"Pray thou for me, my Nigel," whispered the trembling girl, as he clasped her in his arms, "that true as I may be, strength befitting thy promised bride may be mine own. Nigel, my beloved, indeed I need such prayer."
He whispered hope and comfort, and departed by the stone stairs which led from the gothic casement where they had been sitting, into the garden; he lingered to gather some delicate blue-bells which had just blown, and turned back to place them in the lap of Agnes. She eagerly raised them and pressed them to her lips, but either their fragile blossoms could not bear even her soft touch, or the heavy air had inwardly withered their bloom, for the blossoms fell from their stalks, and scattered their beautiful petals at her feet.
The hour of vespers had come and passed; the organ and choir had hushed their solemn sounds. The abbot and his attendant monks, the king who, with his train, had that evening joined the solemn service, all had departed, and but two inmates were left within the abbey church of Scone. Darkness and silence had assumed their undisturbed dominion, for the waxen tapers left burning on the altar lighted but a few yards round, leaving the nave and cloisters in impenetrable gloom. Some twenty or thirty yards east of the altar, elevated some paces from the ground, in its light and graceful shrine, stood an elegantly sculptured figure of the Virgin and Child. A silver lamp, whose pure flame was fed with aromatic incense, burned within the shrine and shed its soft light on a suit of glittering armor which was hanging on the shaft of a pillar close beside it. Directly behind the altar was a large oriel window of stained glass, representing subjects from Scripture. The window, with its various mullions and lights, formed one high pointed arch, marked by solid stone pillars on each side, the capitals of which traced the commencement of the arch. Another window, similar in character, though somewhat smaller in dimensions, lighted the west end of the church; and near it stood another shrine containing a figure of St. Stephen, lighted as was that of the Virgin and Child, and, like that, gleaming on a suit of armor, and on the figure of the youthful candidate for knighthood, whose task was to pass that night in prayer and vigil beside his armor, unarmed, saved by that panoply of proof which is the Christian's portion—faith, lowliness, and prayer.
No word passed between these pledged brothers in arms. Their watch was in opposite ends of the church, and save the dim, solemn light of the altar, darkness and immeasurable space appeared to stretch between them. Faintly and fitfully the moon had shone through one of the long, narrow windows of the aisles, shedding its cold spectral light for a brief space, then passing into darkness. Heavy masses of clouds sailed slowly in the heavens, dimly discernible through the unpainted panes; the oppression of the atmosphere increasing as the night approached her zenith, and ever and anon a low, long peal of distant thunder, each succeeding one becoming longer and louder than the last, and heralded by the blue flash of vivid lightning, announced the fury of the coming tempest.
The imaginations even as the feelings of the young men were already strongly excited, although their thoughts, perchance, were less akin than might have been expected. The form of his mother passed not from the mental vision of the young heir of Buchan: the tone of her voice, the unwonted tear which had fallen on his cheek when he had knelt before her that evening, ere he had departed to his post, craving her blessing on his vigil, her prayers for him—that tone, that tear, lingered on his memory, hallowing every dream of glory, every warrior hope that entered in his soul. Internally he vowed he would raise the banner of his race, and prove the loyalty, the patriotism, the glowing love of liberty which her counsels, her example had planted in his breast; and if the recollection of his mother's precarious situation as a proscribed traitor to Edward, and of his father's desertion of his country and her patriot king in his adherence to a tyrant—if these reflections came to damp the bright glowing views of others, they did but call the indignant blood to his cheek, and add greater firmness to his impatient step, for yet more powerfully did they awake his indignation against Edward. Till now he had looked upon him exclusively in the light of Scotland's foe—one against whom he with all true Scottish men must raise their swords, or live forever 'neath the brand of slaves and cowards; but now a personal cause of anger added fuel to the fire already burning in his breast. His mother was proscribed—a price set upon her head; and as if to fill the measure of his cup of bitterness to overflowing, his own father, he who should have been her protector, aided and abetted the cruel, pitiless Edward. Traitress! Isabella of Buchan a traitress! the noblest, purest, bravest amid Scotland's children. She who to him had ever seemed all that was pure and good, and noblest in woman; and most noble and patriot-hearted now, in the fulfilment of an office inherent in the House of Fife. Agitated beyond expression, quicker and quicker he strode up and down the precincts marked for his watch, the increasing tempest without seeming to assimilate strangely with the storm within. Silence would have irritated, would have chafed those restless smartings into very agony, but the wild war of the elements, while they roused his young spirit into yet stronger energy, removed its pain.
"It matters not," his train of thought continued, "while this brain can think, this heart can feel, this arm retain its strength, Isabella of Buchan needs no other guardian but her son. It is as if years had left their impress on my heart, as if I had grown in very truth to man, thinking with man's wisdom, fighting with man's strength. He that hath never given a father's love, hath never done a father's duty, hath no claim upon his child; but she, whose untiring devotion, whose faithful love hath watched over me, guarded, blessed from the first hour of my life, instilled within me the principles of life on earth and immortality in heaven—mother! mother! will not thy gentle virtues cling around thy boy, and save him even from a father's curse? Can I do else than devote the life thou gavest, to thee, and render back with my stronger arm, but not less firm soul, the care, protection, love thou hast bestowed on me? Mother, Virgin saint," he continued aloud, flinging himself before the shrine to which we have alluded, "hear, oh hear my prayer! Intercede for me above, that strength, prudence, wisdom may be granted me in the accomplishment of my knightly vows; that my mother, my own mother may be the first and dearest object of my heart: life, fame, and honor I dedicate to her. Spare me, bless me but for her; if danger, imprisonment be unavailingly her doom, let not my spirit waver, nor my strength flag, nor courage nor foresight fail, till she is rescued to liberty and life."
Wrapt in the deep earnest might of prayer, the boy remained kneeling, with clasped hands, and eyes fixed on the Virgin's sculptured face, his spirit inwardly communing, long, long after his impassioned vows had sunk in silence; the thunder yet rolled fearfully, and the blue lightning flashed and played around him with scarce a minute's intermission, but no emotion save that of a son and warrior took possession of his soul. He knew a terrific storm was raging round him, but it drew him not from earthly thoughts and earthly feelings, even while it raised his soul in prayer. Very different was the effect of this lonely vigil and awful night on the imaginative spirit of his companion.
It was not alone the spirit of chivalry which now burned in the noble heart of Nigel Bruce. He was a poet, and the glowing hues of poesie invested every emotion of his mind. He loved deeply, devotedly; and love, pure, faithful, hopeful love, appeared to have increased every feeling, whether of grief of joy, in intensity and depth. He felt too deeply to be free from that peculiar whispering within, known by the world as presentiment, and as such so often scorned and contemned as the mere offspring of weak, superstitious minds, when it is in reality one of those distinguishing marks of the higher, more ethereal temperament of genius.
Perchance it is the lively imagination of such minds, which in the very midst of joy can so vividly portray and realize pain, or it may be, indeed, the mysterious voice which links gifted man with a higher class of beings to whom futurity is revealed. Be this as it may, even while the youthful patriot beheld with, a visioned eye the liberty of his country, and rejoiced in thus beholding, there ever came a dim and silent shadowing, a whispering voice, that he should indeed behold it, but not from earth. When the devoted brother and loyal subject pictured his sovereign in very truth a free and honored King, his throne surrounded by nobles and knights of his own free land, and many others, the enthusiast saw not himself amongst them, and yet he rejoiced in the faith such things would be. When the young and ardent lover sate by the side of his betrothed, gazing on her sweet face, and drinking in deeply the gushing tide of joy; when his spirit pictured yet dearer, lovelier, more assured bliss, when Agnes would be in very truth his own, still did that strange thrilling whisper come, and promise he should indeed experience such bliss, but not on earth; and yet he loved, aye, and rejoiced, and there came not one shadow on his bright, beautiful face, not one sad echo in the rich, deep tones of his melodious voice to betray such dim forebodings had found resting in his soul.
Already excited by his conversation with Agnes, the service in which he found himself engaged was not such as to tranquillize his spirit, or still his full heart's quivering throb. His imaginative soul had already flung its halo over the solemn rites which attended his inauguration as a knight. Even to less enthusiastic spirits there was a glow, a glory in this ceremony which seldom failed to awake the soul, and inspire it with high and noble sentiments. It was not therefore strange that these emotions should in the heart of Nigel Bruce obtain that ascendency, which to sensitive minds must become pain. Had it been a night of calm and holy stillness, he would in all probability have felt its soothing effect; but as it was, every pulse throbbed and every nerve was strained 'neath his strong sense of the sublime. He could not be said to think, although he had struggled long and fiercely to compose his mind for those devotional exercises he deemed most fitted for the hour. Feeling alone possessed him, overwhelming, indefinable; he deemed it admiration, awe, adoration of Him at whose nod the mighty thunders rolled and the destructive lightnings flashed, but he could not define it such. He did not dream of earth, not even the form of Agnes flashed, as was its wont, before him; no, it was of scenes and sounds undreamed of in earth's philosophy he thought; and as he gazed on the impenetrable darkness, and then beheld it dispersed by the repeated lightning, his excited fancy almost believed that he should see it peopled by the spirits of the mighty dead which slept within those walls, and no particle of terror attended this belief. In the weak superstition of his age, Nigel Bruce had never shared, but firmly and steadfastly he believed, even in his calm and unexcited moments, that there was a link between the living and the dead; that the freed spirits of the one were permitted to hold commune with the other, not in visible shape, but in those thrilling whispers which the spirit knows, while yet it would deny them even to itself. It was the very age of superstition; religion itself was clothed in a veil of solemn mystery, which to minds constituted as Nigel's gave it a deeper, more impressive tone. Its ceremonies, its shrines, its fictions, all gave fresh zest to the imagination, and filled the heart of its votary with a species of devotion and excitement, which would now be considered as mere visionary madness, little in accordance with the true spirit of piety or acceptable to the Most High, but which was then regarded as meritorious; and even as we look back upon the saints and heroes of the past, even now should not be condemned; for, according to the light bestowed, so is devotion demanded and accepted by the God of all.
