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"I told you not to speak," said La Masque, quietly, "but you must look on still another scene." Again she threw a portion of the contents of the casket into the caldron, and "spake aloud the words of power." Another cloud of smoke arose and filled the room, and when it cleared away, Sir Norman beheld a third and less startling sight. The scene and place he could not discover, but it seemed to him like night and a storm. Two men were lying on the ground, and bound fast together, it appeared to him. As he looked, it faded away, and once more his own face seemed to mock him in the clear water. "Do you know those two last figures!" asked the lady. "I do," said Sir Norman, promptly; "it was Ormiston and myself." "Right! and one of them was dead." "Dead!" exclaimed Sir Norman, with a perceptible start. "Which one, madam?" "If you cannot tell that, neither can I. If there is anything further you wish to see, I am quite willing to show it to you." "I'm obliged to you," said Sir Norman, stepping back; "but no more at present, thank you. Do you mean to say, madam, that I'm some day to murder a lady, especially one so beautiful as she I just now saw?"
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May Agnes Fleming
The plague raged in the city of London. The destroying angel had gone forth, and kindled with its fiery breath the awful pestilence, until all London became one mighty lazar-house. Thousands were swept away daily; grass grew in the streets, and the living were scarce able to bury the dead. Business of all kinds was at an end, except that of the coffin-makers and drivers of the pest-cart. Whole streets were shut up, and almost every other house in the city bore the fatal red cross, and the ominous inscription, "Lord have mercy on us". Few people, save the watchmen, armed with halberts, keeping guard over the stricken houses, appeared in the streets; and those who ventured there, shrank from each other, and passed rapidly on with averted faces. Many even fell dead on the sidewalk, and lay with their ghastly, discolored faces, upturned to the mocking sunlight, until the dead-cart came rattling along, and the drivers hoisted the body with their pitchforks on the top of their dreadful load. Few other vehicles besides those same dead-carts appeared in the city now; and they plied their trade busily, day and night; and the cry of the drivers echoed dismally through the deserted streets: "Bring out your dead! bring out your dead!" All who could do so had long ago fled from the devoted city; and London lay under the burning heat of the June sunshine, stricken for its sins by the hand of God. The pest-houses were full, so were the plague-pits, where the dead were hurled in cartfuls; and no one knew who rose up in health in the morning but that they might be lying stark and dead in a few hours. The very churches were forsaken; their pastors fled or lying in the plague-pits; and it was even resolved to convert the great cathedral of St. Paul into a vast plague-hospital. Cries and lamentations echoed from one end of the city to the other, and Death and Charles reigned over London together.
Yet in the midst of all this, many scenes of wild orgies and debauchery still went on within its gates—as, in our own day, when the cholera ravaged Paris, the inhabitants of that facetious city made it a carnival, so now, in London, they were many who, feeling they had but a few days to live at the most, resolved to defy death, and indulge in the revelry while they yet existed. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you die!" was their motto; and if in the midst of the frantic dance or debauched revel one of them dropped dead, the others only shrieked with laughter, hurled the livid body out to the street, and the demoniac mirth grew twice as fast and furious as before. Robbers and cut-purses paraded the streets at noonday, entered boldly closed and deserted houses, and bore off with impunity, whatever they pleased. Highwaymen infested Hounslow Heath, and all the roads leading from the city, levying a toll on all who passed, and plundering fearlessly the flying citizens. In fact, far-famed London town, in the year of grace 1665, would have given one a good idea of Pandemonium broke loose.
It was drawing to the close of an almost tropical June day, that the crowd who had thronged the precincts of St. Paul's since early morning, began to disperse. The sun, that had throbbed the livelong day like a great heart of fire in a sea of brass, was sinking from sight in clouds of crimson, purple and gold, yet Paul's Walk was crowded. There were court-gallants in ruffles and plumes; ballad-singers chanting the not over-delicate ditties of the Earl of Rochester; usurers exchanging gold for bonds worth three times what they gave for them; quack-doctors reading in dolorous tones the bills of mortality of the preceding day, and selling plague-waters and anti-pestilential abominations, whose merit they loudly extolled; ladies too, richly dressed, and many of them masked; and booksellers who always made St. Paul's a favorite haunt, and even to this day patronize its precincts, and flourish in the regions of Paternoster Row and Ave Maria Lane; court pages in rich liveries, pert and flippant; serving-men out of place, and pickpockets with a keen eye to business; all clashed and jostled together, raising a din to which the Plain of Shinar, with its confusion of tongues and Babylonish workmen, were as nothing.
