"White Cat?" echoed Sybil, in perplexity.
"Yes, Miss Sybil, that red-headed, false-hearted White Cat, as you took into your house and home, for to beguile and corrupt your own true husband!"
With a gasp and a suppressed cry, Sybil sank into her seat.
Miss Tabby, too full of her subject to notice Sybil's agitation, continued:
"No sooner had your carriage left the door this morning, Miss Sybil, than that there White Cat comes tipping on her tiptoes out of her room, in a long loose dressing-gown, with her hair all down, in a way as no real lady would ever be seen out of her own chamber, and she tips, tips, tips into the drawing-room, where she knows Mr. Berners is alone, and laying on the sofa!"
With a powerful effort Sybil controlled her violent emotion, held herself still, and listened.
"And that was bad enough, Miss Sybil! but that was nothing to what followed!" sighed Miss Tabby, wiping another tear from the end of her nose.
"What followed?" echoed Sybil, in an expiring voice.
"What followed, ma'am, was this: but to make you understand, I must tell you what I ought to a told you at the start, which is how it happened as I seen her tip, tip, tip, on her tiptoes to the drawing-room, just for all the world like a cat after cream. Well, I was up here, in this very room where I am now, a sorting out of your fine things as come up from the wash, and I found one o' her lace handkerchers among yourn, fotch up by mistake. So I jes took it and went down them back stairs as leads from this room down to hern, to give her back her handkercher; when jes as I got into her room, I seen her slip outen the other door leading into the hall. So after her I goes, to give her her handkercher—which I thought it was best to give it intor her own hands, than to put it anywhere in her room, because I didn't know nothing about this forring nuss o' hern; and you know yourself, ma'am, as we ought to be cautious in dealing with strangers."
"Yes, yes! Go on! go on!" gasped Sybil.
"Well, ma'am, she flitted through them passages too fast for me, jes as if she was afraid o' being caught afore she got out o' sight! I jes seen her slip into the drawing-room, where I knowed as Mr. Berners was a lying onto the sofa, and then I turns back and runs away."
"Oh, why didn't you follow her in?" groaned Sybil.
"Yes, why didn't I, ma'am; which I wish I had, and would a done if it hadn't a been for that forring nuss a coming outen her room, and a screeching after me:
"'Missus Winterblossom! Missus Winterblossom!' which I allus told that huzzy as I wasn't a 'missus,' but a 'miss,' nor likewise a 'blossom,' but a 'rose.' Howsever, there she was, a yelling at the top of her voice, 'Missus Winterblossom! Missus Winterblossom!' until I had to run to her, only to stop her mouth!"
"Ah! the wretch! she was the accomplice of her mistress, and wished to bring you away," breathed Sybil more to herself than to her housekeeper, and in a tone too low to reach the ears of Miss Tabby, who continued:
"It was the baby, as had been eating of new chestnuts, and got the cramp. So the forring nuss, as wasn't worth her salt, comes screaming after me to come and do something for the baby. Of course I went and did what was right and proper for the poor little suffering creetur; and when I had put him to sleep, I thinks about his neglectful mother, and so I ups and goes after her. And when I opens the drawing-room door, ma'am—well, I sees a sight as strikes me intor a statty o' stone, or a pillar o' salt, like Lot's wife."
"What? what?" panted Sybil.
"I seen 'em both, him and her, a sitting close together and a going on jes like two lovyers as was going to be married to-morrow, or a bride and groom as was married yesterday."
"Well, ma'am, if her head wasn't a leaning on his shoulder, it was so nigh it as it made no difference! And her hand was squeezed inter hizzen, and her eyes was rolled up inter hizzen in the most be-devilling way as ever I see in my life—for all the world as if she was a loving of him, and a worshipping of him, and a praising of him, and a praying to him, all in one gaze!"
"And he!—and he!"
"Oh, my dear honey! what can you expect of a poor, weak, he-man? He looks down on her as if he enjoyed being loved and worshipped and praised and prayed to, and he squeezes of her hand up to his mouth as if he'd like to have eaten it!"
"Oh, my heart! my heart!" moaned Sybil, turning deadly pale.
Still, Miss Tabby, full of her own subject, scarcely noticed the pain she was inflicting, so she continued:
"And jes that minute they happened either to see or to hear me, I don't know which. Anyways, they looks up, and—whew! they jumps apart as if a fire-cracker had gone off between 'em! Well, I tells my lady as her child is sick, and she jumps up, impatient like, to go and look after him. And I comes away too. And that was just about ten minutes before you got home yourself."
"Deceived! Betrayed! Scorned! Laughed at!" bitterly exclaimed Sybil.
"And that's all. And now look here, honey! Don't you go to taking on about this here piece o' business! And don't you get mad long o' your husband on any woman's account, whatever you do! Come down on the woman! That's what you do. It is all her fault, not hizzen! He couldn't help himself, poor innocent creetur! Lor! honey, I don't know much about married life, bein' of a single woman myself; but I have heard my mother say as men are mons'rous weak-minded poor creeturs, and need to be guided by their wives; and if they an't ruled by their wives, they are sure to be by some other woman! And it stands to reason it is more respectable to be ruled by their wives! And so, honey, my advice to you is, to send that bad woman about her business, and take that innocent man firmly in hand."
And so Miss Tabby babbled on, no longer heeded by Sybil, who soon slipped away and hid herself in one of the empty spare rooms.
MORE THAN THE BITTERNESS OF DEATH.
He to whom I gave my heart with all its wealth of love, Forsakes me for another.—MEDEA.
"Oh my heart! my heart!" moaned Sybil, as she sank down upon the floor of that spare-room, the door of which she had bolted, to secure herself from intrusion.
"Oh, my heart! my heart!" she wailed, pressing her hand to her side like one who had just received a mortal wound.
"Oh, my heart! my heart!" she groaned, as one who complains of an insupportable agony. And for some moments she could do no more than this. Then at length the stream of utterance flowed forth, and—
"He loves me no longer! my husband loves me no longer!" she cried in more than the bitterness of death. "He loves that false siren in place of me, his true wife. He gives her all the tender words, all the warm caresses he used to lavish on me. His heart is won from me. I am desolate! I am desolate, and I shall die! I shall die! But oh, how much I must suffer before I can die, for I am so strong to suffer! Ah, how I wish I might die at once, or that suicide were no sin!"
But suddenly, out of this deep abasement of grief, blazed up a fierce and fiery anger. She started from her recumbent position, and began to walk wildly up and down the floor, beating her hands together, and exclaiming distractedly:
"But why should I die in my youth, and go down to the dark grave, to make room for her, the traitress! to make room in the heart of my husband and the home of my fathers for her, the—! Oh! there is no word bad enough to express what she is! And shall she live to bloom and smile and brighten in the sunshine of his love, while I moulder away in the earth? Oh!" she cried, striking her hands violently together, "there is madness and more than madness in the thought! I will not die alone; no, no, no, no, so help me, just Heaven! I will not die alone. Oh, Samson was a brave man as well as a strong one when he lifted the pillars of the temple, and willingly fell beneath its crumbling ruins, crushing all his foes. I will be another sort of Samson; and when I fall, I too will pull down destruction upon the heads of all who have wronged me!"
These and many more wild and wicked words she uttered as she walked fiercely up and down the room, her eyes blazing, her cheeks burning, her whole aspect full of frenzy.
At length, again her mood changed; the fire died out of her eyes, the color faded from her cheeks; her frenzy subsided, and gave place to a stillness more awful than any excitement could possibly be. She sank down upon a low ottoman, and rested her elbows upon her knees and her chin upon the palms of her hands, and gazed straight before her into vacancy. Her face was deadly pale; her lips bloodless and compressed; her eyes contracted and glittering with a cold, black, baleful light; her hair unloosed in her agitation, streamed down each side, and fell upon her bosom like the ends of a long black scarf. At times she muttered to herself like any maniac:
"And oh, how deeply deceitful they have both been with me, affecting a mutual indifference while I was by; falling to caressing each other just as soon as my back was turned! She—she only acted out her false and treacherous nature. But he—oh, he! in whose pure truth I had such pride. Ah, Heaven! how low she must have drawn him before he could have gained his own consent to deceive me so! before he could come fresh from her side and her caresses, and meet and embrace me! What stupendous duplicity! Well, well!" she continued, nodding grimly; "well, well, since deceit is the fashion of the day, I too will be in the fashion; I too will wear a mask of smiles! But behind that mask I will watch!—Oh, how I will watch! Not at my fancy-ball alone will I play a part, but before it, and perhaps, after it! None shall ever know how I watch, what I see, until I descend with the fell swoop of the eagle. And henceforth let me remember that I am a daughter of the house of Berners, who never failed a friend or spared a foe. And oh, let the spirit of my fathers support me, for I must ENDURE until I can AVENGE!" she said, as she got up with a grim calmness and paced up and down the floor to recover full self-command.
At length, when she felt sufficiently composed, she went to her own chamber, where she made a more elaborate and beautiful toilet than usual, preparatory to joining her husband and their guest at the dinner-table.
