Wandering Minstrels.

A gentle breeze ruffled the pink curtains in the high windows of the salon. Beneath the long row of driers some of the occupants dozed, some were being manicured, and others leafed through glossy magazines. They all seemed completely relaxed; all except one.

Stella felt out of place. The moment she entered this fashionable beauty parlour she wanted to run away again, but a smiling, exquisitely groomed assistant had taken her coat. That threadbare little grey tweed was so old that it curled at the edges, and the lining was past repair. Stella had first worn it when she was a schoolgirl. Not so very long ago, for she was only just twenty, but far too long for a cheap garment which had been her only coat year after year, summer and winter, rain or shine. There it hung on its satin-padded hanger, among the elegant products of a dozen Mayfair couturiers. She felt sick with embarrassment. It was a wretched day.

Yesterday had been fine. She had worked all day with Bernard, practising on two pianos, preparing the concerto she was to play at the Albert Hall. In his company she could concentrate; no nervousness cut into the pleasure of their work together. As she left, he hugged her.

“Nick and I will be so proud of you, dear. just walk across that platform and play your heart out.”

“I’ll try . . . Thank you so much for everything.” She kissed his cheek, and was gone into the twilight.

Today the early hours had brought an overpowering sense of foreboding. She lay sleepily for a few moments, then memory returned. This was the day; as far as Stella could see, it would mean the end of all her years of study, a waste of all Bernard’s kindness.

In the early dawn, even his faith and affection seemed less reassuring. There was to be a morning rehearsal with the orchestra and Sir Nicholas Polakiev. Few soloists could face that prospect without qualms. He could be crushing about unpunctuality; Stella made sure that she was in the vast auditorium well before time. Polakiev’s secretary recognised the slight, shabby girl sitting alone, and came to sit beside her. Angela Buxted was well accustomed to this part of her job; soloists were always nervous, and her employer seemed to make no allowance for such feelings. He demanded instant perfection. Anything less brought scathing sarcasm, or a freezing silence more unnerving than torrents of abuse. Angela had dealt with this problem for longer than she cared to remember. This little pianist needed help.

“You must be very excited. It’s your first London concerto, isn’t it?”.

“Yes-my South Bank recital is next week, but Bernard persuaded Sir Nicholas to let me do this. I’m very lucky.”

Stella sounded so doleful that Angela chuckled inwardly. Lucky my foot, she thought. This girl was one of the most promising young pianists; she had won no less than four major competitions within the last two years. Angela had heard her several times and never ceased to be amazed. Nick was probably glad to get her-though knowing his outwardly icy personality, Angela realised that Stella would be the last person to find out.

“Wasn’t Nick one of Bernard’s students?”

“Yes.”

“He’ll be thrilled. I heard you play this work last year; you were magnificent. You just can’t fail.” Seeing Stella’s continuing despondency, she tried another approach.

“What will you wear?”

“Not much choice-that plain red dress I made. I wore it for all the competitions?

“Couldn’t be luckier, could it? You won the lot! I thought it was stunning. If ever you want to change careers, set up as a couturier and I’ll be first in the queue. About tonight-what about your hair and make-up?”

There came a charming sideways smile. This is better, thought Angela-keep going. “Me? I’ve got a lipstick somewhere. D’you suppose anyone will notice? I’ll wash my hair after lunch, then it should be dry in time.”

No drier, I suppose, thought Angela. And the cheapest of shampoos. Aloud, she spoke firmly, as though she hadn’t just thought up the whole thing.

“I’ve arranged a surprise. My hairdresser is expecting you at half-past four. Your appointment is for a styling and make-up-a present from me to you. Here’s his card. Good luck, darling; look, Nick’s ready for you. Up you go”.

Flushed with astonishment, Stella scrambled up the steps and sat at the huge piano.

“You may achieve a tolerable performance if you dispose of that visiting-card.”

The acid voice could have restored all the nervousness which Angela had done her best to dispel. Instead, Stella controlled an urge to answer back. “If you were as polite as your secretary I might have a chance!” She saw sympathetic faces in the orchestra, but the conductor’s face was set in hard lines of self-discipline. Hazel eyes met grey without faltering. Her voice was as cold as his.

“Ready when you are, Sir Nicholas.”

He turned to face the orchestra, baton raised. Stella saw the breadth of his shoulders, resentment smouldering.

“Son of a Russian prince he may be, but he’s got shoulders like a Smithfield porter,” she thought. Then the music swept away anger and annoyance; her cue came and she took it with precision and brilliance. The concerto was played from beginning to end without any interruption from him – a rare event indeed, and as the final chords died away the orchestra burst into applause.

He stopped it abruptly, turning to Stella.

“You will be in the Artists’ room before the overture. Good morning.”

Ignoring him, Stella returned the way she had come, pausing only as she passed the leader of the orchestra, whispering “Thank you.”

In the corridor Angela was chatting to a handsome man in his thirties. Impulsively he caught Stella in his arms and kissed her.