Moving serenely through this discordant sea of his fellow-creatures came a young man booted and spurred, whose rich doublet of cherry colored velvet, edged and spangled with gold, and jaunty hat set slightly on one side of his head, with its long black plume and diamond clasp, proclaimed him to be somebody. A profusion of snowy shirt-frill rushed impetuously out of his doublet; a black-velvet cloak, lined with amber-satin, fell picturesquely from his shoulders; a sword with a jeweled hilt clanked on the pavement as he walked. One hand was covered with a gauntlet of canary-colored kid, perfumed to a degree that would shame any belle of to-day, the other, which rested lightly on his sword-hilt, flashed with a splendid opal, splendidly set. He was a handsome fellow too, with fair waving hair (for he had the good taste to discard the ugly wigs then in vogue), dark, bright, handsome eyes, a thick blonde moustache, a tall and remarkably graceful figure, and an expression of countenance wherein easy good-nature and fiery impetuosity had a hard struggle for mastery. That he was a courtier of rank, was apparent from his rich attire and rather aristocratic bearing and a crowd of hangers-on followed him as he went, loudly demanding spur-money. A group of timbril-girls, singing shrilly the songs of the day, called boldly to him as he passed; and one of them, more free and easy than the rest, danced up to him striking her timbrel, and shouting rather than singing the chorus of the then popular ditty,
"What care I for pest or plague? We can die but once, God wot, Kiss me darling—stay with me: Love me—love me, leave me not!"
The darling in question turned his bright blue eyes on that dashing street-singer with a cool glance of recognition.
"Very sorry, Nell," he said, in a nonchalant tone, "but I'm afraid I must. How long have you been here, may I ask?"
"A full hour by St. Paul's; and where has Sir Norman Kingsley been, may I ask? I thought you were dead of the plague."
"Not exactly. Have you seen—ah! there he is. The very man I want."
With which Sir Norman Kingsley dropped a gold piece into the girl's extended palm, and pushed on through the crowd up Paul's Walk. A tall, dark figure was leaning moodily with folded arms, looking fixedly at the ground, and taking no notice of the busy scene around him until Sir Norman laid his ungloved and jeweled hand lightly on his shoulder.
"Good morning, Ormiston. I had an idea I would find you here, and—but what's the matter with you, man? Have you got the plague? or has your mysterious inamorata jilted you? or what other annoyance has happened to make you look as woebegone as old King Lear, sent adrift by his tender daughters to take care of himself?"
The individual addressed lifted his head, disclosing a dark and rather handsome face, settled now into a look of gloomy discontent. He slightly raised his hat as he saw who his questioner was.
"Ah! it's you, Sir Norman! I had given up all notion of your coming, and was about to quit this confounded babel—this tumultuous den of thieves. What has detained you?"
"I was on duty at Whitehall. Are we not in time to keep our appointment?"
"Oh, certainly! La Masque is at home to visitors at all hours, day and night. I believe in my soul she doesn't know what sleep means."
"And you are still as much in love with her as ever, I dare swear! I have no doubt, now, it was of her you were thinking when I came up. Nothing else could ever have made you look so dismally woebegone as you did, when Providence sent me to your relief."
"I was thinking of her," said the young man moodily, and with a darkening brow.
Sir Norman favored him with a half-amused, half-contemptuous stare for a moment; then stopped at a huckster's stall to purchase some cigarettes; lit one, and after smoking for a few minutes, pleasantly remarked, as if the fact had just struck him:
"Ormiston, you're a fool!"
"I know it!" said Ormiston, sententiously.
"The idea," said Sir Norman, knocking the ashes daintily off the end of his cigar with the tip of his little finger—"the idea of falling in love with a woman whose face you have never seen! I can understand a man a going to any absurd extreme when he falls in love in proper Christian fashion, with a proper Christian face; but to go stark, staring mad, as you have done, my dear fellow, about a black loo mask, why—I consider that a little too much of a good thing! Come, let us go."
Nodding easily to his numerous acquaintances as he went, Sir Norman Kingsley sauntered leisurely down Paul's Walk, and out through the great door of the cathedral, followed by his melancholy friend. Pausing for a moment to gaze at the gorgeous sunset with a look of languid admiration, Sir Norman passed his arm through that of his friend, and they walked on at rather a rapid pace, in the direction of old London Bridge. There were few people abroad, except the watchmen walking slowly up and down before the plague-stricken houses; but in every street they passed through they noticed huge piles of wood and coal heaped down the centre. Smoking zealously they had walked on for a season in silence, when Ormiston ceased puffing for a moment, to inquire:
"What are all these for? This is a strange time, I should imagine, for bonfires."
"They're not bonfires," said Sir Norman; "at least they are not intended for that; and if your head was not fuller of that masked Witch of Endor than common sense (for I believe she is nothing better than a witch), you could not have helped knowing. The Lord Mayor of London has been inspired suddenly, with a notion, that if several thousand fires are kindled at once in the streets, it will purify the air, and check the pestilence; so when St. Paul's tolls the hour of midnight, all these piles are to be fired. It will be a glorious illumination, no doubt; but as to its stopping the progress of the plague, I am afraid that it is altogether too good to be true."
"Why should you doubt it? The plague cannot last forever."
"No. But Lilly, the astrologer, who predicted its coming, also foretold that it would last for many months yet; and since one prophecy has come true, I see no reason why the other should not."
"Except the simple one that there would be nobody left alive to take it. All London will be lying in the plague-pits by that time."
"A pleasant prospect; but a true one, I have no doubt. And, as I have no ambition to be hurled headlong into one of those horrible holes, I shall leave town altogether in a few days. And, Ormiston, I would strongly recommend you to follow my example."
"Not I!" said Ormiston, in a tone of gloomy resolution. "While La Masque stays, so will I."
"And perhaps die of the plague in a week."
