"It quite turned my brain at first; and my eyes were so dazzled by the pitiful glistening of the pageant, the sham splendor of the sham court, and the half-mocking, half-serious homage paid me, that I could see nothing beyond the shining surface, and the blackness, and corruption, and horror within, were altogether lost upon me. This feeling increased when, as months and months went by, they were added to the mock peers of the Midnight Court, real nobles from that of St. Charles. I did not know then that they were ruined gamesters, vicious profligates, and desperate broken-down roues, who would have gone to pandemonium itself, nightly, for the mad license and lawless excesses they could indulge in here to their heart's content. But I got tired of it all, after a time: my eyes began slowly to open, and my heart—at least, what little of that article I ever had—turned sick with horror within me at what I had done. The awful things I saw, the fearful deeds that were perpetrated, would curdle your very blood with horror, were I to relate them. You have seen a specimen yourself, in the cold-blooded murder of that wretch half an hour ago; and his is not the only life crying for vengeance on these men. The slightest violation of their oath was punished, and the doom of traitors and informers was instant death, whether male or female. The sham trials and executions always took place in presence of the whole court, to strike a salutary terror into them, and never occurred but once a week, when the whole band regularly met. My power continued undiminished; for they knew either the dwarf or I must be supreme; and though the queen was bad, the prince was worse. The said prince would willingly have pulled me down from my eminence, and have mounted it himself; but that he was probably restrained by a feeling that law-makers should not be law-breakers, and that, if he set the example, there would be no end to the insubordination and rebellion that would follow."
"Were you living here or in London then?" inquired Sir Norman, taking an advantage of a pause, employed by Miranda in shaking off the crawling beetles.
"Oh, in London! We did not come here until the outbreak of the plague—that frightened them, especially the female portion, and they held a scared meeting, and resolved that we should take up our quarters somewhere else. This place being old and ruined, and deserted and with all sorts of evil rumors hanging about it, was hit upon; and secretly, by night, these mouldering old vaults were fitted up, and the goods and chattels of the royal court removed. And here I, too, was brought by night under the dwarf's own eye; for he well knew I would have risked a thousand plagues to escape from him. And here I have been ever since, and here the weekly revels are still held, and may for years to come, unless something is done to-night to prevent it.
"The night before these weekly anniversaries they all gather; but during the rest of the time I am alone with Margery and the dwarf, and have learned more secrets about this place than they dream of. For the rest, there is little need of explanation—the dwarf and his crew have industriously circulated the rumor that it is haunted; and some of those white figures you saw with me, and who, by the way, are the daughters of these robbers, have been shown on the broken battlements, as if to put the fact beyond doubt.
"Now, Sir Norman, that is all—you have heard my whole history as far as I know it; and nothing remains but to tell you what you must see yourself, that I am mad for revenge, and must have it, and you must help me!"
Her eyes were shining with the fierce red fire he had seen in them before, and the white face wore a look so deadly and diabolical that, with all its beauty, it was absolutely repulsive. He took a step from her-for in each of those gleaming eyes sat a devil.
"You must help me!" she persisted. "You—you, Sir Norman! For many a day I have been waiting for a chance like this, and until now I have waited in vain. Alone, I want physical strength to kill him, and I dare not trust any one else. No one was ever cast among us before as you have been; and now, condemned to die, you must be desperate, and desperate men will do desperate things. Fate, Destiny, Providence—whatever you like—has thrown you in my way, and help me you must and shall!"
"Madame, madame I what are you saying? How can I help you?"
"There is but one way—this!"
She held up in the pale ray of the lamp, something she drew from the folds of her dress, that glistened blue, and bright, and steelly in the gloom.
"A dagger!" he exclaimed, with a shudder, and a recoil. "Madame, are you talking of murder?"
"I told you!" she said, through her closed teeth, and with her eyes flaming like fire, "that ridding the earth of that fiend incarnate would be a good deed, and no murder! I would do it myself if I could take him off his guard; but he never is that with me; and then my arm is not strong enough to reach his black heart through all that mass of brawn, and blood, and muscle. No, Sir Norman, Doom has allotted it to you—obey, and I swear to you, you shall go free; refuse—and in ten minutes your head will roll under the executioner's axe!"
"Better that than the freedom you offer! Madame, I cannot murder!"
"Coward!" she passionately cried; "you fear to do it, and yet you have but a life to lose, and that is lost to you now!"
Sir Norman raised his head; and even in the darkness she saw the haughty flush that crimsoned his face.
"I fear no man living; but, madame, I fear One who is higher than man!"
"But you will die if you refuse; and I repeat, again and again, there is no risk. These guards will not let you out; but there are more ways of leaving a room than through the door, and I can lead you up behind the tapestry to where he is standing, and you can stab him through the back, and escape with me! Quick, quick, there is no time to lose!"
"I cannot do it!" he said, resolutely, drawing back and folding his arms. "In short, I will not do it!"
There was such a terrible look in the beautiful eyes, that he half expected to see her spring at him like a wild cat, and bury the dagger in his own breast. But the rule of life works by contraries: expect a blow and you will get a kiss, look for an embrace, and you will be startled by a kick. When the virago spoke, her voice was calm, compared with what it had been before, even mild.
"You refuse! Well, a willful man must have him way; and since you are so qualmish about a little bloodletting, we must try another plan. If I release you—for short as the time is, I can do it—will you promise me to go direct to the king this very night, and inform him of all you've seen and heard here?"
She looked at him with an eagerness that was almost fierce; and in spite of her steady voice, there was something throbbing and quivering, deadly and terrible, in her upturned face. The form she looked at was erect and immovable, the eyes were quietly resolved, the mouth half-pityingly, half-sadly smiling.
"Are you aware, dear lady, what the result of such a step would be?"
"Death!" she said, coldly.
"Death, transportation, or life-long imprisonment to them all—misery and disgrace to many a noble house; for some I saw there were once friends of mine, with families I honor and respect. Could I bring the dwarf and his attendant imps to Tyburn, and treat them to a hempen cravat, I would do it without remorse—though the notion of being informer, even then, would not be very pleasant; but as it is, I cannot be the death of one without ruining all, and as I told you, some of those were once my friends. No, madame, I cannot do it. I have but once to die and I prefer death here, to purchasing life at such a price."
There was a short silence, during which they gazed into each other's eyes ominously, and one was about as colorless as the other.
"You refuse?" she coldly said.
"I must! But if you can save my life, as you say, why not do it, and fly with me? You will find me the truest and most grateful of friends, while life remains."
"You are very kind; but I want no friendship, Sir Norman—nothing but revenge! As to escaping, I could have done that any time since we came here, for I have found out a secret means of exit from each of these vaults, that they know nothing of. But I have staid to see him dead at my feet—if not by my hand, at least by my command; and since you will not do it, I will make the attempt myself. Farewell, Sir Norman Kingsley; before many minutes you will be a corpse, and your blood be upon yourself!"
She gave him a glance as coldly fierce as her dagger's glance, and turned to go, when he stepped hastily forward, and interposed:
"Miranda—Miranda—you are crazed! Stop and tell me what you intend to do."
"What you feared to attempt," she haughtily replied; "Sheathe this dagger in his demon heart!"
"Miranda, give me the dagger. You must not, you shall not, commit such a crime!"
"Shall not?" she uttered scornfully. "And who are you that dares to speak to me like this? Stand aside, coward, and let me pass!"
"Pardon me, but I cannot, while you hold that dagger. Give it to me, and you shall go free; but while you hold it with this intention, for your own sake, I will detain you till some one comes."
She uttered a low, fierce cry, and struck at him with it, but he caught her hand, and with sudden force snatched it from her. In doing so he was obliged to hold it with its point toward her, and struggling for it in a sort of frenzy, as he raised the hand that held it, she slipped forward and it was driven half-way to the hilt in her side. There was a low, grasping cry—a sudden clasping of both hands over her heart, a sway, a reel, and she fell headlong prostrate on the loathsome floor.
Sir Norman stood paralyzed. She half raised herself on her elbow, drew the dagger from the wound, and a great jet of blood shot up and crimsoned her hands. She did not faint—there seemed to be a deathless energy within her that chained life strongly in its place—she only pressed both hands hard over the wound, and looked mournfully and reproachfully up in his face. Those beautiful, sad, solemn dyes, void of everything savage and fierce, were truly Leoline's eyes now.
Through all his first shock of horror, another thing dawned on his mind; he had looked on this scene before. It was the second view in La Masque's caldron, and but one remained to be verified.
The next instant, he was down on his knees in a paroxysm of grief and despair.
"What have I done? what have I done?" was his cry.
"Listen!" she said, faintly raising one finger. "Do you hear that?"
Distant steps were echoing along the passage. Yes; he heard them, and knew what they were.
"They are coming to lead you to death!" she said, with some of her old fire; "but I will baffle them yet. Take that lamp—go to the wall yonder, and in that corner, near the floor, you will see a small iron ring. Pull it—it does not require much force—and you will find an opening leading through another vault; at the end there is a broken flight of stairs, mount them, and you will find yourself in the same place from which you fell. Fly, fly! There is not a second to lose!"
"How can I fly? how can I leave you dying here?"
"I am not dying!" she wildly cried, lifting both hands from the wound to push him away, while the blood flowed over the floor. "But we will both die if you stay. Go-go-go!"
