even—should his lordship be pleased, should you, dear Rose, be so happy as to please her ladyship—possibly even your name might be mentioned by them to Mr. Walden."

Mr. Walden was the manager of the Imperial Opera House, and a power—the power, indeed—in the world of music. He was even spoken of with respect upon the Continent, and to belong to his company was the height of the ambition of every young singer. Rose did not suppose that such happiness would ever be hers, but she modestly agreed that this was indeed the chance of a lifetime. For an hour or more aunt and niece built castles in the air—castles that eclipsed even Hallam Court itself. Then Mrs. Briggs, the charwoman—it happened to be her day; she came for half a day every week—made her appearance, and Mrs. Manvers had to go to superintend the cleaning, and Rose to prepare to visit a pupil. Glorious, dazzling thought—perhaps soon she would be able to dispense with pupils!

"Oh, Mrs. Briggs," she said to the charwoman, "how is Tommy?"

"Only poorly, miss," answered the woman. "Doctors don't seem to do him any good. I've got him home again now."

"Yes, I know; aunt told me," answered Rose. "I must come and see him as soon as I can."

"Eh, miss,if you would!" exclaimed Mrs. Briggs. "He do talk so about your singing to him that time—fair cracked he is, you'd think, to hear him."

"Tell him I'll be sure to come as soon as I can," answered Rose. "It's nice to sing to people who like it so much."

"Fair mad on it, he is!" declared the charwoman. "There's a Church lady comes sometimes—a very nice lady, and means well, that I will say, and worth a quarter of a ton of coal every Christmas to them as has kept in with her. She was talking to Tommy about Heaven, and the angels singing so pretty, and Tommy says he'll bet her a tanner there ain't an angel there can sing like you, miss! Church lady, she was shocked; but I had to laugh—after she'd gone."

Rose laughed, too, pleased with the child's remark, and in the excitement of her forthcoming appearance at Hallam Court, she presently forgot all about Mrs. Briggs and little Tommy and his sickness. There was a good deal to be arranged. Lord Hallam's secretary called once, and made it plain he considered Rose fortunate and happy beyond compare, and Rose quite agreed she was. So did Mrs. Manvers. The secretary wanted to know what Rose was going to sing, and she showed him, and he approved and suggested an addition.

"In the event," he said impressively, "of an encore."

Rose looked quite overcome at the thought, and the secretary unbent a little, evidently approving of her.

"One cannot be too careful," he told her. "I assure you the responsibility is great. I know you will scarcely believe me, but one young person who was honoured with an invitation to appear at Hallam Court once proposed to sing a—er—piece known, I understand, as the Marseillaise, and possessing most unfortunate—er—associations. Nothing of the sort could be apprehended from you, I am aware, but you will understand how careful I must be."

Rose looked still more overcome, and the secretary unbent still further. A good many arrangements had to be made, and it was settled that a motor-car would call for Rose about six on the eventful night and convey her to Hallam Court. When all this was understood, and the secretary had retired Rose and her aunt wept in each other's arms!

"What a nice man," Mrs. Manvers said, when she had slightly recovered, "and what courtly manners, what a superb address!"

At last this day of days dawned just like any other, and Rose, up early—she had not slept well—was surprised, when she put her head out of the window, to see that everything looked just as usual. Mrs. Manvers, quite as excited as Rose, came in to bring a cup of tea—an unheard-of concession, that overwhelmed Rose almost as much as had done the Hallam Court invitation itself. She took it gratefully, and Mrs. Manvers relieved her feelings a little by scolding Rose soundly for looking so pale.

"A nice thing if you break down!" she said.

"I won't do that, aunt," declared Rose firmly.

And she nodded her head with great vigour. But Mrs. Manvers did not seem satisfied.

"I have a feeling," she said, "that something will happen. Hallam Court will catch fire and burn down, or Lord Hallam will fall dead from heart disease!"

"If he does, I'll go and sing to his corpse," said Rose, laughing, "and if Hallam Court's on fire, I'll sing to the firemen. Don't you worry, auntie—nothing's going to happen." And she nodded her head again as though she, too, were capable of defying earthquakes.

Though this was not Mrs. Briggs's regular day, it had been arranged that she should come in for the morning, since neither Rose nor her aunt felt capable of grappling with even the simplest domestic duties. But she did not appear at the appointed hour, and finally it was not till dinner was over that she showed herself, and then with a very pale face and very red eyes.