"So be it! I don't fear the plague half as much as I do the thought of losing her!"
Again Sir Norman stared.
"Oh, I see! It's a hopeless case! Faith, I begin to feel curious to see this enchantress, who has managed so effectually to turn your brain. When did you see her last?"
"Yesterday," said Ormiston, with a deep sigh. "And if she were made of granite, she could not be harder to me than she is!"
"So she doesn't care about you, then?"
"Not she! She has a little Blenheim lapdog, that she loves a thousand times more than she ever will me!"
"Then what an idiot you are, to keep haunting her like her shadow! Why don't you be a man, and tear out from your heart such a goddess?"
"Ah! that's easily said; but if you were in my place, you'd act exactly as I do."
"I don't believe it. It's not in me to go mad about anything with a masked face and a marble heart. If I loved any woman—which, thank Fortune! at this present time I do not—and she had the bad taste not to return it, I should take my hat, make her a bow, and go directly and love somebody else made of flesh and blood, instead of cast iron! You know the old song, Ormiston:
'If she be not fair for me What care I how fair she be!'"
"Kingsley, you know nothing about it!" said Ormiston, impatiently. "So stop talking nonsense. If you are cold-blooded, I am not; and—I love her!"
Sir Norman slightly shrugged his shoulders, and flung his smoked-out weed into a heap of fire-wood.
"Are we near her house?" he asked. "Yonder is the bridge."
"And yonder is the house," replied Ormiston, pointing to a large ancient building—ancient even for those times—with three stories, each projecting over the other. "See! while the houses on either side are marked as pest-stricken, hers alone bears no cross. So it is: those who cling to life are stricken with death: and those who, like me, are desperate, even death shuns."
"Why, my dear Ormiston, you surely are not so far gone as that? Upon my honor, I had no idea you were in such a bad way."
"I am nothing but a miserable wretch! and I wish to Heaven I was in yonder dead-cart, with the rest of them—and she, too, if she never intends to love me!"
Ormiston spoke with such fierce earnestness, that there was no doubting his sincerity; and Sir Norman became profoundly shocked—so much so, that he did not speak again until they were almost at the door. Then he opened his lips to ask, in a subdued tone:
"She has predicted the future for you—what did she foretell?"
"Nothing good; no fear of there being anything in store for such an unlucky dog as I am."
"Where did she learn this wonderful black art of hers?"
"In the East, I believe. She has been there and all over the world; and now visits England for the first time."
"She has chosen a sprightly season for her visit. Is she not afraid of the plague, I wonder?"
"No; she fears nothing," said Ormiston, as he knocked loudly at the door. "I begin to believe she is made of adamant instead of what other women are made of."
"Which is a rib, I believe," observed Sir Norman, thoughtfully. "And that accounts, I dare say, for their being of such a crooked and cantankerous nature. They're a wonderful race women are; and for what Inscrutable reason it has pleased Providence to create them—"
The opening of the door brought to a sudden end this little touch of moralizing, and a wrinkled old porter thrust out a very withered and unlovely face.
"La Masque at home?" inquired Ormiston, stepping in, without ceremony.
The old man nodded, and pointed up stairs; and with a "This way, Kingsley," Ormiston sprang lightly up, three at a time, followed in the same style by Sir Norman.
"You seem pretty well acquainted with the latitude and longitude of this place," observed that young gentleman, as they passed into a room at the head of the stairs.
"I ought to be; I've been here often enough," said Ormiston. "This is the common waiting-room for all who wish to consult La Masque. That old bag of bones who let us in has gone to announce us."
Sir Norman took a seat, and glanced curiously round the room. It was a common-place apartment enough, with a floor of polished black oak, slippery as ice, and shining like glass; a few old Flemish paintings on the walls; a large, round table in the centre of the floor, on which lay a pair of the old musical instruments called "virginals." Two large, curtainless windows, with minute diamond-shaped panes, set in leaden casements, admitted the golden and crimson light.
"For the reception-room of a sorceress," remarked Sir Norman, with an air of disappointed criticism, "there is nothing very wonderful about all this. How is it she spaes fortunes any way? As Lilly does by maps and charts; or as these old Eastern mufti do it by magic mirrors and all each fooleries?"
"Neither," said Ormiston, "her style in more like that of the Indian almechs, who show you your destiny in a well. She has a sort of magic lake in her room, and—but you will see it all for yourself presently."
"I have always heard," said Sir Norman, in the same meditative way, "that truth lies at the bottom of a well, and I am glad some one has turned up at last who is able to fish it out. Ah! Here comes our ancient Mercury to show us to the presence of your goddess."
The door opened, and the "old bag of bones," as Ormiston irreverently styled his lady-love's ancient domestic, made a sign for them to follow him. Leading the way down along a corridor, he flung open a pair of shining folding-doors at the end, and ushered them at once into the majestic presence of the sorceress and her magic room. Both gentlemen doffed their plumed hats. Ormiston stepped forward at once; but Sir Norman discreetly paused in the doorway to contemplate the scene of action. As he slowly did so, a look of deep displeasure settled on his features, on finding it not half so awful as he had supposed.
