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[-364-]  

CHAPTER CXVIII.

THE TWO MAIDENS.

ON a fine frosty morning - about ten days after the incidents just related,  -two young ladies were walking together along the road in the immediate vicinity of the dwelling of Count Alteroni (for so we had better continue to call him, until he himself shall choose to throw aside his incognito).
    Did an artist wish to personify the antipodes, - as the ancients did their rivers, mounts, and groves,  - upon his canvass, he could not possibly have selected for his models two maidens between whom there existed so great a physical contrast as that which was afforded to the eye by the young ladies above noticed.
    The one was a brunette, and seemed a child of the sunny south ; the other was as fair as ever daughter of our cold northern clime could be :- the one had the rich red blood mantling beneath a delicate tinge of the purest and most transparent bistre; the other was pale and colourless as the whitest marble :- the generous mind and elevated intellect of the one shone through eyes large, black, and impassioned; the almost infantine candour and artlessness of the other were expressed by means of orbs of azure blue - the glossy raven hair of the one was parted in two rich bands over the high and noble forehead; the flaxen tresses of the other fell in varied waves of pale auburn and gold, beneath the bonnet, over the shoulders :- the form of the one was well-rounded but sylph-like; the symmetry of the other was delicate and slight :- the appearance of the one excited the most ardent admiration tempered with respect; that of the other inspired the most lively interest - the beauty of the one was faultless, brilliant, and dazzling; that of the other, ideal, fascinating, and bewitching :- the one, in fine, was a native of the warm Italian clime ; the other, a daughter of Britain a sea-girt isle.
    A shade of profound melancholy hung upon the countenance of Mary-Anne Gregory. The sprightly - gay - joyous - innocently volatile disposition had changed to sadness and gloom. Those vermilion lips, which until so lately were ever wreathed in smiles, now expressed care and sorrow. The step, though light, was no longer playfully elastic. Time had added but a few months to the sixteen years which marked the age of Mary-Anne when we first introduced her to our readers; but thought, and meditation, and grief had given to the mind the experience of maturity. She was no longer the gay, lively, flitting, bee-like being that she was when Richard Markham became her brothers' tutor: her manner was now painfully tranquil, her air profoundly pensive, her demeanour inconsistently grave when considered in relation to her years.
   It seemed as if there were a canker at the heart of that fair creature; as if the hidden worm were prey log upon the delicate rose-bud ere it expanded into the bloom of maturity!
    And these traits and symptoms were rendered the more apparent by the contrast afforded by the rich health and youthful vigour which characterised the Signora Isabella. The hues of the rose were seen beneath the soft brunette tint of her complexion - for that complexion was clear and transparent as the stream over which the trees throw a shade beneath a summer sun.
    And both those maidens loved: but the passion of the English girl was without hope; while that of the noble Italian lady was nurtured by the fondest aspirations.
    But how came those charming creatures thus acquainted with each other?
    Perhaps their conversation may elucidate this mystery.
    "We have only known each other one short week," said Mary-Anne; "and yet I feel as if you were sent to me by heaven to become my friend and confidant - for, oh! it seems to me as if my soul nourished a secret which consumes it."
    "An accident made us acquainted; and that very circumstance immediately inspired me with a deep interest in your behalf," returned the signora. "There are occasions when two persons become more intimate in a few short days, than they otherwise would in as many years."
    "You echo my own feelings, Signora," said Mary- Anne; "and your goodness makes me desire to deserve and gain your friendship."
    "Your wish is already accomplished, my dear Miss Gregory," observed Isabella. " You have my friendship; and if you think me worthy of your confidence, I can sympathise with your sorrows, even if I cannot remove them."
    "How have you divined that the confidence I would impart is associated with grief?" asked Mary-Anne, hastily.
    "I will tell you, replied the beautiful Italian. "When you were riding on      horseback, accompanied by your father, along this road a week ago, I observed you from my own chamber. Even at that distance, I perceived something about you that immediately inspired me with interest. I followed you with my eyes until you were out of sight: and then I still continued to think of you - wondering, with that idiosyncrasy of thought which often occurs during a leisure half-hour, who you were. At length you returned. You were a few paces in front of your father; and I observed that the horse you rode was a spirited one. Then occurred the accident: the moment you were thrown so rudely off against the very gate of our shrubbery, I precipitated myself down the stairs, and, calling for the servants as I descended, hurried to your assistance. You cannot remember - because you were insensible - that I was the first to reach the spot, where your father had already raised you from the ground. Mr. Gregory was distracted: he thought that you were lost to him for ever. I, however, ascertained in a moment that you still breathed; and I directed the servants to convey you to the house. While you were still stretched in a state of insensibility upon my own bed, I contemplated you with increasing interest. Then, when you awoke at length, and spoke,- and when I conversed with you, - it seemed as if I were irresistibly attracted towards you. I was, indeed, delighted when my father proposed to Mr. Gregory to allow you to remain a few days with us until you [-365-]  should be completely recovered from the effects of your fall. Your father consented, and he left you with us. It was not long before I perceived that you nourished a profound grief ;- I observed the frequent abstraction of your manner - I noticed your pensive mood. I thought within myself, 'Is it possible that one so young and interesting should already be acquainted with sorrow?' From that hour I have felt deeply on your account - for, alas! I myself have known what are the effects of grief!"
