The Master of the CeremoniesGeorge Manville Fenn
Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
Volume One, Chapter I.
Early morning at Saltinville, with the tide down, and the calm seashimmering like damasked and deadened silver in the sunshine. Here andthere a lugger was ashore, delivering its take of iris-hued mackerel tocart and basket, as a busy throng stood round, some upon the sands, someknee-deep in water, and all eager to obtain a portion of the fresh fishthat fetched so good a price amongst the visitors to the town.
The trawler was coming in, too, with its freight of fine thick soles andturbot, with a few gaily-scaled red mullet; and perhaps a staring-eyedJohn Dory or two, from the trammel net set overnight amongst the rocks:all choice fish, these, to be bought up ready for royal and noble use,for London would see no scale of any of the fish caught that night.
The unclouded sun flashed from the windows of the houses on the cliff,giving them vivid colours that the decorator had spared, and lighting upthe downs beyond, so that from the sea Saltinville looked a very pictureof all that was peaceful and bright. There were no huge stucco palacesto mar the landscape, for all was modest as to architecture, and asfresh as green and stone-coloured paint applied to window-frame, verandaand shutter could make it. Flowers of variety were not plentiful, butgreat clusters of orange marigolds flourished bravely, and, withbroad-disked sunflowers, did no little towards giving warmth of colourto the place. There had been no storms of late--no windy nights whenthe spray was torn from the tops of waves to fly in showers over thehouses, and beat the window-panes, crusting them afterwards with a coatof dingy salt. The windows, then, were flashing in the sun; but all thesame, by six o'clock, Isaac Monkley, the valet, body-servant, andfootman-in-ordinary to Stuart Denville, Esquire, MC, was busy, dressedin a striped jacket, and standing on the very top of a pair of steps,cloth in one hand and wash-leather in the other, carefully cleaningwindows that were already spotless. For there was something in theexterior of the MC's house that suggested its tenant. Paint, glass,walls, and doorstep were so scrupulously clean that they recalled themaster's face, and seemed to have been clean-shaven but an hour before.
Isaac was not alone in his task, for, neat in a print dress and snowycap, Eliza, the housemaid, was standing on a chair within; and as theycleaned the windows in concert, they courted in a special way.
There is no accounting for the pleasure people find in very ordinaryways. Isaac and Eliza found theirs in making the glass so clear thatthey could smile softly at each other without let or hindrance producedby smear or speck in any single pane. Their hands, too, were kept incontact, saving for cloth and glass, and moved in unison, describingcircles and a variety of other figures, going into the corners together,changing from cloth to wash-leather, and moving, as it were, by one setof muscles till the task was concluded with a chaste salute--a kissthrough the glass.
Meanwhile, anyone curious about the house would, if he had raised hiseyes, have seen that one of the upstairs windows had a perfect screen offlowers, that grew from a broad, green box along the sill. Sweet peasclustered, roses bloomed, geraniums dotted it with brilliant tinypointless stars of scarlet, and at one side there was a string that ranup from a peg to a nail, hammered, unknown to the MC, into the wall.That peg was an old tooth-brush handle, and the nail had been driven inwith the back of a hairbrush; but bone handle and string were invisiblenow, covered by the twining strands of so many ipomaeas, whoseheart-shaped leaves and trumpet blossoms formed one of the most lovelyobjects of the scene. Here they were of richest purple, fading intolavender and grey; there of delicate pink with well-formed starrymarkings in the inner bell, and moist with the soft air of earlymorning. Each blossom was a thing of beauty soon to fade, for, as thewarm beams of the sun kissed them, the edges began to curl; then therewould be a fit of shrivelling, and the bloom of the virgin flower passedunder the sun-god's too ardent caress.
About and above this screen of flowers, a something ivory white, andtinged with peachy pink, kept darting in and out. Now it touched arose, and a shower of petals fell softly down; now a geranium leaf thatwas turning yellow disappeared; now again a twig that had borne roseswas taken away, after a sound that resembled a steely click. Then thelittle crimson and purple blossoms of a fuchsia were touched, andshivered and twinkled in the light at the soft movements among thegraceful stems as dying flowers were swept away.