The footsteps had paused st his door. The bolts were beginning to be withdrawn. He lifted the lamp, flew across his prison, found the ring, and took a pull at it with desperate strength. Part of what appeared to be the solid wall drew out, disclosing an aperture through which he could just squeeze sideways. Quick as thought he was through, forgetting the lamp in his haste. The portion of the wall slid noiselessly back, just as the prison door was thrown open, and the dwarfs voice was heard, socially inviting him, like Mrs. Bond's ducks, to come and be killed.
Some people talk of darkness so palpable that it may be felt, and if ever any one was qualified to tell from experience what it felt like, Sir Norman was in that precise condition at that precise period. He groped his way through the blind blackness along what seemed an interminable distance, and stumbled, at last, over the broken stairs at the end. With some difficult, and at the serious risk of his jugular, he mounted them, and found himself, as Miranda had stated, in a place he knew very well. Once here he allowed no grass to grow under him feet; and, in five minutes after, to his great delight, he found himself where he had never hoped to be again—in the serene moonlight and the open air, fetterless and free.
His horse was still where he had left him, and in a twinkling he was on his back, and dashing away to the city, to love—to Leoline!
CHAPTER XV. LEOLINE'S VISITORS.
If things were done right—but they are not and, never will be, while this whirligig world of mistakes spins round, and all Adam's children, to the end of the chapter, will continue sinning to-day and repenting tomorrow, falling the next and bewailing it the day after. If Leoline had gone to bed directly, like a good, dutiful little girl, as Sir Norman ordered her, she would have saved herself a good deal of trouble and tears; but Leoline and sleep were destined to shake hands and turn their backs on each other that night. It was time for all honest folks to be in bed, and the dark-eyed beauty knew it too, but she had no notion of going, nevertheless. She stood in the centre of the room, where he had left her, with a spot like a scarlet roseberry on either cheek; a soft half-smile on the perfect mouth, and a light unexpressibly tender and dreamy, in those artesian wells of beauty—her eyes. Most young girls of green and tender years, suffering from "Love's young dream," and that sort of thing, have just that soft, shy, brooding look, whenever their thoughts happen to turn to their particular beloved; and there are few eyes so ugly that it does not beautify, even should they be as cross as two sticks. You should have seen Leoline standing in the centre of her pretty room, with her bright rose-satin glancing and glittering, and flowing over rug and mat; with her black waving hair clustering and curling like shining floss silk; with a rich white shimmer of pearls on the pale smooth forehead and large beautiful arms. She did look irresistibly bewitching beyond doubt; and it was just as well for Sir Norman's peace of mind that he did not see her, for he was bad enough without that. So she stood thinking tenderly of him for a half-hour or so, quite undisturbed by the storm; and how strange it was that she had risen up that very morning expecting to be one man's bride, and that she should rise up the next, expecting to be another's. She could not realize it at all; and with a little sigh-half pleasure, half presentiment—she walked to the window, drew the curtain, and looked out at the night. All was peaceful and serene; the moon was fall to overflowing, and a great deal of extra light ran over the brim; quite a quantity of stars were out, and were winking pleasantly down at the dark little planet below, that went round, and round, with grim stoicism, and paid no attention to anybody's business but its own. She saw the heaps of black, charred ashes that the rush of rain had quenched; she saw the still and empty street; the frowning row of gloomy houses opposite, and the man on guard before one of them. She had watched that man all day, thinking, with a sick shudder, of the plague-stricken prisoners he guarded, and reading its piteous inscription, "Lord have mercy on us!" till the words seemed branded on her brain. While she looked now, an upper window was opened, a night-cap was thrust out and a voice from its cavernous depths hailed the guard.
"Robert! I say, Robert!"
"Well!" said Robert, looking up.
"Master and missus be gone at last, and the rest won't live till morning."
"Won't they?" said Robert, phlegmatically; "what a pity! Got 'em ready, and I'll stop the dead-cart when it comes round."
Just as he spoke, the well-known rattle of wheels, the loud ringing of the bell, and the monotonous cry of the driver, "Bring out your dead! bring out your dead!" echoed on the pale night's silence; and the pest-cart came rumbling and jolting along with its load of death. The watchman hailed the driver, according to promise, and they entered the house together, brought out one long, white figure, and then another, and threw them on top of the ghastly heap.
"We'll have three more for you in on hour of so—don't forget to come round," suggested the watchman.
"All right!" said the driver, as he took his place, whipped his horse, rang his bell, and jogged along nonchalantly to the plague-pit.
Sick at heart, Leoline dropped the curtain, and turned round to see somebody else standing at her elbow. She had been quite alone when she looked out; she was alone no longer; there had been no noise, yet soma one had entered, and was standing beside her. A tall figure, all in black, with its sweeping velvet robes spangled with stars of golden rubies, a perfect figure of incomparable grace and beauty. It had worn a cloak that had dropped lightly from its shoulders, and lay on the floor and the long hair streamed in darkness over shoulder and waist. The face was masked, the form stood erect and perfectly motionless, and the scream of surprise and consternation that arose to Leoline's lips died out in wordless terror. Her noiseless visitor perceived it, and touching her arm lightly with one little white hand, said in her sweetest and most exquisite of tones:
"My child, do not tremble so, and do not look so deathly white. You know me, do you not?"
"You are La Masque!" said Leoline trembling with nervous dread.
"I am, and no stranger to you; though perhaps you think so. Is it your habit every night to look out of your window in full dress until morning?"
"How did you enter?" asked Leoline, her curiosity overcoming for a moment even her fear.
"Through the door. Not a difficult thing, either, if you leave it wide open every night, as it is this."
"Was it open?" said Leoline, in dismay. "I never knew it."
"Ah! then it was not you who went out last. Who was it?"
"It was—was—" Leoline's cheeks were scarlet; "it was a friend!"
"A somewhat late hour for one's friends to visit," said La Masque, sarcastically; "and you should learn the precaution of seeing them to the door and fastening it after them."
"Rest assured, I shall do so for the future," said Leoline, with a look that would have reminded Sir Nor man of Miranda had he seen it. "I scarcely expected the honor of any more visits, particularly from strangers to-night."
"Civil, that! Will you ask me to sit down, or am I to consider myself an unseasonable intruder, and depart?"
"Madame, will you do me the honor to be seated. The hour, as you say, is somewhat unseasonable, and you will oblige me by letting me know to what I am indebted for the pleasure of this visit, as quickly as possible."
There was something quite dignified about Mistress Leoline as she swept rustling past La Masque, sank into the pillowy depths of her lounge, and motioned her visitor to a seat with a slight and graceful wave of her hand. Not but that in her secret heart she was a good deal frightened, for something under her pink satin corsage was going pit-a-pat at a wonderful rate; but she thought that betraying such a feeling would not be the thing. Perhaps the tall, dark figure saw it, and smiled behind her mask; but outwardly she only leaned lightly against the back of the chair, and glanced discreetly at the door.
"Are you sure we are quite alone?"
"Because," said La Masque, in her low, silvery tones, "what I have come to say is not for the ears of any third person living:"
"We are entirely alone, madame," replied Leoline, opening her black eyes very wide. "Prudence is gone, and I do not know when she will be back."
"Prudence will never come back," said La Masque, quietly.
"My dear, do not look so shocked—it is not her fault. You know she deserted you for fear of the plague."
"Well, that did not save her; nay, it even brought on what she dreaded so much. Your nurse is plague-stricken, my dear, and lies ill unto death in the pesthouse in Finsbury Fields."
"Oh, dreadful!" exclaimed Leoline, while every drop of blood fled from her face. "My poor, poor old nurse!"
"Your poor, poor old nurse left you without much tenderness when she thought you dying of the same disease," said La Masque, quietly.
"Oh, that is nothing. The suddenness, the shock drove her to it. My poor, dear Prudence."
"Well, you can do nothing for her now," said La Masque, in a tone of slight impatience. "Prudence is beyond all human aid, and so—let her rest in peace. You were carried to the plague-pit yourself, for dead, were you not?"
"Yes," answered the pale lips, while she shivered all over at the recollection.
"And was saved by—by whom were you saved, my dear?"
"By two gentlemen."
"Oh, I know that; what were their names?"
"One was Mr. Ormiston, the other was," hesitating and blushing vividly, "Sir Norman Kingsley."
La Masque leaned across her chair, and laid one dainty finger lightly on the girl's hot cheek.
"And for which is that blush, Leoline?"
"Madame, was it only to ask me questions you came here?" said Leoline, drawing proudly back, though the hot red spot grew hotter and redder; "if so, you will excuse my declining to answer any more."
"Child, child!" said La Masque, in a tone so strangely sad that it touched Leoline, "do not be angry with me. It is no idle curiosity that sent me here at this hour to ask impertinent questions, but a claim that I have upon you, stronger than that of any one else in the world."
Leoline's beautiful eyes opened wider yet.
"A claim upon me! How? Why? I do not understand."
"All in good time. Will you tell me something of your past history, Leoline?"
"Madame Masque, I have no history to tell. All my life I have lived alone with Prudence; that in the whole of it in nine words."
La Masque half laughed.
"Short, sharp, and decisive. Had you never father or mother?"
"There is a slight probability I may have had at some past period," said Leoline, sighing; "but none that I ever knew."
"Why does not Prudence tell you?"
"Prudence is only my nurse, and says she has nothing to tell. My parents died when I was an infant, and left me in her care—that is her story."