    "Signora," said Mary-Anne, with tears in her eyes, "I can never repay you for this kind interest which you manifest towards me. I feel that I should be happier were I to tell you all that grieves me; but I tremble - lest you should think me very foolish, and very indiscreet!"
    "Foolish we may all be at times," said Isabella; "but indiscreet I am convinced you never were."
    "Is it not indiscreet to nurse a sentiment whose hopes can never be realised? Is it not indiscreet," added Mary-Anne, hanging down her head, and speaking in a low tone, "to love one who loves another?"
    "No - not indiscreet," answered Isabella, hastily: "for what mortal has power over the heart?"
    "Signora, love is not then a stranger to your breast!" exclaimed Mary-Anne, glancing with tearful eyes up to the countenance of the Italian lady.
    " I should be unworthy of your confidence, were I to withhold mine," said Isabella. "Yes-  my troth is plighted to one than whom no living soul possesses more generous, more noble feelings: and yet," she added, with a sigh, "there are obstacles in the way of our union - obstacles which, alas! I sometimes think, can never be overcome!"
    "Ah! lady, while I can now feel for you - feel most deeply," said Mary-Anne, " I am, nevertheless, rejoiced that. you have thus honoured me with your confidence. It removes any hesitation - any alarm, on my part, to unburden my soul to you!"
    "Speak, my dear Mary-Anne," returned Isabella: "you will at least be certain to receive sympathy and consolation from me."
    "I shall then reveal my sentiments unreservedly," continued Mary-Anne. "I have before mentioned to you that I have two brothers, who are now at college. A few months ago, they were preparing for their collegiate course of study, and were residing at home in Kentish Town. My father obtained for them the assistance of a tutor-a young gentleman who had once been wealthy, but who had been reduced to comparative poverty. Oh! it was impossible to see that young man without feeling an interest in him. When I first heard that a tutor was engaged for my brothers, I immediately pictured to myself a confirmed pedagogue - shabby, dirty, dogmatic, and ugly. How greatly then was I astonished, when I was introduced to an elegant and handsome young man, of polished manners, agreeable conversation, entirely unassuming, courteous, and affable? There was a partial air of melancholy about him ; but his eyes were lighted with the fire of intellect, and his noble forehead seemed to be adorned with that unartificial crown of aristocracy which nature, bestows upon her elect. Alas! woe to me was the day when that young man first entered my father's dwelling. The interest I felt for him soon augmented to a degree, that I was miserable when he was away. But, when he was present, oh! then my heart seemed to bound within me likes fawn upon the hills; and my happiness was of the most ravishing description - I was gay. frolicksome, and playful: no laugh of a child was so hearty, so sincere as mine! His voice was music to my ears! He taught me drawing; but I was too happy to sit still for many minutes together - too happy to sit next to him ! And yet I did not understand my own feelings: in fact, I never stopped to analyse them. I was carried along by a whirlwind that left me no leisure for self-examination. When he was absent, my only thought was upon what he had said when present, and how happy I should be when he came once more. I had no more idea of the true nature of the sentiment that animated my soul, than I have at this instant of what constitutes the happiness of heaven. I knew that I felt happy when he was there: I know that those feel happy who dwell above ;- but I was as ignorant then of what formed my felicity, as I now am of the bliss experienced by those who inhabit the Almighty's kingdom. Thus a few weeks passed away; and then my father announced his intention of allowing a holiday for a short period. I remember - as well as if it were an event of yesterday - that this arrangement caused me serious displeasure; because I understood that our tutor would cease to visit us during the suspension of the studies. I expressed my annoyance in plain terms; but this ebullition on my part was most probably considered a specimen of girlish caprice, or the airs of a spoiled child. And now, signora - now—"
    "Call me Isabella," said the Italian lady, affectionately.
    "Now, my dear Isabella," proceded Mary-Anne, "I come to that part of my narrative which involves an indiscretion that may appear grave in your eyes - though, God knows, I was at the time entirely ignorant of the imprudence of the step which I was taking."