Nigel Bruce had paused in his hasty walk, and leaning against the pillar round which his armor hung, fixed his eyes for a space on the large oriel window we have named, whose outline was but faintly discernible, save on the left side, which was dimly illumined by the silver lamp burning in the shrine of St. Stephen, close beside which the youthful warrior stood. The storm had suddenly sunk into an awful and almost portentous silence; and in that brief interval of stillness and gloom, Nigel felt his blood flow more calmly in his veins, his pulses stilled their starting throbs, and the young soldier crossed his arms on his breast, and bent his uncovered head upon them in silent yet earnest prayer.
The deep, solemn chime of the abbey-bell, echoing like a spirit-voice through the arched and silent church, roused him, and he looked up. At the same moment a strong and awfully brilliant flash of lightning darted through the window on which his eyes were fixed, followed by a mighty peal of thunder, longer and louder than any that had come before. For above a minute that blue flash lingered playing, it seemed, on steel, and a cold shuddering thrill crept through the frame of Nigel Bruce, sending the life-blood from his cheek back to his very heart, for either fancy had again assumed her sway, and more vividly than before, or his wild thoughts had found a shape and semblance. Within the arch formed by the high window stood or seemed to stand a tall and knightly form, clad from the gorget to the heel in polished steel; his head was bare, and long, dark hair shaded a face pale and shadowy indeed, but strikingly and eminently noble; there was a scarf across his breast, and on it Nigel recognized the cognizance of his own line, the crest and motto of the Bruce. It could not have been more than a minute that the blue lightning lingered there, yet to his excited spirit it was long enough to impress indelibly and startlingly every trace of that strange vision upon his heart. The face was turned to his, with a solemn yet sorrowful earnestness of expression, and the mailed hand raised on high, seemed pointing unto heaven. The flash passed and all was darkness, the more dense and impenetrable, from the vivid light which had preceded it; but Nigel stirred not, moved not, his every sense absorbed, not in the weakness of mortal terror, but in one overwhelming sensation of awe, which, while it oppressed the spirit well-nigh to pain, caused it to long with an almost sickening intensity for a longer and clearer view of that which had come and passed with the lightning flash. Again the vivid blaze dispersed the gloom, but no shadow met his fixed impassioned gaze. Vision or reality, the form was gone; there was no trace, no sign of that which had been. For several successive flashes Nigel remained gazing on the spot where the mailed form had stood, as if he felt it would, it must again appear; but as time sped, and he saw but space, the soul relaxed from its high-wrought mood, the blood, which had seemed stagnant in his veins, rushed back tumultuously through its varied channels, and Nigel Bruce prostrated himself before the altar, to wrestle with his perturbed spirit till it found calm in prayer.
A right noble and glorious scene did the great hall of the palace present the morning which followed this eventful night. The king, surrounded by his highest prelates and nobles, mingling indiscriminately with the high-born dames and maidens of his court, all splendidly attired, occupied the upper part of the hall, the rest of which was crowded both by his military followers and many of the good citizens of Scone, who flocked in great numbers to behold the august ceremony of the day. Two immense oaken doors at the south side of the hall were flung open, and through them was discerned the large space forming the palace yard, prepared as a tilting-ground, where the new-made knights were to prove their skill. The storm had given place to a soft breezy morning, the cool freshness of which appearing peculiarly grateful from the oppressiveness of the night; light downy clouds sailed over the blue expanse of heaven, tempering without clouding the brilliant rays of the sun. Every face was clothed with smiles, and the loud shouts which hailed the youthful candidates for knighthood, as they severally entered, told well the feeling with which the patriots of Scotland were regarded.
Some twenty youths received the envied honor at the hand of their sovereign this day, but our limits forbid a minute scrutiny of the bearing of any, however well deserving, save of the two whose vigils have already detained us so long. A yet longer and louder shout proclaimed the appearance of the youngest scion of the house of Bruce, and his companion. The daring patriotism of Isabella of Buchan had enshrined her in every heart, and so disposed all men towards her children, that the name of their traitorous father was forgotten.
Led by their godfathers, Nigel by his brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Seaton, and Alan by the Earl of Lennox, their swords, which had been blessed by the abbot at the altar, slung round their necks, they advanced up the hall. There was a glow on the cheek of the young Alan, in which pride and modesty were mingled; his step at first was unsteady, and his lip was seen to quiver from very bashfulness, as he first glanced round the hall and felt that every eye was turned towards him; but when that glance met his mother's fixed on him, and breathing that might of love which filled her heart, all boyish tremors fled, the calm, staid resolve of manhood took the place of the varying glow upon his cheek, the quivering lip became compressed and firm, and his step faltered not again.
The cheek of Nigel Bruce was pale, but there was firmness in the glance of his bright eye, and a smile unclouded in its joyance on his lip. The frivolous lightness of the courtier, the mad bravado of knight-errantry, which was not uncommon to the times, indeed, were not there. It was the quiet courage of the resolved warrior, the calm of a spirit at peace with itself, shedding its own high feeling and poetic glory over all around him.
On reaching the foot of King Robert's throne, both youths knelt and laid their sheathed swords at his feet. Their armor-bearers then approached, and the ceremony of clothing the candidates in steel commenced; the golden spur was fastened on the left foot of each by his respective godfather, while Athol, Hay, and other nobles advanced to do honor to the youths, by aiding in the ceremony. Nor was it warriors alone.
"Is this permitted, lady?" demanded the king, smiling, as the Countess of Buchan approached the martial group, and, aided by Lennox, fastened the polished cuirass on the form of her son. "Is it permitted for a matron to arm a youthful knight? Is there no maiden to do such inspiring office?"
"Yes, when the knight be one as this, my liege," she answered, in the same tone; "let a matron arm him, good my liege," she added, sadly—"let a mother's hand enwrap his boyish limbs in steel, a mother's blessing mark him thine and Scotland's, that those who watch his bearing in the battle-field may know who sent him there, may thrill his heart with memories of her who stands alone of her ancestral line, that though he bears the name of Comyn, the blood of Fife flows reddest in his veins."
"Arm him and welcome, noble lady," answered the king, and a buzz of approbation ran through the hall; "and may thy noble spirit and dauntless loyalty inspire him; we shall not need a trusty follower while such as he are round us. Yet, in very deed, my youthful knight must have a lady fair for whom he tilts to-day. Come hither, Isoline; thou lookest verily inclined to envy thy sweet friend her office, and nothing loth to have a loyal knight thyself. Come, come, my pretty one, no blushing now. Lennox, guide those tiny hands aright."
Laughing and blushing, Isoline, the daughter of Lady Campbell, a sister of the Bruce, a graceful child of some thirteen summers, advanced, nothing loth, to obey her royal uncle's summons, and an arch smile of real enjoyment irresistibly stole over the countenance of Alan, dispersing the emotion his mother's words produced.
"Nay, tremble not, sweet one," the king continued, in a lower and yet kinder tone, as he turned from the one youth to the other, and observed that Agnes, overpowered by emotion, had scarcely power to perform her part, despite the whispered words of encouraging affection Nigel murmured in her ear. Imaginative to a degree, which, by her quiet, subdued manners, was never suspected, the simple act of those early flowers withering in her grasp, fresh as they were from the hand of her betrothed, had weighed down her spirits as with an indefinable sense of pain, which she could not combat. The war of the elements, attending as it did the vigil of her lover, had not decreased these feelings, and the morning found her dispirited and shrinking in sensitiveness from the very scene she had anticipated with joy.
"It must not be with a trembling hand the betrothed of a Bruce arms her chosen knight, fair Agnes," continued the king, cheeringly. "She must inspire him with valor and confidence. Smile, then, gentlest and loveliest; we would have all smiles to-day."
And she did smile, but it was a smile of tears, gleaming on her beautiful face as a sunny beam through a glistening spray. One by one the cuirass and shoulder-pieces, the greaves and gauntlets, the gorget and brassards, the joints of which were so beautifully burnished that they shone as mirrors, and so flexible every limb had its free use, enveloped those manly forms. Their swords once again girt to their sides, and once more keeling, the king descended from his throne, and alternately dubbed them knight in the name of God, St. Michael, and St. George.
"Be faithful, brave, and hardy, youthful cavaliers," he said; "true to the country which claims ye, to the monarch ye have sworn to serve, to the knight from whose sword ye have received the honor ye have craved. Remember, 'tis not the tournay nor the tilted field in which ye will gain renown. For your country let your swords be drawn; against her foes reap laurels. Sir Nigel, 'tis thine to retain unsullied the name thou bearest, to let the Bruce be glorified in thee. And thou, Sir Alan, 'tis thine to earn a name—in very truth, to win thy golden spurs; to prove we do no unwise deed, forgetting thy early years, to do honor to thy mother's son."
