For fully ten minutes after he was gone, the young man kept his eyes blankly fixed on the door, with a vague impression that he was suffering from an attack of nightmare; for it seemed impossible that anything so preposterously ugly as that dwarf could exist out of one. A deep groan from the landlord, however, convinced him that it was no disagreeable midnight vision, but a brawny reality; and turning to that individual, he found him gasping, in the last degree of terror, behind the counter.
"Now, who in the name of all the demons oat of Hades may that ugly abortion be?" inquired Sir Norman.
"O Lord I be merciful! sir, it's Caliban; and the only wonder is, he did not leave you a bleeding corpse at his feet!"
"I should like to see him try it. Perhaps he would have found that is a game two can play at! Where does he come from and who is he!"
The landlord leaned over the counter, and placed a very pale and startled face close to Sir Norman's.
"That's just what I wanted to tell you, sir, but I was afraid to speak before him. I think he lives up in that same old ruin you were inquiring about—at least, he is often seen hanging around there; but people are too much afraid of him to ask him any questions. Ah, sir, it's a strange place, that ruin, and there be strange stories afloat about it," said the man, with a portentious shake of the head.
"What are they?" inquired Sir Norman. "I should particularly like to know."
"Well, sir, for one thing, some folks say it is haunted, on account of the queer lights and noises abort it, sometimes; but, again, there be other folks, sir, that say the ghosts are alive, and that he"—nodding toward the door—"is a sort of ringleader among them."
"And who are they that out up such cantrips in the old place, pray?"
"Lord only knows, sir. I'm sure I don't. I never go near it myself; but there are others who have, and some of them tell of the most beautiful lady, all in white, with long, black hair, who walks on the battlements moonlight nights."
"A beautiful lady, all in white, with long, black hair! Why, that description applies to Leoline exactly."
And Sir Norman gave a violent start, and arose to proceed to the place directly.
"Don't you go near it, sir!" said the host, warningly. "Others have gone, as he told you, and never come back; for these be dreadful times, and men do as they please. Between the plague and their wickedness, the Lord only known what will become of us!"
"If I should return here for my horse in an hour or two, I suppose I can get him?" sad Sir Norman, as he turned toward the door.
"It's likely you can, sir, if I'm not dead by that time," said the landlord, as he sank down again, groaning dismally, with his chin between his hands.
The night was now profoundly dark; but Sir Norman knew the road and ruin well, and, drawing his sword, walked resolutely on. The distance between it and the ruin was trifling, and in less than ten minutes it loomed up before him, a mass of deeper black in the blackness. No white vision floated on the broken battlements this night, as Sir Norman looked wistfully up at them; but neither was there any ungainly dwarf, with two-edged sword, guarding the ruined entrance; and Sir Norman passed unmolested in. He sought the spiral staircase which La Masque had spoken of, and, passing carefully from one ancient chamber to another, stumbling over piles of rubbish and stones as he went, he reached it at last. Descending gingerly its tortuous steepness, he found himself in the mouldering vaults, and, as he trod them, his ear was greeted by the sound of faint and far-off music. Proceeding farther, he heard distinctly, mingled with it, a murmur of voices and laughter, and, through the chinks in the broken flags, he perceived a few faint rays of light. Remembering the directions of La Masque, and feeling intensely curious, he cautiously knelt down, and examined the loose flagstones until he found one he could raise; he pushed it partly aside, and, lying flat on the stones, with his face to the aperture, Sir Norman beheld a most wonderful sight.
CHAPTER VI. LA MASQUE
"Love is like a dizziness," says the old song. Love is something else—it is the most selfish feeling in existence. Of course, I don't allude to the fraternal or the friendly, or any other such nonsensical old-fashioned trash that artless people still believe in, but to the real genuine article that Adam felt for Eve when he first saw her, and which all who read this—above the innocent and unsusceptible age of twelve—have experienced. And the fancy and the reality are so much alike, that they amount to about the same thing. The former perhaps, may be a little short-lived; but it is just as disagreeable a sensation while it lasts as its more enduring sister. Love is said to be blind, and it also has a very injurious effect on the eyesight of its victims—an effect that neither spectacles nor oculists can aid in the slightest degree, making them see whether sleeping or waking, but one object, and that alone.
I don't know whether these were Mr. Malcolm or Ormiston's thoughts, as he leaned against the door-way, and folded his arms across his chest to await the shining of his day-star. In fact, I am pretty sure they were not: young gentlemen, as a general thing, not being any more given to profound moralizing in the reign of His Most Gracious Majesty, Charles II., than they are at the present day; but I do know, that no sooner was his bosom friend and crony, Sir Norman Kingsley, out of eight, than he forgot him as teetotally an if he had never known that distinguished individual. His many and deep afflictions, his love, his anguish, and his provocations; his beautiful, tantalizing, and mysterious lady-love; his errand and its probable consequences, all were forgotten; and Ormiston thought of nothing or nobody in the world but himself and La Masque. La Masque! La Masque! that was the theme on which his thoughts rang, with wild variations of alternate hope and fear, like every other lover since the world began, and love was first an institution. "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be," truly, truly it is an odd and wonderful thing. And you and I may thank our stars, dear readers, that we are a great deal too sensible to wear our hearts in our sleeves for such a bloodthirsty dew to peck at. Ormiston's flame was longer-lived than Sir Norman's; he had been in love a whole month, and had it badly, and was now at the very crisis of a malady. Why did she conceal her face—would she ever disclose it—would she listen to him—would she ever love him? feverishly asked Passion; and Common Sense (or what little of that useful commodity he had left) answered—probably because she was eccentric—possibly she would disclose it for the same reason; that he had only to try and make her listen; and as to her loving him, why, Common Sense owned he had her there.
I can't say whether the adage! "Faint heart never won fair lady!" was extant in his time; but the spirit of it certainly was, and Ormiston determined to prove it. He wanted to see La Masque, and try his fate once again; and see her he would, if he had to stay there as a sort of ornamental prop to the house for a week. He knew he might as well look for a needle in a haystack as his whimsical beloved through the streets of London—dismal and dark now as the streets of Luxor and Tadmor in Egypt; and he wisely resolved to spare himself and his Spanish leathers boots the trial of a one-handed game of "hide-and-go-to-seek." Wisdom, like Virtue, is its own reward; and scarcely had he come to this laudable conclusion, when, by the feeble glimmer of the house-lamps, he saw a figure that made his heart bound, flitting through the night-gloom toward him. He would have known that figure on the sands of Sahara, in an Indian jungle, or an American forest—a tall, slight, supple figure, bending and springing like a bow of steel, queenly and regal as that of a young empress. It was draped in a long cloak reaching to the ground, in color as black as the night, and clasped by a jewel whose glittering flash, he saw even there; a velvet hood of the same color covered the stately head; and the mask—the tiresome, inevitable mask covered the beautiful—he was positive it was beautiful—face. He had seen her a score of times in that very dress, flitting like a dark, graceful ghost through the city streets, and the sight sent his heart plunging against his side like an inward sledge-hammer. Would one pulse in her heart stir ever so faintly at sight of him? Just as he asked himself the question, and was stepping forward to moot her, feeling very like the country swain in love—"hot and dry like, with a pain in his side like"—he suddenly stopped. Another figure came forth from the shadow of an opposite house, and softly pronounced her name. It was a short figure—a woman's figure. He could not see the face, and that was an immense relief to him, and prevented his having jealousy added to his other pains sad tribulations. La Masque paused as well as he, and her soft voice softly asked:
"It is I, madame—Prudence."
"Ah! I am glad to meet you. I have been searching the city through for you. Where have you been?"
"Madame, I was so frightened that I don't know where I fled to, and I could scarcely make up my mind to come back at all. I did feel dreadfully sorry for her, poor thing! but you know, Madame Masque, I could do nothing for her, and I should not have come back, only I was afraid of you."
"You did wrong, Prudence," said La Masque, sternly, or at least as sternly as so sweet a voice could speak; "you did very wrong to leave her in such a way. You should have come to me at once, and told me all."
"But, madame, I was so frightened!"
"Bah! You are nothing but a coward. Come into this doorway, and tell me all about it."
Ormiston drew back as the twain approached, and entered the deep portals of La Masque's own doorway. He could see them both by the aforesaid faint lamplight, and he noticed that La Masque's companion was a wrinkled old woman, that would not trouble the peace of mind of the most jealous lover in Christendom. Perhaps it was not just the thing to hover aloof and listen; but he could not for the life of him help it; and stand and listen he accordingly did. Who knew but this nocturnal conversation might throw some light on the dark mystery he was anxious to see through, and, could his ears have run into needle-points to hear the better, he would have had the operation then and there performed. There was a moment's silence after the two entered the portal, during which La Masque stood, tall, dark, and commanding, motionless as a marble column; and the little withered old specimen of humanity beside her stood gazing up at her with something between fear and fascination.
"Do you know what has become of your charge, Prudence?" asked the low, vibrating voice of La Masque, at last.
"How could I, madame? You know I fled from the house, and I dared not go back. Perhaps she is there still."
