"You know me, then?" said his companion, half-smiling.
"Yes, your majesty," answered Sir Norman, bowing low before the king.
CHAPTER XXIII. FINIS
As the last glimpse of moonlight and of Hubert's bright face vanished, Leoline took to pacing up and down the room in a most conflicting and excited state of mind. So many things had happened during the past night; so rapid and unprecedented had been the course of events; so changed had her whole life become within the last twelve hours, that when she came to think it all over, it fairly made her giddy. Dressing for her bridal; the terrible announcement of Prudence; the death-like swoon; the awakening at the plague-pit; the maniac flight through the streets; the cold plunge in the river; her rescue; her interview with Sir Norman, and her promise; the visit of La Masque; the appearance of the count; her abduction; her journey here; the coming of Hubert, and their suddenly-discovered relationship. It was enough to stun any one; and the end was not yet. Would Hubert effect his escape? Would they be able to free her? What place was this, and who was Count L'Estrange? It was a great deal easier to propound this catechism to herself than to find answers to her own questions; and so she walked up and down, worrying her pretty little head with all sorts of anxieties, until it was a perfect miracle that softening of the brain did not ensue.
Her feet gave out sooner than her brain, though; and she got so tired before long, that she dropped into a seat, with a long-drawn, anxious sigh; and, worn out with fatigue and watching, she, at last, fell asleep.
And sleeping, she dreamed. It seemed to her that the count and Sir Norman were before her, in her chamber in the old house on London Bridge, tossing her heart between them like a sort of shuttlecock. By-and-by, with two things like two drumsticks, they began hammering away at the poor, little, fluttering heart, as if it were an anvil and they were a pair of blacksmiths, while the loud knocks upon it resounded through the room. For a time, she was so bewildered that she could not comprehend what it meant; but, at last, she became conscious that some one was rapping at the door. Pressing one hand over her startled heart, she called "Come in!" and the door opened and George entered.
"Count L'Estrange commands me to inform you, fair lady, that he will do himself the pleasure of visiting you immediately, with Sir Norman Kingsley, if you are prepared to receive them."
"With Sir Norman Kingsley!" repeated Leoline, faintly. "I-I am afraid I do not quite understand."
"Then you will not be much longer in that deplorable state," said George, backing out, "for here they are."
"Pardon this intrusion, fairest Leoline," began the count, "but Sir Norman and I are about to start on a journey, and before we go, there is a little difference of opinion between us that you are to settle."
Leoline looked first at one, and then at the other, utterly bewildered.
"What is it?" she asked.
"A simple matter enough. Last evening, if you recollect, you were my promised bride."
"It was against my will," said Leoline, boldly, though her voice shook, "You and Prudence made me."
"Nay, Leoline, you wrong me. I, at least, need no compulsion."
"You know better. You haunted me continually; you gave me no peace at all; and I world just have married you to get rid of you."
"And you never loved me?"
"I never did."
"A frank confession! Did you, then, love any one else?"
The dark eyes fell, and the roseate glow again tinged the pearly face.
"Mute!" said the count, with an almost imperceptible smile. "Look up, Leoline, and speak."
But Leoline would do neither. With all her momentary daring gone, she stood startled as a wild gazelle.
"Shall I answer for her, Sir Count?" exclaimed Sir Norman, his own cheek dashed. "Leoline! Leoline! you love me!"
Leoline was silent.
"You are to decide between us, Leoline. Though the count forcibly brought you here, he has been generous enough to grant this. Say, then, which of as you love best."
"I do not love him at all," said Leoline, with a little disdain, "and he knows it."
"Then it is I!" said Sir Norman, him whole lace beaming with delight.
"It is you!"
Leoline held out both hands to the loved one, and nestled close to his side, like a child would to its protector.
"Fairly rejected!" said the count, with a pacing shade of mortification on his brow; "and, my word being pledged, I most submit. But, beautiful Leoline, you have yet to learn whom you have discarded."
Clinging to her lover's arm, the girl grew white with undefined apprehension. Leisurely, the count removed false wig, false eyebrows, false heard; and a face well known to Leoline, from pictures and description, turned full upon her.
"Sire!" she cried, in terror, calling on her knees with clasped hands.
"Nay; rise, fair Leoline," said the king, holding out his hand to assist her. "It is my place to kneel to one so lovely instead of having her kneel to me. Think again. Will you reject the king as you did the count?"
"Pardon, your majesty!", said Leoline, scarcely daring to look up; "but I must!"
"So be it! You are a perfect miracle of troth and constancy, and I think I can afford to be generous for once. In fifteen minutes, we start for Oxford, and you must accompany us as Lady Kingsley. A tiring woman will wait upon you to robe you for your bridal. We will leave you now, and let me enjoin expedition."
And while she still stood too much astonished by the sudden proposal to answer, both were gone, and in their place stood a smiling lady's maid, with a cloud of gossamer white in her arms.
"Are those for me?" inquired Leoline, looking at them, and trying to comprehend that it was all real.
"They are for you—sent by Mistress Stuart, herself. Please sit down, and all will be ready in a trice."
And in a trice all was ready. The shining, jetty curls were smoothed, and fell in a glossy shower, trained with jewels—the pearls Leoline herself still wore. The rose satin was discarded for another of bridal white, perfect of fit, and splendid of feature. A great gossamer veil like a cloud of silver mist over all, from head to foot; and Leoline was shown herself in a mirror, and in the sudden transformation, could have exclaimed, with the unfortunate lady in bother Goose, shorn of her tresses when in balmy slumber: "As sure as I'm a little woman, this is none of it!" But she it was, nevertheless, who stood listening like one in a trance, to the enthusiastic praises of her waiting-maid.
