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[-346-]

CHAPTER CXIII.

THE LOVERS.

THE morning, which succeeded the night that witnessed the incidents just detailed, was clear, frosty, and fine. It was one of those winter mornings when the soil is as hard as iron, but on which the sun shines with gay light if not with genial heat. On such a morning we walk abroad with a consciousness that the exercise benefits us: we feel the-blood acquiring a more rapid circulation in our veins; we soon experience a pleasant glow pervading the frame; our spirits become exhilarated; and we learn that even Winter has its peculiar charms.
    Such was the feeling that animated Richard Markham, as, after alighting from a public vehicle at Richmond, he proceeded rapidly along a by-road that led through the fields at the back of Count Alteroni's mansion.
    His cheeks were tinged with a glow that set off his handsome features to the greatest advantage: his dark eyes sparkled with an expression of joy and hope; a smile played upon his lip; and he walked with his head erect as if he felt proud of his existence - because that existence, in spite of its vicissitudes, was protected by some auspicious star.
    O Love! art thou not a star full of hope and promise, like that which guided the sages of the East to the cradle of their Redeemer ? - like the welcome planet which heralds the dauntless mariner over the midnight seas ? - like the twinkling orb which points the right track to the Arab wanderer d the desert?
    Richard Markham pursued his way - his soul full of hope, and love, and bliss.
    At a distance of about a quarter of a mile on his right hand, the mansion of Count Alteroni soon met his eyes, surrounded by the evergreens that, in contrast with the withered trees elsewhere, gave to the spot where it stood the air of an oasis in the midst of a desert.
    Markham's heart beat quickly when that well. known dwelling met his view; and for a moment a shade of melancholy passed over his countenance, for he recalled to mind the happy hours he had once spent within its walls.
    But that transitory cloud vanished from his brow, when his eye caught a glimpse, in another instant, of a sylph-like form that was threading a leafless grove at a little distance.
    Richard redoubled his steps, and was led, by the circuitous winding of the path that he was pursuing, somewhat nearer to the Count's mansion.
    In a few minutes he reached the very spot where, in the preceding spring, he had accidentally encountered Isabella, and where she assured him of her unchanged and unchangeable love.
    He is now on that spot once more :- he pauses - looks around - and Isabella again approaches.
    Richard rushes forward, and clasps the beauteous Italian maiden in his arms.
    "Isabella - dearest Isabella! What good angel prompted you to grant me this interview?" he exclaimed, when the first effusion of joy was over.
    "Do you think me indiscreet, Richard ?" asked the Signora, taking his arm, and glancing timidly towards his countenance.
    " Indiscreet, my sweet girl! " cried her lover: "Oh! how can you suppose that I would entertain a harsh feeling with regard to that goodness on your part which doubtless instigated you to afford me the happiness of this meeting?"
    "But when we met here - seven or eight months ago, Richard," said Isabella, "I told you that never - never would I consent to a stolen interview. And now  - you may imagine —"
    "I imagine that you love me, Isabella - love me as I love you," exclaimed Markham; "and what other idea can occupy my thoughts when that one is present? Oh! you know not the ineffable joy - the unequalled pleasure which I experienced when your letter reached me yesterday. I recognised your handwriting immediately; and I seized the letter with avidity, when it was brought to me in my study. And then, Isabella - will you believe me when I tell you that I trembled to open it? I laid it upon the table - my hand refused to break the seal. Pardon me - forgive me, if for a moment I feared —"
    "That I had forgotten my vows-my plighted affection," faltered Isabella, reproachfully.
    "Again I say pardon - forgive me, dearest girl; but - oh! I have been so very unfortunate!"
    "Think not of the past, Richard," said Isabella, tenderly.
    "The past! Oh! how can I cease to ponder upon the past, when it has nearly bereaved me of all hope for the future?" exclaimed Markham, in an impassioned tone.
    "Not all hope," murmured Isabella; "since hope still remains to me!"
    "Angel that thou art!" cried Richard, pressing the maiden's hand fondly. "How weak I am, since it is from thee that moral courage ever is imparted."
    "You were speaking of my letter," said Isabella with a smile.
    [-347-] "True! But so many emotions - joy and hope - sorrowful reminiscences and brighter prospects, bewilder me! I will, however, try to talk calmly! When your letter came, I feared to open it for some moments: I dreaded a new calamity! But at length I called all my firmness to my aid; and a terrible weight was taken from my soul, when my eye glanced at the first lines of that letter which suddenly became as dear and welcome as a reprieve to the condemned criminal. Then, when I saw that my beloved Isabella still thought of me - still loved me —"
    " Oh, I did not tell you that in my letter," exclaimed Isabella, with a smile of bewitching archness.
