"Aye, but he has changed, and we must change too, would we please him," said the baron; "such notions might have done in former days, but they are too high-flown for the present time, my good lord. I marvel they should have lingered so long with thee."
A frown gathered on Hereford's broad and noble brow, but remembering the forbearance due to his host, he checked an angry reply. "The king has changed," he said, "darkly and painfully changed; ambition has warped the noblest, knightliest heart which ever beat for chivalry."
"Hush, ere thou speakest treason, Sir Earl; give me not the pain of draining another flagon of this sparkling hypocras to gain strength for thine arrest, good friend," exclaimed Lancaster, laying the flat of his sword on the earl's shoulder.
Hereford half smiled. "Thou art too happy in thy light-hearted mirth for me to say aught that would so disturb it," he said; "yet I say, and will say again, would to heaven, I had been before the gates of Kildrummie, and left to thee all the honor and glory, an thou wilt, of this capture."
"Honor and glory, thou bitter piece of satire!" rejoined Lancaster, holding up a large golden flagon, to hide his face from the earl. "Unhappy me, were this all the glory I could win. I will wipe away the stain, if stain there be, at Kildrummie, an it be not surrendered ere we reach it."
"The stain is with the base traitor Ross, not with thee or me," answered Hereford; "'tis that I abhor the nature of such expeditions, that I loathe, aye, loathe communication with such as he, and that—if it can be—that worse traitor Buchan, that makes me rejoice I have naught before me now but as fair a field as a siege may be. Would to God, this devastating and most cruel war were over, I do say! on a fair field it may be borne, but not to war with women and children, as has been my fate."
"Aye, by the way, this is not the first fair prize thou hast sent to Edward; the Countess of Buchan was a rare jewel for our coveting monarch—somewhat more than possession, there was room for vengeance there. Bore she her captivity more queenly than the sobbing and weeping Margaret?"
The question was reiterated by most of the knights around the dais, but Hereford evidently shrunk from the inquiry.
"Speak not of it, I charge ye," he said. "There is no room for jesting on grief as hers; majestic and glorious she was, but if the reported tale be true, her every thought, her every feeling was, as I even then imagined, swallowed up in one tearless and stern but all-engrossing anguish."
"The reported tale! meanest thou the fate of her son?" asked one of the knights.
"If it be true!" resumed another; "believest thou, my lord, there is aught of hope to prove it false?"
"More likely to be true than false," added Lancaster; "I can believe any thing of that dark scowling villain Buchan—even the murder of his child."
"I believe it not," answered Hereford; "bad as that man is, hard in heart as in temper, he has too much policy to act thus, even if he had no feelings of nature rising to prevent it. No, no; I would wager the ruby brooch in my helmet that boy lives, and his father will make use of him to forward his own interests yet."
"But why then forge this tale?" demanded their host; "how may that serve his purpose?"
"Easily enough, with regard to the vengeance we all know he vowed to wreak on his unhappy wife. What deeper misery could he inflict upon her than the belief her boy was murdered? and as for its effect on Edward, trust a Comyn to make his own way clear."
"But what do with the boy meanwhile?"
"Keep him under lock and key; chained up, may be, as a dog in a kennel, till he has broken his high spirit, and moulds him to the tool he wills," answered Hereford, "or at least till his mother is out of his path."
"Ha! thinkest thou the king will demand such sweeping vengeance? He surely will not sentence a woman to death."
"Had I thought so, had I only dreamed so," replied Hereford, with almost startling sternness, "as there is a God above us, I would have risked the charge of treason and refused to give her up! But no, my lords, no; changed as Edward is, he would not, he dared not use his power thus. I meant but imprisonment, when I said out of the boy's path—more he will not do; but even such I love not. Bold as it was to crown the rebel Bruce, the deed sprung from a noble heart, and noble deeds should meet with noble judgment."
A bugle sounded twice or thrice sharply without, and occasioning some bustle at the lower part of the ball, interrupted for a brief space the converse of the lords. A few minutes after, the seneschal, attended by two or three higher servants, returned, marshalling in due form two young men in the garb of esquires, followed by some fifteen or twenty men-at-arms.
"Ha! Fitz-Ernest and Hugo; well met, and ye bring us good tidings from Kildrummie," exclaimed both the English earls at once, as cap in hand the esquires slowly walked up the hall, and did obeisance to their masters.
"Yet your steps are somewhat laggard, as they bring us news of victory. By my troth, were it not utterly impossible, I could deem ye had been worsted in the strife," continued the impatient Lancaster, while the cooler and more sagacious Hereford scanned the countenances of the esquires in silence. "Yet and ye come not to tell of victory, why have ye come at all?"
"To beseech your lordship's speedy return, to the camp," replied Fitz-Ernest, after a moment's hesitation, his cheek still flushed from his master's words. "There is division of purpose and action in the camp, and an ye not return and head the attack your noble selves, I fear me there is little hope of victory."
"Peace, fool! is there such skill and wisdom needed? Division in purpose and action! Quarrelling, methinks, had better be turned against the enemy than against yourselves. Hugo, do thou speak; in plain terms, wherefore come ye?"
"In plain terms, then, good my lord, as yet we have had the worst of it," answered the esquire, bluntly. "The Scotch fight like very devils, attacking us instead of waiting for our attack, penetrating into the very centre of our camp, one knows not how or whence, bearing off prisoners and booty in our very teeth."
"Prisoners—booty—worsted! Thou durst not tell me so!" exclaimed Lancaster, furiously, as he started up and half drew his sword.
"Peace, peace, I pray thee, good friend, peace," continued Hereford, laying his hand on Lancaster's shoulder, with a force which compelled him to resume his seat. "Let us at least hear and understand their mission. Speak out, Hugo, and briefly—what has befallen?"
In a few straightforward words his esquire gave all the information which was needed, interrupted only now and then by a brief interrogation from Hereford, and some impatient starts and muttering from his colleague. The success of the Scots, described in a former page, had continued, despite the action of the mangonels and other engines which the massive walls appeared to hold in defiance. So watchful and skilful were the besieged, that the greatest havoc had been made amongst the men employed in working the engines, and not yet had even the palisades and barbacan been successfully stormed.
"Have they tried any weaker point?" Hereford asked, and the answer was, that it was on this very matter division had spread amongst the knights, some insisting on carrying the barbacan as the most important point, and others advising and declaring their only hope of success lay in a divided attack on two of the weaker sides at once.
"The fools, the sorry fools!" burst again from Lancaster. "They deserve to be worsted for their inordinate pride and folly; all wanted to lead, and none would follow. Give you good e'en, my lord," he added, turning hastily to his host; "I'll to the courtyard and muster forth my men. Fitz-Ernest, thou shalt speak on as we go," and drawing his furred mantle around him, he strode rapidly yet haughtily from the hall. Hereford only waited to learn all from Hugo, to hold a brief consultation with some of his attendant knights, and he too, despite the entreaties of his host to tarry with him at least till morning, left the banquet to don his armor.
"Silence and speed carry all before them, my good lord," he said, courteously. "In such a case, though I fear no eventual evil, they must not be neglected. I would change the mode of attack on these Scotch, ere they are even aware their foes are reinforced."
"Eventual evil, of a truth, there need not be, my lord," interposed his esquire, "even should no force of arms prevail. I have heard there are some within the walls who need but a golden bribe to do the work for us."
"Peace!" said the nobleman, sternly. "I loathe the very word betray—spoken or intended. Shame, shame on thee to speak it, and yet more shame to imagine it needed! Art thou of Norman birth, and deemest a handful of Scotch like these will bid us raise the siege and tamely depart?—yet better so than gained by treachery."
Hugo and the Scottish baron alike shrunk back from the reproving look of Hereford, and both silently followed him to the courtyard. Already it was a scene of bustling animation: trumpets were sounding and drums rolling; torches flashing through the darkness on the mailed coats of the knights and on gleaming weapons; and the heavy tramp of near two hundred horse, hastily accoutred and led from the stable, mingled with the hoarse winds of winter, howling tempestuously around. The reserve which Hereford had retained to guard the prisoners so treacherously delivered over to him, was composed of the noblest amidst his army, almost all mounted chevaliers; and, therefore, though he might not add much actual force to the besiegers, the military skill and experience which that little troop included argued ill for the besieged. Some of the heaviest engines he had kept back also, particularly a tower some four or five stories high, so constructed that it could be rolled to the walls, and its inmates ascend unscathed by the weapons of their defenders. Not imagining it would be needed, he had not sent it on with the main body, but now he commanded twelve of the strongest horses to be yoked to it, and on went the unwieldy engine, rumbling and staggering on its ill-formed wheels. Lancaster, whose impatience no advice could ever control, dashed on with the first troop, leaving his cooler comrade to look to the yoking of the engines and the marshalling the men, and with his own immediate attendants bringing up the rear, a task for which Hereford's self-command as well fitted him as his daring gallantry to head the foremost charge.
"Ye will have a rough journey, my good lord; yet an ye deem it best, farewell and heaven speed ye," was the parting greeting of the baron, as he stood beside the impatient charger of the earl.
"The rougher the better," was that nobleman's reply; "the noise of the wind will conceal our movements better than a calmer night. Farewell, and thanks—a soldier's thanks, my lord, poor yet honest—for thy right noble welcome."
He bent his head courteously, set spurs to his steed, and dashed over the drawbridge as the last of his men disappeared through the outer gate. The Scottish nobleman looked after him with many mingled feelings.
"As noble a warrior as ever breathed," he muttered; "it were honor to serve under him, yet an he wants me not I will not join him. I love not the Bruce, yet uncalled, unneeded, I will not raise sword against my countrymen," and with slow, and equal steps he returned to the hall.