"Perhaps she is not? Do you suppose that sharp shriek of yours was unheard? No; she was found; and what do you suppose has become of her?"
The old woman looked up, and seemed to read in the dark, stern figure, and the deep solemn voice, the fatal truth. She wrong her hands with a sort of cry.
"Oh! I know, I know; they have put her in the dead-cart, and buried her in the plague-pit. O my dear, sweet young mistress."
"If you had stayed by your dear, sweet young mistress, instead of running screaming away as you did, it might not have happened," said La Masque, in a tone between derision and contempt.
"Madame," sobbed the old woman, who was crying, "she was dying of the plague, and how could I help it? They would have buried her in spite of me."
"She was not dead; there was your mistake. She was as much alive as you or I at this moment."
"Madame, I left her dead!" said the old woman positively.
"Prudence, you did no such thing; you left her fainting, and in that state she was found and carried to the plague-pit."
The old woman stood silent for a moment, with a face of intense horror, and then she clasped both hands with a wild cry.
"O my God! And they buried her alive—buried her alive in that dreadful plague-pit!"
La Masque, leaning against a pillar, stood unmoved; and her voice, when she spoke, was as coldly sweet as modern ice-cream.
"Not exactly. She was not buried at all, as I happen to know. But when did you discover that she had the plague, and how could she possibly have caught it?"
"That I do not know, madam. She seemed well enough all day, though not in such high spirits as a bride should be. Toward evening die complained of a headache and a feeling of faintness; but I thought nothing of it, and helped her to dress for the bridal. Before it was over, the headache and faintness grew worse, and I gave her wine, and still suspected nothing. The last time I came in, she had grown so much worse, that notwithstanding her wedding dress, she had lain down on her bed, looking for all the world like a ghost, and told me she had the most dreadful burning pain in her chest. Then, madame, the horrid truth struck me—I tore down her dress, and there, sure enough, was the awful mark of the distemper. 'You have the plague!' I shrieked; and then I fled down stairs and out of the house, like one crazy. O madame, madame! I shall never forget it—it was terrible! I shall never forget it! Poor, poor child; and the count does not know a word of it!"
La Masque laughed—a sweet, clear, deriding laugh, "So the count does not know it, Prudence? Poor man! he will be in despair when he finds it out, won't he? Such an ardent and devoted lover as he was you know!"
Prudence looked up a little puzzled.
"Yes, madame, I think so. He seemed very fond of her; a great deal fonder than she ever was of him. The fact is, madame," said Prudence, lowering her voice to a confidential stage whisper, "she never seemed fond of him at all, and wouldn't have been married, I think, if she could have helped it."
"Could have helped it? What do you mean, Prudence? Nobody made her, did they?"
Prudence fidgeted, and looked rather uneasy.
"Why, madame, she was not exactly forced, perhaps; but you know—you know you told me—"
"Well?" said La Masque, coldly.
"To do what I could," cried Prudence, in a sort of desperation; "and I did it, madame, and harassed her about it night and day. And then the count was there, too, coaxing and entreating; and he was handsome and had such ways with him that no woman could resist, much less one so little used to gentlemen as Leoline. And so, Madame Masque, we kept at her till we got her to consent to it at last; but in her secret heart, I know she did not want to be married—at least to the count," said Prudence, on serious afterthought.
"Well, well; that has nothing to do with it. The question is, where it she to be found?"
"Found!" echoed Prudence; "has she then been lost?"
"Of coarse she has, you old simpleton! How could she help it, and she dead, with no one to look after her?" said La Masque, with something like a half laugh. "She was carried to the plague-pit in her bridal-robes, jewels and lace; and, when about to be thrown in, was discovered, like Moses is the bulrushes, to be all alive."
"Well," whispered Prudence, breathlessly.
"Well, O most courageous of guardians! she was carried to a certain house, and left to her own devices, while her gallant rescuer went for a doctor; and when they returned she was missing. Our pretty Leoline seems to have a strong fancy for getting lost!"
There was a pause, during which Prudence looked at her with a face fall of mingled fear and curiosity. At last:
"Madame, how do you know all this? Were you there?"
"No. Not I, indeed! What would take me there?"
"Then how do you happen to know everything about it?"
La Masque laughed.
"A little bird told me, Prudence! Have you returned to resume your old duties?"
"Madame, I dare not go into that house again. I am afraid of taking the plague."
"Prudence, you are a perfect idiot! Are you not liable to take the plague in the remotest quarter of this plague-infested city? And even if you do take it, what odds? You have only a few years to live, at the most, and what matter whether you die now or at the end of a year or two?"
"What matter?" repeated Prudence, in a high key of indignant amazement. "It may make no matter to you, Madame Masque, but it makes a great deal to me; I can tell you; and into that infected house I'll not put one foot."
"Just as you please, only in that case there is no need for further talk, so allow me to bid you good-night!"
"But, madame, what of Leoline? Do stop one moment and tell me of her."
"What have I to tell? I have told you all I know. If you want to find her, you must search in the city or in the pest-house!"
Prudence shuddered, and covered her face with her hands.
"O, my poor darling! so good and so beautiful. Heaven might surely have spared her! Are you going to do nothing farther about it?"
"What can I do? I have searched for her and have not found her, and what else remains?"
"Madame, you know everything—surely, surely you know where my poor little nursling is, among the rest."
Again La Masque laughed—another of her low, sweet, derisive laughs.
"No such thing, Prudence. If I did, I should have her here in a twinkling, depend upon—it. However, it all comes to the same thing in the end. She is probably dead by this time, and would have to be buried in the plague-pit, anyhow. If you have nothing further to say, Prudence, you had better bid me good-night, and let me go."
"Good-night, madame!" said Prudence, with a sort of groan, as she wrapped her cloak closely around her, and turned to go.
La Masque stood for a moment looking after her, and then placed a key in the lock of the door. But there is many a slip—she was not fated to enter as soon as she thought; for just at that moment a new step sounded beside her, a new voice pronounced her name, and looking around, she beheld Ormiston. With what feelings that young person had listened to the neat and appropriate dialogue I have just had the pleasure of immortalizing, may be—to use a phrase you may have heard before, once or twice—better imagined than described. He knew very well who Leoline was, and how she had been saved from the plague-pit; but where in the world had La Masque found it out. Lost in a maze of wonder, and inclined to doubt the evidence of his own ears, he had stood perfectly still, until his ladylove had so coolly dismissed her company, and then rousing himself just in time, he had come forward and accosted her. La Masque turned round, regarded him in silence for a moment, and when she spoke, her voice had an accent of mingled surprise and displeasure.
"You, Mr. Ormiston! How many more times am I to have the pleasure of seeing you again to-night?"
"Pardon, madame; it is the last time. But you must hear me now."
"Must I? Very well, then; if I must, you had better begin at once, for the night-air is said to be unhealthy, and as good people are scarce, I want to take care of myself."
"In that case, perhaps you had better let me enter, too. I hate to talk on the street, for every wall has ears."
"I am aware of that. When I was talking to my old friend, Prudence, two minutes ago, I saw a tall shape that I have reason to know, since it haunts me, like my own shadow, standing there and paying deed attention. I hope you found our conversation improving, Mr. Ormiston!"
"Madame!" began Ormiston, turning crimson.
"Oh, don't blush; there is quite light enough from yonder lamp to show that. Besides," added the lady, easily, "I don't know as I had any objection; you are interested in Leoline, and must feel curious to know something about her."
"Madame, what must you think of me? I have acted unpardonably."
"Oh, I know all that. There is no need to apologize, and I don't think any the worse of you for it. Will you come to business, Mr. Ormiston? I think I told you I wanted to go in. What may you want of me at this dismal hour?"
"O madame, need you ask! Does not your own heart tell you?"
"I am not aware that it does! And to tell you the truth, Mr. Ormiston, I don't know that I even have a heart! I am afraid I mast trouble you to put it in words."
"Then, madame, I love you!"
"Is that all? If my memory serves me, you have told me that little fact several times before. Is there anything else tormenting you, or may I go in?"
Ormiston groaned out an oath between his teeth, and La Masque raised one jeweled, snowy taper finger, reprovingly.
"Don't Mr. Ormiston—it's naughty, you know! May I go in?"
"Madame, you are enough to drive a man mad. Is the love I bear you worthy of nothing but mockery!"
"No, Mr. Ormiston, it is not; that is, supposing you really love me, which you don't."
"Oh, you needn't flash and look indignant; it is quite true! Don't be absurd, Mr. Ormiston. How is it possible for you to love one you have never seen?"
"I have seen you. Do you think I am blind?" he demanded, indignantly.
"My face, I mean. I don't consider that you can see a person without looking in her face. Now you have never looked in mine, and how do you know I have any face at all?"
"Madame, you mock me."
"Not at all. How are you to know what is behind this mask?"
"I feel it, and that is better; and I love you all the same."
"Mr. Ormiston, how do you know but I am ugly."
"Madame, I do not believe you are; you are all too perfect not to have a perfect face; and even were it otherwise, I still love you!"
