She paused to clasp a belt of silver brocade, fastened by a pearl buckle, close around her little waist, and Sir Norman fixed his eyes upon her beautiful face, with a powerful glance.
"Knew no one—that is strange, Leoline! Not even the Count L'Estrange?"
"Ah! you know him?" she cried eagerly, lifting her eyes with a bright look; "do—do tell me who he is?"
"Upon my honor, my dear," said Sir Norman, considerably taken aback, "it strikes me you are the person to answer that question. If I don't greatly mistake, somebody told me you were going to marry him."
"Oh, so I was," said Leoline, with the utmost simplicity. "But I don't know him, for all that; and more than that, Sir Norman, I do not believe his name is Count L'Estrange, any more than mine in!"
"Precisely my opinion; but why, in the name of—no, I'll not swear; but why were you going to marry him, Leoline?"
Leoline half pouted, and shrugged her pretty pink satin shoulders.
"Because I couldn't help it—that's why. He coaxed, and coaxed; and I said no, and no, and no, until I got tired of it. Prudence, too, was as bad as he was, until between them I got about distracted, and at last consented to marry him to get rid of him."
"My poor, persecuted little darling! Oh," cried Sir Norman, with a burst of enthusiasm, "how I should admire to have Count L'Estrange here for about tea minutes, just now! I world spoil his next wooing for him, or I am mistaken!"
"No, no!" said Leoline, looking rather alarmed; "you must not fight, you know. I shouldn't at all like either of you to get killed. Besides, he has not married me; and so there's no harm done."
Sir Norman seemed rather struck by that view of the case, and after a few moments reflection on it, came to the conclusion that she knew best, and settled down peaceably again.
"Why do you suppose his name is not Count L'Estrange?" he asked.
"For many reasons. First—he is disguised; wears false whiskers, moustache, and wig, and even the voice he uses appears assumed. Then Prudence seems in the greatest awe of him, and she is not one to be easily awed. I never knew her to be in the slightest degree intimidated by any human being but himself and that mysterious woman, La Masque.
"Ah! you know La Masque, then?"
"Not personally; but I have seen her as I did you, you remember," with an arch glance; "and, like you, being once seen, is not to be forgotten."
Sir Norman promptly paid her for the compliment in Cupid's own coin:
"Little flatterer! I can almost forgive Count L'Estrange for wanting to marry you; for I presume he it only a man, and not quite equal to impossibilities. How long is it since you knew him first?"
"Not two months. My courtships," said Leoline, with a gay laugh, "seem destined to be of the shortest. He saw me one evening in the window, and immediately insisted on being admitted; and after that, he continued coming until I had to promise, as I have told you, to be Countess L'Estrange."
"He cannot be mach of a gentleman, or he would not attempt to force a lady against her will. And so, when you were dressed for your bridal, you found you had the plague?"
"Yes, Sir Norman; and horrible as that was I do assure you I almost preferred it to marrying him."
"Leoline, tell me how long it is since you've known me?"
"Nearly three months," said Leoline, blushing again celestial rosy red.
"And how long have you loved me?"
"Nonsense. What a question! I shall not tell you."
"You shall—you must—I insist upon it. Did you love me before you met the count? Out with it."
"Well, then—yes!" cried Leoline desperately.
Sir Norman raised the hand he held, is rapture to his lips:
"My darling! But I will reserve my raptures, for it is growing late, and I know you mast want to go to rest. I have a thousand things to tell you, but they must wait for daylight; only I will promise, before parting, that this is the last night you mast spend here."
Leoline opened her bright eyes very wide.
"To-morrow morning," went on Sir Norman, impressively, and with dignity, "you will be up and dressed by sunrise, and shortly after that radiant period, I will make my appearance with two horses—one of which I shall ride, and the other I shall lead: the one I lead you shall mount, and we will ride to the nearest church, and be married without any pomp or pageant; and then Sir Norman and Lady Kingsley will immediately leave London, and in Kingsley Castle, Devonshire, will enjoy the honeymoon and blissful repose till the plague is over. Do you understand that?"
"Perfectly," she answered, with a radiant face.
"And agree to it?"
"You know I do, Sir Norman; only—"
"Well, my pet, only what?"
"Sir Norman, I should like to see Prudence. I want Prudence. How can I leave her behind?"
"My dear child, she made nothing of leaving you when she thought you were dying; so never mind Prudence, but say, will you be ready?"
"That is my good little Leoline. Now give me a kiss, Lady Kingsley, and good-night."
Lady Kingsley dutifully obeyed; and Sir Norman went out with a glow at his heart, like a halo round a full moon.
CHAPTER X. THE PAGE, THE FIRES, AND THE FALL.
The night was intensely dark when Sir Norman got into it once more; and to any one else would have been intensely dismal, but to Sir Norman all was bright as the fair hills of Beulah. When all is bright within, we see no darkness without; and just at that moment our young knight had got into one of those green and golden glimpses of sunshine that here and there checker life's rather dark pathway, and with Leoline beside him would have thought the dreary whores of the Dead Sea itself a very paradise.
It was now near midnight, and there was an unusual concourse of people in the sheets, waiting for St. Paul's to give the signal to light the fires. He looked around for Ormiston; but Ormiston was nowhere to be seen—horse and rider had disappeared. His own horse stood tethered where he had left him. Anxious as he was to ride back to the ruin, and see the play played out, he could not resist the temptation of lingering a brief period in the city, to behold the grand spectacle of the myriad fires. Many persons were hurrying toward St. Paul's to witness it from the dome; and consigning his horse to the care of the sentinel on guard at the house opposite, he joined them, and was soon striding along, at a tremendous pace, toward the great cathedral. Ere he reached it, its long-tongued clock tolled twelve, and all the other churches, one after another, took up the sound, and the witching hour of midnight rang and rerang from end to end of London town. As if by magic, a thousand forked tongues of fire shot up at once into the blind, black night, turning almost in an instant the darkened face of the heavens to an inflamed, glowing red. Great fires were blazing around the cathedral when they reached it, but no one stopped to notice them, but only hurried on the faster to gain their point of observation.
Sir Norman just glanced at the magnificent pile—for the old St. Paul's was even more magnificent than the new,—and then followed after the rest, through many a gallery, tower, and spiral staircase till the dome was reached. And there a grand and mighty spectacle was before him—the whole of London swaying and heaving in one great sea of fire. From one end to the other, the city seemed wrapped in sheets of flame, and every street, and alley, and lane within it shone in a lurid radiance far brighter than noonday. All along the river fires were gleaming, too; and the whole sky had turned from black to blood-red crimson. The streets were alive and swarming—it could scarcely be believed that the plague-infested city contained half so many people, and all were unusually hopeful and animated; for it was popularly believed that these fires would effectually check the pestilence. But the angry fiat of a Mighty Judge had gone forth, and the tremendous arm of the destroying angel was not to be stopped by the puny hand of man.
It has been said the weather for weeks was unusually brilliant, days of cloudless sunshine, nights of cloudless moonlight, and the air was warm and sultry enough for the month of August in the tropics. But now, while they looked, a vivid flash of lightning, from what quarter of the heavens no man knew, shot athwart the sky, followed by another and another, quick, sharp, and blinding. Then one great drop of rain fell like molten lead on the pavement, then a second and a third quicker, faster, and thicker, until down it crashed in a perfect deluge. It did not wait to rain; it fell in floods—in great, slanting sheets of water, an if the very floodgates of heaven had opened for a second deluge. No one ever remembered to have seen such torrents fall, and the populace fled before it in wildest dismay. In five minutes, every fire, from one extremity of London to the other, was quenched in the very blackness of darkness, and on that night the deepest gloom and terror reigned throughout the city. It was clear the hand of an avenging Deity was in this, and He who had rained down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah had not lost His might. In fifteen minutes the terrific flood was over; the dismal clouds cleared away, a pale, fair, silver moon shone serenely out, and looked down on the black, charred heaps of ashes strewn through the streets of London. One by one, the stars that all night had been obscured, glanced and sparkled over the sky, and lit up with their soft, pale light the doomed and stricken town. Everybody had quitted the dome in terror and consternation; and now Sir Norman, who had been lost in awe, suddenly bethought him of his ride to the ruin, and hastened to follow their example. Walking rapidly, not to say recklessly, along, he abruptly knocked against some one sauntering leisurely before him, and nearly pitched headlong on the pavement. Recovering his centre of gravity by a violent effort, he turned to see the cause of the collision, and found himself accosted by a musical and foreign-accented voice.
"Pardon," paid the sweet, and rather feminine tones; "it was quite an accident, I assure you, monsieur. I had no idea I was in anybody's way."
Sir Norman looked at the voice, or rather in the direction whence it came, and found it proceeded from a lad in gay livery, whose clear, colorless face, dark eyes, end exquisite features were by no means unknown. The boy seemed to recognize him at the same moment, and slightly touched his gay cap.
"Ah! it is Sir Norman Kingsley! Just the very person, but one, in the world that I wanted most to see."
"Indeed! And, pray, whom have I the honor of addressing?" inquired Sir Norman, deeply edified by the cool familiarity of the accoster.
"They call me Hubert—for want of a better name, I suppose," said the lad, easily. "And may I ask, Sir Norman, if you are shod with seven-leagued boots, or if your errand is one of life and death, that you stride along at such a terrific rate?"
"And what is that to you?" asked Sir Norman, indignant at his free-and-easy impudence.
"Nothing; only I should like to keep up with you, if my legs were long enough; and as they're not, and as company is not easily to be had in these forlorn streets, I should feel obliged to you if you would just slacken your pace a trifle, and take me in tow."
The boy's face in the moonlight, in everything but expression, was exactly that of Leoline, to which softening circumstance may be attributed Sir Norman's yielding to the request, and allowing the page to keep along side.
"I've met you once before to-night?" inquired Sir Norman, after a prolonged and wondering stare at him.
"Yes; I have a faint recollection of seeing you and Mr. Ormiston on London Bridge, a few hours ago, and, by the way, perhaps I may mention I am now in search of that same Mr. Ormiston."