"Now smile, eyes! smile, lips! flatter, tongue! Be a siren among the sirens, Sybil! Be a serpent among the serpents!" she hissed, as she glided down the stairs and entered the dining-room.
They were there! They were standing close together, in the recess of the west window, gazing out at the sun, which was just setting behind the mountain. They started, and turned towards her as she advanced. But Sybil, true to her tactics, spoke pleasantly, saying:
"You get a beautiful view of the sunset from that window, Mrs. Blondelle."
"Yes, dear," answered Rosa, sweetly. "I was just drawing Mr. Berners' attention to it, and telling him that I really believe use has blinded him to its beauty."
"Possession is a great disenchanter," answered Sybil.
Both the others looked up to see if she had any hidden meaning under her words. But apparently she had not. She was smiling very gayly as she took her place at the head of the table and invited her companions to take their seats.
Throughout the dinner-hour Sybil seemed in very high spirits; she was full of anecdote and wit; she talked and laughed freely. Her companions noticed her unusual gayety; but they ascribed it to the exhilarating effects of her morning drive, and to the anticipations of her mask ball, which now formed the principal subject of conversation at the table.
After dinner, they went into the drawing-room, where Sybil soon left her husband and her guest alone together; or rather, she pretended to leave them so; but really, with that insanity of jealousy which made her forget her womanhood, she merely went out and around the hall into the library, and placed herself behind the folding doors communicating with the drawing room, where she could hear and see all that might be going on between her husband and her rival.
It is proverbial that "listeners never hear any good of themselves."
Sybil's case was no exception to this rule. This is what she heard of herself.
"What ever could have ailed Mrs. Berners," inquired Mrs. Blondelle, with a pretty lisp.
"What could have ailed Sybil? Why, nothing, that I noticed. What should have ailed her?" on his side inquired Mr. Berners.
"She was very much excited!" exclaimed Mrs. Blondelle, with a significant shrug of her shoulders.
"Oh! that was from her exhilarating morning ride, which raised her spirits."
"Which excited her excessively, I should say, if it really was the ride."
"Of course it was the ride. And I admit that she was very gay," laughed Mr. Berners.
"Gay?" echoed Rosa, raising her eyebrows—"Gay? Why, she was almost delirious, my friend."
"Oh! well; Sybil gives full vent to her feelings; always did, always will. My little wife is in many respects a mere child, you know," said Mr. Berners, tenderly.
"Ah! what a happy child, to have her faults so kindly indulged! I wish I were that child!" sighed Rosa.
"But why should you wish to be anything else but yourself, being so charming as you are?" he softly inquired.
"Do you really like me, just as I am, Mr. Berners?" she meekly inquired, dropping her eyes.
"I really do. I have told you so, Rosa," he answered, approaching her, and taking her hand.
She sighed and turned away her head; but she left her hand in his clasp.
"Dear Rosa! dear child!" he murmured. "You are not happy."
"No, not happy," she echoed, in a broken voice.
"Dear Rosa! what can I do to make you happy?" he tenderly inquired.
"You? What can you do? Oh!—But I forget myself! I know not what I say! I must leave you, Mr. Berners!" she exclaimed, in well-acted alarm, as she snatched her hand from his grasp and fled from the room.
Mr. Berners looked after her, sighed heavily, and then began to walk thoughtfully up and down the room.
Sybil, from her covert, watched him, and grimly nodded her head. Then she also slipped away.
An hour later than this, the three, Mr. and Mrs. Berners and Mrs. Blondelle, were in the drawing-room together.
"You promised me some music," whispered Lyon to Rosa.
"Oh yes; and I will give you some. I am so glad you like my poor songs. I am so happy when I can do anything at all to please you," she murmured in reply, lifting her humid blue eyes to his face.
"Everything you do pleases me," he answered, in a very low voice.
Sybil was not standing very near them, yet, with ears sharpened by jealousy, she overheard the whole of that short colloquy, and—treasured it up.
Lyon Berners led Rosa Blondelle to the piano, arranged her music-stool, and placed the music sheets before her. She turned to one of Byron's impassioned songs, and while he hung enraptured over her, she sang the words, and ever she raised her eyes to his, to give eloquent expression and point to the sentiment. And then his eyes answered, if his voice and his heart did not.
That song was finished, and many more songs were sung, each more impassioned than the other, until at last, Rosa, growing weary and becoming slightly hoarse, arose from the piano, and with a half-suppressed sigh sank into an easy-chair.
Then Sybil—who had watched them through the evening, and noted every look and word and smile and sigh that passed between them, and who now found her powers of self-command waning—Sybil, I say, rang for the bedroom candles. And when they were brought, the little party separated and retired for the night.
From this time forth, in the insanity of her jealousy, and with a secretiveness only possible to the morally insane, Sybil completely concealed her suspicions and her sufferings from her husband and her guest. She was affectionate with Lyon, pleasant with Rosa, and confiding in her manners towards both.
And they were completely deceived, and never more fatally so than when they imagined themselves alone together.
They were never alone.
There was never a tender glance, a fluttering sigh, a soft smile, a low-toned, thrilling word passed between the false flirt and the fascinated husband, that was not seen and heard by the heart-broken, brain-crazed young wife!
And oh! could these triflers with sacred love—these wanderers on the brink of a fearful abyss—have seen the look of her face then, they would have fled from each other for ever, rather than to have dared the desperation of her roused soul.
But they saw nothing, knew nothing, suspected nothing! They were, like children playing with deadly poisons, with edge tools, or with fire, ignorant of the fatal toys they handled.
And, moreover they meant nothing. Theirs was the shallowest pretence of love that ever went by the name of a flirtation. On the woman's side, it was but a love of admiration and an affectation of sentiment. On the man's side, it was pity and gratified self-love. So little did Rosa Blondelle really care for Lyon Berners, and so truly did she estimate the value of her very luxurious home at Black Hall, that had she known the state of Sybil's mind, she would very quickly have put an end to her flirtation with the husband, and done all that she could to recover the confidence of the wife, and then—looked out among the attractive young men of the neighborhood for another party to that sentimental, meaningless love-making, which was yet a necessity to her shallow life.
And as for Mr. Berners, had he dreamed of the real depth of anguish this trifling with the blonde beauty caused his true-hearted wife, he would have been the first to propose the immediate departure of their guest.
Had Sybil been frank with either or both the offenders, much misery might have been saved. But the young wife, wounded to the quick in her pride and in her love, hid her sufferings and kept her secret.
And thus the three drifted towards the awful brink of ruin.
THE FIRST FATAL HALLOW EVE.
AMBROSE—Where be these maskers, fool? COLLIN—Everywhere, sage! But chiefly there Where least they seem to mask! JONSON—THE CARNIVAL.
It was All-Hallow Eve, a night long anticipated with delight by the whole neighborhood, and much longer still remembered with horror by the whole country.
It was the occasion of Sybil Berners' mask ball; and Black Hall, the Black Valley, and the town of Blackville were all in a state of unprecedented excitement; for this was the first entertainment of the kind that had ever been given in the locality, and the gentry of three contiguous counties had been invited to assist at it.
Far distant from large cities and professional costumers as the rural belles and beaux of the neighborhood were, you will wonder what they did for fancy dresses.
They did very well. They ransacked the old cedar chests of their great-grandparents, and exhumed the rich brocades, cloths of gold and silvers, lutestrings, lamas, fardingdales, hair-cushions, and all the gorgeous paraphernalia and regalia of the ante-revolutionary queens of fashion. And they referred to old family portraits, and to pictures in old plays and novels, and upon the whole they got up their dresses with more fidelity to fact than most costumers do.
Some also went to the trouble and expense of a journey to New York to procure outfits, and these were commissioned to buy masks for all their friends and acquaintances who were invited to the ball.
These preparations had occupied nearly the whole month of October. And now the eventful day had come, and the whole community was on tiptoe with expectation.
First, at Black Hall all was in readiness, not only for the ball and the supper, but for the accommodation of those lady friends of the hostess who, coming from a great distance, would expect to take a bed there.
And all was in readiness at the village hotel at Blackville, where gentlemen, coming from a distance to attend the ball, had engaged rooms in advance.
Nevertheless the landlord of the hotel was in a "stew," for there were more people already arrived, on horseback and in carriages of every description, from the heavy family coach crammed with young ladies and gentlemen, to the one-horse gig with a pair of college chums. And the distracted landlord had neither beds for the human beings nor stalls for the horses. But he sent out among his neighbors, and tried to get "accommodations for man and beast" in private houses and stables.
"And the coach be come in, sir, and what be we to do with the passengers?" inquired the head waiter.
"Blast the coach! I wish it had tumbled down the 'Devil's Descent' into the bottomless pit!" exclaimed the frantic host, seizing his gray locks with both hands, and running away from before the face of his tormentor—and jumping from the frying-pan into the fire, when he came full upon his daughter Bessie, who stopped him with:
"Pop, you must come right into the parlor. There's a gentleman there as come by the coach, and says he must have a bed here to-night, no matter how full you may be, or how much it may cost."