In some ways it was very like the room they had left, being low, large, and square, and having floors, walls and ceiling paneled with glossy black oak. But it had no windows—a large bronze lamp, suspended from the centre of the ceiling, shed a flickering, ghostly light. There were no paintings—some grim carvings of skulls, skeletons, and serpents, pleasantly wreathed the room—neither were there seats nor tables—nothing but a huge ebony caldron at the upper end of the apartment, over which a grinning skeleton on wires, with a scythe in one hand of bone, and an hour-glass in the other, kept watch and ward. Opposite this cheerful-looking guardian, was a tall figure in black, standing an motionless as if it, too, was carved in ebony. It was a female figure, very tall and slight, but as beautifully symmetrical as a Venus Celestis. Her dress was of black velvet, that swept the polished floor, spangled all over with stars of gold and rich rubies. A profusion of shining black hair fell in waves and curls almost to her feet; but her face, from forehead to chin, was completely hidden by a black velvet mask. In one hand, exquisitely small and white, she held a gold casket, blazing (like her dress) with rubies, and with the other she toyed with a tame viper, that had twined itself round her wrist. This was doubtless La Masque, and becoming conscious of that fact Sir Norman made her a low and courtly bow. She returned it by a slight bend of the head, and turning toward his companion, spoke:
"You here, again, Mr. Ormiston! To what am I indebted for the honor of two visits in two days?"
Her voice, Sir Norman thought, was the sweetest he had ever heard, musical as a chime of silver bells, soft as the tones of an aeolian harp through which the west wind plays.
"Madam, I am aware my visits are undesired," said Ormiston, with a flushing cheek and, slightly tremulous voice; "but I have merely come with my friend, Sir Norman Kingsley, who wishes to know what the future has in store for him."
Thus invoked, Sir Norman Kingsley stepped forward with another low bow to the masked lady.
"Yes, madam, I have long heard that those fair fingers can withdraw the curtain of the future, and I have come to see what Dame Destiny is going to do for me."
"Sir Norman Kingsley is welcome," said the sweet voice, "and shall see what he desires. There is but one condition, that he will keep perfectly silent; for if he speaks, the scene he beholds will vanish. Come forward!"
Sir Norman compressed his lips as closely as if they were forever hermetically sealed, and came forward accordingly. Leaning over the edge of the ebony caldron, he found that it contained nothing more dreadful than water, for he labored under a vague and unpleasant idea that, like the witches' caldron in Macbeth, it might be filled with serpents' blood and childrens' brains. La Masque opened her golden casket, and took from it a portion of red powder, with which it was filled. Casting it into the caldron, she murmured an invocation in Sanscrit, or Coptic, or some other unknown tongue, and slowly there arose a dense cloud of dark-red smoke, that nearly filled the room. Had Sir Norman ever read the story of Aladdin, he would probably have thought of it then; but the young courtier did not greatly affect literature of any kind, and thought of nothing now but of seeing something when the smoke cleared away. It was rather long in doing so, and when it did, he saw nothing at first but his own handsome, half-serious, half-incredulous face; but gradually a picture, distinct and clear, formed itself at the bottom, and Sir Norman gazed with bewildered eyes. He saw a large room filled with a sparkling crowd, many of them ladies, splendidly arrayed and flashing in jewels, and foremost among them stood one whose beauty surpassed anything he had ever before dreamed of. She wore the robes of a queen, purple and ermine—diamonds blazed on the beautiful neck, arms, and fingers, and a tiara of the same brilliants crowned her regal head. In one hand she held a sceptre; what seemed to be a throne was behind her, but something that surprised Sir Norton most of all was, to find himself standing beside her, the cynosure of all eyes. While he yet gazed in mingled astonishment and incredulity, the scene faded away, and another took its place. This time a dungeon-cell, damp and dismal; walls, and floor, and ceiling covered with green and hideous slime. A small lamp stood on the floor, and by its sickly, watery gleam, he saw himself again standing, pale and dejected, near the wall. But he was not alone; the same glittering vision in purple and diamonds stood before him, and suddenly he drew his sword and plunged it up to the hilt in her heart! The beautiful vision fell like a stone at his feet, and the sword was drawn out reeking with her life-blood. This was a little too much for the real Sir Norman, and with an expression of indignant consternation, he sprang upright. Instantly it all faded away and the reflection of his own excited face looked up at him from the caldron.
"I told you not to speak," said La Masque, quietly, "but you must look on still another scene."
Again she threw a portion of the contents of the casket into the caldron, and "spake aloud the words of power." Another cloud of smoke arose and filled the room, and when it cleared away, Sir Norman beheld a third and less startling sight. The scene and place he could not discover, but it seemed to him like night and a storm. Two men were lying on the ground, and bound fast together, it appeared to him. As he looked, it faded away, and once more his own face seemed to mock him in the clear water.
"Do you know those two last figures!" asked the lady.
"I do," said Sir Norman, promptly; "it was Ormiston and myself."
"Right! and one of them was dead."
"Dead!" exclaimed Sir Norman, with a perceptible start. "Which one, madam?"
"If you cannot tell that, neither can I. If there is anything further you wish to see, I am quite willing to show it to you."