"You are! And what may you want of him, pray?"
"Just a little information of a private character—perhaps you can direct me to his whereabouts."
"Should be happy to oblige you, my dear boy, but, unfortunately, I cannot. I want to see him myself, if I could find any one good enough to direct me to him. Is your business pressing?"
"Very—there is a lady in the case; and such business, you are aware, is always pressing. Probably you have heard of her—a youthful angel, in virgin white, who took a notion to jump into the Thames, not a great while ago."
"Ah!" said Sir Norman, with a start that did not escape the quick eyes of the boy. "And what do you want of her?"
The page glanced at him.
"Perhaps you know her yourself, sir Norman? If so, you will answer quite as well as your friend, as I only want to know where she lives."
"I have been out of town to-night," said Sir Norman, evasively, "and there may have been more ladies than one jumped into the Thames, daring my absence. Pray, describe your angel in white."
"I did not notice her particularly myself," said the boy, with easy indifference, "as I am not in the habit of paying much attention to young ladies who run wild about the streets at night and jump promiscuously into rivers. However, this one was rather remarkable, for being dressed as a bride, having long black hair, and a great quantity of jewelry about her, and looking very much like me. Having said she looks like me, I need not add she is handsome."
"Vanity of vanities, all in vanity!" murmured Sir Norman, meditatively. "Perhaps she is a relative of yours, Master Hubert, since you take such an interest in her, and she looks so much like you."
"Not that I know of," said Hubert, in his careless way. "I believe I was born minus those common domestic afflictions, relatives; and I don't take the slightest interest in her, either; don't think it!"
"Then why are you in search of her?"
"For a very good reason—because I've been ordered to do so."
"By whom—your master?"
"My Lord Rochester," said that nobleman's page, waving off the insinuation by a motion of his hand and a little displeased frown; "he picked her up adrift, and being composed of highly inflammable materials, took a hot and vehement fancy for her, which fact he did not discover until your friend, Mr. Ormiston, had carried her off."
Sir Norman scowled.
"And so he sent you in search of her, has he?"
"Exactly so; and now you perceive the reason why it is quite important that I find Mr. Ormiston. We do not know where he has taken her to, but fancy it must be somewhere near the river."
"You do? I tell you what it is, my boy," exclaimed Sir Norman, suddenly and in an elevated key, "the best thing you can do is, to go home and go to bed, and never mind young ladies. You'll catch the plague before you'll catch this particular young lady—I can tell you that!"
"Monsieur is excited," lisped the lad raining his hat end running his taper fingers through his glossy, dark curls. "Is she as handsome as they say she is, I wonder?"
"Handsome!" cried Sir Norman, lighting up with quite a new sensation at the recollection. "I tell you handsome doesn't begin to describe her! She is beautiful, lovely, angelic, divine—" Here Sir Norman's litany of adjectives beginning to give out, he came to a sudden halt, with a face as radiant as the sky at sunrise.
"Ah! I did not believe them, when they told me she was so much like me; but if she in as near perfection as you describe, I shall begin to credit it. Strange, is it not, that nature should make a duplicate of her greatest earthly chef d'oeuvre?"
"You conceited young jackanapes!" growled Sir Norman, in deep displeasure. "It is far stranger how such a bundle of vanity can contrive to live in this work-a-day world. You are a foreigner, I perceive?"
"Yes, Sir Norman, I am happy to say I am."
"You don't like England, then?"
"I'd be sorry to like it; a dirty, beggarly, sickly place as I ever saw!"
Sir Norman eyed the slender specimen of foreign manhood, uttering this sentiment is the sincerest of tones, and let his hand fall heavily on his shoulder.
"My good youth, be careful! I happen to be a native, and not altogether used to this sort of talk. How long have you been here? Not long, I know myself—at least, not in the Earl of Rochester's service, or I would have seen you."
"Right! I have not been here a month; but that month has seemed longer than a year elsewhere. Do you know, I imagine when the world was created, this island of yours must have been made late on Saturday night, and then merely thrown in from the refuse to fill up a dent in the ocean."
Sir Norman paused in his walk, and contemplated the speaker a moment in severest silence. But Master Hubert only lifted up his saucy face and laughing black eyes, in dauntless sang froid.
"Master Hubert," began Master Hubert's companion, in his deepest and sternest base, "I don't know your other name, and it would be of no consequence if I did—just listen to me a moment. If you don't want to get run through (you perceive I carry a sword), and have an untimely end put to your career, just keep a civil tongue in your head, and don't slander England. Now come on!"
Hubert laughed and shrugged his shoulders:
"Thought is free, however, so I can have my own opinion in spite of everything. Will you tell me, monsieur, where I can find the lady?"
"You will have it, will you?" exclaimed Sir Norman, half drawing his sword. "Don't ask questions, but answer them. Are you French?"
"Monsieur has guessed it."
"How long have you been with your present master?"
"Monsieur, I object to that term," said Hubert, with calm dignity. "Master is a vulgarism that I dislike; so, in alluding to his lordship, take the trouble to say, patron."
Sir Norman laughed.
"With all my heart! How long, then, have you been with your present patron?"
"Not quite two weeks."
"I do not like to be impertinently inquisitive in addressing so dignified a gentleman, but perhaps you would not consider it too great a liberty, if I inquired how you became his page?"
"Monsieur shall ask as many questions as he pleases, and it shall not be considered the slightest liberty," said the young gentleman, politely. "I had been roaming at large about the city and the palace of his majesty—whom may Heaven preserve, and grant a little more wisdom!—in search of a situation; and among that of all nobles of the court, the Earl of Rochester's livery struck me as being the moat becoming, and so I concluded to patronize him."
"What an honor for his lordship! Since you dislike England so much, however, you will probably soon throw up the situation and, patronize the first foreign ambassador—"
"Perhaps! I rather like Whitehall, however. Old Rowlie has taken rather a fancy to me," said the boy speaking with the same easy familiarity of his majesty as he would of a lap-dog. "And what is better, so has Mistress Stewart—so much so, that Heaven forefend the king should become jealous. This, however, is strictly entre nous, and not to be spoken of on any terms."
"Your secret shall be preserved at the risk of my life," said Sir Norman, laying his hand on the left side of his doublet; "and in return, may I ask if you have any relatives living—any sisters for instance?"
"I see I you have a suspicion that the lady in white may be a sister of mine. Well, you may set your mind at rest on that point—for if she is, it is news to me, as I never saw her in my life before tonight. Is she a particular friend of yours, Sir Norman?"
"Never you mind that, my dear boy; but take my advice, and don't trouble yourself looking for her; for, most assuredly, if you find her, I shall break your head!"
"Much obliged," said Hubert, touching his cap, "but nevertheless, I shall risk it. She had the plague, though, when she jumped into the river, and perhaps the beat place to find her world be the pest-house. I shall try."
"Go, and Heaven speed you! Yonder is the way to it, and my road lies here. Good night, master Hubert."
"Good night, Sir Norman," responded the page, bowing airily; "and if I do not find the lady to-night, most assuredly I shall do so to-morrow."
Turning along a road leading to the pest-house, and laughing as he went, the boy disappeared. Fearing lest the page should follow him, and thereby discover a clue to Leoline's abode, Sir Norman turned into a street some distance from the house, and waited in the shadow until he was out of sight. Then he came forth, and, full of impatience to get back to the ruin, hurried on to where he had left his horse. He was still in the care of the watchman, whom he repaid for his trouble; and as he sprang on his back, he glanced up at the windows of Leoline's house. It was all buried in profound darkness but that one window from which that faint light streamed, and he knew that she had not yet gone to rest. For a moment he lingered and looked at it in the absurd way lovers will look, and was presently rewarded by seeing what he watched for—a shadow flit between him and the light. The sight was a strong temptation to him to dismount and enter, and, under pretence of warning her against the Earl of Rochester and his "pretty page," see her once again. But reflection, stepping rebukingly up to him, whispered indignantly, that his ladylove was probably by this time in her night robe, and not at home to lovers; and Sir Norman respectfully bowed to reflection's superior wisdom. He thought of Hubert's words, "If I do not find her tonight, I shall most assuredly to-morrow," and a chill presentiment of coming evil fell upon him.
"To-morrow," he said, as he turned to go. "Who knows what to-morrow may bring forth! Fairest and dearest Leoline, goodnight!"
He rode away in the moonlight, with the stars shining peacefully down upon him. His heart at the moment was a divided one—one half being given to Leoline, and the other to the Midnight Queen and her mysterious court. The farther he went away from Leoline, the dimmer her star became in the horizon of his thoughts; and the nearer he came to Miranda, the brighter and more eagerly she loomed up, until he spurred his horse to a most furious gallop, lest he should find the castle and the queen lost in the regions of space when he got there. Once the plague-stricken city lay behind him, his journey was short; and soon, to his great delight, he turned into the silent deserted by-path leading to the ruin.
Tying his horse to a stake in the crumbling wall, he paused for a moment to look at it in the pale, wan light of the midnight moon. He had looked at it many a time before, but never with the same interest as now; and the ruined battlements, the fallen roof, the broken windows, and mouldering sides, had all a new and weird interest for him. No one was visible far or near; and feeling that his horse was secure in the shadow of the wall, he entered, and walked lightly and rapidly along in the direction of the spiral staircase. With more haste, but the same precaution, he descended, and passed through the vaults to where he knew the loose flag-stone was. It was well he did know; for there was neither strain of music nor ray of light to guide him now; and his heart sank to zero as he thought he might raise the stone and discover nothing. His hand positively trembled with eagerness as he lifted it; and with unbounded delight, not to be described, looked down on the same titled assembly he had watched before. But there had been a change since—half the lights were extinguished, and the great vaulted room was comparatively in shadow—the music had entirely died away and all was solemnly silent. But what puzzled Sir Norman most of all was, the fact that there seemed to be a trial of acme sort going on.
