"Certainly I came from Dijon. Had I the honor of being known to you there?"
"How strange! How wonderful!" said Leoline, with a paling cheek and quickened breathing. "How mysterious those things turn out I Thank Heaven that I have found some one to love at last!"
This speech, which was Greek, algebra, high Dutch, or thereabouts, to Master Hubert, caused him to stare to such an extent, that when he came to think of it afterward, positively shocked him. The two great, wondering dark eyes transfixing her with so much amazement, brought Leoline to a sense of her talking unfathomable mysteries, quite incomprehensible to her handsome auditor. She looked at him with a smile, held out her hand; and Hubert received a strange little electric thrill, to see that her eyes were full of tears. He took the hand and raised it to his lips, wondering if the young lady, struck by his good looks, had conceived a rash and inordinate attack of love at first sight, and was about to offer herself to him and discard Sir Norman for ever. From this speculation, the sweet voice aroused him.
"You have told me who you are. Now, do you know who I am?"
"I hope so, fairest Leoline. I know you are the most beautiful lady in England, and to-morrow will be called Lady Kingsley!"
"I am something more," said Leoline, holding his hand between both hers, and bending near him; "I am your sister!"
The Earl of Rochester's page must have had good blood in his veins; for never was there duke, grandee, or peer of the realm, more radically and unaffectedly nonchalant than he. To this unexpected announcement he listened with most dignified and well-bred composure, and in his secret heart, or rather vanity, more disappointed than otherwise, to find his first solution of her tenderness a great mistake. Leoline held his hand tight in hers, and looked with loving and tearful eyes in his face.
"Dear Hubert, you are my brother—my long-unknown brother, and I love you with my whole heart!"
"Am I?" said Hubert. "I dare say I am, for they all say we look as much alike as two peas. I am excessively delighted to hear it, and to know that you love me. Permit me to embrace my new relative."
With which the court page kissed Leoline with emphasis, while she scarcely knew whether to laugh, cry, or be provoked at his composure. On the whole, she did a little of all three, and pushed him away with a halt pout.
"You insensible mortal! How can you stand there and hear that you have found a sister with so much indifference?"
"Indifferent? Not I! You have no idea how wildly excited I am!" said Hubert, in a voice not betokening the slightest emotion. "How did you find it out, Leoline?"
"Never mind! I shall tell you that again. You don't doubt it, I hope?"
"Of course not! I knew from the first moment I set eyes on you, that if you were not my sister, you ought to be! I wish you'd tell me all the particulars, Leoline."
"I shall do so as soon as I am out of this; but how can I tell you anything here?"
"That's true!" said Hubert, reflectively. "Well, I'll wait. Now, don't you wonder how I found you out, and came here?"
"Indeed I do. How was it, Hubert?"
"Oh, well, I don't know as I can altogether tell you; but you see, Sir Norman Kingsley being possessed of an inspiration that something was happening to you, came to your house a short time ago, and, as he suspected, discovered that you were missing. I met him there, rather depressed in his mind about it, and he told me—beginning the conversation, I must say, in a very excited manner," said Hubert, parenthetically, as memory recalled the furious shaking he had undergone—"and he told me he fancied you were abducted, and by one Count L'Estrange. Now I had a hazy idea who Count L'Estrange was, and where he would be most apt to take you to; and so I came here, and after some searching, more inquiring, and a few unmitigated falsehoods (you'll regret to hear), discovered you were locked up in this place, and succeeded in getting in through the window. Sir Norman is waiting for me in a state of distraction so now, having found you, I will go and relieve his mind by reporting accordingly."
"And leave me here?" cried Leoline, in affright, "and in the power of Count L'Estrange? Oh! no, no! You must take me with you, Hubert!"
"My dear Leoline, it is quite impossible to do it without help, and without a ladder. I will return to Sir Norman; and when the darkness comes that precedes day-dawn, we will raise the ladder to your window, and try to get you out. Be patient—only wait an hour or two, and then you will be free."
"But, O Hubert, where am I? What dreadful place it this?"
"Why, I do not know that this is a very dreadful place; and most people consider it a sufficiently respectable house; but, still, I would rather see my sister anywhere else than in it, and will take the trouble of kidnapping her out of it as quickly as possible."
"But, Hubert, tell me—do tell me, who is Count L'Estrange?" Hubert laughed.
"Cannot, really, Leoline! at least, not until to-morrow, and you are Lady Kingsley."
"But, what if he should come here to-night?"
"I do not think there is much danger of that, but whether he does or not, rest assured you shall be free to-morrow! At all events, it is quite impossible for you to escape with me now; and even as it is, I run the risk of being detected, and made a prisoner, myself. You must be patient and wait, Leoline, and trust to Providence and your brother Hubert!"
"I must, I suppose!" said Leoline, sighing, "and you cannot take me away until day-dawn."
"Quite impossible; and then all this drapery of yours will be ever so much in the way. Would you object to garments like these?" pointing to his doublet and hose. "If you would not, I think I could procure you a fit-out."
"But I should, though!" said Leoline, with spirit "and most decidedly, too! I shall wear nothing of the kind, Sir Page!"
"Every one to her fancy!" said Hubert, with a French shrug, "and my pretty sister shall have hers in spite of earth, air, fire, and water! And now, fair Leoline, for a brief time, adieu, and au revoir!"
"You will not fail me!" exclaimed Leoline, earnestly, clasping her hands.
"If I do, it shall be the last thing I will fail in on earth; for if I am alive by to-morrow morning, Leoline shall be free!"
"And you will be careful—you will both be careful!"
"Excessively careful! Now then."
The last two words were addressed to the window which he noiselessly opened as he spoke. Leoline caught a glimpse of the bright free moonlight, and watched him with desperate envy; but the next moment the shutters were closed, and Hubert and the moonlight were both gone.
CHAPTER XIX. HUBERT'S WHISPER.
Sir Norman Kingsley's consternation and horror on discovering the dead body of his friend, was only equalled by his amazement as to how he got there, or how he came to be dead at all. The livid face, up turned to the moonlight, was unmistakably the face of a dead man—it was no swoon, no deception, like Leoline's; for the blue, ghastly paleness that marks the flight of the soul from the body was stamped on every rigid feature. Yet, Sir Norman could not realize it. We all know how hard it is to realize the death of a friend from whom we have but lately parted in full health and life, and Ormiston's death was so sudden. Why, it was not quite two hours since they had parted in Leoline's house, and even the plague could not carry off a victim as quickly as this.
"Ormiston! Ormiston!" he called, between grief and dismay, as he raised him in his arms, with his hand over the stilled heart; but Ormiston answered not, and the heart gave no pulsation beneath his fingers. He tore open his doublet, as the thought of the plague flashed through his mind, but no plague-spot was to be seen, and it was quite evident, from the appearance of the face, that he had not died of the distemper, neither was there any wound or mark to show that he had met his end violently. Yet the cold, white face was convulsed, as if he had died in throes of agony, the hands were clenched, till the nails sank into the flesh; and that was the only outward sign or token that he had suffered in expiring.
Sir Norman was completely at a lose, and half beside himself, with a thousand conflicting feelings of sorrow, astonishment, and mystification. The rapid and exciting events of the night had turned his head into a mental chaos, as they very well might, but he still had commonsense enough left to know that something must be done about this immediately. He knew the best place to take Ormiston was to the nearest apothecary's shop, which establishments were generally open, and filled, the whole livelong night, by the sick and their friends. As he was meditating whether or not to call the surly watchman to help him carry the body, a pest-cart came, providentially, along, and the driver-seeing a young man bending over a prostrate form-guessed at once what was the matter, and came to a halt.
"Another one!" he said, coming leisurely up, and glancing at the lifeless form with a very professional eye. "Well, I think there is room for another one in the cart; so bear a hand, friend, and let us have him out of this."
"You are mistaken!" said Sir Norman sharply, "he has not died of the plague. I am not even certain whether he is dead at all."
The driver looked at Sir Norman, then stooped down and touched Ormiston's icy face, and listened to hear him breathe. He stood up after a moment, with some thing like a small laugh.
"If he's alive," he said, turning to go, "then I never saw any one dead! Good night, sir, I wish you joy when you bring him to."
"Stay!" exclaimed the young man, "I wish you to assist me in bringing him to yonder apothecary's shop, and you may have this for your pains."
"This" proved to be a talisman of alacrity; for the man pocketed it, and briskly laid hold of Ormiston by the feet, while Sir Norman wrapped his cloak reverently about him and took him by the shoulders. In this style his body was conveyed to the apothecary's shop which they found half full of applicants for medicine, among whom their entrance with the corpse produced no greater sensation than a momentary stare. The attire and bearing of Sir Norman proving him to be something different from their usual class of visitors, bringing one of the drowsy apprentices immediately to his side, inquiring what were his orders.
"A private room, and your master's attendance directly," was the authoritative reply.
Both were to be had; the former, a hole in the wall behind the shop; the latter, a pallid, cadaverous-looking person, with the air of one who had been dead a week, thought better of it and rose again. There was a long table in the aforesaid hole in the wall, bearing a strong family likeness to a dissecting-table; upon which the stark figure was laid, and the pest-cart driver disappeared. The apothecary held a mirror close to the face; applied his ear to the pulse and heart; held a pocket-mirror over his mouth, looked at it; shook his head; and set down the candle with decision.
"The man is dead, sir!" was his criticism, "dead as a door nail! All the medicine in the shop wouldn't kindle one spark of life in such ashes!"
"At least, try! Try something—bleeding for instance," suggested Sir Norman.
Again the apothecary examined the body, and again he shook his head dolefully.
"It's no use, sir: but, if it will please, you can try."
The right arm was bared; the lancet inserted, one or two black drops sluggishly followed and nothing more.
"It's all a waste of time, you see," remarked the apothecary, wiping his dreadful little weapon, "he's as dead as ever I saw anybody in my life! How did he come to his end, sir—not by the plague?"
"I don't know," said Sir Norman, gloomily. "I wish you would tell me that."
"Can't do it, sir; my skill doesn't extend that far. There is no plague-spot or visible wound or bruise on the person; so he must have died of some internal complaint—probably disease of the heart."
