The queen and her companions were conveyed in detachments from the palace and town of Scone, the Bruce believing, with justice, they would thus attract less notice, and be better able to reach the mountains in safety. The Countess of Buchan, her friend Lady Mary, Agnes, and Isoline, attended by Sir Nigel, were the first to depart, for though she spoke it not, deep anxiety was on the mother's heart for the fate of her boy. They mostly left Scone at different hours of the night; and the second day from the king's arrival, the palace was untenanted, all signs of the gallant court, which for a brief space had shed such lustre, such rays of hope on the old town, were gone, and sorrowfully and dispiritedly the burghers and citizens went about their several occupations, for their hearts yet throbbed in loyalty and patriotism, though hope they deemed was wholly at an end. Still they burned with indignation at every intelligence of new desertions to Edward, and though the power of Pembroke compelled them to bend unwillingly to the yoke, it was as a bow too tightly strung, which would snap rather than use its strength in the cause of Edward.
A few weeks' good nursing from his mother and sister, attended as it was by the kindness and warm friendship of the sovereign he adored, and the constant care of Nigel, speedily restored the heir of Buchan, if not entirely to his usual strength, at least with sufficient to enable him to accompany the royal wanderers wherever they pitched their tent, and by degrees join in the adventurous excursions of his young companions to supply them with provender, for on success in hunting entirely depended their subsistence.
It was in itself a strange romance, the life they led. Frequently the blue sky was their only covering, the purple heath their only bed; nor would the king fare better than his followers. Eagerly, indeed, the young men ever exerted themselves to form tents or booths of brushwood, branches of trees, curiously and tastefully interwoven with the wild flowers that so luxuriantly adorned the rocks, for the accommodation of the faithful companions who preferred this precarious existence with them, to comfort, safety, and luxury in a foreign land. Nature, indeed, lavishly supplied them with beautiful materials, and where the will was good, exertion proved but a new enjoyment. Couches and cushions of the softest moss formed alike seats and places of repose; by degrees almost a village of these primitive dwellings would start into being, in the centre of some wild rocks, which formed natural barriers around them, watered, perhaps, by some pleasant brook rippling and gushing by in wild, yet soothing music, gemmed by its varied flowers.
Here would be the rendezvous for some few weeks; here would Margaret and her companions rest a while from their fatiguing wanderings; and could they have thought but of the present, they would have been completely happy. Here would their faithful knights return laden with the spoils of the chase, or with some gay tale of danger dared, encountered, and conquered; here would the song send its full tone amid the responding echoes. The harp and muse of Nigel gave a refinement and delicacy to these meetings, marking them, indeed, the days of chivalry and poetry. Even Edward Bruce, the stern, harsh, dark, passioned warrior, even he felt the magic of the hour, and now that the courage of Nigel had been proved, gave willing ear, and would be among the first to bid him wake his harp, and soothe the troubled visions of the hour; and Robert, who saw so much of his own soul reflected in his young brother, mingled as it was with yet more impassioned fervor, more beautiful, more endearing qualities, for Nigel had needed not trial to purify his soul, and mark him out a patriot. Robert, in very truth, loved him, and often would share with him his midnight couch, his nightly watchings, that he might confide to that young heart the despondency, the hopelessness, that to none other might be spoken, none other might suspect—the secret fear that his crime would be visited on his unhappy country, and he forbidden to secure her freedom even by the sacrifice of his life.
"If it be so, it must be so; then be thou her savior, her deliverer, my Nigel," he would often urge; "droop not because I may have departed; struggle on, do as thy soul prompts, and success will, nay, must attend thee; for thou art pure and spotless, and well deserving of all the glory, the blessedness, that will attend the sovereign of our country freed from chains; thou art, in truth, deserving of all this, but I—"
"Peace, peace, my brother!" would be Nigel's answer; "thou, only thou shalt deliver our country, shall be her free, her patriot king! Have we not often marked the glorious sun struggling with the black masses of clouds which surround and obscure his rising, struggling, and in vain, to penetrate their murky folds, and deluge the world with light, shining a brief moment, and then immersed in darkness, until, as he nears the western horizon, the heaviest clouds flee before him, the spotless azure spreadeth its beautiful expanse, the brilliant rays dart on every side, warming and cheering the whole earth with reviving beams, and finally sinking to his rest in a flood of splendor, more dazzling, more imposing than ever attends his departure when his dawn hath been one of joy. Such is thy career, my brother; such will be thy glorious fate. Oh, droop not even to me—to thyself! Hope on, strive on, and thou shalt succeed!"
"Would I had thy hopeful spirit, my Nigel, an it pictured and believed things as these!" mournfully would the Bruce reply, and clasp the young warrior to his heart; but it was only Nigel's ear that heard these whispers of despondency, only Nigel's eye which could penetrate the inmost folds of that royal heart. Not even to his wife—his Margaret, whose faithfulness in these hours of adversity had drawn her yet closer to her husband—did he breathe aught save encouragement and hope; and to his followers he was the same as he had been from the first, resolute, unwavering; triumphing over every obstacle; cheering the faint-hearted; encouraging the desponding; smiling with his young followers, ever on the alert to provide amusement for them, to approve, guide, instruct; gallantly and kindly to smooth the path for his female companions, joining in every accommodation for them, even giving his manual labor with the lowest of his followers, if his aid would lessen fatigue, or more quickly enhance comfort. And often and often in the little encampment we have described, when night fell, and warrior and dame would assemble, in various picturesque groups, on the grassy mound, the king, seated in the midst of them, would read aloud, and divert even the most wearied frame and careworn mind by the stirring scenes and chivalric feelings his MSS. recorded. The talent of deciphering manuscripts, indeed of reading any thing, was one seldom attained or even sought for in the age of which we treat; the sword and spear were alike the recreation and the business of the nobles. Reading and writing were in general confined to monks, and the other clergy; but Robert, even as his brother Nigel, possessed both these accomplishments, although to the former their value never seemed so fully known as in his wanderings. His readings were diversified by rude narratives or tales, which he demanded in return from his companions, and many a hearty laugh would resound from the woodland glades, at the characteristic humor with which these demands were complied with: the dance, too, would diversify these meetings. A night of repose might perhaps succeed, to be disturbed at its close by a cause for alarm, and those pleasant resting-places must be abandoned, the happy party be divided, and scattered far and wide, to encounter fatigue, danger, perchance even death, ere they met again.
Yet still they drooped not, murmured not. No voice was ever heard to wish the king's advice had been taken, and they had sought refuge in Norway. Not even Margaret breathed one sigh, dropped one tear, in her husband's presence, although many were the times that she would have sunk from exhaustion, had not Isabella of Buchan been near as her guardian angel to revive, encourage, infuse a portion of her own spirit in the weaker heart, which so confidingly clung to her. The youngest and most timid maiden, the oldest and most ailing man, still maintained the same patriotic spirit and resolute devotion which had upheld them at first. "The Bruce and Scotland" were the words imprinted on their souls, endowed with a power to awake the sinking heart, and rouse the fainting frame.
To Agnes and Nigel, it was shrewdly suspected, these wanderings in the centre of magnificent nature, their hearts open to each other, revelling in the scenes around them, were seasons of unalloyed enjoyment, happiness more perfect than the state and restraint of a court. Precarious, indeed, it was, but even in moments of danger they were not parted; for Nigel was ever the escort of the Countess of Buchan, and danger by his side lost half its terror to Agnes. He left her side but to return to it covered with laurels, unharmed, uninjured, even in the midst of foes; and so frequently did this occur, that the fond, confiding spirit of the young Agnes folded itself around the belief that he bore a charmed life; that evil and death could not injure one so faultless and beloved. Their love grew stronger with each passing week; for nature, beautiful nature, is surely the field of that interchange of thought, for that silent commune of soul so dear to those that love. The simplest flower, the gushing brooks, the frowning hills, the varied hues attending the rising and the setting of the sun, all were turned to poetry when the lips of Nigel spoke to the ears of love. The mind of Agnes expanded before these rich communings. She was so young, so guileless, her character moulded itself on his. She learned yet more to comprehend, to appreciate the nobility of his soul, to cling yet closer to him, as the consciousness of the rich treasure she possessed in his love became more and more unfolded to her view. The natural fearfulness of her disposition gave way, and the firmness, the enthusiasm of purpose, took possession of her heart, secretly and silently, indeed; for to all, save to herself, she was the same gentle, timid, clinging girl that she had ever been.
So passed the summer months; but as winter approached, and the prospects of the king remained as apparently hopeless and gloomy as they were on his first taking refuge in the mountains, it was soon pretty evident that some other plan must be resorted to; for strong as the resolution might be, the delicate frames of his female companions, already suffering from the privations to which they had been exposed, could not sustain the intense cold and heavy snows peculiar to the mountain region. Gallantly as the king had borne himself in every encounter with the English and Anglo-Scots, sustaining with unexampled heroism repeated defeats and blighted hopes, driven from one mountainous district by the fierce opposition of its inhabitants, from another by a cessation of supplies, till famine absolutely threatened, closely followed by its grim attendant, disease, all his efforts to collect and inspire his countrymen with his own spirit, his own hope, were utterly and entirely fruitless, for his enemies appeared to increase around him, the autumn found him as far, if not further, from the successful termination of his desires than he had been at first.
