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The Master of the Ceremonies, Page 2

George Manville Fenn

endof the table and went out.

  "Why is not Morton down?" said the MC sternly.

  "He came down quite an hour ago, papa. He must have gone for a walk.Shall we wait?"

  "Certainly not, my child."

  At that moment there was a little scuffling outside the door, which wasopened directly after by Isaac, who admitted Eliza and a veryangular-looking woman with two pins tightly held between her lips--pinsthat she had intended to transfer to some portion of her garments, buthad not had time. These three placed themselves before three chairs bythe door, and waited till the MC had gracefully replaced his snuff-box,and taken two steps to the table, where he and Claire sat down. Thenthe servants took their seats, and then "Master" opened the Bible toread in a slow, deliberate way, and as if he enjoyed the names, that NewTestament chapter on genealogies which to youthful ears seemed to bemade up of a constant repetition of the two words, "which was."

  This ended, all rose and knelt down, Isaac with the point of his elbowjust touching the point of Eliza's elbow, for he comforted hisconscience over this tender advance by the reflection that marriage,though distant, was a sacred thing; and he made up for his unspiritualbehaviour to a great extent by saying the "Amens" in a much louder voicethan Cook, and finished off in the short space of silence after theMaster of the Ceremonies had read the last Collect, and when all wereexpected to continue their genuflexions till that personage sighed andmade a movement as if to rise, by adding a short extempore prayer of hisown, one which he had repeated religiously for the past four yearswithout effect, the supplication being:

  "And finally, may we all get the arrears of our wages, evermore. Amen."

  Isaac had finished his supplementary prayer; the MC sighed and rose,and, the door being opened by the footman, the two maids stepped out.Isaac followed, and in a few minutes returned with a very coppery rack,containing four thin pieces of toast, and a little dish whose contentswere hidden by a very battered cover. These were placed with thegreatest form upon the table, and the cover removed with a flourish, toreveal two very thin and very curly pieces of streaky bacon, each ofwhich had evidently been trying to inflate itself like the frog in thefable, but with no other result than the production of a fatty bladderypuff, supported by a couple of patches of brown.

  Isaac handed the toast to father and daughter, and then went off withthe cover silently as a spirit, and the breakfast was commenced by theMC softly breaking a piece of toast with his delicate fingers andsaying:

  "I am displeased with Morton. After yesterday's incident, he shouldhave been here to discuss with me the future of his campaign."

  "Here he is, papa," cried Claire eagerly, and she rose to kiss herbrother affectionately as he came rather boisterously into the room,looking tall, thin and pale, but healthy and hungry, as an overgrown boyof nineteen would look who had been out at the seaside before breakfast.

  "You were not here to prayers, Morton," said the MC sternly.

  "No, father; didn't know it was so late," said the lad, beginning on thetoast as soon as he was seated.

  "I trust that you have not been catching--er--er--dabs, this morning."The word was distasteful when the fish was uncooked, and required aneffort to enunciate.

  "Oh, but I have, though. Rare sport this morning. Got enough fordinner."

  The MC was silent for a few moments, and gracefully sipped his thin tea.He was displeased, but there was a redeeming feature in his son'sannouncement--enough fish for dinner. There would be no need to orderanything of the butcher.

  "Hush, Morton," said Claire softly, and she laid her soft little hand onhis, seeing their father about to speak.

  "I am--er--sorry that you should be so thoughtless, Morton," said hisfather; "at a time, too, when I am making unheard-of efforts to obtainthat cornetcy for you; how can you degrade yourself--you, the son of a--er--man--a--er--gentleman in my position, by going like a common boydown below that pier to catch--er--dabs!"

  "Well, we want them," retorted the lad. "A good dinner of dabs isn't tobe sneezed at. I'm as hungry as hungry, sometimes. See how thin I am.Why, the boys laugh, and call me Lanky Denville."

  "What is the opinion of boys to a young man with your prospects inlife?" said his father, carefully ignoring the question of food supply."Besides, you ought to be particular, sir, for the sake of your sisterMay, who has married so well."