"Impossible, Bessie! Clean impossible! Don't drive me stark mad!" cried the landlord, jerking at his gray hair.
"Well, but, Pop, you must come and tell the gentleman so, or he'll sit there all night," remonstrated the girl.
"Blow the fellow to blazes! Where is he?"
"In the parlor, Pop."
The landlord trotted into the parlor and gave a little start, for, at first sight, he thought the gentleman's head was on fire! But a second glance showed him that the gentleman only had the reddest hair he had ever seen in his life, and that the level rays of the setting sun, shining through the western window, and falling fall upon this head, set this red hair in a harmless blaze of light.
Recovering from his little shock, he advanced to the gentleman, bowed, and said:
"Well, sir, I am the landlord, and I understand you wish to see me."
"Yes; I wish to engage a room here to-night."
"Very sorry, sir; but it is out of the question. Every room in the house is engaged; even my room and my daughter's room, and the servants' rooms. And not only that, sir, but every sofa is engaged, and every rug; so you see it is clean impossible."
"Impossible is it?" inquired the stranger.
"Clean impossible, sir! utterly impossible!" returned the host.
"All right; then it shall be done."
"I say, because it is impossible, it shall be done."
"Here is a hundred dollars," said the stranger, laying down two bank-notes of fifty dollars each. "I will give you this money if you can induce any of your guests to give up a room for me to-night."
"Why, really, sir, I should be delighted to accommodate such a very liberal gentleman, but—"
"You must decide at once. Now, or never," said the stranger, firmly, for he saw the game was now in his own hands.
"Well, yes, sir; I will find you a room. The two young college gents who took a room between them may be induced to give it up."
"Must give it up, you mean," amended the stranger.
"Well, yes, sir; just as you say, sir."
"And I must have it in fifteen minutes."
"And supper served there in half an hour."
"And your company at supper, as I want to have a little talk with you."
"All right, sir."
"And now, you can go and see about the room."
"Just so, sir," said the landlord, gathering up the two fifty-dollar bills that had bought him, body and soul, and then bowing himself out of the room.
"'Money makes the mare go,' and the horse too. I wonder what he'll think when he finds out his bank bills are not worth the paper they are printed on," mused the stranger, as he paced thoughtfully up and down the room.
Fortunately for the landlord's speculation, bad as it ultimately proved, the two collegians who had engaged his best front bedroom had not yet arrived to take possession of it. Therefore the business of turning it over to a more profitable party was the more immediately practicable. All the landlord had to do was to see that a fire was kindled in the fireplace, and the table was set for supper.
Then he returned to the parlor, to conduct, in person, such a wealthy and munificent patron to his apartment.
"Ah! this is cosy!" said the stranger, sinking into an arm-chair, and spreading his hands over the blazing fire, whose beams were caught and reflected by his red hair, until it shone like a rival conflagration.
"Glad you like your quarters, sir," said the landlord, putting his hand upon the pocket that contained the purse with the two fifty-dollar bills to see that they were safe.
"Ah! here comes the supper. Now, landlord, I want you to join me, that we may have that little chat I spoke of," said the stranger, wheeling his arm-chair around to the table, while the waiter arranged the dishes, and stared at the flaming red head of the guest.
"What name might I have the honor of entering on my books, sir, if you please?" inquired the host, as he obligingly took his seat opposite his guest.
"What name might you have the honor of entering on your books?" repeated the stranger, helping himself to a huge slice of ham. "Well, you might have the honor of entering quite a variety of names on your books, as I dare say you do; but for the sake of brevity, which is the soul of wit, you may put down Smith—John Smith of New York city. Common name, eh, landlord, and from a big city? Can't help that—fault of my forefathers and godfathers. Whenever I have to sign a check the bankers make me write myself down as 'John Smith of John.' Can't do any better than that if it were to avert a financial crisis. All my ancestors have been John Smiths, from the days of William Rufus, when his chief armorer John, surnamed the 'Smiter,' for his lusty blows, founded the family. So you may set me down as 'John Smith of John, New York city.' And now send the waiter away, and fall to and tell me some of your neighborhood news."
Nothing but the consciousness of the possession of those two big bills would have given the landlord courage to have left his business below stairs to take care of itself even for the half hour to which he mentally resolved to limit his interview with the stranger. However, he dismissed the waiter with some extra charges, and then placed himself at the service of his guest, and even took the initiative of the tete-a-tete by asking:
"You are quite a stranger in this neighborhood, sir?"
"Travelling on business, or for pleasure?"
"A delightful season this, to travel in, sir; neither too warm, nor too cold. And the country never looks so rich and beautiful as in its autumn foliage."
"True," answered the stranger, briefly, and then he added, "I didn't ask you to come here to catechize me, my good friend; but to submit to be catechized yourself, and to amuse me with the gossip of the neighborhood."
Again nothing but the consciousness of a heavy fee would have induced the host of the "Antlers" to put up with this traveller's "nonsense," as he termed his general assumption of superiority.
"What would you like to hear about, then, sir?" growled the landlord.
"First, what important families have you in this part of the country?"
"Well, sir, the most principlest is the Bernerses of Black Hall, which have returned from their bridal tour about a month ago and taken up their abode there in the old ancestral home."
"The Berners! Who are they?" inquired the traveller, carelessly trifling with the wing of a pheasant.
"You must be a stranger indeed, sir, not to know the Bernerses of Black Hall," said the landlord, with an expression of strong disapprobation.
"Well, as I don't know them, and as they seem to be persons of the highest distinction, perhaps you will tell me all about them," said the traveller.
And the landlord not unwillingly gave the guest the full history of the Berners of Black Hall, down to the marriage of the last heiress, at which the bridegroom took the name of the bride's family. And then he described the situation of the Hall and the way in which it might be reached, and ended by saying:
"And if you think of making any stay in this neighborhood, sir, and will send your card to Mr. and Mrs. Berners, they will be sure to call on you and show you every attention in their power, sir; invite you to their house, introduce you to the neighbors, make parties for you, and make you generally welcome among us."
"They are very hospitable, then?"
"Hospitable! Why, sir, even when they were on their bridal tour, they fell in with a lovely lady in distress, and what do they do but pay her bills at the hotel, and fetch her and her child and her servant, all, bag and baggage, home with themselves, to stay at Black Hall as long as ever she likes?"
"Indeed! That was a very unusual stretch of hospitality. And this lady is still with them?" inquired the stranger.
"She is that, sir; although the word do go around that it would be well if she was to go away."
"Ah! why so?"
"Well, sir—but, lord, it is all servants' gossip, and there may be nothing in it; but they do say that the master of the house is too fond of the visitor, and likewise she of him; and that this do make the mistress of the house very unhappy."
"Ah!" exclaimed the stranger, in a half-suppressed voice.
"They do say, sir, that whenever the mistress turns her back, they two—the master and the guest—do go on like any pair of sweethearts, which is a great scandal, if it's true."
"Ah ha!" muttered the stranger, clenching and grinding his teeth.
"Howsever, sir, if the master is in love with the visitor, and the mistress is made unhappy thereby, that is no reason why they should put off their mask ball and disappoint the whole community, I suppose they think; so they have not done so; but they have their ball this evening, just as if they were the happiest household in the country."
"Oh, a mask ball have they, this evening! And what sort of an affair is it to be?"
"Well, sir, the ball is to be like other balls, I believe, only that the guests are to appear in fancy dresses, or in loose gowns called dominoes, and to wear false faces until supper-time, when they unmask and reveal themselves to each other."
"Yes, that is just like other mask balls," said the stranger, and then he seemed to fall into thought for a few minutes; and then, rousing himself, he said:
"Landlord, you told me that your house is very full to-night, and so you must have a great deal of business on your hands."
"I just have, sir," replied the impatient host.
"Then I will not detain you any longer from your other guests. Pray send the waiter to remove this service immediately. And then, I think, as I am very much fatigued by my stage-coach journey over your beastly roads, I will retire to bed," said the stranger.
And the landlord, glad to be relieved, got up and bowed himself out.
His exit was soon followed by the entrance of the waiter who quickly cleared the table and also retired.
The next proceedings of the stranger were rather singular.
As soon as he found himself quite alone, he locked his door, to secure himself from any possibility of interruption, and hung a towel over the key-hole, to guard his movements from observation, and then he unlocked his portmanteau, and took from it a strange and horrible disguise, that I will try to describe, so as to make it plain to the reader.
It was a tight-fitting suit, the pantaloons and jacket being made all in one piece, and of such elastic material as to fit close to the form. The ground of this dress was black; but upon it was painted, in strong relief of white, the blanched bones of a skeleton—thus: down the legs of the pantaloons were traced the long bare leg bones, with the large joints of the hips, knees, and ankles; across the body was traced the white ribs, breast-bone, and collar-bone; and down the sleeves were traced the long bones of the arms, with the large shoulder-blades, elbow-joints, and wrists; the bones of the hands were traced in white upon tight-fitting black gloves, and those of the feet upon tight-fitting black socks: a round scull-cap was to be drawn over the head; this was all white, to represent the skull, and had its skeleton features marked out with black.