All Scotland lay at the feet of his foe. John of Lorn, maternally related to the slain Red Comyn, had collected his forces to the number of a thousand, and effectually blockaded his progress through the district of Breadalbane, to which he had retreated from a superior body of English, driving him to a narrow pass in the mountains, where the Bruce's cavalry had no power to be of service; and had it not been for the king's extraordinary exertions in guarding the rear, and there checking the desperate fury of the assailants, and interrupting their headlong pursuit of the fugitives, by a strength, activity, and prudence, that in these days would seem incredible, the patriots must have been cut off to a man. Here it was that the family of Lorn obtained possession of that brooch of Bruce, which even to this day is preserved as a relic, and lauded as a triumph, proving how nearly their redoubted enemy had fallen into their hands. Similar struggles had marked his progress through the mountains ever since the defeat of Methven; but vain was every effort of his foes to obtain possession of his person, destroy his energy, and thus frustrate his purpose. Perth, Inverness, Argyle, and Aberdeen had alternately been the scene of his wanderings. The middle of autumn found him with about a hundred followers, amongst whom were the Countess of Buchan and her son, amid the mountains which divide Kincardine from the southwest boundary of Aberdeen. The remainder of his officers and men, divided into small bands, each with some of their female companions under their especial charge, were scattered over the different districts, as better adapted to concealment and rest.
It was that part of the year when day gives place to night so suddenly, that the sober calm of twilight even appears denied to us. The streams rushed by, turbid and swollen from the heavy autumnal rains. A rude wind had robbed most of the trees of their foliage; the sere and withered leaves, indeed, yet remained on the boughs, beautiful even in, their decay, but the slightest breath would carry them away from their resting-places, and the mountain passes were incumbered, and often slippery from the fallen leaves. The mountains looked frowning and bare, the pine and fir bent and rocked in their craggy cradles, and the wind moaned through their dark branches sadly and painfully. The sun had, indeed, shone fitfully through the day, but still the scene was one of melancholy desolation, and the heart of the Countess of Buchan, bold and firm in general, could not successfully resist the influence of Nature's sadness. She sat comparatively alone; a covering had, indeed, been thrown over some thick poles, which interwove with brushwood, and with a seat and couch of heather, which was still in flower, formed a rude tent, and was destined for her repose; but until night's dark mantle was fully unfurled, she had preferred the natural seat of a jutting crag, sheltered from the wind by an overhanging rock and some spreading firs. Her companions were scattered in different directions in search of food, as was their wont. Some ten or fifteen men had been left with her, and they were dispersed about the mountain collecting firewood, and a supply of heath and moss for the night encampment; within hail, indeed, but scarcely within sight, for the space where the countess sate commanded little more than protruding crags and stunted trees, and mountains lifting their dark, bare brows to the starless sky.
It was not fear which had usurped dominion in the Lady Isabella's heart, it was that heavy, sluggish, indefinable weight which sometimes clogs the spirit we know not wherefore, until some event following quick upon it forces us, even against our will, to believe it the overhanging shadow of the future which had darkened the present. She was sad, very sad, yet she could not, as was ever her custom, bring that sadness to judgment, and impartially examining and determining its cause, remove it if possible, or banish it resolutely from her thoughts.
An impulse indefinable, yet impossible to be resisted, had caused her to intrust her Agnes to the care of Lady Mary and Nigel, and compelled her to follow her son, who had been the chosen companion of the king. Rigidly, sternly, she had questioned her own heart as to the motives of this decision. It was nothing new her accompanying her son, for she had invariably done so; but it was something unusual her being separated from the queen, and though her heart told her that her motives were so upright, so pure, they could have borne the sternest scrutiny, there was naught which the most rigid mentor could condemn, yet a feeling that evil would come of this was amongst the many others which weighed on her heart. She could not tell wherefore, yet she wished it had been otherwise, wished the honor of being selected as the king's companion had fallen on other than her son, for separate herself from him she could not. One cause of this despondency might have been traced to the natural sinking of the spirit when it finds itself alone, with time for its own fancies, after a long period of exertion, and that mental excitement which, unseen to all outward observers, preys upon itself. Memory had awakened dreams and visions she had long looked upon as dead; it did but picture brightly, beautifully, joyously what might have been, and disturbed the tranquil sadness which was usual to her now; disturb it as with phantasmagoria dancing on the brain, yet it was a struggle hard and fierce to banish them again. As one sweet fancy sunk another rose, even as gleams of moonlight on the waves which rise and fall with every breeze. Fancy and reason strove for dominion, but the latter conquered. What could be now the past, save as a vision of the night; the present, a stern reality with all its duties—duties not alone to others, but to herself. These were the things on which her thoughts must dwell; these must banish all which might have been and they did; and Isabella of Buchan came through that fiery ordeal unscathed, uninjured in her self-esteem, conscious that not in one thought did she wrong her husband, in not one dream did she wrong the gentle heart of the queen which so clung to her; in not the wildest flight of fancy did she look on Robert as aught save as the deliverer of his country, the king of all true Scottish men.
She rose up from that weakness of suffering, strengthened in her resolve to use every energy in the queen's service in supporting, encouraging, endeavoring so to work on her appreciation of her husband's character, as to render her yet more worthy of his love. She had ever sought to remain beside the queen, ever contrived they should be of the same party; that her mind was ever on the stretch, on the excitement, could not be denied, but she knew not how great its extent till the call for exertion was comparatively over, and she found herself, she scarcely understood how, the only female companion of her sovereign, the situation she had most dreaded, most determined to avoid. While engaged in the performance of her arduous task, the schooling her own heart and devoting herself to Robert's wife, virtue seemed to have had its own reward, for a new spirit had entwined her whole being—excitement, internal as it was, had given a glow to thought and action; but in her present solitude the reaction of spirit fell upon her as a dull, sluggish weight of lead. She had suffered, too, from both privation and fatigue, and she was aware her strength was failing, and this perhaps was another cause of her depression; but be that as it may, darkness closed round her unobserved, and when startled by some sudden sound, she raised her head from her hands, she could scarcely discern one object from another in the density of gloom. "Surely night has come suddenly upon us," she said, half aloud; "it is strange they have not yet returned," and rising, she was about seeking the tent prepared for her, when a rude grasp was laid on her arm, and a harsh, unknown voice uttered, in suppressed accents—
"Not so fast, fair mistress, not so fast! My way does not lie in that direction, and, with your leave, my way is yours."
"How, man! fellow, detain me at your peril!" answered the countess, sternly, permitting no trace of terror to falter in her voice, although a drawn sword gleamed by her side, and a gigantic form fully armed had grasped her arm. "Unhand me, or I will summon those that will force thee. I am not alone, and bethink thee, insult to me will pass not with impunity."
The man laughed scornfully. "Boldly answered, fair one," he said; "of a truth thou art a brave one. I grieve such an office should descend upon me as the detention of so stout a heart; yet even so. In King Edward's name, you are my prisoner."
"Your prisoner, and wherefore?" demanded the countess believing that calmness would be a better protection than any symptoms of fear. "You are mistaken, good friend, I knew not Edward warred with women."
"Prove my mistake, fair mistress, and I will crave your pardon," replied the man, "We have certain intelligence that a party of Scottish rebels, their quondam king perhaps among them, are hidden in these mountains. Give us trusty news of their movements, show us their track, and Edward will hold you in high favor, and grant liberty and rich presents in excuse of his servant's too great vigilance. Hearest thou, what is the track of these rebels—what their movements?"
"Thou art a sorry fool, Murdock," retorted another voice, ere the countess could reply, and hastily glancing around, she beheld herself surrounded by armed men; "a sorry fool, an thou wastest the precious darkness thus. Is not one rank rebel sufficient, think you, to satisfy our lord? he will get intelligence enough out of her, be sure. Isabella of Buchan is not fool enough to hold parley with such as we, rely on't."
A suppressed exclamation of exultation answered the utterance of that name, and without further parley the arms of the countess were strongly pinioned, and with the quickness of thought the man who had first spoken raised her in his arms, and bore her through the thickest brushwood and wildest crags in quite the contrary direction to the encampment; their movements accelerated by the fact that, ere her arms were confined, the countess, with admirable presence of mind, had raised to her lips a silver whistle attached to her girdle, and blown a shrill, distinct blast. A moment sufficed to rudely tear it from her hand, and hurry her off as we have said; and when that call was answered, which it was as soon as the men scattered on the mountain sufficiently recognized the sound, they flung down their tools and sprung to the side whence it came, but there was no sign, no trace of her they sought; they scoured with lighted torches every mossy path or craggy slope, but in vain; places of concealment were too numerous, the darkness too intense, save just the space illumined by the torch, to permit success. The trampling of horses announced the return of the king and his companions, ere their search was concluded; his bugle summoned the stragglers, and speedily the loss of the countess was ascertained, their fruitless search narrated, and anxiety and alarm spread over the minds of all. The agony of the youthful Alan surpassed description, even the efforts of his sovereign failed to calm him. Nor was the Bruce himself much less agitated.
"She did wrong, she did wrong," he said, "to leave herself so long unguarded; yet who was there to commit this outrage? There is some treachery here, which we must sift; we must not leave our noble countrywoman in the hands of these marauders. Trust me, Alan, we shall recover her yet."
But the night promised ill for the fulfilment of this trust. Many hours passed in an utterly fruitless search, and about one hour before midnight a thick fog increased the dense gloom, and even prevented all assistance from the torches, for not ten yards before them was distinguishable. Dispirited and disappointed, the king and his companions threw themselves around the watchfires, in gloomy meditation, starting at the smallest sound, and determined to renew their search with the first gleam of dawn; the hurried pace of Alan, as he strode up and down, for he could not rest, alone disturbing the stillness all around.
It was already two hours after midnight when a hurried tread, distinct from Alan's restless pacing, disturbed the watchers, and occasioned many to raise themselves on their elbows and listen.
It came nearer and nearer, and very soon a young lad, recognized as Sir Alan's page, was discerned, springing from crag to crag in breathless haste, and finally threw himself at his sovereign's feet.
"It is not too late—up, up, and save her!" were the only words he had power to gasp, panting painfully for the breath of which speed had deprived him. His hair and dress were heavy with the damp occasioned by the fog, and his whole appearance denoting no common agitation.