A long table, covered with green velvet, and looking not unlike a modern billiard table, stood at the right of the queen's crimson throne; and behind it, perched in a high chair, and wearing a long, solemn, black robe, sat a small, thick personage, whose skin Sir Norman would have known on a bush. He glanced at the lower throne and found it as he expected, empty; and he saw at once that his little highness was not only prince consort, but also supreme judge in the kingdom. Two or three similar black-robed gentry, among whom was recognizable the noble duke who so narrowly escaped with his life under the swords of Sir Norman and Count L'Estrange. Before this solemn conclave stood a man who was evidently the prisoner under trial, and who wore the whitest and most frightened face Sir Norman thought he had ever beheld. The queen was lounging negligently back on her throne, paying very little attention to the solemn rites, occasionally gossiping with some of the snow-white sylphs beside her, and often yawning behind her pretty finger-tips, and evidently very much bored by it all.
The rest of the company were decorously seated in the crimson and gilded arm-chairs, some listening with interest to what was going on, others holding whispered tete-a-tetes, and all very still and respectful.
Sir Norman's interest was aroused to the highest pitch; he imprudently leaned forward too far, in order to bear and see, and lost his balance. He felt he was going, and tried to stop himself, but in vain; and seeing there was no help for it, he made a sudden spring, and landed right in the midst of the assembly.
CHAPTER XI. THE EXECUTION.
In an instant all was confusion. Everybody sprang to their feet—ladies shrieked in chorus, gentlemen swore and drew their swords, and looked to see if they might not expect a whole army to drop from the sky upon them, as they stood. No other battalion, however, followed this forlorn hope; and seeing it, the gentlemen took heart of grace and closed around the unceremonious intruder. The queen had sprung from her royal seat, and stood with her bright lips parted, and her brighter eyes dilating in speechless wonder. The bench, with the judge at their head, had followed her example, and stood staring with all their might, looking, truth to tell, as much startled by the sudden apparition as the fair sex. The said fair sex were still firing off little volleys of screams in chorus, and clinging desperately to their cavaliers; and everything, in a word, was in most admired disorder.
Tam O'Shanter's cry, "Weel done, Cutty sark!" could not have produced half such a commotion among his "hellish legion" as the emphatic debut of Sir Norman Kingsley among these human revelers. The only one who seemed rather to enjoy it than otherwise was the prisoner, who was quietly and quickly making off, when the malevolent and irrepressible dwarf espied him, and the one shock acting as a counter-irritant to the other, he bounced fleetly over the table, and grabbed him in his crab-like claws.
This brisk and laudable instance of self-command had a wonderful and inspiriting effect on the rest; and as he replaced the pale and palsied prisoner in his former position, giving him a vindictive shake and vicious kick with his royal boots as he did so, everybody began to feel themselves again. The ladies stopped screaming, the gentlemen ceased swearing, and more than one exclamation of astonishment followed the cries of terror.
"Sir Norman Kingsley! Sir Norman Kingsley!" rang from lip to lip of those who recognized him; and all drew closer, and looked at him as if they really could not make up their mind to believe their eyes. As for Sir Norman himself, that gentleman was destined literally, if not metaphorically, to fall on his legs that night, and had alighted on the crimson velvet-carpet, cat-like, on his feet. In reference to his feelings—his first was one of frantic disapproval of going down; his second, one of intense astonishment of finding himself there with unbroken bones; his third, a disagreeable conviction that he had about put his foot in it, and was in an excessively bad fix; and last, but not least, a firm and rooted determination to make the beet of a bad bargain, and never say die.
His first act was to take off his plumed hat, and make a profound obeisance to her majesty the queen, who was altogether too much surprised to make the return politeness demanded, and merely stared at him with her great, beautiful, brilliant eyes, as if she would never have done.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" said Sir Norman, turning gracefully to the company; "I beg ten thousand pardons for this unwarrantable intrusion, and promise you, upon my honor, never to do it again. I beg to assure you that my coming here was altogether involuntary on my part, and forced by circumstances over which I had no control; and I entreat you will not mind me in the least, but go on with the proceeding, just as you did before. Should you feel my presence here any restraint, I am quite ready and willing to take my departure at any moment; and as I before insinuated, will promise, on the honor of a gentleman and a knight, never again to take the liberty of tumbling through the ceiling down on your heads."
This reference to the ceiling seemed to explain the whole mystery; and everybody looked up at the corner whence he came from, and saw the flag that had been removed. As to his speech, everybody had listened to it with the greatest of attention; and sundry of the ladies, convinced by this time that he was flesh and blood, and no ghost, favored the handsome young knight with divers glances, not at all displeased or unadmiring. The queen sank back into her seat, keeping him still transfixed with her darkly-splendid eyes; and whether she admired or otherwise, no one could tell from her still, calm face. The prince consort's feelings—for such there could be no doubt he was—were involved in no such mystery; and he broke out into a hyena-like scream of laughter, as he recognized, upon a second look, his young friend of the Golden Crown.
"So you have come, have you?" he cried, thrusting his unlovely visage over the table, till it almost touched sir Norman's. "You have come, have you, after all I said?"
"Yes, sir I have come!" said Sir Norman, with a polite bow.
"Perhaps you don't know me, my dear young sir—your little friend, you know, of the Golden Crown."
"Oh, I perfectly recognize you! My little friend," said Sir Norman, with bland suavity, and unconsciously quoting Leoline, "once seen in not easy to be-forgotten."
Upon this, his highness net up such another screech of mirth that it quite woke an echo through the room; and all Sir Norman's friends looked grave; for when his highness laughed, it was a very bad sign.
"My little friend will hurt himself," remarked Sir Norman, with an air of solicitude, "if he indulges in his exuberant and gleeful spirits to such an extent. Let me recommend you, as a well-wisher, to sit down and compose yourself."
Instead of complying, however, the prince, who seemed blessed with a lively sense of the ludicrous, wan so struck with the extreme funniness of the young man's speech, that he relaxed into another paroxysm of levity, shriller and more unearthly, if possible, than any preceding one, and which left him so exhausted, that he was forced to sink into his chair and into silence through sheer fatigue. Seizing this, the first opportunity, Miranda, with a glance of displeased dignity st Caliban, immediately struck in:
"Who are you, sir, and by what right do you dare to come here?"
Her tone was neither very sweet nor suave; but it was much pleasanter to be cross-examined by the owner of such a pretty face than by the ugly little monster, for the moment gasping and extinguished; and Sir Norman turned to her with alacrity, and a bow.
"Madame, I am Sir Norman Kingsley, very much at your service; and I beg to assure you I did not come here, but fell here, through that hole, if you perceive, and very much against my will."
"Equivocation will not serve you in this case, sir," said the queen, with an austere dignity. "And, allow me to observe, it is just probable you would not have fallen through that hole in our royal ceiling if you had kept away from it. You raised that flag yourself—did you not?"
"Madam, I fear I must say yes!"
"And why did you do so?" demanded her majesty, with far more sharp asperity than Sir Norman dreamed could ever come from such beautiful lips.
"The rumor of Queen Miranda's charms has gone forth; and I fear I must own that rumor drew me hither," responded Sir Norman, inventing a polite little work of fiction for the occasion; "and, let me add, that I came to find that rumor had under-rated instead of exaggerated her majesty's said charms."
Here Sir Norman, whose spine seemed in danger of becoming the shape of a rainbow, in excess of good breeding, made another genuflection before the queen, with his hand over the region of his heart. Miranda tried to look grave, and wear that expression of severe solemnity I am told queens and rich people always do; but, in spite of herself, a little pleased smile rippled over her face; and, noticing it, and the bow and speech, the prince suddenly and sharply set up such another screech of laughter as no steamboat or locomotive, in the present age of steam, could begin to equal in ghastliness.
"Will your highness have the goodness to hold your tongue?" inquired the queen, with much the air and look of Mrs. Caudle, "and allow me to ask this stranger a few questions uninterrupted? Sir Norman Kingsley, how long have you been above there, listening and looking on?"
"Madame, I was not there five minutes when I suddenly, and to my great surprise, found myself here."
"A lie!—a lie!" exclaimed the dwarf, furiously. "It is over two hours since I met you at the bar of the Golden Crown."
"My dear little friend," said Sir Norman, drawing his sword, and flourishing it within an inch of the royal nose, "just make that remark again, and my sword will cleave your pretty head, as the cimetar of Saladin clove the cushion of down! I earnestly assure you, madame, that I had but just knelt down to look, when I discovered to my dismay, that I was no longer there, but in your charming presence."
"In that case, my lords and gentlemen," said the queen, glancing blandly round the apartment, "he has witnessed nothing, and, therefore, merits but slight punishment."
"Permit me, your majesty," said the duke, who had read the roll of death, and who had been eyeing Sir Norman sharply for some time, "permit me one moment! This is the very individual who slew the Earl of Ashley, while his companion was doing for my Lord Craven. Sir Norman Kingsley," said his grace, turning, with awful impressiveness to that young person, "do you know me?"
"Quite as well as I wish to," answered Sir Norman, with a cool and rather contemptuous glance in his direction. "You look extremely like a certain highwayman, with a most villainous countenance, I encountered a few hours back, and whom I would have made mince most of if he lead not been coward enough to fly. Probably you may be the name; you look fit for that, or anything else."
"Cut him down!" "Dash his brains out!" "Run him through!" "Shoot him!" were a few of the mild and pleasant insinuations that went off on every side of him, like a fierce volley of pop-guns; and a score of bright blades flashed blue and threatening on every side; while the prince broke out into another shriek of laughter, that rang high over all.
Sir Norman drew his own sword, and stood on the defence, breathed one thought to Leoline, gave himself up for lost; but before quite doing so—to use a phrase not altogether as original as it might be—"determined to sell his life as dearly as possible." Angry eyes and fierce faces were on every hand, and his dreams of matrimony and Leoline seemed about to terminate then and there, when luck came to his side, in the shape of her most gracious majesty the queen. Springing to her feet, she waved her sceptre, while her black eyes flashed as fiercely as the best of them, and her voice rang out like a trumpet-tone.
"Sheathe your swords, my lords, and back every man of you! Not one hair of his head shall fall without my permission; and the first who lays hands on him until that consent is given, shall die, if I have to shoot him myself! Sir Norman Kingsley, stand near, and fear not. At his peril, let one of them touch you!"