Lightly and eagerly the new-made knights sprung to their feet, the very clang of their glittering armor ringing gratefully and rejoicingly in their ears. Their gallant steeds, barded and richly caparisoned, held by their esquires, stood neighing and pawing at the foot of the steps leading from the oaken doors.
Without touching the stirrup, both sprung at the same instant in their saddles; the helmet, with its long graceful plume, was quickly donned; the lance and shield received; the pennon adorning the iron head of each lowered a moment in honor to their sovereign, then waved gayly in air, and then each lance was laid in rest; a trumpet sounded, and onward darted the fiery youths thrice round the lists, displaying a skill and courage in horsemanship which was hailed with repeated shouts of applause. But on the tournay and the banquet which succeeded the ceremony we have described we may not linger, but pass rapidly on to a later period of the same evening.
Sir Nigel and his beautiful betrothed had withdrawn a while from the glittering scene around them; they had done their part in the graceful dance, and now they sought the comparative solitude and stillness of the flower-gemmed terrace, on which the ball-room opened, to speak unreservedly the thoughts which had filled each heart; perchance there were some yet veiled, for the vision of the preceding night, the strange, incongruous fancies it had engendered in the youthful warrior, a solemn vow had buried deep in his own soul, and not even to Agnes, to whom his heart was wont to be revealed, might such thoughts find words; and she shrunk in timidity from avowing the inquietude of her own simple heart, and thus it was that each, for the sake of the other, spoke hopefully and cheeringly, and gayly, until at length they were but conscious of mutual and devoted love—the darkening mists of the future lost in the radiance of the present sun.
A sudden pause in the inspiring music, the quick advance of all the different groups towards one particular spot, had failed perchance to interrupt the happy converse of the lovers, had not Sir Alan hastily approached them, exclaiming, as he did so—
"For the love of heaven! Nigel, forget Agnes for one moment, and come along with me. A messenger from Pembroke has just arrived, bearing a challenge, or something very like it, to his grace the king; and it may be we shall win our spurs sooner than we looked for this morning. The sight of Sir Henry Seymour makes the war trumpet sound in mine ears. Come, for truly there is something astir."
With Agnes still leaning on his arm, Nigel obeyed the summons of his impatient friend, and joined the group around the king. There was a quiet dignity in the attitude and aspect of Robert Bruce, or it might be the daring patriotism of his enterprise was appreciated by the gallant English knight; certain it was that, though Sir Henry's bearing had been somewhat haughty, his brow knit, and his head still covered, as he passed up the hall, by an irresistible impulse he doffed his helmet as he met the eagle glance of the Bruce, and bowed his head respectfully before him, an example instantly followed by his attendants.
"Sir Henry Seymour is welcome to our court," said the king, courteously; "welcome, whatever message he may bear. How fares it with the chivalric knight and worthy gentleman, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke? Ye bring us a message from him, 'tis said. Needs it a private hearing, sir knight? if so, we are at your service; yet little is it Aymer de Valence can say to Scotland's king which Scotland may not hear."
"Pembroke is well, an please you, and sendeth greeting," replied the knight. "His message, sent as it is to the Bruce, is well fitted for the ears of his followers, therefore may it be spoken here. He sendeth all loving and knightly greeting unto him known until now as Robert Earl of Carrick, and bids him, an he would proclaim and prove the rights he hath assumed, come forth from the narrow precincts of a palace and town, which ill befit a warrior of such high renown, and give him battle in the Park of Methven, near at hand. He challenges him to meet him there, with nobles, knights, and yeomen, who proclaiming Robert Bruce their sovereign, cast down the gauntlet of defiance and rebellion against their rightful king and mine, his grace of England; he challenges thee, sir knight, or earl, or king, whichever name thou bearest, and dares thee to the field."
"And what if we accept not his daring challenge?" demanded King Robert, sternly, without permitting the expression of his countenance to satisfy in any way the many anxious glances fixed upon it.
"He will proclaim thee coward knight and traitor slave," boldly answered Sir Henry. "In camp or in hall, in lady's bower or tented field, he will proclaim thee recreant; one that took upon himself the state and pomp of royalty without the spirit to defend and prove it."
"Had he done so by our predecessor, Baliol, he had done well," returned the king, calmly. "Nobles, and knights, and gentlemen," he added, the lion spirit of his race kindling in his eye and cheek, "what say ye in accepting the bold challenge of this courtly earl? Do we not read your hearts as well as our own? Ye have chafed and fretted that we have retained ye so long inactive: in very truth your monarch's spirit chafed and fretted too. We will do battle with this knightly foe, and give him, in all chivalric and honorable courtesy, the meeting he desires."
One startling and energetic shout burst simultaneously from the warriors around, forming a wild and thrilling response to their sovereign's words. In vain they sought to restrain that outbreak of rejoicing, in respect to the royal presence; they had pined, they had yearned for action, and Sir Henry was too good a knight himself not to understand to the full the patriotic fervor and chivalrous spirit from which that shout had sprung. Proudly and joyfully the Bruce looked on his devoted adherents, and then addressed the English knight.
"Thou hast our answer, good Sir Henry," he said; "more thou couldst scarcely need. Commend us to your master, and take heed thou sayest all that thou hast heard and seen in answer to his challenge. In the Park of Methven, three days hence, he may expect the King of Scotland and his patriot troops with him, to do battle unto death. Edward, good brother, thou, Seaton, and the Lord of Douglas, conduct this worthy knight in all honor from the hall. Thou hast our answer."
The knight bowed low, but ere he retreated he spoke again. "I am charged with yet another matter, an it so please you," he said, evidently studying to avoid all royal titles, although the bearing of the king rendered his task rather more difficult than he could have imagined; "a matter of small import, truly, yet must it be spoken. 'Tis rumored that you have amid your household a child, a boy, whose father was a favored servant of my gracious liege and yours, King Edward. The Earl of Pembroke, in the name of his sovereign and of the child's father, bids me demand him of thee, as having, from his tender years and inexperience, no will nor voice in this matter, he having been brought here by his mother, who, saving your presence, had done better to have remembered her duty to her husband than encourage rebellion against her king."
"Keep to the import of thy message, nor give thy tongue such license, sir," interrupted the Bruce, sternly; and many an eye flashed, and many a hand sought his sword. "Sir Alan of Buchan, stand forth and give thine own answer to this imperative demand; 'tis to thee, methinks, its import would refer. Thou hast wisdom and experience, if not years enough, to answer for thyself.
"Tell Aymer de Valence, would he seek me, he will find me by the side of my sovereign King Robert, in Methven Park, three days hence," boldly and quickly answered the young soldier, stepping forward from his post in the circle, and fronting the knight. "Tell him I am here of my own free will, to acknowledge Robert the Bruce as mine and Scotland's king; to defy the tyrant Edward, even to the death; tell him 'tis no child he seeks, but a knight and soldier, who will meet him on the field."
"It would seem we are under some mistake, young sir," replied Sir Henry, gazing with unfeigned admiration on the well-knit frame and glowing features of the youthful knight. "I speak of and demand the surrender of the son and heir of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, who was represented to me as a child of some ten or thirteen summers; 'tis with him, not with thee, my business treats."
"And 'tis the son—I know not how long heir—of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, who speaks with thee, sir knight. It may well be, my very age, my very existence hath been forgotten by my father," he added, with a fierceness and bitterness little in accordance with his years, "aye, and would have been remembered no more, had not the late events recalled them; yet 'tis even so—and that thy memory prove not treacherous, there lies my gage. Foully and falsely hast thou spoken of Isabella of Buchan, and her honor is dear to her son as is his own. In Methven Park we two shall meet, sir knight, and the child, the puny stripling, who hath of his own nor voice nor will, will not fail thee, be thou sure."
Proudly, almost sternly, the boy fixed his flashing orbs on the English knight, and without removing his glance, strode to the side of his mother and drew her arm within his own. There was something in the accent, in the saddened yet resolute expression of his countenance, which forbade all rejoinder, not from Sir Henry alone, but even from his own friends. Seymour raised the gage, and with a meaning smile secured it in his helmet; then respectfully saluting the group around him, withdrew, attended as desired by the Bruce.
"Heed it not, my boy, my own noble boy!" said the Countess of Buchan, in those low, earnest, musical tones peculiarly her own; for she saw that there was a quivering in the lip, a sudden paleness in the cheek of her son, as he gazed up in her lace, when he thought they stood alone, which denoted internal emotion yet stronger than that which had inspired his previous words. "Their scorn, their contumely, I heed as little as the mountain rock the hailstones which fall upon its sides, in vain seeking to penetrate or wound. Nay, I could smile at them in very truth, were it not that compelled as I am to act alone, to throw aside as worthless and rejected those natural ties I had so joyed to wear, my heart seems closed to smiles; but for words as those, or yet harsher scorn, grieve not, my noble boy, they have no power to fret or hurt me."
"Yet to hear them speak in such tone of thee—thee, whose high soul and noble courage would shame a score of some who write themselves men!—thee, who with all a woman's loving heart, and guileless, unselfish, honorable mind, hath all a warrior's stern resolve, a patriot's noble purpose! Mother, mother, how may thy son brook scorn and falsity, and foul calumny cast upon thee?" and there was a choking suffocation in his throat, filling his eyes perforce with tears; and had it not been that manhood struggled for dominion, he would have flung himself upon his mother's breast and wept.
