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[-227-]  

CHAPTER LXXIV.

THE MEETING.

WHEN Isabella retired to her chamber the second time, she hastily put on her bonnet and shawl, and then hurried to the garden at the back of the mansion; for she felt the necessity of fresh air, to cool her burning brow.
    She walked slowly up and down for a few minutes, her mind filled with the most distressing thoughts, when the sounds of voices fell upon her ears. She listened; and the consequential tone of the hussar-captain, alternating with the childish lisp of Sir Cherry Bounce, warned her that the two young coxcombs had also directed their steps towards the garden.
    She felt in no humour to listen to their chattering gossip - wearisome at all times, but intolerable in a moment of mental affliction; still she could not return to the house without encountering them in her way. A thought struck her - the gardener had been at work all the morning; and the back-gate of the enclosure had been left open for his convenience. Perhaps it was not locked again? Thither did she hurry; and, to her joy, the means of egress into the fields were open to her.
    The delicate foot of that beauteous creature of seventeen scarcely made an impression upon the grass, nor even crushed the daisy, so light was her tread! And yet her heart was heavy. Grief sate upon her brow; and her bosom was agitated with sighs.
    She walked onward; and, turning the angle of a grove, was now beyond the view of any one in her father's garden. She relaxed her speed, and moved slowly and mournfully along the outskirts of the grove, vainly endeavouring to conquer the sorrowful ideas that obtruded themselves on her imagination.
    But Woe is an enemy that knows no remorse, gives no quarter, while it retains poor mortal in its grasp; and when its victim is a young and innocent girl, whose heart beats with its first, its virgin love, - that direful enemy augments its pangs in proportion to the tenderness and sensibility of that heart which it thus ruthlessly torments.
    Isabella's reverie was suddenly interrupted by a deep sigh.
    She turned her head; and there, on her left hand [-228-]  - seated upon the trunk of a tree that had been blown down by the late winds,- with his face buried in his hands, was a gentleman apparently absorbed in reflections of no pleasurable nature.
    He sighed deeply, and his lips murmured some words, the sound of which, but not the meaning, met her ears.
    She was about to retrace her steps, when her own name was pronounced by the lips of the person seated on the tree, - and in a tone, too, which she could not mistake.
    "Oh! Isabella, Isabella, thou knowest not how I love thee!"
    An exclamation of surprise - almost of alarm - burst from the lips of the beautiful Italian; and she leant for support against a tree.
    Richard Markham - for it was by his lips that her name had been pronounced-raised his head, and gave vent to a cry of the most wild, the most enthusiastic joy.
    In a moment he was by her side.
    "Isabella!" he exclaimed: "to what good angel am I indebted for this unexpected joy - this unmeasurable happiness?"
    "Oh! Mr. Markham - forgive me if I intruded upon you - but, accident —"
    "Call it not accident, Isabella: it was heaven! -  heaven that prompted me to seek this spot to-day, for the first time since that fatal night —"
    "Ah! that fatal night," repeated the signora, with a shudder.
    Markham dropped the hand which he had taken - which he had pressed for a moment in his: and he retreated a few paces, his entire manner changing as if he were suddenly awakened to a sense of his humiliating condition.
    "Signora," he said, in a low and tremulous tone, "is it possible that you can believe me guilty of the terrible deed which a monster imputed to me?"
    "Oh! no, Mr. Markham," answered the young lady hastily; " I never for an instant imagined so vile - so absurd am accusation to be based upon truth."
    "Thank you, signora - thank you a thousand times for that avowal," exclaimed Richard. "Oh! how have I longed for an opportunity to explain to you all that has hitherto been dark and mysterious relative to myself :- how have I anticipated a moment like this, when I might narrate to you the history of all my sorrows - all my wrongs, and part with you - either bearing away the knowledge of your sympathy to console me, or of your scorn to crush me down into the very dust!"