She broke into a laugh—one of her low, short, deriding laughs.
"You do! O man, how wise thou art! I tell you, if I took off this mask, the sight would curdle the very blood in your veins with horror—would freeze the lifeblood in your heart. I tell you!" she passionately cried, "there are sights too horrible for human beings to look on and live, and this—this is one of them!"
He started back, and stared at her aghast.
"You think me mad," she said, in a less fierce tone, "but I am not; and I repeat it, Mr. Ormiston, the sight of what this mask conceals would blast you. Go now, for Heaven's sake, and leave me in peace, to drag out the rest of my miserable life; and if ever you think of me, let it be to pray that it might speedily end. You have forced me to say this: so now be content. Be merciful, and go!"
She made a desperate gesture, and turned to leave him, but he caught her hand and held her fast.
"Never!" he cried, fiercely. "Say what you will! let that mask hide what it may! I will never leave you till life leaves me!"
"Man, you are mad! Release my hand and let me go!"
"Madame, hear me. There is but one way to prove my love, and my sanity, and that is—"
"Well?" she said, almost touched by his earnestness.
"Raise your mask and try me! Show me your face and see if I do not love you still!"
"Truly I know how much love you will have for me when it is revealed. Do you know that no one has looked in my face for the last eight years."
He stood and gazed at her in wonder.
"It is so, Mr. Ormiston; and in my heart I have vowed a vow to plunge headlong into the most loathsome plague-pit in London, rather than ever raise it again. My friend, be satisfied. Go and leave me; go and forget me."
"I can do neither until I have ceased to forget every thing earthly. Madame, I implore you, hear me!"
"Mr. Ormiston, I tell you, you but court your own doom. No one can look on me and live!"
"I will risk it," he said with an incredulous smile. "Only promise to show me your face."
"Be it so then!" she cried almost fiercely. "I promise, and be the consequences on your own head."
His whole face flushed with joy.
"I accept them. And when is that happy time to come?"
"Who knows! What must be done, had best be done quickly; but I tell thee it were safer to play with the lightning's chain than tamper with what thou art about to do."
"I take the risk! Will you raise your mask now?"
"No, no—I cannot! But yet, I may before the sun rises. My face"—with bitter scorn—"shows better by darkness than by daylight. Will you be out to see, the grand illumination."
"Then meet me here an hour after midnight, and the face so long hidden shall be revealed. But, once again, on the threshold of doom, I entreat you to pause."
"There is no such word for me!" he fiercely and exultingly cried. "I have your promise, and I shall hold you to it! And, madame, if, at last, you discover my love is changeless as fate itself, then—then may I not dare to hope for a return?"
"Yes; then you may hope," she said, with cold mockery. "If your love survives the sight, it will be mighty, indeed, and well worthy a return."
"And you will return it?"
"You will be my wife?"
"With all my heart!"
"My darling!" he cried, rapturously—"for you are mine already—how can I ever thank you for this? If a whole lifetime devoted and consecrated to your happiness can repay you, it shall be yours!"
During this rhapsody, her hand had been on the handle of the door. Now she turned it.
"Good-night, Mr. Ormiston," she said, and vanished.
CHAPTER VII. THE EARL'S BARGE.
Shocks of joy, they tell me, seldom kill. Of my own knowledge I cannot say, for I have had precious little experience of such shocks in my lifetime, Heaven knows; but in the present instance, I can safely aver, they had no such dismal effect on Ormiston. Nothing earthly could have given that young gentleman a greater shock of joy than the knowledge he was to behold the long hidden face of his idol. That that face was ugly, he did not for an instant believe, or, at least, it never world be ugly to him. With a form so perfect—a form a sylph might have envied—a voice sweeter than the Singing Fountain of Arabia, hands and feet the most perfectly beautiful the sun ever shone on, it was simply a moral and physical impossibility, then, they could be joined to a repulsive face. There was a remote possibility that it was a little less exquisite than those ravishing items, and that her morbid fancy made her imagine it homely, compared with them, but he knew he never would share in that opinion. It was the reasoning of lover, rather, the logic; for when love glides smiling in at the door, reason stalks gravely, not to say sulkily, out of the window, and, standing afar off, eyes disdainfully the didos and antics of her late tenement. There was very little reason, therefore, in Ormiston's head and heart, but a great deal of something sweeter, joy—joy that thrilled and vibrated through every nerve within him. Leaning against the portal, in an absurd delirium of delight—for it takes but a trifle to jerk those lovers from the slimiest depths of the Slough of Despond to the topmost peak of the mountain of ecstasy—he uncovered his head that the night-air might cool its feverish throbbings. But the night-air was as hot as his heart; and, almost suffocated by the sultry closeness, he was about to start for a plunge in the river, when the sound of coming footsteps and voices arrested him. He had met with so many odd ad ventures to-night that he stopped now to see who was coming; for on every hand all was silent and forsaken.
Footsteps and voices came closer; two figures took shape in the gloom, and emerged from the darkness into the glimmering lamp light. He recognised them both. One was the Earl of Rochester; the other, his dark-eyed, handsome page—that strange page with the face of the lost lady! The earl was chatting familiarly, and laughing obstreperously at something or other, while the boy merely wore a languid smile, as if anything further in that line were quite beneath his dignity.
"Silence and solitude," said the earl, with a careless glance around, "I protest, Hubert, this night seems endless. How long is it till midnight?"
"An hour and a half at least, I should fancy," answered the boy, with a strong foreign accent. "I know it struck ten as we passed St. Paul's."
"This grand bonfire of our most worshipful Lord Mayor will be a sight worth seeing," remarked the earl. "When all these piles are lighted, the city will be one sea of fire."
"A slight foretaste of what most of its inhabitants will behold in another world," said the page, with a French shrug. "I have heard Lilly's prediction that London is to be purified by fire, like a second Sodom; perhaps it is to be verified to-night."
"Not unlikely; the dome of St. Paul's would be an excellent place to view the conflagration."
"The river will do almost as well, my lord."
"We will have a chance of knowing that presently," said the earl, as he and his page descended to the river, where the little gilded barge lay moored, and the boatman waiting.
As they passed from sight Ormiston came forth, and watched thoughtfully after them. The face and figure were that of the lady, but the voice was different; both were clear and musical enough, but she spoke English with the purest accent, while his was the voice of a foreigner. It most have been one of those strange, unaccountable likenesses we sometimes see among perfect strangers, but the resemblance in this ease was something wonderful. It brought his thoughts back from himself sad his own fortunate love, to his violently-smitten friend, Sir Norman, and his plague-stricken beloved; and he began speculating what he could possibly be about just then, or what he had discovered in the old ruin. Suddenly he was aroused; a moment before, the silence had been almost oppressive but now on the wings of the night, there came a shout. A tumult of voices and footsteps were approaching.
"Stop her! Stop her!" was cried by many voices; and the next instant a fleet figure went flying past him with a rush, and plunged head foremost into she river.
A slight female figure, with floating robes of white, waving hair of deepest, blackness, with a sparkle of jewels on neck and arms. Only for an instant did he see it; but he knew it well, and his very heart stood still. "Stop her! stop her! she is ill of the plague!" shouted the crowd, preying panting on; but they came too late; the white vision had gone down into the black, sluggish river, and disappeared.
"Who is it? What is it? Where is it?" cried two or three watchmen, brandishing their halberds, and rushing up; and the crowd-a small mob of a dozen or so-answered all at once: "She is delirious with the plague; she was running through the streets; we gave chase, but she out-stepped us, and is now at the bottom of the Thames."
Ormiston, waited to hear no more, but rushed precipitately down to the waters edge. The alarm has now reached the boats on the river, and many eyes within them were turned in the direction whence she had gone down. Soon she reappeared on the dark surface—something whiter than snow, whiter than death; shining like silver, shone the glittering dress and marble face of the bride. A small batteau lay close to where Ormiston stood; in two seconds he had sprang in, shoved it off, and was rowing vigorously toward that snow wreath in the inky river. But he was forestalled, two hands white and jeweled as her own, reached over the edge of a gilded barge, and, with the help of the boatmen, lifted her in. Before she could be properly established on the cushioned seats, the batteau was alongside, and Ormiston turned a very white and excited face toward the Earl of Rochester.
"I know that lady, my lord! She is a friend of mine, and you must give her to me!"
"Is it you, Ormiston? Why what brings you here alone on the river, at this hour?"
"I have come for her," said Ormiston, pressing over to lift the lady. "May I beg you to assist me, my lord, in transferring her to my boat?"
"You must wait till I see her first," said Rochester, partly raising her head, and holding a lamp close to her face, "as I have picked her out, I think I deserve it. Heavens! what an extraordinary likeness!"
The earl had glanced at the lady, then at his page, again at the lady, and lastly at Ormiston, his handsome countenance fall of the most unmitigated wonder. "To whom?" asked Ormiston, who had very little need to inquire.
"To Hubert, yonder. Why, don't you see it yourself? She might be his twin-sister!"
"She might be, but as she is not, you will have the goodness to let me take charge of her. She has escaped from her friends, and I meet bring her back to them."