Sir Norman bent on one knee, and raised the gracious hand to his lips. At the fierce, ringing, imperious tone, all involuntarily fell back, as if they were accustomed to obey it; and the prince, who seemed to-night in an uncommonly facetious mood, laughed again, long and shrill.
"What are your majesty's commands?" asked the discomfited duke, rather sulkily. "Is this insulting interloper to go free?"
"That is no affair of yours, my lord duke!" answered the spirited voice of the queen. "Be good enough to finish Lord Gloucester's trial; and until then I will be responsible for the safekeeping of Sir Norman Kingsley."
"And after that, he is to go free eh, your majesty?" said the dwarf, laughing to that extent that he ran the risk of rupturing an artery.
"After that, it shall be precisely as I please!" replied the ringing voice; while the black eyes flashed anything but loving glances upon him. "While I am queen here, I shall be obeyed; when I am queen no longer, you may do as you please! My lords" (turning her passionate, beautiful face to the hushed audience), "am I or am I not sovereign here!"
"Madame, you alone are our sovereign lady and queen!"
"Then, when I condescend to command, you shall obey! Do you, your highness, and you, lord duke, go on with the Earl of Gloucester's trial, and I will be the stranger's jailer."
"She is right," said the dwarf, his fierce little eyes gleaming with a malignant light; "let us do one thing before another; and after we have settled Gloucester here, we will attend to this man's case. Guards keep a sharp eye on your new prisoner. Ladies and gentlemen, be good enough to resume your seats. Now, your grace, continue the trial."
"Where did we leave off?" inquired his grace, looking rather at a loss, and scowling vengeance dire at the handsome queen and her handsome protege, as he sank back in his chair of state.
"The earl was confessing his guilt, or about to do so. Pray, my lord," said the dwarf, glaring upon the pallid prisoner, "were you not saying you had betrayed us to the king?"
A breathless silence followed the question—everybody seemed to hold his very breath to listen. Even the queen leaned forward and awaited the answer eagerly, and the many eyes that had been riveted on Sir Norman since his entrance, left him now for the first time and settled on the prisoner. A piteous spectacle that prisoner was—his face whiter than the snowy nymphs behind the throne, and so distorted with fear, fury, and guilt, that it looked scarcely human. Twice he opened his eyes to reply, and twice all sounds died away in a choking gasp.
"Do you hear his highness?" sharply inquired the lord high chancellor, reaching over the great seal, and giving the unhappy Earl of Gloucester a rap on the head with it, "Why do you not answer?"
"Pardon! Pardon!" exclaimed the earl, in a husky whisper. "Do not believe the tales they tell you of me. For Heaven's sake, spare my life!"
"Confess!" thundered the dwarf, striking the table with his clinched fist, until all the papers thereon jumped spasmodically into the air-"confess at once, or I shall run you through where you stand!"
The earl, with a perfect screech of terror, flung himself flat upon his face and hands before the queen, with such force, that Sir Norman expected to see his countenance make a hole in the floor.
"O madame! spare me! spare me! spare me! Have mercy on me as you hope for mercy yourself!"
She recoiled, and drew back her very garments from his touch, as if that touch was pollution, eyeing him the while with a glance frigid and pitiless as death.
"There is no mercy for traitors!" she coldly said. "Confess your guilt, and expect no pardon from me!"
"Lift him up!" shouted the dwarf, clawing the air with his hands, as if he could have clawed the heart out of his victim's body; "back with him to his place, guards, and see that he does not leave it again!"
Squirming, and writhing, and twisting himself in their grasp, in very uncomfortable and eel-like fashion, the earl was dragged back to his place, and forcibly held there by two of the guards, while his face grew so ghastly and convulsed that Sir Norman turned away his head, and could not bear to look at it.
"Confess!" once more yelled the dwarf in a terrible voice, while his still more terrible eyes flashed sparks of fire—"confess, or by all that's sacred it shall be tortured out of you. Guards, bring me the thumb-screws, and let us see if they will not exercise the dumb devil by which our ghastly friend is possessed!"
"No, no, no!" shrieked the earl, while the foam flew from his lips. "I confess! I confess! I confess!"
"Good! And what do you confess?" said the duke blandly, leaning forward, while the dwarf fell back with a yell of laughter at the success of his ruse.
"I confess all—everything—anything! only spare my life!"
"Do you confess to having told Charles, King of England, the secrets of our kingdom and this place?" said the duke, sternly rapping down the petition with a roll of parchment.
The earl grew, if possible, a more ghastly white. "I do—I must! but oh! for the love of—"
"Never mind love," cut in the inexorable duke, "it is a subject that has nothing whatever to do with the present case. Did you or did you not receive for the aforesaid information a large sum of money?"
"I did; but my lord, my lord, spare—"
"Which sum of money you have concealed," continued the duke, with another frown and a sharp rap. "Now the question is, where have you concealed it?"
"I will tell you, with all my heart, only spare my life!"
"Tell us first, and we will think about your life afterward. Let me advise you as a friend, my lord, to tell at once, and truthfully," said the duke, toying negligently with the thumb-screws.
"It is buried at the north corner of the old wall at the head of Bradshaw's grave. You shall have that and a thousandfold more if you'll only pardon—"
"Enough!" broke in the dwarf, with the look and tone of an exultant demon. "That is all we want! My lord duke, give me the death-warrant, and while her majesty signs it, I will pronounce his doom!"
The duke handed him a roll of parchment, which he glanced critically over, and handed to the queen for her autograph. That royal lady spread the vellum on her knee, took the pen and affixed her signature as coolly as if she were inditing a sonnet in an album. Then his highness, with a face that fairly scintillated with demoniac delight, stood up and fixed his eyes on the ghastly prisoner, and spoke in a voice that reverberated like the tolling of a death-bell through the room.
"My Lord of Gloucester, you have been tried by a council of your fellow-peers, presided over by her royal self, and found guilty of high treason. Your sentence is that you be taken hence, immediately, to the block, and there be beheaded, in punishment of your crime."
His highness wound up this somewhat solemn speech, rather inconsistently, bursting out into one of his shrillest peals of laughter; and the miserable Earl of Gloucester, with a gasping, unearthly cry, fell back in the arms of the attendants. Dead and oppressive silence reigned; and Sir Norman, who half believed all along the whole thing was a farce, began to feel an uncomfortable sense of chill creeping over him, and to think that, though practical jokes were excellent things in their way, there was yet a possibility of carrying them a little too far. The disagreeable silence was first broken by the dwarf, who, after gloating for a moment over his victim's convulsive spasms, sprang nimbly from his chair of dignity and held out his arm for the queen. The queen arose, which seemed to be a sign for everybody else to do the same, and all began forming themselves in a sort of line of march.
"Whist is to be done with this other prisoner, your highness?" inquired the duke, making a poke with his forefinger at Sir Norman. "Is he to stay here, or is he to accompany us?"
His highness turned round, and putting his face close up to Sir Norman's favored him with a malignant grin.
"You'd like to come, wouldn't you, my dear young friend?"
"Really," said Sir Norman, drawing back and returning the dwarf's stare with compound interest, "that depends altogether on the nature of the entertainment; but, at the same time, I'm much obliged to you for consulting my inclinations."
This reply nearly overset his highness's gravity once more, but he checked his mirth after the first irresistible squeal; and finding the company were all arranged in the order of going, and awaiting his sovereign pleasure, he turned.
"Let him come," he said, with his countenance still distorted by inward merriment; "It will do him good to see how we punish offenders here, and teach him what he is to expect himself. Is your majesty ready?"
"My majesty has been ready and waiting for the last five minutes," replied the lady, over-looking his proffered hand with grand disdain, and stepping lightly down from her throne.
Her rising was the signal for the unseen band to strike up a grand triumphant "Io paean," though, had the "Rogue's March" been a popular melody in those times, it would have suited the procession much more admirably. The queen and the dwarf went first, and a vivid contrast they were—she so young, so beautiful, so proud, so disdainfully cold; he so ugly, so stunted, so deformed, so fiendish. After them went the band of sylphs in white, then the chancellor, archbishop, and embassadors; next the whole court of ladies and gentlemen; and after them Sir Norman, in the custody of two of the soldiers. The condemned earl came last, or rather allowed himself to be dragged by his four guards; for he seemed to have become perfectly palsied and dumb with fear. Keeping time to the triumphant march, and preserving dismal silence, the procession wound its way along the room and through a great archway heretofore hidden by the tapestry now lifted lightly by the nymphs. A long stone passage, carpeted with crimson and gold, and brilliantly illuminated like the grand saloon they had left, was thus revealed, and three similar archways appeared at the extremity, one to the right and left, and one directly before them. The procession passed through the one to the left, and Sir Norman started in dismay to find himself in the most gloomy apartment he had ever beheld in his life. It was all covered with black—walls, ceiling, and floor were draped in black, and reminded him forcibly of La Masque's chamber of horrors, only this was more repellant. It was lighted, or rather the gloom was troubled, by a few spectral tapers of black wax in ebony candlesticks, that seemed absolutely to turn black, and make the horrible place more horrible. There was no furniture—neither couch, chair, nor table nothing but a sort of stage at the upper end of the room, with something that looked like a seat upon it, and both were shrouded with the same dismal drapery. But it was no seat; for everybody stood, arranging themselves silently and noiselessly around the walls, with the queen and the dwarf at their head, and near this elevation stood a tall, black statue, wearing a mask, and leaning on a bright, dreadful, glittering axe. The music changed to an unearthly dirge, so weird and blood-curdling, that Sir Norman could have put his hands over his ear-drums to shut out the ghastly sound. The dismal room, the voiceless spectators, the black spectre with the glittering axe, the fearful music, struck a chill to his inmost heart.