Hereford was correct in his surmises. The pitchy darkness of a winter night would scarcely have sufficed to hide the movements attendant on the sudden arrival of a large body of men in the English camp, had not the hoarse artillery of the wind, moaning, sweeping, and then rushing o'er the hills with a crashing sound like thunder, completely smothered every other sound, and if at intervals of quiet unusual sounds did attract the ears of those eager watchers on the Scottish walls, the utter impossibility of kindling torches or fires in either camp frustrated every effort of discovery. Hoarser and wilder grew the whirlwind with the waning hours, till even the steel-clad men-at-arms stationed on the walls moved before it, and were compelled to crouch down till its violence had passed. Favored by the elements, Hereford proceeded to execute his measures, heedless alike of the joyful surprise his sudden appearance occasioned, and of the tale of division and discord which Hugo and Fitz-Ernest had reported as destroying the unity of the camp. Briefly and sternly refusing audience to each who pressed forward, eager to exculpate himself at the expense of his companions, he desired his esquire to proclaim a general amnesty to all who allowed themselves to have been in error, and would henceforth implicitly obey his commands; he returned to his pavilion, with the Earl of Lancaster, summoning around him the veterans of the army, and a brief consultation was held. They informed him the greatest mischief had been occasioned by the injuries done to the engines, which had been brought to play against the walls. Stones of immense weight had been hurled upon them, materially injuring their works, and attended with such fatal slaughter to the men who worked them, that even the bravest shrunk back appalled; that the advice of the senior officers had been to hold back until these engines were repaired, merely keeping strict guard against unexpected sallies on the part of the Scotch, as this would not only give them time to recruit their strength, but in all probability throw the besieged off their guard. Not above half of the army, however, agreed with this counsel; the younger and less wary spurned it as cowardice and folly, and rushing on to the attack, ill-formed and ill-conducted, had ever been beaten back with immense loss; defeat, however, instead of teaching prudence, lashed them into greater fury, which sometimes turned upon each other.
Hereford listened calmly, yet with deep attention, now and then indeed turning his expressive eyes towards his colleague, as if entreating him to observe that the mischief which had befallen them proceeded greatly from impetuosity and imprudence, and beseeching his forbearance. Nor was Lancaster regardless of this silent appeal; conscious of his equality with Hereford in bravery and nobleness, he disdained not to acknowledge his inferiority to him in that greater coolness, which in a siege is so much needed, and grasping his hand with generous fervor, bade him speak, advise, command, and he would find no one in the camp more ready to be counselled and to obey than Lancaster. To tear down those rebel colors and raise those of England in their stead, was all he asked.
"And fear not that task shall be other than thine own, my gallant friend," was Hereford's instant reply, his features kindling at Lancaster's words more than they had done yet; and then again quickly resuming his calm unimpassioned exterior, he inquired if the mangonels and other engines were again fit for use. There were several that could instantly be put in action was the reply. Had the numbers of fighting men within the castle been ascertained? They had, a veteran answered, from a prisoner, who had appeared so willing to give information, that his captors imagined there were very many malcontents within the walls. Of stalwart fighting men there were scarcely more than three hundred; others there were, of whose number was the prisoner, who fought because their companions' swords would else have been at their throats, but that they would be glad enough to be made prisoners, to escape the horrors of the siege.
"I am sorry for it," was the earl's sole rejoinder, "there will be less glory in the conquest."
"And this Sir Nigel Bruce, whoe'er he be, hath to combat against fearful odds," remarked Lancaster; "and these Scotch-men, by my troth, seem touched by the hoof of the arch-deceiver—treachery from the earl to the peasant. Hast noticed how this scion of the Bruce bears himself?—right gallantly, 'tis said."
"As a very devil, my lord," impetuously answered a knight; "in the walls or out of them, there's no standing before him. He sweeps down his foes, line after line, as cards blown before the wind; he is at the head of every charge, the last of each retreat. But yesternight there were those who marked him covering the retreat of his men absolutely alone; his sword struck down two at every sweep, till his passage was cleared; he darted on—the drawbridge trembled in its grooves—for he had given the command to raise it, despite his own danger—his charger, mad as himself, sprang forward, and like a lightning flash, both disappeared within the portcullis as the bridge uprose."
"Gallantly done!" exclaimed Lancaster, who had listened to this recital almost breathlessly. "By St. George, a foe worthy to meet and struggle with! But who is he—what is he?"
"Knowest thou not?" said Hereford, surprised; "the brother, youngest brother I have heard, of this same daring Earl of Carrick who has so troubled our sovereign."
"Nigel, the brother of Robert! What, the scribe, the poet, the dreamer of Edward's court? a poor youth, with naught but his beauty to recommend him. By all good angels, this metamorphosis soundeth strangely! art sure 'tis the same, the very same?"
"I have heard so," was Hereford's quiet reply, and continuing his more important queries with the veterans around, while Lancaster, his gayer spirit roused by this account of Nigel, demanded every minute particular concerning him, that he might seek him hand to hand.
"Steel armor inlaid with silver—blue scarf across his breast, embroidered with his cognizance in gold—blue plume, which no English sword hath ever soiled—humph! that's reserved for me—charger white as the snow on the ground—sits his steed as man and horse were one. Well, gloriously well, there will be no lack of glory here!" he said, joyously, as one by one he slowly enumerated the symbols by which he might recognize his foe. So expeditiously had Hereford conducted his well-arranged plans, that when his council was over, it still wanted two hours to dawn, and these Hereford commanded the men who had accompanied him to pass in repose.
But he himself partook not of this repose, passing the remainder of the darkness in carefully reviewing the forces which were still fresh and prepared for the onset, in examining the nature of the engines, and finally, still aided by the noise of the howling winds, marshalled them in formidable array in very front of the barbacan, the heavy mist thrown onward by the blasts effectually concealing their near approach. To Lancaster the command of this party was intrusted; Hereford reserving to himself the desirable yet delicate task of surveying the ground, confident that the attack on the barbacan would demand the whole strength and attention of the besieged, and thus effectually cover his movements.
His plan succeeded. A fearful shout, seconded by a tremendous discharge of huge stones, some of which rattled against the massive walls in vain, others flying across the moat and crushing some of the men on the inner wall, were the first terrific sounds which unexpectedly greeted the aroused attention of the Scotch. The armor of their foes flashing through the mist, the furious charge of the knights up to the very gates of the barbacan, seemingly in sterner and more compact array than of late had been their wont, the immense body which followed them, appearing in that dim light more numerous than reality, struck a momentary chill on the Scottish garrison; but the unwonted emotion was speedily dissipated by the instant and unhesitating sally of Sir Christopher Seaton and his brave companions. The impetuosity of their charge, the suddenness of their appearance, despite their great disparity of numbers, caused the English a moment to bear back, and kept them in full play until Nigel and his men-at-arms, rushing over the lowered drawbridge, joined in the strife. A brief, very brief interval of fighting convinced both the Scottish leaders that a master-spirit now headed their foes; that they were struggling at infinitely greater odds than before; that unity of purpose, greater sagacity, and military skill were now at work against them, they scarce knew wherefore, for they recognized the same war-cry, the same banners; there were the same gallant show of knights, for in the desperate melee it was scarcely possible to distinguish the noble form of Lancaster from his fellows, although marking the azure plume, which even then waved high above all others, though round it the work of death ever waxed hottest; the efforts of the English earl were all bent to meet its gallant wearer hand to hand, but the press of war still held them apart, though both seemed in every part of the field. It was a desperate struggle man to man; the clash of swords became one strange continuous mass of sound, instead of the fearful distinctness which had marked their work before. Shouts and cries mingled fearfully with the sharper clang, the heavy fall of man and horse, the creaking of the engines, the wild shrieks of the victims within the walls mangled by the stones, or from the survivors who witnessed their fall—all formed a din as terrific to hear, as dreadful to behold. With even more than their wonted bravery the Scotch fought, but with less success. The charge of the English was no longer the impetuous fury of a few hot-headed young men, more eager to despite their cooler advisers, than gain any permanent good for themselves. Now, as one man fell another stepped forward in his place, and though the slaughter might have been equal, nay, greater on the side of the besiegers than the besieged, by one it was scarcely felt, by the other the death of each man was even as the loss of a host. Still, still they struggled on, the English obtaining possession of the palisades, though the immense strength of the barbacan itself, defended as it was by the strenuous efforts of the Scotch, still resisted all attack: bravely, nobly, the besieged retreated within their walls, pellmell their foes dashed after them, and terrific was the combat on the drawbridge, which groaned and creaked beneath the heavy tramp of man and horse. Many, wrestling in the fierceness of mortal strife, fell together in the moat, and encumbered with heavy armor, sunk in each other's arms, in the grim clasp of death.
Then it was Lancaster met hand to hand the gallant foe he sought, covering the retreat of his men, who were bearing Sir Christopher Seaton, desperately wounded, to the castle. Sir Nigel stood well-nigh alone on the bridge; his bright armor, his foaming charger bore evident marks of the fray, but still he rode his steed firmly and unbent, his plume yet waved untouched by the foeman's sword. Nearer and nearer pressed forward the English earl, signing to his men to secure without wounding his gallant foe; round him they closely gathered, but Nigel evinced no sign either of trepidation or anger, fearlessly, gallantly, he returned the earl's impetuous charge, backing his steed slowly as he did so, and keeping his full front to his foe. On, on pressed Lancaster, even to the postern; a bound, a shout, and scarcely was he aware that his sword had ceased to cross with Nigel's, before he was startled by the heavy fall of the portcullis, effectually dividing them, and utterly frustrating further pursuit. A cry of rage, of disappointment broke from the English, as they were compelled to turn and rejoin their friends.