He half lifted her as he spoke; and the boatman, glad enough to get rid of one sick of the plague, helped her into the batteau. The lady was not insensible, as might be supposed, after her cold bath, but extremely wide-awake, and gazing around her with her great, black, shining eyes. But she made no resistance; either she was too faint or frightened for that, and suffered herself to be hoisted about, "passive to all changes." Ormiston spread his cloak in the stern of the boat, and laid her tenderly upon it, and though the beautiful, wistful eyes were solemnly and unwinkingly fixed on his face, the pale, sweet lips parted not—uttered never a word. The wet bridal robes were drenched and dripping about her, the long dark hair hung in saturated masses over her neck and arms, and contrasted vividly with a face, Ormiston thought at once, the whitest, most beautiful, and most stonelike he had ever seen.
"Thank you, my man; thank you, my lord," said Ormiston, preparing to push off.
Rochester, who had been leaning from the barge, gazing in mingled curiosity, wonder, and admiration at the lovely face, turned now to her champion.
"Who is she, Ormiston?" he said, persuasively.
But Ormiston only laughed, and rowed energetically for the shore. The crowd was still lingering; and half a dozen hands were extended to draw the boat up to the landing. He lifted the light form in his arms and bore it from the boat; but before he could proceed farther with his armful of beauty, a faint but imperious voice spoke: "Please put me down. I am not a baby, and can walk myself."
Ormiston was so surprised, or rather dismayed, by this unexpected address, that he complied at once, and placed her on her own pretty feet. But the young lady's sense of propriety was a good deal stronger than her physical powers; and she swayed and tottered, and had to cling to her unknown friend for support.
"You are scarcely strong enough, I am afraid, dear lady," he said, kindly. "You had better let me carry you. I assure you I am quite equal to it, or even a more weighty burden, if necessity required."
"Thank you, sir," said the faint voice, faintly; "but I would rather walk. Where are you taking me to?"
"To your own house, if you wish—it is quite close at hand."
"Yes. Yes. Let us go there! Prudence in there, and she will take care of me.".
"Will she?" said Ormiston, doubtfully. "I hope you do not suffer much pain!"
"I do not suffer at all," she said, wearily; "only I am so tired. Oh, I wish I were home!"
Ormiston half led, half lifted her up the stairs.
"You are almost there, dear lady—see, it is close st hand!"
She half lifted her languid eyes, but did not speak. Leaning panting on his arm, he drew her gently on until they reached her door. It was still unfastened. Prudence had kept her word, and not gone near it; and he opened it, and helped her in.
"Where now?" he asked.
"Up stairs," she said, feebly. "I want to go to my own room."
Ormiston knew where that was, and assisted her there as tenderly as he could have done La Masque herself. He paused on the threshold; for the room was dark.
"There is a lamp and a tinder-box on the mantel," said the faint, sweet voice, "if you will only please to find them."
Ormiston crowed the room—fortunately he knew the latitude of the place —and moving his hand with gingerly precaution along the mantel-shelf, lest he should upset any of the gimcracks thereon, soon obtained the articles named, and struck a light. The lady was leaning wearily against the door-post, but now she came forward, and dropped exhausted into the downy pillows of a lounge.
"Is there anything I can do for you, madame?" began Ormiston, with as solicitous an air as though he had been her father. "A glass of wine would be of use to you, I think, and then, if you wish, I will go for a doctor."
"You are very kind. You will find wine and glasses in the room opposite this, and I feel so faint that I think you had better bring me some."
Ormiston moved across the passage, like the good, obedient young man that he was, filled a glass of Burgundy, and as he was returning with it, was startled by a cry from the lady that nearly made him drop and shiver it on the floor.
"What under heaven has come to her now?" he thought, hastening in, wondering how she could possibly have come to grief since he left her.
She was sitting upright on the sofa, her dress palled down off her shoulder where the plague-spot had been, and which, to his amazement, he saw now pure and stainless, and free from every loathsome trace.
"You are cured of the plague!" was all he could say.
"Thank God!" she exclaimed, fervently clasping her hands. "But oh! how can it have happened? It mast be a miracle!"
"No, it was your plunge into the river; I have heard of one or two such cases before, and if ever I take it," said Ormiston, half laughing, half shuddering, "my first rush shall be for old Father Thames. Here, drink this, I am certain it will complete the cure."
The girl—she was nothing but a girl—drank it off and sat upright like one inspired with new life. As she set down the glass, she lifted her dark, solemn, beautiful eyes to his face with a long, searching gaze.
"What is your name?" she simply asked.
"Ormiston, madame," he said, bowing low.
"You have saved my life, have you not?"
"It was the Earl of Rochester who reserved you from the river; but I would have done it a moment later."
"I do not mean that. I mean"—with a slight shudder—"are you not one of those I saw at the plague-pit? Oh! that dreadful, dreadful plague-pit!" she cried, covering her face with her hands.
"Yes. I am one of those."
"And who was the other?"
"My friend, Sir Norman Kingsley.
"Sir Norman Kingsley?" she softly repeated, with a sort of recognition in her voice and eyes, while a faint roseate glow rose softly over her face and neck. "Ah! I thought—was it to his house or yours I was brought?"
"To his," replied Ormiston, looking at her curiously; for he had seen that rosy glow, and was extremely puzzled thereby; "from whence, allow me to add, you took your departure rather unceremoniously."
"Did I?" she said, in a bewildered sort of way. "It is all like a dream to me. I remember Prudence screaming, and telling me I had the plague, and the unutterable horror that filled me when I heard it; and then the next thing I recollect is, being at the plague-pit, and seeing your face and his bending over me. All the horror came back with that awakening, and between it and anguish of the plague-sore I think I fainted again." (Ormiston nodded sagaciously), "and when I next recovered I was alone in a strange room, and in bed. I noticed that, though I think I must have been delirious. And then, half-mad with agony, I got out to the street, somehow and ran, and ran, and ran, until the people saw and followed me here. I suppose I had some idea of reaching home when I came here; but the crowd pressed so close behind, and I felt though all my delirium, that they would bring me to the pest-house if they caught me, and drowning seemed to me preferable to that. So I was in the river before I knew it—and you know the rest as well as I do. But I owe you my life, Mr. Ormiston—owe it to you and another; and I thank you both with all my heart."
"Madame, you are too grateful; and I don't know as we have done anything much to deserve it."
"You have saved my life; and though you may think that a valueless trifle, not worth speaking of, I assure you I view it in a very different light," she said, with a half smile.
"Lady, your life is invaluable; but as to our saving it, why, you would not have us throw you alive into the plague-pit, would you?"
"It would have been rather barbarous, I confess, but there are few who would risk infection for the sake of a mere stranger. Instead of doing as you did, you might have sent me to the pest-house, you know."
"Oh, as to that, all your gratitude is due to Sir Norman. He managed the whole affair, and what is more, fell—but I will leave that for himself to disclose. Meantime, may I ask the name of the lady I have been so fortunate as to serve!"
"Undoubtedly, sir—my name is Leoline."
"Leoline is only half a name."
"Then I am so unfortunate an only to possess half a name, for I never had any other."
Ormiston opened his eyes very wide indeed.
"No other! you must have had a father some time in your life; most people have," said the young gentleman, reflectively.
She shook her head a little sadly.
"I never had, that I know of, either father or mother, or any one but Prudence. And by the way," she said, half starting up, "the first thing to be done is, to see about this same Prudence. She must be somewhere in the house."
"Prudence is nowhere in the house," said Ormiston, quietly; "and will not be, she says, far a month to come. She is afraid of the plague."
"Is she?" said Leoline, fixing her eyes on him with a powerful glance. "How do you know that?"
"I heard her say so not half an hour ago, to a lady a few doors distant. Perhaps you know her—La Masque."
"That singular being! I don't know her; but I have seen her often. Why was Prudence talking of me to her, I wonder?"
"That I do not know; but talking of you the was, and she said she was coming back here no more. Perhaps you will be afraid to stay here alone?"
"Oh no, I am used to being alone," she said, with a little sigh, "but where"—hesitating and blushing vividly, "where is—I mean, I should like to thank sir Norman Kingsley."
Ormiston saw the blush and the eyes that dropped, and it puzzled him again beyond measure.
"Do you know Sir Norman Kingsley?" he suspiciously asked.
"By sight I know many of the nobles of the court," she answered evasively, and without looking up: "they pass here often, and Prudence knows them all; and so I have learned to distinguish them by name and sight, your friend among the rest."
"And you would like to see my friend?" he said, with malicious emphasis.
"I would like to thank him," retorted the lady, with some asperity: "you have told me how much I owe him, and it strikes me the desire is somewhat natural."
"Without doubt it is, and it will save Sir Norman much fruitless labor; for even now he is in search at you, and will neither rest nor sleep until he finds you."
"In search of me!" she said softly, and with that rosy glow again illumining her beautiful face; "he is indeed kind, and I am most anxious to thank him."
"I will bring him here in two hours, then," said Ormiston, with energy; "and though the hour may be a little unseasonable, I hope you will not object to it; for if you do, he will certainly not survive until morning."