"A likely one enough, and yet I see by your face that you doubt it."
"I do doubt it! There are a thousand little outward things that make me fancy it is false, and an inward voice that assures me it is so."
"Then let me tell you that inward voice tells falsehoods, for I know that your father and mother are both dead these fourteen years!"
Leoline's great black eyes were fixed on her face with a look so wild and eager, that La Masque laid her hand lightly and soothingly on her shoulder.
"Don't look at me with such a spectral face! What is there so extraordinary in all I have said?"
"You said you knew my father and mother."
"No such thing! I said I knew they were dead, but the other fact is true also; I did know them when living!"
"Madame, who are you? Who were they?"
"I? Oh, I am La Masque, the sorceress, and they—they were Leoline's father and mother!" and again La Masque slightly laughed.
"You mock me, madame!" cried Leoline, passionately. "You are cruel—you are heartless! If you know anything, in Heaven's name tell me—if not, go and leave me in peace!"
"Thank you! I shall do that presently; and as to the other—of course I shall tell you; what else do you suppose I have come for to-night? Look here! Do you see this?"
She drew out from some hidden pocket in her dress a small and beautifully-wrought casket of ivory and silver, with straps and clasps of silver, and a tiny key of the same.
"Well!" asked Leoline, looking from it to her, with the blank air of one utterly bewildered,
"In this casket, my dear, there is a roll of papers, closely written, which you are to read as soon as I leave you. Those papers contain your whole history—do you understand?"
She was looking so white, and staring so hard and so hopelessly, that there was need of the question. She took the casket and gazed at it with a perplexed air.
"My child, have your thoughts gone wool-gathering? Do you not comprehend what I have said to you! Your whole history is hid in that box?"
"I know!" said Leoline, slowly, and with her eyes again riveted to the black mask. "But; madame, who are you?"
"Have I not told you? What a pretty inquisitor it is! I am La Masque—your friend, now; something more soon, as you will see when you read what I have spoken of. Do not ask me how I have come by it—you will read all about it there. I did not know that I would give it to you to-night, but I have a strange foreboding that it is destined to be my last on earth. And, Leoline my child, before I leave you, let me hear you say you will not hate me when you read what is there."
"What have you done to me? Why should I hate you?"
"Ah! you will find that all out soon enough. Do content me, Leoline—let me hear you say; 'La Masque, whatever you've done to me, however you have wronged me, I will forgive you!' Can you say that?"
Leoline repeated it simply, like a little child. La Masque took her hand, held it between both her own, leaned over and looked earnestly in her face.
"My little Leoline! my beautiful rosebud! May Heaven bless you and grant you a long and happy life with—shall I say it, Leoline?"
"Please—no!" whispered Leoline, shyly.
La Masque softly patted the little tremulous hand.
"We are both saying the name now in our hearts, my dear, so it is little matter whether our lips repeat it or not. He is worthy, of you, Leoline, and your life will be a happy one by his side; but there is another." She paused and lowered her voice. "When have you seen Count L'Estrange?"
"Not since yesterday, madame."
"Beware of him! Do you know who he is, Leoline?"
"I know nothing of him but his name."
"Then do not seek to know," said La Masque, emphatically. "For it is a secret you would tremble to hear. And now I must leave you. Come with me to the door, and fasten it as soon as I go out, lest you should forget it altogether."
Leoline, with a dazed expression, thrust the precious little casket into the bosom of her dress, and taking up the lamp, preceded her visitor down stairs. At the door they paused, and La Masque, with her hand on her arm, repeated, in a low, earnest voice,
"Leoline, beware of Count L'Estrange, and become Lady Kingsley as soon as you can."
"I will bear that name to-morrow!" thought Leoline, with a glad little thrill at her heart, as La Masque flitted out into the moonlight.
Leoline closed and locked the door, driving the bolts into their sockets, and making all secure. "I defy any one to get in again tonight!" she said, smiling at her own dexterity; and lamp in hand, she ran lightly up stairs to read the long unsolved riddle.
So eager was she, that she had crossed the room, laid the lamp on the table, and sat down before it, ere she became aware that she was not alone. Some one was leaning against the mantel, his arm on it, and his eyes do her, gazing with an air of incomparable coolness and ease. It was a man this time—something more than a man,—a count, and Count L'Estrange, at that!
Leoline sprang to her feet with a wild scream, a cry full of terror, amaze, and superstitious dread; and the count raised his band with a self-possessed smile.
"Pardon, fair Leoline, if I intrude! But have I not a right to come at all hours and visit my bride?"
"Leoline is no bride of yours!" retorted that young lady, passionately, her indignation overpowering both fear and surprise. "And, what is more, never will be! Now, sir!"
"So my little bird of paradise can fire up, I see! As to your being my bride, that remains to be seen. You promised to be tonight, you know!"
"Then I'll recall that promise. I have changed my mind."
"Well, that's not very astonishing; it is but the privilege of your sex! Nevertheless, I'm afraid I must insist on your becoming Countess L'Estrange, and that immediately!"
"Never, sir! I will die first!"
"Oh, no! We could not spare such a bright little beauty out of this ugly world! You will live, and live for me!"
"Sir!" cried Leoline, white with passion, and her black eyes blazing with a fire that would have killed him, could fiery glances slay! "I do not know how you have entered here; but I do know, if you are a gentleman, you will leave me instantly! Go sir! I never wish to see you again!"
"But when I wish to see you so much, my darling Leoline," said the count, with provoking indifference, "what does a little reluctance on your part signify? Get your hood and mantle, my love—my horse awaits us without—and let us fly where neither plague nor mortal man will interrupt our nuptials!"
"Will no one take this man away?" she cried, looking helplessly round, and wringing her hands.
"Certainly not, my dear—not even Sir Norman Kingsley! George, I am afraid this pretty little vixen will not go peaceably; you had better come in!"
With a smile on his face, he took a step toward her. Shrieking wildly, she darted across the room, and made for the door, just as somebody else was entering it. The next instant, a shawl was thrown over her head, her cries smothered in it, and she was lifted in a pair of strong arms, carried down stairs, and out into the night.
CHAPTER XVI. THE THIRD VISION.
Presentments are strange things. From the first moment Sir Norman entered the city, and his thoughts had been able to leave Miranda and find themselves wholly on Leoline, a heavy foreboding of evil to her had oppressed him. Some danger, he was sure, had befallen her during his absence—how could it be otherwise with the Earl of Rochester and Count L'Estrange both on her track? Perhaps, by this time, one or other had found her, and alone and unaided she had been an easy victim, and was now borne beyond his reach forever. The thought goaded him and his horse almost to distraction; for the moment it struck him, he struck spurs into his horse, making that unoffending animal jump spasmodically, like one of those prancing steeds Miss Bonheur is fond of depicting. Through the streets he flew at a frantic rate, growing more excited and full of apprehension the nearer he came to old London Bridge; and calling himself a select litany of hard names inwardly, for having left the dear little thing at all.
"If I find her safe and well," thought Sir Norman, emphatically, "nothing short of an earthquake or dying of the plague will ever induce me to leave her again, until she is Lady Kingsley, and in the old manor of Devonshire. What a fool, idiot, and ninny I must have been, to have left her as I did, knowing those two sleuth-hounds were in full chase! What are all the Mirandas and midnight queens to me, if Leoline is lost?"
That last question was addressed to the elements in general; and as they disdained reply, he cantered on furiously, till the old house by the river was reached. It was the third time that night he had paused to contemplate it, and each time with very different feelings; first, from simple curiosity; second, in an ecstasy of delight, and third and last, in an agony of apprehension. All around was peaceful and still; moon and stars sailed serenely through a sky of silver and snow; a faint cool breeze floated up from the river and fanned his hot and fevered forehead; the whole city lay wrapped in stillness as profound and deathlike as the fabled one of the marble prince in the Eastern tale-nothing living moved abroad, but the lonely night-guard keeping their dreary vigils before the plague-stricken houses, and the ever-present, ever-busy pest-cart, with its mournful bell and dreadful cry.
As far as Sir Norman could see, no other human being but himself and the solitary watchman, so often mentioned, were visible. Even he could scarcely be said to be present; for, though leaning against the house with his halberd on his shoulder, he was sound asleep at his post, and far away in the land of dreams. It was the second night of his watch; and with a good conscience and a sound digestion, there is no earthly anguish short of the toothache, strong enough to keep a man awake two nights in succession. So sound were his balmy slumbers in his airy chamber, that not even the loud clatter of Sir Norman's horse's hoofs proved strong enough to arouse him; and that young gentleman, after glancing at him, made ap his mind to try to find out for himself before arousing him to seek information.
Securing his home, he looked up at the house with wistful eyes, and saw that the solitary light still burned in her chamber. It struck him now how very imprudent it was to keep that lamp burning; for if Count L'Estrange saw it, it was all up with Leoline—and there was even more to be dreaded from him than from the earl. How was he to find out whether that illuminated chamber had a tenant or not? Certainly, standing there staring till doomsday would not do it; and there seemed but two ways, that of entering the house at once or arousing the man. But the man was sleeping so soundly that it seemed a pity to awake him for a trifle; and, after all, there could be no great harm or indiscretion in his entering to see if his bride was safe. Probably Leoline was asleep, and would know nothing about it; or, even were she wide awake, and watchful, she was altogether too sensible a girl to be displeased at his anxiety about her. If she were still awake, and waiting for day-dawn, he resolved to remain with her and keep her from feeling lonesome until that time came—if she were asleep, he would steal out softly again, and keep guard at her door until morning.