"I'm obliged to you," said Sir Norman, stepping back; "but no more at present, thank you. Do you mean to say, madam, that I'm some day to murder a lady, especially one so beautiful as she I just now saw?"
"I have said nothing—all you've seen will come to pass, and whether your destiny be for good or evil, I have nothing to do with it, except," said the sweet voice, earnestly, "that if La Masque could strew Sir Norman Kingsley's pathway with roses, she would most assuredly do so."
"Madam, you are too kind," said that young gentleman, laying his hand on his heart, while Ormiston scowled darkly—"more especially as I've the misfortune to be a perfect stranger to you."
"Not so, Sir Norman. I have known you this many a day; and before long we shall be better acquainted. Permit me to wish you good evening!"
At this gentle hint, both gentlemen bowed themselves out, and soon found themselves in the street, with very different expressions of countenance. Sir Norman looking considerably pleased and decidedly puzzled, and Mr. Ormiston looking savagely and uncompromisingly jealous. The animated skeleton who had admitted them closed the door after them; and the two friends stood in the twilight on London Bridge.
"Well," said Ormiston, drawing a long bath, "what do you think of that?"
"Think? Don't ask me yet." said Sir Norman, looking rather bewildered. "I'm in such a state of mystification that I don't rightly know whether I'm standing on my head or feet. For one thing, I have come to the conclusion that your masked ladylove must be enchantingly beautiful."
"Have I not told you that a thousand times, O thou of little faith? But why have you come to such a conclusion?"
"Because no woman with such a figure, such a voice and such hands could be otherwise."
"I knew you would own it some day. Do you wonder now that I love her?"
"Oh! as to loving her," said Sir Norman, coolly, "that's quite another thing. I could no more love her or her hands, voice, and shape, than I could a figure in wood or wax; but I admire her vastly, and think her extremely clever. I will never forget that face in the caldron. It was the most exquisitely beautiful I ever saw."
"In love with the shadow of a face! Why, you are a thousandfold more absurd than I."
"No," said Sir Norman, thoughtfully, "I don't know as I'm in love with it; but if ever I see a living face like it, I certainly shall be. How did La Masque do it, I wonder?"
"You had better ask her," said Ormiston, bitterly. "She seems to have taken an unusual interest in you at first sight. She would strew your path with roses, forsooth! Nothing earthly, I believe, would make her say anything half so tender to me."
Sir Norman laughed, and stroked his moustache complacently.
"All a matter of taste, my dear fellow: and these women are noted for their perfection in that line. I begin to admire La Masque more and more, and I think you had better give up the chase, and let me take your place. I don't believe you have the ghost of a chance, Ormiston."
"I don't believe it myself," said Ormiston, with a desperate face "but until the plague carries me off I cannot give her up; and the sooner that happens, the better. Ha! what is this?"
It was a piercing shriek—no unusual sound; and as he spoke, the door of an adjoining house was flung open, a woman rushed wildly out, fled down an adjoining street, and disappeared.
Sir Norman and his companion looked at each other, and then at the house.
"What's all this about?" demanded Ormiston.
"That's a question I can't take it upon myself to answer," said Sir Norman; "and the only way to solve the mystery, is to go in and see."
"It may be the plague," said Ormiston, hesitating. "Yet the house is not marked. There is a watchman. I will ask him."
The man with the halberd in his hand was walking up and down before an adjoining house, bearing the ominous red cross and piteous inscription: "Lord have mercy on us!"
"I don't know, sir," was his answer to Ormiston. "If any one there has the plague, they must have taken it lately; for I heard this morning there was to be a wedding there to-night."
"I never heard of any one screaming in that fashion about a wedding," said Ormiston, doubtfully. "Do you know who lives there?"
"No, sir. I only came here, myself, yesterday, but two or three times to-day I have seen a very beautiful young lady looking out of the window."
Ormiston thanked the man, and went back to report to his friend.
"A beautiful young lady!" said Sir Norman, with energy. "Then I mean to go directly up and see about it, and you can follow or not, just as you please."
So saying, Sir Norman entered the open doorway, and found himself in a long hall, flanked by a couple of doors on each side. These he opened in rapid succession, finding nothing but silence and solitude; and Ormiston—who, upon reflection, chose to follow—ran up a wide and sweeping staircase at the end of the hall. Sir Norman followed him, and they came to a hall similar to the one below. A door to the right lay open; and both entered without ceremony, and looked around.
The room was spacious, and richly furnished. Just enough light stole through the oriel window at the further end, draped with crimson satin embroidered with gold, to show it. The floor was of veined wood of many colors, arranged in fanciful mosaics, and strewn with Turkish rugs and Persian mats of gorgeous colors. The walls were carved, the ceiling corniced, and all fretted with gold network and gilded mouldings. On a couch covered with crimson satin, like the window drapery, lay a cithren and some loose sheets of music. Near it was a small marble table, covered with books and drawings, with a decanter of wine and an exquisite little goblet of Bohemian glass. The marble mantel was strewn with ornaments of porcelain and alabaster, and a beautifully-carved vase of Parian marble stood in the centre, filled with brilliant flowers. A great mirror reflected back the room, and beneath it stood a toilet-table, strewn with jewels, laces, perfume-bottles, and an array of costly little feminine trifles such as ladies were as fond of two centuries ago as they are to-day. Evidently it was a lady's chamber; for in a recess near the window stood a great quaint carved bedstead, with curtains and snowy lace, looped back with golden arrows and scarlet ribbons. Some one lay on it, too—at least, Ormiston thought so; and he went cautiously forward, drew the curtain, and looked down.