The strife still continued within and without the barbacan, and ended without much advantage on either side. The palisades and outward barriers had indeed fallen into the hands of the English, which was the first serious loss yet sustained by the besieged; from the barbacan they had gallantly and successfully driven their foe, but that trifling success was so counterbalanced by the serious loss of life amid the garrison which it included, that both Nigel and Sir Christopher felt the next attack must deliver it into the hands of the besiegers. Their loss of men was in reality scarcely a third of the number which had fallen among the English, yet to them that loss was of infinitely more consequence than to the foe. Bitter and painful emotions filled the noble spirit of Nigel, as he gazed on the diminished number of his men, and met the ill-suppressed groans and lamentations of those who had, at the first alarm of the English, sought shelter and protection in the castle; their ill-suppressed entreaties that he would struggle no longer against such odds grated harshly and ominously on his ear; but sternly he turned from them to the men-at-arms, and in their steadfast bravery and joyous acclamations found some degree of hope.
Yet ere the day closed the besieged felt too truly their dreams of triumph, of final success, little short of a miracle would realize. Their fancy that some new and mightier spirit of generalship was at work within the English camp was confirmed. Two distinct bodies were observed at work on the eastern and southern sides of the mount, the one evidently employed in turning aside the bed of the river, which on that side flowed instead of the moat beneath the wall, the other in endeavoring to fill up the moat by a causeway, so as to admit of an easy access to the outer wall. The progress they had made in their work the first day, while the attention of the Scotch had been confined to the attack on the barbacan, was all-sufficient evidence of their intent; and with bitter sorrow Sir Nigel and his brother-in-law felt that their only means of any efficient defence lay in resigning the long-contested barbacan to the besiegers. An important point it certainly was, but still to retain it the walls overlooking the more silent efforts of the English must be left comparatively unguarded, and they might obtain an almost uninterrupted and scarce-contested passage within the walls, while the whole strength and attention of the besieged were employed, as had already been the case, on a point that they had scarce a hope eventually to retain. With deep and bitter sorrow the alternative was proposed and carried in a hurried council of war, and so well acted upon, that, despite the extreme watchfulness of the English, men, treasure, arms, and artillery, all that the strong towers contained, were conveyed at dead of night over the drawbridge into the castle, and the following morning, Lancaster, in utter astonishment, took possession of the deserted fort.
Perhaps to both parties this resolution was alike a disappointment and restraint. The English felt there was no glory in their prize, they had not obtained possession through their own prowess and skill; and now that the siege had become so much closer, and this point of communication was entirely stopped, the hand-to-hand combat, the glorious melee, the press of war, which to both parties had been an excitement, and little more than warlike recreation, had of course entirely ceased, but Hereford heeded not the disappointment of his men; his plans were progressing as he had desired, even though his workmen were greatly harassed by the continued discharge of arrows and immense stones from the walls.
The desertion of the barbacan was an all-convincing proof of the very small number of the garrison; and though the immense thickness and solidity of the walls bespoke time, patience, and control, the English earl never wavered from his purpose, and by his firmness, his personal gallantry, his readily-bestowed approbation on all who demanded it, he contrived to keep his more impatient followers steadily to their task; while Nigel, to prevent the spirits of his men from sinking, would frequently lead them forth at night, and by a sudden attack annoy and often cut off many of the men stationed within the barbacan. The drawbridge was the precarious ground of many a midnight strife, till the daring gallantry of Nigel Bruce became the theme of every tongue; a gallantry equalled only by the consummate skill which he displayed, in retreating within his entrenchments frequently without the loss of a single man either as killed or wounded. Often would Sir Christopher Seaton, whose wounds still bound him a most unwilling prisoner to his couch, entreat him to avoid such rash exposures of his life, but Nigel only answered him with a smile and an assurance he bore a charmed life, which the sword of the foe could not touch.
The siege had now lasted six weeks, and the position of both parties continued much as we have seen, save that the bed of the river had now begun to appear, promising a free passage to the English on the eastern side, and on the south a broad causeway had stretched itself over the moat, on which the towers for defending the ascent of the walls, mangonels and other engines, were already safely bestowed, and all promised fair to the besiegers, whose numerous forces scarcely appeared to have suffered any diminution, although in reality some hundreds had fallen; while on the side of the besieged, although the walls were still most gallantly manned, and the first efforts of the English to scale the walls had been rendered ineffectual by huge stones hurled down upon them, still a look of greater care was observable on the brows of both officers and men; and provisions had now begun to be doled out by weight and measure, for though the granaries still possessed stores sufficient for some weeks longer, the apparent determination of the English to permit no relaxation in their close attack, demanded increase of caution on the part of the besieged.
About this time an event occurred, which, though comparatively trifling in itself, when the lives of so many were concerned, was fraught in effect with fatal consequences to all the inmates of Kildrummie. The conversation of the next chapter, however, will better explain it, and to it we refer our readers.
In a circular apartment of the lower floor in Kildrummie keep, its stone floor but ill covered with rushes, and the walls hung with the darkest and rudest arras, Sir Christopher Seaton reclined on a rough couch, in earnest converse with his brother-in-law, Nigel. Lady Seaton was also within the chamber, at some little distance from the knights, engaged in preparing lint and healing ointments, with the aid of an attendant, for the wounded, and ready at the first call to rise and attend them, as she had done unremittingly during the continuance of the siege. The countenances of both warriors were slightly changed from the last time we beheld them. The severity of his wounds had shed a cast almost of age on the noble features of Seaton, but care and deep regret had mingled with that pallor; and perhaps on the face of Nigel, which three short weeks before had beamed forth such radiant hope, the change was more painful. He had escaped with but slight flesh wounds, but disappointment and anxiety were now vividly impressed on his features; the smooth brow would unconsciously wrinkle in deep and unexpressed thought; the lip, to which love, joy, and hope alone had once seemed natural, now often compressed, and his eye flashed, till his whole countenance seemed stern, not with the sternness of a tyrannical, changed and chafing mood—no, 'twas the sternness most fearful to behold in youth, of thought, deep, bitter, whelming thought; and sterner even than it had been yet was the expression on his features as he spoke this day with Seaton.
"He must die," were the words which broke a long and anxious pause, and fell in deep yet emphatic tones from the lips of Seaton; "yes, die! Perchance the example may best arrest the spreading contagion of treachery around us."
"I know not, I fear not; yet as thou sayest he must die," replied Nigel, speaking as in deep thought; "would that the noble enemy, who thus scorned to benefit by the offered treason, had done on him the work of death himself. I love not the necessity nor the deed."
"Yet it must be, Nigel. Is there aught else save death, the death of a traitor, which can sufficiently chastise a crime like this? Well was it the knave craved speech of Hereford himself. I marvel whether the majesty of England had resisted a like temptation."
"Seaton, he would not," answered the young man. "I knew him, aye, studied him in his own court, and though I doubt not there was a time when chivalry was strongest in the breast of Edward, it was before ambition's fatal poison had corroded his heart. Now he would deem all things honorable in the art of war, aye, even the delivery of a castle through the treachery of a knave."
"And he hath more in yon host to think with him than with the noble Hereford," resumed Sir Christopher; "yet this is but idle parley, and concerneth but little our present task. In what temper do our men receive the tidings of this foul treason?"
"Our own brave fellows call aloud for vengeance on the traitor; nay, had I not rescued him from their hands, they would have torn him limb from limb in their rage. But there are others, Seaton—alas! the more numerous body now—and they speak not, but with moody brows and gloomy mutterings prowl up and down the courts."
"Aye, the coward hearts," answered Seaton, "their good wishes went with him, and but low-breathed curses follow our efforts for their freedom. Yes, it must be, if it be but as a warning unto others. See to it, Nigel; an hour before the set of sun he dies."
A brief pause followed his words, whose low sternness of tone betrayed far more than the syllables themselves. Both warriors remained a while plunged in moody thought, which Seaton was the first to break.
"And how went the last attack and defence?" he asked; "they told me, bravely."
"Aye, so bravely, that could we but reinforce our fighting men, aided as we are by impenetrable walls, we might dream still of conquest; they have gained little as yet, despite their nearer approach. Hand to hand we have indeed struggled on the walls, and hurled back our foremost foes in their own intrenchments. Our huge fragments of rocks have dealt destruction on one of their towers, crushing all who manned it beneath the ruins."
"And I lie here when such brave work is going on beside me, even as a bedridden monk or coward layman, when my whole soul is in the fight," said the knight, bitterly, and half springing from his couch. "When will these open wounds—to the foul fiend with them and those who gave them!—when will they let me mount and ride again as best befits a warrior? Better slain at once than lie here a burden, not a help—taking from those whose gallant efforts need it more the food we may not have for long. I will not thus be chained; I'll to the action, be my life the forfeit!"
He sprung up, and for a moment stood upon his feet, but with a low groan of pain instantly fell back, the dew of weakness gathering on his brow. Lady Seaton was at his side on the instant to bathe his temples and his hands, yet without one reproachful word, for she knew the anguish it was to his brave heart to lie thus disabled, when every loyal hand was needed for his country.
"Nigel, I would that I might join thee. Remember, 'tis no mean game we play; we hold not out as marauding chieftains against a lawful king; we struggle not in defence of petty rights, of doubtful privileges. 'Tis for Scotland, for King Robert still we strive. Did this castle hold out, aye, compel the foe to raise the siege, much, much would be done for Scotland. Others would do as we have done; many, whose strongholds rest in English hands, would rise and expel the foe. Had we but reinforcements of men and stores, all might still be well."