It seemed that little Tommy was worse, much worse. The doctor was shaking his head and looking very grave. The boy was not only very weak, but very restless, so that what little strength he had he was wasting in perpetual tossing to and fro. The doctor had given him medicine, but it seemed to have no effect, and he dared not strengthen the dose. Mrs. Briggs's story was long and confused, but so much seemed clear, and also the doctor's declaration that, unless the child could be quietened, he would probably die of sheer exhaustion. If he could be soothed, and if he could be kept alive for the next twenty-four hours, till the crisis was over, he would probably recover, but not otherwise.

Mrs. Briggs's tears were flowing freely now, under the influence of the sympathy she received; and Rose said that of course she must not think of trying to do any work—she must simply take her two shillings and go straight back again to her boy.

"We must hope for the best," said Mrs. Manvers.

"If anything can soothe him, it will be your being there," said Rose.

"He don't seem to take no notice of me, miss," said Mrs. Briggs, wiping her red, inflamed eyes. "I know what would keep him quiet, but it ain't possible, and so I told the doctor straight out. 'That ain't possible,' I says, 'so don't mention it.’"

"What is it?" asked Mrs. Manvers.

Mrs. Briggs only sobbed for answer.

"But what is it?" Rose repeated her aunt's question. "Surely it can be managed somehow."

"Not to-day," answered Mrs. Briggs. "Any other day I would have asked straight out, I would, knowing your goodness of 'art, but to-day—well, I know it can't be, and my Tommy—bless him——" She dissolved into helpless tears.

"Well, you had better go straight back home," said Mrs. Manvers, with a briskness that hid a faint, dawning uneasiness, "and hope for the best."

"Tell us first," Rose interposed, "what it is you think might help your boy, and why you dare not ask to-day?"

"Now, Rose——" her aunt began. But Rose lifted a hand, and the elder woman was silent.

"It's only this," said Mrs. Briggs. "Tommy—he's got it into his head he wants to hear you sing again, miss. That's all his cry—ain't still or quiet a moment, he ain't. 'She sung to me afore,' he says. 'Do you think she would come again?' 'Drat your imperence!' says I. 'Of course she won't.' 'Well,' says he, 'she promised.' 'Only when she has the time,' says I. 'Think the lady's got nothing else to do but run after you, singing and everything?' 'Well,' says he, 'I wish she had time to-day.' 'Shut up,' says I, 'or I'll give you a good slapping when you're better!' But doctor—he heard, and he says—of course, he didn't know, miss, he only said it—says he, 'Well, that might buck the kid up,' he says. 'If she'll come and sing him a lullaby, or some such, he might sleep, and then he might last out. If she can't, he won't.’" And Mrs. Briggs began to cry again.

"But it's absolutely out of the question!" cried Mrs. Manvers. "Of course, it's very sad about the little boy, and I'm sure any other time But you say yourself the doctor can't promise anything, and I do think, Mrs: Briggs, knowing what you do know——"

"Please, aunt!" Rose interrupted, and asked one or two sharp questions, that Mrs. Briggs answered with a sort of sobbing desperation.

Rose turned to her aunt with a little hopeless gesture of her hands. "Any other day," she said wearily—"any other day, how glad "I should have been to go!"

"Yes, indeed, dear child," Mrs. Manvers agreed eagerly.

Rose went quickly out of the room, and Mrs. Manvers began to administer to Mrs. Briggs an odd mixture of scolding and sympathy. It was most sad about little Tommy, and no one was sorrier than Mrs. Manvers; but Mrs. Briggs must see for herself—Mrs. Briggs admitted tearfully that she saw quite plainly, and always had. Mrs. Manvers hoped most sincerely the little lad would get better. In her opinion, what the doctor said was most hopeful, though certainly the idea that singing to him would be any help—Mrs. Briggs must see for herself that was absurd, and, after all, for the merest shred of a chance, one could not, could one? Mrs. Briggs was understood to agree, through tears, that one could not, and, slightly pacified, Mrs. Manvers observed that, for her part and in her experience, which was wide and varied, one of the very worst things one could do for any sick child was to gratify the fancies they often had. Sick children often cried for the moon, poor little things, but if one took no notice, they soon forgot. And then Rose came back into the room, fully dressed for going out.

"Now, Mrs. Briggs, if you are ready, we had better start," she said.

"God bless you, miss!" said Mrs. Briggs, rising quickly.

"Rose!" screamed her aunt.

"Now, aunt, please," said Rose. "I'll try to be back in time, if I can. Very likely I shall be."

"You won't—you can't possibly!" cried Mrs. Manvers. "Rose, you're mad! And Lord Hallam—his lordship—her ladyship-Rose!"

"In the tables of precedence," said Rose, with a whimsical smile, "a sick child comes before a sound lord."