"Great Heaven! what a beautiful face!" was his cry, as he bent still further down.
"What the plague is the matter?" asked Sir Norman, coming forward.
"You have said it," said Ormiston, recoiling. "The plague is the matter. There lies one dead of it!"
Curiosity proving stronger than fear, Sir Norman stepped forward to look at the corpse. It was a young girl with a face as lovely as a poet's vision. That face was like snow, now; and, in its calm, cold majesty, looked as exquisitely perfect as some ancient Grecian statue. The low, pearly brow, the sweet, beautiful lips, the delicate oval outline of countenance, were perfect. The eyes were closed, and the long dark lashes rested on the ivory cheeks. A profusion of shining dark hair fell in elaborate curls over her neck and shoulders. Her dress was that of a bride; a robe of white satin brocaded with silver, fairly dazzling in its shining radiance, and as brief in the article of sleeves and neck as that of any modern belle. A circlet of pearls were clasped round her snow-white throat, and bracelets of the same jewels encircled the snowy taper arms. On her head she wore a bridal wreath and veil—the former of jewels, the latter falling round her like a cloud of mist. Everything was perfect, from the wreath and veil to the tiny sandaled feet and lying there in her mute repose she looked more like some exquisite piece of sculpture than anything that had ever lived and moved in this groveling world of ours. But from one shoulder the dress had been pulled down, and there lay a great livid purple plague-spot!
"Come away!" said Ormiston, catching his companion by the arm. "It is death to remain here!"
Sir Norman had been standing like one in a trance, from which this address roused him, and he grasped Ormiston's shoulder almost frantically.
"Look there, Ormiston! There lies the very face that sorceress showed me, fifteen minutes ago, in her infernal caldron! I would know it at the other end of the world!"
"Are you sure?" said Ormiston, glancing again with new curiosity at the marble face. "I never saw anything half so beautiful in all my life; but you see she is dead of the plague."
"Dead? she cannot be! Nothing so perfect could die!"
"Look there," said Ormiston pointing to the plague-spot. "There is the fatal token! For Heaven's sake let us get out of this, or we will share the same fate before morning!"
But Sir Norman did not move—could not move; he stood there rooted to the spot by the spell of that lovely, lifeless face.
Usually the plague left its victims hideous, ghastly, discolored, and covered with blotches; but in this case then was nothing to mar the perfect beauty of the satin-smooth skin, but that one dreadful mark.
There Sir Norman stood in his trance, as motionless as if some genie out of the "Arabian Nights" had suddenly turned him into stone (a trick they were much addicted to), and destined him to remain there an ornamental fixture for ever. Ormiston looked at him distractedly, uncertain whether to try moral suasion or to take him by the collar and drag him headlong down the stairs, when a providential but rather dismal circumstance came to his relief. A cart came rattling along the street, a bell was loudly rang, and a hoarse voice arose with it: "Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!"
Ormiston rushed down stair to intercept the dead-cart, already almost full on it way to the plague-pit. The driver stopped at his call, and instantly followed him up stairs, and into the room. Glancing at the body with the utmost sang-froid, he touched the dress, and indifferently remarked:
"A bride, I should say; and an uncommonly handsome one too. We'll just take her along as she is, and strip these nice things off the body when we get it to the plague-pit."
So saying, he wrapped her in the sheet, and directing Ormiston to take hold of the two lower ends, took the upper corners himself, with the air of a man quite used to that sort of thing. Ormiston recoiled from touching it; and Sir Norman seeing what they were about to do, and knowing there was no help for it, made up his mind, like a sensible young man as he was, to conceal his feelings, and caught hold of the sheet himself. In this fashion the dead bride was carried down stairs, and laid upon a shutter on the top of a pile of bodies in the dead-cart.
It was now almost dark, and as the cart started, the great clock of St. Paul's struck eight. St. Michael's, St Alban's, and the others took up the sound; and the two young men paused to listen. For many weeks the sky had been clear, brilliant, and blue; but on this night dark clouds were scudding in wild unrest across it, and the air was oppressingly close and sultry.
"Where are you going now?" said Ormiston. "Are you for Whitehall's to night?"
"No!" said Sir Norman, rather dejectedly, turning to follow the pest-cart. "I am for the plague-pit in Finsbury fields!"
"Nonsense, man!" exclaimed Ormiston, energetically, "what will take you there? You surely are not mad enough to follow the body of that dead girl?"
"I shall follow it! You can come or not, just as you please."
"Oh! if you are determined, I will go with you, of course; but it is the craziest freak I ever heard of. After this, you need never laugh at me."
"I never will," said Sir Norman, moodily; "for if you love a face you have never seen, I love one I have only looked on when dead. Does it not seem sacrilege to throw any one so like an angel into that horrible plague-pit?"