Could it be possible they were really going to murder the unhappy wretch? and could all those beautiful ladies—could that surpassingly beautiful queen, stand there serenely unmoved, to witness such a crime? While he yet looked round in horror, the doomed man, already apparently almost dead with fear, was dragged forward by his guards. Paralyzed as he was, at sight of the stage which he knew to be the scaffold, he uttered shriek after shriek of frenzied despair, and struggled like a madman to get free. But as well might Laocoon have struggled in the folds of the serpent; they pulled him on, bound him hand and foot, and held his head forcibly down on the block.
The black spectre moved—the dwarf made a signal—the glittering axe was raised—fell—a scream was cut in two—a bright jet of blood spouted up in the soldiers faces, blinding them; the axe fell again, and the Earl of Gloucester was minus that useful and ornamental appendage, a head.
It was all over so quickly, that Sir Norman could scarcely believe his horrified senses, until the deed was done. The executioner threw a black cloth over the bleeding trunk, and held up the grizzly head by the hair; and Sir Norman could have sworn the features moved, and the dead eyes rolled round the room.
"Behold!" cried the executioner, striking the convulsed face with the palm of his open hand, "the fate of all traitors!"
"And of all spies!" exclaimed the dwarf, glaring with his fiendish eyes upon the appalled Sir Norman. "Keep your axe sharp and bright, Mr. Executioner, for before morning dawns there is another gentleman here to be made shorter by a head."
CHAPTER XII. DOOM.
"Let us go," said the queen, glancing at the revolting sight, and turning away with a shudder of repulsion. "Faugh! The sight of blood has made me sick."
"And taken away my appetite for supper," added a youthful and elegant beauty beside her. "My Lord Gloucester was hideous enough when living, but, mon Dieu! he is ten times more so when dead!"
"Your ladyship will not have the same story to tell of yonder stranger, when he shares the same fate in are hour or two!" said the dwarf, with a malicious grin; "for I heard you remarking upon his extreme beauty when he first appeared."
The lady laughed and bowed, and turned her bright eyes upon Sir Norman.
"True! It is almost a pity to cut such a handsome head off—is it not? I wish I had a voice in your highness's council, and I know what I should do."
"What, Lady Mountjoy?"
"Entreat him to swear fealty, and become one of as; and—"
"And a bridegroom for your ladyship?" suggested the queen, with a curling lip. "I think if Sir Norman Kingsley knew Lady Mountjoy as well as I do, he would even prefer the block to such a fate!"
Lady Mountjoy's brilliant eyes shone like two angry meteors; but she merely bowed and laughed; and the laugh was echoed by the dwarf in his shrillest falsetto.
"Does your highness intend remaining here all night?" demanded the queen, rather fiercely. "If not, the sooner we leave this ghastly place the better. The play is over, and supper is waiting."
With which the royal virago made an imperious motion for her attendant sprites in gossamer white to precede her, and turned with her accustomed stately step to follow. The music immediately changed from its doleful dirge to a spirited measure, and the whole company flocked after her, back to the great room of state. There they all paused, hovering in uncertainty around the room, while the queen, holding her purple train up lightly in one hand, stood at the foot of the throne, glancing at them with her cold, haughty and beautiful eyes. In their wandering, those same darkly-splendid eyes glanced and lighted on Sir Norman, who, in a state of seeming stupor at the horrible scene he had just witnessed, stood near the green table, and they sent a thrill through him with their wonderful resemblance to Leoline's. So vividly alike were they, that he half doubted for a moment whether she and Leoline were not really one; but no—Leoline never could have had the cold, cruel heart to stand and witness such a horrible eight. Miranda's dark, piercing glance fell as haughtily and disdainfully on him as it had on the rest; and his heart sank as he thought that whatever sympathy she had felt for him was entirely gone. It might have been a whim, a woman's caprice, a spirit of contradiction, that had induced her to defend him at first. Whatever it was, and it mattered not now, it had completely vanished. No face of marble could have been colder, of stonier, or harder, than hers, as she looked at him out of the depths of her great dark eyes; and with that look, his last lingering hope of life vanished.
"And now for the next trial!" exclaimed the dwarf, briskly breaking in upon his drab-colored meditations, and bustling past. "We will get it over at once, and have done with it!"
"You will do no such thing!" said the imperious voice of the queenly shrew. "We will have neither trials nor anything else until after supper, which has already been delayed four full minutes. My lord chamberlain, have the goodness to step in and see that all is in order."
One of the gilded and decorated gentlemen whom sir Norman had mistaken for ambassadors stepped off, in obedience, through another opening in the tapestry—which seemed to be as extensively undermined with such apertures as a cabman's coat with capes—and, while he was gone, the queen stood drawn up to her full height, with her scornful face looking down on the dwarf. That small man knit up his very plain face into a bristle of the sourest kinks, and frowned sulky disapproval at an order which he either would not, or dared not, countermand. Probably the latter had most to do with it, as everybody looked hungry and mutinous, and a great deal more eager for their supper than the life of Sir Norman Kingsley.
"Your majesty, the royal banquet is waiting," insinuated the lord high chamberlain, returning, and bending over until his face and his shoe buckles almost touched.
"And what is to be done with this prisoner, while we are eating it?" growled the dwarf, looking drawn swords at his liege lady.
"He can remain here under care of the guards, can he not?" she retorted sharply. "Or, if you are afraid they are not equal to taking care of him, you had better stay and watch him yourself."
With which answer, her majesty sailed majestically away, leaving the gentleman addressed to follow or not, as he pleased. It pleased him to do so, on the whole; and he went after her, growling anathemas between his royal teeth, and evidently in the same state of mind that induces gentlemen in private life to take sticks to their aggravating spouses, under similar circumstances. However, it might not be just the thing, perhaps, for kings and queens to take broom-sticks to settle their little differences of opinion, like common Christians; and so the prince peaceably followed her, and entered the salle a manger with the rest, and Sir Norman and his keepers were left in the hall of state, monarchs of all they surveyed. Notwithstanding he knew his hours were numbered, the young knight could not avoid feeling curious, and the tapestry having been drawn aside, he looked through the arch with a good deal of interest.
The apartment was smaller than the one in which he stood—though still very large, and instead of being all crimson and gold, was glancing and glittering with blue and silver. These azure hangings were of satin, instead of velvet, and looked quite light and cool, compared to the hot, glowing place where he was. The ceiling was spangled over with silver stars, with the royal arms quartered in the middle, and the chairs were of white, polished wood, gleaming like ivory, and cushioned with blue satin. The table was of immense length, as it had need to be, and flashed and sparkled in the wax lights with heaps of gold and silver plate, cut-glass, and precious porcelain. Golden and crimson wines shone in the carved decanters; great silver baskets of fruit were strewn about, with piles of cakes and confectionery—not to speak of more solid substantials, wherein the heart of every true Englishman delighteth. The queen sat in a great, raised chair at the head, and helped herself without paying much attention to anybody, and the remainder were ranged down its length, according to their rank—which, as they were all pretty much dukes and duchesses, was about equal.
The spirits of the company—depressed for a moment by the unpleasant little circumstance of seeing one of their number beheaded—seemed to revive under the spirituous influence of sherry, sack, and burgundy; and soon they were laughing, and chatting, and hobnobbing, as animatedly as any dinner-party Sir Norman had ever seen. The musicians, too, appeared to be in high feather, and the merriest music of the day assisted the noble banqueters' digestion.
Under ordinary circumstances, it war rather a tantalizing scene to stand aloof and contemplate; and so the guards very likely felt; but Sir Norman's thoughts were of that room in black, the headsman's axe, and Leoline. He felt he would never see her again—never see the sun rise that was to shine on their bridal; and he wondered what she would think of him, and if she was destined to fall into the hands of Lord Rochester or Count L'Estrange. As a general thing, our young friend was not given to melancholy moralizing, but in the present case, with the headsman's axe poised like the sword of Damocles above him by a single hair, he may be pardoned for reflecting that this world is all a fleeting show, and that he had got himself into a scrape, to which the plague was a trifle. And yet, with nervous impatience, he wished the dinner and his trial were over, his fate sealed, and his life ended at once, since it was to be ended soon. For the fulfillment of the first wish, he had not long to wait; the feast, though gay and grand, was of the briefest, and they could have scarcely been half an hour gone when they were all back.
Everybody seemed in better humor, too, after the refection, but the queen and the dwarf—the former looked colder, and harder, and more like a Labrador iceberg tricked out in purple velvet, than ever, and his highness was grinning from ear to ear—which was the very worst possible sign. Not even her majesty could make the slightest excuse for delaying the trial now; and, indeed, that eccentric lady seemed to have no wish to do so, had she the power, but seated herself in silent disdain of them all, and dropping her long lashes over her dark eyes, seemed to forget there was anybody in existence but herself.
His highness and his nobles took their stations of authority behind the green table, and summoned the guards to lead the prisoner up before them, which was done; while the rest of the company were fluttering down into their seats, and evidently about to pay the greatest attention. The cases in this midnight court seemed to be conducted on a decidedly original plan, and with an easy rapidity that would have electrified any other court, ancient or modern. Sir Norman took his stand, and eyed his judges with a look half contemptuous, half defiant; and the proceedings commenced by the dwarf a leaning forward and breaking into a roar of laughter, right in his face.
"My little friend I warned you before not to be so facetious," said Sir Norman, regarding him quietly; "a rush of mirth to the brain will certainly be the death of you one of these day."
"No levity, young man!" interposed the lord chancellor, rebukingly; "remember, you are addressing His Royal Highness Prince Caliban, Spouse, and Consort of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Miranda!"
"Indeed! Then all I have to say, is, that her majesty has very bad taste in the selection of a husband, unless, indeed, her wish was to marry the ugliest man in the world, as she herself is the most beautiful of women!"
Her majesty took not the slightest notice of this compliment, not so much as a flatter of her drooping eye-lashes betrayed that she even heard it, but his highness laughed until he was perfectly hoarse.
"Silence!" shouted the duke, shocked and indignant at this glaring disrespect, "and answer truthfully the questions put to you. Your name, you say, is Sir Norman Kingsley?"
"Yes. Has your grace any objection to it?"
His grace waved down the interruption with a dignified wave of the hand, and went on with were judicial dignity.
"You are the same who shot Lord Ashley between this and the city, some hours ago?"