Again there was a tap at the door. This time the attendant opened it, and George reappeared. Even he stood for a moment looking at the silver-shining vision, and so lost in admiration, that he almost forgot his message. But when Leoline turned the light of her beautiful eyes inquiringly upon him, he managed to remember it, and announced that he had been sent by the king to usher her to the royal presence.
With a feet-throbbing heart, flushed cheeks, and brilliant eyes, the dazzling bride followed him, unconscious that she had never looked so incomparably before in her life. It was but a few hours since she had dressed for another bridal; and what wonderful things had occurred since then—her whole destiny had changed in a night. Not quite sure yet but that she was still dreaming, she followed on—saw George throw open the great doors of the audience-chamber, and found herself suddenly in what seemed to her a vast concourse of people. At the upper end of the apartment was a brilliant group of ladies, with the king's beautiful favorite in their midst, gossiping with knots of gentlemen. The king himself stood in the recess of a window, with his brother, the Duke of York, the Earl of Rochester, and Sir Norman Kingsley, and was laughing and relating animatedly to the two peers the whole story. Leoline noticed this, and noticed, too, that all wore traveling dresses—most of the ladies, indeed, being attired in riding-habits.
The king himself advanced to her rescue, and drawing her arm within his, he led her up and presented her to the fair Mistress Stuart, who received her with smiling graciousness though Leoline, all unused to court ways, and aware of the lovely lady's questionable position, returned it almost with cold hauteur. Charles being in an unusually gracious mood, only smiled as he noticed it, and introduced her next to his brother of York, and her former short acquaintance, Rochester.
"There's no need, I presume, to make you acquainted with this other gentleman," said Charles, with a laughing glance at Sir Norman. "Kingsley, stand forward and receive your bride. My Lord of Canterbury, we await your good offices."
The bland bishop, in surplice and stole, and book in hand, stepped from a distant group, and advanced. Sir Norman, with a flush on his cheek, and an exultant light in his eyes, took the hand of his beautiful bride who stood lovely, and blushing, and downcast, the envy and admiration of all. And
"Before the bishop now they stand, The bridegroom and the bride; And who shall paint what lovers feel In this, their hour of pride?"
Who indeed? Like many other pleasant things is this world, it requires to be felt to be appreciated; and, for that reason, it is a subject on which the unworthy chronicler is altogether incompetent to speak. The first words of the ceremony dropped from the prelate's urbane lips, and Sir Norman's heart danced a tarantella within him. "Wilt thou?" inquired the bishop, blandly, and slipped a plain gold ring on one pretty finger of Leoline's hand and all heard the old, old formula: "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder!" And the whole mystic rite was over.
Leoline gave one earnest glance at the ring on her finger. Long ago, slaves wore rings as the sign of their bondage—is it for the same reason married women wear them now? While she yet looked half-doubtfully at it, she was surrounded, congratulated, and stunned with a sadden clamor of voices; and then, through it all, she heard the well-remembered voice of Count L'Estrange, saying:
"My lords and ladies, time is on the wing, and the sun is already half an hour high! Off with you all to the courtyard, and mount, while Lady Kingsley changes her wedding-gear for robes more befitting travel, and joins us there."
With a low obeisance to the king, the lovely bride hastened away after one of the favorite's attendants, to do as he directed, and don a riding-suit. In ten minutes after, when the royal cavalcade started, she turned from the pest-stricken city, too and fairest, where all was fair, by Sir Norman's side rode Leoline.
Sitting one winter night by a glorious winter fire, while the snow and hail lashed the windows, and the wind without roared like Bottom, the weaver, a pleasant voice whispered the foregoing tale. Here, as it paused abruptly, and seemed to have done with the whole thing, I naturally began to ask questions. What happened the dwarf and his companions? What became of Hubert? Did Sir Norman and Lady Kingsley go to Devonshire, and did either of them die of the plague? I felt, myself, when I said it, that the last suggestion was beneath contempt, and so a withering look from the face opposite proved; but the voice was obliging enough to answer the rest of my queries. The dwarf and his cronies being put into his majesty's jail of Newgate, where the plague was raging fearfully, they all died in a week, and so managed to cheat the executioner. Hubert went to France, and laid his claims before the royal Louis, who, not being able to do otherwise, was graciously pleased to acknowledge them; and Hubert became the Marquis de Montmorenci, and in the fullness of time took unto himself a wife, even of the daughters of the land, and lived happy for ever after.
And Sir Norman and Lady Kingsley did go to the old manor in Devonshire, where—with tradition and my informant—there is to be seen to this day, an old family-picture, painted some twelve years after, representing the knight and his lady sitting serenely in their "ain ingle nook" with their family around them. Sir Norman,—a little portlier, a little graver, in the serious dignity of pater familias; and Leoline, with the dark, beautiful eyes, the falling, shining hair, the sweet smiling lips, and lovely, placid face of old. Between them, on three hassocks, sit three little boys; while the fourth, and youngest, a miniature little Sir Norman, leans against his mother's shoulder, and looks thoughtfully in her sweet, calm face. Of the fate of those four, the same ancient lore affirms: "That the eldest afterward bore the title of Earl of Kingsley; that the second became a lord high admiral, or chancellor, or something equally highfalutin; and that the third became an archbishop. But the highest honor of all was reserved for the fourth, and youngest," continued the narrating voice, "who, after many days, sailed for America, and, in the course of time, became President of the United States."
Determined to be fully satisfied on this point, at least, the author invested all her spare change in a catalogue of all the said Presidents, from George Washington to Chester A. Arthur, and, after a diligent and absorbing perusal of that piece of literature, could find no such name as Kingsley whatever; and has been forced to come to the conclusion that he most have applied to Congress to change his name on arriving in the New World, or else that her informant was laboring reader a falsehood when she told her so. As for the rest,
"I know not how the truth may be; I say it as 'twas said to me."