    "I am prepared to allow every extenuation for one so young, so artless, and so inexperienced as yourself," observed Isabella.
    "Ah! how kind you are," returned Mary-Anne, pressing her companion's hand. "But let me not hesitate to reveal the indiscretion into which I was hurried by feelings of a new and powerful nature. I called upon the young tutor at his own residence! And then, how nobly did he behave! how generously did he act! He explained to me - by degrees, and in the most delicate manner possible - the impropriety of the step which I had taken: he gave me an insight into those rules of feminine propriety, a breach of which can scarcely be extenuated by the plea of guilelessness ;- in a word, he opened my eyes to the position in which I had placed myself! But, alas! what did I learn at the same time? He told me that he was attached to a young lady, who was very beautiful. It then struck me, with lightning rapidity, that I had no right to offer my friendship (for still I did not dream of love) to one on whom another heart had claims; and I left him with a sincere apology for my conduct."
    "I admit that your indiscretion was great," said the pure-minded Isabella; "but no one possessing a generous heart could hesitate to sympathise with you, rather than blame."
    "For days and days," continued Mary-Anne. I struggled with my feelings. I still believed that all I experienced towards the object of my interest was friendship. But when he resumed his attendance, I found that it was impossible to conquer the sentiments which agitated my bosom. God knows - God knows, Isabella, how I reasoned with myself upon the state of mind in which I existed! I prayed to heaven to relieve me from the doubts, the anxieties, the uneasiness, which constantly op- [-366-]pressed me, by restoring me to that state of perfect happiness which was mine ere I knew that being who, in spite of himself, exercised so powerful an influence over me. At length my father sent me suddenly, and without a day's warning, to pass a week with some particular friends at Twickenham. I was at first inclined to remonstrate with him at this proceeding; and then it struck me that it would be well if I were to cease to exist under the spell which the frequent presence of the tutor at the house seemed to throw around me."
    "And all this time you were still unaware of the true nature of the feelings which animated you?" inquired Isabella.
    "Oh! yes - I was indeed," answered Mary-Anne: "but a fearful occurrence was speedily destined to open my eyes! I remained a few days with my kind friends at Twickenham, and then returned home. I there learnt that the tutor had ceased to attend at the house, as my brothers were to proceed, at the commencement of January, to college. I know not whether my father had some motive for the conduct which he thus pursued, in abruptly dismissing the tutor and sending me away while he adopted that step; nor can I say whether any particular reason prompted him to do all that he could to amuse my mind on my return home. It is, nevertheless, certain that he exerted himself to provide amusements for me : he purchased two horses, and accompanied me in frequent equestrian exercises; he took me to concerts and the theatres; and supplied me with entertaining books of travel and adventure, music, and pictures. But my mind was intent only upon one absorbing idea; nor could it be weaned from that feeling which it nursed in favour of the young tutor. I, however, acceded to all my father's plans of diversion; and it was one evening at the theatre that the veil fell from my eyes! I accompanied my father to witness a new drama. The action of the piece was deeply interesting; the poetry was of a nature to touch the inmost soul. There was a passage in which the heroine described her hopeless love : I listened - I drank in every word - I hung upon each syllable of that fine speech as if my own destiny were intimately linked with the scene enacting before me. As she proceeded, I was painfully surprised by the similitude existing between the feelings that she described and that I felt. At length a light dawned in upon my soul ;- then did I begin to comprehend the real nature of the sentiments that filled my own soul ;- then could I read my own heart! I perceived that I loved tenderly, deeply, unalterably! I heard no more of the drama - I saw nothing more of its progress: I sate absorbed in deep reflection upon the conviction that had so suddenly reached me. When I awoke from my reverie, the tragedy —"
    "A tragedy?" said Isabella, hastily.
    "Yes - the tragedy was finished, and the author, holding the hand of the heroine of his piece, stood before the public. Merciful heavens! the great tragic writer who had thus suddenly burst upon the world, was no other than the young tutor!"
    "The tutor!" exclaimed Isabella, a strange suspicion suddenly entering her mind.
    "Yes - he whom I had just discovered that I loved," answered Mary-Anne.
    "May I inquire his name?" said Isabella, in a tremulous tone, and with a palpitating heart.
    "There can be no indiscretion in revealing it," returned Miss Gregory; "for it is not probable that you have ever heard of Mr. Richard Markham."
    "Unhappy girl!" exclaimed Isabella, in a tone of deep sympathy - but without the least feeling of jealousy; "it is now my duty to return your confidence with a reciprocal frankness. But, alas! what I am about to say cannot tend to soothe your sorrows, since - as I fondly believe - it will only confirm you in the impression that the affections of him whom you love are fixed elsewhere."
    "You speak mysteriously, Isabella," said Mary-Anne: "pray, explain yourself."
