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[-42-]

CHAPTER CLII.

    THE DEATH BED.

    EARLY on the morning which succeeded the arrest of Katherine Wilmot, Mr. Gregory paid a visit to Markham Place.
    The moment he entered the room where Richard received him, our hero observed that some deep affliction weighed upon the mind of his friend.
    "Mr. Markham," said the latter, in a tone of profound anguish, "I am come to ask you a favour  and you will not refuse the last request of a dying girl."
    "My dear sir  what do you mean?" exclaimed Richard, "Surely your daughter  "
    "Mary-Anne will not long remain in this world of trouble," interrupted Mr. Gregory, solemnly. "Hers will soon be the common lot of mortals  perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow! She must die soon  God will change her countenance and take her unto himself. Oh! where shall I find consolation?"
    "Consolation is to be found in the conviction that the earth is no abiding place," answered Markham; "and that there is a world beyond."
    "Yes, truly," said the afflicted father. "We stand upon the border of an ocean which has but one shore, and whose hearings beyond are infinite and eternal."
    There was a pause, during which Mr. Gregory was wrapped up in painful reflections.
    "Come," said he, at length breaking that solemn silence, and taking Richard's hand; "you will not refuse to go with me to the death-chamber of my daughter! You will not offend against the delicacy of that devotion which you owe to another; for she herself is also there." [-43-]
    Richard gazed at Mr. Gregory in astonishment so he uttered these words.
    "Yes, my young friend," continued the wretched father; "within the last four and twenty hours, Mary-Anne and I have had many explanations. By a strange coincidence, it was at the abode of Count Alteroni that Mary-Anne passed a few days at the commencement of last month, and to which visit I alluded the last time I saw you, but without particularising names. I did not then know that you were even acquainted with the Alteroni family  much less could I suspect that your affections were fixed upon the Lady Isabella."
    "And your daughter and Isabella are acquainted?" ejaculated Markham, more and more surprised at what he heard.
    "They are friends  and at this moment the Lady Isabella is by the bed-side of Mary-Anne. It seems that the young maidens made confidants of each other, during my daughter's visit to the Count's mansion; and they then discovered that they both loved the same individual."
    "How strange that they should have thus met!" cried Markham.
    "Then was it," continued Mr. Gregory, "that my daughter learnt how hopeless was her own passion! Oh! I need not wonder if she returned home heart-broken and dying! But your Isabella, Richard, is an angel of goodness, virtue, and beauty!"
    "She is worthy of the loftiest destinies!" said Markham enthusiastically.
    "She was present when my daughter poured forth her soul into my bosom," resumed Mr. Gregory; "and Mary-Anne was guilty of no breach of confidence in revealing to me the love which existed between the Signora and yourself. And Isabella, with the most becoming modesty, confirmed the truth of Mary-Anne's recital. But your secret, Mr. Markham, remains locked up in my breast. You are too honourable and the Lady Isabella is too pure-minded to act in opposition to the will of her father: but God grant that events may prove favourable to you, and that you may be happily united!"
    Richard pressed the hand of his respected friend in token of gratitude for this kind wish.
    "And now you cannot hesitate to take a last farewell of my daughter," said Mr. Gregory; "for all danger of contagion from her malady has passed."
    Markham instantly prepared himself to accompany the unhappy parent.  Few were the words that passed between them as they proceeded to the dwelling which was the abode of sorrow.
    On their arrival Markham was shown into the drawing-room for a short time; and then the nurse came to introduce him into the sick-chamber.
    The room was nearly dark; the curtains of the bed were close drawn; and thus the dying girl was completely concealed from our hero.
    But near the foot of the bed was standing a beauteous form, whose symmetrical shape Markham could not fall to recognise.
    Isabella extended her hand towards him: he pressed it in silence to his lips.
    Mary-Anne had heard his footsteps; and she also gave him her hand between the folds of the curtains.
    "Sit down by the bed-side, Richard," whispered Isabella: "our poor friend is anxious to speak to you."
    And Isabella wept  and Richard also wept; for those noble-minded beings could not know, without the liveliest emotion, that one so sweet, so innocent, and so youthful, was stretched upon the bed from which she was destined never to rise again.