"Where?" "How?" "What knowest thou?" "Speak out." "What ailest thee, boy?" were the eager words uttered at once by all, and the king and others sprung to their feet, while Alan laid a heavy hand on the boy's shoulder, and glared on him in silence; the lad's glance fell beneath his, and he sobbed forth—
"Mercy, mercy! my thoughtlessness has done this, yet I guessed not, dreamed not this ill would follow. But oh, do not wait for my tale now; up, up, and save her ere it be too late!"
"And how may we trust thee now, an this is the effect of former treachery?" demanded Robert, with a sternness that seemed to awe the terrified boy into composure.
"I am not treacherous, sire. No, no! I would have exposed my throat to your grace's sword rather than do a traitor's deed: trust me, oh, trust me, and follow without delay!"
"Speak first, and clearly," answered Alan, fiercely; "even for my mother's sake the sacred person of the King of Scotland shall not be risked by a craven's word. Speak, an thou wouldst bid me trust thee—speak, I charge thee."
"He is right—he is right; let him explain this mystery ere we follow," echoed round; and thus urged, the boy's tale was hurriedly told.
It was simply this. Some days previous, when wandering alone about the rocks, he had met a woodman, whom he recognized as one of the retainers of Buchan, and, as such, believed him as loyal and faithful to King Robert's interest as himself and others in the countess's train. The man had artfully evaded all young Malcolm's expression of astonishment and inquiries as to why Donald MacAlpine, whom he well knew to be one of the stoutest and most sturdy men-at-arms which the clan possessed, should have taken to so peaceful an employment as cutting wood, and skilfully drew from the boy much information concerning the movements of the party to whom he belonged. Malcolm freely spoke of Sir Alan and the Countess of Buchan, dilating with no little pleasure on his young master having received knighthood at the hand of his king, and all the honors and delights which accompanied it. Aware, however, of the dangers which environed the Bruce, he spoke of him more cautiously, and the more Donald sought to discover if the king were near at hand, the more carefully did Malcolm conceal that he was, telling the woodman if he wished to know all particulars, he had better turn his sickle into a spear, his cap into a helmet, and strike a good blow for Scotland and King Robert. This the man refused to do, alleging he loved his own sturdy person and independent freedom too well to run his neck into such a noose; that King Robert might do very well for a while, but eventually he must fall into King Edward's hands. Malcolm angrily denied this, and they parted, not the best friends imaginable. On reviewing all that had passed, the boy reproached himself incessantly for having said too much, and was continually tormented by an indefinable fear that some evil would follow. This fear kept him by the side of the countess, instead of, as was his wont, following Sir Alan to the chase. The increasing darkness had concealed her from him, but he was the first to distinguish her whistle. He had reached the spot time enough to recognize the supposed woodman in the second speaker, and to feel with painful acuteness his boyish thoughtlessness had brought this evil on a mistress, to serve whom he would willingly have laid down his life. Resistance he knew, on his part, was utterly useless, and therefore he determined to follow their track, and thus bring accurate intelligence to the king. The minds of the men preoccupied by the thought of their distinguished prisoner, and the thickening gloom, aided his resolution. Happening to have a quantity of thick flax in his pocket, the boy, with admirable foresight, fastened it to different shrubs and stones as he passed, and thus secured his safe return; a precaution very necessary, as from the windings and declivities, and in parts well-nigh impregnable hollows, into which he followed the men, his return in time would have been utterly frustrated.
The gathering mist had occasioned a halt, and a consultation as to whether they could reach the encampment to which they belonged, or whether it would not be better to halt till dawn. They had decided in favor of the latter, fearing, did they continue marching, they might lose their track, and perhaps fall in with the foe. He had waited, he said, till he saw them making such evident preparations for a halt of some hours, that he felt certain they would not remove till daylight. It was a difficult and precarious path, he said, yet he was quite sure he could lead fifteen or twenty men easily to the spot, and, taken by surprise, nothing would prevent the recovery of the countess: less than two hours would take them there.
This tale was told in less time than we have taken to transcribe it, and not twenty minutes after Malcolm's first appearance, the king and Sir Alan, with fifteen tried followers, departed on their expedition. There had been some attempt to dissuade the king from venturing his own person where further treachery might yet lurk, but the attempt was vain.
"She has perilled her life for me," was his sole answer, "and were there any real peril, mine would be hazarded for her; but there is none—'tis but a child's work we are about to do, not even glory enough to call for envy."
The fog had sufficiently cleared to permit of their distinguishing the route marked out by Malcolm, but not enough to betray their advance, even had there been scouts set to watch the pass. Not a word passed between them. Rapidly, stealthily they advanced, and about three in the morning stood within sight of their foes, though still unseen themselves. There was little appearance of caution: two large fires had been kindled, round one of which ten or twelve men were stretched their full length, still armed indeed, and their hands clasping their unsheathed swords, but their senses fast locked in slumber. Near the other, her arms and feet pinioned, Alan, with a heart beating almost audibly with indignation, recognized his mother. Two men, armed with clubs, walked up and down beside her, and seven others were grouped in various attitudes at her feet, most of them fast asleep. It was evident that they had no idea of surprise, and that their only fear was associated with the escape of their prisoner.
"They are little more than man to man," said the Bruce; "therefore is there no need for further surprise than will attend the blast of your bugle, Sir Alan. Sound the reveille, and on to the rescue."
He was obeyed, and the slumberers, with suppressed oaths, started to their feet, glancing around them a brief minute in inquiring astonishment as to whence the sound came. It was speedily explained: man after man sprang through the thicket, and rushed upon the foes, several of whom, gathering themselves around their prisoner, seemed determined that her liberty should not be attained with her life, more than once causing the swords of the Bruce's followers to turn aside in their rapid descent, less they should injure her they sought to save. Like a young lion Alan fought, ably seconded by the king, whose gigantic efforts clearing his path, at length enabled himself and Alan to stand uninjured beside the countess, and thus obtain possession of her person, and guard her from the injury to which her captors voluntarily exposed her. There was at first no attempt at flight, although the Bruce's men carried all before them; the men fell where they stood, till only five remained, and these, after a moment's hesitation, turned and fled. A shrill cry from Malcolm had turned the king's and Alan's attention in another direction, and it was well they did so. Determined on foiling the efforts of his foes, Donald MacAlpine, who was supposed to be among the fallen, had stealthily approached the spot where the countess, overcome with excessive faintness, still reclined, then noiselessly rising, his sword was descending on her unguarded head, when Alan, aroused by Malcolm's voice, turned upon him and dashed his weapon from his grasp, at the same minute that the Bruce's sword pierced the traitor's heart: he sprung in the air with a loud yell of agony, and fell, nearly crushing the countess with his weight.
It was the voice of Alan which aroused that fainting heart. It was in the bosom of her son those tearful eyes were hid, after one startled and bewildered gaze on the countenance of her sovereign, who had been leaning over her in unfeigned anxiety. A thicket of thorn, mingled with crags, divided her from the unseemly signs of the late affray; but though there was naught to renew alarm, it was with a cold shudder she had clung to her son, as if even her firm, bold spirit had given way. Gently, cheeringly the king addressed her, and she evidently struggled to regain composure; but her powers of body were evidently so prostrated, that her friends felt rest of some kind she must have, ere she could regain sufficient strength to accompany them on their wanderings. She had received three or four wounds in the melee, which though slight, the loss of blood that had followed materially increased her weakness, and the king anxiously summoned his friends around him to deliberate on the best measures to pursue.
Amongst them were two of Sir Alan's retainers, old and faithful Scottish men, coeval with his grandfather, the late Earl of Buchan. Devoted alike to the countess, the king, and their country, they eagerly listened to all that was passing, declaring that rather than leave the Lady Isabella in a situation of such danger as the present, they would take it by turns to carry her in their arms to the encampment. The king listened with a benevolent smile.
"Is there no hut or house, or hunting-lodge to which we could convey your lady," he asked, "where she might find quieter shelter and greater rest than hitherto? An ye knew of such, it would be the wiser plan to seek it at break of day."
A hunting-lodge, belonging to the Earls of Buchan, there was, or ought to be, the old men said, near the head of the Tay, just at the entrance of Athol Forest. It had not been used since their old master's days; he had been very partial to it when a boy, and was continually there; it had most likely fallen into decay from disuse, as they believed the present earl did not even know of its existence, but that was all the better, as it would be a still more safe and secure retreat for the countess, and they were sure, when once out of the hollows and intricacies of their present halting-place, they could easily discover the path to it.
And how long did they think it would be, the king inquired, before their lady could be taken to it? the sooner, they must perceive as well as himself, the better for her comfort. He was relieved when they declared that two days, or at the very utmost three, would bring them there, if, as the old men earnestly entreated he would, they retraced their steps to the encampment as soon as daylight was sufficiently strong for them clearly to distinguish their path. This was unanimously resolved on, and the few intervening hours were spent by the countess in calm repose.
Conscious that filial affection watched over her, the sleep of the countess tranquillized her sufficiently to commence the return to the encampment with less painful evidences of exhaustion. A rude litter waited for her, in which she could recline when the pass allowed its safe passage, and which could be easily borne by the bearers when the intricacies of the path prevented all egress save by pedestrianism. It had been hurriedly made by her devoted adherents, and soothed and gratified, her usual energy seemed for the moment to return. By nine o'clock forenoon all traces of the Bruce and his party had departed from the glen, the last gleam of their armor was lost in the winding path, and then it was that a man, who had lain concealed in a thicket from the moment of the affray, hearing all that had passed, unseen himself, now slowly, cautiously raised himself on his knees, gazed carefully round him, then with a quicker but as silent motion sprung to his feet, and raised his hands in an action of triumph.
"He is amongst them, then," he muttered, "the traitor Bruce himself. This is well. The countess, her son, find the would-be king—ha! ha! My fortune's made!" and he bounded away in quite a contrary direction to that taken by the Bruce.