"Never knew him to have such a thing," said Sir Norman, sighing. "It is very mysterious and very dreadful, and notwithstanding all you have said, I cannot believe him dead. Can he not remain here until morning, at least?"
The starved apothecary looked at him out of a pair of hollow, melancholy eyes.
"Gold can do anything," was his plaintive reply.
"I understand. You shall have it. Are you sure you can do nothing more for him?"
"Nothing whatever, sir; and excuse me, but there are customers in the shop, and I must leave, sir."
Which he did, accordingly; and Sir Norman was left alone with all that remained of him who, two hours before, was his warm friend. He could scarcely believe that it was the calm majesty of death that so changed the expression of that white face, and yet, the longer he looked, the more deeply an inward conviction assured him that it was so. He chafed the chilling hands and face, he applied hartshorn and burnt feathers to the nostrils, but all these applications, though excellent in their way, could not exactly raise the dead to life, and, in this case, proved a signal, failure. He gave up his doctoring, at last, in despair, and folding his arms, looked down at what lay on the table, and tried to convince himself that it was Ormiston. So absorbed was he in the endeavor, that he heeded not the passing moments, until it struck him with a shock that Hubert might even now be waiting for him at the trysting-place, with news of Leoline. Love is stronger than friendship, stronger than grief, stronger than death, stronger than every other feeling in the world; so he suddenly seized his hat, turned his back on Ormiston and the apothecary's shop, and strode oft to the place he had quitted.
No Hubert was there, but two figures were passing slowly along in the moonlight, and one of them he recognized, with an impulse to spring at him like a tiger and strangle him. But he had been so shocked and subdued by his recent discovery, that the impulse which, half an hour before, would have been unhesitatingly obeyed, went for nothing, now; and there was more of reproach, even, than anger in his voice, as he went over and laid his hand on the shoulder of one of them.
"Stay!" he said. "One word with you, Count L'Estrange. What have you done with Leoline!"
"Ah! Sir Norman, as I live!" cried the count wheeling round and lifting his hat. "Give me good even—or rather, good morning—Kingsley, for St. Paul's has long gone the midnight hour."
Sir Norman, with his hand still on his shoulder, returned not the courtesy, and regarding the gallant count with a stern eye.
"Where is Leoline?" he frigidly repeated.
"Really," said the count, with some embarrassment, "you attack me so unexpectedly, and so like a ghost or a highwayman—by the way I have a word to say to you about highwaymen, and was seeking you to say it."
"Where is Leoline?" shouted the exasperated young knight, releasing his shoulder, and clutching him by the throat. "Tell me or, by Heaven! I'll pitch you neck and heels into the Thames!"
Instantly the sword of the count's companion flashed in the moonlight, and, in two seconds more, its blue blade would have ended the earthly career of Sir Norman Kingsley, had not the count quickly sprang back, and made a motion for his companion to hold.
"Wait!" he cried, commandingly, with his arm outstretched to each. "Keep off! George, sheathe your sword and stand aside. Sir Norman Kingsley, one word with you, and be it in peace."
"There can be no peace between us," replied that aggravated young gentleman, fiercely "until you tell me what has become of Leoline."
"All in good time. We have a listener, and does it mot strike you our conference should be private!"
"Public or private, it matters not a jot, so that you tell me what you've done with Leoline," replied Sir Norman, with whom it was evident getting beyond this question was a moral and physical impossibility. "And if you do not give an account of yourself, I'll run you through as sure as your name is Count L'Estrange!"
A strange sort of smile came over the face of the count at this direful threat, as if he fancied in that case, he was safe enough; but Sir Norman, luckily, did not see it, and heard only the suave reply:
"Certainly, Sir Norman; I shall be delighted to do so. Let us stand over there in the shadow of that arch; and, George, do you remain here within call."
The count blandly waved Sir Norman to follow, which Sir Norman did, with much the mein of a sulky lion; and, a moment after, both were facing each other within the archway.
"Well!" cried the young knight, impatiently; "I am waiting. Go on!"
"My dear Kingsley," responded the count, in his easy way, "I think you are laboring under a little mistake. I have nothing to go on about; it is you who are to begin the controversy."
"Do you dare to play with me?" exclaimed Sir Norman, furiously. "I tell you to take care how you speak! What have you done with Leoline?"
"That is the fourth or fifth time that you've asked me that question," said the count, with provoking indifference. "What do you imagine I have done with her?"
Sir Norman's feelings, which had been rising ever since their meeting, got up to such a height at this aggravating question, that he gave vent to an oath, and laid his hand on him sword; but the count's hand lightly interposed before it came out.
"Not yet, Sir Norman. Be calm; talk rationally. What do you accuse me of doing with Leoline?"
"Do you dare deny having carried her off?"
"Deny it? No; I am never afraid to father my own deeds."
"Ah!" said Sir Norman grinding his teeth. "Then you acknowledge it?"
"I acknowledge it—yes. What next?"
The perfect composure of his tone fell like a cool, damp towel on the fire of Sir Norman's wrath. It did not quite extinguish the flame, however—only quenched it a little—and it still hissed hotly underneath.
"And you dare to stand before me and acknowledge such an act?" exclaimed Sir Norman, perfectly astounded at the cool assurance of the man.
"Verily, yea," said the count, laughing. "I seldom take the trouble to deny my acts. What next?"
"There is nothing next," said Sir Norman, severely, "until we have come to a proper understanding about this. Are you aware, sir, that that lady is my promised bride?"
"No, I do not know that I am. On the contrary, I have an idea she is mine."
"She was, you mean. You know she was forced into consenting by yourself and her nurse!"
"Still she consented; and a bond is a bond, and a promise a promise, all the world over."
"Not with a woman," said Sir Norman, with stern dogmatism. "It is their privilege to break their promise and change their mind sixty times an hour, if they choose. Leoline has seen fit to do both, and has accepted me in your stead; therefore I command you instantly to give her up!"
"Softly, my friend—softly. How was I to know all this?"
"You ought to have known it!" returned Sir Norman, in the same dogmatical way; "or if you didn't, you do now; so say no more about it. Where is she, I tell you?" repeated the young man, in a frenzy.
"Your patience one moment longer, until we see which of us has the best right to the lady. I have a prior claim."
"A forced one. Leoline does not care a snap far you—and she loves me."
"What extraordinary bad taste!" raid the count, thoughtfully. "Did she tell you that?"
"Yes; she did tell me this, and a great deal more. Come—have done talking, and tell me where she is, or I'll—"
"Oh, no, you wouldn't!" said the count, teasingly. "Since matters stand in this light I'll tell you what I'll do. I acknowledge that I carried off Leoline, viewing her as my promised bride, and have sent her to my own home in the care of a trusty messenger, where I give you my word of honor, I have not been since. She is as safe there, and much safer than in her own house, until morning, and it would be a pity to disturb her at this unseasonable hour. When the morning comes, we will both go to her together—state our rival claims—and whichever one she decides on accepting, can have her, and end the matter at once."
The count paused and meditated. This proposal was all very plausible and nice on the surface, but Sir Norman with his usual penetration and acuteness, looked farther than the surface, and found a flaw.
"And how am I to know," he asked, doubtingly, "that you will not go to her to-night and spirit her off where I will never hear of either of you again?"
"In the very best way in the world: we will not part company until morning comes, are we at peace?" inquired the count, smiling and holding out but hand.
"Until then, we will have to be, I suppose," replied Sir Norman, rather ungraciously taking the hand as if it were red-hot, and dropping it again. "And we are to stand here and rail at each other, in the meantime?"
"By no means! Even the most sublime prospect tires when surveyed too long. There is a little excursion which I would like you to accompany me on, if you have no objection."
"To the ruin, where you have already been twice to-night."
Sir Norman stared.
"And who told you this fact, Sir Count?"
"Never mind; I have heard it. Would you object to a third excursion there before morning?"
Again Sir Norman paused and meditated. There was no use in staying where he was, that would bring him no nearer to Leoline, and nothing was to be gained by killing the count beyond the mere transitory pleasure of the thing. On the other hand, he had an intense and ardent desire to re-visit the ruin, and learn what had become of Miranda—the only draw-back being that, if they were found they would both be most assuredly beheaded. Then, again, there was Hubert.
"Well," inquired the count, as Sir Norman looked up.
"I have no objection to go with you to the ruin," was the reply, "only this; if we are seen there, we will be dead men two minutes after; and I have no desire to depart this life until I have had that promised interview with Leoline."
"I have thought of that," said the count, "and have provided for it. We may venture in the lion's den without the slightest danger: all that is required being your promise to guide us thither. Do you give it?"
"I do; but I expect a friend here shortly, and cannot start until he comes."
"If you mean me by that, I am here," said a voice at his elbow; and, looking round, he saw Hubert himself, standing there, a quiet listener and spectator of the scene.
Count L'Estrange looked at him with interest, and Hubert, affecting not to notice the survey, watched Sir Norman.
"Well," was that individual's eager address, "were you successful?"
The count was still watching the boy so intently, that that most discreet youth was suddenly seized with a violent fit of coughing, which precluded all possibility of reply for at least five minutes; and Sir Norman, at the same moment, felt his arm receive a sharp and warning pinch.
"Is this your friend?" asked the count. "He is a very small one, and seems in a bad state of health."
Sir Norman, still under the influence of the pinch, replied by an inaudible murmur, and looked with a deeply mystified expression, at Hubert.
"He bears a strong resemblance to the lady we were talking of a moment ago," continued the count—"is sufficiently like her, in fact, to be her brother; and, I see wears the livery of the Earl of Rochester."
"God spare you your eye-sight!" said Sir Norman, impatiently. "Can you not see, among the rest, that I have a few words to say to him in private? Permit us to leave you for a moment."
"There is no need to do so. I will leave you, as I have a few words to say to the person who is with me."
So saying the count walked away, and Hubert followed him with a most curious look.
"Now," cried Sir Norman, eagerly, "what news?"
"Good!" said the boy. "Leoline is safe!"
"Not far from here. Didn't he tell you?"
"The count? No—yes; he said she was at his house."
"Exactly. That is where she is," said Hubert, looking much relieved. "And, at present, perfectly safe."
"And did you see her?"
"Of course; and heard her too. She was dreadfully anxious to come with me; but that was out of the question."