    "No - but I divined it - I gathered it from the words in which you conveyed to me your desire to see me - from the manner in which you said that at eleven o'clock this morning you should walk in the very place where we had met accidentally once before - oh! I suddenly became a new being: never has my heart so light!"
    "And yet I said in my letter, Richard, that I wished to see you upon a matter of business —"
    "Ah! Isabella, destroy not the charm which makes me happy! Let no cold thought of worldly things chill the heavenly fervour of our affection. Were it not for that love which reciprocally exists between us, how should I have supported the misfortunes that have multiplied upon me?"
    "Again I say, Richard, allude not to the past. Alas! bitter - bitter were the tears that I wept on that fatal night when —"
    "When I was publicly disgraced at the theatre - in the midst of a triumph. Yes - Isabella, you were there - there, where my shame was consummated!"
    "Accident had led us to the theatre that evening," answered Isabella. "My father had heard that a new tragedy, of which grand hopes were entertained, was to be produced; and he insisted that I should accompany him and my mother. I was compelled to assent to his desire - although I prefer retirement and tranquillity to society and gaiety. You may conceive our astonishment - you may imagine my surprise and my joy, when you came forward to acknowledge the congratulations offered for a triumph so brilliantly achieved. And then - but let us leave that subject - my blood turns cold when I think of it!"
    "Oh! go on - speak of it, speak of it!" exclaimed Markham, enthusiastically; "for although the reminiscence of that fearful scene be like pouring molten lead upon an open wound, still it is sweet - it is sweet, Isabella, to receive sympathy from such lips as yours."
    "Alas! I have little more to say - except that the sudden intervention of that terrible man seemed to strike me as with the arrow of death; and I became insensible. Then, Ricbard, - then," continued Isabella, in a low and tremulous tone, "my mother suspected my secret - or rather received a confirmation of the suspicion which she had long entertained!"
    "And she shuddered at the mere idea?" exclaimed Markham, interrogatively.
    "No, Richard: my mother is kind and good - and, you know, was always well disposed towards you: I have told you that much before! She said little - and of that no matter! But my father - my father —"
    " He discovered our secret also!" exclaimed Richard. " Oh! did he not curse me?"
    "He was cool and calm, when - on the following morning - he spoke to me upon the subject. I answered him frankly: I admitted my attachment for you."
    "What did he say, Isabella! Tell me every thing - suppress not a word!"
    "Oh, heavens! he made me very miserable," returned Isabella, tears trickling down her countenance. "But wherefore distress both yourself and me with a recapitulation of what ensued? Suffice it to say, that I collected all the arguments in my memory - and they were not a few ; - and I presented to him that paper - the confession of Talbot, which proved your innocence!"
    "Dearest girl!" exclaimed Markham, rapturously.
    "He did not refuse to read it," added Isabella; "and at length, when I saw that I had made a profound impression on him, I turned the conversation upon the momentary reverse of fortune which had plunged him into a debtors' prison —"
    "Isabella!" cried Markham, in surprise.
    "And then I boldly declared my conviction that the unknown friend who had released him - the anonymous individual who had thrown open to him the gate leading to liberty - the nameless person, that had done so generous a deed, and accomplished it in a manner as delicate as it was noble, - was none other than Richard Markham!"
    The tone of the Italian maiden had become more and more impassioned as she proceeded; and when she uttered the last words of the foregoing sentence, she turned upon him on whose arm she leant, a countenance glowing with animation, and radiant with gratitude and love.
    "Oh, Isabella! you told your father that!" cried Markham. "And yet - you knew not —"
    "My suspicion amounted almost to a certainty," interrupted Isabella: "and now I doubt no longer. Oh! Richard - if ever for one moment I had wavered in my love for you, - if ever an instant of coldness, arising from worldly reflections, had intervened to make me repent my solemn vows to you, - that one deed of yours - that noble sacrifice of your property, made to release my revered parent from a gaol, - that - that atone would have rendered my heart unalterably thine!"
    "Beloved girl - this moment is the happiest of my life!" exclaimed Markham; and tears of joy filled his eyes, as he pressed the maiden once more to his heart.
    "Yes, Richard," continued Isabella, after a long pause; and now her splendid countenance was lighted up with an expression of dignity and generous pride, and the timid, bashful maiden seemed changed into a lady whose brow was encircled with a diadem; "yes, Richard, if ever I felt that no deed nor act of mine shall separate us eternally - if ever I rejoiced in the prospect of possessing wealth, and receiving lustre from my father's princely rank —"
    "Isabella! " exclaimed Richard, dropping the arm on which the Italian lady was leaning, and stepping back in the most profound astonishment:
    " Isabella, what mean you?"