The old retainers of Buchan were correct in their surmises. The evening of the second day succeeding the event we have narrated brought them to the hunting-lodge. It was indeed very old, and parts had fallen almost to ruins, but there were still three or four rooms remaining, whose compact walls and well-closed roofs rendered them a warm and welcome refuge for the Countess of Buchan, whose strenuous exertions the two preceding days had ended, as was expected, by exhaustion more painful and overpowering than before.
The exertions of her friends—for the Bruce and his followers with one consent had permitted their wanderings to be guided by the old men—speedily rendered the apartments habitable. Large fires were soon blazing on the spacious hearths, and ere night fell, all appearance of damp and discomfort had vanished. The frugal supper was that night a jovial meal; the very look of a cheerful blaze beneath a walled roof was reviving to the wanderers; the jest passed round, the wine-cup sparkled to the health of the countess, and many a fervent aspiration echoed round for the speedy restoration of her strength; for truly she was the beloved, the venerated of all, alike from her sovereign to his lowest follower.
"Trust my experience, my young knight," had been the Bruce's address to Alan ere they parted for the night. "A few days' complete repose will quite restore your valued parent and my most honored friend. This hunting-lodge shall be our place of rendezvous for a time, till she is sufficiently restored to accompany us southward. You are satisfied, are you not, with the diligence of our scouts?"
"Perfectly, your highness," was Alan's reply; for well-tried and intelligent men had been sent in every direction to discover, if possible, to what party of the enemy the captors of the Lady Isabella belonged, and to note well the movements and appearance, not only of any martial force, but of the country people themselves. They had executed their mission as well as the intricate passes and concealed hollows of the mountains permitted, and brought back the welcome intelligence, that for miles round the country was perfectly clear, and to all appearance peaceful. The hunting-lodge, too, was so completely hidden by dark woods of pine and overhanging crags, that even had there been foes prowling about the mountains, they might pass within twenty yards of its vicinity and yet fail to discover it. The very path leading to the bottom of the hollow in which it stood was concealed at the entrance by thick shrubs and an arch of rock, which had either fallen naturally into that shape, or been formed by the architects of the lodge. It seemed barely possible that the retreat could be discovered, except by the basest treachery, and therefore the king and Sir Alan felt perfectly at rest regarding the safety of the countess, even though they could only leave with her a guard of some twenty or thirty men.
So much was she refreshed the following morning, that the hopes of her son brightened, and with that filial devotion so peculiarly his characteristic, he easily obtained leave of absence from his sovereign, to remain by the couch of his mother for at least that day, instead of accompanying him, as was his wont, in the expeditions of the day. The countess combated this decision, but in vain. Alan was resolved. He was convinced, he said, her former capture, and all its ill consequences, would not have taken place had he been by her side; and even were she not now exposed to such indignity, she would be lonely and sad without him, and stay, in consequence, he would. The king and his officers approved of the youth's resolution, and reluctantly Isabella yielded.
About two hours before noon the Bruce and his companions departed, desiring Sir Alan not to expect their return till near midnight, as they intended penetrating a part of the country which had not yet been explored; they might be a few hours sooner, but they scarcely expected it. It was afterwards remembered that a peculiar expression of sadness overclouded the countenance of the countess, as for a moment she fixed her speaking eyes on the king's face when he cheerfully bade her farewell, and said, in a low emphatic voice—
"Farewell, sire! It may be the hour of meeting is longer deferred than we either of us now believe. Fain would I beseech your grace to grant me one boon, make me but one promise ere you depart."
"Any boon, any promise that our faithful friend and subject can demand, is granted ere 'tis asked," answered the king, without a moment's pause, though startled alike at the expression of her features and the sadness of her voice. "Gladly would we give any pledge that could in any way bespeak our warm sense of thy true merit, lady, therefore speak, and fear not."
"'Tis simply this, sire," she said, and her voice was still mournful, despite her every effort to prevent its being so. "Should unforeseen evil befall me, captivity, danger of death, or aught undreamed of now, give me your royal word as a knight and king, that you will not peril your sacred person, and with it the weal and liberty of our unhappy country, for my sake, but leave me to my fate; 'tis a strange and fanciful boon, yet, gracious sovereign, refuse it not. I mean not treachery such as we have encountered, where your grace's noble gallantry rescued me with little peril to yourself. No; I mean other and greater danger; where I well know that rather than leave me exposed to the wrath of my husband and Edward of England, you would risk your own precious life, and with it the liberty of Scotland. Grant me this boon, my liege, and perchance this heavy weight upon my spirit will pass and leave me free."
"Nay, 'tis such a strange and unknightly promise, lady, how may I pledge my word to its fulfilment?" answered Robert, gravely and sadly. "You bid me pledge mine honor to a deed that will stain my name with an everlasting infamy, that even the liberty of Scotland will not wash away. How may I do this thing? You press me sorely, lady. Even for thee, good and faithful as thou art, how may I hurt my knightly fame?"
"Sire, thou wilt not," she returned, still more entreatingly; "thy brilliant fame, thy noble name, will never—can never, receive a stain. I do but ask a promise whose fulfilment may never be demanded. I do but bid thee remember thou art not only a knight, a noble, a king, but one by whom the preservation, the independence of our country can alone be achieved—one on whose safety and freedom depends the welfare of a nation, the unchained glory of her sons. Were death thy portion, Scotland lies a slave forever at the feet of England, and therefore is it I do beseech thee, King of Scotland, make me this pledge. I know thy noble spirit well, and I know thy too chivalric honor would blind thee to a sense of danger, to a sense of country, duty, glory, of all save the rescue of one who, though she be faithful to thee and to her country, is but as a drop of water in the ocean, compared to other claims. My liege, thy word is already in part pledged," she continued, more proudly. "Any pledge or promise I might demand is granted ere it is asked, your highness deigned to say; thou canst not retract it now."
"And wherefore shouldst thou, royal brother?" cheeringly interrupted Alexander Bruce. "The Lady Isahella asks not unreasonably; she does but suggest what may be, although that may be is, as we all know, next to impossible, particularly now when nature has fortified this pleasant lodge even as would a garrison of some hundred men. Come, be not so churlish in thy favors, good my liege; give her the pledge she demands, and be sure its fulfilment will never be required."
"Could I but think so," he replied, still gravely. "Lady, I do entreat thee, tell me wherefore thou demandest this strange boon; fearest thou evil—dreamest thou aught of danger hovering near? If so, as there is a God in heaven, I will not go forth to-day!"
"Pardon me, gracious sovereign," answered Isabella, evasively; "I ask it, because since the late adventure there has been a weight upon my spirit as if I, impotent, of little consequence as I am, yet even I might be the means of hurling down evil on thy head, and through thee on Scotland; and, therefore, until thy promise to the effect I have specified is given, I cannot, I will not rest—even though, as Lord Alexander justly believes, its fulfilment will never be required. Evil here, my liege, trust me, cannot be; therefore go forth in confidence. I fear not to await your return, e'en should I linger here alone. Grant but my boon."
"Nay, an it must be, lady, I promise all thou demandest," answered Bruce, more cheerfully, for her words reassured him; "but, by mine honor, thou hast asked neither well nor kindly. Remember, my pledge is passed but for real danger, and that only for Scotland's sake, not for mine own; and now farewell, lady. I trust, ere we meet again, these depressing fancies will have left thee."
"They have well-nigh departed now, my liege; 'twas simply for thee and Scotland these heavy bodings oppressed me. My son," she added, after a brief pause, "I would your highness could prevail on him to accompany you to-day. Wherefore should he stay with me?"
"Wherefore not rather, lady?" replied the king, smiling. "I may not leave thee to thine own thoughts to weave fresh boons like to the last. No, no! our young knight must guard thee till we meet again," and with these words he departed. They did not, however, deter the countess from resuming her persuasions to Alan to accompany his sovereign, but without success. Isabella of Buchan had, however, in this instance departed from her usual strict adherence to the truth, she did not feel so secure that no evil would befall her in the absence of the Bruce, as she had endeavored to make him believe.
Some words she had caught during her brief captivity caused her, she scarcely knew why, to believe that the Earl of Buchan himself was in the neighborhood; nay, that the very party which had captured her were members of the army under his command. She had gathered, too, that it was a very much larger force than the king's, and therefore it was that she had made no objection to Robert's wish that she should rest some few days in the hunting-lodge. She knew that, however her failing strength might detain and harass their movements, Bruce and his followers would never consent to leave her, unless, as in the present case, under a comparatively comfortable roof and well-concealed shelter; and she knew, too, that however she might struggle to accompany them in their wanderings, the struggle in her present exhausted state would be utterly in vain, and lingering for her might expose her sovereign to a renewal of the ills with which he had already striven so nobly, and perchance to yet more irreparable misfortune. The information of the scouts had partially reassured her, at least to the fact that no immediate danger was to be apprehended, and for a while she indulged the hope that safety might be found in this hidden spot until the peril passed. She had full confidence in the fidelity of the old retainers who had guided them to the spot, and sought to feel satisfied that its vicinity was unknown to the earl, her husband; but, whether from the restlessness of a slight degree of fever, or from that nervous state of mind attendant on worn-out strength, ere the Bruce departed the same foreboding came on her again, and all her desire was the absence of her sovereign and his followers, to have some hold upon his almost too exalted sense of chivalry, which would prevent any rash act of daring on his part; and this, as we have seen, she obtained.