The stranger having divested himself of his upper garments then put on this horrible dress. When he had finished his revolting toilet, even to the drawing on of the skull-cap, he surveyed himself in the mirror that reflected as ghastly a figure of "Death," as Milton, Dante, or even Gustav Dore, ever conceived.
He laughed sardonically, as he exclaimed:
"Ah ha! they will not expect 'Death' to be a guest at their ball!"
Then over this grim costume he threw a large travelling cloak, and upon his head he placed a broad-brimmed black felt hat. And now, being all ready, he prepared to leave the room.
First he put out the light, and then he cautiously unlocked the door, and, secure from observation himself, he looked out to see if the coast was clear.
The passage was dark, but soon he saw a door on the opposite side open, and two young men come out in masquerade dresses, and hasten, laughing and talking, down the stairs. They were evidently on their way to the mask ball.
The next instant, the door on the same side with his own opened, and a lady and gentleman, both in black dominoes and masks, came out and passed down stairs.
"Good!" said the stranger to himself. "If I am met at all, I shall be mistaken for one of the invited guests of the ball, and pass out without being recognized." And so saying, he softly drew the key from the inside of the lock, and closed and locked the door, and taking the key with him, glided down the stairs and out of the house, and took the road to Black Hall.
THE MASQUERADE BALL.
Light up the mansion, spread the festive board; Welcome the gay, the noble, and the fair! Through the bright hall in joyous concert poured, Let mirth and music sound the dirge of care! But ask thou not if happiness be there, If the loud laugh disguise convulsive throe, Or if the brow the heart's true livery wear; Lift not the festal mask!—enough to know No scene of mortal life but teems with mortal woe! —WALTER SCOTT.
The whole front of Black Hall blazed with festive lights; and these lights were all reflected in the dark waters of the lake, and by the glowing foliage of the trees that clothed the mountains, and by the sparkling spray of the cascades that sprung from the rocks on the other side.
The space immediately before the house was crowded with carriages of every description, from the splendid open barouche to the comfortable family coach and the plain gig.
The portico and passages in front of the house were thronged with arriving guests and waiting attendants ready to show them to the dressing-rooms, which were lighted and warmed, and supplied with every convenience for the completion of the toilets.
The drawing-room and dancing saloon brilliantly lighted by chandeliers, and beautifully decorated with festoons of dark bright evergreens and wreaths of gorgeous autumn leaves and bouquets of splendid autumn flowers, stood ready with wide open doors to welcome the company.
At the hall door, at the head of the servants, stood Mr. Joseph Joy the house steward, and Miss Tabitha Winterose the housekeeper, both disgusted with the heathenish costumes, distracted with the confusion, disapproving of the whole proceedings, yet determined to do their duty.
Their duty was to see that the men and maids did theirs, in showing the gentlemen and ladies to their dressing-rooms. They had both in turn been astonished, scandalized, and appalled by the grotesque figures that had passed them. But their manner of expressing their sentiments was quite different.
Joseph Joy stared, wondered, and shook his head.
Miss Tabby sighed, whimpered, and moralized.
"I feel as if I had been drinking for a week, and had a lively sort of a nightmare! Here comes another ghoul, in a false face and black gown and hood! Now, how is anybody to tell what it is? Whether it is a tall woman or a short man? Gentleman, or lady, if your honor pleases?" said Joseph Joy, addressing himself to a black domino that just then came up.
"Gentleman," answered the unknown.
"Pass to the right, then, if you please, sir! Here Alick, show this gentleman in the black shroud to the gentlemen's dressing-room."
A trembling darky came forward and took charge of this terrific personage.
"Ah, my goodness! no good will ever come of this!" sighed Miss Tabby.
"No good? Yes there will too!" answered Joseph Joy, who was fond of contradiction. "All these bare-necked, bare-armed, and bare-legged people will get the pleurisy and be laid on the flat of their backs for three months, when they will have the opportunity of meditating on the iniquity of their ways! And won't that be good?"
"Yes, it will; and I hope it will be sanctified to their souls," sighed Miss Tabitha.
"And now here comes another bogie! Gentleman, or lady, please?" politely inquired the usher, as a red domino approached.
"Lady," softly murmured the domino.
"Pass the lady on to your maids, Miss Winterose! And here's another that certainly belongs to your department too! And another, and another, and a whole dozen of them!" exclaimed Mr. Joy, as a troupe of bayaderes, gipsies, peasants, court ladies, et caetera, filed up.
All these Miss Winterose passed on to Delia, with directions to show them to the ladies' dressing-rooms. And then she turned to Mr. Joy with a deep sigh, whimpering:
"Ah! Joseph, where do all these people expect to die when they go to? I—I mean, to go to when they die?"
"They don't trouble themselves about that, I reckon," said contradictory Joe.
"Ah! but it is written that we shall not make to ourselves the likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. And here are all these people making of themselves—" Miss Tabby stopped and snivelled, and then stopped again to wipe a tear from the tip of her nose.
"Well, what?" demanded antagonistic Joe. "What are these people making of themselves? Nothing that breaks the first commandment, for surely you don't mean to say that they make of themselves the image of anything in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth, do you?"
"No, Joseph; but I was mistrusting as they had made themselves up into images of something in t' other place."
"With the Evil One for a pattern, eh? And here he comes, sure enough. Talk of the d—— and you know what happens," muttered Joe Joy, as a most appalling apparition approached. It was a tall, thin figure, clad in a tight-fitting black suit, that clung close to the skin from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands; skull-cap, mask, jacket, sleeves, trousers, shoes and gloves seeming to be knit all of one piece, or else very artistically joined together. Crowning the black brows were two tall white horns; tipping the black fingers were long white talons; terminating the black feet were cloven white hoofs. Crimson glass goggles over the eyes gave the look of burning coals; and by some "devilish cantrap strange," some trick in chemistry, at least, little jets of flame appeared to issue from the mouth and nostrils of the mask.
"Heaven save us! There's no mistaking his sex, or identity either," gasped Mr. Joe, backing himself away from this diabolical figure until he was stopped by the wall, from which he cried out, "Here, Jerry, show the—Enemy—into the gentleman's dressing-room."
The shuddering boy, shaking in every limb, shrank away and merely pointed out the door of the dressing-room.
Miss Tabby had merely time to raise her hands and eyes in mute appeal to heaven, before a shoal of new arrivals—"flower girls," "strawberry girls," "match girls," "morning stars," "evening stars," "springs," "summers," "nuns," "bacchantes," etc., claimed her attention; while a troupe of "brigands," "monks," "troubadours," "clowns," "harlequin," "kings," "crusaders," et caetera, demanded the guidance of Mr. Joy.
And after this thicker and faster they came, crowding one group behind another, until the ushers were nearly demented. When drove after drove had divided and passed to the right or the left, that is, to the ladies' or gentlemen's dressing-rooms, and the stream began to slacken a little, so that they could distinguish individuals, Mr. Joy in turn received and passed a "puritan preacher," a "cavalier soldier," a "Highlander," a "knight," a "minstrel," the "vailed prophet," a "Switzer," a "Chinese mandarin," a "Russian serf," and black, white, and gray, red, yellow, and blue dominoes, he suddenly exclaimed:
"Good Lord deliver us! What's that?"
Miss Tabby, who, to her infinite disgust, had been receiving and passing any number of "fairies," "fisher girls," "soubrettes," "sultanas," et caetera, turned around, and in a quavering voice, inquired:
"Why, that!" shuddered Joe, pointing to a ghastly figure that was standing quite still, a few paces from where they stood, trembling.
"It's a skeleton! Oh, my goodness! how did ever IT get here?"
"Yes, it is a skeleton! Oh, this is too horrible!" gasped Joe, shrinking up against the wall. And his female companion clung close to him.
Meanwhile the "skeleton" stalked towards them.
We, reader, have seen the figure before. But so distinctly was the skeleton of the human body painted in white upon that tight-fitting black suit, that the illusion was perfect; and the wonder was not great that the two poor ignorant servants trembled and gasped, and shrank back.
"Why, if you were not afraid of the Devil, why should you shrink from Death?" demanded the stranger:
"Grinning horribly a ghastly smile."
"I—was not—afraid; only it gives one such a turn!" replied Joe, with chattering teeth.
"Then direct me to a dressing-room," ordered the stranger.
"But—are you—a gentleman's skeleton, or a lady's?" gasped Joe.
"I am neither. I am Death," curtly replied the stranger.
"Lord save us!" ejaculated Miss Tabby.
"Are you going to direct me to a dressing-room?"
"Yes, sure, as soon as I know what sort of a one you want. Are you a gentleman's death, or a lady's?" faltered Joe, who could by no means command his nerves.
"I am a lady's death!" replied the stranger, in a tone so grim that Miss Tabby ejaculated:
"Heaven have mercy on us!"
Joe was about to direct the stranger to the ladies' dressing-rooms, when his attention was suddenly diverted by the arrival of a crowd of "knights," "Indians," "Welsh bards," "grisettes," "Greek slaves," et caetera, who demanded immediate service. The usher divided them according to their sexes, and then noticed that the ghastly figure of "Death" joined the gentlemen's party and accompanied them to their dressing-room.
