English Literature

The Midnight Queen by May Agnes Fleming

The Midnight Queen by May Agnes Fleming

CHAPTER I. THE SORCERESS.

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.

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