“Stella, that performance must have knocked old Nick for six! He didn’t pull you up once! I tell you, I’m proud to be your agent.”

“He’s not proud to be my conductor. His attitude is strictly prince to peasant, at least a century ago. He’s been reading all your publicity.”

She said it without resentment, and Duncan chuckled.

“My publicity’s okay! This place will be packed tonight; every ticket’s sold! Let everyone know what’s possible with talent and determination?

“You mean, how much is possible with angelic teachers and wonderful friends. Duncan, Angela’s given me an appointment with her own hairdresser. I’ll be all dolled up tonight. You won’t know me!”

Angela blushed, knowing she had made a hasty phone call substituting Stella in her own appointment. Always impeccably groomed, she could manage without a hairdresser for once, unlike Stella, whose long chestnut mane was dull and neglected looking.

In her bedsitter Stella looked into the mirror despondently. How could she face a Mayfair beautician? Old jeans, shabby coat, and hair and face which had known no treatment except soap and water. She was tempted to phone and cancel the appointment. Such places were not for her, yet Angela had been so kind, the ordeal must be faced. One more ordeal on such a day could make little difference. It might help to have something new to think about, to take her mind off the next encounter with Polakiev. Concert nerves were bad enough; already her hands were clammy, her stomach churning heavily. The thought of his icy contempt added fury to her other emotions. He must have been reading Duncan’s publicity material. A blue-blooded Russian might well feel contempt for the product of London slums, yet during rehearsal, Stella had felt no barrier. They were no longer aristocrat and peasant, man and girl, established artist and novice; they were two of a kind, musicians of equal rank, whose artistic affinity bridged every artificial division. His contempt was impertinence.

These mutinous thoughts brought her to the door of the beauty parlour, and they were immediately scattered by her embarrassment which increased every minute.

The shabby coat was hung behind a silk curtain, and the owner of the salon, Mr Trevor, came to diagnose and prescribe. His courtesy was temporarily comforting. Her shabby clothes seemed not to affect him at all. He lifted a strand of her hair to the light, felt its texture, and gave instructions. Oil shampoo and conditioner; then Madam would be ready.

Madam, by this time, was ready for nothing at all. Duncan had said the concert was a sell-out. Why were so many people coming, she wondered bitterly; for the music, or just out of curiosity, to see what a youngster from the slums would do? Vultures or sadists or both, the whole lot; she would rather go anywhere tonight, than to that great cavernous place, full of hissing whispers and cheap curiosity. Madam would be happier working among her old school friends in the comradeship of factory life. Dear God, Madam couldn’t even recall the first note of that wretched concerto, let alone the first phrase. Her throat was parched, and her head was aching.

Mr Trevor was alert to his clients’ needs, and saw her pallor. He read his newspapers, and knew about the young pianist. Madam needed care and attention; coffee and biscuits were brought, with an offer of aspirin. The unexpected kindness relaxed her; she began to feel better.

When he and his staff had completed their work, she gazed into the mirror in wonder. Her red-brown hair swirled into a gleaming pony tail, held in place by a glinting diamanté circlet. The make-up was perfect. She looked as though she had just returned from winter sports; her cheeks glowed, and the wide eyes were subtly emphasised. She looked radiant.

Mr Trevor enjoyed his work, and felt well rewarded. Stella was a delightful change from the blasé regulars who took his artistry for granted. He wanted to keep this client. As she was helped back into the shabby coat, he handed her a transparent box.

“To wish you well for this evening and all the other evenings to come, Madam.”

Delight, happiness, sheer unaffected astonishment-they were all in the gasp of pleasure as she gazed at her first orchid.

“I-I don’t know how to thank you, Mr. Trevor. This will make my old dress look really special.” She looked up at him shyly. “I was scared to come; I was afraid you’d think I wasn’t smart enough. And now-this!” Impulsively, she kissed him. “I must go-but thank you again!”

Stella had already pressed the red dress; it lay on her bed. Its simplicity, as she thought, was due to her modest skill as a needlewoman; that it was due to natural good taste had not occurred to her.

As she changed, she trembled again. Resolutely she closed her mind to fears that she might suffer a lapse of memory. She had felt the same before every competition yet she had won them all. Then why was she terrified? Why indeed, but all the dreaded symptoms returned in full force as Duncan knocked.

“The taxi’s waiting . . .” He stopped in the doorway.

“Oh . . . you beauty!” It was as though he had never seen her before.

Shyness at his unexpected reaction combined with nervousness. “Stop it-you make me want to cry, and they took such care with my make-up.”

“They?” He was bemused.

“Angela’s beauty parlour. I nearly didn’t go because I was too shy and too shabby, but look—Mr Trevor even gave me an orchid.”

“I’m not surprised.” Duncan spoke drily. “I bet he doesn’t get such a pretty client every day. Now, Cinderella, here the conquering heroine comes. Chin up, look old Nick straight in the eye, and the audience will love you.”

In the taxi Stella was shaking.

“l feel sick.”