She gayly laughed, but her cheek was scarlet.
"Rather than that, Mr. Ormiston, I will even see him tonight. You will find me here when you come."
"You will not run away again, will you?" said Ormiston, looking at her doubtfully. "Excuse me; but you have a trick of doing that, you know."
Again she laughed merrily.
"I think you may safely trust me this time. Are you going?"
By way of reply, Ormiston took his hat and started for the door. There he paused, with his hand upon it.
"How long have you known Sir Norman Kingsley?" was his careless, artful question.
But Leoline, tapping one little foot on the floor, and looking down at it with hot cheeks and humid ayes, answered not a word.
CHAPTER VIII. THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN.
When Sir Norman Kingsley entered the ancient ruin, his head was fall of Leoline—when he knelt down to look through the aperture in the flagged floor, head and heart were full of her still. But the moment his eyes fell on the scene beneath, everything fled far from his thoughts, Leoline among the rest; and nothing remained but a profound and absorbing feeling of intensest amaze.
Right below him he beheld an immense room, of which the flag he had raised seemed to form part of the ceiling, in a remote corner. Evidently it was one of a range of lower vaults, and as he was at least fourteen feet above it, and his corner somewhat in shadow, there was little danger of his being seen. So, leaning far down to look at his leisure, he took the goods the gods provided him, and stared to his heart's content.
Sir Norman had seen some queer sights daring the four-and-twenty years he had spent in this queer world, but never anything quite equal to this. The apartment below, though so exceedingly large, was lighted with the brilliance of noon-day; and every object it contained; from one end to the other, was distinctly revealed. The floor, from glimpses he had of it in obscure corners, was of stone; but from end to end it was covered with richest rugs and mats, and squares of velvet of as many colors as Joseph's coat. The walls were hung with splendid tapestry, gorgeous in silk and coloring, representing the wars of Troy, the exploits of Coeur de Lion among the Saracens, the death of Hercules, all on one side; and on the other, a more modern representation, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The illumination proceeded from a range of wax tapers in silver candelabra, that encircled the whole room. The air was redolent of perfumes, and filled with strains of softest and sweetest music from unseen hands. At one extremity of the room was a huge door of glass and gilding; and opposite it, at the other extremity, was a glittering throne. It stood on a raised dais, covered with crimson velvet, reached by two or three steps carpeted with the same; the throne was as magnificent as gold, and satin, and ornamentation could make it. A great velvet canopy of the same deep, rich color, cut in antique points, and heavily hang with gold fringe, was above the seat of honor. Beside it, to the right, but a little lower down, was a similar throne, somewhat lees superb, and minus a canopy. From the door to the throne was a long strip of crimson velvet, edged and embroidered with gold, and arranged in a sweeping semi-circle, on either side, were a row of great carved, gilded, and cushioned chairs, brilliant, too, with crimson and gold, and each for every-day Christians, a throne in itself. Between the blaze of illumination, the flashing of gilding and gold, the tropical flush of crimson velvet, the rainbow dyes on floor and walls, the intoxicating gushes of perfume, and the delicious strains of unseen music, it is no wonder Sir Norman Kingsley's head was spinning like a bewildered teetotum.
Was he sane—was he sleeping? Had he drank too much wine at the Golden Crown, and had it all gone to his head? Was it a scene of earnest enchantment, or were fairy-tales true? Like Abou Hasson when he awoke in the palace of the facetious Caliph of Bagdad, he had no notion of believing his own eyes and ears, and quietly concluded it was all an optical illusion, as ghosts are said to be; but he quietly resolved to stay there, nevertheless, and see how the dazzling phantasmagoria would end. The music was certainly ravishing, and it seemed to him, as he listened with enchanted ears, that he never wanted to wake up from so heavenly a dream.
One thing struck him as rather odd; strange and bewildered as everything was, it did not seem at all strange to him, on the contrary, a vague idea was floating mistily through his mind that he had beheld precisely the same thing somewhere before. Probably at some past period of his life he had beheld a similar vision, or had seen a picture somewhere like it in a tale of magic, and satisfying himself with this conclusion, he began wondering if the genii of the place were going to make their appearance at all, or if the knowledge that human eyes were upon them had scared them back to Erebus.
While still ruminating on this important question, a portion of the tapestry, almost beneath him, shriveled up and up, and out flocked a glittering throng, with a musical mingling of laughter and voices. Still they came, more and more, until the great room was almost filled, and a dazzling throng they were. Sir Norman had mingled in many a brilliant scene at Whitehall, where the gorgeous court of Charles shown in all its splendor, with the "merry monarch" at their head, but all he had ever witnessed at the king's court fell far short of this pageant. Half the brilliant flock were ladies, superb in satins, silks, velvets and jewels. And such jewels! every gem that ever flashed back the sunlight sparkled and blazed in blending array on those beautiful bosoms and arms—diamonds, pearls, opals, emeralds, rubies, garnets, sapphires, amethysts—every jewel that ever shone. But neither dresses nor gems were half so superb as the peerless forms they adorned; and such an army of perfectly beautiful faces, from purest blonde to brightest brunette, had never met and mingled together before.
Each lovely face was unmasked, but Sir Norman's dazzled eyes in vain sought among them for one he knew. All that "rosebud garden of girls" were perfect strangers to him, but not so the gallants, who fluttered among them like moths around meteors. They, too, were in gorgeous array, in purple and fine linen, which being interpreted, signifieth in silken hose of every color under the sun, spangled and embroidered slippers radiant with diamond buckles, doublets of as many different shades as their tights, slashed with satin and embroidered with gold. Most of them wore huge powdered wigs, according to the hideous fashion then in vogue, and under those same ugly scalps, laughed many a handsome face Sir Norman well knew. The majority of those richly-robed gallants were strangers to him as well as the ladies, but whoever they were, whether mortal men or "spirits from the vasty deep," they were in the tallest sort of clover just then. Evidently they knew it, too, and seemed to be on the best of terms with themselves and all the world, and laughed, and flirted, and flattered, with as mach perfection as so many ball-room Apollos of the present day.
Still no one ascended the golden and crimson throne, though many of the ladies and gentlemen fluttering about it were arrayed as royally as any common king or queen need wish to be. They promenaded up and down, arm in arm; they seated themselves in the carved and gilded chairs; they gathered in little groups to talk and laugh, did everything, in short, but ascend the throne; and the solitary spectator up above began to grow intensely curious to know who it was for. Their conversation he could plainly hear, and to say that it amazed him, would be to use a feeble expression, altogether inadequate to his feelings. Not that it was the remarks they made that gave his system each a shook, but the names by which they addressed each other. One answered to the aspiring cognomen of the Duke of Northumberland; another was the Earl of Leicester; another, the Duke of Devonshire; another, the Earl of Clarendon; another, the Duke of Buckingham; and so on, ad infinitum, dukes and earls alternately, like bricks and mortar in the wall of a house. There were other dignitaries besides, some that Sir Norman had a faint recollection of hearing were dead for some years—Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, the Earl of Bothwell, King Henry Darnley, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Southampton, the Duke of York, and no end of others with equally sonorous titles. As for mere lords and baronets, and such small deer, there was nothing so plebeian present, and they were evidently looked upon by the distinguished assembly, like small beer in thunder, with pity and contempt. The ladies, too, were all duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, and looked fit for princesses, Sir Norman thought, though he heard none of them styled quite so high as that. The tone of conversation was light and easy, but at the same time extremely ceremonious and courtly, and all seemed to be enjoying themselves in the moat delightful sort of a way, which people of, such distinguished rank, I am told, seldom do. All went merry as a marriage-bell, and sweetly over the gay jingle of voices rose the sweet, faint strains of the unseen music.
Suddenly all was changed. The great door of glass and gilding opposite the throne was flung wide, and a grand usher in a grand court livery flourished a mighty grand wand, and shouted, in a stentorian voice,
"Back: back, ye lieges, and make way for Her Majesty, Queen Miranda!"
Instantly the unseen band thundered forth the national anthem. The splendid throng fell back on either hand in profoundest silence and expectation. The grand usher mysteriously disappeared, and in his place there stalked forward a score of soldiers, with clanking swords and fierce moustaches, in the gorgeous uniform of the king's body-guard. These showy warriors arranged themselves silently on either side of the crimson throne, and were followed by half a dozen dazzling personages, the foremost crowned with mitre, armed with crozier, and robed in the ecclesiastical glory of an archbishop, but the face underneath, to the deep surprise and scandal of Sir Norman, was that of the fastest young roue of Charles court, after him came another pompous dignitary, in such unheard of magnificence that the unseen looker-on set him down for a prime minister, or a lord high chancellor, at the very least. The somewhat gaudy-looking gentlemen who stepped after the pious prelate and peer wore the stars and garters of foreign courts, and were evidently embassadors extraordinary to that of her midnight majesty. After them came a snowy flock of fair young girls, angels all but the wings, slender as sylphs, and robed in purest white. Each bore on her arm a basket of flowers, roses and rosebuds of every tint, from snowy white to darkest crimson, and as they floated in they scattered them lightly as they went. And then after all came another vision, "the last, the brightest, the best—the Midnight Queen," herself. One other figure followed her, and as they entered, a shout arose from the whole assemblage, "Long live Queen Miranda!" And bowing gracefully and easily to the right end left, the queen with a queenly step, trod the long crimson carpet and mounted the regal throne.