    "I will - and without reserve," continued the signora, a blush mantling upon her beauteous countenance. "So far from Mr. Richard Markham being a stranger to me, Mary-Anne, he is—"
    "He is—" repeated Miss Gregory, mechanically.
    "He is the hope of my happiness - the one to whom my vow of constancy and love is pledged —"
    "You the object of his attachment! " ejaculated Mary-Anne, clinging to Isabella for support: "Oh! forgive me - forgive me, that I have dared to love him also!"
    "Alas! dear girl, I have nothing to forgive," said Isabella, affectionately: "I deeply - deeply compassionate your lot. And, oh! believe me," continued the generous Italian Princess,- "believe me when I say that no feeling of petty jealousy - no sentiment unworthy the honourable affection which I bear towards Richard Markham - can ever impair the friendship that has commenced, and shall continue, between you and me!"
    "Oh! how noble is your disposition, Isabella!" exclaimed Mary-Anne. "But your generous assurance shall not meet with an ungrateful return. So  far from feeling jealous of you,- envious I must be, to some extent, - I offer you the most sincere congratulations on your engagement to one who in so well worthy of your love - in spite of what the world may say against him ;- for that he could be guilty of the deed of which that horrible man accused him —"
    "He is not guilty," answered Isabella, firmly. "The story is a long one; but I will tell thee all."
    The signora then related to her companion the narrative of the misfortunes and sufferings of Richard Markham. 
    Mary-Anne listened with profound attention, and, when Isabella terminated her history, exclaimed, "Oh! I knew that he was all of honourable, great, and generous, that human nature could be!"
    A profound silence then ensued between the two young ladies, and lasted for some minutes.
    At length it was broken by Mary-Anne.
    "Oh! well might he have said," she exclaimed. in a sudden ebullition of feeling, as she gazed upon the countenance of the Signora,- "well might he have said that his heart was devoted to a lady who was very beautiful! And he might also have observed, as good as she was lovely!"
    "Nay - you must not flatter me," returned Isabella.
    "You need not hesitate to hear the truth from my lips," said Mary-Anne. "God grant that I may live to see you happily united: I shall then die in peace."
    "It is wrong to talk of dying at your age," observed Isabella. "Time will mitigate that passion which has made you unhappy —"
    "Oh! Isabella, do you believe that true and sincere love can ever succumb to time?" exclaimed Mary-Anne, almost reproachfully.
    "Time cannot extinguish it; but time may soften its pangs," said the Italian lady, desirous to console her unfortunate friend.
    [-367-] "But time will only ripen, and not eradicate the canker which gnaws at the heart," persisted Miss Gregory; "and mine," she added with a mournful pathos of tone that showed how deeply she felt the truth of what she said,-  "mine has received a wound whose effects may be comparatively slow, but which is not the less mortal. A few years, perhaps, and my earthly career must end. I shall wither like the early flowers, that peep forth prematurely to greet a deceptive gleam of sunshine which they mistake for spring :-I shall pass away at that age when my contemporaries are in the full enjoyment of life, vigour, and happiness! Yes  - I feel it here - here;" - and she pressed her hand upon her heart.
    "No, my dear friend," said Isabella, affected even to tears; "your prospect is not so gloomy as you would depict it. There is one star that burns in the same heaven which is above us all ;- and that star is Hope."
    "Hope!" ejaculated Mary-Anne, bitterly- "ah! where does hope exist for me? Is not hope extinguished in my heart for ever?"
    "In the one sense, hope is dead," answered Isabella, mildly; "but hope beams not only in one sphere. The attentions of your friends - the kindness of your relations, will combine to cheer your path; and surely this conviction must be allied to hopes of tranquillity, peace, and even happiness! Consider, Mary-Anne - you have a father who is still in the vigour of his years: you will live for him! You have brothers who must soon enter upon their respective careers in the great world: you must live for them! You have friends who are devoted to you: you will live for them also! Oh! do not speak of death with levity : do not seem to invite its presence! We do not live for ourselves only we live for others. To yield to those feelings which facilitate the ravages of sorrow and encourage the in-roads of grief, is to perpetrate a slow suicide. God and man alike require that we should war against our misfortunes!"
    "Alas! I have not that great moral courage which characterises your soul, Isabella," answered Mary-Anne: "I am a weak and fragile plant, that bends to the lightest gale. How, then, can I resist the terrible tempest? "
    "By exerting that fortitude with which every mind is more or less endowed, but which cannot be developed without an effort," answered Isabella.
    Mary-Anne sighed, but gave no answer. The two maidens now felt wearied with the somewhat lengthy walk which they had taken; and they accordingly retraced their steps to the mansion.

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