"Rose," Mrs. Manvers exclaimed, in one last protest, "your future, your career!"

"Oh, bother, aunt, I can't help it!" exclaimed Rose. "Now, Mrs. Briggs. Good-bye, aunt."

It was a fairly long journey to the crowded tenement, in a poor, squalid neighbourhood, where Mrs. Briggs rented two rooms. Rose never spoke the whole way—she felt she could not. Mrs. Briggs did not speak, either. She felt, she dared not.

At last they arrived. A neighbour had been sitting by the little boy, who, bright-eyed and restless, tossed perpetually from, one side of the bed to the other. He was a little delirious, and did not seem to recognise either his mother or Rose, and the neighbour, in a tearful whisper, announced that "she did not think the poor lamb could last long."

Rose sat down by the child and tried to take his hand, but he would not let her. "Like that all the time he is," said the neighbour, "and keeps on about a lady what used to sing to him."

Very softly Rose began to sing an old lullaby, and almost at once the soft sounds seemed to soothe the child's restlessness.

As soon as she paused, he began to toss and mutter again; but when she sang her low, singularly pure notes, he instantly lay quiet again. After a time she even induced him to swallow a little broth the doctor had sent in for him, putting the spoon to his lips as she continued her low lullaby.

The great tenement house was very still. Word had gone round, in some strange fashion, that little Tommy Briggs was ill, but that a lady was trying to get him to sleep by singing to him. Even the children in the hot paved courtyard knew, and were like little mice, going on tip-toe with quaint, exaggerated caution, and speaking in whispers. A jolly milkman, turning into the building, uttering his usual cry, was hushed into silence with a ferocity that fairly frightened him, and there was even vague talk of getting a load of straw to put down to lessen the noise of the passing traffic. But that idea came to nothing, and from above there floated down Rose's sweet, clear voice, as with song and lullaby she soothed the sick child to rest.

A couple of hours after her arrival the doctor looked in, and nodded his head with great approval.

"Good, good!" he said, and added to Rose: "You are doing what no medicine could have effected. Can you keep it up another hour or so?"

Rose looked at the clock. Another hour or so spent here would make it utterly impossible for her to get back in time to keep her appointment at Hallam Court.

"The child's life depends on it," the doctor said sharply, frowning at her hesitation.

"I will stay," she answered.

"Good!" he said. He added: "You have a good voice—almost good enough to take it up professionally."

"Oh, I shall never be able to do that," she said, smiling faintly.

"I suppose it is a difficult thing to get a start in," he remarked.

"Yes, indeed it is," she agreed.

Mrs. Briggs sniffed in the background, but neither of them took any notice of her.

Hour after hour passed, and still Rose sat by the sick child's bed, and sang to him softly, till at last he slept. Towards dark the doctor came in, and, looking at the child, nodded his head and said—

"He'll do now; you've pulled him through. You needn't stay any longer," he added.

"I'm in no hurry," Rose remarked, glancing at the clock, and thinking that just about now she ought to be arriving at Hallam Court.

The child opened his eyes and saw her.

"Sing again," he demanded.

"I will come another day," Rose promised. "You must sleep now."

Tommy shut his eyes. The doctor went away. Rose began to get ready to return home. Mrs. Briggs watched her in silence, and then came and leaned across the bed over her boy, and looked up at Rose.

"He'll live," she said, "and you'll have lost your job, miss, at that there place."

Rose did not answer. For one thing, she was busy pinning on her hat, and then, besides, it did not seem to her that there was anything to say.

Mrs. Briggs spoke again.

"I knew, and I didn't care," she said, "not if a dozen like you had lost their jobs—I'd have done the same for my Tommy. But every night from now I'll tell him why he's alive, and I'll do your cleaning for you, miss, same as nobody ever cleaned before!"

Her eyes flashed like a warrior's as she spoke, and Rose gave a little sound that was part a giggle and part a sob, and went quickly out of the room and home to her aunt's as fast as she could go.

Mrs. Manvers was sitting alone in the little dining-room, and she looked up with glum severity as Rose entered.

"Lord Hallam's car was here exactly at six," she said. "His lordship's secretary himself was in it. I made such excuses as I could."

Rose sat down wearily and slowly removed her hat and gloves.

"Did he say anything?" she asked, after an interval.

"Merely that he feared his lordship would scarcely be pleased. That was all. But with such freezing politeness! I felt dreadful—simply dreadful—and yet I could not help admiring the way he spoke, so high-bred, so——"

"Crushing," interposed Rose. "Poor aunt! Well, the doctor says Tommy will most likely get better now."

"I do not think," said Mrs. Manvers coldly, "that I am greatly interested in Tommy Briggs's health."