"Aye," answered Nigel, bitterly, "but with all Scotland crushed 'neath English chains, her king and his bold patriots fugitives and exiles, ourselves the only Scottish force in arms, the only Scottish castle which resists the tyrant, how may this be, whence may come increase of force, of store? Seaton Seaton, thine are bright dreams—would that they were real."
"Wouldst thou then give up at once, and strive no more? It cannot be."
"Never!" answered his companion, passionately. "Ere English feet shall cross these courts and English colors wave above these towers, the blood of the defenders must flow beneath their steps. They gain not a yard of earth save at the bright sword's point; not a rood of grass unstained by Scottish blood. Give up! not till my arm can wield no sword, my voice no more shout 'Forward for the Bruce!'"
"Then we will hope on, dream on, Nigel, and despair not," replied Seaton, in the same earnest tone. "We know not yet what may be, and, improbable as it seems now, succors may yet arrive. How long doth last the truce?"
"For eighteen hours, two of which have passed."
"Didst thou demand it?"
"No," replied Nigel. "It was proffered by the earl, as needed for a strict examination of the traitor Evan Roy, and accepted in the spirit with which it was offered."
"Thou didst well; and the foul traitor—where hast thou lodged him?"
"In the western turret, strongly guarded. I would not seek thy counsel until I had examined and knew the truth."
"And thine own judgment?"
"Was as thine. It is an ill necessity, yet it must be."
"Didst pronounce his sentence?"
Nigel answered in the affirmative.
"And how was it received?"
"In the same sullen silence on the part of the criminal as he had borne during his examination. Methought a low murmur of discontent escaped from some within the hall, but it was drowned in the shout of approbation from the men-at-arms, and the execrations they lavished on the traitor as they bore him away, so I heeded it not."
"But thou wilt heed it," said a sweet voice beside him, and Agnes, who had just entered the chamber, laid her hand on his arm and looked beseechingly in his face. "Dearest Nigel, I come a pleader."
"And for whom, my beloved?" he asked, his countenance changing into its own soft beautiful expression as he gazed on her, "What can mine Agnes ask that Nigel may not grant?"
"Nay, I am no pleader for myself," she said; "I come on the part of a wretched wife and aged mother, beseeching the gift of life."
"And for a traitor, Agnes?"
"I think of him but as a husband and son, dearest Nigel," she said, more timidly, for his voice was stern. "They tell me he is condemned to death, and his wretched wife and mother besought my influence with thee; and indeed it needed little entreaty, for when death is so busy around us, when in this fearful war we see the best and bravest of our friends fall victims every day, oh, I would beseech you to spare life when it may be. Dearest, dearest Nigel, have mercy on this wretched man; traitor as he is, oh, do not take his life—do not let thy lips sentence him to death. Wilt thou not be merciful?"
"If the death of one man will preserve the lives of many, how may that one be spared?" said Sir Nigel, folding the sweet pleader closer to him, though his features spoke no relaxation of his purpose. "Sweet Agnes, do not ask this, give me not the bitter pain of refusing aught to thee. Thou knowest not all the mischief and misery which pardon to a traitor such as this will do; thou listenest only to thy kind heart and the sad pleadings of those who love this man. Now listen to me, beloved, and judge thyself. Did I believe a pardon would bring back the traitor to a sense of duty, to a consciousness of his great crime—did I believe giving life to him would deter others from the same guilt, I should scarce wait even for thy sweet pleading to give him both liberty and life; but I know him better than thou, mine Agnes. He is one of those dark, discontented, rebellious spirits, that never rest in stirring up others to be like them; who would employ even the life I gave him to my own destruction, and that of the brave and faithful soldiers with me."
"But send him hence, dearest Nigel," still entreated Agnes. "Give him life, but send him from the castle; will not this remove the danger of his influence with others?"
"And give him field and scope to betray us yet again, sweet one. It were indeed scorning the honorable counsel of Hereford to act thus; for trust me, Agnes, there are not many amid our foes would resist temptation as he hath done."
"Yet would not keeping him close prisoner serve thee as well as death, Nigel? Bethink thee, would it not spare the ill of taking life?"
"Dearest, no," he answered. "There are many, alas! too many within these walls who need an example of terror to keep them to their duty. They will see that treachery avails not with the noble Hereford, and that, discovered by me, it hath no escape from death. If this man be, as I imagine, in league with other contentious spirits—for he could scarce hope to betray the castle into the hands of the English without some aid within—his fate may strike such terror into other traitor hearts that their designs will be abandoned. Trust me, dearest, I do not do this deed of justice without deep regret; I grieve for the necessity even as the deed, and yet it must be; and bitter as it is to refuse thee aught, indeed I cannot grant thy boon."
"Yet hear me once more, Nigel. Simple and ignorant as I am, I cannot answer such arguments as thine; yet may it not be that this deed of justice, even while it strikes terror, may also excite the desire for revenge, and situated as we are were it not better to avoid all such bitterness, such heart-burnings amongst the people?"
"We must brave it, dearest," answered Nigel, firmly, "The direct line of justice and of duty may not be turned aside for such fears as these."
"Nor do I think they have foundation," continued Sir Christopher Seaton. "Thou hast pleaded well and kindly, gentle maiden, yet gladly as we would do aught to pleasure thee, this that thou hast asked, alas! must not be. The crime itself demands punishment, and even could we pardon that, duty to our country, our king, ourselves, calls loudly for his death, lest his foul treachery should spread."
The eyes of the maiden filled with tears.
"Then my last hope is over," she said, sadly. "I looked to thy influence, Sir Christopher, to plead for me, even if mine own supplications should fail; and thou judgest even as Nigel, not as my heart could wish."
"We judge as men and soldiers, gentle maiden; as men who, charged with a most solemn responsibility, dare listen to naught save the voice of justice, however loudly mercy pleads."
"And didst thou think, mine Agnes, if thy pleading was of no avail, the entreaty of others could move me?" whispered Nigel, in a voice which, though tender, was reproachful. "Dearest and best, oh, thou knowest not the pang it is to refuse thee even this, and to feel my words have filled those eyes with tears. Say thou wilt not deem me cruel, abiding by justice when there is room for mercy?"
"I know thee better than to judge thee thus," answered Agnes, tearfully; "the voice of duty must have spoken loudly to urge thee to this decision, and I may not dispute it; yet would that death could be averted. There was madness in that woman's eyes," and she shuddered as she spoke.
"Of whom speakest thou, love?" Nigel asked, and Seaton looked the question.
"Of his wife," she replied. "She came to me distracted, and used such dreadful words, menaces and threats they seemed; but his mother, more composed, assured me they meant nothing, they were but the ravings of distress, and yet I fear to look on her again without his pardon."
"And thou shalt not, my beloved; these are not scenes and words for such as thee. Rest here with Christine and good Sir Christopher; to tend and cheer a wounded knight is a fitter task for thee, sweet one, than thus to plead a traitor's cause."
Pressing his lips upon her brow as he spoke, he placed her gently on a settle by Sir Christopher; then crossing the apartment, he paused a moment to whisper to Lady Seaton.
"Look to her, my dear sister; she has been terrified, though she would conceal it. Let her not leave thee till this fatal duty is accomplished."
Lady Seaton assured him of her compliance, and he left the apartment.
He had scarcely quitted the postern before he himself encountered Jean Roy, a woman who, even in her mildest moments, evinced very little appearance of sanity, and who now, from her furious and distracting gestures, seemed wrought up to no ordinary pitch of madness. She kept hovering round him, uttering menaces and entreaties in one and the same breath, declaring one moment that her husband was no traitor, and had only done what every true-hearted Scotsman ought to do, if he would save himself and those he loved from destruction; the next, piteously acknowledging his crime, and wildly beseeching mercy. For a while Nigel endeavored, calmly and soothingly, to reason with her, but it was of no avail: louder and fiercer became her curses and imprecations; beseeching heaven to hurl down all its maledictions upon him and the woman he loved, and refuse him mercy when he most needed it. Perceiving her violence becoming more and more outrageous, Nigel placed her in charge of two of his men-at-arms, desiring them to treat her kindly, but not to lose sight of her, and keep her as far as possible from the scene about to be enacted. She was dragged away, struggling furiously, and Nigel felt his heart sink heavier within him. It was not that he wavered in his opinion, that he believed, situated as he was, it was better to spare the traitor's life than excite to a flame the already aroused and angered populace. He thought indeed terror might do much; but whether it was the entreating words of Agnes, or the state of the unhappy Jean, there had come upon him a dim sense of impending ill; an impression that the act of justice about to be performed would bring matters to a crisis, and the ruin of the garrison be consummated, ere he was aware it had begun. The shadow of the future appeared to have enfolded him, but still he wavered not. The hours sped: his preparations were completed, and at the time appointed by Seaton, with as much of awful solemnity as circumstances would admit, the soul of the traitor was launched into eternity. Men, women, and children had gathered round the temporary scaffold; every one within the castle, save the maimed and wounded, thronged to that centre court, and cheers and shouts, and groans and curses, mingled strangely on the air.
