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The Legend
After the death-warrant had been read to the Earl of Essex, and on the evening before his
appointed execution, the Countess of Shrewsbury paid his lordship a visit, and found him,
as it appeared, toying childishly with a ring. The diamond, that enriched it, glittered like a
little star, but with a singular tinge of red. The gloomy prison-chamber in the Tower, with
its deep and narrow windows piercing the walls of stone, was now all that the earl
possessed of worldly prospect; so that there was the less wonder that he should look
steadfastly into the gem, and moralize upon earth's deceitful splendor, as men in darkness
and ruin seldom fail to do. But the shrewd observations of the countess,--an artful and
unprincipled woman,--the pretended friend of Essex, but who had come to glut her
revenge for a deed of scorn which he himself had forgotten,--her keen eye detected a
deeper interest attached to this jewel. Even while expressing his gratitude for her
remembrance of a ruined favorite, and condemned criminal, the earl's glance reverted to
the ring, as if all that remained of time and its affairs were collected within that small
golden circlet.
"My dear lord," observed the countess, "there is surely some matter of great moment
wherewith this ring is connected, since it, so absorbs your mind. A token, it may be, of
some fair lady's love,--alas, poor lady, once richest in possessing such a heart! Would you
that the jewel be returned to her?"
"The queen! the queen! It was her Majesty's own gift," replied the earl, still gazing into
the depths of the gem. "She took it from her finger, and told me, with a smile, that it was
an heirloom from her Tudor ancestors, and had once been the property of Merlin, the
British wizard, who gave it to the lady of his love. His art had made this diamond the
abiding-place of a spirit, which, though of fiendish nature, was bound to work only good,
so long as the ring was an unviolated pledge of love and faith, both with the giver and
receiver. But should love prove false, and faith be broken, then the evil spirit would work
his own devilish will, until the ring were purified by becoming the medium of some good
and holy act, and again the pledge of faithful love. The gem soon lost its virtue; for the
wizard was murdered by the very lady to whom he gave it."
"An idle legend!" said the countess.
"It is so," answered Essex, with a melancholy smile. "Yet the queen's favor, of which this
ring was the symbol, has proved my ruin. When death is nigh, men converse with dreams
and shadows. I have been gazing into the diamond, and fancying--but you will laugh at
me--that I might catch a glimpse of the evil spirit there. Do you observe this red glow,--
dusky, too, amid all the brightness? It is the token of his presence; and even now,
methinks, it grows redder and duskier, like an angry sunset."
Nevertheless, the earl's manner testified how slight was his credence in the enchanted
properties of the ring. But there is a kind of playfulness that comes in moments of
despair, when the reality of misfortune, if entirely felt, would crush the soul at once. He