"As a soldier and a man, my son," she drew him closer to her as she spoke; "as one who, knowing and feeling the worth of the contemned one, is conscious that the foul tongues of evil men can do no ill, but fling back the shame upon themselves. Arouse thee, my beloved son. Alas! when I look on thee, on thy bright face, on those graceful limbs, so supple now in health and life, and feel to what my deed may have devoted thee, my child, my child, I need not slanderous tongues to grieve me!"
"And doth the Countess of Buchan repent that deed?" asked the rich sonorous voice of the Bruce, who, unobserved, had heard their converse. "Would she recall that which she hath done?"
"Sire, not so," she answered; "precious as is my child to this lone heart—inexpressibly dear and precious—yet if the liberty of his country demand me to resign him, the call shall be obeyed."
"Speak not thus, noble lady," returned the king, cheerily. "He is but lent, Scotland asks no more; and when heaven smiles on this poor country, smiles in liberty and peace, trust me, such devotedness will not have been in vain. Our youthful knight will lay many a wreath of laurel at his mother's feet, nor will there then be need to guard her name from scorn. See what new zest and spirit have irradiated the brows of our warlike guests; we had scarce deemed more needed than was there before, yet the visit of Sir Henry Seymour, bearing as it did a challenge to strife and blood, hath given fresh lightness to every step, new joyousness to every tone. Is not this as it should be?"
"Aye, as it must be, sire, while loyal hearts and patriot spirits form thy court. Nobly and gallantly was the answer given to Pembroke's challenge. Yet pardon me, sire, was it wise—was it well?"
"Its wisdom, lady, rests with its success in the hands of a higher power," answered the king, gravely, yet kindly. "Other than we did we could not do; rashly and presumptuously we would not have left our quarters. Not for the mere chase of, mad wish for glory would we have risked the precious lives of our few devoted friends, but challenged as we were, the soul of Bruce could not have spoken other than he did; nor do we repent, nay, we rejoice that the stern duty of inaction is over. Thine eye tells me thou canst understand this, lady, therefore we say no more, save to beseech thee to inspire our consort with the necessity of this deed; she trembles for the issue of our daring. See how grave and sad she looks, so lately as she was all smiles."
The countess did not reply, but hastened to the side of the amiable, but yet too womanly Queen Margaret, and gently, but invisibly sought to soothe her fears; and she partially succeeded, for the queen ever seemed to feel herself a bolder and firmer character when in the presence and under the influence of Isabella of Buchan.
It was a gallant, though, alas! but too small a force which, richly and bravely accoutred, with banners proudly flying, music sounding, superb chargers caparisoned for war, lances in rest, and spear and bill, sword and battle-axe, marched through the olden gates of Scone in a south-westward direction, early on the morning of the 25th of June, 1306. Many were the admiring eyes and yearning hearts which followed them, and if doubt and dread did mingle in the fervid aspirations raised for their welfare and success, they were not permitted to gain ascendency so long as the cheering tones and happy smiles of every one of that patriot band lingered on the ear and sight. As yet there were but few of the nobles and knights with their men. The troops had been commanded to march leisurely forward, under charge of the esquires and gentlemen, who were mostly lieutenants or cornets to their leaders' respective bands of followers; and, if not overtaken before, to halt in a large meadow to the north of Perth, which lay in their way.
The knots of citizens, however, who had accompanied the army to the farthest environs of the town, had not dispersed to their several homes ere the quick, noisy clattering of a gallant troop of horse echoed along the street, and the king, surrounded by his highest nobles and bravest knights, galloped by, courteously returning the shouts and acclamations of delight which hailed him on every side. His vizor was purposely left up, and his noble countenance, beaming with animation and hope, seemed to inspire fresh hope and confidence in all that gazed. A white ostrich plume, secured to his helmet by a rich clasp of pearls and diamonds, fell over his left shoulder till it well-nigh mingled with the flowing mane of his charger, whose coal-black glossy hide was almost concealed beneath the armor which enveloped him, and the saddle-cloth of crimson velvet, whose golden fringe nearly swept the ground. King Robert was clothed in the same superb suit of polished steel armor, inlaid and curiously wrought with ingrained silver, in which we saw him at first; a crimson scarf secured his trusty sword to his side, and a short mantle of azure velvet, embroidered with the golden thistle of Scotland, and lined with the richest sable, was secured at his throat by a splendid collaret of gems. The costly materials of his dress, and, yet more, the easy and graceful seat upon his charger, his chivalric bearing, and the frank, noble expression of his countenance, made him, indeed, "look every inch a king," and might well of themselves have inspired and retained the devoted loyalty of his subjects, even had there been less of chivalry in his daring rising.
Edward Bruce was close beside his brother. With a figure and appearance equally martial and equally prepossessing, he wanted the quiet dignity, the self-possession of voice and feature which characterized the king. He had not the mind of Robert, and consequently the uppermost passion of the spirit was ever the one marked on his brow. On this morning he was all animated smiles, for war was alike his vocation and his pastime.
Thomas and Alexander Bruce were also there, both gallant men and well-tried warriors, and eager as Edward for close encounter with the foe. The Earls of Lennox and Athol, although perhaps in their secret souls they felt that the enterprise was rash, gave no evidence of reluctance in their noble bearing; indeed, had they been certain of marching to their death, they would not have turned from the side of Bruce. The broad banner of Scotland, whose ample folds waved in the morning breeze, had been intrusted to the young heir of Buchan, who, with the other young and new-made knights, eager and zealous to win their spurs, had formed a body guard around the banner, swearing to defend it to the last moment of their lives. Nigel Bruce was one of these; he rode close beside his brother in arms, and midst that animated group, those eager spirits throbbing for action, no heart beat quicker than his own. All was animated life, anticipated victory; the very heavens smiled as if they would shed no shadow on this patriot band.
It was scarcely two hours after noon when King Robert and his troops arrived at the post assigned—the park or wood of Methven; and believing that it was not till the succeeding day to which the challenge of Pembroke referred, he commanded his men to make every preparation for a night encampment. The English troops lay at about a quarter of a mile distant, on the side of a hill, which, as well as tree and furze would permit, commanded a view of the Bruce's movements. There were tents erected, horses picketed, and every appearance of quiet, confirming the Scotch in their idea of no engagement taking place till the morrow.
Aware of the great disparity of numbers, King Robert eagerly and anxiously examined his ground as to the best spot for awaiting the attack of the English. He fixed on a level green about half a mile square, guarded on two sides by a thick wood of trees, on the third and left by a deep running rivulet, and open on the fourth, encumbered only by short, thick bushes and little knots of thorn, which the king welcomed, as impeding the progress and obstructing the evolutions of Pembroke's horse. The bushes which were scattered about on the ground he had chosen, he desired his men to clear away, and ere the sun neared his setting, all he wished was accomplished, and his plan of battle arranged. He well remembered the impenetrable phalanx of the unfortunate Wallace at the battle of Falkirk, and determined on exposing a steady front of spears in the same manner. Not having above thirty horse on whom he could depend, and well aware they would be but a handful against Pembroke's two hundred, he placed them in the rear as a reserve, in the centre of which waved the banner of Scotland. The remainder of his troops he determined on arranging in a compact crescent, the bow exposed to the English, the line stretching out against the wood. This was his intended line of battle, but, either from mistake or purposed treachery on the part of Pembroke, his plan was frustrated, and in addition to the great disparity of numbers he had to struggle with surprise.
The day had been extremely sultry, and trusting in full confidence to the honor of his opponent, and willing to give his men all needful rest, the king dismissed them from their ranks to refreshment and repose, leaving but very few to guard, himself retiring with his older officers to a tent prepared for his reception.
Arm in arm, and deep in converse, Nigel Bruce and Alan of Buchan wandered a little apart from their companions, preferring a hasty meal and the calm beauty of a lovely summer evening, accompanied by a refreshing breeze, to remaining beside the rude but welcome meal, and sharing the festivity which enlivened it.
"Thinkest thou not, Nigel, his grace trusts but too fully to the honor of these Englishmen?" asked Alan, somewhat abruptly, turning the conversation from the dearer topics of Agnes and her mother, which had before engrossed them.
"On my faith, if he judge of them by his own true, noble spirit, he judges them too well."
"Nay, thou art over-suspicious, friend Alan," answered Nigel, smiling. "What fearest thou?"
"I like not the absence of all guards, not so much for the safety of our own camp, but to keep sharp watch on the movements of our friends yonder. Nigel, there is some movement; they look not as they did an hour ago."
"Impossible, quite impossible, Alan; the English knights are too chivalric, too honorable, to advance on us to-night. If they have made a movement, 'tis but to repose."
"Nigel, if Pembroke feel inclined to take advantage of our unguarded situation, he will swear, as many have done before him, that a new day began with the twelve-chime bell of this morning, and be upon us ere we are aware; and I say again, there is movement, and warlike movement, too, in yonder army. Are tents deserted, and horses and men collected, for the simple purpose of retiring to rest? Come with me to yon mound, and see if I be not correct in my surmise."
Startled by Alan's earnest manner, despite his firm reliance on Pembroke's honor, Nigel made no further objection, but hastened with him to the eminence he named. It was only too true. Silently and guardedly the whole English army, extending much further towards Perth than was visible to the Scotch, had been formed in battle array, line after line stretching forth its glittering files, in too compact and animated array to admit of a doubt as to their intentions. The sun had completely sunk, and dim mists were spreading up higher and higher from the horizon, greatly aiding the treacherous movements of the English.
