At the age of fifteen her father, an earthenware manufacturer, and the flamboyant Alderman of Turnhill, in the Five Towns, had let her depart to London to the Royal College of Music. Thence, at nineteen, she had proceeded to the Conservatoire of Liege. At twenty-two she could play the great concert pieces—Liszt’s ‘Rhapsodies Hongroises,’ Chopin’s Ballade, Op. 47, Beethoven’s Op. 111, etc.—in concert style, and she was the wonder of the Five Towns when she visited Turnhill. But in London she had obtained neither engagements nor pupils: she had never believed in herself. She knew of dozens of pianists whom she deemed more brilliant than little, pretty, modest Clara Toft; and after her father’s death and the not surprising revelation of his true financial condition, she settled with her faded, captious mother in Turnhill as a teacher of the pianoforte, and did nicely.
Then, when she was twenty-six, and content in provincialism, she had met during an August holiday at Llandudno her old fellow pupil, Albert Barbellion, who was conducting the Pier concerts. Barbellion had asked her to play at a ‘soiree musicale’ which he gave one night in the ball-room of his hotel, and she had performed Tschaikowsky’s immense and lurid Slavonic Sonata; and the unparalleled Otto, renowned throughout the British Empire for Otto’s Bohemian Autumn Nightly Concerts at Covent Garden Theatre, had happened to hear her and that seldom played sonata for the first time. It was a wondrous chance. Otto’s large, picturesque, extempore way of inviting her to appear at his promenade concerts reminded her of her father.
In the bleak three-cornered artists’-room she could faintly hear the descending impetuous velocities of the Ride of the Walkyries. She was waiting in her new yellow dress, waiting painfully. Otto rushed in, a glass in his hand.
‘You all right?’ he questioned sharply.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said, getting up from the cane-chair.
‘Let me see you stand on one leg,’ he said; and then, because she hesitated: ‘Go on, quick! Stand on one leg. It’s a good test.’ So she stood on one leg, foolishly smiling. ‘Here, drink this,’ he ordered, and she had to drink brandy-and-soda out of the glass. ‘You’re better now,’ he remarked; and decidedly, though her throat tingled and she coughed, she felt equal to anything at that moment.
A stout, middle-aged woman, in a rather shabby opera cloak, entered the room.
‘Ah, Cornelia!’ exclaimed Otto grandly.
‘My dear Otto!’ the woman responded, wrinkling her wonderfully enamelled cheeks.
‘Miss Toft, let me introduce you to Madame Lopez.’ He turned to the newcomer. ‘Keep her calm for me, bright star, will you?’
Then Otto went, and Clarice was left alone with the world-famous operatic soprano, who was advertised to sing that night the Shadow Song from ‘Dinorah.’