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THE HOUSE IN LONDON
It stood about midway down an unusually narrow by-street off the Strand.
A tumble-down archway, leaning to one side like a lame hen, gave access to a dark passage, dank with moisture, whereon the door of the house gave some eighteen feet up on the left.
The unpaved street, undrained and unutterably filthy, was ankle-deep in mud, even at the close of this hot August day. Down one side a long blank wall, stone-built and green with mildew, presented an unbroken frontage: on the other the row of houses with doors perpetually barred, and windows whereon dust and grit had formed effectual curtains against prying eyes, added to the sense of loneliness, of insecurity, of unknown dangers lurking behind that crippled archway, or beneath the shadows of the projecting eaves, whence the perpetual drip-drip of soot water came as a note of melancholy desolation.
From all the houses the plaster was peeling off in many places, a prey to the inclemencies of London winters; all presented gray facades, with an air of eeriness about their few windows, flush with the outside wall--at one time painted white, no doubt, but now of uniform dinginess with the rest of the plaster work.
There was a grim hint about the whole street of secret meetings, and of unavowable deeds done under cover of isolation and of darkness, whilst the great crooked mouth of the archway disclosing the blackness and gloom of the passage beyond, suggested the lair of human wild beasts who only went about in the night.
As a rule but few passers-by availed themselves of this short and narrow cut down to the river-side. Nathless, the unarmed citizen was scared by these dank and dreary shadows, whilst the city watchman, mindful of his own safety, was wont to pass the mean street by.
Only my Lord Protector's new police-patrol fresh to its onerous task, solemnly marched down it once in twenty-four hours, keeping shoulder to shoulder, looking neither to right nor left, thankful when either issue was once more within sight.
But in this same evening in August, 1657, it seemed as if quite a number of people had business in Bath Street off the Strand. At any rate this was specially noticeable after St. Mary's had struck the hour of nine, when several cloaked and hooded figures slipped, one after another, some singly, others in groups of two or three, into the shadow of the narrow lane.
They all walked in silence, and did not greet one another as they passed; some cast from time to time furtive looks behind them; but every one of these evening prowlers seemed to have the same objective, for as soon as they reached the crippled archway, they disappeared within the gloom of its yawning mouth.
Anon when the police-patrol had gone by and was lost in the gloom there where Bath Street debouches on the river bank, two of these heavily cloaked figures walked rapidly down from the Strand, and like the others slipped quickly under the archway, and made straight for the narrow door on the left of the passage.
This door was provided with a heavy bronze knocker, but strangely enough the newcomers did not avail themselves of its use, but rapped on the wooden panels with their knuckles, giving three successive raps at regular intervals.
They were admitted almost immediately, the door seemingly opening of itself, and they quickly stepped across the threshold.
Within the house was just as dark and gloomy as it was without, and as the two visitors entered, a voice came from out the shadows, and said, in a curious monotone and with strange irrelevance:
"The hour is late!"
"And 'twill be later still," replied one of the newcomers.
"Yet the cuckoo hath not called," retorted the voice.
"Nor is the ferret on the prowl," was the enigmatic reply. Whereupon the voice speaking in more natural tones added sententiously:
"Two flights of steps, and 'ware the seventeenth step on the first flight. Door on the left, two raps, then three."
"Thank you, friend," rejoined one of the newcomers, "'tis pleasant to feel that so faithful a watch guards the entrance of this palace of pleasure."
Thereupon the two visitors, who of a truth must have been guided either by instinct or by intimate knowledge of the place, for not a gleam of light illumined the entrance hall, groped their way to a flight of stone stairs which led in a steep curve to the upper floors of the house.
A rickety banister which gave ominously under the slightest pressure helped to guide the visitors in this utter darkness: but obviously the warning uttered by that mysterious challenging voice below was not superfluous, for having carefully counted sixteen steps in an upward direction, the newcomers came to a halt, and feeling their way forward now with uttermost caution, their feet met a yawning hole, which had soon caused a serious accident to a stranger who had ventured thus far in ignorance of pitfalls.
A grim laugh, echoed by a lighter one, showed that the visitors had encountered only what they had expected, and after this brief episode they continued their journey upwards with a firmer sense of security; a smoky oil lamp on the first floor landing guided their footsteps by casting a flickering light on the narrow stairway, whereon slime and filth crept unchecked through the broken crevices between the stones.
But now as they advanced, the silence seemed more broken: a distinct hum as of many voices was soon perceptible, and anon a shrill laugh, followed by another more deep in tone, and echoed by others which presently died away in the distance.
By the time the two men had reached the second floor landing these many noises had become more accentuated, also more distinct; still muffled and subdued as if proceeding from behind heavy doors, but nevertheless obvious as the voices of men and women in lively converse.
The newcomers gave the distinctive raps prescribed by their first mentor, on the thick panels of a solid oak door on their left.