"By heavens, 'tis but too true!" burst impetuously from Nigel's lips, indignation expressed in every feature. "Base, treacherous cowards! Hie thee to the king—fly for thy life—give him warning, while I endeavor to form the lines. In vain, utterly in vain!" he muttered, as Alan with the speed of lightning darted down the slope. "They are formed—fresh, both man and horse—double, aye, more than treble our numbers; they will be upon us ere the order of battle can be formed, and defeat now—"
He would not give utterance to the dispiriting truth which closed that thought, but springing forward, dashed through fern and brake, and halted not till he stood in the centre of his companions, who, scattered in various attitudes on the grass, were giving vent, in snatches of song and joyous laughter, to the glee which filled their souls.
"Up! up!—the foe!" shouted Nigel, in tones so unlike the silvery accents which in general characterized him, that his companions started to their feet and grasped their swords, as roused by the sound of trumpet, "Pembroke is false: to arms—to your posts! Fitz-Alan—Douglas—sound an alarm, and, in heaven's name, aid me in getting the men under arms! Be calm, be steady; display no alarm, no confusion, and all may yet be well."
He was obeyed. The quick roll of the drum, the sharp, quick blast of the trumpet echoed and re-echoed at different sides of the encampment; the call to arms, in various stentorian tones, rung through the woodland glades, quickly banishing all other sounds. Every man sprung at once from his posture of repose, and gathered round their respective leaders; startled, confused, yet still in order, still animated, still confident, and yet more exasperated against their foe.
The appearance of their sovereign, unchanged in his composed and warlike mien, evincing perhaps yet more animation in his darkly flushing cheek, compressed lip, and sparkling eye; his voice still calm, though his commands were more than usually hurried; his appearance on every side, forming, arranging, encouraging, almost at the same instant—at one moment exciting their indignation against the treachery of the foe, at others appealing to their love for their country, their homes, their wives, to their sworn loyalty to himself—inspired courage and confidence at the same instant as he allayed confusion; but despite every effort both of leader and men, it needed time to form in the compact order which the king had planned, and ere it was accomplished, nearer and nearer came the English, increasing their pace to a run as they approached, and finally charging in full and overwhelming career against the unprepared but gallant Scots. Still there was no wavering amid the Scottish troops; still they stood their ground, and forming, almost as they fought, in closer and firmer order, exposing the might and unflinching steadiness of desperate men, determined on liberty or death, to the greater number and better discipline of their foe. It mattered not that the fading light of day had given place to the darker shades of night, but dimly illumined by the rising moon—they struggled on, knowing as if by instinct friend from foe. And fearful was it to watch the mighty struggles from figures gleaming as gigantic shadows in the darkness; now and then came a deep smothered cry or bursting groan, wrung from the throes of death, or the wild, piercing scream from a slaughtered horse, but the tongues of life were silent; the clang of armor, the clash of steel, the heavy fall of man and horse, indeed came fitfully and fearfully on the night breeze, and even as the blue spectral flash of summer lightning did the bright swords rise and fall in the thick gloom.
"Back, back, dishonored knight! back, recreant traitor!" shouted James of Douglas; and his voice was heard above the roar of battle, and those near him saw him at the same instant spring from his charger, thrust back Pembroke and other knights who were thronging round him, and with unrivalled skill and swiftness aid a tall and well-known form to rise and spring on the horse he held for him. "Thinkest thou the sacred person of the King of Scotland is for such as thee? back, I say!" And he did force him, armed and on horseback as he was, many paces back, and Robert Bruce again galloped over the field, bareheaded indeed, for his helmet had fallen off in the strife, urging, inciting, leading on yet again to the charge. And it was in truth as if a superhuman strength and presence had been granted the patriot king that night, for there were veteran warriors there, alike English and Scotch, who paused even in the work of strife to gaze and tremble.
Again was he unhorsed, crushed by numbers—one moment more and he had fallen into the hands of his foes, and Scotland had lain a slave forever at the feet of England; but again was relief at hand, and the young Earl of Mar, dashing his horse between the prostrate monarch and his thronging enemies, laid the foremost, who was his own countryman, dead on the field, and remained fighting alone; his single arm dealing deadly blows on every side at the same moment until Robert had regained his feet, and, though wounded and well-nigh exhausted, turned in fury to the rescue of his preserver. It was too late; in an agony of spirit no pen can describe, he beheld his faithful and gallant nephew overpowered by numbers and led off a captive, and he stood by, fighting indeed like a lion, dealing death wherever his sword fell, but utterly unable to rescue or defend him. Again his men thronged round him, their rallying point, their inspiring hope, their guardian spirit; again he was on horseback, and still, still that fearful strife continued. Aided by the darkness, the Bruce in his secret soul yet encouraged one gleam of hope, yet dreamed of partial success, at least of avoiding that almost worse than death, a total and irremediable defeat. Alas, had the daylight suddenly illumined that scene, he would have felt, have seen that hope was void.
Gallantly, meanwhile, gallantly even as a warrior of a hundred fields, had the young heir of Buchan redeemed his pledge to his sovereign, and devoted sword and exposed life in his cause. The standard of Scotland had never touched the ground. Planting it firmly in the earth, he had for a while defended it nobly where he stood, curbing alike the high spirit of his prancing horse and his own intense longing to dash forward in the thickest of the fight. He saw his companions fall one by one, till he was well-nigh left alone. He heard confused cries, as of triumph; he beheld above twenty Englishmen dashing towards him, and he felt a few brief minutes and his precious charge might be waved in scorn as a trophy by the victors; the tide of battle had left him for an instant comparatively alone, and in that instant his plan was formed.
"Strike hard, and fear not!" he cried to an old retainer, who stirred not from his side; "divide this heavy staff, and I will yet protect my charge, and thou and I, Donald, will to King Robert's side; he needs all true men about him now."
Even as he spoke his command was understood and obeyed. One sweep of the stout Highlander's battle-axe severed full four feet of the heavy lance to which the standard was attached and enabled Alan without any inconvenience to grasp in his left hand the remainder, from which the folds still waved: grasping his sword firmly in his right, and giving his horse the rein, shouting, "Comyn, to the rescue!" he darted towards the side where the strife waxed hottest.
It was a cry which alike startled friends and foes, for that name was known to one party as so connected with devotee adherence to Edward, to the other so synonymous with treachery, that united as it was with "to the rescue," some there were who paused to see whence and from whom it came. The banner of Scotland quickly banished doubt as to which part; that youthful warrior belonged; knights and yeomen alike threw themselves in his path to obtain possession of so dear a prize. Followed by about ten stalwart men of his clan, the young knight gallantly cut his way through the greater number of his opponents, but a sudden gleam on the helmet of one of them caused him to halt suddenly.
"Ha! Sir Henry Seymour, we have met at length!" he shouted. "Thou bearest yet my gage—'tis well. I am here to redeem it."
"Give up that banner to a follower, then," returned Sir Henry, courteously, checking his horse in its full career, "for otherwise we meet at odds. Thou canst not redeem thy gage, and defend thy charge at the same moment."
"Give up my charge! Never, so help me heaven! Friend or foe shall claim it but with my life," returned Alan, proudly. "Come on, sir knight; I am here to defend the honor thou hast injured—the honor of one dearer than my own."
"Have then thy will, proud boy: thy blood be on thine own head," replied Seymour; but ere he spurred on to the charge, he called aloud, "let none come between us, none dare to interfere—'tis a quarrel touching none save ourselves," and Alan bowed his head, in courteous recognition of the strict observance of the rules of chivalry in his adversary, at the very moment that he closed with him in deadly strife; and such was war in the age of chivalry, and so strict were its rules, that even with the standard of Scotland in his hand, the person of the heir of Buchan was sacred to all save to his particular opponent.
It was a brief yet determined struggle. Their swords crossed and recrossed with such force and rapidity, that sparks of fire flashed from the blades; the aim of both appeared rather to unhorse and disarm than slay: Seymour, perhaps, from admiration of the boy's extraordinary bravery and daring, and Alan from a feeling of respect for the true chivalry of the English knight. The rush of battle for a minute unavoidably separated them. About four feet of the banner-staff yet remained uninjured, both in its stout wood and sharp iron head; with unparalleled swiftness, Alan partly furled the banner round the pike, and transferred it to his right hand, then grasping it firmly, and aiming full at Sir Henry's helm, backed his horse several paces to allow of a wider field, gave his steed the spur, and dashed forward quick as the wind. The manoeuvre succeeded. Completely unprepared for this change alike in weapon and attack, still dazzled and slightly confused by the rush which had divided them, Sir Henry scarcely saw the youthful knight, till he felt his helmet transfixed by the lance, and the blow guided so well and true, that irresistibly it bore him from his horse, and he lay stunned and helpless, but not otherwise hurt, at the mercy of his foe. Recovering his weapon, Alan, aware that the great disparity of numbers rendered the securing English prisoners but a mere waste of time, contented himself by waving the standard high in air, and again shouting his war-cry, galloped impetuously on. Wounded he was, but he knew it not; the excitement, the inspiration of the moment was all he felt.
"To the king—to the king!" shouted Nigel Bruce, urging his horse to the side of Alan, and ably aiding him to strike down their rapidly increasing foes. "Hemmed in on all sides, he will fall beneath their thirsting swords. To the king—to the king! Yield he never will; and better he should not. On, on, for the love of life, of liberty, of Scotland!—on to the king!"