  "What, to jerry-sneaky Frank Burnett? A little humbug."


  "Well, so he is, father. I asked him to lend me five shillings the daybefore yesterday, and he called me an importunate beggar."

  "You had no business to ask him for money, sir."

  "Who am I to ask, then? I must have money. You won't let me go out towork."

  "No, sir; you are a gentleman's son, and must act as a gentleman."

  "I can't act as a gentleman without money," cried the lad, eating away,for, to hide the look of pain in her face, Claire kept diligentlyattending to her brother's wants by supplying him with a fair amount ofthin tea and bread and butter, as well as her own share of the bacon.

  "My dear son," said the MC with dignity, "everything comes to the manwho will wait. Your sister May has made a wealthy marriage. Clairewill, I have no doubt, do the same, and I have great hopes of yourprospects."

  "Haven't any prospects," said the lad, in an ill-used tone.

  "Not from me," said the MC, "for I am compelled to keep up appearancesbefore the world, and my fees and offerings are not nearly so much aspeople imagine."

  "Then why don't we live accordingly?" said the lad roughly.

  "Allow me, with my experience, sir, to know best; and I desire that youwill not take that tone towards me. Recollect, sir, that I am yourfather."

  "Indeed, dear papa, Morton does not mean to be disrespectful."

  "Silence, Claire. And you, Morton; I will be obeyed."

  "All right, father. I'll obey fast enough, but it does seem precioushard to see Ikey down in the kitchen stuffing himself, and us up in theparlour going short so as to keep up appearances."

  "My boy," said the MC pathetically, "it is Spartan-like. It isself-denying and manly. Have courage, and all will end well. I know itis hard. It is my misfortune, but I appeal to you both, do I everindulge myself at your expense? Do I ever spare myself in my effortsfor you?"

  "No, no, no, dear," cried Claire, rising with tears in her eyes to throwher arm round his neck and kiss him.

  "Good girl!--good girl!" he said, smiling sadly, and returning theembrace. "But sit down, sit down now, and let us discuss these veryweighty matters. Fortune is beginning to smile upon us, my dears. Mayis off my hands--well married."

  Claire shook her head sadly.

  "I say well married, Claire," said her father sternly, "and though wehave still that trouble ever facing us, of a member of our familydebauched by drunkenness, and sunk down to the degradation of a commonsoldier--"

  "Oh! I say, father, leave poor old Fred alone," cried Morton. "Heisn't a bad fellow; only unlucky."

  "Be silent, sir, and do not mention his name again in my presence. AndClaire, once for all, I forbid his coming to this house."

  "He only came to the back door," grumbled Morton.

  "A son who is so degraded that he cannot come to the front door, andmust lower himself to the position of one of our servants, is nocompanion for my children. I forbid all further communication withhim."

  "Oh, papa!" cried Claire, with the tears in her eyes.

  "Silence! Morton, my son, I have hopes that by means of my interest acertain person will give you a commission in the Light Dragoons, and--For what we have received may the Lord make us truly thankful."

  "Amen," said Morton. "Claire, I want some more bread and butter."

  "Claire," said the Master of the Ceremonies, rising from the table as afaint tinkle was heard, "there is the Countess's bell."

  He drew the girl aside and laid a thin white finger upon her shoulder.

  "You must give her a broader hint this mo
rning, Claire. Six months, andshe has paid nothing whatever. I cannot, I really cannot go on findingher ladyship in apartments and board like this. It is so unreasonable.A woman, too, with her wealth. Pray, speak to her again, but don'toffend her. You must be careful. Delicately, my child--delicately. Aleader of fashion even now. A woman of exquisite refinement. Of thehighest aristocracy. Speak delicately. It would never do to cause herannoyance about such a sordid thing as money--a few unsettled debts ofhonour. Ah, her bell again. Don't keep her waiting."

  "If you please, ma'am, her ladyship has rung