Full of these praiseworthy resolutions, he tried the handle of the door, half expecting to find it locked, and himself obliged to effect an entrance through the window; but no, it yielded to his touch, and he went in. Hall and staircase were intensely dark, but he knew his way without a pilot this time, and steered clear of all shoals and quicksands, through the hall and up the stairs.
The door of the lighted room—Leoline's room—lay wide open, and he paused on the threshold to reconnoitre. He had gone softly for fear of startling her, and now, with the same tender caution, he glanced round the room. The lamp burned on the dainty dressing table, where undisturbed lay jewels, perfume bottles and other knickknacks. The cithern lay unmolested on the couch, the rich curtains were drawn; everything was as he had left it last—everything, but the pretty pink figure, with drooping eyes, and pearls in the waves of her rich, black hair. He looked round for the things she had worn, hoping she had taken them off and retired to rest, but they were not to be seen; and with a cold sinking of the heart, he went noiselessly across the room, and to the bed. It was empty, and showed no trace of having been otherwise since he and the pest-cart driver had borne from it the apparently lifeless form of Leoline.
Yes, she was gone; and Sir Norman turned for a moment so sick with utter dread, that he leaned against one of the tall carved posts, and hated himself for having left her with a heartlessness that his worst enemy could not have surpassed. Then aroused into new and spasmodic energy by the exigency of the case, he seized the lamp, and going out to the hall, made the house ring from basement to attic with her name. No reply, but that hollow, melancholy echo that sounds so lugubriously through empty houses, was returned; and he jumped down stairs with an impetuous rush, flinging back every door in the hall below with a crash, and flying wildly from room to room. In solemn grim repose they lay; but none of them held the bright figure in rose-satin he sought. And he left them in despair, and went back to her chamber again.
"Leoline! Leoline! Leoline!" he called, while he rushed impetuously ap stairs, and down stairs, and in my lady's chamber; but Leoline answered not—perhaps never would answer more! Even "hoping against hope," he had to give up the chase at last—no Leoline did that house hold; and with this conviction despairingly impressed on leis mind, Sir Norman Kingsley covered his face with his hands, and uttered a dismal groan.
Yet, forlorn as was the case, he groaned but once, "only that and nothing more;" there was no time for such small luxuries as groaning and tearing his hair, and boiling over with wrath and vengeance against the human race generally, and those two diabolical specimens of it, the Earl of Rochester and Count L'Estrange, particularly. He plunged head foremost down stairs, and out of the door. There he was impetuously brought up all standing; for somebody stood before it, gazing up at the gloomy front with as much earnestness as he had done himself, and against this individual he rushed recklessly with a shock that nearly sent the pair of them over into the street.
"Sacr-r-re!" cried a shrill voice, in tones of indignant remonstrance. "What do you mean, monsieur? Are you drunk, or crazy, that you come running head foremost into peaceable citizens, and throwing them heels uppermost on the king's highway! Stand off, sir! And think yourself lucky that I don't run you through with my dirk for such an insult!"
At the first sound of the outraged treble tones, Sir Norman had started back and glared upon the speaker with much the same expression of countenance as an incensed tiger. The orator of the spirited address had stooped to pick up his plumed cap, and recover his centre of gravity, which was considerably knocked out of place by the unexpected collision, and held forth with very flashing eyes, and altogether too angry to recognize his auditor. Sir Norman waited until he had done, and then springing at him, grabbed him by the collar.
"You young hound!" he exclaimed, fairly lifting him off his feet with one hand, and shaking him as if he would have wriggled him out of hose and doublet. "You infernal young jackanapes! I'll run you through in less than two minutes, if you don't tell me where you have taken her."
The astonishment, not to say consternation, of Master Hubert for that small young gentleman and no other it was—on thus having his ideas thus shaken out of him, was unbounded, and held him perfectly speechless, while Sir Norman glared at him and shook him in a way that would have instantaneously killed him if his looks were lightning. The boy had recognized his aggressor, and after his first galvanic shock, struggled like a little hero to free himself, and at last succeeded by an artful spring.
"Sir Norman Kingsley," he cried, keeping a safe yard or two of pavement between him and that infuriated young knight, "have you gone mad, or what, is Heaven's name, is the moaning of all this?"
"It means," exclaimed Sir Norman, drawing his sword, and flourishing it within an inch of the boy's curly head,—"that you'll be a dead page in less than half a minute, unless you tell me immediately where she has been taken to."
"Where who has been taken to?" inquired Hubert, opening his bright and indignant black eyes in a way that reminded Sir Norman forcibly of Leoline. "Pardon, monsieur, I don't understand at all."
"You young villain! Do you mean to stand up there and tell me to my face that you have not searched for her, and found her, and have carried her off?"
"Why, do you mean the lady we were talking of, that was saved from the river?" asked Hubert, a new light dawning upon him.
"Do I mean the lady we were talking of?" repeated Sir Norman, with another furious flourish of his sword. "Yes, I do mean the lady we were talking of; and what's more—I mean to pin you where you stand, against that wall, unless you tell me, instantly, where she has been taken."
"Monsieur!" exclaimed the boy, raising his hands with an earnestness there was no mistaking, "I do assure you, upon my honor, that I know nothing of the lady whatever; that I have not found her; that I have never set eyes on her since the earl saved her from the river."
The earnest tone of truth would, in itself, almost have convinced Sir Norman, but it was not that, that made him drop his sword so suddenly. The pale, startled face; the dark, solemn eyes, were so exactly like Leoline's, that they thrilled him through and through, and almost made him believe, for a moment, he was talking to Leoline herself.
"Are you—are you sure you are not Leoline?" he inquired, almost convinced, for an instant, by the marvelous resemblance, that it was really so.
"I? Positively, Sir Norman, I cannot understand this at all, unless you wish to enjoy yourself at my expense."
"Look here, Master Hubert!" said Sir Norman with a sudden change of look and tone. "If you do not understand, I shall just tell you in a word or two how matters are, and then let me hear you clear yourself. You know the lady we were talking about, that Lord Rochester picked up afloat, and sent you in search of?"
"Well," went on Sir Norman, with a sort of grim stoicism. "After leaving you, I started on a little expedition of my own, two miles from the city, from which expedition I returned ten minutes ago. When I left, the lady was secure and safe in this house; when I came back, she was gone. You were in search of her—had told me yourself you were determined on finding her, and having her carried off; and now, my youthful friend, put this and that together," with a momentary returning glare, "and see what it amounts to!"
"It amounts to this:" retorted his youthful friend, stoutly, "that I know nothing whatever about it. You may make out a case of strong circumstantial evidence against me; but if the lady has been carried off, I have had no hand in it."
Again Sir Norman was staggered by the frank, bold gaze and truthful voice, but still the string was in a tangle somewhere.
"And where have you been ever since?" he began severely, and with the air of a lawyer about to go into a rigid cross-examination.
"Searching for her," was the prompt reply.
"Through the streets; in the pest-houses, and at the plague-pit."
"How did you find out she lived here?"
"I did not find it out. When I became convinced she was in none of the places I have mentioned, I gave up the search in despair, for to-night, and was returning to his lordship to report my ill success."
"Why, then, were you standing in front of her house, gaping at it with all the eyes in your head, as if it were the eighth wonder of the world?"
"Monsieur has not the most courteous way of asking questions, that I ever heard of; but I have no particular objection to answer him. It struck me that, as Mr. Ormiston brought the lady up this way, and as I saw you and he haunting this place so much to-night, I thought her residence was somewhere here, and I paused to look at the house as I went along. In fact, I intended to ask old sleepy-head, over there, for further particulars, before I left the neighborhood, had not you, Sir Norman, run bolt into me, and knocked every idea clean out of my head."
"And you are sure you are not Leoline?" said Sir Norman, suspiciously.
"To the best of my belief, Sir Norman, I am not," replied Hubert, reflectively.
"Well, it is all very strange, and very aggravating," said Sir Norman, sighing, and sheathing his sword. "She is gone, at all events; no doubt about that—and if you have not carried her off, somebody else has."
"Perhaps she has gone herself," insinuated Hubert.
"Bah! Gone herself!" said Sir Norman, scornfully. "The idea is beneath contempt: I tell you, Master Fine-feathers, the lady and I were to be married bright and early to-morrow morning, and leave this disgusting city for Devonshire. Do you suppose, then, she would run out in the small hours of the morning, and go prancing about the streets, or eloping with herself?"
"Why, of course, Sir Norman, I can't take it upon myself to answer positively; but, to use the mildest phrase, I must say the lady seems decidedly eccentric, and capable of doing very queer things. I hope, however, you believe me; for I earnestly assure you, I never laid eyes on her but that once."
"I believe you," said Sir Norman, with another profound and broken-hearted sigh, "and I'm only too sure she has been abducted by that consummate scoundrel and treacherous villain, Count L'Estrange."
"Count who?" said Hubert, with a quick start, and a look of intense curiosity. "What was the name?"
"L'Estrange—a scoundrel of the deepest dye! Perhaps you know him?"
"No," replied Hubert, with a queer, half musing smile, "no; but I have a notion I have heard the name. Was he a rival of yours?"
"I should think so! He was to have been married to the lady this very night!"