The next moment the door itself was thrown open from within; a flood of light burst forth upon the gloomy landing from the room beyond, the babel of many voices became loud and clear, and as the two men stood for a moment beneath the lintel a veritable chorus of many exclamations greeted them from every side.
"And Overbury, too!"
"How late ye come!"
"We thought ye'd fallen a victim to Noll's myrmidons!"
It was of a truth a gay and merry company that stood, and moved, chatted and laughed, within the narrow confines of that small second-floor room in the gloomy house in Bath Street.
The walls themselves were dingy and bare, washed down with some grayish color, which had long since been defaced by the grime and dust of London. Thick curtains of a nondescript hue fell in straight folds before each window, and facing these there was another door--double paneled--which apparently led to an inner room.
But the place itself was brilliantly illuminated with many wax candles set in chandeliers. These stood on the several small tables which were dotted about the room.
These tables--covered with green baize, and a number of chairs of various shapes and doubtful solidity were the only furniture of the room, but in an arched recess in the wall a plaster figure holding a cornucopia, from whence fell in thick profusion the plaster presentments of the fruits of this earth, stood on an elevated pedestal, which had been draped with crimson velvet.
The goddess of Fortune, with a broken nose and a paucity of fingers, dominated the brilliant assembly, from the height of her crimson throne. Her head had been crowned with a tall peaked modish beaver hat, from which a purple feather rakishly swept over the goddess's left ear. An ardent devotee had deposited a copper coin in her extended, thumbless hand, whilst another had fixed a row of candle stumps at her feet.
There was nothing visible in this brilliantly lighted room of the sober modes to which the eye of late had become so accustomed. Silken doublets of bright and even garish colors stood out in bold contrast against the gray monotone of the walls and hangings. Fantastic buttons, tags and laces, gorgeously embroidered cuffs and collars edged with priceless Mechlin or d'Alenšon, bunches of ribands at knee and wrists, full periwigs and over-wide boot-hose tops were everywhere to be seen, whilst the clink of swords against the wooden boards and frequent volleys of loudly spoken French oaths, testified to the absence of those Puritanic fashions and customs which had become the general rule even in London.
Some of the company sat in groups round the green-topped tables whereon cards or dice and heaps of gold and smaller coins lay in profusion. Others stood about watching the games or chatting to one another. Mostly men they were, some old, some young--but there were women too, women in showy kirtles, with bare shoulders showing well above the colverteen kerchief and faces wherein every line had been obliterated by plentiful daubs of cosmetics. They moved about the room from table to table, laughing, talking, making comments on the games as these proceeded.
The men apparently were all intent--either as actual participants or merely as spectators--upon a form of amusement which His Highness the Lord Protector had condemned as wanton and contrary to law.
The newcomers soon divested themselves of their immense dark cloaks, and they, too, appeared in showy apparel of silk and satin, with tiny bows of ribands at the ends of the long curls which fell both sides of their faces, and with enormous frills of lace inside the turned-over tops of their boots.
Lord Walterton quite straddled in his gait, so wide were his boot tops, and there was an extraordinary maze of tags and ribands round the edge of Sir James Overbury's breeches.
"Make your game, gentlemen, make your game," said the latter as he advanced further into the room. And his tired, sleepy eyes brightened at sight of the several tables covered with cards and dice, the guttering candles, the mountains of gold and small coin scattered on the green baize tops.
"Par Dieu! but 'tis a sight worth seeing after the ugly sour faces one meets in town these days!" he added, gleefully rubbing his beringed hands one against the other.
"But where is our gracious hostess?" added Lord Walterton, a melancholy-looking young man with pale-colored eyes and lashes, and a narrow chest.
"You are thrice welcome, my lord!" said Editha de Chavasse, whose elegant figure now detached itself from amongst her guests.
She looked very handsome in her silken kirtle of a brilliant greenish hue, lace primer, and high-heeled shoes--relics of her theatrical days; her head was adorned with the bunches of false curls which the modish hairdressers were trying to introduce. The plentiful use of cosmetics had obliterated the ravages of time and imparted a youthful appearance to her face, whilst excitement not unmixed with apprehension lent a bright glitter to her dark eyes.
Lord Walterton and Sir James Overbury lightly touched with their lips the hand which she extended to them. Their bow, too, was slight, though they tossed their curls as they bent their heads in the most approved French fashion. But there was a distinct note of insolence, not altogether unmixed with irony, in the freedom with which they had greeted her.
"I met de Chavasse in town to-day," said Lord Walterton, over his shoulder before he mixed with the crowd.
"Yes! he will be here to-night," she rejoined. Sir James Overbury also made a casual remark, but it was evident that the intention and purpose of these gay gentlemen was not the courteous entertainment of their hostess. Like so many men of all times and all nations in this world, they were ready enough to enjoy what she provided for them--the illicit pastime which they could not get elsewhere--but they despised her for giving it them, and cared naught for the heavy risks she ran in keeping up this house for their pleasure.
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