His impassioned words reached even hearts fainting 'neath exhaustion, failing in hope, for they knew they strove in vain; yet did that tone, those words rouse even them, and their flagging limbs grew strong for Robert's sake, and some yet reached the spot to fight and die around him; others—alas! the greater number—fell ere the envied goal was gained.
The sight of the royal standard drew, as Alan had hoped, the attention of some from the king, and gave him a few moments to rally. Again there was a moment of diversion in favor of the Scotch. The brothers of the Bruce and some others of his bravest knights were yet around him, seemingly uninjured, and each and all appeared endowed with the strength of two. The gigantic form of Edward Bruce, the whelming sweep of his enormous battle-axe, had cleared a partial space around the king, but still the foes hemmed in, reinforced even as they fell. About this time the moon, riding high in the heavens, had banished the mists which had enveloped her rising, and flung down a clear, silvery radiance over the whole field, disclosing for the first time to King Robert the exact situation in which he stood. Any further struggle, and defeat, imprisonment, death, all stared him in the face, and Scotland's liberty was lost, and forever. The agony of this conviction was known to none save to the sovereign's own heart, and to that Searcher of all, by whom its every throb was felt.
The wood behind him was still plunged in deep shadows, and he knew the Grampian Hills, with all their inaccessible paths and mountain fastnesses—known only to the true children of Scotland—could easily be reached, were the pursuit of the English eluded, which he believed could be easily accomplished, were they once enabled to retreat into the wood.
The consummate skill and prudence of the Bruce characterizing him as a general, even as his extraordinary daring and exhaustless courage marked the warrior, enabled him to effect this precarious and delicate movement, in the very sight of and almost surrounded by foes. Covering his troops, or rather the scattered remnant of troops, by exposing his own person to the enemy, the king was still the first object of attack, the desire of securing his person, or, at least, obtaining possession of his head, becoming more and more intense. But it seemed as though a protecting angel hovered round him: for he had been seen in every part of the field; wherever the struggle had been fiercest, he had been the centre; twice he had been unhorsed, and bareheaded almost from the commencement of the strife, yet there he was still, seemingly as firm in his saddle, as strong in frame, as unscathed in limb, as determined in purpose, as when he sent back his acceptance of Pembroke's challenge. Douglas, Fitz-Alan, Alexander and Nigel Bruce, and Alan of Buchan, still bearing the standard, were close around the king, and it was in this time of precaution, of less inspiriting service, that the young Alan became conscious that he was either severely wounded, or that the strength he had taxed far beyond its natural powers was beginning to fail. Still mechanically he grasped the precious banner, and still he crossed his sword with every foe that came; but the quick eye of Nigel discerned there was a flagging of strength, and he kept close beside him to aid and defend. The desired goal was just attained, the foes were decreasing in numbers, for they were scattered some distance from each other, determined on scouring the woods in search of fugitives, the horses of the king and his immediate followers were urged to quicken their pace, when an iron-headed quarrel, discharged from an arbalist, struck the royal charger, which, with a shrill cry of death, dropped instantly, and again was the king unhorsed. The delay occasioned in extricating him from the fallen animal was dangerous in the extreme; the greater part of his men were at some distance, for the king had ordered them, as soon as the unfrequented hollows of the wood were reached, to disperse, the better to elude their pursuers. Douglas, Alexander Bruce, and Fitz-Alan had galloped on, unconscious of the accident, and Nigel and Alan were alone near him. A minute sufficed for the latter to spring from his horse and aid the king to mount, and both entreated, conjured him to follow their companions, and leave them to cover his retreat. A while he refused, declaring he would abide with them: he would not so cowardly desert them.
"Leave you to death!" he cried; "my friends, my children; no, no! Urge me no more. If I may not save my country, I may die for her."
"Thou shalt not, so help me heaven!" answered Nigel, impetuously. "King, friend, brother, there is yet time. Hence, I do beseech thee, hence. Nay, an thou wilt not, I will e'en forget thou art my king, and force thee from this spot."
He snatched the reins of his brother's horse, and urging it with his own to their fullest speed, took the most unfrequented path, and dashing over every obstacle, through brake and briar, and over hedge and ditch, placed him in comparative safety.
And was Alan deserted? Did his brother in arms, in his anxiety to save the precious person of his royal brother, forget the tie that bound them, and leave him to die alone? A sickening sense of inability, of utter exhaustion, crept over the boy's sinking frame, inability even to drag his limbs towards the wood and conceal himself from his foes. Mechanically he at first stood grasping the now-tattered colors, as if his hand were nailed unto the staff, his foot rooted to the ground. There were many mingled cries, sending their shrill echoes on the night breeze; there were chargers scouring the plain; bodies of men passing and repassing within twenty yards of the spot where he stood, yet half hidden by the deep shadow of a large tree, for some minutes he was unobserved. An armed knight, with about twenty followers, were rushing by; they stopped, they recognized the banner; they saw the bowed and drooping figure who supported it, they dashed towards him. With a strong effort Alan roused himself from that lethargy of faintness. Nearer and nearer they came.
"Yield, or you die!" were the words borne to his ear, shrill, loud, fraught with death, and his spirit sprang up with the sound. He waved his sword above his head, and threw himself into a posture of defence; but ere they reached him, there was a sudden and rapid tramp of horse, and the voice of Nigel Bruce shouted—
"Mount, mount! God in heaven be thanked, I am here in time!"
Alan sprung into the saddle; he thought not to inquire how that charger had been found, nor knew he till some weeks after that Nigel had exposed his own person to imminent danger, to secure one of the many steeds flying masterless over the plain. On, on they went, and frequently the head of Alan drooped from very faintness to his saddle-bow, and Nigel feared to see him fall exhausted to the earth, but still they pursued their headlong way. Death was behind them, and the lives of all true and loyal Scotsmen were too precious to admit a pause.
The sun had risen when King Robert gazed round him on the remnant of his troops. It was a wild brake, amid surrounding rocks and mountains where they stood; a torrent threw itself headlong from a craggy steep, and made its way to the glen, tumbling and roaring and dashing over the black stones that opposed its way. The dark pine, the stunted fir, the weeping birch, and many another mountain tree, marked the natural fertility of the soil, although its aspect seemed wild and rude. It was to this spot the king had desired the fugitives to direct their several ways, and now he gazed upon all, all that were spared to him and Scotland from that disastrous night. In scattered groups they stood or sate; their swords fallen from their hands, their heads drooping on their breasts, with the mien of men whose last hope had been cast on a single die, and wrecked forever. And when King Robert thought of the faithful men who, when the sun had set the previous evening, had gathered round him in such devoted patriotism, such faithful love, and now beheld the few there were to meet his glance, to give him the sympathy, the hope he needed, scarcely could he summon energy sufficient to speak against hope, to rally the failing spirits of his remaining followers. Mar, Athol, Hay, Fraser, he knew were prisoners, and he knew, too, that in their cases that word was but synonymous with death. Lennox, his chosen friend, individually the dearest of all his followers, he too was not there, though none remembered his being taken; Randolph, his nephew, and about half of those gallant youths who not ten days previous had received and welcomed the honor of knighthood, in all the high hopes and buoyancy of youth and healthful life; more, many more than half the number of the stout yeomen, who had risen at his call to rescue their land from chains—where now were these? Was it wonder that the king had sunk upon a stone, and bent his head upon his hands? But speedily he rallied; he addressed each man by name; he spoke comfort, hope, not lessening the magnitude of his defeat, but still promising them liberty—still promising that yet would their homes be redeemed, their country free; aye, even were he compelled to wander months, nay, years in those mountain paths, with naught about him but the title of a king; still, while he had life, would he struggle on for Scotland; still did he feel, despite of blighted hope, of bitter disappointment, that to him was intrusted the sacred task of her deliverance. Would he, might he sink and relax in his efforts and resign his purpose, because his first engagement was attended by defeat? had he done so, it was easy to have found death on the field. Had he listened to the voice of despair, he confessed, he would not have left that field alive.
"But I lived for my country, for ye, her children," he continued, his voice becoming impassioned in its fervor; "lived to redeem this night, to suffer on a while, to be your savior still. Will ye then desert me? will ye despond, because of one defeat—yield to despair, when Scotland yet calls aloud? No, no, it cannot be!" and roused by his earnest, his eloquent appeal, that devoted band sprung from their drooping posture, and kneeling at his feet, renewed their oaths of allegiance to him; the oath that bound them to seek liberty for Scotland. It was then, as one by one advanced, the king for the first time missed his brother Nigel and the heir of Buchan; amidst the overwhelming bitterness of thought which had engrossed him, he had for a brief while forgotten the precarious situation of Alan, and the determination of Nigel to seek and save, or die with him; but now the recollection of both rushed upon him, and the flush which his eloquence had summoned faded at once, and the sudden expression of anguish passing over his features roused the attention of all who stood near him.
"They must have fallen," he murmured, and for the first time, in a changed and hollow voice. "My brother, my brother, dearest, best! can it be that, in thy young beauty, thou, too, art taken from me?—and Alan, how can I tell his mother—how face her sorrow for her son?"