Could she but have prevailed on her son to accompany them, she would calmly and resignedly have awaited her fate, whatever it might be; but the horror of beholding him a prisoner in the hands of his father—that father perhaps so enraged at the boy's daring opposition to his will and political opinions, that he would give him up at once to the wrath of Edward—was a picture of anguish from which her mind revolted in such intense suffering, she could not rest. She strove with the fancy; she sought to rouse every energy, to feel secure in her present resting-place. But who can resist the influence of feelings such as these? What mother's heart cannot enter into the emotions of Isabella of Buchan, as she gazed on her noble boy, improved as he was in manliness and beauty, and with the dread anticipation of evil, believing only absence could protect him; that perchance the very love which kept him by her side would expose him to danger, imprisonment, and death? She did not speak her fears, but Alan vainly sought to soothe that unwonted restlessness. She had endeavored to secure the Bruce's safety by the aid of Malcolm, the young page, by whose instrumentality she had been both captured and released. Taking advantage of Sir Alan's absence, she had called the boy to her side, and made him promise that, at the first manifest sign of danger, he would make his escape, which, by his extreme agility and address, would easily be achieved, seek the king, and give him exact information of the numbers, strength, and situation of the foes, reminding him, at the same time, of his solemn pledge. She made him promise the profoundest secrecy, and adjured him at all hazards to save the king.
The boy, affected by the solemnity of her manner, promised faithfully to observe her minutest sign, and on the re-entrance of Sir Alan departed, to marvel wherefore his lady should so have spoken, and examine the localities around, as to the best means of concealment and escape.
The hours waned, and night fell, as is usual in October, some five hours after noon, the gloom perhaps greatly increased by the deep shades in which their place of concealment lay. Sir Alan roused the fire to a cheerful blaze, and lighting a torch of pine-wood, placed it in an iron bracket projecting from the wall, and amused himself by polishing his arms, and talking in that joyous tone his mother so loved, on every subject that his affection fancied might interest and amuse her. He was wholly unarmed, except his sword, which, secured to his waist by a crimson sash, he never laid aside; and fair and graceful to his mother's eye did he look in his simple doublet of Lincoln-green, cut and slashed with ruby velvet, his dark curls clustering round his bare throat, and his bright face beaming in all the animation of youth and health, spiritualized by the deeper feelings of his soul; and she, too, was still beautiful, though her frame was slighter, her features more attenuated than when we first beheld her. He had insisted on her reclining on the couch, and drawn from her otherwise painful thoughts by his animated sallies, smiles circled her pale lip, and her sorrows were a while forgotten.
An hour, perhaps rather more, elapsed, and found the mother and son still as we have described, There had been no sound without, but about that period many heavy footsteps might have been distinguished, cautiously, it seemed, advancing. Alan started up and listened; the impatient neigh of a charger was heard, and then voices suppressed, yet, as he fancied, familiar.
"King Robert returned already!" he exclaimed; "they must have had an unusually successful chase. I must e'en seek them and inquire."
"Alan! my child!" He started at the voice, it was so unlike his mother's. She had risen and flung her arm around him with a pressure so convulsive, he looked at her with terror. There was no time to answer; a sudden noise usurped the place of the previous stillness—a struggle—a heavy fall; the door was flung rudely open, and an armed man stood upon the threshold, his vizor up, but even had it not been, the heart of the countess too truly told her she gazed upon her husband!
A brief pause followed the entrance of this unexpected visitor. Standing upon the threshold, his dark brow knit, his eyes fixed on his prisoners, the Earl of Buchan stood a few minutes immovable. Alan saw but a mail-clad warrior, more fierce and brutal in appearance than the generality of their foes, and felt, with all that heart-sinking despondency natural to youth, that they were betrayed, that resistance was in vain, for heavier and louder grew the tramp of horse and man, and the narrow passage, discernible through the open door, was filled with steel-clad forms, their drawn swords glancing in the torchlight, their dark brows gleaming in ill-concealed triumph. Alan was still a boy in years, despite his experience as a warrior, and in the first agony of this discovery, the first dream of chains and captivity, when his young spirit revelled in the thought of freedom, and joyed as a bird in the fresh air of mount and stream, weaving bright hopes, not exile or wandering could remove, his impulse had been to dash his useless sword in anguish to the earth, and weep; but the sight of his mother checked that internal weakness. He felt her convulsive clasp; he beheld the expression on her features,—how unlike their wont—terror, suffering, whose entire cause he vainly endeavored to define, and he roused himself for her. And she, did she see more than her son? She knew that face, and as she gazed, she felt hope had departed; she beheld naught but a long, endless vista of anguish; yet she felt not for herself, she thought but of her child. And the earl, can we define his exulting mood?—it was the malice, the triumph of a fiend.
"Who and what art thou?" demanded Alan, fiercely, laying his right hand on his sword, and with the left firmly clasping his mother's waist. "What bold knight and honorable chevalier art thou, thus seeking by stealth the retreat of a wanderer, and overpowering by numbers and treachery men, who on the field thou and such as thou had never dared to meet?"
The earl laughed; that bitter, biting laugh of contempt and triumph so difficult to bear.
"Thou hast a worthy tongue, my pretty springald," said he; "canst thou use thy sword as bravely? Who and what am I? ask of the lady thou hast so caressingly encircled with thine arm, perchance she can give thee information."
Alan started, a cold thrill passed through his frame, as the real cause of his mother's terror flashed on his mind; her lips, parched and quivering, parted as to speak, but there was no sound.
"Mother," he said, "mother, speak to thy son. Why, why art thou thus? it is not the dread of imprisonment, of death. No, no; they have no terrors for such as thee. Who is this man?"
Engrossed in his own agitation, Alan had not heard the muttered exclamation which burst from Buchan's lips with his first words, for great was the earl's surprise as he looked on his son; the impression he was still a child had remained on his mind despite all reports to the contrary, but no softer feeling obtained dominion.
"Who and what am I?" he continued, after a brief pause. "Wouldst thou know, Alan of Buchan? Even a faithful knight, soldier, and subject of his Royal Highness Edward, king of England and Scotland, and consequently thy foe; the insulted and dishonored husband of the woman thou callest mother, and consequently thy father, young man. Ha! have I spoken home? Thy sword, thy sword; acknowledge thy disloyalty to thy father and king, and for thee all may yet be well."
"Never!" answered Alan, proudly, the earl's concluding words rousing the spirit which the knowledge of beholding his father and the emotion of his mother seemed to have crushed. "Never, Lord of Buchan! for father I cannot call thee. Thou mayest force me to resign my sword, thou mayest bring me to the block, but acknowledge allegiance to a foreign tyrant, who hath no claims on Scotland or her sons, save those of hate and detestation, that thou canst never do, even if thy sword be pointed at my heart."
"Boy!" burst from the earl's lips, in accents of irrepressible rage, but he checked himself; "thou hast learned a goodly lesson of disobedience and daring, of a truth, and I should tender grateful thanks to thy most worthy, most efficient and virtuous teacher," he added, in his own bitterly sarcastic tone. "The Lady Isabella deems, perchance, she has done her duty to her husband in placing a crown on the head of his hereditary and hated foe, and leading his son in the same path of rebellion and disloyalty, and giving his service to the murderer of his kinsman."
"Earl of Buchan, I have done my duty alike to my country and my son," replied the countess, her high spirit roused by the taunts of her husband. "According to the dictates of my conscience, mine honor as a Scottish woman, the mother of a Scottish warrior, I have done my duty, and neither imprisonment, nor torture, nor death will bid me retract those principles, or waver in my acknowledgment of Scotland and her king. Pardon me, my lord; but there is no rebellion in resisting the infringement of a tyrant, no disloyalty in raising the standard against Edward, for there is no treason when there is no lawful authority; and by what right is Edward of England king of Scotland? Lord of Buchan, I have done my duty. As my father taught me I have taught my child!"
"Regarding, of course, madam, all which that child's father would have taught him, particularly that most Christian virtue returning good for evil, as in the fact of revenging the death of a kinsman with the gift of a crown. Oh! thou hast done well, most intrinsically well."
"I own no relationship with a traitor," burst impetuously from Alan. "Sir John Comyn was honored in his death, for the sword of the Bruce was too worthy a weapon for the black heart of a traitor. Lord of Buchan, we are in thy power, it is enough. Hadst thou wished thy son to imbibe thy peculiar principles, to forget his country and her lights, it had been better perchance hadst thou remembered thou hadst a child—a son. Had the duty of a father been performed, perchance I had not now forgotten mine as a son! As it is, we stand as strangers and as foes. Against thee in truth I will not raise my sword; but further, we are severed and forever!" He crossed his arms proudly on his bosom, and returned the dark, scowling glance of his father with a flashing eye, and a mien as firm and nobler than his own.
"It is well, young man; I thank you for my freedom," returned the earl, between his teeth. "As my son, I might stand between thee and Edward's wrath; as a stranger and my foe, why, whatever his sentence be—the axe and block without doubt—let it work, it will move me little."
"Heed not his rash words, in mercy, heed them not!" exclaimed the countess, her voice of agony contrasting strangely with its former proud reserve. "Neglected, forgotten him as thou hast, yet, Lord of Buchan, he is still thy son. Oh, in mercy, expose him not to the deadly wrath of Edward! thou canst save him, thou canst give him freedom. It is I—I who am the attainted traitor, not my child. Give me up to Edward, and he will heed not, ask not for thy son. It is I who have offended him and thee, not my child. Art thou not a Scottish noble, descendant of a house as purely loyal and devoted to their country as mine own—art thou not indeed this man, and yet hath Edward, the deadly foe of thy race, thy land, thy countrymen, more exalted claims than thine own blood? No, no, it cannot be! thou wilt relent, thou wilt have mercy; let him be but free, and do with me even what thou wilt!"
"Free! go free!" repeated the earl, with a hoarse laugh, ere Alan could interfere. "Let him go free, forsooth, when he tells me he is my foe, and will go hence and join my bitterest enemies the moment he is free. Go free! and who art thou who askest this boon? Hast thou such claims upon me, that for thy pleasure I should give freedom to thy son?"