"He was, eh! And what prevented the ceremony?"
"She took the plague!" said Sir Norman, strange to say, not at all offended at the boy's familiarity. "And would have been thrown into the plague-pit but for me. And when she recovered she accepted me and cast him off!"
"A quick exchange! The lady's heart must be most flexible, or unusually large, to be able to hold so many at once."
"It never held him!" said Sir Norman, frowning; "she was forced into the marriage by her mercenary friends. Oh! if I had him here, wouldn't I make him wish the highwaymen had shot him through the head, and done for him, before I would let him go!"
"What is he like—this Count L'Estrange?" said Hubert, carelessly.
"Like the black-hearted traitor and villain he is!" replied Sir Norman, with more energy than truth; for he had caught but passing glimpses of the count's features, and those showed him they were decidedly prepossessing; "and he slinks along like a coward and an abductor as he is, in a slouched hat and shadowy cloak. Oh! if I had him here!" repeated Sir Norman, with vivacity; "wouldn't I—"
"Yes, of course you would," interposed Hubert, "and serve him right, too! Have you made any inquiries about the matter—for instance, of our friend sleeping the sleep of the just, across there?"
"Why, it seems to me, if she's been carried off before he fell asleep, he has probably heard or seen something of it; and I think it would not be a bad plan to step over and inquire."
"Well, we can try," said Sir Norman, with a despairing face; "but I know it will end in disappointment and vexation of spirit, like all the rest!"
With which dismal view of things, he crossed the street side by side with his jaunty young friend. The watchman was still enjoying the balmy, and snoring in short, sharp snorts, when Master Hubert remorselessly caught him by the shoulder, and began a series of shakes and pokes, and digs, and "hallos!" while Sir Norman stood near and contemplated the scene with a pensive eye. At last while undergoing a severe course of this treatment the watchman was induced to open his eyes on this mortal life, and transfix the two beholders with, an intensely vacant and blank share.
"Hey?" he inquired, helplessly. "What was you a saying of, gentlemen? What is it?"
"We weren't a saying of anything as yet," returned Hubert; "but we mean to, shortly. Are you quite sure you are wide awake?"
"What do you want?" was the cross question, given by way of answer. "What do you come bothering me for at such a rate, all night, I want to know?"
"Keep civil, friend, we wear swords," said Hubert, touching, with dignity, the hilt of the little dagger he carried; "we only want to ask you a few questions. First, do you see that house over yonder?"
"Oh! I see it!" said the man gruffly; "I am not blind!"
"Well who was the last person you saw come out of that house?"
"I don't know who they was!" still more gruffly. "I ain't got the pleasure of their acquaintance!"
"Did you see a young lady come out of it lately?"
"Did I see a young lady?" burst out the watchman, in a high key of aggrieved expostulation. "How many more times this blessed night am I to be asked about that young lady. First and foremost, there comes two young men, which this here is one of them, and they bring out the young lady and have her hauled away in the dead-cart; then comes along another and wants to know all the particulars, and by the time he gets properly away, somebody else comes and brings her back like a drowned rat. Then all sorts of people goes in and out, and I get tired looking at them, and then fall asleep, and before I've been in that condition about a minute, you two come punching me and waken me up to ask questions about her! I wish that young lady was in Jerico—I do!" said the watchman, with a smothered growl.
"Come, come, my man!" said Hubert, slapping him soothingly on the shoulder. "Don't be savage, if you can help it! This gentleman has a gold coin in some of his pockets, I believe, and it will fall to you if you keep quiet and answer decently. Tell me how many have been in that house since the young lady was brought back like a drowned rat?"
"How many?" said the man, meditating, with his eyes fixed on Sir Norman's garments, and he, perceiving that, immediately gave him the promised coin to refresh his memory, which it did with amazing quickness. "How many—oh—let me see; there was the young man that brought her in, and left her there, and came out again, and went away. By-and-by, he came back with another, which I think this as gave me the money is him. After a little, they came out, first the other one, then this one, and went off; and the next that went in was a tall woman in black, with a mask on, and right behind her there came two men; the woman in the mask came out after a while; and about ten minutes after, the two men followed, and one of them carried something in his arms, that didn't look unlike a lady with her head in a shawl. Anything wrong, sir?" as Sir Norman gave a violent start and caught Hubert by the arm.
"Nothing! Where did they carry her to? What did they do with her? Go on! go on!"
"Well," said the watchman, eyeing the speaker curiously, "I'm going to. They went along, down to the river, both of them, and I saw a boat shove off, shortly after, and that something, with its head in a shawl, lying as peaceable as a lamb, with one of the two beside it. That's all—I went asleep about then, till you two were shaking me and waking me up."
Sir Norman and Hubert looked at each other, one between despair and rage, the other with a thoughtful, half-inquiring air, as if he had some secret to tell, and was mentally questioning whether it was safe to do so. On the whole, he seemed to come to the conclusion, that a silent tongue maketh a wise head, and nodding and saying "Thank you!" to the watchman, he passed his arm through Sir Norman's, and drew him back to the door of Leoline's house.
"There is a light within," he said, looking up at it; "how comes that?"
"I found the lamp burning, when I returned, and everything undisturbed. They must have entered noiselessly, and carried her off without a straggle," replied Sir Norman, with a sort of groan.
"Have you searched the house—searched it well?"
"Thoroughly—from top to bottom!"
"It seems to me there ought to be some trace. Will you come back with me and look again?"
"It is no use; but there in nothing else I can do; so come along!"
They entered the house, and Sir Norman led the page direct to Leoline's room, where the light was.
"I left her here when I went away, and here the lamp was burning when I came back: so it must have been from this room she was taken."
Hubert was gazing slowly and critically round, taking note of everything. Something glistened and flashed on the floor, under the mantel, and he went over and picked it up.
"What have you there?" asked Sir Norman in surprise; for the boy had started so suddenly, and flushed so violently, that it might have astonished any one.
"Only a shoe-buckle—a gentleman's—do you recognize it?"
Though he spoke in his usual careless way, and half-hummed the air of one of Lord Rochester's love songs, he watched him keenly as he examined it. It was a diamond buckle, exquisitely set, and of great beauty and value; but Sir Norman knew nothing of it.
"There are initials upon it—see there!" said Hubert, pointing, and still watching him with the same powerful glance. "The letters C. S. That can't stand for Count L'Estrange."
"Who then can it stand for?" inquired Sir Norman, looking at him fixedly, and with far more penetration than the court page had given him credit for. "I am certain you know."
"I suspect!" said the boy, emphatically, "nothing more; and if it is as I believe, I will bring you news of Leoline before you are two hours older."
"How am I to know you are not deceiving me, and will not betray her into the power of the Earl of Rochester—if, indeed, she be not in his power already."
"She is not in it, and never will be through me! I feel an odd interest in this matter, and I will be true to you, Sir Norman—though why I should be, I really don't know. I give you my word of honor that I will do what I can to find Leoline and restore her to you; and I have never yet broken my word of honor to any man," said Hubert, drawing himself up.
"Well, I will trust you, because I cannot do anything better," said Sir Norman, rather dolefully; "but why not let me go with you?"
"No, no! that would never do! I must go alone, and you must trust me implicitly. Give me your hand upon it."
They shook hands silently, went down stairs, and stood for a moment at the door.
"You'll find me here at any hour between this and morning," said Sir Norman. "Farewell now, and Heaven speed you!"
The boy waved his hand in adieu, and started off at a sharp pace. Sir Norman turned in the opposite direction for a short walk, to cool the fever in his blood, and think over all that had happened. As he went slowly along, in the shadow of the houses, he suddenly tripped up over something lying in his path, and was nearly precipitated over it.
Stooping down to examine the stumbling-block, it proved to be the rigid body of a man, and that man was Ormiston, stark and dead, with his face upturned to the calm night-sky.
CHAPTER XVII. THE HIDDEN FACE
When Mr. Malcolm Ormiston, with his usual good sense and penetration, took himself off, and left Leoline and Sir Norman tete-a-tete, his steps turned as mechanically as the needle to the North Pole toward La Masque's house. Before it he wandered, around it he wandered, like an uneasy ghost, lost in speculation about the hidden face, and fearfully impatient about the flight of time. If La Masque saw him hovering aloof and unable to tear himself away, perhaps it might touch her obdurate heart, and cause her to shorten the dreary interval, and summon him to her presence at once. Just then some one opened the door, and his heart began to beat with anticipation; some one pronounced his name, and, going over, he saw the animated bag of bones—otherwise his lady-love's vassal and porter.
"La Masque says," began the attenuated lackey, and Ormiston's heart nearly jumped out of his mouth, "that she can't have anybody hanging about her house like its shadow; and she wants you to go away, and keep away, till the time comes she has mentioned."
So saying the skeleton shut the door, and Ormiston's heart went down to zero. There being nothing for it but obedience, however, he slowly and reluctantly turned away, feeling in his bones, that if ever he came to the bliss and ecstasy of calling La Masque Mrs. Ormiston, the gray mare in his stable would be by long odds the better horse. Unintentionally his steps turned to the water-side, and he descended the flight of stairs, determined to get into a boat and watch the illumination from the river.
Late as was the hour, the Thames seemed alive with wherries and barges, and their numerous lights danced along the surface like fire-flies over a marsh. A gay barge, gilded and cushioned, was going slowly past; and as he stood directly under the lamp, he was recognized by a gentleman within it, who leaned over and hailed him,
"Ormiston! I say, Ormiston!"