Time passed, and there was no sound; the visible anxiety of the king hushed into yet deeper stillness the voices hushed before. His meaning was speedily gathered from his broken words, and many mounted the craggy heights to mark if there might not yet be some signs of the missing ones. Time seemed to linger on his flight. The intervening rocks and bushes confined all sounds within a very narrow space; but at length a faint unintelligible noise broke on the stillness, it came nearer, nearer still, a moment more and the tread of horses' hoofs echoed amongst the rocks—a shout, a joyful shout proclaimed them friends. The king sprung to his feet. Another minute Nigel and Alan pressed around him; with the banner still in his hand, Alan knelt and laid it at his sovereign's feet.
"From thy hand I received it, to thee I restore it," he said, but his voice was scarcely articulate; he bowed his head to press Robert's extended hand to his lips, and sunk senseless at his feet.
Rumors of the fatal issue of the engagement at Methven speedily reached Scone, laden, of course, with, yet more disastrous tidings than had foundation in reality. King Robert, it was said, and all his nobles and knights—nay, his whole army—were cut off to a man; the king, if not taken prisoner, was left dead on the field, and all Scotland lay again crushed and enslaved at the feet of Edward. For four-and-twenty hours did the fair inhabitants of the palace labor under this belief, well-nigh stunned beneath the accumulation of misfortune. It was curious to remark the different forms in which affliction appeared in different characters, The queen, in loud sobs and repeated wailing, at one time deplored her own misery; at others, accused her husband of rashness and madness. Why had he not taken her advice and remained quiet? Why could he not have been contented with the favor of Edward and a proud, fair heritage? What good did he hope to get for himself by assuming the crown of so rude and barren a land as Scotland? Had she not told him he was but a summer king, that the winter would soon blight his prospects and nip his budding hopes; and had she not proved herself wiser even than he was himself? and then she would suddenly break off in these reproaches to declare that, if he were a prisoner, she would go to him; she would remain with him to the last; she would prove how much she idolized him—her own, her brave, her noble Robert. And vain was every effort on the part of her sisters-in-law and the Countess of Buchan, and other of her friends, to mitigate these successive bursts of sorrow. The Lady Seaton, of a stronger mind, yet struggled with despondency, yet strove to hope, to believe all was not as overwhelming as had been described; although, if rumor were indeed true, she had lost a husband and a son, the gallant young Earl of Mar, whom she had trained to all noble deeds and honorable thoughts, for he had been fatherless from infancy. Lady Mary could forget her own deep anxieties, her own fearful forebodings, silently and unobservedly to watch, to follow, to tend the Countess of Buchan, whose marble cheek and lip, and somewhat sterner expression of countenance than usual, alone betrayed the anxiety passing within, for words it found not. She could share with her the task of soothing, of cheering Agnes, whose young spirit lay crushed beneath this heavy blow. She did not complain, she did not murmur, but evidently struggled to emulate her mother's calmness, for she would bend over her frame and endeavor to continue her embroidery. But those who watched her, marked her frequent shudder, the convulsive sob, the tiny hands pressed closely together, and then upon her eyes, as if to still their smarting throbs; and Isoline, who sat in silence on a cushion at her feet, could catch such low whispered words as these—
"Nigel, Nigel, could I but know thy fate! Dead, dead!—could I not die with thee? Imprisoned, have I not a right to follow thee; to tend, to soothe thee? Any thing, oh, any thing, but this horrible suspense! Alan, my brother, thou too, so young, to die."
The morning of the second day brought other and less distressing rumors; all had not fallen, all were not taken. There were tales of courage, of daring gallantry, of mighty struggles almost past belief; but what were they, even in that era of chivalry, to the heart sinking under apprehensions, the hopes just springing up amidst the wild chaos of thoughts to smile a moment, to be crushed 'neath suspense, uncertainty, the next? Still the eager tones of conjecture, the faintest-spoken whispers of renewed hope, were better than the dead stillness, the heavy hush of despair.
And the queen's apartments, in which at sunset all her friends had assembled, presented less decided sounds of mourning and of wail, than the previous day. Margaret was indeed still one minute plunged in tears and sobs, and the next hoping more, believing more than any one around her. Agnes had tacitly accompanied her mother and Lady Mary to the royal boudoir, but she had turned in very sickness of heart from all her companions, and remained standing in a deep recess formed by the high and narrow casement, alone, save Isoline, who still clung to her side, pale, motionless as the marble statue near her, whose unconscious repose she envied.
"Speak, Isabella, why will you not speak to me?" said the queen, fretfully. "My husband bade me look to thee for strength, for support under care and affliction like to this, yet thou keepest aloof from me; thou hast words of comfort, of cheering for all save me."
"Not so, royal lady, not so," she answered, as with a faint, scarcely perceptible smile, she advanced to the side of her royal mistress, and took her hand in hers. "I have spoken, I have urged, entreated, conjured thee to droop not; for thy husband's sake, to hope on, despite the terrible rumors abroad. I have besought thee to seek firmness for his sake; but thou didst but tell me, Isabella, Isabella, thou canst not feel as I do, he is naught to thee but thy king; to me, what is he not? king, hero, husband—all, my only all; and I have desisted, lady, for I deemed my words offended, my counsel unadvised, and looked on but as cold and foolish."
"Nay, did I say all this to thee? Isabella, forgive me, for indeed, indeed, I knew it not," replied Margaret, her previous fretfulness subsiding into a softened and less painful burst of weeping. "He is in truth, my all, my heart's dearest, best, and without him, oh! what am I? even a cipher, a reed, useless to myself, to my child, as to all others. I am not like thee, Isabella—would, would I were; I should be more worthy of my Robert's love, and consequently dearer to his heart. I can be but a burden to him now."
"Hush, hush! would he not chide thee for such words, my Margaret?" returned the countess, soothingly, and in a much lower voice, speaking as she would to a younger sister. "Had he not deemed thee worthy, would he have made thee his? oh, no, believe it not; he is too true, too honorable for such thought."
"He loved me, because he saw I loved," whispered the queen, perceiving that her companions had left her well-nigh alone with the countess, and following, as was her custom, every impulse of her fond but ill-regulated heart. "I had not even strength to conceal that—that truth which any other would have died rather than reveal. He saw it and his noble spirit was touched; and he has been all, all, aye, more than I could have dreamed, to me—so loving and so true."
"Then why fancy thyself a burden, not a joy to him, sweet friend?" demanded Isabella of Buchan, the rich accents of her voice even softer and sweeter than usual, for there was something in the clinging confidence of the queen it was impossible not to love.
"I did not, I could not, for he cherished me so fondly till this sudden rising—this time, when his desperate enterprise demands energy and firmness, even from the humblest female, how much more from the Bruce's wife! and his manner is not changed towards me, nor his love. I know he loves me, cherishes me, as he ever did; but he must pity my weakness, my want of nerve; when he compares me to himself, he must look on me with almost contempt. For now it is, now that clearer than ever his character stands forth in such glorious majesty, such moderation, such a daring yet self-governed spirit, that I feel how utterly unworthy I am of him, how little capable to give that spirit, that mind the reflection it must demand; and when my weak fears prevail, my weak fancies speak only of danger and defeat, how can he bear with me? Must I not become, if I am not now, a burden?"
"No, dearest Margaret," replied the countess, instantly. "The mind that can so well appreciate the virtues of her husband will never permit herself, through weakness and want of nerve, to become a burden to him. Thou hast but to struggle with these imaginary terrors, to endeavor to encourage, instead of to dispirit, and he will love and cherish thee even more than hadst thou never been unnerved."
"Let him but be restored to me, and I will do all this. I will make myself more worthy of his love; but, oh, Isabella, while I speak this, perhaps he is lost to me forever; I may never see his face, never hear that tone of love again!" and a fresh flood of weeping concluded her words.
"Nay, but thou wilt—I know thou wilt," answered the countess, cheeringly. "Trust me, sweet friend, though defeat may attend him a while, though he may pass through trial and suffering ere the goal be gained, Robert Bruce will eventually deliver his country—will be her king, her savior—will raise her in the scale of nations, to a level even with the highest, noblest, most deserving. He is not lost to thee; trial will but prove his worth unto his countrymen even more than would success."
"And how knowest thou these things, my Isabella?" demanded Margaret, looking up in her face, with a half-playful, half-sorrowful smile. "Hast thou the gift of prophecy?"
"Prophecy!" repeated the countess, sadly. "Alas! 'tis but the character of Robert which hath inspired my brighter vision. Had I the gift of prophecy, my fond heart would not start and quiver thus, when it vainly strives to know the fate of my only son. I, too, have anxiety, lady, though it find not words."
"Thou hast, thou hast, indeed; and yet I, weak, selfish as I am, think only of myself. Stay by me, Isabella; oh, do not leave me, I am stronger by thy side."
It was growing darker and darker, and the hopes that, ere night fell, new and more trustworthy intelligence of the movements of the fugitives would be received were becoming fainter and fainter on every heart. Voices were hushed to silence, or spoke only in whispers. Half an hour passed thus, when the listless suffering on the lovely face of Agnes was observed by Isoline to change to an expression of intense attention.
"Hearest thou no step?" she said, in a low, piercing whisper, and laying a cold and trembling hand on Isoline's arm. "It is, it is his—it is Nigel's; he has not fallen—he is spared!" and she started up, a bright flush on her cheek, her hands pressed convulsively on her heart.