"My lord, my lord, 'tis for thine own sake, for his, thy child as well as mine, I do beseech, implore thy mercy? draw not the curse of heaven on thy heart by exposing him to death. Thou wilt know and feel him as indeed thy child when he lies bleeding before thee, when thine own hand hath forged the death-bolt, and then, then it will be too late; thou wilt yearn for his voice in vain. Oh! is it not sufficient triumph to have in thy power the wife who hath dared thy authority, who hath joined the patriot band, and so drawn down on her the vengeance of Edward? The price of a traitor is set upon her head. My lord, my lord, is not one victim enough—will not my capture insure thee reward and honor in the court of Edward? Then do with me what thou wilt—chains, torture, death; but my child, my brave boy—oh, if thou hast one spark of mercy in thy heart, let him go!"
"Mother," hoarsely murmured Alan, as he strove to raise her from her suppliant posture, "mother, this shall not be! look upon that face and know thou pleadest in vain. I will not accept my freedom at such a price; thy knee, thy supplications unto a heart of stone, for me! No, no; mother, dear mother, we will die together!"
"Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, my beloved, my beautiful! thy death will be on my head, though it come from a father's hand. I will plead, I will be heard! My lord, my lord," she continued, wrought to a pitch of agonized feeling, no heart save that to which she pleaded could have heard unmoved, "I ask but his freedom, the freedom of a boy, a child—and of whom do I ask it?—of his father, his own father! Speak to me, answer me; thou canst not be so lost to the voice, the feelings of nature. For the sake of the mother who loved, the father who blessed thee, whose blessing hallowed our union and smiled on our infant boy, have mercy on me, on thyself—let him, oh, let him be free!"
"Mercy on thee, thou false and perjured woman!" the earl burst forth, the cold sarcastic expression with which he had at first listened to her impassioned entreaties giving way to the fearful index of ungoverned rage; "on thee, thou false traitress, not alone to thy husband's principles but to his honor! Do I not know thee, minion—do I not know the motives of thy conduct in leaving thy husband's castle for the court of Bruce? Patriotism, forsooth—patriotism, ha! the patriotism that had vent in giving and receiving love from him; it was so easy to do homage to him in public as thy king. Oh, most rare and immaculate specimen of female loyalty and virtue, I know thee well!"
"Man!" answered the countess, springing from her knee, and standing before him with a mien and countenance of such majestic dignity, that for a brief moment it awed even him, and her bewildered son gazed at her with emotions of awe, struggling with surprise.
"Ha! faithless minion, thou bravest it well," continued Buchan, determined on evincing no faltering in his purpose, "but thou bravest it in vain; dishonored thou art, and hast been, aye, from the time thy minion Robert visited thee in Buchan Tower, and lingered with thee the months he had disappeared from Edward's court. Would Isabella of Buchan have rendered homage to any other bold usurper, save her minion Robert? Would the murder of a Comyn have passed unavenged by her had the murderer been other than her gallant Bruce? Would Isabella of Buchan be here, the only female in the Bruce's train—for I know that he is with thee—were loyalty and patriotism her only motive? Woman, I know thee! I know that thou didst love him, ere that false hand and falser heart were given to me; thy lips spoke perfidy when they vowed allegiance at the altar; and shall I have mercy on thy son, for such as thee? Mercy! ha, have I silenced thy eloquence now?"
"Silenced, false, blasphemous villain!" vociferated Alan, every other feeling lost in the whirlwind of passion, and springing on the earl, with his drawn sword. "'Tis thou who art the false and faithless—thou who art lost to every feeling of honor and of truth. Thy words are false as hell, from whence they spring!"
"Alan, by the love thou bearest me, I charge thee put up thy sword—it is thy father!" exclaimed, the countess, commandingly, and speaking the last word in a tone that thrilled to the boy's heart. He checked himself in his full career; he snapped his drawn sword in twain, he cast it passionately from him, and uttering, convulsively, "Oh God, oh God, my father!" flung himself in agony on the ground. With arms folded and the smile of a demon on his lip the earl had awaited his attack, but there was disappointment within, for his foul charge had failed in its intended effect. Prouder, colder, more commandingly erect had become the mein of the countess as he spoke, till she even appeared to increase in stature; her flashing eyes had never moved from his face, till his fell beneath them; her lip had curled, his cheek had flushed: powerful indeed became the contrast between the accused and the accuser.
"Arise, my son," she said, "arise and look upon thy mother; her brow even as her heart is unstained with shame; she fears not to meet the glance of her child. Look up, my boy; I speak these words to thee, not to that bold, bad man, who hath dared unite the name of a daughter of Fife with shame. He hath no word either of exculpation, denial, or assent from me. But to thee, my child, my young, my innocent child, thee, whose ear, when removed from me, they may strive to poison with false tales, woven with such skill that hadst thou not thy mother's word, should win thee to belief—to thee I say, look on me, Alan—is this a brow of guilt?"
"No, no, no, I will not look on thee, my mother! I need not to gaze on thee to know the horrid falsity of the charge," answered Alan, flinging his arms passionately around his mother. "Did I never see thee more, never list that voice again, and did all the fiends of hell come around me with their lies, I would not hear, much less believe such charge. No, no! oh God, 'tis my father, speaks it! Father—and my hand is powerless to avenge."
"I need not vengeance, my beloved; grieve not, weep not that thy hand is chained, and may not defend thy mother's stainless name; I need it not. My heart is known unto my God, my innocence to thee; his blessing rest with thee, my beautiful, and give thee strength for all thou mayest endure."
She bent down to kiss his brow, which was damp with the dew of intense anguish. He started up, he gave one long look on her calm and noble face, and then he flung himself in her arms, and sobbed like a child on her bosom. It was a fearful moment for that woman heart; had she been alone with her child, both nerve and spirit must have given way, but fortunately, perhaps, for the preservation of her fortitude, the Earl of Buchan was still the witness of that scene, triumphing in the sufferings he had caused. The countess did indeed fold her boy convulsively to her breast, but she did not bend her head on his, as Nature prompted; it was still erect; her mien majestic still, and but a slight quivering in her beautiful lip betrayed emotion.
"Be firm; be thy noble self," she said. "Forget not thou art a knight and soldier amid the patriots of Scotland. And now a while, farewell."
She extricated herself with some difficulty from his embrace; she paused not to gaze again upon the posture of overwhelming despondency in which he had sunk, but with a step quick and firm advanced to the door.
"Whither goest thou, madam?" demanded the earl fiercely. "Bold as thou art, it is well to know thou art a prisoner, accused of high treason against King Edward."
"I need not your lordship's voice to give me such information," she answered, proudly. "Methinks these armed followers are all-sufficient evidence. Guard me, aye, confine me with fetters an thou wilt, but in thy presence thou canst not force me to abide."
"Bid a last farewell to thy son, then, proud minion," he replied, with fiendish malignity; "for an ye part now, it is forever. Ye see him not again."
"Then be it so," she rejoined; "we shall meet where falsehood and malignant hate can never harm us more," and with a gesture of dignity, more irritating to the earl than the fiercest demonstration of passion, she passed the threshold. A sign from Buchan surrounded her with guards, and by them she was conducted to a smaller apartment, which was first carefully examined as to any concealed means of escape, and then she was left alone, a strong guard stationed at the door.
The first few minutes after the disappearance of the countess were passed by her husband in rapidly striding up and down the room, by her son, in the same posture of mute and motionless anguish in which she had left him. There is no need to define that suffering, his peculiar situation is all-sufficient to explain it. Hurriedly securing the door from all intruders, the earl at length approached his son.
"Wouldst thou be free?" he said, abruptly. "Methinks thou art young enough still to love liberty better than chains, and perchance death. Speak, I tell thee; wouldst thou be free?"
"Free!" answered Alan, raising his head, with flashing eye and burning cheek; "would I be free? Ask of the chained lion, the caged bird, and they will tell thee the greenwood and forest glade are better, dearer, even though the chain were gemmed, the prison gilded. Would I be free? Thou knowest that I would."
"Swear, then, that thou wilt quit Scotland, and vow fealty to Edward; that never more will thy sword be raised save against the contemned and hated Bruce. Be faithful but to me and to King Edward, and thou shalt be free."
"Never!" answered Alan, proudly. "Earl of Buchan, I accept no conditions with my freedom; I will not be free, if only on this base condition. Turn recreant and traitor to my country and my king! resign the precious privilege of dying, if I may not live, for Scotland—I tell thee, never! Urge me no more."
"Nay, thou art but a boy, a foolish boy," continued the earl, struggling to speak persuadingly, "incapable of judging that which is right and best. I tell thee, I will give thee not freedom alone, but honor, station, wealth; I will acknowledge thee as my well-beloved son and heir; I will forget all that is past; nay, not e'en thy will or actions will I restrain; I will bind thee by no vow; thou shalt take no part with Edward; I will interfere not with thy peculiar politics; e'en what thou wilt thou shalt do, aye, and have—and all this but on one condition, so slight and simple that thou art worse than fool an thou refusest."
"Speak on," muttered Alan, without raising his head. "I hear."
"Give me but information of the movements of him thou callest king," replied Buchan, in a low yet emphatically distinct voice; "give me but a hint as to where we may meet him in combat—in all honorable and knightly combat, thou knowest that I mean—give me but information such as this, and thou art free, unshackled, in condition as in limb."
"In other words, betray him," replied Alan, starting up. "Purchase my freedom with the price of his! mine, of nothing worth, aye, less than nothing, redeemed by his! Oh, shame, shame on thee, my lord! Well mayest thou offer me freedom of action as in will on such condition. Of little heed to Edward were the resistance of all Scotland, were Robert in his power. Honor, station, wealth!—oh, knowest thou the human heart so little as to believe these can exist with black treachery and fell remorse? Once and forever, I tell thee thine offers are in vain. Were death in one scale, and free, unshackled liberty in the other, and thou badest me choose between, I would not so stain my soul. Death, death itself were welcome, aye, worse than death—confinement, chains. I would hug them to my heart as precious boons, rather than live and walk the earth a traitor."