"Well, my lord," said Ormiston, recognizing the handsome face and animated voice of the Earl of Rochester.
"Have you any engagement for the next half-hour? If not, do me the favor to take a seat here, and watch London in flames from the river."
"With all my heart," said Ormiston, running down to the water's edge, and leaping into the boat. "With all this bustle of life around here, one would think it were noonday instead of midnight."
"The whole city is astir about these fires. Have you any idea they will be successful?"
"Not the least. You know, my lord, the prediction runs, that the plague will rage till the living are no longer able to bury the dead."
"It will soon come to that," said the earl shuddering slightly, "if it continues increasing much longer as it does now daily. How do the bills of mortality ran to-day?"
"I have not heard. Hark! There goes St. Paul's tolling twelve."
"And there goes a flash of fire—the first among many. Look, look! How they spring up into the black darkness."
"They will not do it long. Look at the sky, my lord."
The earl glanced up at the midnight sky, of a dull and dingy red color, except where black and heavy clouds were heaving like angry billows, all dingy with smoke and streaked with bars of fiery red.
"I see! There is a storm coming, and a heavy one! Our worthy burghers and most worshipful Lord Mayor will see their fires extinguished shortly, and themselves sent home with wet jackets."
"And for weeks, almost month, there has not fallen a drop of rain," remarked Ormiston, gravely.
"A remarkable coincidence, truly. There seems to be a fatality hanging over this devoted city."
"I wonder your lordship remains?"
The earl shrugged his shoulders significantly.
"It is not so easy leaving it as you think, Mr. Ormiston; but I am to turn my back to it to-morrow for a brief period. You are aware, I suppose, that the court leaves before daybreak for Oxford."
"I believe I have heard something of it—how long to remain?"
"Till Charles takes it into his head to come back again," said the earl, familiarly, "which will probably be in a week or two. Look at that sky, all black and scarlet; and look at those people—I scarcely thought there were half the number left alive in London."
"Even the sick have come out to-night," said Ormiston. "Half the pest-stricken in the city have left their beds, full of newborn hope. One would think it were a carnival."
"So it is—a carnival of death! I hope, Ormiston," said the earl, looking at him with a light laugh, "the pretty little white fairy we rescued from the river is not one of the sick parading the streets."
Ormiston looked grave.
"No, my lord, I think she is not. I left her safe and secure."
"Who is she, Ormiston?" coaxed the earl, laughingly. "Pshaw, man! don't make a mountain out of a mole-hill! Tell me her name!"
"Her name is Leoline."
"That is just what I would like to have some one tell me. I give you my honor, my lord, I do not know."
The earl's face, half indignant, half incredulous, wholly curious, made Ormiston smile.
"It is a fact, my lord. I asked her her name, and she told me Leoline—a pretty title enough, but rather unsatisfactory."
"How long have you known her?"
"To the best of my belief," said Ormiston, musingly, "about four hours."
"Nonsense!" cried the earl, energetically. "What are you telling me, Ormiston? You said she was an old friend."
"I beg your pardon, my lord, I said no such thing. I told you she had escaped from her friends, which was strictly true."
"Then how the demon had you the impudence to come up and carry her off in that style? I certainly had a better right to her than you—the right of discovery; and I shall call upon you to deliver her up!"
"If she belonged to me I should only be too happy to oblige your lordship," laughed Ormiston; "but she is at present the property of Sir Norman Kingsley, and to him you must apply."
"Ah! His inamorata, in she? Well, I must say his taste is excellent; but I should think you ought to know her name, since you and he are noted for being a modern Damon and Pythias."
"Probably I should, my lord, only Sir Norman, unfortunately, does not know himself."
The earl's countenance looked so utterly blank at this announcement, that Ormiston was forced to throw in a word of explanation.
"I mean to say, my lord, that he has fallen in love with her; and, judging from appearances, I should say his flame is not altogether hopeless, although they have met to-night for the first time."
"A rapid passion. Where have you left her, Ormiston?"
"In her own house, my lord," Ormiston replied, smiling quietly to himself.
"Where is that?"
"About a dozen yards from where I stood when you called me."
"Who are her family?" continued the earl, who seemed possessed of a devouring curiosity.
"She has none that I know of. I imagine Mistress Leoline is an orphan. I know there was not a living soul but ourselves in the house I brought her to."
"And you left her there alone?" exclaimed the earl, half starting up, an if about to order the boatman to row back to the landing.
Ormiston looked at his excited face with a glance full of quiet malice.
"No, my lord, not quits; Sir Norman Kingsley was with her!"
"Oh!" said the earl, smiling back with a look of chagrin. "Then he will probably find out her name before he comes away. I wonder you could give her up so easily to him, after all your trouble!"
"Smitten, my lord?" inquired Ormiston, maliciously.
"Hopelessly!" replied the earl, with a deep sigh. "She was a perfect little beauty; and if I can find her, I warn Sir Norman Kingsley to take care! I have already sent Hubert out in search of her; and, by the way," said the earl, with a sudden increase of animation, "what a wonderful resemblance she bears to Hubert—I could almost swear they were one and the same!"
"The likeness is marvelous; but I should hate to take such an oath. I confess I am somewhat curious myself; but I stand no chance of having it gratified before to-morrow, I suppose."
"How those fires blaze! It is much brighter than at noon-day. Show me the house in which Leoline lies?".
Ormiston easily pointed it out, and showed the earl the light still burning in her window.
"It was in that room we found her first, dead of the plague!"
"Dead of the what?" cried the earl, aghast.
"Dead of the plague! I'll tell your lordship how it was," said Ormiston, who forthwith commend and related the story of their finding Leoline; of the resuscitation at the plague-pit; of the flight from Sir Norman's house, and of the delirious plunge into the river, and miraculous cure.
"A marvelous story," commented the earl, much interested. "And Leoline seems to have as many lives as a cat! Who can she be—a princess in disguise—eh, Ormiston?"
"She looks fit to be a princess, or anything else; but your lordship knows as much about her, now, as I do."
"You say she was dressed as a bride—how came that?"
"Simply enough. She was to be married to-night, had she not taken the plague instead."
"Married? Why, I thought you told me a few minutes ago she was in love with Kingsley. It seems to me, Mr. Ormiston, your remarks are a trifle inconsistent," said the earl, in a tone of astonished displeasure.
"Nevertheless, they are all perfectly true. Mistress Leoline was to be married, as I told you; but she was to marry to please her friends, and not herself. She had been in the habit of watching Kingsley go past her window; and the way she blushed, and went through the other little motions, convinces me that his course of true love will ran as smooth as this glassy river runs at present."
"Kingsley is a lucky fellow. Will the discarded suitor have no voice in the matter; or is he such a simpleton as to give her up at a word?"
"Ah! to be sure; what will the count say? And, judging from some things I've heard, I should say he is violently in love with her."
"Count who?" asked Rochester. "Or has he, like his ladylove, no other name?"
"Oh, no! The name of the gentleman who was so nearly blessed for life, and missed it, is Count L'Estrange!"
The earl had been lying listlessly back, only half intent upon his answer, as he watched the fire; but now he sprang sharply up, and stared Ormiston full in the face.
"Count what did you say?" was his eager question, while his eyes, more eager than his voice, strove to read the reply before it was repeated.
"Count L'Estrange. You know him, my lord?" said Ormiston, quietly.
"Ah!" said the earl. And then such a strange meaning smile went wandering about his face. "I have not said that! So his name is Count L'Estrange? Well, I don't wonder now at the girl's beauty."
The earl sank back to his former nonchalant position and fell for a moment or two into deep musing; and then, as if the whole thing struck him in a new and ludicrous light, he broke out into an immoderate fit of laughter. Ormiston looked at him curiously.
"It is my turn to ask questions, now, my lord. Who is Count L'Estrange?"
"I know of no such person, Ormiston. I was thinking of something else! Was it Leoline who told you that was her lover's name?"
"No; I heard it by mere accident from another person. I am sure, if Leoline is not a personage in disguise, he is."
"And why do you think so?"
"An inward conviction, my lord. So you will not tell me who he is?"
"Have I not told you I know of no such person as Count L'Estrange? You ought to believe me. Oh, here it comes."
This last was addressed to a great drop of rain, which splashed heavily on his upturned face, followed by another and another in quick succession.
"The storm is upon us," said the earl, sitting up and wrapping his cloak closer around him, "and I am for Whitehall. Shall we land you, Ormiston, or take you there, too?"
"I must land," said Ormiston. "I have a pressing engagement for the next half-hour. Here it is, in a perfect deluge; the fires will be out in five minutes."
The barge touched the stairs, and Ormiston sprang out, with "Good-night" to the earl. The rain was rushing along, now, in torrents, and he ran upstairs and darted into an archway of the bridge, to seek the shelter. Some one else had come there before him, in search of the same thing; for he saw two dark figures standing within it as he entered.
"A sudden storm," was Ormiston's salutation, "and a furious one. There go the fires—hiss and splutter. I knew how it would be."
"Then Saul and Mr. Ormiston are among the prophets?"
Ormiston had heard that voice before; it was associated in his mind with a slouched hat and shadowy cloak; and by the fast-fading flicker of the firelight, he saw that both were here. The speaker wan Count L'Estrange; the figure beside him, slender and boyish, was unknown.