"Nay, Agnes, there is no sound, 'tis but a fancy," but even while she spoke, a rapid step was heard along the corridor, and a shadow darkened the doorway—but was that Nigel? There was no plume, no proud crest on his helmet; its vizor was still closely barred, and a surcoat of coarse black stuff was thrown over his armor, without any decoration to display or betray the rank of the wearer. A faint cry of alarm broke from the queen and many of her friends, but with one bound Agnes sprang to the intruder, whose arms were open to receive her, and wildly uttering "Nigel!" fainted on his bosom.
"And didst thou know me even thus, beloved?" he murmured, rapidly unclasping his helmet and dashing it from him, to imprint repeated kisses on her cheek. "Wake, Agnes, best beloved, my own sweet love; what hadst thou heard that thou art thus? Oh, wake, smile, speak to me: 'tis thine own Nigel calls."
And vainly, till that face smiled again on him in consciousness, would the anxious inmates of that room have sought and received intelligence, had he not been followed by Lord Douglas, Fitz-Alan, and others, their armor and rank concealed as was Nigel's, who gave the required information as eagerly as it was desired.
"Robert—my king, my husband—where is he—why is he not here?" reiterated Margaret, vainly seeking to distinguish his figure amid the others, obscured as they were by the rapidly-increasing darkness. "Why is he not with ye—why is he not here?"
"And he is here, Meg; here to chide thy love as less penetrating, less able to read disguise or concealment than our gentle Agnes there. Nay, weep not, dearest; my hopes are as strong, my purpose as unchanged, my trust in heaven as fervent as it was when I went forth to battle. Trial and suffering must be mine a while, I have called it on my own head; but still, oh, still thy Robert shall deliver Scotland—shall cast aside her chains."
The deep, manly voice of the king acted like magic on the depressed spirits of those around him; and though there was grief, bitter, bitter grief to tell, though many a heart's last lingering hopes were crushed 'neath that fell certainty, which they thought to have pictured during the hours of suspense, and deemed themselves strengthened to endure, yet still 'twas a grief that found vent in tears—grief that admitted of soothing, of sympathy—grief time might heal, not the harrowing agony of grief half told—hopes rising to be crushed.
Still did the Countess of Buchan cling to the massive arm of the chair which Margaret had left, utterly powerless, wholly incapacitated from asking the question on which her very life seemed to depend. Not even the insensibility of her Agnes had had the power to rouse her from the stupor of anxiety which had spread over her, sharpening every faculty and feeling indeed, but rooting her to the spot. Her boy, her Alan, he was not amongst those warriors; she heard not the beloved accents of his voice; she saw not his boyish form—darkness could not deceive her. Disguise would not prevent him, were he amongst his companions, from seeking her embrace. One word would end that anguish, would speak the worst, end it—had he fallen!
The king looked round the group anxiously and inquiringly.
"The Countess of Buchan?" he said; "where is our noble friend? she surely hath a voice to welcome her king, even though he return to her defeated."
"Sire, I am here," she said, but with difficulty; and Robert, as if he understood it, could read all she was enduring, hastened towards her, and took both her cold hands in his.
"I give thee joy," he said, in accents that reassured her on the instant. "Nobly, gallantly, hath thy patriot boy proved himself thy son; well and faithfully hath he won his spurs, and raised the honor of his mother's olden line. He bade me greet thee with all loving duty, and say he did but regret his wounds that they prevented his attending me, and throwing himself at his mother's feet."
"He is wounded, then, my liege?" Robert felt her hands tremble in his hold.
"It were cruel to deceive thee, lady—desperately but not dangerously wounded. On the honor of a true knight, there is naught to alarm, though something, perchance, to regret; for he pines and grieves that it may be yet a while ere he recover sufficient strength to don his armor. It is not loss of blood, but far more exhaustion, from the superhuman exertions that he made. Edward and Alexander are with him; the one a faithful guard, in himself a host, the other no unskilful leech: trust me, noble lady, there is naught to fear."
He spoke, evidently to give her time to recover the sudden revulsion of feeling which his penetrating eye discovered had nearly overpowered her, and he succeeded; ere he ceased, that quivering of frame and lip had passed, and Isabella of Buchan again stood calm and firm, enabled to inquire all particulars of her child, and then join in the council held as to the best plan to be adopted with regard to the safety of the queen and her companions.
In Scone, it was evident, they could not remain, for already the towns and villages around, which had all declared for the Bruce, were hurrying in the greatest terror to humble themselves before Pembroke, and entreat his interference in their favor with his sovereign. There was little hope, even if Scone remained faithful to his interests, that she would be enabled to defend herself from the attacks of the English; and it would be equally certain, that if the wife of Bruce, and the wives and daughters of so many of his loyal followers remained within her walls, to obtain possession of their persons would become Pembroke's first object. It remained to decide whether they would accompany their sovereign to his mountain fastnesses and expose themselves to all the privations and hardships which would inevitably attend a wandering life, or that they should depart under a safe escort to Norway, whose monarch was friendly to the interests of Scotland. This latter scheme the king very strongly advised, representing in vivid colors the misery they might have to endure if they adhered to him; the continual danger of their falling into the hands of Edward, and even could they elude this, how was it possible their delicate frames, accustomed as they were to luxury and repose, could sustain the rude fare, the roofless homes, the continued wandering amid the crags and floods and deserts of the mountains. He spoke eloquently and feelingly, and there was a brief silence when he concluded. Margaret had thrown her arms round her husband, and buried her face on his bosom; her child clung to her father's knee, and laid her soft cheek caressingly by his. Isabella of Buchan, standing a little aloof, remained silent indeed, but no one who gazed on her could doubt her determination or believe she wavered. Agnes was standing in the same recess she had formerly occupied, but how different was the expression of her features. The arm of Nigel was twined round her, his head bent down to hers in deep and earnest commune; he was pleading against his own will and feelings it seemed, and though he strove to answer every argument, to persuade her it was far better she should seek safety in a foreign land, her determination more firmly expressed than could have been supposed from her yielding disposition, to abide with him, in weal or in woe, to share his wanderings, his home, be it roofless on the mountain, or within palace walls; that she was a Highland girl, accustomed to mountain paths and woody glens, nerved to hardship and toil—this determination, we say, contrary as it was to his eloquent pleadings, certainly afforded Nigel no pain, and might his beaming features be taken as reply, it was fraught with unmingled pleasure. In a much shorter time than we have taken to describe this, however, the queen had raised her head, and looking up in her husband's face with an expression of devotedness, which gave her countenance a charm it had never had before, fervently exclaimed—
"Robert, come woe or weal, I will abide with thee; her husband's side is the best protection for a wife; and if wandering and suffering be his portion, who will soothe and cheer as the wife of his love? My spirit is but cowardly, my will but weak; but by thee I may gain the strength which in foreign lands could never be my own. Imaginary terrors, fancied horrors would be worse, oh, how much worse than reality! and when we met again I should be still less worthy of thy love. No, Robert, no! urge me not, plead to me no more. My friends may do as they will, but Margaret abides with thee."
"And who is there will pause, will hesitate, when their queen hath spoken thus?" continued the Countess of Buchan in a tone that to Margaret's ear whispered approval and encouragement. "Surely, there is none here whose love for their country is so weak, their loyalty to their sovereign of such little worth, that at the first defeat, the first disappointment, they would fly over seas for safety, and contentedly leave the graves of their fathers, the hearths of their ancestors, the homes of their childhood to be desecrated by the chains of a foreign tyrant, by the footsteps of his hirelings? Oh, do not let us waver! Let us prove that though the arm of woman is weaker than that of man, her spirit is as firm, her heart as true; and that privation, and suffering, and hardship encountered amid the mountains of our land, the natural fastnesses of Scotland, in company with our rightful king, our husbands, our children—all, all, aye, death itself, were preferable to exile and separation. 'Tis woman's part to gild, to bless, and make a home, and still, still we may do this, though our ancestral homes be in the hands of Edward. Scotland has still her sheltering breast for all her children; and shall we desert her now?"
"No, no, no!" echoed from every side, enthusiasm kindling with her words. "Better privation and danger in Scotland, than safety and comfort elsewhere."
Nor was this the mere decision of the moment, founded on its enthusiasm. The next morning found them equally firm, equally determined; even the weak and timid Margaret rose in that hour of trial superior to herself, and preparations were rapidly made for their departure. Nor were the prelates of Scotland, who had remained at Scone during the king's engagement, backward in encouraging and blessing their decision. His duties prevented the Abbot of Scone accompanying them; but it was with deep regret he remained behind, not from any fear of the English, for a warrior spirit lurked beneath those episcopal robes, but from his deep reverence for the enterprise, and love for the person of King Robert. He acceded to the necessity of remaining in his abbey with the better grace, as he fondly hoped to preserve the citizens in the good faith and loyalty they had so nobly demonstrated. The Archbishop of St. Andrew's and the Bishop of Glasgow determined on following their sovereign to the death; and the spirit of Robert, wounded as it had been, felt healed and soothed, and inspired afresh, as the consciousness of his power over some true and faithful hearts, of every grade and rank of either sex, became yet more strongly proved in this hour of depression. He ceased to speak of seeking refuge for his fair companions in another land, their determination to abide with him, and their husbands and sons, was too heartfelt, too unwavering, to allow of a hope to change it; and he well knew that their presence, instead of increasing the cares and anxieties of his followers, would rather lessen, them, by shedding a spirit of chivalry even over the weary wanderings he knew must be their portion for a while, by gilding with the light of happier days the hours of darkness that might surround them.