ON THE WATCH.
False—from the head's crown to the foot's sole—false! To think I never knew it until now, Nor saw thro' him e'en when I saw him smile; Saw that he meant this when he wed me, When he caressed me! Yes, when he kissed my lips!—BROWNING
While this busy scene was being enacted below stairs, equally important, if quieter dramas were being performed in the dressing-rooms up-stairs, where the maskers were putting the last finishing touches to their toilets.
In Mrs. Berners' dressing-room, Sybil, the queen of the festival, was alone. Mr. Berners, who had assumed the character of "Harold, the last of the Saxon Kings," had already completed his toilet and gone below stairs, as he said, to take his place near the door to welcome his guests as they should enter the drawing-room.
So Sybil was alone in her apartment. She also had just completed her toilet, and now she stood before the large cheval mirror, surveying the reflection of her figure from its clear surface, where it looked like a framed picture.
Ah! far the most beautiful, far the most terrible figure in the pageantry of the evening would be that of Sybil Berners! She had chosen for her character the unprecedented part of the impersonation of the Spirit of Fire. It suited well with her whole nature. She was a true child of the sun—a fervent Fire Worshipper, if ever there lived one in a Christian community. And now her costume was but the outward sign of the inward fervor. Let me try to describe it.
She wore a robe of chameleon-hued satin, so artfully woven, with a warp of golden thread and woof of crimson silk, that, as with every change of light and shade, it glowed in ruby coals or blazed in amber flames; and as with every motion of her graceful form it flashed around her, she seemed to be clothed in living fire.
She wore a burning garnet, like a live coal on her bosom; and on her brow a golden circle set with garnets, and having golden points set with amber and topaz, and tipped with diamonds, and flashing like little tongues of flame from a circle of fire.
Her mask was of golden gauze, perfectly moulded to her beautiful features.
Never had Sybil Berners worn a dress so perfectly expressive of herself as this, for she herself was Fire!
She had confided the secret of her costume to no one but to her husband, not even to her guest—courtesy did not oblige her to do that; and in order to preserve the secret inviolate, she had on this occasion dressed herself without the assistance of her maid.
Being now ready to join the maskers, she slipped a large dark cloak over her dress, opened the chamber door cautiously to see that the hall was clear, found it to be so at that moment, and slipped out, glided down the front stairs, elbowing crowds that were pushing up, and so passed down to the lower hall, and stole through the multitude that filled it up, back to the rear door. She passed around the outside of the house to the front door, and entered with the swarm of new arrivals. Would the ushers, Joe Joy and Miss Tabby, recognize their lady? That was the question, and that was the test. She passed up with the rest, letting her black cloak slip down to reveal her robe and crown of fire.
"Heaven save us! who comes here? It must be a mermaid from the 'lake that burneth with fire and brimstone for ever and ever.' It's a she, anyhow, and belongs to your department, thanks be to goodness!" whispered Joseph Joy, to his companion in duty.
"This way, ma'am, if you please. Delia, pass this lady on to the ladies' dressing-room," said unconscious Miss Tabby, courtesying and pointing.
And Sybil passed on, smiling to herself to perceive that not even her old family domestics had recognized her face or form. So, keeping up her stratagem of being one of the masked guests of the ball, she entered the large chamber that had been chosen for the ladies' dressing-room and fitted up with a dozen small dressing-tables and mirrors. Her entrance created a sensation even among that fantastic crowd, each individual of which was a wonder in him or herself.
"Oh! look there!" simultaneously whispered twenty masks to forty others, as they caught sight of her.
"What a marvellous dress! What a splendid creature!"
"What a dazzling costume!"
"She throws us all in the shade."
These were a few of the impulsive ejaculations of admiration that were passed from one to another, as Sybil flashed through the throng and stopped before a dressing-table, where she made a pretence of putting a few finishing touches to her dress.
Then, certain of not having been recognized, and wishing to escape such close scrutiny in such confined quarters, she joined a group of ladies who, having completed their own toilets, were just then passing out of the chamber door into the upper hall, where they were met by their gentleman escorts.
There was no one to meet Sybil; a circumstance that was not of much importance, since there were one or two other ladies of the same party, who, having no escort of their own, had to follow in the wake of others. Nor would Sybil have minded this at all, had she not looked over the balustrades and seen issuing from the little passage leading from Mrs. Blondelle's room, two figures—a gentleman and a lady. The gentleman she instantly recognized as her husband, by his dress as "Harold, the last of the Saxon Kings." The lady she felt certain must be Rosa Blondelle, as she wore the dress of "Edith the Fair," the favorite of the King.
For an instant Sybil reeled under this shock; and then she recovered herself, re-gathered all her strength, and sternly crushing down all this weakness, passed on as a guest among her guests to the door of the drawing-room.
There they were received by a very venerable mask with a long and flowing white beard, and dressed in a gold 'broidered black velvet tunic, white hose, white gauntlets, and red buskins, and holding a long brazen wand. This was no other than "Father Abe," the oldest man on the manor, personating my "Lord Polonius," that prince of gentlemen ushers and gold sticks in waiting.
While Sybil stood behind the group, she saw her husband and her rival precede every one to the door.
"Names, if you please, sir?" inquired the usher with a bow.
"Harold the Saxon and Edith the Fair," answered Mr. Berners in a low voice.
"Mr. Harry Claxton and Miss Esther Clair!" shouted poor old Abe at the top of his voice as he opened wider the door to admit his unknown master and the lady.
"Name, sir, please?" he continued, addressing the next party.
"Rob Roy Macgregor."
"Mr. Robert McCracker!" shouted the usher, passing in this mask, and passing immediately to the next with, "Name, missus, please?"
"Fenella the dumb girl," murmured a very shy little maiden, whom the usher immediately announced as "An Ell of a dumb girl!" And so on, he went, making the most absurd as well as the most awful blunders with ladies' and gentlemen's names, as announcing the "Grand Turk" as Miss Ann Burke; for which last mistake the poor old man was not much to blame, as the subject was but a little fellow in a turban and long gown, whom Polonius naturally took to be a woman in a rather fantastic female dress. But when he thundered forth a "Musketeer" as a "mosquito," and a "Crusader" as a "curiosity," and "Joan of Arc" as "Master Johnny Dark," he was quite unpardonable.
Meanwhile Sybil had entered the room, which was blazing with light and resounding with music. As the guests were now nearly all assembled, the gentlemen selected partners and opened the ball with a grand promenade to the music of the grand march in "Faust."
Introductions are of course unnecessary at private masquerades, as well as impracticable at all such festivals; so when the ghastly mask "Death" came up and offered his skeleton arm to Sybil for the promenade, she unhesitatingly accepted it, supposing him all the while to be one of her invited guests.
But in joining the promenaders, he entered the circle at a point immediately in the rear of Harold the Saxon, and Edith the Fair. Death kept his eye on the two, and speaking in a low voice, inquired of his companion;
"Beautiful mask! though we may not yet discover ourselves to each other, yet we are at liberty to form a guess of the identity of our friends here?"
"Yes," answered Sybil, in a low voice. She scarcely understood what she had been asked, or what she had answered; for her whole attention was absorbed in watching her husband and her rival, who were walking immediately before her—so close, yet so unconscious of her presence; so near in person, yet so far in spirit!
"—As, for instance, lovely mask," continued Death, "I think I know this 'Fair Edith' as the beautiful blonde who is staying here with our hostess. Am I not right?"
"Yes," answered Sybil, in the same absent and unconscious manner; for she really had not the slightest idea of what he had been talking about, but only a half-conscious instinct that the best and shortest, as well as the most courteous, way, in which to be rid of him was to agree with all he said. Her whole attention was still painfully absorbed by the pair before her.
"But as for the gentleman, Saxon Harold, I do not recognize him at all! However, he seems to be quite devoted to his fair Edith, as is most natural! Fair Edith was his best beloved! best beloved? Yes, beloved far beyond his queen!"
Sybil knew what he was saying now! She was listening to him with her ears, while she was watching the pair before her with her eyes.
"When Harold's dead body was found on the battle-field, it was not the queen, but Fair Edith, who was sent for to identify it, and to her it was given," continued the stranger.
A half-suppressed cry broke from Sybil's lips.
"What is the matter? Are they treading on your feet?" inquired the mask.
"Some one is treading on me," murmured Sybil, with a sad double meaning.
"Do not press on us so, if you please, sir!" said Death, turning and staring angrily at the unoffending little Grand Turk, and Fenella the dumb girl, who happened to be immediately in the rear. Having thus brow-beaten the imaginary enemy, Death turned to his companion and said:
"King Harold and Fair Edith were lovers, and these who assume their parts are also lovers, and they take their related parts from a sentimental motive! You are tired! let me lead you to a seat!" suddenly exclaimed the stranger, feeling his partner's form drooping heavily from his side.
She was almost fainting, she was almost sinking into a swoon. She permitted her escort to take her to a chair, and to fetch her a glass of water. And then she thanked him and requested him to select another partner, as she was too much fatigued to go upon the floor again for an hour, and that she preferred to sit where she was, and to watch the masquerade march on before her.