    "Oh! Mr. Markham, I cannot hear you - I dare not stay another moment here," said Isabella, excessively agitated. "My father's anger —"
    "I will not detain you, signora," interrupted Richard, coldly. "Obey the will of your parents; and if - some day - you should learn the narrative of my sorrows from some accidental source, then - when you hear how cruelly circumstances combined, and how successfully villains leagued to plunge me into an abyss of infamy and disgrace, - then, signora, then reflect upon my prayer to be allowed to justify myself to you to-day - a prayer which obedience to your parents compels you to reject."
    "To me, Mr. Markham, no explanation is necessary," said Isabella, timidly, and with her eyes bent towards the ground so that the long black fringes reposed upon her cheeks.
    "Oh! fool that I was to flatter myself that you would hear me - or to hope that you would listen to aught which I might say to justify myself!" ejaculated Markham. " Pardon me, signora - pardon my presumption; but I judged your heart by mine - I measured your sympathy, your love, by what I feel ;- and I have erred - yes, I have erred; - but you will pardon me! Oh! how could the freed convict dare to hope that the daughter of a noble - a lady of spotless name, and high birth - should for a moment stoop to him? Ah! I indulged in a miserable delusion! And yet how sweet was that dream in my solitary hours! for you must know lady, that I have fed myself with hopes - with wild, insane hopes - until my soul has been comforted, and for a season I have forgotten my wrongs, deep - ineffaceable though they be! I thought to myself - 'There is one being in this cold and cheerless world who will not put faith in all that calumny proclaims against me,- one being who, having read my heart, will know that I have suffered for a deed which I never committed, and from which my soul revolts,- one being who can understand how it is possible for me to have been unfortunate but never criminal,- one being whose sympathy follows me amidst the hatred and scorn of others,-one being, in a word, who would not refuse to hear from my lips a sad history, and who would be prepared to find it filled with sorrows, but not stained with infamy!' - Such were my thoughts - such was my hope-such was my delusive dream: O God! that I had never yielded to so bright a vision! It is now dissipated; and I can well understand, lady - now - that no explanation is indeed necessary!"
    "Mr. Markham," said Isabella, in a voice scarcely audible through deep emotion,- "Mr. Markham - you misunderstand me - I did not mean that I would hear no explanation ;- Oh! very far from that —"
    "But that it would be now useless!" exclaimed Markham, his tone softening, for he saw that the lovely idol of his heart was deeply touched. "You mean, signora, that all explanation would be now too late; that, whether innocent or guilty of the crime for which I suffered two years' cruel imprisonment, I am so surrounded by infamy - my name is so encrusted with odium, and scorn, and disgrace, that to associate with me - to be seen for a moment near me, is a moral contagion - a plague - a pestilence —"
    "Oh! spare me - spare me these reproaches," cried Isabella, now weeping bitterly; "for reproaches they are - and most unjust ones, too!"
    "Unjust ones!" exclaimed Richard; "what mean you, signora?"
    "That by me at least they are undeserved, Mr. Markham," returned the lovely girl.
    "How undeserved? how unjust?" said Richard, eagerly catching at the first straw which presented itself upon the ocean that had wrecked all his hopes; "did you not say that no explanation was now necessary?"
    "Nor was it ever," answered Isabella, whose voice was almost entirely subdued by her emotions; "for I never -never believed the accusations which you seek to explain away!"
    "My God! do I hear aright? or am I again the sport of a delusive vision?" cried Richard; then, advancing towards Isabella, he took her hand, and said, "Signora, repeat what you ere now averred, that I may believe my own ears! You believe that I was the victim of villains, and not a vile - degraded - base criminal?"
    "Such has been, and ever would have been my belief - even without a proof," replied Isabella.
    "A proof!" ejaculated Markham: "what mean you?"
    [-229-] "The confession of one of the wretches who wronged you - the narrative of the man named Talbot!" answered the Italian, casting a glance of sympathy - of tender sympathy - upon her lover.