    "I mean," continued the signora, casting upon him a glance of deep tenderness and noble pride; "I mean that henceforth, Richard, I can have no secret from you, - that I must now disclose what has often before trembled upon my tongue; a secret which my father would not, however, as yet, have revealed to the English public generally, - the secret of his rank; for he whom the world knows as the Count Alteroni, is Alberto, Prince of Castelcicala!"
   [-348-]  Strange was the effect that this revelation produced upon the young man. He felt, as if, when in a burning heat, a mighty volume of icy water had suddenly been dashed over him: his head appeared to swim round - his sight grew dim - he staggered, and would have fallen had not Isabella rushed towards him, exclaiming, " Richard - dear Richard - do you not believe how much I love you ?"
    Those words produced an instantaneous change within him : those sweet syllables, uttered in the silvery tones of lovely woman's tenderness - recalled him to himself.
    "Ah! Isabella," he exclaimed, mournfully "how insuperable is the barrier which divides us now!"
    "And - if that barrier to which you allude ever existed, was it less formidable when you were ignorant of the secret than it is at present?" asked Isabella, tenderly.
    "It seems so to me," replied Richard. " Are you not placed on an eminence to which I never can hope to reach? have I not dared to lift my ambitious eyes towards a Princess - the daughter of one a who will some day wear a sovereign crown? Oh!  now the delusion is gone - I am awakened from a long dream! But, say - did your highness make this revelation to-day, in order to extinguish my a adventurous aspirations at once and for ever?"
    "Richard, you wrong me - cruelly wrong me!" exclaimed Isabella, bursting into tears.
    "Forgive me - forgive me, sweetest, dearest girl!" cried Markham. "I was mad - I raved - I knew not what I said —"
    "Richard, when we met here - once before - you doubted my affection, and then you asked me to forgive you! How often will you put my feelings to so cruel a test? how often will you renew those unjust suspicions?"
    "O God! what have I done, that I should thus call tears to your eyes, Isabella ? Forgive me, again - I say - forgive me: on my knees I implore —"
    "No - no! I think no more of what you said," exclaimed Isabella. "Calm yourself for my sake!" - and she gazed so tenderly up into his countenance, that he was reassured, and all his doubts and fears vanished in a moment.
    "Yes, Isabella," he said : "I am now calm; and you - you are an angel!"
    "A mere terrestrial one, Richard, I am afraid," returned the Princess, with a smile. "And now let me speak to you upon the little matter of business to which I alluded in my note. After I had informed my father that you were the generous unknown who had been the means of his release from prison, he exclaimed, 'Excellent-hearted young man! How I have wronged him by my injurious suspicions concerning that night when the burglary was attempted at our house!' You see that I tell you his very words."
    "Yes - tell me every thing, dear Isabella. And thus, your father no longer believes —"
    "How can he believe that any one would attempt to rob him one day, and pay nearly two thousand pounds for him another? " exclaimed Isabella "Oh, no - he is disabused upon that point. Would that he were unprejudiced on others!"
    "I understand you," said Markham, mournfully. "The Prince cannot consent to renew his acquaintance with one who has been subjected to an infamous punishment, and who aspires to the hand of his daughter."
    "Alas! you have divined but too truly," returned Isabella, wiping away a tear. "Nevertheless, may we not hope? Already is one great point gained: my father believes that you may have been unfortunate, and not guilty. Oh! that is a great obstacle removed! And in my mother, Richard, you have a warm friend - although her prejudices of rank and family —"
    "I can well comprehend the sentiments of her Highness," answered Markham: "and it is all that which now makes me fear lest —"
    "Fear not - but hope every thing," said Isabella, who, however, poor girl! spoke in a more flattering manner than her secret thoughts would have warranted, had she consulted them; but she saw her lover oppressed and weighed down by the revelation of that secret which she had considered it unkind to retain any longer; and she did all she could to console him. 
    "Yes  - I will hope, for both our sakes," said Richard.
    "And now let me conclude my little narrative," continued Isabella. " My father resolved to repay you the money you had so generously advanced, the moment he was enabled; and as the Grand Duke of Castelcicala has settled upon him an income of ten thousand a year, besides an immediate grant of forty thousand pounds, - boons which my father had only accepted because no political condition was attached to them, and because they are alleged to be an indemnification for his estates which have been confiscated, - he only awaited the arrival of his first remittances to acquit himself of that debt of honour. The day before yesterday he gave this letter," added Isabella, taking a small sealed packet from her reticule, "to one of our servants to convey to the post at Richmond. I demanded it back again privately of the servant, with the view of placing it myself in your hands, and - and taking the opportunity to reveal to you a secret which I did not think it right to keep from you any longer."