For a minute again all was still, but the next, there was a freshvibration amongst the flowers as this ivory whiteness appeared in a newplace, curving round a plant as if in loving embrace; and at such timesthe blooms seemed drawn towards another and larger flower of thickerpetal and of coral hue, that peeped out amongst the fresh green leaves,and then it was that a watcher would have seen that this ivory somethingplaying about the window garden was a soft white hand.
Again a fresh vibration amongst the clustering flowers, as if they weretrembling with delight at the touches that were once more to come. Thenthere was a brilliant flash as the sun's rays glanced from a brightvessel, the pleasant gurgle of water from a glass carafe, and once morestillness before the stems were slowly parted, and a larger flowerpeeped out from the leafy screen--the soft, sweet face of ClaireDenville--to gaze at the sea and sky, and inhale the morning air.
Richard Linnell was not there to look up and watch the changes in thesweet, candid face, with its high white forehead, veined with blue, itssoft, peachy cheeks and clear, dark-grey eyes, full of candour, butsearching and firm beneath the well-marked brows. Was her mouth toolarge? Perhaps so; but what a curve to that upper lip, what a bend tothe lower over that retreating dimpled chin. If it had been smaller thebeauty of the regular teeth would have been more hidden, and there wouldhave been less of the pleasant smile that came as Claire brushed asideher wavy brown hair, turned simply back, and knotted low down upon herneck.
Pages might be written in Claire Denville's praise: let it suffice thatshe was a tall, graceful woman, and that even the most disparagingscandalmonger of the place owned that she was "not amiss."
Claire Denville's gaze out to sea was but a short one. Then her facedisappeared; the stems and blossoms darted back to form a screen, andthe tenant of the barely-furnished bedroom was busy for some time,making the bed and placing all in order before drawing a tambour frameto the window, and unpinning a piece of paper that guarded the gay silksand wools. Then for the next hour Claire bent over her work, theglistening needle passing rapidly in and out as she gazed intently atthe pattern rapidly approaching completion, a piece of work that was tobe taken surreptitiously to Miss Clode's library and fancy bazaar forsale, money being a scarce commodity in the MC's home.
From below, time after time, came up sounds of preparation for thebreakfast of the domestics, then for their own, and Claire sighed as shethought of the expenses incurred for three servants, and how muchhappier they might be if they lived in simpler style.
The chiming of the old church clock sounded sweetly on the morning air.
_Ting-dong_--quarter-past; and Claire listened attentively.
_Ting-dong_--quarter to eight.
"How time goes!" she cried, with a wistful look at her work, which shehurriedly covered, and then her print dress rustled as she randownstairs to find her father already in the little pinched parlour,dubbed breakfast-room, standing thin and pensive in a long fadeddressing-gown, one arm resting upon the chimney-piece, snuff-box inhand, the other raised level with his face, holding thefreshly-dipped-for pinch--in fact, standing in a studied attitude, as iffor his portrait to be limned.
Volume One, Chapter II.
"Ah, my child, you are late," said the Master of the Ceremonies, asC
laire ran to meet him and kissed his cheek. "`Early to bed and earlyto rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.' It will do the samefor you, my child, and add bloom to your cheek, though, of course, wecannot be early in the season."
"I am a little late, papa dear," said Claire, ringing a tinkling bell,with the result that Isaac, in his striped jacket and the stiffest ofwhite cravats, entered, closed the door behind him, and then stoodstatuesque, holding a brightly-polished kettle, emitting plenty ofsteam.
"Any letters, Isaac?"
"No, sir, none this morning," and then Isaac carefully poured a smallquantity of the boiling water into the teapot, whose lid Claire hadraised, and stood motionless while she poured it out again, and thenunlocked a very small tea-caddy and spooned out three very smallspoonfuls--one apiece, and none for the over-cleaned and de-silveredplated pot. This done, Isaac filled up, placed the kettle on the hob,fetched a Bible and prayer-book from a sideboard, placed them at one