    Markham seated himself by the side of the bed; and Isabella was about to withdraw.
    "Stay with us, my dear friend," said Mary-Anne, in a plaintive but silver tone of voice, which touched a chord of sympathy that vibrated to their very souls.
    Alas! that dulcet voice could not move the tuneless ear of Death!
    Isabella obeyed her friend's wish in silence.
    "This is kind of you  very kind," continued Mary-Anne, after a brief pause, and now evidently addressing herself to Richard. "I longed to speak to you once again before I left this earthly scene for ever; and that angel who loves you, and whom you love, earnestly implored my father to procure for me that last consolation. And now that you are both here together  you and that angel, by my bed-side,  I may be allowed to tell you, Richard, how fondly  how devotedly I have loved you; and I know you to be the noble, the enduring, the patient, the high-minded, and the honourable being I always believed you to be. Oh! how rejoiced I am that you have not loved me in return; for I should not like to die and leave behind me one who had loved me as tenderly as I had loved him."
    "You will not die  you will recover!" exclaimed Markham, deeply affected, while Isabella's ill-suppressed sobs fell upon his ears. "Yes  yes  you will recover, to bless your father and brothers, and to make us, who are your friends, happy! It is impossible that Death can covet one so young, so innocent, and so beautiful  "
    "Beautiful!" cried Mary-Anne, with a bitterness of accent which surprised our hero, and which served to elicit a fresh burst of sorrow from the sympathising bosom of Isabella: "beautiful  no, not now!"
    Then there was another solemn pause.
    "Yes  I shall die; but you will be happy," resumed Mary-Anne, again breaking silence. "Something assures me that providence will not blight the love which exists between Isabella and yourself  as it has seen fit to blight mine! Such is my presentiment; and the presentiments of the dying are often strangely prophetic of the future truth. Oh!" continued the young maiden, in a tone of excitement, "brilliant destinies await you, Richard! All your enduring patience, your resignation under the oppression of foul wrong, will meet with a glorious reward. Yes  for I know all:  that angel Isabella has kept no secret from me. She is a Princess, Richard; and by your union with her, you yourself. will become one of the greatest Princes in Europe! Her father, too, shall succeed to his just rights; and then, Richard, then  " she said, with a sort of, holy enthusiasm and sybilline fervour,  "then how small will be the distance between yourself and the Castelcicalan throne!"
    At that solemn moment, Isabella extended her hand towards Richard, who pressed hers tenderly; and the lovers thus acknowledged the impression which had been wrought and the happy augury [-44-] which was conveyed by the fervent language of the dying girl.
    "Oh! do not think my words are of vain import," Continued Mary-Anne, in the same tone of inspiration. "I speak not of my own accord  something within me dictates all I now say! Yes  you shall be happy with each other; all obstacles shall vanish from the paths of your felicity and when, in your sovereign palace of Montoni, you shall in future years retrospect over all you have seen and all you have passed through, forget not the dying girl who predicted for you all the happiness which you will then enjoy!"
    "Forget you!" exclaimed Richard and Isabella in the same breath; "never  never!"
    And the tears streamed down their cheeks.
    "No  never forget me," said Mary-Anne; "for if it be allowed to the spirits of the departed to hover round the dwellings of those whom they loved and have left in this world, then will I be as a guardian angel unto you  and I shall contemplate your happiness with joy!"
    "Oh! speak not thus surely of approaching death," exclaimed Richard. "Who knows that your eyes may not again behold the light!"
    "My eyes!" repeated the invalid, with an evident shudder. "But for what could I live?" demanded the young maiden: "what attractions could life now offer to me?"
    "You are young," returned Markham: "and hope and youth are inseparable. You can mingle with society,  you can appear in the great world  a world that will be proud of you  "
    "Oh! Richard, Richard," murmured the soft tones of Isabella; "you know not what you say!"
    At the same time that the Signora thus spoke in a low whisper, deep and convulsive sobs emanated from behind the curtains.
    "Pardon me, Mary-Anne," said Richard, not comprehending the meaning of Isabella's words; "I have probably touched a chord  "
    "Oh! I do not blame you," said Miss Gregory; "but my father ought to have told you all!"