But Death politely declared that he preferred to stand there by her and share her pastime, if she would permit him to do so.
She bowed assent, and Death took up his position at her side.
DRIVEN TO DESPERATION.
For only this night, as they whispered, I brought My own eyes to bear on her so, that I thought, Could I keep them one half-minute fixed—she would fall Shrivelled!—She fell not; yes, this does it all.—BROWNING
As the circle revolved before them, Sybil saw no one but Lyon Berners and Rosa Blondelle, and these she saw always—with her eyes, when they were before them; with her spirit, when they had revolved away from them. She saw him hold close to his heart the arm that leaned on his arm; she saw him press her hand, and play with her fingers, and look love in the glances of his eyes, and speak love in the tones of his voice, although no word of love had been uttered as yet.
At last—oh! deliverance from torture!—the music ceased, the promenaders dispersed to their seats.
The relief was but short! The band soon struck up a popular quadrille, and the gentlemen again selected their partners and formed sets. Lyon Berners, who had conducted his fair companion to a distant seat, now led her forth again, and stood with her at the head of one of the sets.
"There! you see! they are lovers! I wonder who he is?" whispered Death, leaning to Sybil's ear.
Sybil bit her lip and answered nothing.
"Ah! you do not know, or will not tell! Well, will you honor me with your hand in this quadrille?" requested the stranger, with a bow.
Scarcely knowing what she did, for her eyes and thoughts were still following her husband and her rival, Sybil bowed assent, and arose from her seat.
Death took her hand and led her up to the same quadrille, at the head of which Harold the Saxon and Edith the Fair stood, and he placed himself and his partner exactly opposite to, and facing them.
Thus Lyon Berners for the first time in the evening was obliged to see his wife, for of course he knew her by her dress, as she knew him by his dress. She saw him stoop and whisper to his partner, and she surmised that he gave her a hint as to who was their vis-a-vis, and gave it as a warning. She fancied here that her confidence had been betrayed in small matters as well as in great, and even in this very small item of divulging the secret of her costume to her rival. And at that moment she took a resolution, which later in the evening she carried out. Now, however, from behind her golden mask she continued to watch her husband and her rival. She noticed, that from the instant her husband had observed his wife's presence, he modified his manner towards his partner, until there seemed nothing but indifference in it.
But this change, instead of being satisfactory to Sybil, was simply disgusting to her, who saw in it only the effect of her own presence, inducing hypocrisy and deception in them. And the resolution that she had formed was strengthened.
Meanwhile the only couple that was wanted to complete the quadrille now came up, and the dance began.
Sybil noticed, in an absent-minded sort of a way, how very gracefully her grim partner danced. And the thought passed carelessly through her mind, that if in that most ghastly disguise his manner and address were so elegant and polished, how very refined, how perfect they must be in his plain dress. And she wondered and conjectured who, among her numerous friends and acquaintances, this gentleman could be; and she admired and marvelled at the tact and skill with which he so completely and successfully concealed his identity.
She noticed too, in the superficial sort of manner in which she noticed everything except the objects of her agonizing jealousy, that her strange partner watched Rosa as closely as she herself watched Lyon—and she even asked herself:
"Does he know Rosa, and is he jealous?"
Meanwhile the mazy dance went merrily on, heying and setting, whirling and twisting to the inspiring sound of music. And Sybil acted her part, scarcely conscious that she did it, until the set was ended, and she was led back to her seat by her partner, who, as he placed her in it, bowed gracefully, thanked her for the honor she had done him, and inquired if he could have the pleasure of bringing her a glass of water, lemonade, or anything else.
But she politely declined all refreshment.
He then expressed a hope of having the honor of dancing with her again during the evening, and with a final bow he withdrew.
But he did but make way for a succession of suitors, who, in low and pleading tones, besought the honor of her hand in the waltz that was about to begin. But to each of these in turn she excused herself, upon the plea that she never waltzed.
Next she was besieged by candidates for the delight of dancing with her in the quadrille that was immediately to follow the waltz. And she mechanically bowed assent to the first applicant, and excused herself to all others, upon the plea of her previous engagement.
That Sybil consented to dance at all, under the painful circumstances of her position, was due to the instinctive courtesy of her nature, which taught her, that on such an occasion as this, the hostess must not indulge her private feelings, however importunate they might be, but that she must mingle in the amusements of her guests; for she forgot that a masquerade ball was different from all other entertainments in this, that her masquerade dress put her on an equality with all her guests, and emancipated her from all the duties of a hostess as long as she should wear her mask.
Meanwhile she was looking for her husband and her rival, who had both disappeared. And presently her vigilance was rewarded. They reappeared, locked in each other's arms, and whirling around in the bewildering waltz. And she watched them, all unconscious that she herself was the "observed of all observers," the "cynosure of eyes," the star of that "goodlie company." All who were not waltzing, and many who were waltzing, were talking of Sybil.
"Who is she? What is she? Where did she come from? Does any one know her?" were some of the questions that were asked on all sides.
"She outshines every one in the room," whispered a "Crusader" to a "Quaker."
"I have heard of 'making sunshine in a shady place,' but she 'makes sunshine' even in a lighted place!" observed Tecumseh.
"Who, then, is she?" inquired William Penn.
"No one knows," answered Richard Coeur de Lion.
"But what character does she take?" asked Lucretia Borgia.
"I should think it was a 'Priestess of the sun,'" surmised Rebecca the Jewess.
"No! I should think she has taken the character of the 'Princess Creusa,' the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth, and the victim of Medea the Sorceress. Creusa perished, you know, in the robe of magic presented to her as a wedding gift from Medea, and designed to burn the wearer to ashes! Yes, decidedly it is Creusa, in her death robe of fire!" persisted the 'gentle Desdemona,' who had just joined the motley group.
"You are every one of you mistaken. I heard her announced when she entered—the 'Spirit of Fire,'" said Pocahontas, with an air of authority.
"That is her assumed character! Now to find out her real one."
"Shall I whisper my opinion? Mind, it is only an opinion, with no data for a foundation," put in Charlemagne.
"Yes; do tell us who you take her to be," was the unanimous request of the circle.
"Then I think she is our fair hostess!"
"Oh-h-h!" exclaimed all the ladies.
"Why do you think so?" inquired several of the gentlemen.
"Because the correspondence is so perfect that it strikes me at once, as it ought to strike everybody."
"The correspondence between her nature and her costume, I mean! The outward glow expresses the inward heat. Believe me, Sybil Berners has been masquerading all her life, and now for the first time appears in her true character—a 'Fire Queen!'"
Such gossip as this was going on all over the room, but only in this circle was the secret of Sybil's character discovered. But soon this discovery found its way through the crowd, and in half an hour after the secret was first revealed, every one in the room knew of it, except the person most concerned. Sybil was surrounded by a circle of admirers, each one of whom, even by the slightest change of tone or manner, revealed their knowledge, for it would have been as much against the laws of etiquette and courtesy to recognize her before she was willing to be recognized, as it would have been to have unmasked her before she was ready to unmask. So they were very guarded in their manners—even more guarded than they needed to be, for Sybil was not critical, she was indeed scarcely observant of them. She was too deeply absorbed in watching her adored husband and her abhorred rival, as, twined in each other's embrace, they swam around and around in the dizzy waltz, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing as they made the grand circle of the saloon.
At first they did not see Sybil, entrenched as she was behind her group of admirers; but the moment that they did see her—and Sybil knew that very moment—they modified their manners towards each other. And again Sybil was more disgusted than pleased at what she thought confirmed her worst suspicions of them.
At length the waltz was over. Lyon Berners led his fair partner to a seat, left her there and came to speak to his wife. But it was not until her group of admirers had separated to go in search of partners for the ensuing quadrille, that he had an opportunity of speaking to her privately.
"How are you enjoying yourself?" he inquired, on general principles.
"I am looking on. I am really interested in all these fooleries," answered Sybil evasively, but truly.
"Why were you not waltzing?"
"Why? Because I did not choose and could not have borne to have had my waist encircled by any other man's arm than yours, Lyon," answered his wife, very gravely.
"My darling Sybil, that comes of your old-fashioned notions and country training; and it deprives you of giving and receiving much pleasure," answered Mr. Berners.
And before Sybil could reply to that, the Black Prince came up to claim her promised hand in the quadrilles that were then forming.
Again, as she flashed like fire through and through the mazes of the dance, her elegant figure, her graceful motions, and her dazzling, flame-like dress was the general subject of enthusiastic admiration.
It was impossible but that some of this praise should reach the ears of its object. And equally impossible that her own name should not be coupled with it. So Sybil at length discovered that her identity was known, to some persons certainly—to how many she could not even conjecture.
Suddenly she resolved to try an experiment. She turned to her partner and inquired:
"Do you know me?"
"Not until you permit me to do so, Madam," answered the Black Prince, very courteously.
"Your reply was worthy of a knight and prince! So I permit you to recognize me," said Sybil.