"And how is she to be got away?"
"That I do not clearly see. We will have to bring a ladder, and there will be so much danger, and so little chance of success, that, to me it seems an almost hopeless task. Where did you meet Count L'Estrange?"
"Here; and he told me that he had abducted her, and held her a prisoner in his own house."
"He owned that did he? I wonder you were not fit to kill him?"
"So I was, at first, but he talked the matter over somehow."
And hereupon Sir Norman briefly and quickly rehearsed the substance of their conversation. Hubert listened to it attentively, and laughed as he concluded.
"Well, I do not see that you can do otherwise, Sir Norman, and I think it would be wise to obey the count for to-night, at least. Then to-morrow—if things do not go on well, we can take the law in our own hands."
"Can we?" said Sir Norman, doubtfully, "I do wish you would tell me who this infernal count is, Hubert, for I am certain you know."
"Not until to-morrow—you shall know him then."
"To-morrow! to-morrow!" exclaimed Sir Norman, disconsolately. "Everything is postponed until to-morrow! Oh, here comes the count back again. Are we going to start now, I wonder?"
"Is your friend to accompany us on our expedition?" inquired the count, standing before them. "It shall be quite as you say, Mr. Kingsley."
"My friend can do as he pleases. What do you say, Hubert?"
"I should like to go, of all things, if neither of you have any objections."
"Come on, then," said the count, "we will find horses in readiness a short distance from this."
The three started together, and walked on in silence through several streets, until they reached a retired inn, where the count's recent companion stood, with the horses. Count L'Estrange whispered a few words to him, upon which he bowed and retired; and in an instant they were all in the saddle, and galloping away.
The journey was rather a silent one, and what conversation there was, was principally sustained by the count. Hubert's usual flow of pertinent chat seemed to have forsaken him, and Sir Norman had so many other things to think of—Leoline, Ormiston, Miranda, and the mysterious count himself—that he felt in no mood for talking. Soon, they left the city behind them; the succeeding two miles were quickly passed over, and the "Golden Crown," all dark and forsaken, now hove in sight. As they reached this, and cantered up the road leading to the ruin, Sir Norman drew rein, and said:
"I think our best plan would be, to dismount, and lead our horses the rest of the way, and not incur any unnecessary danger by making a noise. We can fasten them to these trees, where they will be at hand when we come out."
"Wait one moment," said the count, lifting his finger with a listening look. "Listen to that!"
It was a regular tramp of horses' hoofs, sounding in the silence like a charge of cavalry. While they looked, a troop of horsemen came galloping up, and came to a halt when they saw the count.
No words can depict the look of amazement Sir Norman's face wore; but Hubert betrayed not the least surprise. The count glanced at his companions with a significant smile, and riding back, held a brief colloquy with him who seemed the leader of the horsemen. He rode up to them, smiling still, and saying, as he passed,
"Now then, Kingsley; lead on, and we will follow!"
"I go not one step further," said Sir Norman, firmly, "until I know who I am leading. Who are you, Count L'Estrange?"
The count looked at him, but did not answer. A warning hand—that of Hubert—grasped Sir Norman's arm; and Hubert's voice whispered hurriedly in his ear:
"Hush, for God's sake! It is the king!"
CHAPTER XX. AT THE PLAGUE-PIT.
The effect of the whisper was magical. Everything that had been dark before, became clear as noonday; and Sir Norman sat absolutely astounded at his own stupidity in not having found it out for himself before. Every feature, notwithstanding the disguise of wig and beard, became perfectly familiar; and even through the well-assumed voice, he recognized the royal tones. It struck him all at once, and with it the fact of Leoline's increased danger. Count L'Estrange was a formidable rival, but King Charles of England was even more formidable.
Thought is quick—quicker than the electric telegraph or balloon traveling; and in two seconds the whole stated things, with all the attendant surprises and dangers, danced before his mind's eye like a panorama; and he comprehended the past, the present, and the future, before Hubert had uttered the last word of his whisper. He turned his eyes, with a very new and singular sensation, upon the quondam count, and found that gentlemen looking very hard at him, with, a preternaturally grave expression of countenance. Sir Norman knew well as anybody the varying moods of his royal countship, and, notwithstanding his general good nature, it was not safe to trifle with him at all times; so he repressed every outward sign of emotion whatever, and resolved to treat him as Count L'Estrange until he should choose to sail under his own proper colors.
"Well," said the count, with unruffled eagerness, "and so you decline to go any further Sir Norman?"
Hubert's eye was fixed with a warning glance upon him, and Sir Norman composedly answered
"No, count; I do not absolutely decline; but before I do go any further, I should like to know by what right do you bring all these men here, and what are your intentions in so doing."
"And if I refuse to answer?"
"Then I refuse to move a step further in the business!" said Sir Norman, with decision.
"And why, my good friend? You surely can have no objection to anything that can be done against highwaymen and cut-throats."
"Right! I have no objections, but others may."
"Whom do you mean by others?"
"The king, for instance. His gracious majesty is whimsical at times; and who knows that he may take it into his royal head to involve us somehow with them. I know the adage, 'put not your trust in princes.'"
"Very good," said the count, with a slight and irrepressible smile; "your prudence is beyond all praise! But I think, in this matter I may safely promise to stand between you and the king's wrath. Look at those horsemen beyond you, and see if they do not wear the uniform of his majesty's own body-guard."
Sir Norman looked, and saw the dazzling of their splendid equipments glancing and glistening in the moonbeams.
"I see. Then you have the royal permission for all this?"
"You have said it. Now, most scrupulous of men, proceed!"
"Look there!" exclaimed Hubert, suddenly pointing to a corner of the rain. "Someone has seen us, and is going now to give the alarm."
"He shall miss it, though!" said Sir Norman, detecting, at the same instant, a dark figure getting through the broken doorway; and striking spurs into his horse, he was instantaneously beside it, out of the saddle, and had grasped the retreater by the shoulder.
"By your leave!" exclaimed Sir Norman. "Not quite so fast! Stand out here in the moonlight, until I see who you are."
"Let me go!" cried the man, grappling with his opponent. "I know who you are, and I swear you'll never see moonlight or sunlight again, if you do not instantly let me go."
Sir Norman recognized the voice with a perfect shout of delight.
"The duke, by all that's lucky! O, I'll let you go: but not until the hangman gets hold of you. Villain and robber, you shall pay for your misdeeds now!"
"Hold!" shouted the commanding voice of Count L'Estrange. "Cease, Sir Norman Kingsley! there is no time, and this is no person for you to scoff with. He is our prisoner, and shall show us the nearest way into this den of thieves. Give me your sword, fellow, and be thankful I do not make you shorter by a head with it."
"You do not know him!" cried Sir Norman; in vivid excitement. "I tell you this is the identical scoundrel who attempted to rob and murder you a few hours ago."
"So much the better! He shall pay for that and all his other shortcomings, before long! But, in the meantime, I order him to bring us before the rest of this outlawed crew."
"I shall do nothing of the kind," said the duke, sullenly.
"Just as you please. Here, my men, two of you take hold of this scoundrel, and dispatch him at once."
The guard had all dismounted; and two of them came forward with edifying obedience, to do as they were told.
The effect upon the duke was miraculous. Instantly he started up, with an energy perfectly amazing:
"No, no, no! I'll do it! Come this way, gentlemen, and I'll bring you direct into their midst. O good Lord! whatever will become of us?"
This last frantic question was addressed to society in general, but Sir Norman felt called upon to answer:
"That's very easily told, my man. If you and the rest of your titled associates receive your deserts (as there is no doubt you will) from the gracious hand of our sovereign lord, the king, the strongest rope and highest gallows at Tyburn will be your elevated destiny."
The duke groaned dismally, and would have come to a halt to beg mercy on the spot, had not Hubert given him a probe in, the ribs with the point of his dagger, that sent him on again, with a distracted howl.
"Why, this is a perfect Hades!" said the count, as he stumbled after, in the darkness. "Are you sure we are going right, Kingsley?"
The inquiry was not unnatural, for the blackness was perfectly Tartarian, and the soldiers behind were knocking their tall shins against all sorts of obstacles as they groped blindly along, invoking from them countless curses, not loud, but deep.
"I don't know whether we are or not," said Sir Norman significantly; "only, God help him if we're not! Where are you taking us to, you black-looking bandit?"
"I give you my word of honor, gentlemen," said an imploring voice in the darkness, "that I'm leading you, by the nearest way, to the Midnight Court. All I ask of you in return is, that you will let me enter before you; for if they find that I lead you in, my life will not be worth a moment's purchase."
"As if it ever was worth it," said Sir Norman, contemptuously. "On with you, and be thankful I don't save your companions the trouble, by making an end of you where you stand."
"Rush along, old fellow," suggested Hubert, giving him another poke with his dagger, that drew forth a second doleful howl.
Notwithstanding the darkness, Sir Norman discovered that they were being led in a direction exactly opposite that by which he had previously effected an entrance. They were in the vault, he knew, by the darkness, though they had descended no stair-case, and he was just wondering if their guide was not meditating some treachery by such a circuitous route, when suddenly a tumult of voices, and uproar, and confusion, met his ear. At the same instant, their guide opened a door, revealing a dark passage, illuminated by a few rays of light, and which Sir Norman instantly recognized as that leading to the Black Chamber. Here again the duke paused, and turned round to them with a wildly-imploring face.
"Gentlemen, I do conjure you to let me enter before you do! I tell you they will murder me the very instant they discover I have led you here!"
"That would be a great pity!" said the count; "and the gallows will be cheated of one of its brightest ornaments! That is your den of thieves, I suppose, from which all this uproar comes?"
"It is. And as I have guided you safely to it, surely I deserve this trifling boon."
"Trifling, do you call it," interposed Sir Norman, "to let you make your escape, as you most assuredly will do the moment you are out of our sight! No, no; we are too old birds to be caught with such chaff; and though the informer always gets off scot-free, your services deserve no such boon; for we could have found our way without your help! On with you, Sir Robber; and if your companions do kill you, console yourself with the thought that they have only anticipated the executioner by a few days!"