"I had the pleasure of shooting a highwayman there, and my only regret is, I did not perform the same good office by his companion, in the person of your noble self, before you turned and fled."
A slight titter ran round the room, and the duke turned crimson.
"These remarks are impertinent, and not to the purpose. You are the murderer of Lord Ashley, let that suffice. Probably you were on your way hither when you did the deed?"
"He was," said the dwarf, vindictively. "I met him at the Golden Crown but a short time after."
"Very well, that is another point settled, and either of them is strong enough to seal his death warrant. You came here as a spy, to see and hear and report—probably you were sent by King Charles?"
"Probably—just think as you please about it!" said Sir Norman, who knew his case was as desperate as it could be, and was quite reckless what he answered.
"You admit that you are a spy, then?"
"No such thing. I have owned nothing. As I told you before, you are welcome to put what construction you please on my actions."
"Sir Norman Kingsley, this is nonsensical equivocation! You own you came to hear and see?"
"Well, hearing and seeing constitute spying, do they not? Therefore, you are a spy."
"I confess it looks like it. What next?"
"Need you ask What is the fate of all spies?"
"No matter what they are in other places, I am pretty certain what they are here!"
"And that is?"
"A room in black, and a chop with an axe—the Earl of Gloucester's fate, in a word!"
"You have said it! Have you any reason why such a sentence should not be pronounced on you?"
"None; pronounce it as soon as you like."
"With the greatest pleasure!" said the duke, who had been scrawling on another ominous roll of vellum, and now passed it to the dwarf. "I never knew anyone it gave me more delight to condemn. Will your highness pass that to her majesty for signature, and pronounce his sentence."
His highness, with a grin of most exquisite delight, did as directed; and Sir Norman looked steadfastly at the queen as she received it. One of the gauzy nymphs presented it to her, kneeling, and she took it with a look half bored, half impatient, and lightly scrawled her autograph. The long, dark lashes did not lift; no change passed over the calm, cold face, as icily placid as a frozen lake in the moonlight—evidently the life or death of the stranger was less than nothing to her. To him she, too, was as nothing, or nearly so; but yet there was a sharp jarring pain at his heart, as he saw that fair hand, that had saved him once, so coolly sign his death warrant now. But there was little time left for to watch her; for, as she pushed it impatiently away, and relapsed into her former proud listlessness, the dwarf got up with one of his death's-head grins, and began:
"Sir Norman Kingsley, you have been tried and convicted as a spy, and the paid-hireling of the vindictive and narrow-minded Charles; and the sentence of this court, over which I have the honor to preside, is, that you be taken hence immediately to the place of execution, and there lose your head by the axe!"
"And a mighty small loss it will be!" remarked the duke to himself, in a sort of parenthesis, as the dwarf concluded his pleasant observation by thrusting himself forward across the table, after his rather discomposing fashion, and breaking out into one of has diabolical laughter-chips.
The queen, who had been sitting passive, and looking as if she were in spirit a thousand miles away, now started up with sharp suddenness, and favored his highness with one of her fieriest fiery glances.
"Will your highness just permit somebody else to have a voice in that matter? How many more trials are to come on tonight?"
"Only one," replied the duke, glancing over a little roll which he held; "Lady Castlemaine's, for poisoning the Duchess of Sutherland."
"And what is my Lady Castlemaine's fate to be?"
"The same as our friend's here, in all probability," nodding easily, not to say playfully, at Sir Norman.
"And how long will her trial last?"
"Half an hour, or thereabouts. There are some secrets in the matter that have to be investigated, and which will require some time."
"Then let all the trials be over first, and all the beheadings take place together. We don't choose to take the trouble of traveling to the Black Chamber just to see his head chopped off, and then have the same journey to undergo half an hour after, for a similar purpose. Call Lady Castlemaine, and let this prisoner be taken to one of the dungeons, and there remain until the time for execution. Guards, do you hear? Take him away!"
The dwarf's face grew black as a thunder-cloud, and he jumped to his feet and confronted the queen with a look so intensely ugly that no other earthly face could have assumed it. But that lady merely met it with one of cold disdain and aversion, and, keeping her dark bright eyes fixed chillingly upon him, waved her white hand, in her imperious way, to the guards. Those warlike gentlemen knew better than to disobey her most gracious majesty when she happened to be, like Mrs. Joe Gargary, on the "rampage," which, if her flashing eye and a certain expression about her handsome mouth spoke the truth, must have been twenty hours out of the twenty-four. As the soldiers approached to lead him away, Sir Norman tried to catch her eye; but in vain, for she kept those brilliant optics most unwinkingly fixed on the dwarf's face.
"Call Lady Castlemaine," commanded the duke, as Sir Norman with his guards passed through the doorway leading to the Black Chamber. "Your highness, I presume, is ready to attend to her case."
"Before I attend to hers or any one else's case," said the dwarf, hopping over the table like an overgrown toad, "I will first see that this guest of ours is properly taken care, of, and does not leave us without the ceremony of saying good-bye."
With which, he seized one of the wax candles, and trotted, with rather unprincely haste, after Sir Norman and his conductors. The young knight had been led down the same long passage he had walked through before; but instead of entering the chamber of horrors, they passed through the centre arch, and found themselves in another long, vaulted corridor, dimly lit by the glow of the outer one. It was as cold and dismal a place, Sir Norman thought, as he had ever seen; and it had an odor damp and earthy, and of the grave. It had two or three great, ponderous doors on either aide, fastened with huge iron bolts; and before one of these his conductors paused. Just as they did so, the glimmer of the dwarf's taper pierced the gloom, and the next moment, smiling from ear to ear, he was by their side.
"Down with the bars!" he cried. "This is the one for him—the strongest and safest of them all. Now, my dashing courtier, you will see how tenderly your little friend provides for his favorites!"
If Sir Norman made any reply, it was drowned id the rattle and clank of the massive bars, and is hopelessly lost to posterity. The huge door swung back; but nothing was visible but a sort of black velvet pall, and effluvia much stronger than sweet. Involuntarily he recoiled as one of the guards made a motion for him to enter.
"I Shove him in! shove him in!" shrieked the dwarf, who was getting so excited with glee that he was dancing about in a sort of jig of delight. "In with him—in with him! If he won't go peaceably, kick him in head-foremost!"
"I would strongly advise them not to try it," said Sir Norman, as he stepped into the blackness, "if they have any regard for their health! It does not make much difference after all, my little friend, whether I spend the next half-hour in the inky blackness of this place or the blood-red grandeur of your royal court. My little friend, until we meet again, permit me to say, au revoir."
The dwarf laughed in his pleasant way, and pushed the candle cautiously inside the door.
"Good-by for a little while, my dear young sir, and while the headsmen is sharpening his axe, I'll leave you to think about your little friend. Lest you should lack amusement, I'll leave you a light to contemplate your apartment; and for fear you may get lonesome, these two gentlemen will stand outside your door, with their swords drawn, till I come back. Good-by, my dear young sir—good-bye!"
The dungeon-door swung to with a tremendous bang Sir Norman was barred in his prison to await his doom and the dwarf was skipping along the passage with sprightliness, laughing as he went.
CHAPTER XIII. ESCAPED.
Probably not one of you; my dear friends, who glance graciously over this, was ever shut up in a dungeon under expectation of bearing the unpleasant operation of decapitation within half an hour. It never happened to myself, either, that I can recollect; so, of course, you or I personally can form no idea what the sensation may be like; but in this particular case, tradition saith Sir Norman Kingsley's state of mind was decidedly depressed. As the door shut violently, he leaned against it, and listened to his jailers place the great bars into their sockets, and felt he was shut in, in the dreariest, darkest, dismalest, disagreeablest place that it had ever been his misfortune to enter. He thought of Leoline, and reflected that in all probability she was sleeping the sleep of the just—perhaps dreaming of him, and little knowing that his head was to be cut off in half an hour.
In course of time morning would come—it was not likely the ordinary course of nature would be cut off because he was; and Leoline would get up and dress herself, and looking a thousand times prettier than ever, stand at the window and wait for him. Ah! she might wait—much good would it do her; about that time he would probably be—where? It was a rather uncomfortable question, but easily answered, and depressed him to a very desponding degree indeed.
He thought of Ormiston and La Masque—no doubt they were billing and cooing in most approved fashion just then, and never thinking of him; though, but for La Masque and his own folly, he might have been half married by this time. He thought of Count L'Estrange and Master Hubert, and become firmly convinced, if one did not find Leoline the other would; and each being equally bad, it was about a toss up in agony which got her.
He thought of Queen Miranda, and of the adage, "put no trust in princes," and sighed deeply as he reflected what a bad sign of human nature it was—more particularly such handsome human nature—that she could, figuratively speaking, pat him on the back one moment, and kick him to the scaffold the next. He thought, dejectedly, what a fool he was ever to have come back; or even having come back, not to have taken greater pains to stay up aloft, instead of pitching abruptly head-foremost into such a select company without an invitation. He thought, too, what a cold, damp, unwholesome chamber they had lodged him in, and how apt he would be to have a bad attack of ague and miasmatic fever, if they would only let him live long enough to enjoy those blessings. And this having brought him to the end of his melancholy meditation, he began to reflect how he could best amuse himself in the interim, before quitting this vale of tears. The candle was still blinking feebly on the floor, shedding tears of wax in its feeble prostration, and it suddenly reminded him of the dwarf's advice to examine his dark bower of repose. So he picked it up and snuffed it with his fingers, and held it aloof, much as Robinson Crusoe held the brand in the dark cavern with the dead goat.