    "And now, O God, I thank thee!" said Markham, his eyes filling with tears, and his heart a prey to feelings of an indescribable nature: "O God, I thank thee - how sincerely, devoutly I thank thee, thou well knowest, for thou canst read the secrets of my soul! And you, Isabella - dearest Isabella - Oh! can you forgive me, that I dared for a moment to suspect your generous soul - that I doubted your noble disposition?"
    "Forgive you, Richard!" exclaimed the charming girl, smiling through her tears: "Oh! how can you ask me?"
    "And thus, my Isabella, you know all!"
    "I know all - how deeply you were wronged, how fearfully you have suffered."
    "Isabella, you are an angel!" cried Markham, rapturously.
    "Nay - do not flatter me," said the signora. "I have but obeyed the dictates of my own convictions - and —"
    "Speak, Isabella-speak!"
    "And of my own heart," she added, casting down her eyes, and blushing. "You left the confession of that Talbot behind you - on the fatal night —"
    "Oh! I remember now; and since then, how often have I deplored its loss."
    "My own maid found it, and gave it to me on the following morning. Since then, I have read it very - very often! " said Isabella. " But now - I will return it to you - I will find some opportunity to forward it you."
    "Not for worlds, Isabella!" cried Markham. "If you still love me - if you still deem me worthy of your regard - keep it, keep it as a pledge that you believe me to be innocent!"
    "Yes, Richard, I will keep it - keep it for you," said Isabella. " But do not think that your cause is without advocates at our abode. My mother believes that you were wronged, and not guilty —"
    "Oh, Isabella! then there is yet hope!"
    "But my father -my father," continued the signora, mournfully; "he will not hear our arguments in your favour. It was only an hour ago that my mother and myself reasoned with him upon the subject; but, alas! he - who is so good and so just in all other respects,- he is obdurate and inexorable in this!"
    "Time, sweetest girl, will do much; and now my soul is filled with hope! Oh! how I rejoice that accident should have thrown in your way the very proof that confirmed the opinion which your goodness suggested in my favour."
    "And not that proof alone," said Isabella; "for even this very morning, a circumstance confirmed the assertion, that the two men who were associated with Talbot in making you the blind instrument of their infamous schemes, are characters of the very worst description. Captain Dapper and his young friend were plundered by Sir Rupert Harborough sad Mr. Chichester last evening at a gambling- house."
    "Oh! there is no enormity of which those villains are not capable!" said Markham.
    "But while I speak of Captain Dapper," observed Isabella, suddenly assuming an air of restraint and embarrassment, "I am reminded of another piece of information which he gave me, and which nearly concerns yourself."
    "Concerns me, Isabella! What can it be?"
    "Nay - I know not whether it would be discreet - indeed, I am confident that —"
    "Speak, Isabella - speak unreservedly. Do you wish any explanation from me? have you heard any further aspersions upon my character? Speak, Isabella - speak: your own noble confidence merits an equally unreserved frankness on my part."
    "No, Richard - dear Richard," said the lovely Italian, in a bewitching tone of tenderness; "I was wrong - very wrong to allude to so idle, so silly an assertion;- and yet - and yet it grieved me - deeply at the moment."
    "My dearest Isabella, I implore you to speak. Let there he no secrets between you and me."
    "No - Richard - I will not insult you —"
    "Insult me, Isabella? Impossible!"
    "Yes - insult you with a suspicion —"
    "Ah! some falsehood of that Captain Dapper," exclaimed Markham. "Pray give me an opportunity of explaining away any impression —"
    "Oh! no impression, Richard ;- only a moment's uneasiness ;- and, if you will compel me to tell you - even at the risk of appearing a jealous, suspicious creature in your eyes —"
    "Ah, Isabella, if it be nothing but jealousy," said Richard, with a smile of satisfaction, " I am well pleased ; for there would not be jealousy without love; and thus, the former is a proof of the latter."