With a perfectly heart-rending groan, the unfortunate duke walked on; but when they reached the archway directly before the room, he came to an obstinate halt, and positively refused to go a step farther. It was death, anyway, and he resisted with the courage of desperation, feeling he might as well die there as go in and be assassinated by his confederates, and not even the persuasive influence of Hubert's dagger could prevail on him to budge an inch farther.
"Stay, then!" said the count, with perfect indifference. "And, soldiers, see that he does not escape! Now, Kingsley, let us just have a glimpse of what is going on within."
Though the party had made considerable noise in advancing, and had spoken quite loudly in their little animated discussion with the duke, so great was the turmoil and confusion within, that it was not heeded, or even heard. With very different feelings from those with which he had stood there last, Sir Norman stepped forward and stood beside the count, looking at the scene within.
The crimson court was in a state of "most admired disorder," and the confusion of tongues was equal to Babel. No longer were they languidly promenading, or lolling in the cushioned chairs; but all seemed running to and fro in the wildest excitement, which the grandest duke among them seemed to share equally with the terrified white sylphs. Everybody appeared to be talking together, and paying no attention whatever to the sentiments of their neighbors. One universal centre of union alone seemed to exist, and that was the green, judicial table near the throne, upon which, while all tongues ran, all eyes turned. For some minutes, neither of the beholders could make out why, owing to the crowd (principally of the ladies) pressing around it; but Sir Norman guessed, and thrilled through with a vague sensation of terror, lest it should prove to be the dead body of Miranda. Skipping in and out among the females he saw the dwarf, performing a sort of war dance of rage and frenzy; twining both hands in his wig, as if he would have torn it out by the roots, and anon tearing at somebody else's wig, so that everybody backed off when he came near them.
"Who is that little fiend?" inquired the count; "and what have they got there at the and of the room, pray?"
"That little fiend is the ringleader here, and is entitled Prince Caliban. Regarding your other question," said Sir Norman, with a faint thrill, "there was a table there when I saw it last, but I am afraid there is something worse now."
"Could ever any mortal conceive of such a scene," observed the count to himself; "look at that little picture of ugliness; how he hops about like a dropsical bull-frog. Some of those women are very pretty, too, and outshine more than one court-beauty that I have seen. Upon my word, it is the most extraordinary spectacle I ever heard of. I wonder what they've got that's so attractive down there?"
At the same moment, a loud voice within the circle abruptly exclaimed
"She revives, she revives! Back, back, and give her air!"
Instantly, the throng swayed and fell back; and the dwarf, with a sort of yell (whether of rage or relief, nobody knew), swept them from side to side with a wave of his long arms, and cleared a wide vacancy for his own especial benefit. The action gave the count an opportunity of gratifying his curiosity. The object of attraction was now plainly visible. Sir Norman's surmises had been correct. The green table of the parliament-house of the midnight court had been converted, by the aid of cushions and pillows, into an extempore couch; and half-buried in their downy depths lay Miranda, the queen. The sweeping robe of royal purple, trimmed with ermine, the circlets of jewels on arms, bosom, and head, she still wore, and the beautiful face was white: than fallen snow. Yet she was not dead, as Sir Norman had dreaded; for the dark eyes were open, and were fixed with an unutterable depth of melancholy on vacancy. Her arms lay helplessly by her side, and someone, the court physician probably, was bending over her and feeling her pulse.
As the count's eyes fell upon her, he started back, and grasped Sir Norman's arm with consternation.
"Good heavens, Kingsley!" he cried; "it is Leoline, herself!"
In his excitement he had spoken so loud, that in the momentary silence that followed the physician's direction, his voice had rung through the room, and drew every eye upon them.
"We are seen, we are seen!" shouted Hubert, and as he spoke, a terrible cry idled the room. In an instant every sword leaped from its scabbard, and the shriek of the startled women rang appallingly out on the air. Sir Norman drew his sword, too; but the count, with his eyes yet fixed on Miranda, still held him by the arm, and excitedly exclaimed,
"Tell me, tell me, is it Leoline?"
"Leoline! No—how could it be Leoline? They look alike, that's all. Draw your sword, count, and defend yourself; we are discovered, and they are upon us!"
"We are upon them, you mean, and it is they who are discovered," said the count, doing as directed, and stepping boldly in. "A pretty hornet's next is this we have lit upon, if ever there was one."
Side by side with the count, with a dauntless step and eye, Sir Norman entered, too; and, at sight of him a burst of surprise and fury rang from lip to lip. There was a yell of "Betrayed, betrayed!" and the dwarf, with a face so distorted by fiendish fury that it was scarcely human, made a frenzied rush at him, when the clear, commanding voice of the count rang like a bugle blast through the assembly,
"Sheathe your swords, the whole of you, and yield yourselves prisoners. In the king's name, I command you to surrender."
"There is no king here but I!" screamed the dwarf, gnashing his teeth, and fairly foaming with rage. "Die; traitor and spy! You have escaped me once, but your hour is come now."
"Allow me to differ from you," said Sir Norman, politely, as he evaded the blindly-frantic lunge of the dwarf's sword, and inserted an inch or two of the point of his own in that enraged little prince's anatomy. "So far from my hour having come—if you will take the trouble to reflect upon it—you will find it is the reverse, and that my little friend's brief and brilliant career in rapidly drawing to a close."
At these bland remarks, and at the sharp thrust that accompanied them, the dwarfs previous war-dance of anxiety was nothing to the horn-pipe of exasperation he went through when Sir Norman ceased. The blood was raining from his side, and from the point of his adversary's sword, as he withdrew it; and, maddened like a wild beast at the sight of his own blood, he screeched, and foamed, and kicked about his stout little legs, and gnashed his teeth, and made grabs at his wig, and lashed the air with his sword, and made such desperate pokes with it, at Sir Norman and everybody else who came in his way, that, for the public good, the young knight run him through the sword-arm, and, in spite of all his distracted didos, captured him by the help of Hubert, and passed him over to the soldiers to cheer and keep company with the duke.
This brisk little affair being over, Sir Norman had time to look about him. It had all passed in so short a space, and the dwarf had been so desperately frantic, that the rest had paused involuntarily, and were still looking on. Missing the count, he glanced around the room, and discovered him standing on Miranda's throne, looking over the company with the cool air of a conqueror. Miranda, aroused, as she very well might be by all this screaming and fighting, had partly raised herself upon her elbow, and was looking wildly about her. As her eye fell on Sir Norman, she sat fairly erect, with a cry of exultation and joy.
"You have come, you have come, as I knew you would," she excitedly cried, "and the hour of retribution is at hand!"
At the words of one who, a few moments before, they had supposed to be dead, an awestruck silence fell; and the count, taking advantage of it, waved his hand, and cried,
"Yield yourselves prisoners, I command you! The royal guards are without; and the first of you who offers the slightest resistance will die like a dog! Ho, guards I enter, and seize your prisoners!"
Quick as thought the room was full of soldiers! but the rest of the order was easier said than obeyed. The robbers, knowing their doom was death, fought with the fury of desperation, and a snort, wild, and terrible conflict ensued. Foremost in the melee was Sir Norman and the count; while Hubert, who had taken possession of the dwarf's sword, fought like a young lion. The shrieks of the women were heart-rending, as they all fled, precipitately, into the blue dining-room; and, crouching in corners, or flying distractedly about—true to their sex—made the air resound with the most lamentable cries. Some five or six, braver than the rest, alone remained; and more than one of these actually mixed in the affray, with a heroism worthy a better cause. Miranda, still sitting erect, and supported in the arms of a kneeling and trembling sylph in white, watched the conflict with terribly-exultant eyes, that blazed brighter and brighter with the lurid fire of vengeful joy st every robber that fell.
"Oh, that I were strong enough to wield a sword!" was her fierce aspiration every instant; "if I could only mix in that battle for five minutes, I could die with a happy heart!"
Had she been able to wield a sword for five minutes, according to her wish, she would probably have wielded it from beginning to end of the battle; for it did not last much longer than that. The robbers fought with fury and ferocity; but they had been taken by surprise, and were overpowered by numbers, and obliged to yield.
The crimson court was indeed crimson now; for the velvet carpeting was dyed a more terrible red, and was slippery with a rain of blood! A score of dead and dying lay groaning on the ground; and the rest, beaten and bloody, gave up their swords and surrendered.
"You should have done this at first!" said the count, coolly wiping his blood-stained weapon, end replacing it in its sheath; "and, by so doing, saved some time and more bloodshed. Where are all the fair ladies, Kingsley, I saw here when we entered first?"
"They fled like a flock of frightened deer," said Hubert, taking it upon himself to answer, "through yonder archway when the fight commenced. I will go in search of them if you like."
"I am rather at a loss what to do with them," said the count, half-laughing. "It would be a pity to bring such a cavalcade of pretty women into the city to die of the plague. Can you suggest nothing, Sir Norman?"
"Nothing, but to leave then here to take care of themselves, or let them go free."
"They would be a great addition to the court at Whitehall," suggested Hubert, in his prettiest tone, "and a thousand times handsomer than half the damsels therein. There, for instance, is one a dozen timer more beautiful than Mistress Stuart herself!"
Leaning, in his nonchalant way, on the hilt of his sword, he pointed to Miranda, whose fiercely-joyful eyes were fixed w with a glance that made the three of them shudder, on the bloody floor and the heap of slain.
"Who is that?" asked the count, curiously. "Why is she perched up there, and why does she bear such an extraordinary resemblance to Leoline? Do you know anything about her, Kingsley?"
"I know she is the wife of that unlovely little man, whose howls in yonder passage you can hear, if you listen, and that she was the queen of this midnight court, and is wounded, if not dying, now!"
"I never saw such fierce eyes before in a female head! One would think she fairly exulted in this wholesale slaughter of her subjects."
"So she does; and she hates both her husband and her subjects, with an intensity you cannot conceive."
"How very like royalty!" observed Hubert, in parenthesis. "If she were a real queen, she could not act more naturally."
Sir Norman smiled, and the count glanced at the audacious page, suspiciously; but Hubert's face was touching to witness, in its innocent unconsciousness. Miranda, looking up at the same time, caught the young knight's eye, and made a motion for him to approach. She held out both her hands to him as he came near, with the same look of dreadful delight.