“So what? Would you play so well if you weren’t nervous? Don’t be silly.”

“Don’t be damned righteous. It may seem silly to you-you don’t have to play.” She was fretful and tearful, and stumbled as he helped her out of the taxi. He caught her in his arms. For a moment he held her, lightly kissing the velvet cheek.

“Come on now-face that music.” He grinned, grabbed her hand, and led her into the Artists’ room.

Bernard Reed was standing beside Polakiev. As Stella entered, they turned. Bernard smiled. He said nothing, but as he clasped her hands she knew that Mr Trevor’s work had again made an impact. Looking around the room for Angela, she noticed Polakiev glancing at her. No welcome, no emotion, certainly no admiration; just a cold acceptance of her presence. just as well; with a chilly nod in his direction she moved across to Angela.

“I nearly didn’t go to Mr Trevor, I was so shy . . . and look what he gave me. An orchid! You were a darling to send me!”

Angela felt that the slight sacrifice and the white lie were well repaid. Stella was shaking with nervousness, her eyes were dilated with fear, and she was beautiful. She would be enchanting. Angela knew as well as Duncan the importance of a platform presence; Polakiev had it to perfection, in his regal manner. Stella derived it from her frail radiance. Everything must go well.

The orchestra were in their places, and applause sounded as the leader followed. With a glance at his wrist-watch, Polakiev departed. Stella could hear the cheers as he appeared, then as the overture began, Angela steered her to a deep armchair, and tucked a fur stole around her. Even in that over-heated room, her hands were icy. Angela took them between her own, rubbing briskly to keep the circulation going. Her voice was as brisk as her hands. She sounded like a conscientious nanny.

“You can’t see straight. Right?”

“There’s a mist in front of my eyes-I won’t be able to see the keyboard.”

“They all think that. You can’t remember your first cue?”

“No. Not even the first note.”

“You and all the others. Didn’t you feel this way before those competitions?”

“It wasn’t so bad. If I failed, I was only another student and I could go back to the factory. Now Duncan has publicised me so much-everyone will know I’m a fraud.”

“They won’t because you’re not. Listen-the overture is just finishing. Polakiev will come for you any minute now. Stand up-rub your arms and hands-don’t let him see you wilting.”

Duncan watched Angela in admiration. The precise blend of command, the complete assurance, the lack of soft-centre sympathy-it was masterly. Stella was trembling but self-controlled; taut as a bow string, and in the ideal state of mind to play to perfection.

Polakiev appeared in the doorway, his voice harsh.

“Miss Wade, you will please look at me before beginning the Andante. You neglected that courtesy at rehearsal.”

Even Bernard was taken aback.

“Nick, it is the soloist’s opening!”

He was ignored. “The piano is in place. Come.”

Now what? thought Duncan. Everything we worked for-gone in a second. Why can’t that devil control himself?

Stella had been pale beneath her make-up. Now, her face was flushed with anger; lips compressed, shoulders squared, she swept past Polakiev as though he were non-existent, and straight to the front of the platform. Majestically she acknowledged the applause. From the piano, she looked directly at Polakiev and her eyes were as hard as his. He raised his baton. Glacial command met volcanic fury. Now, she thought, the stage was hers. She was driven, not by nervousness, but by anger and iron will-power. She would not allow this boor to browbeat her like a timid schoolgirl.

She performed with fiery brilliance interspersed with passages of melting tenderness. Her fingers seemed to have doubled their strength and agility. She had no need to remember mere notes and phrases-she was their source, and they were part of her; the piano had become an extension of her creative will. The opening movement exploded in a triumphant cascade of sound; among the whole packed audience, there was no movement. The spell was complete.

It had not fallen upon the audience alone. The soloist’s glossy head was bowed in concentration, her face utterly absorbed, the hands poised over the keyboard. Polakiev was forgotten. Even as he waited, watching her, she was unaware of him.

Tenderly, as though from afar, came the opening bars of the Andante. The harp-like chords floated as if from distant mountain peaks, from the fingers of some goddess of ancient days. Polakiev, seemingly mesmerised, coaxed a whispering accompaniment from the orchestra with a barely perceptible motion of the baton.

As the last phrase of the movement faded, Stella seemed to recall her surroundings. Sharply, she looked up. As one, soloist and orchestra burst into the final movement, full of difficulties which apparently meant nothing to this frail young girl.

However lost she had been among the dreamy wonders of the slow movement, Stella was now very much back to reality. Even while she sped through the final shimmering maze of sound, she remembered that she had flouted Polakiev’s authority. That last overbearing command had been disobeyed. Surely he would take his revenge; he must have no opportunity to snub her here.

The climax broke into final triumph, and the audience were ecstatic. By convention, Stella ought to shake hands with her conductor before acknowledging their applause. She was not going to touch him.

From where she stood, the piano still between them, she faced him and sank into a deep curtsey. Then she shook hands with the leader of the orchestra, and turned to the audience. Time after time, they roared their delight, and the orchestra joined them. It was a triumph.

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