Clad in complete steel, but bareheaded, Sir Nigel Bruce had witnessed the act of justice his voice had pronounced, and, after a brief pause, he stood forward on the scaffold, and in a deep, rich voice addressed the multitude ere they separated. Eloquently, forcibly, he spoke of the guilt, the foul guilt of treachery, now when Scotland demanded all men to join together hand and heart as one—now when the foe was at their gates; when, if united, they might yet bid defiance to the tyrant, who, if they were defeated, would hold them slaves. He addressed them as Scottish men and freemen, as soldiers, husbands, and fathers, as children of the brave, who welcomed death with joy, rather than life in slavery and degradation; and when his words elicited a shout of exultation and applause from the greater number, he turned his eye on the group of malcontents, and sternly and terribly bade them beware of a fate similar to that which they had just witnessed; for the gallant Earl of Hereford, he said, would deal with all Scottish traitors as with Evan Roy, and once known as traitors within the castle walls, he need not speak their doom, for they had witnessed it; and then changing his tone, frankly and beseechingly he conjured them to awake from the dull, sluggish sleep of indifference and fear, to put forth their energies as men, as warriors; their country, their king, their families, called on them, and would they not hear? He bade them arise, awake to their duty, and all that had been should never be recalled. He spoke with a brief yet mighty eloquence that seemed to carry conviction with it. Many a stern face and darkened brow relaxed, and there was hope in many a patriot breast as that group dispersed, and all was once more martial bustle on the walls.
"Well and wisely hast thou spoken, my son," said the aged Abbot of Scone, who had attended the criminal's last moments, and now, with Nigel, sought the keep. "Thy words have moved those rebellious spirits, have calmed the rising tempest even as oil flung on the troubled waves; thine eloquence was even as an angel voice 'mid muttering fiends. Yet thou art still sad, still anxious. My son, this should not be."
"It must be, father," answered the young man. "I have looked beyond that oily surface and see naught save darker storms and fiercer tempests; those spirits need somewhat more than a mere voice. Father, reproach me not as mistrusting the gracious heaven in whose keeping lie our earthly fates. I know the battle is not to the strong, 'tis with the united, the faithful, and those men are neither. My words have stirred them for the moment, as a pebble flung 'mid the troubled waters—a few brief instants and all trace is passed, we see naught but the blackened wave. But speak not of these things; my trust is higher than earth, and let man work his will."
Another week passed, and the fierce struggle continued, alternating success, one day with the besiegers, the next with the besieged. The scene of action was now principally on the walls—a fearful field, for there was no retreat—and often the combatants, entwined in a deadly struggle, fell together into the moat. Still there were no signs of wavering on either side, still did the massive walls give no sign of yielding to the tremendous and continued discharge of heavy stones, that against battlements less strongly constructed must long ere this have dealt destruction and inevitable mischief to the besieged. One tower, commanding the causeway across the moat and its adjoining platform on the wall, had indeed been taken by the English, and was to them a decided advantage, but still their further progress even to the next tower was lingering and dubious, and it appeared evident to both parties that, from the utter impossibility of the Scotch obtaining supplies of provision and men, success must finally attend the English; they would succeed more by the effects of famine than by their swords.
It was, as we have said, seven days after the execution of the traitor Roy. A truce for twelve hours had been concluded with the English, at the request of Sir Nigel Bruce, and safe conduct granted by the Earl of Hereford to those men, women, and children of the adjoining villages who chose even at this hour to leave the castle, but few, a very few took advantage of this permission, and these were mostly the widows and children of those who had fallen in the siege; a fact which caused some surprise, as the officers and men-at-arms imagined it would have been eagerly seized upon by all those contentious spirits who had appeared so desirous of a league with England. A quiet smile slightly curled the lips of Nigel as this information was reported to him—a smile as of a mind prepared for and not surprised at what he heard; but when left alone, the smile was gone, he folded his arms on his breast, his head was slightly bent forward, but had there been any present to have remarked him, they would have seen his features move and work with the intensity of internal emotion. Some mighty struggle he was enduring; something there was passing at his very heart, for when recalled from that trance by the heavy bell of the adjoining church chiming the hour of five, and he looked up, there were large drops of moisture on his brow, and his beautiful eye seemed for the moment strained and blood-shot. He paced the chamber slowly and pensively till there was no outward mark of agitation, and then he sought for Agnes.
She was alone in an upper chamber of the keep, looking out from the narrow casement on a scene of hill and vale, and water, which, though still wintry from the total absence of leaf and flower, was yet calm and beautiful in the declining sun, and undisturbed by the fearful scenes and sounds which met the glance and ear on every other side, seemed even as a paradise of peace. It had been one of those mild, soft days of February, still more rare in Scotland than in England, and on the heart and sinking frame of Agnes its influence had fallen, till, almost unconsciously, she wept. The step of Nigel caused her hastily to dash these tears aside, and as he stood by her and silently folded his arm around her, she looked up in his face with a smile. He sought to return it, but the sight of such emotion, trifling as it was, caused his heart to sink with indescribable fear; his lip quivered, as utterly to prevent the words he sought to speak, and as he clasped her to his bosom and bent his head on hers, a low yet instantly suppressed moan burst from him.
"Nigel, dearest Nigel, what has chanced? Oh, speak to me!" she exclaimed, clasping his hand in both hers, and gazing wildly in his face. "Thou art wounded or ill, or wearied unto death. Oh, let me undo this heavy armor, dearest; seek but a brief interval of rest. Speak to me, I know thou art not well."
"It is but folly, my beloved, a momentary pang that weakness caused. Indeed, thy fears are causeless; I am well, quite well," he answered, struggling with himself, and subduing with an effort his emotion. "Mine own Agnes, thou wilt not doubt me; look not upon me so tearfully, 'tis passed, 'tis over now."
"And thou wilt not tell me that which caused it, Nigel? Hast thou aught of suffering which thou fearest to tell thine Agnes? Oh! do not fear it; weak, childlike as I am, my soul will find strength for it."
"And thou shalt know all, all in a brief while," he said, her sweet pleading voice rendering the task of calmness more difficult. "Yet tell me first thy thoughts, my love. Methought thy gaze was on yon peaceful landscape as I entered, and yet thine eyes were dimmed with tears."
"And yet I know not wherefore," she replied, "save the yearnings for peace were stronger, deeper than they should be, and I pictured a cot where love might dwell in yon calm valley, and wished that this fierce strife was o'er."
"'Tis in truth no scene for thee, mine own. I know, I feel thou pinest for freedom, for the fresh, pure, stainless air of the mountain, the valley's holy calm; thine ear is sick with the fell sounds that burst upon it; thine eye must turn in loathing from this fierce strife. Agnes, mine own Agnes, is it not so? would it not be happiness, aye, heaven's own bliss, to seek some peaceful home far, far away from this?"
He spoke hurriedly and more passionately than was his wont, but Agnes only answered—
"With thee, Nigel, it were bliss indeed."
"With me," he said; "and couldst thou not be happy were I not at thy side? Listen to me, beloved," and his voice became as solemnly earnest as it had previously been hurried. "I sought thee, armed I thought with fortitude sufficient for the task; sought thee, to beseech, implore thee to seek safety and peace for a brief while apart from me, till these fearful scenes are passed. Start not, and oh, do not look upon me thus. I know all that strength of nerve, of soul, which bids thee care not for the dangers round thee. I know that where I am thy loving spirit feels no fear; but oh, Agnes, for my sake, if not for thine own, consent to fly ere it be too late; consent to seek safety far from this fatal tower. Let me not feel that on thee, on thee, far dearer than my life, destruction, and misery, and suffering in a thousand fearful shapes may fall. Let me but feel thee safe, far from this terrible scene, and then, come what will, it can have no pang."
"And thee," murmured the startled girl, on whose ear the words of Nigel had fallen as with scarce half their meaning, "thee, wouldst thou bid me leave thee, to strive on, suffer on, and oh, merciful heaven! perchance fall alone? Nigel, Nigel, how may this be? are we not one, only one, and how may I dwell in safety without thee—how mayest thou suffer without me?"
"Dearest and best!" he answered, passionately, "oh, that we were indeed one; that the voice of heaven had bound us one, long, long ere this! and yet—no, no, 'tis better thus," and again he struggled with emotion, and spoke calmly. "Agnes, beloved, precious as thou art in these hours of anxiety, dear, dearer than ever, in thy clinging, changeless love, yet tempt me not selfishly to retain thee by my side, when liberty, and life, and joy await thee beyond these fated walls. Thy path is secured; all that can assist, can accelerate thy flight waits but thy approval. The dress of a minstrel boy is procured, and will completely conceal and guard thee through the English camp. Our faithful friend, the minstrel seer, will be thy guide, and lead thee to a home of peace and safety, until my brother's happier fortune dawns; he will guard and love thee for thine own and for my sake. Speak to me, beloved; thou knowest this good old man, and I so trust him that I have no fear for thee. Oh, do not pause, and ere this truce be over let me, let me feel that thou art safe and free, and may in time be happy."
"In time," she repeated slowly, as if to herself, and then, rousing herself from that stupor of emotion, looked up with a countenance on which a sudden glow had spread. "And why hast thou so suddenly resolved on this?" she asked, calmly; "why shouldst thou fear for me more now than hitherto, dearest Nigel? Hath not the danger always been the same, and yet thou ne'er hast breathed of parting? are not thy hopes the same—what hath chanced unknown to me, that thou speakest and lookest thus? tell me, ere thou urgest more."
"I will tell thee what I fear, my love," he answered, reassured by her firmness; "much that is seen not, guessed not by my comrades. They were satisfied that my appeal had had its effect, and the execution of Evan Roy was attended with no disturbance, no ill will amongst those supposed to be of his party—nay, that terror did its work, and all ideas of treachery which might have been before encouraged were dismissed. I, too, believed this, Agnes, for a while; but a few brief hours were sufficient to prove the utter fallacy of the dream. Some secret conspiracy is, I am convinced, carrying on within these very walls. I know and feel this, and yet so cautious, so secret are their movements, whatever they may be, that I cannot guard against them. There are, as thou knowest, fewer true fighting men amongst us than any other class, and these are needed to man the walls and guard against the foe without; they may not be spared to watch as spies their comrades—nay, I dare not even breathe such thoughts, lest their bold hearts should faint and fail, and they too demand surrender ere evil come upon us from within. What will be that evil I know not, and therefore cannot guard against it. I dare not employ these men upon the walls, I dare not bring them out against the foe, for so bitterly do I mistrust them, I should fear even then they would betray us. I only know that evil awaits us, and therefore, my beloved, I do beseech thee, tarry not till it be upon us; depart while thy path is free."