"Sir Norman Kingsley, I am dying, and my last words are in thanksgiving to you for having thus avenged me!"
"Let me hope you have many days to live yet, fair lady," said Sir Norman, with the same feeling of repulsion he had experienced in the dungeon. "I am sorry you have been obliged to witness this terrible scene."
"Sorry!" she cried, fiercely. "Why, since the first hour I remember at all, I remember nothing that has given me such joy as what has passed now; my only regret is that I did not see them all die before my eyes! Sorry! I tell you I would not have missed it for ten thousand worlds!"
"Madame, you must not talk like this!" said Sir Norman, almost sternly. "Heaven forbid there should exist a woman who could rejoice in bloodshed and death. You do not, I know. You wrong yourself and your own nature in saying so. Be calm, now; do not excite yourself. You shall come with us, and be properly cared for; and I feel certain you have a long and happy life before you yet."
"Who are those men?" she said, not heeding him, "and who—ah, great Heaven! What is that?"
In looking round, she had met Hubert face to face. She knew that that face was her own; and, with a horror stamped on every feature that no words can depict, she fell back, with a terrible scream and was dead!
Sir Norman was so shocked by the suddenness of the last catastrophe, that, for some time, he could not realize that she had actually expired, until he bent over her, and placed his ear to her lips. No breath was there; no pulse stirred in that fierce heart—the Midnight Queen was indeed dead!
"Oh, this is fearful!" exclaimed Sir Norman, pale and horrified.
"The sight of Hubert, and his wonderful resemblance to her, has completed what her wound and this excitement began. Her last is breathed on earth!"
"Peace be with her!" said the count, removing his hat, which, up to the present, he had worn. "And now, Sir Norman, if we are to keep our engagement at sunrise, we had better be on the move; for, unless I am greatly mistaken, the sky is already grey with day-dawn."
"What are your commands?" asked Sir Norman, turning away, with a sigh, from the beautiful form already stiffening in death.
"That you come with me to seek out those frightened fair ones, who are a great deal too lovely to share the fate of their male companions. I shall give them their liberty to go where they please, on condition that they do not enter the city. We have enough vile of their class there already."
Sir Norman silently followed him into the azure and silver saloon, where the crowd of duchesses and countesses were "weeping and wringing their hands," and as white as so many pretty ghosts. In a somewhat brief and forcible manner, considering his characteristic gallantry, the count made his proposal, which, with feelings of pleasure and relief, was at once acceded to; and the two gentlemen bowed themselves out, and left the startled ladies.
On returning to the crimson court, he commanded a number of his soldiers to remain and bury the dead, and assist the wounded; and then, followed by the remainder and the prisoners under their charge, passed out, and were soon from the heated atmosphere in the cool morning air. The moon was still serenely shining, but the stars that kept the earliest hours were setting, and the eastern sky was growing light with the hazy gray of coming morn.
"I told you day-dawn was at hand," said the count, as he sprang into his saddle; "and, lo! in the sky it is gray already."
"It is time for it!" said Sir Norman, as he, too, got into his seat; "this has been the longest night I have ever known, and the most eventful one of my life."
"And the end is not yet! Leoline waits to decide between us!"
Sir Norman shrugged his shoulders.
"True! But I have little doubt what that decision will be! I presume you will have to deliver up your prisoners before you can visit her, and I will avail myself of the opportunity to snatch a few moments to fulfill a melancholy duty of my own."
"As you please. I have no objection; but in that case you will need some one to guide you to the place of rendezvous; so I will order my private attendant, yonder, to keep you in sight, and guide you to me when your business is ended."
The count had given the order to start, the moment they had left the ruin, and the conversation had been carried on while riding at a break-neck gallop. Sir Norman thanked him for his offer, and they rode in silence until they reached the city, and their paths diverged; Sir Norman's leading to the apothecary's shop where he had left Ormiston, and the count's leading—he best knew where. George—the attendant referred to—joined the knight, and leaving his horse in his care, Sir Norman entered the shop, and encountered the spectral proprietor at the door.
"What of my friend?" was his eager inquiry. "Has he yet shown signs of returning consciousness?"
"Alas, no!" replied the apothecary, with a groan, that came wailing up like a whistle; "he was so excessively dead, that there was no use keeping him; and as the room was wanted for other purposes, I—pray, my dear sir, don't look so violent—I put him in the pest-cart and had him buried."
"In the plague-pit!" shouted Sir Norman, making a spring at him; but the man darted off like a ghostly flash into the inner room, and closed and bolted the door in a twinkling.
Sir Norman kicked at it spitefully, but it resisted his every effort; and, overcoming a strong temptation to smash every bottle in the shop, he sprang once more into the saddle, and rode off to the plague-pit. It was the second time within the last twelve hours he had stood there; and, on the previous occasion, he who now lay in it, had stood by his side. He looked down, sickened and horror-struck. Perhaps, before another morning, he, too, might be there; and, feeling his blood run cold at the thought, he was turning away, when some one came rapidly up, and sank down with a moaning gasping cry on its very edge. That shape—tall and slender, and graceful—he well knew; and, leaning over her, ho laid his hand on her shoulder, and exclaimed:
CHAPTER, XXI. WHAT WAS BEHIND TWO MASK.
The cowering form rose up; but, seeing who it was, sank down again, with its face groveling in the dust, and with another prolonged, moaning cry.
"Madame Masque!" he said, wonderingly; "what is this?"
He bent to raise her; but, with a sort of scream she held out her arms to keep him back.
"No, no, no I Touch me not! Hate me—kill me! I have murdered your friend!"
Sir Norman recoiled as if from a deadly tent.
"Murdered him! Madame, in Heaven's name, what have you said?"
"Oh, I have not stabbed him, or poisoned him, or shot him; but I am his murderer, nevertheless!" she wailed, writhing in a sort of gnawing inward torture.
"Madame, I do not understand you at all! Surely you are raving when you talk like this."
Still moaning on the edge of the plague-pit, she half rose up, with both hands clasped tightly over her heart, as if she would have held back from all human ken the anguish that was destroying her,
"NO—no! I am not mad—pray Heaven I were! Oh, that they had strangled me in the first hour of my birth, as they would a viper, rather than I should have lived through all this life of misery and guilt, to end it by this last, worst crime of all!"
Sir Norman stood and looked at her still with a dazed expression. He knew well enough whose murderer she called herself; but why she did so, or how she could possibly bring about his death, was a mystery altogether too deep for him to solve.
"Madame, compose yourself, I beseech you, and tell me what you mean. It is to my friend, Ormiston, you allude—is it not?"
"Yes—yes! surely you need not ask."
"I know that he is dead, and buried in this horrible place; but why you should accuse yourself of murdering him, I confess I do not know."
"Then you shall!" she cried, passionately. "And you will wonder at it no longer! You are the last one to whom the revelation can ever be made on earth; and, now that my hours are numbered, it matters little whether it is told or not! Was it not you who first found him dead?"
"It was I—yes. And how he came to his end, I have been puzzling myself in vain to discover ever since."
She rose up, drew herself to her full majestic height, and looked at him with a terrible glance,
"Shall I tell you?"
"You have had no hand in it," he answered, with a cold chill at the tone and look, "for he loved you!"
"I have had a hand in it—I alone have been the cause of it. But for me he would be living still!"
"Madame," exclaimed Sir Norman, in horror.
"You need not look as if you thought me mad, for I tell you it is Heaven's truth! You say right—he loved me; but for that love he would be living now!"
"You speak in riddles which I cannot read. How could that love have caused his death, since his dearest wishes were to be granted to-night?"
"He told you that, did he?"
"He did. He told me you were to remove your mask; and if, on seeing you, he still loved you, you were to be his wife."
"Then woe to him for ever having extorted such a promise from me! Oh, I warned him again, and again, and again. I told him how it would be—I begged him to desist; but no, he was blind, he was mad; he would rush on his own doom! I fulfilled my promise, and behold the result!"
She pointed with a frantic gesture to the plague-pit, and wrung her beautiful hands with the same moaning of anguish.
"Do I hear aright?" said Sir Norman, looking at her, and really doubting if his ears had not deceived him. "Do you mean to say that, in keeping your word and showing him your face, you have caused his death?"
"I do. I had warned him of it before. I told him there were sights too horrible to look on and live, but nothing would convince him! Oh, why was the curse of life ever bestowed upon such a hideous thing as I!"
Sir Norman gazed at her in a state of hopeless bewilderment. He had thought, from the moment he saw her first, that there was something wrong with her brain, to make her act in such a mysterious, eccentric sort of way; but he had never positively thought her so far gone as this. In his own mind, he set her down, now, as being mad as a March hare, and accordingly answered in that soothing tone people use to imbeciles,
"My dear Madame Masque, pray do not excite yourself, or say such dreadful things. I am sure you would not willfully cause the death of any one, much less that of one who loved you as he did."
La Masque broke into a wild laugh, almost worse to hear than her former despairing moans.
"The man thinks me mad! He will not believe, unless he sees and knows for himself! Perhaps you, too, Sir Norman Kingsley," she cried, changing into sudden fierceness, "would like to see the face behind this mask?—would like to see what has slain your friend, and share his fate?"
"Certainly," said Sir Norman. "I should like to see it; and I think I may safely promise not to die from the effects. But surely, madame, you deceive yourself; no face, however ugly—even supposing you to possess such a one—could produce such dismay as to cause death."
"You shall see."
She was looking down into the plague-pit, standing so close to its cracking edge, that Sir Norman's blood ran cold, in the momentary expectation to see her slip and fall headlong in. Her voice was less fierce and less wild, but her hands were still clasped tightly over her heart, as if to ease the unutterable pain there. Suddenly, she looked up, and said, in an altered tone:
"You have lost Leoline?"
"And found her again. She is in the power of one Count L'Estrange."
"And if in his power, pray, how have you found her?"
"Because we are both to meet in her presence within this very hour, and she is to decide between us."
"Has Count L'Estrange promised you this?"
"And you have no doubt what her decision will be?"
"Not the slightest."
"How came you to know she was carried off by this count?"
"He confessed it himself."
"No; I taxed him with it, and he owned to the deed; but he voluntarily promised to take me to her and abide by her decision."
