The Master of the Ceremonies is a web novel produced by George Manville Fenn.
This webnovel is currently completed.
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“Then we are all right. Did you expect me?”
“No, dear. Let me make you some tea.”
“No; stop here. Didn’t you expect this?”
He drew a note from his breast.
“That note? No, dear. Who is it from?”
Fred Denville looked his sister searchingly in the face, and its innocent candid expression satisfied him, and he drew a sigh full of relief.
“If it had been May who looked at me like that, I should have said she was telling me a lie.”
“Bah! You know it’s true. Little wax-doll imp. But I believe you, Claire. Fate’s playing us strange tricks. I am James Bell, Major Rockley’s servant, and he trusts me with his commissions. This is a _billet-doux_–a love-letter–to my sister, which my master sends, and I am to wait for an answer.”
Claire drew herself up, and as her brother saw the blood mantle in her face, and the haughty, angry look in her eyes as she took the letter and tore it to pieces, he, too, drew himself up, and there was a proud air in his aspect.
“There is no answer to Major Rockley’s letter,” she said coldly. “How dare he write to me!”
“Claire, old girl, I must hug you,” cried the dragoon. “By George! I feel as if I were not ashamed of the name of Denville after all. I was going to bully you and tell you that my superior officer is as big a scoundrel as ever breathed, and that if you carried on with him I’d shoot you. Now, bully me, my pet, and tell your prodigal drunken dragoon of a brother that he ought to be ashamed of himself for even thinking such a thing. I won’t shrink.”
“My dear brother,” she said tenderly, as she placed her hands in his.
“My dear sister,” he said softly, as he kissed her little white hands in turn, “I need not warn and try to teach you, for I feel that I might come to you for help if I could learn. There–there. Some day you’ll marry some good fellow.”
She shook her head.
“Yes, you will,” he said. “Richard Linnell, perhaps. Don’t let the old man worry you into such a match as May’s.”
“I shall never marry,” said Claire, in a low strange voice; “never.”
“Yes, you will,” he said, smiling; “but what you have to guard against is not the gallantries of the contemptible puppies who haunt this place, but some big match that–Ah! Too late!”
He caught a glimpse of his father’s figure pa.s.sing the window, and made for the door, but it was only to stand face to face with the old man, who came in hastily, haggard, and wild of eye.
Fred Denville drew back into the room as his father staggered in, and then, as the door swung to and fastened itself, there was a terrible silence, and Claire looked on speechless for the moment, as she saw her brother draw himself up, military fashion, while her father’s face changed in a way that was horrible to behold.
He looked ten years older. His eyes started; his jaw fell, and his hands trembled as he raised them, with the thick cane hanging from one wrist.
He tried to speak, but the words would not come for a few moments.
At last his speech seemed to return, and, in a voice full of rage, hate, and horror combined, he cried furiously:
“Oh, father!” cried Claire, darting to his side.
“Hush, Claire! Let him speak,” said Fred.
“Was it not enough that I forbade you the house before; but, now–to come–to dare–villain!–wretch!–coldblooded, miserable wretch! You are no son of mine. Out of my sight! Curse you! I curse you with all the bitterness that–“
“Father! father!” cried Claire, in horrified tones, as she threw herself between them; but, in his rage, the old man struck her across the face with his arm, sending her tottering back.
“Oh, this is too much,” cried Fred, dropping his stolid manner. “You cowardly–“
“Cowardly! Ha! ha! ha! Cowardly!” screamed the old man, catching at his stick. “You say that–you?”
As Fred strode towards him, the old man struck him with his cane, a sharp well-directed blow across the left ear, and, stung to madness by the pain, the tall strong man caught the frail-looking old beau by the throat and bore him back into a chair, holding him with one hand while his other was clenched and raised to strike.
Volume One, Chapter XXIII.
FATHER AND DAUGHTER.
“Strike! Kill me! Add parricide to your other crimes, dog, and set me free of this weary life,” cried the old man wildly, as he glared in the fierce, distorted face of the st.u.r.dy soldier who held him back.
But it wanted not Claire’s hand upon Fred Denville’s arm to stay the blow. The pa.s.sionate rage fled as swiftly as it had flashed up, and he tore himself away.
“You shouldn’t have struck me,” he cried in a voice full of anguish. “I couldn’t master myself. You struck her–the best and truest girl who ever breathed; and I’d rather be what I am–scamp, drunkard, common soldier, and have struck you down, than you, who gave that poor girl a cowardly blow. Claire–my girl–G.o.d bless you! I can come here no more.”
He caught her wildly in his arms, kissed her pa.s.sionately, and then literally staggered out of the house, and they saw him reel by the window.
There was again a terrible silence in that room, where the old man, looking feeble and strange now, lay back in the chair where he had been thrown, staring wildly straight before him as Claire sank upon the carpet, burying her face in her hands and sobbing to herself.
“And this is home! And this is home!”
She tried to restrain her tears, but they burst forth with sobs more wild and uncontrolled; and at last they had their effect upon the old man, whose wild stare pa.s.sed off, and, rising painfully in his seat, he glared at the door and shuddered.
“How dare he come!” he muttered. “How dare he touch her! How–“
He stopped as he turned his eyes upon where Claire crouched, as if he had suddenly become aware of her presence, and his face softened into a piteous yearning look as he stretched out his hands towards her, and then slowly rose to his feet.
“I struck her,” he muttered, “I struck her. My child–my darling! I– I–Claire–Claire–“
His voice was very low as he slowly sank upon his knees, and softly laid one hand upon her dress, raising it to his lips and kissing it with a curiously strange abas.e.m.e.nt in his manner.
Claire did not move nor seem to hear him, and he crept nearer to her and timidly laid his hand upon her head.
He s.n.a.t.c.hed it away directly, and knelt there gazing at her wildly, for she shuddered, shrank from him, and, starting to her feet, backed towards the door with such a look of repulsion in her face that the old man clasped his hands together, and his lips parted as if to cry to her for mercy.
But no sound left them, and for a full minute they remained gazing the one at the other. Then, with a heartrending sob, Claire drew open the door and hurried from the room.
“What shall I do? What shall I do?” groaned Denville as he rose heavily to his feet. “It is too hard to bear. Better sleep–at once and for ever.”
He sank into his chair with his hands clasped and his elbows resting upon his knees, and he bent lower and lower, as if borne down by the weight of his sorrow; and thus he remained as the minutes glided by, till, hearing a step at last, and the jingle of gla.s.s, he rose quickly, smoothed his care-marked face, and thrusting his hand into his breast, began to pace the room, catching up hat and stick, and half closing his eyes, as if in deep thought.
It was a good bit of acting, for when Isaac entered with a tray to lay the dinner cloth, and glanced quickly at his master, it was to see him calm and apparently buried in some plan, with not the slightest trace of domestic care upon his well-masked face.
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