"I never saw an angel," said Ormiston, as he and his friend started to go after the dead-cart. "And I dare say there have been scores as beautiful as that poor girl thrown into the plague-pit before now. I wonder why the house has been deserted, and if she was really a bride. The bridegroom could not have loved her much, I fancy, or not even the pestilence could have scared him away."
"But, Ormiston, what an extraordinary thing it is that it should be precisely the same face that the fortune-teller showed me. There she was alive, and here she is dead; so I've lost all faith in La Masque for ever."
Ormiston looked doubtful.
"Are you quite sure it is the same, Kingsley?"
"Quite sure?" said Sir Norman, indignantly. "Of course I am! Do you think I could be mistaken is such a case? I tell you I would know that face at Kamschatka or, the North Pole; for I don't believe there ever was such another created."
"So be it, then! Your object, of course, in following that cart is, to take a last look at her?"
"Precisely so. Don't talk; I feel in no mood for it just at present."
Ormiston smiled to himself, and did not talk, accordingly; and in silence the two friends followed the gloomy dead-cart. A faint young moon, pale and sickly, was struggling dimly through drifts of dark clouds, and lighted the lonesome, dreary streets with a wan, watery glimmer. For weeks, the weather had been brilliantly fine—the days all sunshine, the nights all moonlight; but now Ormiston, looking up at the troubled face of the sky, concluded mentally that the Lord Mayor had selected an unpropitious night for the grand illumination. Sir Norman, with his eyes on the pest-cart, and the long white figure therein, took no heed of anything in the heaven above or in the earth beneath, and strode along in dismal silence till they reached, at last, their journey's end.
As the cart stopped the two young men approached the edge of the plague-pit, and looked in with a shudder. Truly it was a horrible sight, that heaving, putrid sea of corruption; for the bodies of the miserable victims were thrown in in cartfuls, and only covered with a handful of earth and quicklime. Here and there, through the cracking and sinking surface, could be seen protruding a fair white arm, or a baby face, mingled with the long, dark tresses of maidens, the golden curls of children, and the white hairs of old age. The pestilential effluvia arising from the dreadful mass was so overpowering that both shrank back, faint and sick, after a moment's survey. It was indeed as Sir Norman had, said, a horrible grave wherein to lie.
Meantime the driver, with an eye to business, and no time for such nonsense as melancholy moralizing, had laid the body of the young girl on the ground, and briskly turned his cart and dumped the remainder of his load into the pit. Then, having flung a few handfuls of clay over it, he unwound the sheet, and kneeling beside the body, prepared to remove the jewels. The rays of the moon and his dark lantern fell on the lovely, snow-white face together, and Sir Norman groaned despairingly as he saw its death-cold rigidity. The man had stripped the rings off the fingers, the bracelets off the arms; but as he was about to perform the same operation toward the necklace, he was stopped by a startling interruption enough. In his haste, the clasp entered the beautiful neck, inflicting a deep scratch, from which the blood spouted; and at the same instant the dead girl opened her eyes with a shrill cry. Uttering a yell of terror, as well he might, the man sprang back and gazed at her with horror, believing that his sacrilegious robbery had brought the dead to life. Even the two young men—albeit, neither of them given to nervousness nor cowardice—recoiled for an instant, and stared aghast. Then, as the whole truth struck them, that the girl had been in a deep swoon and not dead, both simultaneously darted forward, and forgetting all fear of infection, knelt by her side. A pair of great, lustrous black eyes were staring wildly around, and fixed themselves first on one face and then on the other.
"Where am I?" she exclaimed, with a terrified look, as she strove to raise herself on her elbow, and fell instantaneously back with a cry of agony, as she felt for the first time the throbbing anguish of the wound.
"You are with friends, dear lady!" said Sir Norman, in a voice quite tremulous between astonishment and delight. "Fear nothing, for you shall be saved."
The great black eyes turned wildly upon him, while a fierce spasm convulsed the beautiful face.
"O, my God, I remember! I have the plague!" And, with a prolonged shriek of anguish, that thrilled even to the hardened heart of the dead-cart driver, the girl fell back senseless again. Sir Norman Kingsley sprang to his feet, and with more the air of a frantic lunatic than a responsible young English knight, caught the cold form in his arms, laid it in the dead-cart, and was about springing into the driver's seat, when that individual indignantly interposed.
"Come, now; none of that! If you were the king himself, you shouldn't run away with my cart in that fashion; so you just get out of my place as fast as you can!"
"My dear Kingsley, what are you about to do?" asked Ormiston, catching his excited friend by the arm.
"Do!" exclaimed Sir Norman, in a high key. "Can't you see that for yourself! And I'm going to have that girl cured of the plague, if there is such a thing as a doctor to be had for love or money in London."
"You had better have her taken to the pest house at once, then; there are chirurgeons and nurses enough there."
"To the pest-house! Why man, I might as well have her thrown into the plague-pit there, at once! Not I! I shall have her taken to my own house, and there properly cared for, and this good fellow will drive her there instantly."
Sir Norman backed this insinuation by putting a broad gold-piece into the driver's hand, which instantly produced a magical effect on his rather surly countenance.
"Certainly, sir," he began, springing into his seat with alacrity. "Where shall I drive the young lady to?"