"Extraordinary!" said La Masque, as if to herself. "Whimsical as he is, I scarcely expected he would give her up no easily as this."
"Then you know him, madame?" said Sir Norman, pointedly.
"There are few things I do not know, and rare are the disguises I cannot penetrate. So you have discovered it, too?"
"No, madame, my eyes were not sharp enough, nor had I sufficient cleverness, even, for that. It was Hubert, the Earl of Rochester's page, who told me who he was."
"Ah, the page!" said La Masque, quickly. "You have then been speaking to him? What do you think of his resemblance to Leoline?"
"I think it is the most astonishing resemblance I ever saw. But he is not the only one who bears Leoline's face."
"And the other is?"
"The other is she whom you sent me to see in the old ruins. Madame, I wish you would tell me the secret of this wonderful likeness; for I am certain you know, and I am equally certain it is not accidental."
"You are right. Leoline knows already; for, with the presentiment that my end was near, I visited her when you left, and gave her her whole history, in writing. The explanation is simple enough. Leoline, Miranda, and Hubert, are sisters and brother."
Some misty idea that such was the case had been struggling through Sir Norman's slow mind, unformed and without shape, ever since he had seen the trio, therefore he was not the least astonished when he heard the fact announced. Only in one thing he was a little disappointed.
"Then Hubert is really a boy?" he said, half dejectedly.
"Certainly he is. What did you take him to be?"
"Why, I thought—that is, I do not know," said Sir Norman, quite blushing at being guilty of so much romance, "but that he was a woman in disguise. You see he is so handsome, and looks so much like Leoline, that I could not help thinking so."
"He is Leoline's twin brother—that accounts for it. When does she become your wife?"
"This very morning, God willing!" raid Sir Norman, fervently.
"Amen! And may her life and yours be long and happy. What becomes of the rest?"
"Since Hubert is her brother, he shall come with us, if he will. As for the other, she, alas! is dead."
"Dead!" cried La Masque. "How? When? She was living, tonight!"
"True! She died of a wound."
"A wound? Surely not given by the dwarfs hand?"
"No, no; it was quite accidental. But since you know so much of the dwarf, perhaps you also know he is now the king's prisoner?"
"I did not know it; but I surmised as much when I discovered that you and Count L'Estrange, followed by such a body of men, visited the ruin. Well, his career has been long and dark enough, and even the plague seemed to spare him for the executioner. And so the poor mock-queen is dead? Well, her sister will not long survive her."
"Good Heavens, madame!" cried Sir Norman, aghast. "You do not mean to say that Leoline is going to die?"
"Oh, no! I hope Leoline has a long and happy life before her. But the wretched, guilty sister I mean is, myself; for I, too, Sir Norman, am her sister."
At this new disclosure, Sir Norman stood perfectly petrified; and La Masque, looking down at the dreadful place at her feet, went rapidly on:
"Alas and alas! that it should be so; but it is the direful truth. We bear the same name, we had the same father; and yet I have been the curse and bane of their lives."
"And Leoline knows this?"
"She never knew it until this night, or any one else alive; and no one should know it now, were not my ghastly life ending. I prayed her to forgive me for the wrong I have done her; and she may, for she is gentle and good—but when, when shall I be able to forgive myself?"
The sharp pain in her voice jarred on Sir Norman's ear and heart; and, to get rid of its dreary echo, he hurriedly asked:
"You say you bear the same name. May I ask what name that is?"
"It is one, Sir Norman Kingsley, before which your own ancient title pales. We are Montmorencis, and in our veins runs the proudest blood in France."
"Then Leoline is French and of noble birth?" said Sir Norman, with a thrill of pleasure. "I loved her for herself alone, and would have wedded her had she been the child of a beggar; but I rejoice to hear this nevertheless. Her father, then, bore a title?"
"Her father was the Marquis de Montmorenci, but Leoline's mother and mine were not the same—had they been, the lives of all four might have been very different; but it is too late to lament that now. My mother had no gentle blood in her veins, as Leoline's had, for she was but a fisherman's daughter, torn from her home, and married by force. Neither did she love my father notwithstanding his youth, rank, and passionate love for her, for she was betrothed to another bourgeois, like herself. For his sake she refused even the title of marchioness, offered her in the moment of youthful and ardent passion, and clung, with deathless truth, to her fisher-lover. The blood of the Montmorencis is fierce and hot, and brooks no opposition" (Sir Norman thought of Miranda, and inwardly owned that that was a fact); "and the marquis, in his jealous wrath, both hated and loved her at the same time, and vowed deadly vengeance against her bourgeois lover. That vow he kept. The young fisherman was found one morning at his lady-love's door without a head, and the bleeding trunk told no tales.
"Of course, for a while, she was distracted and so on; but when the first shock of her grief was over, my father carried her off, and forcibly made her his wife. Fierce hatred, I told you, was mingled with his fierce love, and before the honeymoon was over it began to break out. One night, in a fit of jealous passion, to which he was addicted, he led her into a room she had never before been permitted to enter; showed her a grinning human skull, and told her it was her lover's! In his cruel exultation, he confessed all; how he had caused him to be murdered; his head severed from the body; and brought here to punish her, some day, for her obstinate refusal to love him.
"Up to this time she had been quiet and passive, bearing her fate with a sort of dumb resignation; but now a spirit of vengeance, fiercer and more terrible than his own, began to kindle within her; and, kneeling down before the ghastly thing, she breathed a wish—a prayer—to the avenging Jehovah, so unutterably horrible, that even her husband had to fly with curdling blood from the room. That dreadful prayer was heard—that wish fulfilled in me; but long before I looked on the light of day that frantic woman had repented of the awful deed she had done. Repentance came too late the sin of the father was visited on the child, and on the mother, too, for the moment her eyes fell upon me, she became a raving maniac, and died before the first day of my life had ended.
"Nurse and physician fled at the sight of me; but my father, though thrilling with horror, bore the shock, and bowed to the retributive justice of the angry Deity she had invoked. His whole life, his whole nature, changed from that hour; and, kneeling beside my dead mother, as he afterward told me, he vowed before high Heaven to cherish and love me, even as though I had not been the ghastly creature I was. The physician he bound by a terrible oath to silence; the nurse he forced back, and, in spite of her disgust and abhorrence, compelled her to nurse and care for me. The dead was buried out of sight; and we had rooms in a distant part of the house, which no one ever entered but my father and the nurse. Though set apart from my birth as something accursed, I had the intellect and capacity of—yes, far greater intellect and capacity than, most children; and, as years passed by, my father, true to his vow, became himself my tutor and companion. He did not love me—that was an utter impossibility; but time so blunts the edge of all things, that even the nurse became reconciled to me, and my father could scarcely do less than a stranger. So I was cared for, and instructed, and educated; and, knowing not what a monstrosity I was, I loved them both ardently, and lived on happily enough, in my splendid prison, for my first ten years in this world.
"Then came a change. My nurse died; and it became clear that I must quit my solitary life, and see the sort of world I lived in. So my father, seeing all this, sat down in the twilight one night beside me, and told me the story of my own hideousness. I was but a child then, and it is many and many years ago; but this gray summer morning, I feel what I felt then, as vividly as I did at the time. I had not learned the great lesson of life then—endurance, I have scarcely learned it yet, or I should bear life's burden longer; but that first night's despair has darkened my whole after-life. For weeks I would not listen to my father's proposal, to hide what would send all the world from me in loathing behind a mask; but I came to my senses at last, and from that day to the present—more days than either you or I would care to count—it has not been one hour altogether off my face."
"I was the wonder and talk of Paris, when I did appear; and most of the surmises were wild and wide of the mark—some even going so far as to say it was all owing to my wonderful unheard-of beauty that I was thus mysteriously concealed from view. I had a soft voice, and a tolerable shape; and upon this, I presume, they founded the affirmation. But my father and I kept our own council, and let them say what they listed. I had never been named, as other children are; but they called me La Masque now. I had masters and professors without end, and studied astronomy and astrology, and the mystic lore of the old Egyptians, and became noted as a prodigy and a wonder, and a miracle of learning, far and near.
"The arts used to discover the mystery and make me unmask were innumerable and almost incredible; but I baffled them all, and began, after a time, rather to enjoy the sensation I created than otherwise.
"There was one, in particular, possessed of even more devouring curiosity than the rest, a certain young countess of miraculous beauty, whom I need not describe, since you have her very image in Leoline. The Marquis de Montmorenci, of a somewhat inflammable nature, loved her almost as much as he had done my mother, and she accepted him, and they were married. She may have loved him (I see no reason why she should not), but still to this day I think it was more to discover the secret of La Masque than from any other cause. I loved my beautiful new mother too well to let her find it out; although from the day she entered our house as a bride, until that on which she lay on her deathbed, her whole aim, day and night, was its discovery. There seemed to be a fatality about my father's wives; for the beautiful Honorine lived scarcely longer than her predecessor, and she died, leaving three children—all born at one time—you know them well, and one of them you love. To my care she intrusted them on her deathbed, and she could have scarcely intrusted them to worse; for, though I liked her, I most decidedly disliked them. They were lovely children—their lovely mother's image; and they were named Hubert, Leoline, and Honorine, or, as you knew her, Miranda. Even my father did not seem to care for them much, not even as much as he cared for me; and when he lay on his deathbed, one year later, I was left, young as I was, their sole guardian, and trustee of all his wealth. That wealth was not fairly divided—one-half being left to me and the other half to be shared equally between them; but, in my wicked ambition, I was not satisfied even with that. Some of my father's fierce and cruel nature I inherited; and I resolved to be clear of these three stumbling-blocks, and recompense myself for my other misfortunes by every indulgence boundless riches could bestow. So, secretly, and in the night, I left my home, with an old and trusty servant, known to you as Prudence, and my unfortunate, little brother and sisters. Strange to say, Prudence was attached to one of them, and to neither of the rest—that one was Leoline, whom she resolved to keep and care for, and neither she nor I minded what became of the other two."