In the velvet pall of blackness before alluded to, its small, wan ray pierced but a few inches, and only made the darkness visible. But Sir Norman groped his way to the wall, which he found to be all over green and noisome slime, and broken out into a cold, clammy perspiration, as though it were at its last gasp. By the aid of his friendly light, for which he was really much obliged—a fact which, had his little friend known, he would not have left it—he managed to make the circuit of his prison, which he found rather spacious, and by no means uninhabited; for the walls and floor were covered with fat, black beetles, whole families of which interesting specimens of the insect-world he crunched remorselessly under foot, and massacred at every step; and great, depraved-looking rats, with flashing eyes and sinister-teeth, who made frantic dives and rushes at him, and bit at his jack-boots with fierce, fury. These small quadrupeds reminded him forcibly of the dwarf, especially in the region of the eyes and the general expression of countenance; and he began to reflect that if the dwarf's soul (supposing him to possess such an article as that, which seemed open to debate) passed after death into the body of any other animal, it would certainly be into that of a rat.
He had just come to this conclusion, and was applying the flame of the candle to the nose of an inquisitive beetle, when it struck him he heard voices in altercation outside his door. One, clear, ringing, and imperious, yet withal feminine, was certainly not heard for the first time; and the subdued and respectful voices that answered, were those of his guards.
After a moment, he heard the sound of the withdrawing bolts, and his heart beat fast. Surely, his half-hour had not already expired; and if it had, would she be the person to conduct him to death? The door opened; a puff of wind extinguished his candle, but not until he had caught the glimmer of jewels, the shining of gold, and the flutter of long, black hair; and then some one came in. The door was closed; the bolts shot back!—and he was alone with Miranda, the queen.
There was no trouble about recognising her, for she carried in her hand a small lamp, which she held up between them, that its rays might fall directly on both faces. Each was rather white, perhaps, and one heart was going faster than it had ever gone before, and that one was decidedly not the queen's. She was dressed exactly as he had seen her, in purple and ermine, in jewels and gold; and strangely out of place she looked there, in her splendid dress and splendid beauty, among the black beetles and rats. Her face might have been a dead, blank wall, or cut out of cold, white stone, for all it expressed; and as she lightly held up her rich robes in one hand, and in the other bore the light, the dark, shining eyes were fixed on his face, and were as barren of interest, eagerness, compassion, tenderness, or any other feeling, as the shining, black glass ones of a wax doll. So they stood looking at each other for some ten seconds or so, and then, still looking full at him, Miranda spoke, and her voice was as clear and emotionless as her eyes,
"Well, Sir Norman Kingsley, I have come to see you before you die."
"Madame," he stammered, scarcely knowing what he said, "you are kind."
"Am I? Perhaps you forget I signed your death-warrant."
"Probably it would have been at the risk of your own life to refuse?"
"Nothing of the kind! Not one of them would hurt a hair of my head if I refused to sign fifty death-warrants! Now, am I kind?"
"Very likely it would have amounted to the same thing in the end—they would kill me whether you signed it or not; so what does it matter?"
"You are mistaken! They would not kill you; at least, not tonight, if I had not signed it. They would have let you live until their next meeting, which will be this night week; and I would have incurred neither risk nor danger by refusing."
Sir Norman glanced round the dungeon and shrugged his shoulders.
"I do not know that that prospect is much more inviting than the present one. Even death is preferable to a week's imprisonment in a place like this."
"But in the meantime you might have escaped."
"Madame, look at this stone floor, that stone roof, these solid walls, that barred and massive door; reflect that I am some forty feet under ground—cannot perform impossibilities, and then ask yourself how?"
"Sir Norman, have you ever heard of good fairies visiting brave knights and setting them free?"
Sir Norman smiled.
"I am afraid the good fairies and brave knights went the way of all flesh with King Arthur's round table; and even if they were in existence, none of them would take the trouble to limp down so far to save such an unlucky dog as I."
"Then you forgive me for what I have done?"
"Your majesty, I have nothing to forgive."
"Bah!" she said, scornfully. "Do not mock me here. My majesty, forsooth! you have but fifteen minutes to live in this world, Sir Norman; and if you have no better way of spending them, I will tell you a strange story—my own, and all about this place."
"Madame, there is nothing in the world I would like so much to hear."
"You shall hear it, then, and it may beguile the last slow moments of time before you go out into eternity."
She set her lamp down on the floor among the rats and beetles, and stood watching the small, red flame a moment with a gloomy, downcast eye; and Sir Norman, gazing on the beautiful darkening face, so like and yet so unlike Leoline, stood eagerly awaiting what was to come.
Meantime, the half-hour sped. In the crimson court the last trial was over, and Lady Castlemaine, a slender little beauty of eighteen stood condemned to die.
"Now for our other prisoner!" exclaimed the dwarf with sprightly animation; "and while I go to the cell, you, fair ladies, and you my lord, will seek the black chamber and await our coming there."
Ordering one of his attendants to precede him with a light, the dwarf skipped jauntily away, to gloat over his victim. He reached the dungeon door, which the guards, with some trepidation in their countenance, as they thought of what his highness would say when he found her majesty locked in with the prisoner, threw open.
"Come forth, Sir Norman Kingsley!" shouted the dwarf, rushing in. "Come forth and meet your doom!"
But no Sir Norman Kingsley obeyed the pleasant invitation, and a dull echo from the darkness alone answered him. There was a lamp burning on the floor, and near it lay a form, shining and specked with white in the gloom. He made for it between fear and fury, but there was something red and slippery on the ground, in which his foot slipped, and he fell. Simultaneously there was a wild cry from the two guards and the attendant, that was echoed by a perfect screech of rage from the dwarf, as on looking down he beheld Queen Miranda lying on the floor in the pool of blood, and apparently quite dead, and Sir Norman Kingsley gone.
CHAPTER, XIV. IN THE DUNGEON.
The interim between Miranda setting down her lamp on the dungeon floor among the rats and the beetles, and the dwarf's finding her bleeding and senseless, was not more than twenty minutes, but a great deal may be done in twenty minutes judiciously expended, and most decidedly it was so in the present case. Both rats and beetles paused to contemplate the flickering lamp, and Miranda paused to contemplate them, and Sir Norman paused to contemplate her, for an instant or so in silence. Her marvelous resemblance to Leoline, in all but one thing, struck him more and more—there was the same beautiful transparent colorless complexion, the same light, straight, graceful figure, the same small oval delicate features; the same profuse waves of shining dark hair, the same large, dark, brilliant eyes; the same, little, rosy pretty mouth, like one of Correggio's smiling angels. The one thing wanting was expression—in Leoline's face there was a kind of childlike simplicity; a look half shy, half fearless, half solemn in her wonderful eyes; but in this, her prototype, there was nothing shy or solemn; all was cold, hard, and glittering, and the brooding eyes were full of a dull, dusky fire. She looked as hard and cold and bitter, as she was beautiful; and Sir Norman began to perplex himself inwardly as to what had brought her here. Surely not sympathy, for nothing wearing that face of stone, could even know the meaning of such a word. While he looked at her, half wonderingly, half pityingly, half tenderly—a queer word that last, but the feeling was caused by her resemblance to Leoline—she had been moodily watching an old gray rat, the patriarch of his tribe, who was making toward her in short runs, stopping between each one to stare at her, out of his unpleasantly bright eyes. Suddenly, Miranda shut her teeth, clenched her hands, and with a sort of fierce suppressed ejaculation, lifted her shining foot and planted it full on the rat's head. So sudden, so fierce, and so strong, was the stamp, that the rat was crushed flat, and uttered a sharp and indignant squeal of expostulation, while Sir Norman looked at her, thinking she had lost her wits. Still she ground it down with a fiercer and stronger force every second; and with her eyes still fixed upon it, and blazing with reddish black flame, she said, in a sort of fiery hiss:
"Look at it! The ugly, loathsome thing! Did you ever see anything look more like him?"
There must have been some mysterious rapport between them, for he understood at once to whom the solitary personal pronoun referred.
"Certainly, in the general expression of countenance there is rather a marked resemblance, especially in the region of the teeth and eyes."
"Except that the rat's eyes are a thousand times handsomer," she broke in, with a derisive laugh.
"But as to shape," resumed Sir Norman, eyeing the excited and astonished little animal, still shrilly squealing, with the glance of a connoisseur, "I confess I do not see it! The rat is straight and shapely—which his highness, with all reverence be it said—is not, but rather the reverse, if you will not be offended at me for saying so."
She broke into a short laugh that had a hard, metallic ring, and then her face darkened, blackened, and she ground the foot that crushed the rat fiercer, and with a sort of passionate vindictiveness, as if she had the head of the dwarf under her heel.
"I hate him! I hate him!" she said, through her clenched teeth and though her tone was scarcely above a whisper, it was so terrible in its fiery earnestness that Sir Norman thrilled with repulsion. "Yes, I hate him with all my heart and soul, and I wish to heaven I had him here, like this rat, to trample to death under my feet!"
Not knowing very well what reply to make to this strong and heartfelt speech, which rather shocked his notions of female propriety, Sir Norman stood silent, and looked reflectively after the rat, which, when she permitted it at last to go free, limped away with an ineffably sneaking and crest-fallen expression on his hitherto animated features. She watched it, too, with a gloomy eye, and when it crawled into the darkness and was gone, she looked up with a face so dark and moody that it was almost sullen.
"Yes, I hate him!" she repeated, with a fierce moodiness that was quite dreadful, "yes, I hate him! and I would kill him, like that rat, if I could! He has been the curse of my whole life; he has made life cursed to me; and his heart's blood shall be shed for it some day yet, I swear!"
With all her beauty there was something so horrible in the look she wore, that Sir Norman involuntarily recoiled from her. Her sharp eyes noticed it, and both grew red and fiery as two devouring flames.
"Ah! you, too, shrink from me, would you? You, too, recoil in horror! Ingrate! And I have come to save your life!"
"Madame, I recoil not from you, but from that which is tempting you to utter words like these. I have no reason to love him of whom you speak—you, perhaps, have even less; but I would not have his blood, shed in murder, on my head, for ten thousand worlds! Pardon me, but you do not mean what you say."
"Do I not? That remains to be seen! I would not call it murder plunging a knife into the heart of a demon incarnate like that, and I would have done it long ago and he knows it, too, if I had the chance!"
"What has he done to you to make you do bitter against him?"
"Bitter! Oh, that word is poor and pitiful to express what I feel when his name is mentioned. Loathing and hatred come a little nearer the mark, but even they are weak to express the utter—the—" She stopped in a sort of white passion that choked her very words.