"You have the advantage of me, sir," he said affecting ignorance. "May I ask who you are?"
"Certainly. A gentlemen, by courtesy and the grace of God."
"And your name?"
"Count L'Estrange, at your service."
Ormiston lifted his cap and bowed, with a feeling somehow, that the count was a man in authority.
"Mr. Ormiston assisted in doing a good deed, tonight, for a friend of mine," said the count.
"Will he add to that obligation by telling me if he has not discovered her again, and brought her back?"
"Do you refer to the fair lady in yonder house?"
"So she is there? I thought so, George," said the count, addressing himself to his companion. "Yes, I refer to her, the lady you saved from the river. You brought her there?"
"I brought her there," replied Ormiston.
"She is there still?"
"I presume so. I have heard nothing to the contrary."
"She may be, now. Sir Norman Kingsley was with her when I left her," said Ormiston, administering the fact with infinite relish.
There was a moment's silence. Ormiston could not see the count's face; but, judging from his own feelings, he fancied its expression must be sweet. The wild rush of the storm alone broke the silence, until the spirit again moved the count to speak.
"By what right does Sir Norman Kingsley visit her?" he inquired, in a voice betokening not the least particle of emotion.
"By the best of rights—that of her preserver, hoping soon to be her lover."
There was an other brief silence, broken again by the count, in the same composed tone:
"Since the lady holds her levee so late, I, too, must have a word with her, when this deluge permits one to go abroad without danger of drowning."
"It shown symptoms of clearing off, already," said Ormiston, who, in his secret heart, thought it would be an excellent joke to bring the rivals face to face in the lady's presence; "so you will not have long to wait."
To which observation the count replied not; and the three stood in silence, watching the fury of the storm.
Gradually it cleared away; and as the moon began to straggle out between the rifts in the clouds, the count saw something by her pale light that Ormiston saw not. That latter gentleman, standing with his back to the house of Leoline, and his face toward that of La Masque, did not observe the return of Sir Norman from St. Paul's, nor look after him as he rode away. But the count did both; and ten minutes after, when the rain had entirely ceased, and the moon and stars got the better of the clouds in their struggle for supremacy, he beheld La Masque flitting like a dark shadow in the same direction, and vanishing in at Leoline's door. The same instant, Ormiston started to go.
"The storm has entirely ceased," he said, stepping out, and with the profound air of one making a new discovery, "and we are likely to have fine weather for the remainder of the night—or rather, morning. Good night, count."
"Farewell," said the count, as he and, his companion came out from the shadow of the archway, and turned to follow La Masque.
Ormiston, thinking the hour of waiting had elapsed, and feeling much more interested in the coming meeting than in Leoline or her visitors, paid very little attention to his two acquaintances. He saw them, it is true, enter Leoline's house, but at the same instant, he took up his post at La Masque's doorway, and concentrated his whole attention on that piece of architecture. Every moment seemed like a week now; and before he had stood at his post five minutes, he had worked himself up into a perfect fever of impatience. Sometimes he was inclined to knock and seek La Masque in her own home; but as often the fear of a chilling rebuke paralyzed his hand when he raised it. He was so sure she was within the house, that he never thought of looking for her elsewhere; and when, at the expiration of what seemed to him a century or two, but which in reality was about a quarter of an hour, there was a soft rustling of drapery behind him, and the sweetest of voices sounded in his ear, it fairly made him bound.
"Here again, Mr. Ormiston? Is this the fifth or sixth time I've found you in this place to-night?"
"La Masque!" he cried, between joy and surprise. "But surely, I was not totally unexpected this time?"
"Perhaps not. You are waiting here for me to redeem my promise, I suppose?"
"Can you doubt it? Since I knew you first, I have desired this hour as the blind desire sight."
"Ah! And you will find it as sweet to look back upon as you have to look forward to," said La Masque, derisively. "If you are wise for yourself, Mr. Ormiston, you will pause here, and give me back that fatal word."
"Never, madame! And surely you will not be so pitilessly cruel as to draw back, now?"
"No, I have promised, and I shall perform; and let the consequences be what they may, they will rest upon your own head. You have been warned, and you still insist."
"I still insist!"
"Then let us move farther over here into the shadow of the houses; this moonlight is so dreadfully bright!"
They moved on into the deep shadow, and there was a pulse throbbing in Ormiston's head and heart like the beating of a muffed drum. They paused and faced each other silently.
"Quick, madame!" cried Ormiston, hoarsely, his whole face flushed wildly.
His strange companion lifted her hand as if to remove the mask, and he saw that it shook like an aspen. She made one motion as though about to lift it, and then recoiled, as if from herself, in a sort of horror.
"My God! What is this man urging me to do? How can I ever fulfill that fatal promise?"
"Madame, you torture me!" said Ormiston, whose face showed what he felt. "You must keep your promise; so do not drive me wild waiting. Let me—"
He took a step toward her, as if to lift the mask himself, but she held out both arms to keep him off.
"No, no, no! Come not near me, Malcolm Ormiston! Fated man, since you will rush on your doom, Look! and let the sight blast you, if it will!"
She unfastened her mask, raised it, and with it the profusion of long, sweeping black hair.
Ormiston did look—in much the same way, perhaps, that Zulinka looked at the Veiled Prophet. The next moment there was a terrible cry, and he fell headlong with a crash, as if a bullet had whined through his hart.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE INTERVIEW.
I am not aware whether fainting was as much the fashion among the fair sex, in the days (or rather the nights) of which I have the honor to hold forth, as at the present time; but I am inclined to think not, from the simple fact that Leoline, though like John Bunyan, "grievously troubled and tossed about in her mind," did nothing of the kind. For the first few moments, she was altogether too stunned by the suddenness of the shock to cry out or make the least resistance, and was conscious of nothing but of being rapidly borne along in somebody's arms. When this hazy view of things passed away, her new sensation was, the intensely uncomfortable one of being on the verge of suffocation. She made one frantic but futile effort to free herself and scream for help, but the strong arms held her with most loving tightness, and her cry was drowned in the hot atmosphere within the shawl, and never passed beyond it. Most assuredly Leoline would have been smothered then and there, had their journey been much longer; but, fortunately for her, it was only the few yards between her house and the river. She knew she was then carried down some steps, and she heard the dip of the oars in the water, and then her bearer paused, and went through a short dialogue with somebody else—with Count L'Estrange, she rather felt than knew, for nothing was audible but a low murmur. The only word she could make out was a low, emphatic "Remember!" in the count's voice, and then she knew she was in a boat, and that it was shoved off, and moving down the rapid river. The feeling of heat and suffocation was dreadful and as her abductor placed her on some cushions, she made another desperate but feeble effort to free herself from the smothering shawl, but a hand was laid lightly on hers, and a voice interposed.
"Lady, it is quite useless for you to struggle, as you are irrevocably in my power, but if you will promise faithfully not to make any outcry, and will submit to be blindfolded, I shall remove this oppressive muffling from your head. Tell me if you will promise."
He had partly raised the shawl, and a gush of free air came revivingly in, and enabled Leoline to gasp out a faint "I promise!" As she spoke, it was lifted off altogether, and she caught one bright fleeting glimpse of the river, sparkling and silvery in the moonlight; of the bright blue sky, gemmed with countless stars, and of some one by her side in the dress of a court-page, whose face was perfectly unknown to her. The next instant, a bandage was bound tightly over her eyes, excluding every ray of light, while the strange voice again spoke apologetically,
"Pardon, lady, but it is my orders! I am commanded to treat you with every respect, but not to let you see where you are borne to."
"By what right does Count L'Estrange commit this outrage!" began Leoline, almost as imperiously as Miranda herself, and making use of her tongue, like a true woman, the very first moment it was at her disposal. "How dare he carry me off in this atrocious way? Whoever you are, sir, if you have the spirit of a man, you will bring me directly back to my own house."
"I am very sorry, lady, but I have received orders that must be obeyed! You must come with me, but you need fear nothing; you will be an safe and secure as in your own home."
"Secure enough, no doubt!" paid Leoline, bitterly. "I never did like Count L'Estrange, but I never knew he was a coward and a villain till now!"
Her companion made no reply to this forcible address, and there was a moment's indignant silence on Leoline's part, broken only by the dip of the oars, and the rippling of the water. Then,
"Will you not tell me, at least, where you are taking me to?" haughtily demanded Leoline.
"Lady, I cannot! It was to prevent you knowing, that you have been blindfolded."
"Oh! your master has a faithful servant, I see! How long am I to be kept a prisoner?"
"I do not know."
"Where is Count L'Estrange?"
"I cannot tell."
"Where am I to see him?"
"I cannot say."
"Ha!" said Leoline, with infinite contempt, and turning her back upon him she relapsed into gloomy silence. It had all been so sudden, and had taken her so much by surprise, that she had not had time to think of the consequences until now. But now they came upon her with a rush, and with dismal distinctness; and most distinct among all was, what would Sir Norman say! Of course, with all a lover's impatience, he would be at his post by sunrise, would come to look for his bride, and find himself sold! By that time she would be far enough away, perhaps a melancholy corpse (and at this dreary passage in her meditations, Leoline sighed profoundly), and he would never know what had become of her, or how much and how long she had loved him. And this hateful Count L'Estrange, what did he intend to do with her? Perhaps go so far as to make her marry him, and imprison her with the rest of his wives; for Leoline was prepared to think the very worst of the count, and had not the slightest doubt that he already had a harem full of abducted wives, somewhere. But no—he never could do that, he might do what he liked with weaker minds, but she never would be a bride of his while the plague or poison was to be had in London. And with this invincible determination rooted fixedly, not to say obstinately, in her mind, she was nearly pitched overboard by the boat suddenly landing at some unexpected place. A little natural scream of terror was repressed on her lips by a hand being placed over them, and the determined but perfectly respectful tones of the person beside her speaking.