"Yet if they sought safety and peace, if they tire of this warfare," she replied, disregarding his last words, "wherefore not depart to-day, when egress was permitted; bethink thee, dearest Nigel, is not this proof thy fears are ill founded, and that no further ill hangs over us than that which threatens from without?"
"Alas! no," he said, "it but confirms my suspicions; I obtained this safe conduct expressly to nullify or confirm them. Had they departed as I wished, all would have been well; but they linger, and I can feel their plans are maturing, and therefore they will not depart. Oh, Agnes," he continued, bitterly, "my very soul is crushed beneath this weight of unexpressed anxiety and care. Had I but to contend with our English foe, but to fight a good and honorable fight, to struggle on, conscious that to the last gasp the brave inmates of this fortress would follow me, and Edward would find naught on which to wreak his vengeance but the dead bodies of his foes, my task were easy as 'twere glorious; but to be conscious of secret brooding evil each morn that rises, each night that falls, to dread what yet I know not, to see, perchance, my brave fellows whelmed, chained, through a base treachery impossible to guard against—oh! Agnes, 'tis this I fear."
"Yet have they not seemed more willing, more active in their assigned tasks since the execution of their comrade," continued Agnes, with all a woman's gentle artifice, still seeking to impart hope, even when she felt that none remained; "may it not be that, in reality, they repent them of former traitorous designs, and remain behind to aid thee to the last? Thou sayest that palpable proof of this brooding evil thou canst not find, then do not heed its voice. Let no fear of me, of my safety, add its pang; mine own Nigel, indeed I fear them not."
"I know that all I urge will naught avail with thee, beloved," he answered, somewhat less agitated. "I know thy gentle love is all too deep, too pure, too strong, to share my fears for thee, and oh, I bless thee, bless thee for the sweet solace of that faithful love! yet, yet, I may not listen to thy wishes. All that thou sayest is but confirmation of the brooding evil; they are active, willing, but to hide their dark designs. Yet even were there not this evil to dread, no dream of treachery, still, still, I would send thee hence, sweet one. Famine and blood, and chains, and death—oh, no, no! thou must not stay for these."
"And whither wouldst thou send me, Nigel, and for what?" she asked, still calmly, though her quivering lip denoted that self-possession was fast failing. "Why?"
"Whither? to safety, freedom, peace, my best beloved!" he answered, fervently; "for what? that happier, brighter days may beam for thee, that thou mayest live to bless and be a blessing; dearest, best, cling not to a withered stem, thou mayest be happy yet."
"And wilt thou join me, if I seek this home of safety, Nigel?" she laid her hand on his arm, and fixed her eyes unflinchingly upon his face. He could not meet that glance, a cold shudder passed over his frame ere he could reply.
"Mine own Agnes," and even then he paused, for his quivering lip could not give utterance to his thoughts, and a minute rolled in that deep stillness, and still those anxious eyes moved not from his face. At length voice returned, and it was sad yet deeply solemn, "Our lives rest not in our own hands," he said; "and who when they part may look to meet again? Beloved, if life be spared, canst doubt that I will join thee? yet, situated as I am, governor of a castle about to fall, a patriot, and a Bruce, brother to the noble spirit who wears our country's crown, and has dared to fling down defiance to a tyrant, Agnes, mine own Agnes, how may I dream of life? I would send thee hence ere that fatal moment come; I would spare thee this deep woe. I would bid thee live, beloved, live till years had shed sweet peace upon thy heart, and thou wert happy once again."
There was a moment's pause; the features of Agnes had become convulsed with agony as Nigel spoke, and her hands had closed with fearful pressure on his arm, but his last words, spoken in his own rich, thrilling voice, called back the stagnant blood.
"No, no; I will not leave thee!" she sobbed forth, as from the sudden failing of strength in every limb she sunk kneeling at his feet. "Nigel, Nigel, I will not leave thee; in life or in death I will abide by thee. Force me not from thee; seek not to tempt me by the tale of safety, freedom, peace; thou knowest not the depth, the might of woman's love, if thou thinkest things like these can weigh aught with her, even if chains and death stood frowningly beside. I will not leave thee; whom have I beside thee, for whom else wouldst thou call on me to live? Alone, alone, utterly alone, save thee! Wilt thou bid me hence, and leave thee to meet thy fate alone—thee, to whom my mother gave me—thee, without whom my very life is naught? Nigel, oh, despise me not for these wild words, unmaidenly as they sound; oh, let me speak them, or my heart will break!"
"Despise thee for these blessed words!" Nigel answered, passionately, as he raised her from the ground, and clasped her to his heart. "Oh, thou knowest not the bliss they give; yet, yet would I speak of parting, implore thee still to leave me, aye, though in that parting my very heart-strings snap. Agnes, how may I bear to see thee in the power of the foe, perchance insulted, persecuted, tortured with the ribald admiration of the rude crowd, and feel I have no power to save thee, no claim to bind thee to my side. What are the mere chains of love in such an hour, abiding by me, as thou mightst, till our last hope is over, and English colors wave above this fortress—then, dearest, oh, must we not, shall we not be rudely parted?"
"No, no! Who shall dare to part us?" she said, as she clung sobbing to his breast. "Who shall dare to do this thing, and say I may not tend thee, follow thee, even until death?"
"Who? our captors, dearest. Thinkest thou they will heed thy tender love, thine anguish? will they have hearts for aught save for thy loveliness, sweet one? Think, think of terrors like to this, and oh, still wilt thou refuse to fly?"
"But thy sister, the Lady Seaton, Nigel, doth she not stay, doth she not brave these perils?" asked Agnes, shuddering at her lover's words, yet clinging to him still. "If she escapes such evil, why, oh, why may not I?"
"She is Seaton's wife, sweet one, bound to him by the voice of heaven, by the holiest of ties; the noble knights who head our foes will protect her in all honorable keeping; but for thee, Agnes, even if the ills I dread be as naught, there is yet one I have dared not name, lest it should pain thee, yet one that is most probable as 'tis most fearful; thou canst not hide thy name, and as a daughter of Buchan, oh, will they not give thee to a father's keeping?"
"The murderer of my brother—my mother's jailer! Oh, Nigel, Nigel, to look on him were more than death!" she wildly exclaimed. "Yet, yet once known as Agnes of Buchan, this will, this must be; but leave thee now, leave thee to a tyrant's doom, if indeed, indeed thou fallest in his hands—leave thee, when faithful love and woman's tenderness are more than ever needed—leave thee for a fear like this, no, no, I will not. Nigel, I will rest with thee. Speak not, answer not; give us one short moment, and then—oh, all the ills may be averted by one brief word—and I, oh, can I speak it?" She paused in fearful agitation, and every limb shook as if she must have fallen; the blood rushed up to cheek, and brow, and neck, as, fixing her beautiful eyes on Nigel's face, she said, in a low yet thrilling voice, "Let the voice of heaven hallow the vows we have so often spoken, Nigel. Give me a right, a sacred right to bear thy name, to be thine own, at the altar's foot, by the holy abbot's blessing. Let us pledge our troth, and then let what will come, no man can part us. I am thine, only thine!"
Without waiting for a reply, she buried her face in his bosom, and Nigel could feel her heart throb as if 'twould burst its bounds, her frame quiver as if the torrent of blood, checked and stayed to give strength for the effort, now rushed back with such overwhelming force through its varied channels as to threaten life itself.
"Agnes, my own noble, self-devoted love! oh, how may I answer thee?" he cried, tears of strong emotion coursing down his cheek—tears, and the warrior felt no shame. "How have I been deserving of love like this—how may I repay it? how bless thee for such words? Mine own, mine own! this would indeed guard thee from the most dreaded ills; yet how may I link that self-devoted heart to one whose thread of life is well-nigh spun? how may I make thee mine, when a few brief weeks of misery and horror must part us, and on earth, forever?"
"No, no; thou knowest not all a wife may do, my Nigel," she said, as she raised her head from his bosom, and faintly smiled, though her frame still shook; "how she may plead even with a tyrant, and find mercy; or if this fail, how she may open iron gates and break through bonds, till freedom may be found. Oh, no, we shall not wed to part, beloved; but live and yet be happy, doubt it not; and then, oh, then forget the words that joined us, made us one, had birth from other lips than thine;—thou wilt forget, forgive this, Nigel?"
"Forget—forgive! that to thy pure, unselfish soul I owe the bliss which e'en at this hour I feel," he answered, passionately kissing the beautiful brow upturned to his; "forget words that have proved—had I needed proof—how purely, nobly, faithfully I am beloved; how utterly, how wholly thou hast forgotten all of self for me! No, no! were thy words proved true, might I indeed live blessed with thee the life allotted man, each year, each month I would recall this hour, and bless thee for its love. But oh, it may not be!" and his voice so suddenly lost its impassioned fervor, that the breast of Agnes filled with new alarm. "Dearest, best! thou must not dream of life, of happiness with me. I may not mock thee with such blessed, but, alas! delusive hopes; my doom hath gone forth, revealed when I knew it not, confirmed by that visioned seer but few short weeks ago. Agnes, my noble Agnes, wherefore shouldst thou wed with death? I know that I must die!"