"From Paris we went to Dijon, where we dropped Hubert into the turn at the convent door, with his name attached, and left him where he would be well taken care of, and no questions asked. With the other two we started for Calais, en route for England; and there Prudence got rid of Honorine in a singular manner. A packet was about starting for the island of our destination, and she saw a strange-looking little man carrying his luggage from the wharf into a boat. She had the infant in her arms, having carried it out for the identical purpose of getting rid of it; and, without more ado, she laid it down, unseen, among boxes and bundles, and, like Hagar, stood afar off to see what became of it. That ugly little man was the dwarf; and his amazement on finding it among his goods and chattels you may imagine; but he kept it, notwithstanding, though why, is best known to himself. A few weeks after that we, too, came over, and Prudence took up her residence in a quiet village a long way from London. Thus you see, Sir Norman, how it comes about that we are so related, and the wrong I have done them all."
"You have, indeed!" said Sir Norman, gravely, having listened, much shocked and displeased, at this open confession; "and to one of them it is beyond our power to atone. Do you know the life of misery to which she has been assigned?"
"I know it all, and have repented for it in my own heart, in dust and ashes! Even I—unlike all other earthly creatures as I am—have a conscience, and it has given me no rest night or day since. From that hour I have never lost sight of them; every sorrow they have undergone has been known to me, and added to my own; and yet I could not, or would not, undo what I had done. Leoline knows all now; and she will tell Hubert, since destiny has brought them together; and whether they will forgive me I know not. But yet they might; for they have long and happy lives before them, and we can forgive everything to the dead."
"But you are not dead," said Sir Norman; "and there is repentance and pardon for all. Much as you have wronged them, they will forgive you; and Heaven is not less merciful than they!"
"They may; for I have striven to atone. In my house there are proofs and papers that will put them in possession of all, and more than all, they have lost. But life is a burden of torture I will bear no longer. The death of him who died for me this night is the crowning tragedy of my miserable life; and if my hour were not at hand, I should not have told you this."
"But you have not told me the fearful cause of no much guilt and suffering. What is behind that mask?"
"Would you, too, see?" she asked, in a terrible voice, "and die?"
"I have told you it is not in my nature to die easily, and it is something far stronger than mere curiosity makes me ask."
"Be it so! The sky is growing red with day-dawn, and I shall never see the sun rise more, for I am already plague-struck!"
That sweetest of all voices ceased. The white hands removed the mask, and the floating coils of hair, and revealed, to Sir Norman's horror-struck gaze, the grisly face and head, and the hollow eye-sockets, the grinning mouth, and fleshless cheeks of a skeleton!
He saw it but for one fearful instant—the next, she had thrown up both arms, and leaped headlong into the loathly plague-pit. He saw her for a second or two, heaving and writhing in the putrid heap; and then the strong man reeled and fell with his face on the ground, not feigning, but sick unto death. Of all the dreadful things he had witnessed that night, there was nothing so dreadful as this; of all the horror he had felt before, there was none to equal what he felt now. In his momentary delirium, it seemed to him she was reaching her arms of bone up to drag him in, and that the skeleton-face was grinning at him on the edge of the awful pit. And, covering his eyes with his hands, he sprang up, and fled away.
CHAPTER XXII. DAY-DAWN.
All this time, the attendant, George, had been sitting, very much at his ease, on horseback, looking after Sir Norman's charger and admiring the beauties of sunrise. He had seen Sir Norman in conversation with a strange female, and not much liking his near proximity to the plague-pit, was rather impatient for it to come to an end; but when he saw the tragic manner in which it did end, his consternation was beyond all bounds. Sir Norman, in his horrified flight, would have fairly passed him unnoticed, had not George arrested him by a loud shout.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Norman," he exclaimed, as that gentleman turned his distracted face; "but, it seems to me, you are running away. Here is your horse; and allow me to say, unless we hurry we will scarcely reach the count by sunrise."
Sir Norman leaned against his horse, and shaded his eyes with his hand, shuddering like one in an ague.
"Why did that woman leap into the plague-pit?" inquired George, looking at him curiously. "Was it not the sorceress, La Masque?"
"Yes, yes. Do not ask me any questions now," replied Sir Norman, in a smothered voice, and with an impatient wave of his hand.
"Whatever you please, sir," said George, with the flippancy of his class; "but still I must repeat, if you do not mount instantly, we will be late; and my master, the count, is not one who brooks delay."
The young knight vaulted into the saddle without a word, and started off at a break-neck pace into the city. George, almost unable to keep up with him, followed instead of leading, rather skeptical in his own mind whether he were not riding after a moon-struck lunatic. Once or twice he shouted out a sharp-toned inquiry as to whether he knew where he was going, and that they were taking the wrong way altogether; to all of which Sir Norman deigned not the slightest reply, but rode more and more recklessly on. There were but few people abroad at that hour; indeed, for that matter, the streets of London, in the dismal summer of 1665, were, comparatively speaking, always deserted; and the few now wending their way homeward were tired physicians and plague-nurses from the hospitals, and several hardy country folks, with more love of lucre than fear of death bending their steps with produce to the market-place. These people, sleepy and pallid in the gray haze of daylight, stared in astonishment after the two furious riders; and windows were thrown open, and heads thrust out to see what the unusual thunder of horses' hoofs at that early hour meant. George followed dauntlessly on, determined to do it or die in the attempt; and if he had ever heard of the Flying Dutchman, would undoubtedly have come to the conclusion that he was just then following his track on dry land. But, unlike the hapless Vanderdecken, Sir Norman came to a halt at last, and that so suddenly that his horse stood on his beam ends, and flourished his two fore limbs in the atmosphere. It was before La Masque's door; and Sir Norman was out of the saddle in a flash, and knocking like a postman with the handle of his whip on the door. The thundering reveille rang through the house, making it shake to its centre, and hurriedly brought to the door, the anatomy who acted as guardian-angel of the establishment.
"La Masque is not at home, and I cannot admit you," was his sharp salute.
"Then I shall just take the trouble of admitting myself," said Sir Norman, shortly.
And without further ceremony, he pushed aside the skeleton and entered. But that outraged servitor sprang in his path, indignant and amazed.
"No, sir; I cannot permit it. I do not know you; and it is against all orders to admit strangers in La Masque's absence."
"Bah! you old simpleton!" remarked Sir Norman, losing his customary respect for old age in his impatience, "I have La Masque's order for what I am about to do. Get along with you directly, will you? Show me to her private room, and no nonsense!"
He tapped his sword-hilt significantly as he spoke, and that argument proved irresistible. Grumbling, in low tones, the anatomy stalked up-stairs; and the other followed, with very different feelings from those with which he had mounted that staircase last. His guide paused in the hall above, with his hand on the latch of a door.
"This is her private room, is it!" demanded Sir Norman.
"Just stand aside, then, and let me pass."
The room he entered was small, simply furnished, and seemed to answer as bed-chamber and study, all in one. There was a writing-table under a window, covered with books, and he glanced at them with some curiosity. They were classics, Greek and Latin, and other little known tongues—perhaps Sanscrit and Chaldaic, French belles lettres, novels, and poetry, and a few rare old English books. There were no papers, however, and those were what he was in search of; so spying a drawer in the table, he pulled it hastily open. The eight that met his eyes fairly dazzled him. It was full of jewels of incomparable beauty and value, strewn as carelessly about as if they were valueless. The blaze of gems at the midnight court seemed to him as nothing compared with the Golconda, the Valley of Diamonds shooting forth sparks of rainbow-fire before him now. Around one magnificent diamond necklace was entwined a scrap of paper, on which was written:
"The family jewels of the Montmorencis. To be given to my sisters when I am dead."
That settled their destiny. All this blaze of diamonds, rubies, and opals were Leoline's; and with the energetic rapidity characteristic of our young friend that morning, he swept them out on the table, and resumed his search for papers. No document was there to reward his search, but the brief one twined round the necklace; and he was about giving up in despair, when a small brass slide in one corner caught his eye. Instantly he was at it, trying it every way, shoving it out and in, and up and down, until at last it yielded to his touch, disclosing an inner drawer, full of papers and parchments. One glance showed them to be what he was in search of—proofs of Leoline and Hubert's identity, with the will of the marquis, their father, and numerous other documents relative to his wealth and estates. These precious manuscripts he rolled together in a bundle, and placed carefully in his doublet, and then seizing a beautifully-wrought brass casket, that stood beneath the table, he swept the jewels in, secured it, and strapped it to his belt. This brisk and important little affair being over, he arose to go, and in turning, saw the skeleton porter standing in the door-way, looking on in speechless dismay.
"It's all right my ancient friend!" observed Sir Norman, gravely. "These papers must go before the king, and these jewels to their proper owner."
"Their proper owner!" repeated the old man, shrilly; "that is La Masque. Thief-robber-housebreaker—stop!"
"My good old friend, you will do yourself a mischief if you bawl like that. Undoubtedly these things were La Masque's, but they are so no longer, since La Masque herself is among the things that were!"
"You shall not go!" yelled the old man, trembling with rage and anger. "Help! help! help!"
"You noisy old idiot!" cried Sir Norman, losing all patience, "I will throw you out of the window if you keep up such a clamor as this. I tell you La Masque is dead!"
At this ominous announcement, the ghastly porter fell back, and became, if possible, a shade more ghastly than was his wont.
"Dead and buried!" repeated Sir Norman, with gloomy sternness, "and there will be somebody else coming to take possession shortly. How many more servants are there here beside yourself?"
"Only one, sir—my wife Joanna. In mercy's name, sir, do not turn us out in the streets at this dreadful time!"
"Not I! You and your wife Joanna may stagnate here till you blue-mold, for me. But keep the door fast, my good old friend, and admit no strangers, but those who can tell you La Masque is dead!"
With which parting piece of advice Sir Norman left the house, and joined George, who sat like an effigy before the door, in a state of great mental wrath, and who accosted him rather suddenly the moment he made his appearance.
"I tell you what, Sir Norman Kingsley, if you have many more morning calls to make, I shall beg leave to take my departure. As it is, I know we are behind time, and his ma—the count, I mean, is not one who it accustomed or inclined to be kept waiting."
"I am quite at your service now," said Sir Norman, springing on horseback; "so away with you, quick as you like."
George wanted no second order. Before the words were well out of his companion's mouth, he was dashing away like a bolt from a bow, as furiously as if on a steeple-chase, with Sir Norman close at his heels; and they rode, flushed and breathless, with their steeds all a foaming, into the court-yard of the royal palace at Whitehall, just as the early rising sun was showing his florid and burning visage above the horizon.