From the first moment of his looking down, Sir Norman had been staring with all the eyes in his head, undergoing one shock of surprise after another with the equanimity of a man quite need to it; but now a cry arose to his lips, and died there in voiceless consternation. For he recognized the queen—well he might!—he had seen her before, and her face was the face of Leoline!
As she mounted the stairs, she stood there for a moment crowned and sceptred, before sitting down, and in that moment he recognized the whole scene. That gorgeous room and its gorgeous inmates; that regal throne and its regal owner, all became palpable as the sun at noonday; that slender, exquisite figure, robed in royal purple and ermine; the uncovered neck and arms, snowy and perfect, ablaze with jewels; that lovely face, like snow, like marble, in its whiteness end calm, with the great, dark, earnest eyes looking out, and the waving wealth of hair falling around it. It was the very scene, and room, and vision, that La Masque had shown him in the caldron, and that face was the face of Leoline, and the earl's page.
Could he be dreaming? Was he sane or mad, or were the three really one?
While he looked, the beautiful queen bowed low, and amid the profoundest and most respectful silence, took her seat. In her robes of purple, wearing the glittering crown, sceptre in hand, throned and canopied, royally beautiful she looked indeed, and a most vivid contrast to the gentleman near her, seated very much at his ease, on the lower throne. The contrast was not of dress—for his outward man was resplendent to look at; but in figure and face, or grace and dignity, he was a very mean specimen of the lords of creation, indeed. In stature, he scarcely reached to the queen's royal shoulder, but made up sideways what he wanted in length—being the breadth of two common men; his head was in proportion to his width, and was decorated with a wig of long, flowing, flaxen hair, that scarcely harmonized with a profusion of the article whiskers, in hue most unmitigated black; his eyes were small, keen, bright, and piercing, and glared on the assembled company as they had done half an hour before on Sir Norman Kingsley, in the bar-room of the Golden Crown; for the royal little man was no other than Caliban, the dwarf. Behind the thrones the flock of floral angels grouped themselves; archbishop, prime minister, and embassadors, took their stand within the lines of the soldiery, and the music softly and impressively died sway in the distance; dead silence reigned.
"My lord Duke," began the queen, in the very voice he had heard at the plague-pit, as she turned to the stylish individual next the archbishop, "come forward and read us the roll of mortality since our last meeting."
His grace, the duke, instantly stepped forward, bowing so low that nothing was seen of him for a brief space, but the small of his back, and when he reared himself up, after this convulsion of nature, Sir Norman beheld a face not entirely new to him. At first, he could not imagine where he had seen it, but speedily she recollected it was the identical face of the highwayman who had beaten an inglorious retreat from him and Count L'Estrange, that very night. This ducat robber drew forth a roll of parchment, and began reading, in lachrymose tones, a select litany of defunct gentlemen, with hifalutin titles who had departed this life during the present week. Most of them had gone with the plague, but a few had died from natural causes, and among these were the Earls of Craven and Ashley.
"My lords Craven and Ashley dead!" exclaimed the queen, in tones of some surprise, but very little anguish; "that is singular, for we saw them not two hours ago, in excellent health and spirits."
"True, poor majesty," said the duke, dolefully, "and it is not an hour since they quitted this vale of tears. They and myself rode forth at nightfall, according to Custom, to lay your majesty's tax on all travelers, and soon chanced to encounter one who gave vigorous battle; still, it would have done him little service, had not another person come suddenly to his aid, and between them they clove the skulls of Ashley and Craven; and I," said the duke, modestly, "I left."
"Were either of the travelers young, and tall, and of courtly bearing?" exclaimed the dwarf with sharp rudeness.
"Both were, your highness," replied the duke, bowing to the small speaker, "and uncommonly handy with their weapons."
"I saw one of them down at the Golden Crown, not long ago," said the dwarf; "a forward young popinjay, and mighty inquisitive about this, our royal palace. I promised him, if he came here, a warm reception—a promise I will have the greatest pleasure in fulfilling."
"You may stand aside, my lord duke," said the queen, with a graceful wave of her hand, "and if any new subjects have been added to our court since our last weekly meeting, let them come forward, and be sworn."
A dozen or mare courtiers immediately stepped forward, and kneeling before the queen, announced their name and rank, which were both ambitiously high. A few silvery-toned questions were put by that royal lady and satisfactorily answered, and then the archbishop, armed with a huge tome, administered a severe and searching oath, which the candidates took with a great deal of sang frond, and were then permitted to kiss the hand of the queen—a privilege worth any amount of swearing—and retire.
"Let any one who has any reports to make, make them immediately," again commanded her majesty.
A number of gentlemen of high rank, presented themselves at this summons, and began relating, as a certain sect of Christians do in church, their experience! Many of these consisted, to the deep disapproval of Sir Norman, of accounts of daring highway robberies, one of them perpetrated on the king himself, which distinguished personage the duplicate of Leoline styled "our brother Charles," and of the sums thereby attained. The treasurer of state was then ordered to show himself, and give an account of the said moneys, which he promptly did; and after him came a number of petitioners, praying for one thing and another, some of which the queen promised to grant, and some she didn't. These little affairs of state being over, Miranda turned to the little gentleman beside her, with the observation,
"I believe, your highness, it a on this night the Earl of Gloucester is to be tried on a charge of high treason, in it not?"
His highness growled a respectful assent.
"Then let him be brought before us," said the queen. "Go, guards, and fetch him."
Two of the soldiers bowed low, and backed from the royal presence, amid dead and ominous silence. At this interesting stage of the proceedings, as Sir Norman was leaning forward, breathless and excited, a footstep sounded on the flagged floor beside him, and some one suddenly grasped his shoulder with no gentle hand.
CHAPTER IX. LEOLINE.
In one instant Sir Norman was on his feet and his hand on his sword. In the tarry darkness, neither the face nor figure of the intruder could be made out, but he merely saw a darker shadow beside him standing in the sea of darkness. Perhaps he might have thought it a ghost, but that the hand which grasped his shoulder was unmistakably of flesh, and blood, and muscle, and the breathing of its owner was distinctly audible by his ads.
"Who are you?" demanded Sir Norman, drawing out his sword, and wrenching himself free from his unseen companion.
"Ah! it is you, is it? I thought so," said a not unknown voice. "I have been calling you till I am hoarse, and at last gave it up, and started after you in despair. What are you doing here?"
"You, Ormiston!" exclaimed Sir Norman, in the last degree astonished. "How—when—what are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here? that's more to the purpose. Down flat on your face, with your head stuck through that hole. What is below there, anyway?"
"Never mind," said Sir Norman, hastily, who, for some reason quite unaccountable to himself, did not wish Ormiston to see. "There's nothing therein particular, but a lower range of vaults. Do you intend telling me what has brought you here?"
"Certainly; the very fleetest horse I could find in the city."
"Pshaw! You don't say so?" exclaimed Sir Norman, incredulously. "But I presume you had some object in taking such a gallop? May I ask what? Your anxious solicitude on my account, very likely?"
"Not precisely. But, I say, Kingsley, what light is that shining through there? I mean to see."
"No, you won't," said Sir Norman, rapidly and noiselessly replacing the flag. "It's nothing, I tell you, but a number of will-o-'wisps having a ball. Finally, and for the last time, Mr. Ormiston, will you have the goodness to tell me what has sent you here?"
"Come out to the air, then. I have no fancy for talking in this place; it smells like a tomb."
"There is nothing wrong, I hope?" inquired Sir Norman, following his friend, and threading his way gingerly through the piles of rubbish in the profound darkness.
"Nothing wrong, but everything extremely right. Confound this place! It would be easier walking on live eels than through these winding and lumbered passages. Thank the fates, we are through them, at last! for there is the daylight, or, rather the nightlight, and we have escaped without any bones broken."
They had reached the mouldering and crumbling doorway, shown by a square of lighter darkness, and exchanged the damp, chill atmosphere of the vaults for the stagnant, sultry open air. Sir Norman, with a notion in his head that his dwarfish highness might have placed sentinels around his royal residence, endeavored to pierce the gloom in search of them. Though he could discover none, he still thought discretion the better part of valor, and stepped out into the road.
"Now, then, where are you going?" inquired Ormiston for, following him.
"I don't wish to talk here; there is no telling who may be listening. Come along."
Ormiston glanced back at the gloomy rain looming up like a black spectre in the blackness.
"Well, they most have a strong fancy for eavesdropping, I must say, who world go to that haunted heap to listen. What have you seen there, and where have you left your horse?"
"I told you before," said Sir Norman, rather impatiently, "I that I have seen nothing—at least, nothing you would care about; and my horse is waiting me at the Golden Crown."