The solemn earnestness of his words chased the still lingering glow from the lips and cheek of the maiden, and a cold shiver passed through her frame, but still she clung to him, and said—
"It matters not; my maiden love, my maiden troth is pledged to thee—in life or in death I am thine alone. I will not leave thee," she said, firmly and calmly. "Nigel, if it be indeed as thou sayest, that affliction, and—and all thou hast spoken, must befall thee, the more need is there for the sustaining and the soothing comfort of a woman's love. Fear not for me, weak as I may have seemed, there is yet a spirit in me worthy of thy love. I will not unman thee for all thou mayest encounter. No, even if I follow thee to—to death, it shall be as a Bruce's wife. Ask not how I will contrive to abide by thee undiscovered, when, if it must be, the foe is triumphant; it will take time, and we have none to lose. Thou hast promised to forget all I have urged, all, save my love for thee; then, oh, fear me not, doubt me not, thine Agnes will not fail thee!"
Nigel gazed at her almost with surprise; she was no longer the gentle timid being who but a few minutes since had clung weeping to his bosom as a child. She was indeed very pale, and on her features was the stillness of marble; but she stood erect and unfaltering in her innocent loveliness, sustained by that mighty spirit which dwelt within. An emotion of deep reverence took possession of that warrior heart, and unable to resist the impulse, he bent his knee before her.
"Then let it be so," he said, solemnly, but oh, how fervently. "I will not torture mine own heart and thine by conjuring thee to fly; and now, here, at thy feet, Agnes, noble, generous being, let me swear solemnly, sacredly swear, that should life be preserved to me longer than I now dream of, should I indeed be spared to lavish on thee all a husband's love and care, never, never shalt thou have cause to regret this day! to mourn thy faithful love was shown as it hath been—to weep the hour that, in the midst of danger, and darkness, and woe, hath joined our earthly fates, and made us one. And now," he continued, rising and folding her once more in his arms, "wilt thou meet me at the altar ere the truce concludes? 'tis but a brief while, a very brief while, my love; yet if it can be, I know thou wilt not shrink."
"I will not," she answered. "The hour thou namest I will meet thee. Lady Seaton," she added, slightly faltering, and the vivid blush rose to her temples, "I would see her, speak with her; yet—"
"She shall come to thee, mine own, prepared to love and hail thee sister, as she hath long done. She will not blame thee dearest; she loves, hath loved too faithfully herself. Fear not, I will leave naught for thee to tell that can bid that cheek glow as it doth now. She, too, will bless thee for thy love."
He imprinted a fervent kiss on her cheek, and hastily left her. Agnes remained standing as he had left her for several minutes, her hands tightly clasped, her whole soul speaking in her beautiful features, and then she sunk on her knees before a rudely-carved image of the Virgin and child, and prayed long and fervently. She did not weep, her spirit had been too painfully excited for such relief, but so wrapt was she in devotion, she knew not that Lady Seaton, with a countenance beaming in admiration and love, stood beside her, till she spoke.
"Rouse thee, my gentle one," she said, tenderly, as she twined her arm caressingly around her; "I may not let thee linger longer even here, for time passes only too quickly, and I shall have but little time to attire my beautiful bride for the altar. Nigel hath been telling such a tale of woman's love, that my good lord hath vowed, despite his weakness and his wounds, none else shall lead thee to the altar, and give thee to my brother, save himself. I knew that not even Nigel's influence would bid thee leave us, dearest," she continued, as Agnes hid her face in her bosom, "but I dreamed not such a spirit dwelt within this childlike heart, sweet one; thy lot must surely be for joy!"
It was something past the hour of nine, when Agnes, leaning on the arm of Sir Christopher Seaton, and followed by Lady Seaton and two young girls, their attendants, entered the church, and walked, with an unfaltering step and firm though modest mien, up to the altar, beside which Nigel already stood. She was robed entirely in white, without the smallest ornament save the emerald clasp which secured, and the beautiful pearl embroidery which adorned her girdle. Her mantle was of white silk, its little hood thrown back, disclosing a rich lining of the white fox fur. Lady Seaton had simply arranged her hair in its own beautiful curls, and not a flower or gem peeped through them; a silver bodkin secured the veil, which was just sufficiently transparent to permit her betrothed to look upon her features, and feel that, pale and still as they were, they evinced no change in her generous purpose. He, too, was pale, for he felt those rites yet more impressively holy than he had deemed them, even when his dreams had pictured them peculiarly and solemnly holy; for he looked not to a continuance of life and happiness, he felt not that ceremony set its seal upon joy, and bound it, as far as mortality might hope, forever on their hearts. He was conscious only of the deep unutterable fulness of that gentle being's love, of the bright, beautiful lustre with which it shone upon his path. The emotion of his young and ardent breast was perhaps almost too holy, too condensed, to be termed joy; but it was one so powerful, so blessed, that all of earth and earthly care was lost before it. The fears and doubts which he had so lately felt, for the time completely faded from his memory. That there were foes without and yet darker foes within he might have known perhaps, but at that moment they did not occupy a fleeting thought. He had changed his dress for one of richness suited to his rank, and though at the advice of his friends he still retained the breastplate and some other parts of his armor, his doublet of azure velvet, cut and slashed with white satin, and his long, flowing mantle lined with sable, and so richly decorated with silver stars that its color could scarcely be distinguished, removed all appearance of a martial costume, and well became the graceful figure they adorned; two of the oldest knights and four other officers, all gayly attired as the hurry of the moment would permit, had at his own request attended him to the altar.
Much surprise this sudden intention had indeed caused, but it was an excitement, a change from the dull routine of the siege, and consequently welcomed with joy, many indeed believing Sir Nigel had requested the truce for the purpose. Sir Christopher, too, though pale and gaunt, and compelled to use the support of a cane in walking, was observed to look upon his youthful charge with all his former hilarity of mien, chastened by a kindly tenderness, which seemed indeed that of the father whom he personated; and Lady Seaton had donned a richer garb than was her wont, and stood encouragingly beside the bride. About twenty men-at-arms, their armor and weapons hastily burnished, that no unseemly soil should mar the peaceful nature of the ceremony by recalling thoughts of war, were ranged on either side. The church was lighted, dimly in the nave and aisles, but softly and somewhat with a holy radiance where the youthful couple knelt, from the large waxen tapers burning in their silver stands upon the altar.
The Abbot of Scone was at his post, attended by the domestic chaplain of Kildrummie; there was a strange mixture of admiration and anxiety on the old man's face, but Agnes saw it not; she saw nothing save him at whose side she knelt.
Nigel, even in the agitation of mind in which he had quitted Agnes—an agitation scarcely conquered in hastily informing his sister and her husband of all that had passed between them, and imploring their countenance and aid—yet made it his first care strictly to make the round of the walls, to notice all that might be passing within the courts, and see that the men-at-arms were at their posts. In consequence of the truce, for the conclusion of which it still wanted some little time, there were fewer men on the walls than usual, their commanders having desired them to take advantage of this brief cessation of hostilities and seek refreshment and rest. A trumpet was to sound at the hour of ten, half an hour before the truce concluded, to summon them again to their posts. The men most acute in penetration, most firm and steady in purpose, Nigel selected as sentries along the walls; the post of each being one of the round towers we have mentioned, the remaining spaces were consequently clear. Night had already fallen, and anxiously observing the movements on the walls; endeavoring to discover whether the various little groups of men and women in the ballium meant any thing more than usual, Sir Nigel did not notice various piles or stacks of straw and wood which were raised against the wall in many parts where the shadows lay darkest, and some also against the other granaries which were contained in low, wooden buildings projecting from the wall. Neither he nor his friends, nor even the men-at-arms, noticed them, or if they did, imagined them in the darkness to be but the stones and other weights generally collected there, and used to supply the engines on the wails.
With the exception of the sentries and the men employed by Nigel, all the garrison had assembled in the hall of the keep for their evening meal, the recollection of whose frugality they determined to banish by the jest and song; there were in consequence none about the courts, and therefore that dark forms were continually hovering about beneath the deep shadows of the walls, increasing the size of the stacks, remained wholly undiscovered.
Agnes had entered the church by a covered passage, which united the keep to its inner wall, and thence by a gallery through the wall itself, dimly lighted by loopholes, to the edifice, whose southern side was formed by this same wall. It was therefore, though in reality situated within the ballium or outer court, nearer by many hundred yards to the dwelling of the baron than to the castle walls, its granaries, towers, etc. This outward ballium indeed was a very large space, giving the appearance of a closely-built village or town, from the number of low wooden and thatched-roofed dwellings, which on either side of the large open space before the great gate were congregated together. This account may, we fear at such a moment, seem somewhat out of place, but events in the sequel compel us to be thus particular. A space about half a mile square surrounded the church, and this position, when visited, by Sir Nigel at nine o'clock, was quiet and deserted; indeed there was very much less confusion and other evidences of disquiet within the dwellings than was now usual, and this circumstance perhaps heightened the calm which, as we have said, had settled on Sir Nigel's mind.
There was silence within that little sacred edifice, the silence of emotion; for not one could gaze upon that young fair girl, could think of that devoted spirit, which at such a time preferred to unite her fate with a beloved one than seek safety and freedom in flight, without being conscious of a strange swelling of the heart and unwonted moisture in the eye; and there was that in the expression of the beautiful features of Nigel Bruce none could remark unmoved. He was so young, so gifted, so strangely uniting the gift of the sage, the poet, with the glorious achievements of the most perfect knight, that he had bound himself alike to every heart, however varied their dispositions, however opposite their tastes; and there was not one, from the holy Abbot of Scone to the lowest and rudest of the men-at-arms, who would not willingly, aye, joyfully have laid down life for his, have gladly accepted chains to give him freedom.