    "I receive this packet, then, Isabella, with its contents," said Markham, pressing her hand as he took it, "because your father is happily in a position to repay me the trifle which I was enabled to disburse for his benefit. But ten thousand times more valuable is this sum to me, since its payment prompted you to grant me this interview."
    "I had so much to tell you, Richard," answered the lady, with a deep blush, "that I could not commit it all to paper. I therefore adopted this plan- which perhaps is indiscreet —"
    "Use not that epithet again, dear Isabella," interrupted Markham. "You assure me that you love me: can you then regret that you have made me happy by allowing me to see you - to talk to you - to embrace you once again? And yet, in the midst of that happiness, the sad thought intrudes upon me - 'When shall I see thee again?'"
    "Accident may throw us together soon - as it has done are now," murmured Isabella: "accident - or rather Providence - does so much for us poor mortals."
    "But, with your mother's prejudices in favour of rank and birth, and with your father's high destinies, what hope can exist for so humble an individual as myself? How can I dare aspire to the hand of a Princess of a powerful independent state? "
    "Did not Miss Eliza Sydney espouse the Grand Duke of Castelcicala? and she - she also —"
    "Oh! I remember," exclaimed Markham, seeing that Isabella hesitated,- "I remember that she also [-349-] was unfortunate, as I was; and she also endured a weary imprisonment of two years. Yes - I accept the omen - it is an auspicious one!"
    And Richard's handsome countenance was once more animated with a glow of hope and joy.
    Then, in an access of enthusiasm, he exclaimed: 
    "Oh! if ever this fond aspiration should be realised, - if ever the humble and obscure Englishman were united to the high-born and brilliant Italian Princess, how sweet - how sweet would it be for him to owe rank and fortune to the woman whom he loved so fondly, and whom he would ever love until the hand of Death should beckon him to the tomb! For myself, I pant not for the honours and glories of this life; for hadst thou, Isabella, been the daughter of the lowest peasants. I had loved thee all the same - and had been far, far more contented, because the obstacles which now oppose our happiness might then have ceased to exist!"
    "Believe me, Richard," answered Isabella, in a tone of witching tenderness, "believe me, that the happiest day of my life will be that when I can prove to you the extent of that affection with which you have inspired me; - and, again I repeat, that if ever I rejoiced in the prospect of that fortune which, whether my father eventually succeed to the ducal throne or not, he will be enabled to leave me, - and if ever I felt proud of that high station which my family enjoys, or indulged in the hope that my parents may one day attain to sovereign rank, - that joy, that pride, that hope are all experienced on account of you! For, like you, I care not for the grandeur and ostentation of palaces ;- but it will be a thrice happy day for me, when I can say to thee - 'Richard, my fortune is all thine, and thou shalt share my rank!' Because, in Castelcicala, unlike the usages of your native land, he who espouses a Princess becomes a Prince; and, when you shall be thus exalted, Richard, who will dare to remind you of the misfortunes of your past life? That is why I rejoice in my present rank and future prospects, - a joy that is experienced solely on account of you!"
    "Noble-hearted girl! what kindness - what attention  - what devoted love on my part can ever repay thee for these generous feelings - these endearing proofs of the tenderest attachment!"
    "Do you think that I should love you, Richard, as I do," returned Isabella, "if I did not know the generosity of your soul - if I did not appreciate all your virtues? I am well aware that, unfortunately, you are not rich; and yet you sacrificed - nobly sacrificed your property to release my parent from a gaol! Oh! how can I ever forget that conduct of yours? You speak of repaying me for my affection: how much do I not owe to you?"
    There was a pause in the conversation, during which the lovers walked up and down along the edge of the leafless grove, each enjoying reflections of a pleasurable nature.  Isabella leant with charming confidence upon the arm of that handsome and generous-hearted young man, in whose love she gloried as if he were the Prince and she were the obscure individual; and he felt his heart expand with ineffable bliss, as he contemplated the brilliant prospects which that lovely girl - the proudly-born Princess spread before the eyes of him - the obscure individual.
    More than an hour and a half had already passed, and Isabella at length remembered that she must' return home.
    She intimated to her lover the necessity of separating; and, with fond embraces and renewed vows, they parted.
    Richard watched her receding form until she entered the grove of evergreens surrounding her father's mansion: he then retraced his steps towards Richmond.
    And never was his heart so light as now!

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