    "All!" echoed Richard. "What fresh misfortune could he have communicated?"
    "Did he not tell you that I had been attacked with a grievous malady? that  "
    "I remember! He spoke of a dangerous malady which had assailed you; and he remarked that all fear of contagion was now past. But I was so occupied at the time with the afflicting intelligence of your severe illness  so surprised, too, when I learnt that Isabella was here with you,  that I paid but little attention to that observation."
    "Alas!" said Mary-Anne, in a faint and deeply-melancholy tone, "I have been assailed by a horrible malady  a malady which leaves its fatal marks behind, as if the countenance had been seared with red-hot iron  which disfigures the lineaments of the human face  eats into the flesh  and  and  "
    "The small-pox!" cried Markham with a shudder.
    "The small-pox," repeated Mary-Anne. "But you need not be alarmed: all danger of infection or contagion is now past  or I should not have sent to Isabella to come to me yesterday."
    "I am not afraid," answered our hero: "I shuddered on your account. And even if there were any danger," he added, "I should not fly from it, if my presence be a consolation to you."
    "You now understand," said the dying girl, "the reason why I could not hope for happiness in this world, even if I were to recover from my present illness,  and why death will be preferable to existence in a state of sorrow. How could I grope about in darkness, where I have been accustomed to feast my eyes with the beauties of nature and the wonderful fabrics raised by men? How could I consent to linger on in blindness in a world where there is so much to admire?"
    "Blindness!" echoed our hero: "impossible! You cannot mean what you say!"
    "Alas! it were a folly to jest upon one's death bed," returned the young lady, with a deep sigh. "What I said ere now was the truth. The malady made giant strides to hurry me to the tomb: never had the physicians before known its ravages to proceed with such frightful celerity. It has left its traces upon my countenance  and it has deprived me of the blessing of sight. Oh! now I am hideous  a monster,  I know, I feel that I am,  revolting, disgusting," continued Mary-Anne, bitterly; "and not for worlds would I allow you to behold the face which once possessed some attraction."
    "The marks left by the scourge that has visited you will gradually become less apparent," said Richard, deeply afflicted by the tone, the manner and the communications of the invalid; "and probably the eye-lids are but closed for a time, and can be opened again by the skill of a surgeon."
    "Never  never!" cried Mary-Anne, convulsively; and, taking Richard's hand, she carried it to her countenance.
    She placed his fingers upon her closed eye-lids.
    He touched them; they yielded to his pressure.
    The sockets of the eyes were empty.
    The eye-balls were gone!
    "Oh! wherefore art thou thus afflicted  thou who art so guiltless, so pure, so innocent?' exclaimed our hero, unable to contain his emotions.
    "Question not the will of the deity," said Mary-Anne. "I am resigned to die; and if, at times, a regret in favour of the world I am leaving enters my mind, or is made apparent in my language, I pray the Almighty to pardon me those transient repinings. Of the past it is useless now to think  the present is here;  and the future is an awful subject for contemplation. But upon that I must now fix my attention!"
    Markham made no answer; and during the long silence which ensued, the dying girl was wrapt up in mental devotion.
    At length she said, "Give me your hand, Richard  and yours, Isabella."
    Her voice had now lost all its excitement; and her utterance was slow and languid.
    The lovers obeyed her desire.
    Mary-Anne placed their hands together, and said, "Be faithful to each other  and be happy."
    Richard and Isabella both wept plentifully.
    "Adieu, my kind  my dear friends," murmured Mary-Anne. "You must now leave me; and let my father come to receive the last wishes of his daughter."
    "Adieu, dearest Mary-Anne: we shall meet in heaven!" said Isabella, in a tone expressive of deep emotion.
    We will never  never forget you," added Richard. [-45-]
    He then led the weeping Isabella from the apartment.
    As they issued from the chamber of death, they met Mr. Gregory in the passage: he wrung their hands, and said, " Wait in the drawing-room until I come."
    The unhappy parent then repaired to the deathbed of his daughter.
    Markham and Isabella proceeded in silence to the drawing-room.   

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