The deep, sonorous voice of the abbot audibly faltered as he commenced the sacred service, and looked on the fair beings kneeling, in the beauty and freshness of their youth, before him. Accustomed, however, to control every human emotion, he speedily recovered himself, and uninterruptedly the ceremony continued. Modestly, yet with a voice that never faltered, Agnes made the required responses; and so deep was the stillness that reigned around not a word was lost, but, sweetly and clearly as a silver clarion, it sunk on every ear and thrilled to every heart; to his who knelt beside her, as if each tone revealed yet more the devoted love which led her there. Towards the conclusion of the service, and just as every one within the church knelt in general prayer, a faint, yet suffocating odor, borne on what appeared a light mist, was distinguished, and occasioned some slight surprise; by the group around the altar, however, it was unnoticed; and the men-at-arms, on looking towards the narrow windows and perceiving nothing but the intense darkness of the night, hushed the rising exclamation, and continued in devotion. Two of the knights, too, were observed to glance somewhat uneasily around, still nothing was perceivable but the light wreaths of vapor penetrating through the northern aisle, and dissolving ere long the arches of the roof. Almost unconsciously they listened, and became aware of some sounds in the distance, but so faint and indefinable as to permit them to rest in the belief that it must be the men-at-arms hurrying from the keep to the walls, although they were certain the trumpet had not yet sounded. Determined not to heed such vague sounds, they looked again to the altar. The abbot had laid a trembling hand on either low-bent head, and was emphatically pronouncing his blessing on their vows, calling on heaven in its mercy to bless and keep them, and spare them to each other for a long and happy life; or if it must be that a union commenced in danger should end in sorrow, to keep them still, and fit them for a union in eternity. His words were few but earnest, and for the first time the lip of Agnes was observed to quiver—they were ONE. Agnes was clasped to the heart of her husband; she heard him call her his own—his wife—that man should never part them more. The voice of congratulation woke around her, but ere either could gaze around to look their thanks, or clasp the eagerly proffered hand, a cry of alarm, of horror, ran though the building. A red, lurid light, impossible to be mistaken, illumined every window, as from a fearful conflagration without; darkness had fled before it. On all sides it was light—light the most horrible, the most awful, though perchance the most fascinating the eye can behold; fearful shouts and cries, and the rush of many feet, mingled with the now easily distinguished roar of the devouring element, burst confusedly on the ear. A minute sufficed to fling open the door of the church for knights and men-at-arms to rush forth in one indiscriminate mass. Sir Christopher would have followed them, utterly regardless of his inability, had not his wife clung to him imploringly, and effectually restrained him. The abbot, grasping the silver crosier by his side, with a swift, yet still majestic stride, made his way through the church, and vanished by the widely opened door. Agnes and Sir Nigel stood comparatively alone; not a cry, not a word passed her lips; every feature was wrapped in one absorbing look upon her husband. He had clasped his hands convulsively together, his brow was knit, his lip compressed, his eye fixed and rigid, though it gazed on vacancy.
"It hath fallen, it hath fallen!" he muttered. "Fool, fool that I was never to dream of this! Friends, followers, all I hold most dear, swallowed up in this fell swoop! God of mercy, how may it be born! And thou, thou," he added, in increased agony, roused from that stupor by the wild shouts of "Sir Nigel, Sir Nigel! where is he? why does he tarry in such an hour?" that rung shrilly on the air. "Agnes, mine own, it is not too late even now to fly. Ha! son of Dermid, in good tune thou art here; save her, in mercy save her! I know not when, or how, or where we may meet again; I may not tarry here." He clasped her in his arms, imprinted an impassioned kiss on her now death-like cheek, placed her at once in the arms of the seer (who, robed as a minstrel, had stood concealed behind a projecting pillar during the ceremony, and now approached), and darted wildly from the church. What a scene met his gaze! All the buildings within the ballium, with the sole exception of the church, were in one vivid blaze of fire; the old dry wood and thatch of which they were composed, kindling with a mere spark. The wind blew the flames in the direction of the principal wall, which was already ignited from the heaps of combustibles that had been raised within for the purpose; although it was likely that, from its extreme thickness and strength, the fire had there done but partial evil, had not the conflagration within the court spread faster and nearer every moment, and from the blazing rafters and large masses of thatch caught by the wind and hurled on the very wall, done greater and more irreparable mischief than the combustibles themselves. Up, up, seeming to the very heavens, the lurid flames ascended, blazing and roaring, and lighting the whole scene as with the glare of day. Fantastic wreaths of red fire danced in the air against the pitchy blackness of the heavens, rising and falling in such graceful, yet terrible shapes, that the very eye felt riveted in admiration, while the heart quailed with horror. Backwards and forwards gleamed the forms of men in the dusky glare; and oaths and cries, and the clang of swords, and the shrieks of women, terrified by the destruction they had not a little assisted to ignite—the sudden rush of horses bursting from their stables, and flying here and there, scared by the unusual sight and horrid sounds—the hissing streams of water which, thrown from huge buckets on the flames, seemed but to excite them to greater fury instead of lessening their devouring way—the crackling of straw and wood, as of the roar of a hundred furnaces—these were the varied sounds and sights that burst upon the eye and ear of Nigel, as, richly attired as he was, his drawn sword in his hand, his fair hair thrown back from his uncovered brow and head, he stood in the very centre of the scene. One glance sufficed to perceive that the rage of the men-at-arms was turned on their treacherous countrymen; that the work of war raged even then—the swords of Scotsmen were raised against each other. Even women fell in that fierce slaughter, for the demon of revenge was at work, and sought but blood. In vain the holy abbot, heedless that one sudden gust and his flowing garments must inevitably catch fire, uplifted his crosier, and called on them to forbear. In vain the officers rushed amidst the infuriated men, bidding them keep their weapons and their lives for the foe, who in such a moment would assuredly be upon them; in vain they commanded, exhorted, implored; but on a sudden, the voice of Sir Nigel Bruce was heard above the tumult, loud, stern, commanding. His form was seen hurrying from group to group, turning back with his own sword the weapons of his men, giving life even to those who had wrought this woe; and there was a sudden hush, a sudden pause.
"Peace, peace!" he cried. "Would ye all share the madness of these men? They have hurled down destruction, let them reap it; let them live to thrive and fatten in their chains; let them feel the yoke they pine for. For us, my friends and fellow-soldiers, let us not meet our glorious fate with the blood of Scotsmen on our swords. We have striven for our country; we have striven gloriously, faithfully, and now we have but to die for her. Ha! do I speak in vain? Again—back, coward! wouldst thou slay a woman?" and, with a sudden bound, he stood beside one of the soldiers, who was in the act of plunging his dagger in the breast of a kneeling and struggling female. One moment sufficed to wrench the dagger from his grasp, and release the woman from his hold.
"It is ill done, your lordship; it is the fiend, the arch-fiend that has planned it all," loudly exclaimed the man. "She has been heard to mutter threats of vengeance, and blood and fire against thee, and all belonging to thee. Let her not go free, my lord; thou mayest repent it still."
"Repent giving a woman life?—bah! Thou art a fool, though a faithful one," answered Sir Nigel; but even he started as he recognized the features of Jean Roy. She gave him no time to restrain her, however; for, sliding from his hold, she bounded several paces from him, singing, as she did so, "Repent, ye shall repent! Where is thy buxom bride? Jean Roy will see to her safety. A bonny courtship ye shall have!" Tossing up her arms wildly, she vanished as she spoke; seeming in that light in very truth more like a fiend than woman. A chill sunk on the heart of Nigel, but, "No, no," he said, internally, as again he sought the spot where confusion and horror waxed thickest; "Dermid will care for Agnes, and guard her. I will not think of that mad woman's words." Yet even as he rushed onwards, giving directions, commands, lending his aid to every effort made for extinguishing the fire, a prayer for his wife was uttered in his heart.
The fire continued its rapid progress, buttress after buttress, tower after tower caught on the walls, causing the conflagration to continue, even when, by the most strenuous efforts, it had been partially extinguished amongst the dwellings of the court. The wind blowing from the north fortunately preserved the keep, inner wall, and even the church, uninjured, save that the scorched and blackened sides of the latter gave evidence of the close vicinity of the flames, and how narrowly it had escaped. With saddened hearts, the noble defenders of Scotland's last remaining bulwark, beheld their impregnable wall, the scene of such dauntless valor, such unconquered struggles, against which the whole force of their mighty foes had been of no avail—that wall crumbling into dust and ashes in their very sight, opening a broad passage to the English foe. Yet still there was no evidence that to yield were preferable than to die; still, though well-nigh exhausted with their herculean efforts to quench the flames, there was no cessation, no pause, although the very height of the wall prevented success, for they had not the facilities afforded by the engines of the present day. Sir Nigel, his knights, nay, the venerable abbot himself, seconded every effort of the men. It seemed as if little more could add to the horror of the scene, and yet the shouts of "The granaries, the granaries—merciful heaven, all is consumed!" came with such appalling consciousness on every ear, that for a brief while, the stoutest arm hung powerless, the firmest spirit quailed. Famine stood suddenly before them as a gaunt, terrific spectre, whose cold hand it seemed had grasped their very hearts. Nobles and men, knights and soldiers, alike stood paralyzed, gazing at each other with a blank, dim, unutterable despair. The shrill blast of many trumpets, the roll of heavy drums, broke that deep stillness. "The foe! the foe!" was echoed round, fiercely, yet rejoicingly. "They are upon us—they brave the flames—well done! Now firm and steady; to your arms—stand close. Sound trumpets—the defiance, the Bruce and Scotland!" and sharply and clearly, as if but just arrayed for battle, as if naught had chanced to bend those gallant spirits to the earth, the Scottish clarions sent back their answering blast, and the men gathered in compact array around their gallant leader.