"They told me he was your husband," insinuated Sir Norman, unutterably repelled.
"Did they?" she said, with a cold sneer, "he is, too—at least as far as church and state can make him; but I am no more his wife at heart than I am Satan's. Truly of the two I should prefer the latter, for then I should be wedded to something grand—a fallen angel; as it is, I have the honor to be wife to a devil who never was an angel?"
At this shocking statement Sir Norman looked helplessly round, as if for relief; and Miranda, after a moment's silence, broke into another mirthless laugh.
"Of all the pictures of ugliness you ever saw or heard of, Sir Norman Kingsley, do tell me if there ever was one of them half so repulsive or disgusting as that thing?"
"Really," said Sir Norman, in a subdued tone, "he is not the most prepossessing little man in the world; but, madame, you do look and speak in a manner quite dreadful. Do let me prevail on you to calm yourself, and tell me your story, as you promised."
"Calm myself!" repeated the gentle lady, in a tone half snappish, half harsh, "do you think I am made of iron, to tell you my story and be calm? I hate him! I hate him! I would kill him if I could: and if you, Sir Norman, are half the man I take you to be, you will rid the world of the horrible monster before morning dawns!"
"My dear lady, you seem to forget that the case is reversed, and that he is going to rid the world of me,", said Sir Norman, with a sigh.
"No, not if you do as I tell you; and when I have told you how much cause I have to abhor him, you will agree with me that killing him will be no murder! Oh, if there is One above who rules this world, and will judge us all, why, why does He permit such monsters to live?"
"Because He is more merciful than his creatures," replied Sir Norman, with calm reverence,—"though His avenging hand is heavy on this doomed city. But, madame, time is on the wing, and the headsman will be here before your story is told."
"Ah, that story! How am I to tell it, I wonder, two words will comprise it all—sin and misery—misery and sin! For, buried alive here, as I am—buried alive, as I've always been—I know what both words mean; they have been branded on heart and brain in letters of fire. And that horrible monstrosity is the cause of all—that loathsome, misshapen, hideous abortion has banned and cursed my whole life! He is my first recollection. As far back as I can look through the dim eye of childhood's years, that horrible face, that gnarled and twisted trunk, those devilish eyes glare at me like the eyes and face of a wild beast. As memory grows stronger and more vivid, I can see that same face still—the dwarf! the dwarf! the dwarf!—Satan's true representative on earth, darkening and blighting ever passing year. I do not know where we lived, but I imagine it to have been one of the vilest and lowest dens in London, though the rooms I occupied were, for that matter, decent and orderly enough. Those rooms the daylight never entered, the windows were boarded up within, and fastened by shutters without, so that of the world beyond I was as ignorant as a child of two hours old. I saw but two human faces, his"—she seemed to hate him too much even to pronounce his name—"and his housekeeper's, a creature almost as vile as himself, and who is now a servant here; and with this precious pair to guard me I grew up to be fifteen years old. My outer life consisted of eating, sleeping, reading—for the wretch taught me to read—playing with my dogs and birds, and listening to old Margery's stories. But there was an inward life, fierce and strong, as it was rank and morbid, lived and brooded over alone, when Margery and her master fancied me sleeping in idiotic content. How were they to know that the creature they had reared and made ever had a thought of her own—ever wondered who she was, where she came from, what she was destined to be, and what lay in the great world beyond? The crooked little monster made a great mistake in teaching me to read, he should have known that books sow seed that grow up and flourish tall and green, till they become giants in strength. I knew enough to be certain there was a bright and glad world without, from which they shut me in and debarred me; and I knew enough to hate them both for it, with a strong and heartfelt hatred, only second to what I feel now."
She stopped for a moment, and fixed her dark, gloomy eyes on the swarming floor, and shook off, with out a shudder, the hideous things that crawled over her rich dress. She had scarcely looked at Sir Norman since she began to speak, but he had done enough looking for them both, never once taking his eyes from the handsome darkening face. He thought how strangely like her story was to Leoline's—both shut in and isolated from the outer world. Verily, destiny seemed to have woven the woof and warp of their fates wonderfully together, for their lives were as much the same as their faces. Miranda, having shook off her crawling acquaintances, watched them glancing along the foul floor in the darkness, and went moodily on.
"It was three years ago when I was fifteen years old, as I told you, that a change took place in my life. Up to that time, that miserable dwarf was what people would call my guardian, and did not trouble me much with his heavenly company. He was a great deal from our house, sometimes absent for weeks together; and I remember I used to envy the freedom with which he came and went, far more than I ever wondered where he spent his precious time. I did not know then that he belonged to the honorable profession of highwaymen, with variations of coining when travelers were few and money scarce. He was then, and is still, at the head of a formidable gang, over whom he wields most desperate authority—as perhaps you have noticed during the brief and pleasant period of your acquaintance."
"Really, madam, it struck me that your authority over them was much more despotic than his," said Sir Norman, in all sincerity, feeling called upon to give the—well, I'd rather not repeat the word, which is generally spelled with a d and a dash—his due.
"No thanks to him for that! He would make me a slave now, as he did then, if he dared, but he has found that, poor, trodden worm as I was, I had life enough left to turn and sting."
"Which you do with a vengeance! Oh I you're a Tartar!" remarked Sir Norman to himself. "The saints forefend that Leoline should be like you in temper, as she is in history and face; for if she is, my life promises to be a pleasant one."
"This rascally crew of cut-throats, whom his villainous highness headed," said Miranda, "were an almost immense number then, being divided in three bodies—London cut-purses, Hounslow Heath highwaymen, and assistant-coiners, but all owning him for their lord and master. He told me all this himself, one day when, in an after-dinner and most gracious mood, he made a boasting display of his wealth and greatness; told me I was growing up very pretty indeed, and that I was shortly to be raised to the honor and dignity, and bliss of being his wife.
"I fancy I must have had a very vague idea of what that one small word meant, and was besides in an unusually contented and peaceful state of mind, or I should, undoubtedly, have raised one of his cut-glass decanters and smashed in his head with it. I know how I should receive such an assertion from him now, but I think I took it then with a resignation, he must have found mighty edifying; and when he went on to tell me that all this richness and greatness were to be shared by me when that celestial time came, I think I rather liked the idea than otherwise. The horrible creature seemed to have woke up that day, for the first time, and all of a sudden, to a conviction that I was in a fair way to become a woman, and rather a handsome one, and that he had better make sure of me before any accident interfered to take me from him. Full of this laudable notion, he became a daily visitor of mine from thenceforth, and made the discovery, simultaneously with myself, that the oftener he came the less favor he found in my sight. I had, before, tacitly disliked him, and shrank with a natural repulsion from his dreadful ugliness ness; but now, from negative dislike, I grew to positive hate. The utter loathing and abhorrence I have had for him ever since, began then—I grew dimly and intuitively conscious of what he would make me, and shrank from my fate with a vague horror not to be told in words. I became strong in my fearful dread of it. I told him I detested, abhorred, loathed, hated him; that he might keep his riches, greatness, and ungainly self for those who wanted him; they were temptations too weak to move me.
"Of course, there was raving, and storming, threatening, terrible looks and denunciations, and I quailed and shrank like a coward, but was obstinate still. Then as a dernier resort, he tried another bribe—the glorious one of liberty, the one he knew would conquer me, and it did. He promised me freedom—if I married him, I might go out into the great unknown world, fetterless and free; and I, O! fool that I was! consented. Not that my object was to stay with him one instant longer her my prison doors were opened; no, I was not quite so besotted as that—once out, and the little demon might look for me with last year's partridges. Of course, those demoniac eyes read my heart like an open book; and when I pronounced the fatal 'yes,' he laughed in that delightful way of his own, which will probably be the last thing you will hear when you lay your head under the axe.
"I don't know who the clergyman who married us was; but he was a clergyman: there can be no doubt about that. It was three days after, and for the first time in my fifteen years of life, I stood in sunshine, and daylight, and open air. We drove to the cathedral—for it was in St. Paul's the sacrilege was committed. I never could have walked there, I was so stunned, and giddy, and bewildered. I never thought of the marriage—I could think of nothing but the bright, crashing, sun-shiny world without, till I was led up before the clergyman, with much the air, I suppose, of one walking in her sleep. He was a very young man, I remember, and looked from the dwarf to me, and from me to the dwarf, in a great state of fear and uncertainty, but evidently not daring to refuse. Margery and one of his gang were our only attendants, and there, in God's temple, the deed was done, and I was made the miserable thing I am to-day."
The suppressed passion, rising and throbbing like a white flame in her face and eyes, made her stop for a moment, breathing hard. Looking up she met Sir Norman's gaze, and as if there was something in its quiet, pitying tenderness that mesmerized her into calm, she steadily and rapidly went on.
"I awoke to a new life, after that; but not to one of freedom and happiness. I was as closely, even more closely, guarded than ever; and I found, when too late, that I had bartered myself, soul and body, for an empty promise. The only difference was, that I saw more new faces; for the dwarf began to bring his confederates and subordinates to the house, and would have me dressed up and displayed to them, with a demoniac pride that revolted me beyond everything else, if I were a painted puppet or an overgrown wax doll. Most of the precious crew of scoundrels had wives of their own and these began to be brought with them of an evening; and then, what with dancing, and music, and cards, and feasting, we had quite a carnival of it till morning.
"I liked this part of the business excessively well at first, and I was flattered and fooled to the top of my bent, and made from the first, the reigning belle and queen. There was more policy in that than admiration, I fancy; for the dwarf was all-powerful among them and dreaded accordingly, and I was the dwarf's pet and plaything, and all-powerful with him. The hideous creature had a most hideous passion for me then, and I could wind him round my finger as easily as Delilah and Samson; and by his command and their universal consent, the mimicry of royalty was begun, and I was made mistress and sovereign head, even over the dwarf himself. It was a queer whim; but that crooked slug was always taking such odd notions into his head, which nobody there dared laugh at. The band were bound together by a terrible oath, women and all; but they had to take another oath then, that of allegiance to me.