"Beware!" muttered the earl; "tempt me not too far, rash boy. I would not do thee ill; I would have pity on thy erring youth, remembering the evil counsels, the base heart which hath guided thee."
"Do thou beware!" retorted Alan, fiercely. "Speak not such foul words to me. Father, as I know thou art in blood, there are ties far stronger which bind me to my mother—ties, neglect, forgetfulness, indifference as thine can never know. Pity, aye, mercy's self, I scorn them, for I need them not."
"Ha! sayest thou so; then I swear thou shalt not have them!" exclaimed the earl, rage again obtaining the ascendant. "I would have saved thee; I would have given thee freedom, though I needed not the condition that I offered. Thinkest thou I do not know that the traitor Bruce and his followers will return hither, and fall into the net prepared? thinkest thou I know not he is with thee, aye, that he would not have left his patriot countess thus slightly guarded, an he hoped not to return himself? He cannot escape me—the murder of Sir John Comyn will be avenged."
"He shall, he will escape thee, proud earl," undauntedly returned Alan. "The savior of his wretched country will not be forced to bow before such as thee; he will be saved out of the net prepared—harassed, chased, encompassed as he is. I tell thee, Earl of Buchan, he will escape thee yet."
"Then, by heaven, thy head shall fall for his!" fiercely replied the earl. "If he return not, he has been forewarned, prepared, and I, fool as I was, have thought not of this danger. Look to it, proud boy, if the Bruce return not forty-eight hours hence, and thou art still silent, thou diest."
He held up his clenched hand in a threatening attitude, but Alan neither moved nor spoke, firmly returning the earl's infuriated gaze till the door closed on his father's retreating form. He heard the bolts drawn, the heavy tramp of the guard, and then he threw himself on the couch, and buried his face in his hands.
While these fearful scenes were passing in the hunting-lodge, Malcolm, the young page already mentioned, had contrived to elude the vigilance of the earl's numerous followers, and reach the brow of the hollow in perfect safety. Endowed with a sense and spirit above his years, and inspired by his devoted attachment to the countess and Sir Alan, the boy did not merely think of his own personal security, and of the simple act of warning the king against the treachery which awaited his return, but, with an eye and mind well practised in intelligent observation, he scanned the numbers, character, and peculiar situation of the foes which had so unexpectedly come upon them. Being peculiarly small and light in figure, and completely clothed in a dark green tunic and hose, which was scarcely discernible from the trees and shrubs around, he stole, in and out every brake and hollow, clambering lightly and noiselessly over crags, hanging like a broken branch from stunted trees, leaping with the elasticity of a youthful fawn over stream and shrub, and thus obtained a true and exact idea of the matter he desired. The boy's heart did indeed sink as he felt rescue would be utterly impossible; that in one direction the English force extended nearly a mile, guarding every avenue, every hollow in the forest, till it seemed next to impossible King Robert could escape, even if forewarned. Wherever he turned his steps the enemy appeared to lurk, but he wavered not in his purpose. Aware of the direction which the king would take in returning, Malcolm slackened not his speed until some three hours after he had quitted the hollow, and he stood before his sovereign well-nigh too exhausted for the utterance of his tale.
The first impulse of the king and his true-hearted followers was to dare all danger, and rescue the countess and her brave son at the expense of their lives; but Malcolm, flinging himself at the feet of Robert, adjured him, in the name of the countess, to remember and act upon the vow he had so solemnly pledged at parting. He earnestly and emphatically repeated the last injunctions of his lady, her deep anguish that the king, the savior of Scotland, should hazard all for her and her child—better they should die than Robert; but these entreaties were but anguish to the noble spirit who heard, aye, and felt their truth, though abide by them he could not. Again and again he questioned and cross-questioned as to their numbers and their strength, but Malcolm never wavered from his first account; clearly and concisely he gave every required information, and with bleeding hearts that little band of patriots felt they dared not hope to rescue and to conquer. Yet tacitly to assent to necessity, to retreat without one blow, to leave their faithful companions to death, without one stroke for vengeance at least, if not for relief, this should not be.
"We will see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, at least, my friends," King Robert said. "Is there one among ye would retreat, from, the narrative of a child, true as it may be? Remember the pass in Argyle; if necessary, your sovereign can protect your retreat now as then, and we shall at least feel we have struggled to rescue, striven for the mastery, even if it be in vain. Were my death, aye, the death of Scotland the forfeit, I could not so stain my knightly fame by such retreat. Let but the morning dawn, and we will ourselves mark the strength of our foes."
There was not one dissenting voice, rash as his determination might appear. The extraordinary skill and courage of their sovereign, displayed in so many instances during their perilous wanderings, were too fresh in their memories to permit of one doubt, one fear, even had he led them on to certain death. To throw themselves from their tired chargers, to give them food, to lie down themselves for a brief repose on the turf, that they might be strengthened and cheered for the work of the morning, all this did not occupy much time; and if their slumbers were brief and troubled, it did not prevent their rising with, alacrity at the first peep of day to polish their arms, look to the sharpening of their swords and spears, share the rude huntsman's meal, and mount and ride with the first signal of their king.
But bold and brave as were these true-hearted men, successful as, comparatively speaking, they were in the numberless skirmishes which took place that day, darkness overtook them, with increase of glory indeed, but no nearer the accomplishment of their object than they had been in the morning.
With bitter sorrow King Robert had perceived the full confirmation of the page's words. The early close of the night attendant on the autumn season was also unfavorable to his views; the events of the day had fully convinced him that many an ambush was set in his path, that his personal safety was wholly incompatible with a night attack, and therefore he was compelled to remain on the defensive in one spot, which was fortunately barricaded and concealed by Nature, during the many long and weary hours forming an October night. Yet still the following day beheld him struggling on, in the face alike of disappointment, defeat, and danger the most imminent; still seeking the same object, still hoping against hope, and retreating only because the welfare of his country, of her unfortunate children, depended upon him; bands more and more numerous pressed upon him, coming from every side, that scarcely was one skilfully eluded ere he had to struggle against another. Nothing but the most consummate skill, the most patient courage, and coolest address could have extricated him from the fearful dangers which encompassed him. Again did his followers believe he bore a charmed life, for not only did he deal destruction, unhurt himself, but after three days almost incessant fighting and fatigue, he had brought them to a place of safety, with but the loss of five-and-twenty men.
But though painfully conscious that further efforts for the rescue of his friends were completely useless, King Robert could not rest satisfied without some more accurate knowledge of their fate, and after some hurried yet anxious consultation. Sir James Douglas, with that daring which so marked his simplest action, declared that at all risks he would seek some tidings that would end their anxiety. In the disguise of a peasant he would be secure from all discovery, he said; and he had not the slightest fear as to the success of the adventure. Five others started up as he spoke entreating permission to take the same disguise and accompany him. It was granted; King Robert advising them, however, to adopt a diversity of costume, and keep each one apart as they approached inhabited districts, as their numbers might excite suspicion, even though the actual disguise was complete. With arms concealed beneath their various disguises, they departed that same evening, engaging to meet the king at the base of Ben-Cruchan, some miles more south than their present trysting. It was an anxious parting, and yet more when they were actually gone; for the high spirit and vein of humor which characterized the young Lord Douglas had power to cheer his friends even in the most painful moments. King Robert, indeed, exerted himself, but this last stroke had been a heavy one; knowing so well the character of Edward, he trembled both for the countess and her noble son, perhaps less for the latter than the former, for he hoped and believed the Earl of Buchan, if indeed he were their captor, would at least have some mercy on his son, but for the countess he knew that there was no hope. The character, the sentiments of the earl had been noticed by the Bruce when both were at the court of Edward, and he felt and knew that any excuse to rid him of a wife whose virtues were obnoxious to him would be acted on with joy. And here, perhaps, it may be well to say a few words as to the real nature of King Robert's sentiments towards Isabella of Buchan, as from the anxiety her detention occasioned they may be so easily misunderstood.
We have performed our task but ill if our readers have imagined aught but the most purely noble, most chivalric sentiments actuated the heart of the king. Whatever might have been the nature of those sentiments in earlier days, since his marriage with the daughter of the Earl of Mar they had never entered his soul.
He had always believed the Lady Isabella's union with Lord John Comyn was one of choice, not of necessity, nor did his visit to her after the battle of Falkirk recall any former feeling. His mind had been under the heavy pressure of that self-reproach which the impressive words of Wallace had first awakened; the wretched state of his country, the tyranny of Edward, occupied the mind of the man in which the emotions of the boy had merged. He was, too, a husband and a father; and he was, as his fond wife so trustingly believed, too nobly honorable to entertain one thought to her dishonor. He looked on Isabella of Buchan as one indeed demanding his utmost esteem and gratitude, his most faithful friendship, and he secretly vowed that she should have it; but these emotions took not their coloring from the past, they were excited simply by her high-minded devotion to the cause of her country, her unshrinking patriotism, her noble qualities, alike as a mother, subject, friend. He felt but as one noble spirit ever feels for a kindred essence, heightened perhaps by the dissimilarity of sex, but aught of love, even in its faintest shadow, aught of dishonorable feelings towards her or his own wife never entered his wildest dream. It was the recollection of her unwavering loyalty, of the supporting kindness she had ever shown his queen, which occasioned his bitter sorrow at her detention by the foe; it was the dread that the cruel wrath of Edward would indeed condemn her to death for the active part she had taken in his coronation; the conviction, so agonizing to a mind like his, that he had no power to rescue and avenge; the fearful foreboding that thus would all his faithful friends fall from him—this, only this, would be the reward of all who served and loved him; and even while still, with undaunted firmness, cheering the spirits of his adherents, speaking hope to them, his own inward soul was tortured with doubts as to the wisdom of his resistance, lingering regrets for the fate of those of his friends already lost to him, and painful fears for the final doom of those who yet remained.