"Very well, we have no time to lose; so get there as fast as you can, and mount him and ride as if the demon were after you back to London."
"Back to London? Is the man crazy? I shall do no such thing, let me tell you, to-night."
"Oh, just as you please," said Ormiston, with a great deal of indifference, considering the urgent nature of his former request. "You can do as you like, you know, and so can I—which translated, means, I will go and tell her you have declined to come."
"Tell her? Tell whom? What are you talking about? Hang it, man!" exclaimed Sir Norman, getting somewhat excited and profane, "what are you driving at? Can't you speak out and tell me at once?"
"I have told you!" said Ormiston, testily: "and I tell you again, she sent me in search of you, and if you don't choose to come, that's your own affair, and not mine."
This was a little too mach for Sir Norman's overwrought feelings, and in the last degree of exasperation, he laid violent hands on the collar of Ormiston's doublet, and shook him as if he would have shaken the name out with a jerk.
"I tell you what it is, Ormiston, you had better not aggravate me! I can stand a good deal, but I'm not exactly Moses or Job, and you had better mind what you're at. If you don't come to the point at once, and tell me who I she is, I'll throttle you where you stand; and so give you warning."
Half-indignant, and wholly laughing, Ormiston stepped back out of the way of his excited friend.
"I cry you mercy! In one word, then, I have been dispatched by a lady in search of you, and that lady is—Leoline."
It has always been one of the inscrutable mysteries in natural philosophy that I never could fathom, why men do not faint. Certain it is, I never yet heard of a man swooning from excess of surprise or joy, and perhaps that may account for Sir Norman's not doing so on the present occasion. But he came to an abrupt stand-still in their rapid career; and if it had not been quite so excessively dark, his friend would have beheld a countenance wonderful to look on, in its mixture of utter astonishment and sublime consternation.
"Leoline!" he faintly gasped. "Just atop a moment, Ormiston, and say that again—will you?"
"No," said Ormiston, hurrying unconcernedly on; "I shall do no such thing, for there is no time to lose, and if there were I have no fancy for standing in this dismal road. Come on, man, and I'll tell you as we go."
Thus abjured, and seeing there was no help for it, Sir Norman, in a dazed and bewildered state, complied; and Ormiston promptly and briskly relaxed into business.
"You see, my dear fellow, to begin at the beginning, after you left, I stood at ease at La Masque's door, awaiting that lady's return, and was presently rewarded by seeing her come up with an old woman called Prudence. Do you recollect the woman who rushed screaming out of the home of the dead bride?"
"Well, that was Prudence. She and La Masque were talking so earnestly they did not perceive me, and I—well, the fast is, Kingsley, I stayed and listened. Not a very handsome thing, perhaps, but I couldn't resist it. They were talking of some one they called Leoline, and I, in a moment, knew that it was your flame, and that neither of them knew any more of her whereabouts than we did."
"And yet La Masque told me to come here in search of her," interrupted Sir Norman.
"Very true! That was odd—wasn't it? This Prudence, it appears, was Leoline's nurse, and La Masque, too, seemed to have a certain authority over her; and between them, I learned she was to have been married this very night, and died—or, at least, Prudence thought so—an hour or two before the time."
"Then she was not married?" cried Sir Norman, in an ecstasy of delight.
"Not a bit of it; and what is more, didn't want to be; and judging from the remarks of Prudence, I should say, of the two, rather preferred the plague."
"Then why was she going to do it? You don't mean to say she was forced?"
"Ah, but I do, though! Prudence owned it with the most charming candor in the world."
"Did you hear the name of the person she was to have married?" asked Sir Norman, with kindling eyes.
"I think not; they called him the count, if my memory serves me, and Prudence intimated that he knew nothing of the melancholy fate of Mistress Leoline. Moat likely it was the person in the cloak and slouched hat we caw talking to the watchman."
Sir Norman said nothing, but he thought a good deal, and the burden of his thoughts was an ardent and heartfelt wish that the Court L'Estrange was once more under the swords of the three robbers, and waiting for him to ride to the rescue—that was all!
"La Masque urged Prudence to go back," continued Ormiston; "but Prudence respectfully declined, and went her way bemoaning the fate of her darling. When she was gone, I stepped up to Madame Masque, and that lady's first words of greeting were an earnest hope that I had been edified and improved by what I had overheard."
"She saw you, then?" said Sir Norman.
"See me? I believe you! She has more eyes than ever Argus had, and each one is as sharp as a cambric needle. Of course I apologized, and so on, and she forgave me handsomely, and then we fell to discoursing—need I tell you on what subject?"
"Love, of course," said Sir Norman.
"Yes, mingled with entreaties to take off her mask that would have moved a heart of atone. It moved what was better—the heart of La Masque; and, Kingsley, she has consented to do it; and she says that if, after seeing her face, I still love her, she will be my wife."
"Is it possible? My dear Ormiston, I congratulate you with all my heart!"
"Thank you! After that she left me, and I walked away in such a frenzy of delight that I couldn't have told whether I was treading this earth or the shining shares of the seventh heaven, when suddenly there flew past me a figure all in white—the figure of a bride, Kingsley, pursued by an excited mob. We were both near the river, and the first thing I knew, she was plump into it, with the crowd behind, yelling to stop her, that she was ill of the plague."
"Great Heaven! and was she drowned?"
"No, though it was not her fault. The Earl of Rochester and his page—you remember that page, I fancy—were out in their barge, and the earl picked her up. Then I got a boat, set out after her, claimed her—for I recognized her, of course—brought her ashore, and deposited her safe and sound in her own house. What do you think of that?"
"Ormiston," said Norman, catching him by the shoulder, with a very excited face, "is this true?"
"True as preaching, Kingsley, every word of it! And the most extraordinary part of the business is, that her dip in cold water has effectually cured her of the plague; not a trace of it remains."
Sir Norman dropped his hand, and walked on, staring straight before him, perfectly speechless. In fact, no known language in the world could have done justice to his feelings at that precise period; for three times that night, in three different shapes, had he seen this same Leoline, and at the same moment he was watching her decked out in royal state in the rain, Ormiston had probably been assisting her from her cold bath in the river Thames.
Astonishment and consternation are words altogether too feeble to express his state of mind; but one idea remained clear and bright amid all his mental chaos, and that was, that the Leoline he had fallen in love with dead, was awaiting him, alive and well, in London.
"Well," said Ormiston, "you don't speak! What do you think of all this?"
"Think! I can't think—I've got past that long ago!" replied his friend, hopelessly. "Did you really say Leoline was alive and well?"
"And waiting for you—yes, I did, and I repeat it; and the sooner you get back to town, the sooner you will see her; so don't loiter—"
"Ormiston, what do you mean! Is it possible I can see her to-night?"
"Yes, it is; the dear creature is waiting for you even now. You see, after we got to the house, and she had consented to become a little rational, mutual explanations ensued, by which it appeared she had ran away from Sir Norman Kingsley's in a state of frenzy, had jumped into the river in a similarly excited state of mind, and was most anxious to go down on her pretty knees and thank the aforesaid Sir Norman for saving her life. What could any one as gallant as myself do under these circumstances, but offer to set forth in quest of that gentleman? And she promptly consented to sit up and wait his coming, and dismissed me with her blessing. And, Kingsley, I've a private notion she is as deeply affected by you as you are by her; for, when I mentioned your name, she blushed, yea, verily to the roots of her hair; and when she spoke of you, couldn't so much as look me in the face—which is, yea must own, a very bad symptom."
"Nonsense!" said Sir Norman, energetically. And had it been daylight, his friend would have seen that he blushed almost as extensively as the lady. "She doesn't know me."
"Ah, doesn't she, though? That shows all you know about it! She has seen you go past the window many and many a time; and to see you," said Ormiston, making a grimace undercover of the darkness, "is to love! She told me so herself."
"What! That she loved me!" exclaimed Sir Norman, his notions of propriety to the last degree shocked by such a revelation.
"Not altogether, she only looked that; but she said she knew you well by sight, and by heart, too, as I inferred from her countenance when she said it. There now, don't make me talk any more, for I have told you everything I know, and am about hoarse with my exertions."
"One thing only—did she tell you who she was?"
"No, except that her name was Leoline, and nothing else—which struck me as being slightly improbable. Doubtless, she will tell you everything, and one piece of advice I may venture to give you, which is, you may propose as soon as you like without fear of rejection. Here we are at the Golden Crown, so go in and get your horse, and let us be off."
All this time Ormiston had been leading his own horse by the bridle, and as Sir Norman silently complied with this suggestion, in five minutes more they were in their saddles, and galloping at breakneck speed toward the city. To tell the truth, one was not more inclined for silence than the other, and the profoundest and thoughtfulest silence was maintained till they reached it. One was thinking of Leoline, the other of La Masque, and both were badly in love, and just at that particular moment very happy. Of course the happiness of people in that state never lasts longer than half an hour at a stretch, and then they are plunged back again into misery and distraction; but while it does last, it in, very intense and delightful indeed.