The court-yard, unlike the city streets, swarmed with busy life. Pages, and attendants, and soldiers, moving hither and thither, or lounging about, preparing for the morning's journey to Oxford. Among the rest Sir Norman observed Hubert, lying very much at his ease wrapped in his cloak, on the ground, and chatting languidly with a pert and pretty attendant of the fair Mistress Stuart. He cut short his flirtation, however, abruptly enough, and sprang to his feet as he saw Sir Norman, while George immediately darted off and disappeared from the palace.
"Am I late Hubert?" said his hurried questioner, as he drew the lad's arm within his own, and led him off out of hearing.
"I think not. The count," said Hubert, with laughing emphasis, "has not been visible since he entered yonder doorway, and there has been no message that I have heard of. Doubtless, now that George has arrived, the message will soon be here, for the royal procession starts within half an hour."
"Are you sure there is no trick, Hubert? Even now he may be with Leoline!"
Hubert shrugged his shoulders.
"He maybe; we must take our chance for that; but we have his royal word to the contrary. Not that I have much faith in that!" said Hubert.
"If he were king of the world instead of only England," cried Sir Norman, with flashing eyes, "he shall not have Leoline while I wear a sword to defend her!"
"Regicide!" exclaimed Hubert, holding up both hands in affected horror. "Do my ears deceive me Is this the loyal and chivalrous Sir Norman Kingsley, ready to die for king and country—"
"Stuff and nonsense!" interrupted Sir Norman, impatiently. "I tell you any one, be he whom he may, that attempts to take Leoline from me, must reach her over my dead body!"
"Bravo! You ought to be a Frenchman, Sir Norman! And what if the lady herself, finding her dazzling suitor drop his barnyard feathers, and soar over her head in his own eagle plumes, may not give you your dismissal, and usurp the place of pretty Madame Stuart."
"You cold-blooded young villain! if you insinuate such a thing again, I'll throttle you! Leoline loves me, and me alone!"
"Doubtless she thinks so; but she has yet to learn she has a king for a suitor!"
"Bah! You are nothing but a heartless cynic," said Sir Norman, yet with an anxious and irritated flush on his face, too: "What do you know of love?"
"More than you think, as pretty Mariette yonder could depose, if put upon oath. But seriously, Sir Norman, I am afraid your case is of the most desperate; royal rivals are dangerous things!"
"Yet Charles has kind impulses, and has been known to do generous acts."
"Has he? You expect him, beyond doubt, to do precisely as he said; and if Leoline, different from all the rest of her sex, prefers the knight to the king, he will yield her unresistingly to you."
"I have nothing but his word for it!" said Sir Norman, in a distracted tone, "and, at present, can do nothing but bide my time."
"I have been thinking of that, too! I promised, you know, when I left her, last night, that we would return before day-dawn, and rescue her. The unhappy little beauty will doubtless think I have fallen into the tiger's jaws myself, and has half wept her bright eyes out by this time!"
"My poor Leoline! And O Hubert, if you only knew what she is to you!"
"I do know! She told me she was my sister!"
Sir Norman looked at him in amazement.
"She told you, and you take it like this?"
"Certainly, I take it like this. How would you have me take it? It is nothing to go into hysterics about, after all!"
"Of all the cold-blooded young reptiles I ever saw," exclaimed Sir Norman, with infinite disgust, "you are the worst! If you were told you were to receive the crown of France to-morrow, you would probably open your eyes a trifle, and take it as you would a new cap!"
"Of course I would. I haven't lived in courts half my life to get up a scene for a small matter! Besides, I had an idea from the first moment I saw Leoline that she must be my sister, or something of that sort."
"And so you felt no emotion whatever on hearing it?"
"I don't know as I properly understand what you mean by emotion," said Herbert, reflectively. "But ye-e-s, I did feel somewhat pleased—she is so like me, and so uncommonly handsome!"
"Humph! there's a reason! Did she tell you how she discovered it herself?"
"Let me see—no—I think not—she simply mentioned the fact."
"She did not tell you either, I suppose, that you had more sisters than herself?"
"More than herself! No. That would be a little too much of a good thing! One sister is quite enough for any reasonable mortal."
"But there were two more, my good young friend!"
"Is it possible?" said Hubert, in a tone that betrayed not the slightest symptom of emotion. "Who are they?"
Sir Norman paused one instant, combating a strong temptation to seize the phlegmatic page by the collar, and give him such another shaking as he would not get over for a week to come; but suddenly recollecting he was Leoline's brother, and by the same token a marquis or thereabouts, he merely paused to cast a withering look upon him, and walked on.
"Well," said Hubert, "I am waiting to be told."
"You may wait, then!" said Sir Norman, with a smothered growl; "and I give you joy when I tell you. Such extra communicativeness to one so stolid could do no good!"
"But I am not stolid! I am in a perfect agony of anxiety," said Hubert.
"You young jackanapes!" said Sir Norman, half-laughing, half-incensed. "It were a wise deed and a godly one to take you by the hind-leg and nape of the neck, and pitch you over yonder wall; but for your mister's sake I will desist."
"Which of them?" inquired Hubert, with provoking gravity.
"It would be more to the point if you asked me who the others were, I think."
"So I have, and you merely abused me for it. But I think I know one of them without being told. It is that other fac-simile of Leoline and myself who died in the robber's ruin!"
"Exactly. You and she, and Leoline, were triplets!"
"And who is the other?"
"Her name is La Masque. Have you ever heard it?"
"La Masque! Nonsense!" exclaimed Hubert, with some energy in his voice at last. "You but jest, Sir Norman Kingsley!"
"No such thing! It is a positive fact! She told me the whole story herself!"
"And what is the whole story; and why did she not tell it to me instead of you."
"She told it to Leoline, thinking, probably, she had the most sense; and she told it to me, as Leoline's future husband. It is somewhat long to relate, but it will help to beguile the time while we are waiting for the royal summons."
And hereupon Sir Norman, without farther preface, launched into a rapid resume of La Masque's story, feeling the cold chill with which he had witnessed it creep over him as he narrated her fearful end.
"It struck me," concluded Sir Norman, "that it would be better to procure any papers she might possess at once, lest, by accident, they should fall into other hands; so I rode there directly, and, in spite of the cantankerous old porter, searched diligently, until I found them. Here they are," said Sir Norman, drawing forth the roll.
"And what do you intend doing with them?" inquired Hubert, glancing at the papers with an unmoved countenance.
"Show them to the king, and, though his mediation with Louis, obtain for you the restoration of your rights."
"And do you think his majesty will give himself so much trouble for the Earl of Rochester's page?"
"I think he will take the trouble to see justice done, or at least he ought to. If he declines, we will take the matter in our own hands, my Hubert; and you and I will seek Louis ourselves. Please God, the Earl of Rochester's page will yet wear the coronet of the De Montmorencis!"
"And the sister of a marquis will be no unworthy mate even for a Kingsley," said Hubert. "Has La Masque left nothing for her?"
"Do you see this casket?" tapping the one of cared brass dangling from his belt; "well, it is full of jewels worth a king's ransom. I found them in a drawer of La Masque's house, with directions that they were to be given to her sisters at her death. Miranda being dead, I presume they are all Leoline's now."
"This is a queer business altogether!" said Hubert, musingly; "and I am greatly mistaken if King Louie will not regard it as a very pretty little work of fiction."
"But I have proofs, lad! The authenticity of these papers cannot be doubted."
"With all my heart. I have no objections to be made a marquis of, and go back to la belle France, out of this land of plague and fog. Won't some of my friends here be astonished when they hear it, particularly the Earl of Rochester, when he finds out that he has had a marquis for a page? Ah, here comes George, and bearing a summons from Count L'Estrange at last."
George approached, and intimated that Sir Norman was to follow him to the presence of his master.
"Au revoir, then," said Hubert. "You will find me here when you come back."
Sir Norman, with a slight tremor of the nerves at what was to come, followed the king's page through halls and anterooms, full of loiterers, courtiers, and their attendants. Once a hand was laid on his shoulder, a laughing voice met his ear, and the Earl of Rochester stood beside him!
"Good-morning, Sir Norman; you are abroad betimes. How have you left your friend, the Count L'Estrange?"
"Your lordship has probably seen him since I have, and should be able to answer that question best."
"And how does his suit progress with the pretty Leoline?" went on the gay earl. "In faith, Kingsley, I never saw such a charming little beauty; and I shall do combat with you yet—with both the count and yourself, and outwit the pair of you!"
"Permit me to differ from your lordship. Leoline would not touch you with a pair of tongs!"
"Ah! she has better taste than you give her credit for; but if I should fail, I know what to do to console myself."
"May I ask what?"
"Yes! there is Hubert, as like her an two peas in a pod. I shall dress him up in lace and silks, and gewgaws, and have a Leoline of my own already made its order."
"Permit me to doubt that, too! Hubert is as much lost to you as Leoline!"
Leaving the volatile earl to put what construction pleased him best on this last sententious remark, he resumed his march after George, and was ushered, at last, into an ante-room near the audience-chamber. Count L'Estrange, still attired as Count L'Estrange, stood near a window overlooking the court-yard, and as the page salaamed and withdrew, he turned round, and greeted Sir Norman with his suavest air.
"The appointed hour is passed, Sir Norman Kingsley, but that is partly your own fault. Your guide hither tells me that you stopped for some time at the house of a fortune-teller, known as La Masque. Why was this!"
"I was forced to stop on most important business," answered the knight, still resolved to treat him as the count, until it should please him to doff his incognito, "of which you shall hear anon. Just now, our business is with Leoline."
"True! And as in a short time I start with yonder cavalcade, there is but little time to lose. Apropos, Kingsley, who is that mysterious woman, La Masque?"
"She is, or was (for she is dead sow) a French lady, of noble birth, and the sister of Leoline!"
"Her sister! And have you discovered Leoline's history?"
"And her name!"
"And her name. She is Leoline De Montmorenci! And with the proudest blood of France in her veins, living obscure and unknown—a stranger in a strange land since childhood; but, with God's grace and your help, I hope to see her restored to all she has lost, before long."