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Produced by An Anonymous Project Gutenberg Volunteer, and David Widger







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

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

"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

"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

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

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,

"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

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Online LibraryMay Agnes FlemingThe Midnight Queen → online text (page 1 of 20)