    "Then, Captain Dapper observed that he was riding near your abode the other day; and he saw a young and very beautiful lady in your garden —"
    "And he said truly, Isabella," interrupted Markham: "he, no doubt, saw Miss Monroe, who, with her venerable father, is residing at my house - through charity, Isabella - through charity! No tongue can tell the miseries which those poor creatures had endured, until I forced them to come and take up their abode with me. Mr. Monroe was my guardian - and by his speculations did I lose my fortune;- but never have I borne him ill-will - and now —"
    "Say no more, Richard," exclaimed Isabella: "you have a noble heart - and never, never will I mistrust it!"
    "And you love me, Isabella? and you will ever love me? and you will never be another's?"
    "Do you require oaths, and vows, and protestations, Richard?" said the young lady, tenderly: "if so, you shall have them. But my own feelings - my own sentiments are the best guarantee of my actions towards you!"
    "Oh! I believe you - dearest, dearest Isabella!" cried the young man, enthusiastically, his handsome countenance irradiated with a glow of animation which set off his proud style of male beauty to its fullest extent; " I believe you; and you have rendered me supremely happy, for you have taught me to have confidence in myself - you have led me to believe that I am worthy of even such an angel as you! Oh! dearest Isabella, you know not how sweet it is to be beloved by a pure and virgin heart like yours! If my wrongs - my injuries - my sufferings - have taught thee to feel one particle of sympathy the more for me, then am I proud of the sad destinies that have so touched that tender heart of thine! But say, Isabella - say, when shall we meet again?"
    "Richard," answered the' Italian lady, "you. know how sincerely - how fondly I love you; you know that you - and you alone shall ever accompany me to the altar. But, never - never, dear Richard, can I so far neglect my duty to my father, as to consent [-230-] to a clandestine meeting. And you, Richard - you possess a soul too noble, and too good, to urge me to do that which would be wrong. The woman who has been a disobedient daughter, may be a disobedient wife;  and much as I love you, Richard - much as I dote upon every word that falls from your lips - much as I confide in your own affection for me, I cannot - I dare not - will not diminish myself in my own opinion, nor stand the chance of incurring a suspicion of levity in yours, by a course which is contrary to filial duty. No, Richard - do not ask me to meet you again. Something tells me that all will yet be well: we are young - we can hope ;-  and God - that God in whom we both trust - will not forget us!"
    "Now, Isabella - now," exclaimed Richard, "I comprehend all that is great and noble in your disposition. Yes - it shall be as you say, my ever dear Isabella ; and the mental contemplation of your virtue will teach me to appreciate the love of such a heart as yours."
    "We must now separate, dear Richard," said Isabella: "I have already remained too long away from home! But one word ere you depart :- that miscreant who made so fearful an accusation against you on the fatal night when you left my father's dwelling —"
    "He is no more, Isabella," answered Markham : "at least I have every reason to believe that when the police, instructed by me, discovered his dwelling, three months ago, the villain terminated his existence in a manner that corresponded well with the whole tenour of his life. The den of infamy which he inhabited, was blown up with gunpowder, the moment after the officers of justice entered it; and there can be no doubt that he, together with one of his accomplices, perished in the ruin that was produced by his own hand. Several constables met their death at the same time; and, according to information gathered from the neighbours, an old woman - believed to be the miscreant's mother - was also in the house at the time of the explosion."
    "How fearful are the ways of crime!" said Isabella, with a shudder. "May God grant that in future you will have no enemies to cross your path! And now, farewell, Richard - farewell. We shall meet again soon - Providence will not desert us!"
    Richard pressed ha lips to those of that charming girl, and bade her adieu.
    She tore herself - how reluctantly! - away from him, and hastily retraced her steps towards the mansion.
    But ere she passed the angle of the grove, she turned and waved her handkerchief to her lover.
    The young man kissed his hand fondly to the idol of his heart: and in another moment Isabella was out of sight.
    That one half-hour of bliss, which Richard had thus passed with the Italian lady, was a reward for weeks - months - years of anguish and of sorrow!

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