Our two friends having drained the bitten, had got to the bottom of the cup, and neither knew that no sooner were the sweets swallowed, than it was to be replenished with a doubly-bitter dose. Neither of them dismounted till they reached the house of Leoline, and there Sir Norman secured his horse, and looked up at it with a beating heart. Not that it was very unusual for his heart to beat, seeing it never did anything else; but on that occasion its motion was so mush accelerated, that any doctor feeling his pulse might have justly set him down as a bad case of heart-disease. A small, bright ray of light streamed like a beacon of hope from an upper window, and the lover looked at it as a clouded mariner might at the shining of the North Star.
"Are you coming in, Ormiston?" he inquired, feeling, for the first time in his life, almost bashful. "It seems to me it would only be right, you know."
"I don't mind going in and introducing' you," said Ormiston; "but after you have been delivered over, you may fight poor own battles, and take care of yourself. Come on."
The door was unfastened, and Ormiston sprang upstairs with the air of a man-quite at home, followed more decorously by Sir Norman. The door of the lady's room stood ajar, as he had left it, and in answer to his "tapping at the chamber-door," a sweet feminine voice called "come in."
Ormiston promptly obeyed, and the next instant they were in the room, and in the presence of the dead bride. Certainly she did not look dead, but very much alive, just then, as she sat in an easy-chair, drawn up before the dressing-table, on which stood the solitary lamp that illumed the chamber. In one hand she held a small mirror, or, as it was then called, a "sprunking-glass," in which she was contemplating her own beauty, with as much satisfaction as any other pretty girl might justly do. She had changed her drenched dress during Ormiston's absence, and now sat arrayed in a swelling amplitude of rose-colored satin, her dark hair clasped and bound by a circle of milk-white pearls, and her pale, beautiful face looking ten degrees more beautiful than ever, in contrast with the bright rose-silk, shining dark hair, and rich white jewels. She rose up as they entered, and came forward with the same glow on her face and the same light in her eyes that one of them had seen before, and stood with drooping eyelashes, lovely as a vision in the centre of the room.
"You see I have lost no time in obeying your ladyship's commands," began Ormiston, bowing low. "Mistress Leoline, allow me to present Sir Norman Kingsley."
Sir Norman Kingsley bent almost as profoundly before the lady as the lord high chancellor had done before Queen Miranda; and the lady courtesied, in return, until her pink-satin skirt ballooned out all over the floor. It was quite an affecting tableau. And so Ormiston felt, as he stood eyeing it with preternatural gravity.
"I owe my life to Sir Norman Kingsley," murmured the faint, sweet voice of the lady, "and could not rest until I had thanked him. I have no words to say how deeply thankful and grateful I am."
"Fairest Leoline! one word from such lips would be enough to repay me, had I done a thousandfold more," responded Norman, laying his hand on his heart, with another deep genuflection.
"Very pretty indeed!" remarked Ormiston to himself, with a little approving nod; "but I'm afraid they won't be able to keep it up, and go on talking on stilts like that, till they have finished. Perhaps they may get on all the better if I take myself off, there being always one too many in a case like this." Then aloud: "Madame, I regret that I am obliged to depart, having a most particular appointment; but, doubtless, my friend will be able to express himself without my assistance. I have the honor to wish you both good-night."
With which neat and appropriate speech, Ormiston bowed himself out, and was gone before Leoline could detain him, even if she wished to do so. Probably, however, she thought the care of one gentleman sufficient responsibility at once; and she did not look very seriously distressed by his departure; and, the moment he disappeared, Sir Norman brightened up wonderfully.
It is very discomposing to the feelings to make love in the presence of a third party; and Sir Norman had no intention of wasting his time on anything, and went at it immediately. Taking her hand, with a grace that would have beaten Sir Charles Grandison or Lord Chesterfield all to nothing, he led her to a couch, and took a seat as near her as was at all polite or proper, considering the brief nature of their acquaintance. The curtains were drawn; the lamp shed a faint light; the house was still, and there was no intrusive papa to pounce down upon them; the lady was looking down, and seemed in no way haughty or discouraging, and Sir Norman's spirits went up with a jump to boiling-point.
Yet the lady, with all her pretty bashfulness, was the first to speak.
"I'm afraid, Sir Norman, you must think this a singular hour to come here; but, in these dreadful times, we cannot tell if we may live from one moment to another; and I should not like to die, or have you die, without my telling, and you hearing, all my gratitude. For I do assure you, Sir Norman," said the lady, lifting her dark eyes with the prettiest and moat bewitching earnestness, "that I am grateful, though I cannot find words to express it."
"Madame, I would not listen to you it you would; for I have done nothing to deserve thanks. I wish I could tell you what I felt when Ormiston told me you were alive and safe."
"You are very kind, but pray do not call me madame. Say Leoline!"
"A thousand thanks, dear Leoline!" exclaimed Sir Norman, raising her hand to his lips, and quite beside himself with ecstasy.
"Ah, I did not tell you to say that!" she cried, with a gay laugh and vivid blush. "I never said you were to call me dear."
"It arose from my heart to my lips," said Sir Norman, with thrilling earnestness and fervid glance; "for you are dear to me—dearer than all the world beside!"
The flush grew a deeper glow on the lady's face; but, singular to relate, she did not look the least surprised or displeased; and the hand he had feloniously purloined lay passive and quite contented in his.
"Sir Norman Kingsley is pleased to jest," said the lady, in a subdued tone, and with her eyes fixed pertinaciously on her shining dress; "for he has never spoken to me before in his life!"
"That has nothing to do with it, Leoline. I love you as devotedly as if I had known you from your birthday; and, strange to say, I feel as if we had been friends for years instead of minutes. I cannot realize at all that you are a stranger to me!"
"Nor I; though, for that matter, you are not a stranger to me, Sir Norman!"
"Am I not? How is that!"
"I have seen you go past so often, you know; and Prudence told me who you were; and so I need—I used—" hesitating and glowing to a degree before which her dress paled.
"Well, dearest," said Sir Norman, getting from the positive to the superlative at a jump, and diminishing the distance between them, "you need to—what?"
"To watch for you!" said Leoline, in a sly whisper. "And so I have got to know you very well!"
"My own darling! And, O Leoline! may I hope—dare I hope—that you do not altogether hate me?"
Leoline looked reflective; though her bleak eyes were sparkling under their sweeping lashes.
"Why, no," she said, demurely, "I don't know as I do. It's very sinful and improper to hate one's fellow-creatures, you know, Sir Norman, and therefore I don't indulge in it."
"Ah! you are given to piety, I see. In that case, perhaps you are aware of a precept commanding us to love our neighbors. Now, I'm your nearest neighbor at present; so, to keep up a consistent Christian spirit, just be good enough to say you love me!"
Again Leoline laughed; and this time the bright, dancing eyes beamed in their sparkling darkness fall upon him.
"I am afraid your theology is not very sound, my friend, and I have a dislike to extremes. There is a middle course, between hating and loving. Suppose I take that?"
"I will have no middle courses—either hating or loving it must be! Leoline! Leoline!" (bending over her, and imprisoning both hands this time) "do say you love me!"
"I am captive in your hands, so I must, I suppose. Yes, Sir Norman, I do love you!"
Every man hearing that for the first time from a pair of loved lips is privileged to go mad for a brief season, and to go through certain manoeuvers much more delectable to the enjoyers than to society at large. For fully ten minutes after Leoline's last speech, there was profound silence. But actions sometimes speak louder than words; and Leoline was perfectly convinced that her declaration had not fallen on insensible ears. At the end of that period, the space between them on the couch had so greatly diminished, that the ghost of a zephyr would have been crushed to death trying to get between them; and Sir Norman's face was fairly radiant. Leoline herself looked rather beaming; and she suddenly, and without provocation, burst into a merry little peal of laughter.
"Well, for two people who were perfect strangers to each other half an hour ago, I think we have gone on remarkably well. What will Mr. Ormiston and Prudence say, I wonder, when they hear this?"
"They will say what is the truth—that I am the luckiest man in England. O Leoline! I never thought it was in me to love any one as I do you."'
"I am very glad to hear it; but I knew that it was in me long before I ever dreamed of knowing you. Are you not anxious to know something about the future Lady Kingsley's past history?"
"It will all come in good time; it is not well to have a surfeit of joy in one night.
"I do not know that this will add to your joy; but it had better be told and be done with, at once and forever. In the first place, I presume I am an orphan, for I have never known father or mother, and I have never had any other name but Leoline."
"So Ormiston told me."
"My first recollection is of Prudence; she was my nurse and governess, both in one; and we lived in a cottage by the sea—I don't know where, but a long way from this. When I was about ten years old, we left it, and came to London, and lived in a house in Cheapside, for five or six years; and then we moved here. And all this time, Sir Norman you will think it strange—but I never made any friends or acquaintances, and knew no one but Prudence and an old Italian professor, who came to our lodgings in Cheapside, every week, to give me lessons. It was not because I disliked society, you must know; but Prudence, with all her kindness and goodness—and I believe she truly loves me—has been nothing more or less all my life than my jailer."