"Then you are our beautiful hostess; and I am happy to greet you by your real name, Mrs. Berners," said the Black Prince.
"Thanks," answered Sybil. "I saw that many persons knew me, and I wished to ascertain whether you were among their number, and how you and others found me out."
"Some diviner of spirits," laughed the Black Prince, "divined you, not only through but by your costume, in its correspondence with your character. And as soon as he made this discovery he hastened to promulgate it. Then I, for one, perceived at once that the splendid 'Fire Queen' could be no other than a daughter of 'Berners of the Burning Heart.' And now, Madam! am I permitted to introduce myself by the name I bear in this humdrum world of reality, or has your penetration already rendered such an introduction unnecessary?"
"It is unnecessary. I have just recognized—Captain Pendleton," replied Sybil.
The captain bowed low. And then, to the "forward two" of the leader of the band, he led his partner up to meet their vis-a-vis, to "balance," "pass," "change," and go through all the figures of the dance.
And so the dances succeeded each other to the end of the set. And then Captain Pendleton led his beautiful partner back to her seat, and stood talking with her until the music for the waltz commenced.
Then, having solicited her hand for that dance, and having ascertained that she never waltzed, he bowed and withdrew to find a partner elsewhere.
Very soon Sybil saw him whirling around the room with some one of the many unknown flower girls that constituted so large a portion of the company.
Soon after this she saw both her husband and her rival among the waltzers; but they were not waltzing together. Edith the Fair was whirling around and around the room in the arms of a hermit, while Harold the Saxon was engaged with a pretty nun.
"They know me! they are cautious!" muttered Sybil, biting her lips with suppressed fury; for their forbearance, which she called duplicity, enraged her more than all their flirting had done.
And now she immediately put in execution the resolution that she had formed in the earlier part of the evening. Seeing her new acquaintance Death standing unemployed, she beckoned him to approach.
He came promptly.
"King of Terrors!" she said with assumed levity, "I do not waltz, but I am tired of sitting here. Give me your arm to the other end of the room, and even all around the room, perhaps."
"Spirit of Fire! it will not be the first time that I have had the honor of waiting on you or following in your track," said Death, gallantly.
"True; Fire has often preceded Death as his agent," assented Sybil.
"Say rather, that Death has often followed Fire as her servant."
"Enough of this. We seem to be well paired, at least. Let us get up and walk."
Death bowed and offered his arm, and Fire arose and took it. And they walked around the room, keeping outside the circle of the waltzers and near the seats by the walls. But as they walked, many exclamations of admiration, wonder, and awe struck their ears.
"Splendid creature! She moves like a spirit or a flame," exclaimed one.
"What a contrast to her companion! She all life and light, he all darkness and death."
"It looks, as they walk side by side, as if she had burned him up and consumed him to a skeleton of charred bones," said another.
"Horrible! Hush!" imperatively commanded a young lady, whose will, if it did not enforce silence, modified expression.
Meanwhile Fire and Death went three times around the room. Then Fire paused near a little corner tete-a-tete sofa, on which a young girl, dressed as Janet Foster the little Puritan, was seated quite alone; and turning to her escort, she said:
"I am tired and thirsty. I will take this vacant seat for a while and trouble you to go and fetch me a glass of lemonade."
"With pleasure!" gallantly assented Death, starting off promptly and zealously to execute her commands.
Sybil seated herself beside the young girl on the sofa, and laying her hand upon her shoulder, whispered:
"There!" exclaimed the girl, starting. "Every one knows me, even you."
"Well, everybody knows me also, even you," said Sybil.
"It is very provoking."
"When I had taken so much pains to disguise myself too."
"Yes, and I also."
"You? Why you took the very means to reveal your self, wearing a dress so perfectly adapted to your nature. Anybody might have known you," pouted Trix.
"Yes, anybody might have known me; but I do not think that anybody would have done so, if it had not been for a certain 'expert' who, detecting the 'correspondences,' as he calls them, divulged the secret to the whole room," explained Sybil.
"Well, somebody found you out, and did it by the fitness of your costume too. But as for me, nothing could be more opposite in character than Janet Foster the Puritan maiden, and Beatrix Pendleton the wild huntress. We are about as much alike as sage tea and sparkling hock. Why, see here, Sybil; in order to throw every one off the track of me, I took a character as unlike mine as it was possible to find, and yet I have not succeeded in concealing my identity. And this has provoked me to such an extent that I have left the dance."
"And so I find you sulking here. Well, Trix, I will tell you how they found you out. You and I are known to be the two smallest women in the whole neighborhood. After having found me out, through the divination of a magician, it was easy to see that the other small woman must be you."
"Oh, I see; but it is perfectly exasperating!"
"So it is; but you may get some fun out of it yet, Trix, by turning the tables upon them all."
"How? Tell me! I'll do anything to get the better of them."
"I cannot tell you now, for here comes my escort with my lemonade, and this matter must remain a secret between you and me. But listen: in fifteen minutes from this time slip away and go to my bedroom. You know the way, and you will find it empty. I will join you there, and tell you my plan," said Sybil, in a very low tone.
At that moment her escort arrived with the glass of lemonade.
Sybil received it from him with many thanks, and having offered it first to her companion, who politely declined it, she drank it, sat the empty glass upon the corner of the mantle-piece and then said:
"I will trouble you now, if you please, to take me back to my former seat."
Death bowed and offered his arm. Fire arose, nodded to the little Puritan on the sofa, took the arm of her escort, and walked away.
When she reached her old seat she dismissed her escort, and in a few minutes, finding herself for the instant unobserved, she quietly slipped away to her bed-chamber, where she found Beatrix Pendleton already awaiting her.
First of all Sybil locked the door, to insure herself and her companion from interruption. Then she went to the glass and took off her crown of flame and her mask of gold gauze, and drew a long breath of relief as she turned towards her companion, who started violently, exclaiming:
"Good Heaven, Sybil! how ghastly pale you look! You are ill!"
"Oh, no; only very weary," sighed Sybil, adding then, in explanation, "You know these affairs are very fatiguing."
"Yes, I know, but not to that extent, when you have a house full of trained servants to do everything. Why Sybil, you look as if your fiery dress had burned you to a form of ashes, leaving only a shape that might be blown away with a breath."
"Like another Creusa," answered Sybil, coldly. Then changing her tone, she said, with assumed lightness, "Come, Trix, you want to see some fun, and you shall see it. You and I are of about one size. We will therefore exchange dresses. You shall be the Fire Queen and I will be the Puritan maid. You can sustain the part you will take admirably, and upon occasion can disguise your own voice or imitate mine. I shall do my best to enact the little Puritan. But with all we can do to support the characters, we shall puzzle people to the end of their wits. They will not feel quite so sure now as they were an hour ago that I am the Fire Queen, or you the Puritan maid. But they will not know who we are. Come, what have you to say to this?"
"Why, that it is enchanting. I agree to your plan at once."
"All right, then. We have no time to lose. It is half-past ten o'clock now. At twelve supper will be served, when all the guests will lay aside their masks. So you see that we have but an hour and a half to effect our change of dress and hoax our wise companions. Just before supper we must slip up here again and change back, so that we may unmask at supper in our proper disguises."
"All right!" exclaimed Trix, delighted with the plan.
"And there is one more caution I must give you. Keep out of the way of my husband. He knows my character of Fire Queen, and if he should see you near him in that dress, he would be sure to speak to you for me; and if you should attempt to reply, no matter how well you might imitate my voice, your speech would certainly betray you."
"All right! I will keep away from your husband, if I can; but how shall I know him?"
"He is dressed as Harold the last of the Saxon Kings!"
"Oh! is that Mr. Berners? And I never suspected it! I thought that was some single man, desperately smitten with the charms of Edith the Fair," continued Beatrix.
"Oh, yes, I dare say you thought, but you were mistaken. Edith the Fair is our guest, Mrs. Blondelle. And she took the character of Edith to support Mr. Berners in Harold, and to be true to these characters they must act as they do; for Harold and Edith were lovers in history," explained Sybil, speaking calmly, though every word uttered by her companion had seemed like a separate stab to her already deeply wounded bosom.
"'Lovers in history' were they? I should take them to be lovers in mystery now, if I did not know them to be Mr. Berners and Mrs. Blondelle," persisted Beatrix, all unconscious of the blows she was raining upon Sybil's overburdened heart. "However," she added, "I shall keep out of the way of both, for if he knew your disguise, be sure that she knew it also; and of course both, in daily intercourse with you, know your voice equally well. And if either of them should take me for you and speak to me for you, and I should attempt to reply, I should be sure to betray myself. So I will keep away from both, if I can. If not, if they should come suddenly upon me and speak to me, I shall not answer, but shall turn around and walk silently away as if I were offended with them."
"Yes, do that; that will be excellent," assented Sybil.
"And now, how are you going to support my character, or rather my disguise?" inquired Beatrix.
"By being very silent and demure as Janet Foster; or, if need should be, by carrying on your mood of sullenness as Beatrix Pendleton, masked."
"That will do," agreed Beatrix, with a smile.