It was in such moments of despondency that remorse, too, ever gained dominion, and heightened his inward struggles. Robert's hand was not framed for blood; his whole soul revolted from the bitter remembrance of that fatal act of passion which had stained his first rising. He would have given worlds, if he had had them, to have recalled that deed. Busy fancy represented a hundred ways of punishing treachery other than that which his fury had adopted; and this remembrance ever increased the anguish with which he regarded the fate of his friends. His lot was indeed as yet one of unexampled suffering, borne by heroism as great as unequalled but the lustre of the latter too frequently dazzles the mind, and prevents the full meed of glory being obtained. His heroism is known to all, his sufferings to but a few; but perhaps it was the latter yet more than the former which gave to Scotland the glory and honor she acquired in his reign. Heroism is scarce separable from ambition, but to mere ambition, the voice of suffering is seldom heard. Heroism dazzles the crowd, suffering purifies the man. If Robert the Bruce were ambitious, the passion in him assumed a nobler and better form; yet we can scarcely call that ambition which sought but the delivery of Scotland from chains, but the regaining an ancient heritage, and sought no more. It was patriotism hallowed by suffering, purified by adversity; patriotism the noblest, purest which ever entered the heart of man.
King Robert and his handful of followers not only reached their trysting-place themselves, but were joined by the queen, and many of her female companions and their attendant warriors, ere Lord James of Douglas returned; three of his companions had straggled in, one by one, with various accounts, but none so satisfactory as the king desired, and he believed with justice, that Douglas lingered to bring, if not satisfactory (for that, alas! could not be) yet accurate intelligence. If aught could have comforted Agnes in these moments of agonized suspense, it would have been not alone the redoubled affection of her Nigel, but the soothing kindness, the love and sympathy of a father, which was lavished on her by King Robert; nay, each of those rude warriors softened in address and tone, as they looked on and spoke to that fair, fragile being, whom they feared now stood alone. She did not weep when other eyes than those of Nigel, or the Lady Campbell, or the gentle Isoline were on her, but that deadly pallor, that quivering lip, and heavy eye spoke all that she endured.
A large cavern, divided by Nature into many compartments, was now the temporary shelter of the king and his friends. It was situated at the base of Ben-Cruchan, which, though at the entrance of the territories of Lorn, was now comparatively secure, the foe imagining the Bruce still amidst the mountains of Aberdeenshire.
The evening meal was spread; a huge fire blazing in the stony cavity removed all appearance of damp or discomfort, and shed a warm, ruddy light on the groups within. It was a rude home for the King of Scotland and his court, yet neither murmuring nor despondency was marked on the bold brows of the warriors, or the gentler and paler features of their faithful companions; their frames, indeed, showed the effect of wandering and anxiety; many an eye which had been bright was sunken, many a blooming cheek was paled; but the lip yet smiled, the voice had yet its gleesome tones to soothe and cheer their warrior friends; the eager wish to prepare the couch and dress the simple meal, to perform those many little offices of love and kindness so peculiarly a woman's, and engaged in with a zest, a skill which was intuitive, for there had been a time, and one not far distant, when those high-born females little dreamed such household deeds would be their occupation.
Brightly and beautifully shone forth conjugal and filial love in those wandering hours; the wife, the child, the sister bound themselves yet closer to the warrior husband, father, brother, which claimed them his. Yet sweet, most sweet as were those acts of love, there were anxious and loving hearts which felt that soon, too soon, they must part from them, they must persuade those gentle ones to accede to a temporary separation—they could not, they would not expose them to the snows and killing frosts of a Scottish winter.
Anxiety, deep anxiety was on the heart of King Robert, becoming more painful with each glance he fixed on Agnes, who was sitting apart with Nigel, her aching head resting on his shoulder, but he strove to return the caresses of his daughter, to repay with fond smiles the exertions of his wife. Sir Niel Campbell (who, after many painful trials, had rejoined the king) and others strove to disperse the silently gathering gloom by jest and song, till the cavern walls re-echoed with their soldier mirth. Harshly and mournfully it fell on the ear and heart of the maiden of Buchan, but she would not have it stilled.
"No, no; do thou speak to me, Nigel, and I shall only list to thee. Why should the noble efforts of these brave men—for I know even to them mirth is now an effort—be chilled and checked, because my sick heart beats not in unison? Oh, when will Lord James return?"
Nigel sought to soothe, to speak hope, but though his words fell like balm on the bleeding heart he held to his, it was the rich melody of their voice, not the matter of their meaning.
The hour of rest was fast approaching, when the well-known signal was heard without, and the young Lord Douglas, with his two companions, were hastily and eagerly admitted within the cave. Their looks denoted great fatigue, and the eager eyes which scanned their countenances read little to hope, yet much, much, alas! to fear.
"Thou hast so far succeeded as to obtain the intelligence we need," was the king's instant greeting, as he released his favorite young follower from his embrace; "that I can read, but further, I fear me, thou hast little to communicate which we shall love to hear."
"My tidings are ill indeed, your highness; aggravated and most undreamed-of ill. But, perchance," and the young man hesitated, for his eye caught the pallid face of Agnes, who had irresistibly drawn closer to the circle about the king, and fixed her eyes on him with an expression almost wild in its agony, "perchance they had better first meet your grace's private ear."
"No, no!" reiterated Agnes, springing forward, and clinging convulsively to his arm. "It is only me thou fearest, I know; I know thou wouldst spare me, but do not, do not. I can bear all, every thing, save this horrible suspense; speak out, let me but know all, and then I can teach my soul to bear it. Oh, do not hesitate, do not pause; in mercy, tell me—oh, tell me all!"
Thus adjured, but feeling most painfully the suffering his tale would produce, Douglas struggled with his own emotion, and repeated all the information he had obtained. Guardedly as he spoke, evidently as he endeavored to prepare the mind of Agnes, and thus soften its woe, his tale was yet such as to harrow up the hearts of all his hearers, how much more the frail and gentle being to whom it more immediately related; yet she stood calm, pale, indeed, and quivering, but with a desperate effort conquering the weakness of her nature, and bearing that deep woe as the daughter of her mother, the betrothed of Nigel Bruce.
The young lord's information was simply this. On nearing the hunting-lodge, which was his first object, he found it very nearly deserted, but a few stragglers, amounting perhaps to fifty in number of the followers of Buchan, remaining behind, with orders to follow their master to Dunkeld without delay. Mingling with these as a countryman of the more northern counties, eager to obtain every species of intelligence respecting the movements of the English and the hunted Bruce, whom he pretended to condemn and vilify after the fashion of the Anglo-Scots, and feeling perfectly secure not only in the disguise he had assumed, but in the peculiar accent and intonation of the north-country peasant, which he could assume at pleasure, he made himself a welcome guest, and with scarcely any trouble received much of the information he desired. He was told of the first capture and rescue of the Countess of Buchan; that it was through one of the men left for dead on the scene of the skirmish the earl had received such exact information concerning the movements and intended destination of the Bruce; that immediately on receiving this intelligence he had gathered all his force, amounting to five hundred men, and dividing them into different bands, sent skilful guides with each, and was thus enabled to surround the lodge, and command five different avenues of the forest, without interruption or discovery. He learned, too, that a stormy interview had taken place between the earl, his wife, and son, the particulars of which, however, had not transpired; that the earl's rage had been terrific when he found the night passed, and the Bruce had not fallen into the snare laid for him; and he had sworn a fearful oath, that if the countess would not betray him into his power, her son should die; that both mother and son had stood this awful trial without shrinking; that no word either to betray their king or implore life and mercy had been wrung from them. Incensed beyond all measure, Buchan had sent on the countess with a numerous guard, his men believed, either to Dunkeld or Perth, in both of which towns there was a strong garrison of English, and lingered yet another day and night in the hope of dragging some intelligence from the lips of Alan, or persuading him into acting the spy upon the actions and movements of the Bruce. He succeeded in neither; and the men continued to state, with shuddering horror, which even their rude natures could not suppress, that they believed the son had actually fallen a victim to his father's rage—that he had actually been murdered. Numerous reports to that effect had been circulated on all sides, and though they had watched narrowly, they had seen nothing to contradict it. The body of the unfortunate boy had been cast into a deep well, heaps of rubbish flung over it, and the well built up. This they knew as a positive certainty, for they had seen it.
Douglas heard this tale with an intensity of horror, of loathing, which at first deprived him almost of every other feeling; but when he could withdraw himself from the horrible idea, a species of disbelief took possession of him. It was impossible such utter depravity, such fearful insensibility to the claims of nature could exist in the breast of any man; it was a tale forged to inflict fresh agony on the mother's heart, and he determined on discovering, if possible, the truth. He pretended entirely to disbelieve it; declared it was not possible; that the earl had practised on their credulity, and would laugh at them afterwards; and contrived so well, that three or four declared he should be convinced with his own eyes, and set about pulling down the slight brickwork which covered the well. This was what Douglas wanted, and he eagerly lent them a helping hand.
A body there was indeed, in form and in clothing so exactly that of the unhappy Alan, that, even though the face was so marred it could not be recognized, the young earl could doubt no longer; the young, the brave, the beautiful, and true, had fallen a victim to his own patriot loyalty, and by a father's hand. The deep suffering this certainly occasioned was regarded by his companions as sulkiness for having been proved wrong in his judgment; they jeered and laughed at him accordingly, and harshly as these sounds reverberated in his heart, they were welcome, as enabling him still more easily to continue his disguise.