"More am I, not in the least," retorted Rose, "but Mrs. Briggs seems to be. She says she would have done the same if a dozen like me had lost their jobs through it, but now she'll clean for us as nobody has ever cleaned before."

"I intend," said Mrs. Manvers, "to employ another charwoman."

"Oh, aunt, don't be horrid!" cried Rose, whereon Mrs. Manvers began to cry, for it had all been a sore disappointment to her; and then Rose began to cry, too, and after that they both felt better, and went to eat their supper.

"Nine o'clock," said Mrs. Manvers. "You ought to be——"

"Yes, only I'm not," interrupted Rose; "and please, aunt, don't let's talk of it any more. I shall have to go to Mrs. Briggs's again soon, though. I promised Tommy I would."

"Well, there's no harm in your going now," sighed Mrs. Manvers.

A few days later Rose went once more to the tenement—a little earlier this time, because she had just lost two pupils, and so had the whole day free. Tommy, a very great deal better—for, like most children, he had extraordinary recuperative powers—demanded song instantly. Standing in the middle of the poor little room, Rose sang accordingly—sang her best, sang her disappointment, her resignation and her hope, her joy that she had helped to save this flickering little life, her piteous complaint of the barren and thwarted years that lay before, since, as Mrs. Manvers said, she had had her chance, and it would not come again.

"Well," said Mrs. Briggs, when Rose stopped—"well, miss, that was funny! I never heard the like of that before, miss."

Tommy looked very much inclined to cry. This volume of strange sounds was not the soft lullaby that had soothed his restlessness, nor the sweet and gentle singing he remembered before that.

"Well, that were funny!" Mrs. Briggs repeated thoughtfully.

"I won't do it again," said Rose, a little ashamed, for she knew it was to her own suffering and failure she had sung, and her lost hopes of a great career, and not this time to Mrs. Briggs and little Tommy.

"Must say," remarked Mrs. Briggs candidly, "I like the other way best."

A moment or two later a knock came at the door, loud and authoritative. Mrs. Briggs opened it, and retreated hurriedly and looking a little alarmed, for there stood a tall, stout man in a silk hat and a frock-coat—some sort of inspector, probably, Mrs. Briggs thought, and therefore a natural enemy. She wished to goodness she had not opened the door.

"Someone was singing here," said the stranger, in a very loud voice—a sort of "Come-none-of-your-nonsense-for-I-won't-stand-it" sort of voice that completed Mrs. Briggs's discomfiture.

"Please, sir, it wasn't me," she said hurriedly.

"Who was it?" demanded the stranger.

"Ain't nothing against singing in the reggilations, is there?" asked Mrs. Briggs, recovering herself and preparing to show fight.

"My good woman," said the stranger testily, "I don't care anything about regulations. I want to know who was singing."

Rose came forward.

"I was singing," she said. "May I ask why you wish to know?"

The stranger surveyed her with great severity.

"Then," he said, "sing again."

"Certainly not," said Rose promptly.

"Do as I tell you," he roared, flashing into sudden tempestuous fury—"instantly!"

"Now, mister," interposed Mrs. Briggs, "you mind who you're——"

He checked her with a fiercely pointing forefinger.

"Woman," he thundered, "be silent!" He shifted his pointing forefinger to Rose. "Girl," he commanded, "begin!"

Rose, overborne, a little frightened, began accordingly, and sang, while he listened in profound silence, his head on one side.

When she stopped, he sighed deeply and said in a low, grave, and melancholy tone, three times over—

"What a find! What a find! What a find!"

"He's mad, raving mad," whispered Mrs. Briggs. "I'll go for him with the poker, miss, if you'll run for help!"

"What's your name?" demanded the stranger.

"Manvers—Rose Manvers," she answered.

"Put on your hat and come with me," he ordered.

"Humour him, miss, humour him," whispered Mrs. Briggs, in a loud aside. "Then, when we get out, I'll hold him while you yell for help."

"Why should I go with you? Who are you?" Rose asked the stranger.

He appeared absolutely overwhelmed with surprise at her question.

"You don't know who I am?" he gasped. "You don't know? Have you ever heard of the Imperial Opera House? Have you ever heard of Otto Walden? By the greatest good luck I happened to be passing, and heard you. What a voice!" he mused. "What a find! What a voice! In five years you will be the most famous singer in Europe, providing you keep your head and do what I tell you. And, for goodness' sake, wrap something round your throat! That's a hundred-thousand-pound throat," he complained, "and there you go treating it just as if it were anybody's!"

Copyright, 1916, by E. R. Punshon, in the United States of America.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.