All the while they had been speaking, they had also been taking off their fancy dresses. No time was lost, and the exchange of costume was quickly effected.
"Now," said Sybil, "another favor."
"Let me go down first. Then do you wait ten minutes here before you follow me. And when you enter the room keep away from me, as well as from my husband and my guest."
"Very well. I will do so. Anything else?"
"Nothing now, thank you," said Sybil, kissing her hand as she left the room.
And Sybil, dressed now in the plain, close-fitting camlet gown and prim white linen cap, cuffs, and collar of the Puritan maid, and with a pale, young looking mask on her face, reentered the saloon to try her experiment.
She looked around, and soon saw her husband and her rival sitting side-by-side, on the little retired sofa in the corner. They were absorbed in each other's attractions, and did not see her. She glided cautiously into a seat near them.
They were sitting very close together, talking in a very low tone. Her hand rested in his. At length, Sybil heard her inquire:
"Where is your wife? I have not seen her for some time."
"She has left the room, I believe," answered Mr. Berners.
"Oh, that is such a relief! Do you know that I am really afraid of her?"
"Afraid of her! why? With me you are always perfectly safe. Safe!" he repeated, with a light laugh—"why, of course you are! Besides, what could harm you? Of whom are you afraid? Your friend, my wife, Sybil? She is your friend, and would do you only good."
Rosa Blondelle slowly shook her head, murmuring:
"No, Lyon, your wife is not my friend—she is my deadly enemy. She is fiercely jealous of your affection for me, though it is the only happiness of my unhappy life. And she will make you throw me off yet."
"Never! no one, not even my wife, shall ever do that! I swear it by all my hopes of—"
"Hush! do not swear, for she will make you break your oath. She is your wife. She will make you forsake me, or—she will do me a fatal mischief. Oh, I shiver whenever she comes near me. Ah, if you had seen her eyes as I saw them through her mask to-night. They were lambent flames! How they glared on me, those terrible eyes!"
"It was your fancy, dear Rosa; no more than that. Come, shake off all this gloom and terror from your spirit, and be your lovely and sprightly self!"
"But I cannot! oh, I cannot! I feel the burning of her terrible eyes upon me now."
"But she is not even in the room."
(Here Sybil slipped away to a short distance, and joined a group of masks as if she belonged to them.)
"But I shiver as if she were near me now."
Lyon Berners suddenly looked around and then laughed, saying:
"But there is no one near you, dear Rosa, except Death."
"Death!" she echoed with a start and a shudder.
"Why, how excessively nervous you are, dear Rosa," said Lyon Berners laying his hand soothingly upon her shoulder.
"Oh, but just reflect what you have just said to me. 'No one near me but Death!' Death near me!" she repeated, trembling.
"Poor child, are you superstitious as well as nervous? It was the mask I meant. The mask that was Sybil's partner in the quadrille which we danced with them," laughed Lyon Berners.
"Oh, yes, I know. And they stood opposite to us. So that we danced with them more than with any one else! And my own hand turned cold every time it had to touch his. What a ghastly mask!"
"Yes, indeed. I wonder any man should choose such a one," added Lyon.
"Who is he? Who is that mask?"
"Indeed I do not know. Some one among our invited guests, of course. But he maintains his incognito so successfully, that even I, who have discovered most people in the room, have not been able to detect his identity. However, at supper all will unmask, and we shall see who he is."
"Look, is he still near me?" inquired Rosa, shaking as if with an ague.
Mr. Berners turned his head, and then answered:
"Yes, just to your left."
"Oh! please ask him to go away! I freeze and burn, all in one minute, while he is near!"
That was enough for Lyon Berners. He arose and went to Death, and said:
"Excuse me, friend. No offence is meant; but your rather ghastly costume is too much for the nerves of the lady who is with me. I do not ask you to withdraw to some other part of the room; but I ask you whether you will do so, or whether I shall take the lady away from her resting-place?"
"Oh! I will withdraw! I know that my presence is not ever welcome, though I am not always so easily got rid of!" answered Death as, with a low inclination of his head, he went away.
"Oh! I breathe again! I live again!" murmured Rosa, with a sigh of relief.
"And now you are sufficiently rested, the music is striking up for a lively quadrille, and so, if you please, we will join the dancers and dance away dull care!" said Lyon Berners, rising and offering his arm to Rosa Blondelle.
She arose and took his arm.
(Sybil, in her little Puritan's dress moved after them.)
He led her to the head of a set that was about to be formed.
"Oh! there she is!" suddenly exclaimed Rosa.
And Rosa pointed to one of the doors, at which Beatrix Pendleton, in Sybil's disguise, was just entering the room.
"No matter! See! she has taken another direction from this, and will not be near you, dear child; so be at rest," said Lyon Berners soothingly.
"Oh! I am so glad! You don't know how I fear that woman," replied Rosa.
"But you did not use to do so!"
"No! not until to-night! To-night when I met her terrible eyes," said Rosa.
"Come, come, dear! Cheer up," smiled Mr. Berners, encouragingly, as he took her hand and led her to the order—"Forward four!"
The dance began, and Sybil heard no more; but she had heard enough to convince her, if she had not been convinced before, of her guest's treachery and her husband's enthrallment.
She went and sat down quietly in a remote corner, and "bided her time." And waltz succeeded quadrille, and quadrille waltz. At the beginning of every new dance, some one would come up and ask for the honor of her hand, which she always politely refused—taking good care to speak in a low tone, and disguised voice. At length Captain Pendleton came up, and mistaking her for his sister, said:
"Sulking still, Trix?"
Not venturing to speak to him, lest he should discover his mistake, she shrugged her shoulders and turned away.
"All right! sulk as long as you please. It hurts no one but yourself, my dear," exclaimed the Captain, sauntering off.
She saw Beatrix Pendleton, in her dress, moving merrily through the quadrille, or floating around in the waltz. She heard a gentleman near her say:
"I thought that lady never waltzed. I know she refused me and several others upon the plea that she never did."
And she heard the other lightly answer:
"Oh, well, ladies are privileged to change their minds."
The waltz of which they were speaking came now to an end. Sybil saw Beatrix led to a seat near her own. She also saw her partner bow and leave her. She seized the opportunity and glided up to Beatrix, and whispered:
"There will be but one more quadrille, and then supper will be served. I am going to my room. Do not dance in the next quadrille, but follow me, that we may change our dresses again. We have to be ready to unmask at supper, you know."
"Very well! I will be punctual. I really have enjoyed myself in your dress. And you?"
"As much as I expected to. I am satisfied."
At this moment the music for the quadrille struck up, and gentlemen began to select their partners. Two or three were coming towards Sybil and Beatrix. So with a parting caution to Beatrix to be careful, Sybil left the saloon.
She glided up to her chamber, where she was soon joined by Beatrix.
They began rapidly to take off their dresses, to exchange them.
"Oh, I have had so much amusement!" exclaimed Beatrix, laughing. "Everybody took me for you. And oh, I have received so many flattering compliments intended for you; and I have heard so much wholesome abuse of myself! That I was fast; that I was eccentric; that I was more than half-crazy; that I had a dreadful temper. And you?"
"I also received some sweet flattery intended for the pretty little Puritan maiden, and learned some bitter truths about myself," answered Sybil.
"How hollow your voice is, Sybil! Bosh! who cares for such double-dealing wretches, who flatter us before our faces and abuse us behind our backs?" exclaimed Beatrix, as she quickly finished her Puritan toilet, and announced herself ready.
Sybil was also dressed, and they went down stairs and entered the drawing-room together.
The last quadrille before supper was over, the supper-rooms were thrown open, and the company were marching in.
Captain Pendleton hastened to meet Sybil, and another gentleman offered his arm to Beatrix, and thus escorted, they fell in the line of march with others.
As each couple passed into the supper-room, they took off their masks, and handed them to attendants, placed for that purpose, to the right and left of the door. Thus, when the company filled the rooms, every face was shown.
There were the usual surprises, the usual gay recognitions.
Among the rest, "Harold the Saxon" and "Edith the Fair" stood confessed as Mr. Berners and Mrs. Blondelle, and much silent surprise as well as much whispered suspicion was the result.
"Is it possible?" muttered one. "I took them for a pair of lovers, they were so much together."
"I thought they were a newly married pair, who took advantage of their masks to be more together than etiquette allows," murmured a second.
"I think it was very improper; don't you?" inquired a third.
"Improper! It was disgraceful," indignantly answered a fourth, who was no other than Beatrix Pendleton, who now completely understood why it was that Sybil Berners wished to change dresses with her, and also how it was that Sybil's voice was so hollow, as she spoke in the bed-chamber. "She wished to put on my dress that she might watch them unsuspected, and she was right. She detected them in their sinful trifling, and she was wretched," said Beatrix to herself. And she looked around to catch a glimpse of Sybil's face. Sybil was sitting too near her to be seen. Sybil was on the same side with herself, and only two or three seats off. But Beatrix saw Mr. Berners and Mrs. Blondelle sitting immediately opposite to herself, and with a recklessness that savored of fatuity, still carrying on their sentimental flirtation.