"Follow me," said Sir Norman. "Come along, Ormiston." And seizing his friend by the arm, he hurried along with a velocity rather uncomfortable, considering they both wore cloaks, and the night was excessively sultry. The gloomy vehicle and its fainting burden followed close behind.
"What do you mean to do with her?" asked Ormiston, as soon as he found breath enough to speak.
"Haven't I told you?" said Sir Norman, impatiently. "Take her home, of course."
"And after that?"
"Go for a doctor."
"And after that?"
"Take care of her till she gets well."
"And after that?"
"Why—find out her history, and all about her."
"And after that?"
"After that! After that! How do I know what after that!" exclaimed Sir Norman, rather fiercely. "Ormiston, what do you mean?"
"And after that you'll marry her, I suppose!"
"Perhaps I may, if she will have me. And what if I do?"
"Oh, nothing! Only it struck me you may be saving another man's wife."
"That's true!" said Sir Norman, in a subdued tone, "and if such should unhappily be the case, nothing will remain but to live in hopes that he may be carried off by the plague."
"Pray Heaven that we may not be carried off by it ourselves!" said Ormiston, with a slight shudder. "I shall dream of nothing but that horrible plague-pit for a week. If it were not for La Masque, I would not stay another hour in this pest-stricken city."
"Here we are," was Sir Norman's rather inapposite answer, as they entered Piccadilly, and stopped before a large and handsome house, whose gloomy portal was faintly illuminated by a large lamp. "Here, my man just carry the lady in."
He unlocked the door as he spoke, and led the way across a long hall to a sleeping chamber, elegantly fitter up. The man placed the body on the bed and departed while Sir Norman, seizing a handbell, rang a peal that brought a staid-looking housekeeper to the scene directly. Seeing a lady, young and beautiful, in bride robes, lying apparently dead on her young master's bed at that hour of the night, the discreet matron, over whose virtuous head fifty years and a snow-white cap had passed, started back with a slight scream.
"Gracious me, Sir Norman! What on earth is the meaning of this?"
"My dear Mrs. Preston," began Sir Norman blandly, "this young lady is ill of the plague, and—"
But all further explanation was cut short by a horrified shriek from the old lady, and a precipitate rush from the room. Down stairs she flew, informing the other servants as she went, between her screams, and when Sir Norman, in a violent rage, went in search of her five minutes after, he found not only the kitchen, but the whole house deserted.
"Well," said Ormiston, as Sir Norman strode back, looking fiery hot and savagely angry.
"Well, they have all fled, every man and woman of them, the—" Sir Norman ground out something not quite proper, behind his moustache. "I shall have to go for the doctor, myself. Doctor Forbes is a friend of mine, and lives near; and you," looking at him rather doubtfully, "would you mind staying here, lest she should recover consciousness before I return?"
"To tell you the truth," said Ormiston, with charming frankness, "I should! The lady is extremely beautiful, I must own; but she looks uncomfortably corpse-like at this present moment. I do not wish to die of the plague, either, until I see La Masque once more; and so if it is all the same to you, my dear friend, I will have the greatest pleasure in stepping round with you to the doctor's."
Sir Norman, though he did not much approve of this, could not very well object, and the two sallied forth together. Walking a short distance up Piccadilly, they struck off into a bye street, and soon reached the house they were in search of. Sir Norman knocked loudly at the door, which was opened by the doctor himself. Briefly and rapidly Sir Norman informed him how and where his services were required; and the doctor being always provided with everything necessary for such cases, set out with him immediately. Fifteen minutes after leaving his own house, Sir Norman was back there again, and standing in his own chamber. But a simultaneous exclamation of amazement and consternation broke from him and Ormiston, as on entering the room they found the bed empty, and the lady gone!
A dead pause followed, during which the three looked blankly at the bed, and then at each other. The scene, no doubt, would have been ludicrous enough to a third party; but neither of our trio could saw anything whatever to laugh at. Ormiston was the first to speak.
"What in Heaven's name has happened!" he wonderingly exclaimed.
"Some one has been here," said Sir Norman, turning very pale, "and carried her off while we were gone."
"Let us search the house," said the doctor; "you should have locked your door, Sir Norman; but it may not be too late yet."
Acting on the hint, Sir Norman seized the lamp burning on the table, and started on the search. His two friends followed him, and
"The highest, the lowest, the loveliest spot, They searched for the lady, and found her not."
No, though there was not the slightest trace of robbers or intruders, neither was there the slightest trace of the beautiful plague-patient. Everything in the house was precisely as it always was, but the silver shining vision was gone.
The search was given over at last in despair, and the doctor took his hat and disappeared. Sir Norman and Ormiston stopped in the lower hall and looked at each other in mute amaze.
"What can it all mean?" asked Ormiston, appealing more to society at large than to his bewildered companion.
"I haven't the faintest idea," said Sir Norman, distractedly; "only I am pretty certain, if I don't find her, I shall do something so desperate that the plague will be a trifle compared to it!"
"It seems almost impossible that she can have been carried off—doesn't it?"
"If she has!" exclaimed Sir Norman, "and I find out the abductor, he won't have a whole bone in his body two minutes after!"
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