"Remember your promise, lady, and do not make a noise. We have arrived at our journey's end, and if you will take my arm, I will lead you along, instead of carrying you."
Leoline was rather surprised to find the journey so short, but she arose directly, with silence and dignity—at least with as much of the latter commodity as could be reasonably expected, considering that boats on water are rather unsteady things to be dignified in—and was led gently and with care out of the swaying vessel, and up another flight of stairs. Then, in a few moments, she was conscious of passing from the free night air into the closer atmosphere of a house; and in going through an endless labyrinth of corridors, and passages, and suites of rooms, and flights of stairs, until she became so extremely tired, that she stopped with spirited abruptness, and in the plainest possible English, gave her conductor to understand that they had gone about far enough for all practical purposes. To which that patient and respectful individual replied that he was glad to inform her they had but a few more steps to go, which the next moment proved to be true, for he stopped and announced that their promenade was over for the night.
"And I suppose I may have the use of my eyes at last?" inquired Leoline, with more haughtiness than Sir Norman could have believed possible so gentle a voice could have expressed.
For reply, her companion rapidly untied the bandage, and withdrew it with a flourish. The dazzling brightness that burst upon her, so blinded her, that for a moment she could distinguish nothing; and when she looked round to contemplate her companion, she found him hurriedly making his exit, and securely locking the door.
The sound of the key turning in the lock gave her a most peculiar sensation, which none but those who have experienced it can properly understand. It is not the most comfortable feeling in the world to know you are a prisoner, even if you have no key turned upon you but the weather, and your jailer be a high east wind and lashing rain. Leoline's prison and jailer were something worse; and, for the first time, a chill of fear and dismay crept icily to the core of her heart. But Leoline had something of Miranda's courage, as well as her looks and temper; so she tried to feel as brave as possible, and not think of her unpleasant predicament while there remained anything else to think about. Perhaps she might escape, too; and, as this notion struck her, she looked with eager anxiety, not unmixed with curiosity, at the place where she was. By this time, her eyes had been accustomed to the light, which proceeded from a great antique lamp of bronze, pendent by a brass chain from the ceiling; and she saw she was in a moderately sized and by no means splendid room. But what struck her most was, that everything had a look of age about it, from the glittering oak beams of the floor to the faded ghostly hangings on the wall. There was a bed at one end—a great spectral ark of a thing, like a mausoleum, with drapery as old and spectral as that on the walls, and in which she could no more have lain than in a moth-eaten shroud. The seats and the one table the room held were of the same ancient and weird pattern, and the sight of them gave her a shivering sensation not unlike an ague chill. There was but one door—a huge structure, with shining panels, securely locked; and escape from that quarter was utterly out of the question. There was one window, hung with dark curtains of tarnished embroidery, but in pushing them aside, she met only a dull blank of unlighted glass, for the shutters were firmly secured without. Altogether, she could not form the slightest idea where she was; and, with a feeling of utter despair, she sat down on one of the queer old chairs, with much the same feeling as if she were sitting in a tomb.
What would Sir Norman say? What would he ever think of her, when he found her gone. And what was destined to be her fate in this dreadful out-of-the-way place? She would have cried, as most of her sex would be tempted to do in such a situation, but that her dislike and horror of Count L'Estrange was a good deal stronger than her grief, and turned her tears to sparks of indignant fire. Never, never, never! would she be his wife! He might kill her a thousand times, if he liked, and she wouldn't yield an inch. She did not mind dying in a good cause; she could do it but once. And with Sir Norman despising her, as she felt he must do, when he found her run away, she rather liked the idea than otherwise. Mentally, she bade adieu to all her friends before beginning to prepare for her melancholy fate—to her handsome lover, to his gallant friend Ormiston, to her poor nurse, Prudence, and to her mysterious visitor, La Masque.
La Masque! Ah! that name awoke a new chord of recollection—the casket, she had it with her yet. Instantly, everything was forgotten but it and its contents; and she placed a chair directly under the lamp, drew it out, and looked at it. It was a pretty little bijou itself, with its polished ivory surface, and shining clasps of silver. But the inside had far more interest for her than the outside, and she fitted the key and unlocked it with a trembling hand. It was lined with azure velvet, wrought with silver thread, in dainty wreathe of water lilies; and in the bottom, neatly folded, lay a sheet of foolscap. She opened it with nervous haste; it was a common sheet enough, stamped with fool's cap and bells, that showed it belonged to Cromwell's time. It was closely written, in a light, fair hand, and bore the title "Leoline's History."
Leoline's hand trembled so with eagerness, she could scarcely hold the paper; but her eye rapidly ran from line to line, and she stopped not till she reached the end. While she read, her face alternately flushed and paled, her eyes dilated, her lips parted; and before she finished it, there came over all a look of the most unutterable horror. It dropped from her powerless fingers as she finished; and she sank back in her chair with such a ghastly paleness, that it seemed absolutely like the lividness of death.
A sudden and startling noise awoke her from her trance of horror—some one trying to get in at the window! The chill of terror it sent through every vein acted as a sort of counter-irritant to the other feeling, and she sprang from her chair and turned her face fearfully toward the sounds. But in all her terror she did not forget the mysterious sheet of foolscap, which lay, looking up at her, on the floor; and she snatched it up, and thrust it and the casket out of sight. Still the sounds went on, but softly and cautiously; and at intervals, as if the worker were afraid of being heard. Leoline went back, step by step, to the other extremity of the room, with her eyes still fixed on the window, and on her face a white terror, that left her perfectly colorless.
Who could it be? Not Count L'Estrange, for he would surely not need to enter his own house like a burglar—not Sir Norman Kingsley, for he could certainly not find out her abduction and her prison so soon, and she had no other friends in the whole wide world to trouble themselves about her. There was one, but the idea of ever seeing her again was so unspeakably dreadful, that she would rather have seen the most horrible spectre her imagination could conjure up, than that tall, graceful, rich-robed form.
Still the noises perseveringly continued; there was the sound of withdrawing bolts, and then a pale ray of moonlight shot between the parted curtains, shoving the shutters had been opened. Whiter and whiter Leoline grew, and she felt herself growing cold and rigid with mortal fear. Softly the window was raised, a hand stole in and parted the curtains, and a pale face and two great dark eyes wandered slowly round the room, and rested at last on her, standing, like a galvanized corpse, as far from the window as the wall would permit. The hand was lifted in a warning gesture, as if to enforce silence; the window was raised still higher, a figure, lithe and agile as a cat, sprang lightly into the room, and standing with his back to her, re-closed the shutters, re-shut the window, and re-drew the curtains, before taking the trouble to turn round.
This discreet little manoeuvre, which showed her visitor was human, and gifted with human prudence, re-assured Leoline a little; and, to judge by the reverse of the medal, the nocturnal intruder was nothing very formidable after all. But the stranger did not keep her long in suspense; while she stood gazing at him, as if fascinated, he turned round, stepped forward, took off his cap, made her a courtly bow, and then straightening himself up, prepared, with great coolness, to scrutinize and be scrutinized.
Well might they look at each other; for the two faces were perfectly the same, and each one saw himself and herself as others saw them. There was the same coal-black, curling hair; the same lustrous dark eyes; the same clear, colorless complexion, the same delicate, perfect features; nothing was different but the costume and the expression. That latter was essentially different, for the young lady's betrayed amazement, terror, doubt, and delight all at once; while the young gentleman's was a grand, careless surprise, mixed with just a dash of curiosity.
He was the first to speak; and after they had stared at each other for the space of five minutes, he described a graceful sweep with his hand, and held forth in the following strain,
"I greatly fear, fair Leoline, that I have startled you by my sudden and surprising entrance; and if I have been the cause of a moment's alarm to one so perfectly beautiful, I shall hate myself for ever after. If I could have got in any other way, rest assured I would not have risked my neck and your peace of mind by such a suspicious means of ingress as the window; but if you will take the trouble to notice, the door is thick, and I am composed of too solid flesh to whisk through the keyhole; so I had to make my appearance the best way I could."
"Who are you?" faintly asked Leoline.
"Your friend, fair lady, and Sir Norman Kingsley's."
Hubert looked to see Leoline start and blush, and was deeply gratified to see her do both; and her whole pretty countenance became alive with new-born hope, as if that name were a magic talisman of freedom and joy.
"What is your name, and who are you?" she inquired, in a breathless sort of way, that made Hubert look at her a moment in calm astonishment.
"I have told you your friend; christened at some remote period, Hubert. For further particulars, apply to the Earl of Rochester, whose page I am."
"The Earl of Rochester's page!" she repeated, in the same quick, excited way, that surprised and rather lowered her in that good youth's opinion, for giving way to any feelings so plebeian. "It is—it must be the same!"
"I have no doubt of it," said Hubert. "The same what?"
"Did you not come from France—from Dijon, recently?" went on Leoline, rather inappositely, as it struck her hearer.